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Reinvention and Whiplash: Bernie, Hillary, and “Strange Bedfellows” in the Democratic Party

One year ago, at a conference held in Chicago on Independent Left Politics, the International Socialist Organization’s Lance Selfa observed that the United States’ corporate and imperial Democratic Party had recurrently demonstrated a remarkable capacity to seemingly “reinvent itself” by coopting once-insurgent social forces and identities. Selfa cited the party’s development of Black Democratic political machines across urban America in the wake of the Black Civil Rights and Black Power movements of the 1960s and 1970s. That development provided critical background for the dedicated imperialist and “vacuous to repressive neoliberal” (Adolph Reed, Jr. 1996) Barack Obama’s ascendency to the White House – something that helped boost the Democrats’ branding as the party of the nation’s racial minorities.

Selfa could also have noted the party’s success in cultivating female, feminist, gay, and Latino/a constituencies, organization, and networks. He might also have reflected on how Democrats sucked up the rhetoric of the 2011 Occupy Wall Street rebellion by branding themselves as “the party of the 99%” during the 2012 presidential election pitting Obama against “Mitt 1% Romney” (Never mind that Obama had dutifully served and protected the nation’s unelected dictatorship of finance capital throughout his first term or that his Department of Homeland Security worked with Democratic city halls across the country to dismantle Occupy with police state repression).

Not long after Selfa spoke, the conference was rocked by the announcement of a development bound to put a new twist on Democratic Party self-reinvention: the so-called independent and nominally socialist Bernie Sanders had decided to run for the U.S. presidency as a now fully acknowledged Democrat.

The announcement didn’t go over very well at the Chicago conference, but it didn’t ruffle many feathers atop the Democratic Party. As the presidential primary and caucus season unfolded, the mainstream Wall Street Democrat Hillary Clinton and the corporatist Democratic National Committee (DNC) seemed happy to have a “democratic socialist” throw his hat in the ring. As far as the right wing Clinton machine was concerned, the main threat to the party’s nomination came from the popular and liberal U.S. Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-MA). With Warren lacking the courage or perhaps the blindly ambitious insanity to harness up for the marathon horse race, the Clintons face a different problem: the possibility that Hillary’s nomination would look too much like a pre-ordained, Wall Street-mandated coronation. It might all seem too much like the re-election of their good friend Paul Kagame in Rwanda (with 93% of the officially tabulated vote in 2010).

Hence the Clintonite utility of brass-lunged Bernie: he would provide some useful token opposition while helping drive voter interest and helping the Democrats provide a semblance of meaningful “debate over the issues.” Sanders would be unelectable, the Clintons and DNC figured, because nobody who calls herself a socialist would have any serious chance of garnering a U.S. major party presidential nomination. (Never mind that the top polling firm Gallup found in 2011 that American Millennials [18-29 year olds] responded more favorably to the word “socialism” than to “capitalism.”)

Looking back one year later, it clearly got a lot scarier and nastier than the Clintons expected. Bernie ended up doing much better – and getting his “good friend” Hillary and her husband a lot angrier – than Sanders himself probably anticipated. The Clintons and the DNC had to a play tougher and dirtier with Sanders than they had foreseen.

Still, Sanders never really went after Hillary. He didn’t go for the kill. He stayed away from the e-mail scandal and Benghazi, pretending that they were relevant issues only for the Republicans – something he would not have done if he’d been seriously looking to take down The Queen of Chaos. He failed to make a serious and militant pitch for the Black vote and to go after the Clintons’ vanguard historical role in the rightward neoliberal turn of the Democratic Party during the last quarter of the last century.

When it all plays out, he will have returned to his original “sheepdog” or “Judas goat” role, a part that progressive Democratic presidential “challengers” always play: drive voter turnout for “history’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party” (as Kevin Phillips once described the Democrats) and deliver his supporters dutifully to that party’s Big Business-backed and imperialist nominee in the standard name of Lesser Evilism. The promised surrender to the “right wing fanatic Hillary Clinton” (Arun Gupta) – an enemy of workers, a lover of global-corporatist “free trade” (investor rights) deals, and an aggressive war-monger – is already underway. As the Green Party’s Howie Hawkins noted yesterday on Counterpunch:

“Bernie Sanders is on his way to an endorsement of Hillary Clinton, the candidate of War, Wall Street, and Wal-Mart. Sanders ran as a New Deal Democrat, but he will soon be campaigning for a plain old corporate New Democrat…To keep his troops engaged through this transition, Sanders will stage a few rules and platform fights at the convention. But rule changes are irrelevant to the real party power structure of candidate organizations and their corporate investors. Any platform planks won will be irrelevant as well. No corporate Democrat will feel bound by them.”

Along the way, Bernie has tried to help the Democratic Party brand itself as an organization where “socialists” can be heard, taken seriously, and influence policy. It is no such thing – not by a longshot. As Bernie picks his time to make clear his final “democratic socialist” fealty to the Wicked Wall Street War Witch, the Clintons are garnering support from supposedly “strange bedfellows” like the Koch brothers, top foreign policy neoconservatives (including Robert Kagan, Eliot Cohen, and Max Boot), Henry Kissinger, and other Republican billionaires and arch-imperialists who can’t stomach the populist- and isolationist-sounding rhetoric of The [white nationalist and misogynist] Donald (Trump), whose media-enabled “political revolution” (Bernie’s failed promise) leaves just one truly functional ruling class political organization standing in the U.S.: the Democrats. There’s every reason to believe that Bill Clinton will be successful in his recently reported efforts to court support from other Republican billionaires.

I hope Bernie-supporting Lesser Evilists have their seats adjusted for whiplash. The party of Bernie Sanders is becoming the party of Charles and David Koch for this wild election cycle, at least.

Reinvent that, DNC. As the debasing spectacle of the 2016 U.S. presidential election shapes up as a highly personalized, extremely infantilized, and frankly psychotic, hate-filled “race between the two most hated people in America” (Diana Johnstone), you almost have to admire the savage Orwellian perversity of the U.S. business ruled major party duopoly, under whose reign Charles Koch, Henry Kissinger, Robert Kagan, Paul Krugman, Richard Trumka, Tom Hayden, and Bernie Sanders (and numerous unnamed leftists well to Sanders’ and Hayden’s portside) can ultimately dance – or at least shuffle – together around the deeply conservative Hillary Clinton Maypole.

Meanwhile, beneath and beyond the seemingly interminable electoral extravaganza, the profits system’s ever- accelerating real-time assault on livable ecology pushes life on Earth ever closer to an apocalyptic cliff.

Revolution – the real thing – anyone?

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Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014)

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