It seems to be a law of modern politics that the health of a democracy stands in inverse proportion to the length of its presidential campaign season.
If so, the signs are all there that U.S. politics is wallowing in a prolonged death agony. Driven by the vast influence of corporate power, the presidential primaries have proven themselves more a burlesque of democracy than real democracy, a noisy and expensive media extravaganza designed to leave the populace persuaded it actually has a say in who runs the country.
Indeed, after interminable months of campaigning the result will be a major party choice between two super wealthy politicians, one an entrenched symbol of Wall Street neoliberalism, the other a right-wing racist capitalist, neither of whom in office will do anything more than prolong or worsen an already unjust status quo for yet another election cycle.
The only bright spot in the election race has been the public enthusiasm for Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ “socialist” campaign. It’s a sign of society’s crisis that the Sanders primary campaign has exceeded almost everyone’s initial expectations. To have a major presidential candidate put the blame for society’s economic ills squarely on Wall Street, while calling for national health care, tuition-free college education, a $15 minimum wage and other progressive reforms appears near electrifying next to the tepid half-measures that pass for neoliberal reform in the Obama era.
Unlike previous left-liberal Democrats, Sanders even calls his campaign “socialist,” a term which is no longer anathema to many younger Americans. Yet Noam Chomsky was right to characterize Sanders as less a socialist than a “decent, honest New Dealer,” which nonetheless compared to the corporate Democrats makes the Vermont senator appear close to a voice of revolutionary liberation. But the latter he is decidedly not, for the simple reason that his political vision is about reforming capitalism, not abolishing it.
Cracks in the Electoral Finish
Some good has come from the Sanders campaign. Indeed, strong public support for the Vermont senator has inadvertently exposed just how profoundly undemocratic the Democratic Party actually is. With its super-delegate system, closed primaries, and corporate superPACs, the Sanders campaign has never had much of chance inside the party. Sanders campaign rhetoric has also exposed just how conservative Hillary Clinton actually is. Indeed, Clinton may be well-versed in defending herself from the “vast right-wing conspiracy,” but she has often appeared grasping in response to many of Sanders’ criticisms from the social-democratic left. Witness her campaign’s attempt to portray single-payer healthcare as “the end of Medicare!” Or her scolding of Sanders supporters that a national health care system will “never, ever happen,” and the same for tuition-free college education. Such “I Have a Dream—Not” politics even earned cautionary criticism from Vice President Biden, who remarked in April that it’s hard for Democrats to win elections telling people what they can’t have.
Then there was her Brooklyn primary debate with Sanders, where Clinton stumbled further trying to suddenly claim she’s always supported the “Fight for $15” minimum wage demand. It’s a testament to the grassroots popularity of Fight for $15 that Clinton now attempts to attach herself to this movement, but it also speaks to the manipulative double-talk that defines her brand of media sound-bite politics. One lesson here: it was decidedly not Democratic Party leaders, but grassroots labor activists, Seattle socialists, and others who have made Fight for $15 a powerful grassroots campaign in national politics.
Certainly for many young voters Sanders presence in the primaries has brought into sharper public focus what a Wall Street sycophant Clinton is. But to what end? So that Sanders can eventually endorse Clinton as the Democratic nominee, using his delegate clout to pressure Clinton to make minor, essentially meaningless platform concessions? Now, as Clinton claims victory as the party’s presumptive nominee, the pressure is only going to grow for the Sandernistas to vote for the “lesser evil” Clinton over Trump in November.
This is not a problem for Sanders, if there will be a sector of Sanders supporters that refuses to go along. Of course, Sanders has never equivocated that a goal of his campaign is to reinvigorate the Democratic Party’s voter base. In fact, this is an instrumental component of the “political revolution” he espouses. Thus, the campaign’s end game will unfold with the senator’s hard-won political capital being used to lasso the influx of youth voters with their openness to new, radical ideas for yet another four years of soul-deadening two-party politics.
And so many wildly enthusiastic Sanders supporters will come November turn into unenthused Clinton voters.
But Clinton voters nonetheless.
Dancing with the Demons
If ever there was a discredited concept, it’s this American version of lesser-evil politics. The Sanders campaign has demonstrated the potential to rally millions to a progressive social-democratic agenda. But this organized electoral campaign activism is destined to be swept into that trash compactor of progressive social movements known as the Democratic Party national convention. What then will be the enduring accomplishment of the Sanders campaign? Will there be any tangible organizational accomplishment left in its wake? If so, we’re still waiting to hear what it is.
Speaking of dustbins, let’s toss Tom Hayden’s left-wing version of lesser-evil “realpolitik” in there as well. Tellingly, it didn’t take the former ’60 SDS “radical” turned elected Democratic California State assemblyman turned “legendary” political figure long to abandon his initial support for Sanders for more familiar territory under Clinton’s brand of tried and true corporate liberalism. For Hayden, politics is about negotiating platform deals among political insiders, the type of liberal politics where the grassroots voter base is essentially reduced to the role of a pressure group. The latter expresses its influence thus by getting presidential and other electoral aspirants to pay lip service to a few progressive policy planks, which once elected the new leaders are then free to quickly forget.
Undoubtedly, Hayden was only getting out ahead of the pack of what is sure to be a galloping herd of liberals and progressives who will decide to cast their votes in the general election for Clinton. After all, the only thing that will matter come November—sound the alarm!—will be Trump’s electoral defeat. But let us remember something: Trump’s political ascendency is the product of decades of bipartisan pro-Wall Street policies that have savaged the nation’s social fabric. The slow burn of hopes for the future felt by millions under the neoliberal nightmare of American politics finds its twisted expression now in the rise of this rightist demagogue. Ironically, a vote for Clinton only because she is not Trump is Trump will not defeat the specter of “Trumpism.”
Superficially, the Trump campaign does represent a kind of “screw you” to the canned fakery of establishment politics. That’s what behind his supporters who voice semi-political sentiments along the lines of Trump “speaks his mind,” “tells it like it is,” and “can’t be bought.” But Trump’s “populism” is obviously just pure demagoguery, a bogus prescription for the ills of capitalism sold by a racist and ultra-nationalist—a billionaire capitalist—who trades in scapegoating and fear-mongering of the proverbial “other” to promote himself as a political savior.
Take note: It is not coincidental that the politics fits the performance. Trump’s stage presence is like watching a performance in projectile vomiting. It’s all boastful swagger and attitude, a vulgar, mean-spirited dance with the demons of the (white) American soul. His broad appeal to a large sector of embittered white voters lies in exactly what is most repulsive about him. Trump makes a big show of spitting in the face of political propriety, retching up far-right demagoguery against Muslims and Mexicans as easily as he tosses out juvenile insults against anyone who challenges him.
In a sense, Trump is the North American version of the Caudillo on a white horse, the puffed-up strong man who struts as if beholden to no one, telling it like it is and never suffering fools. But this leader comes not with military medals and epaulets, but an acquired fortune in hotels, resorts, golf clubs, beauty pageants, reality shows, “You’re Fired” cocktails and a variety store of Trump-branded merchandise. Indeed, Trump is the ultimate professor emeritus of bullshit, scholar in residence of his own self-named university of “get rich” hucksterism.
If Karl Marx were around he would likely find in Trump only a super-sized version of the familiar figure of the petty shopkeeper, the classic petty-bourgeois for whom the entire drama of life is reduced to dollar signs, deals, and what’s in it for me? Indeed, every vulgarity associated with the capitalist culture is embodied in Trump’s person. This brutal sensibility toward life was perhaps most ably captured in his recent endorsement from basketball “legend” Bobby Knight, who said he supports Trump because he will have the “guts” to use the atomic bomb like Harry Truman did in 1944! It’s somehow appropriate that Knight, a college faculty member with a track record of assaulting players and students, couldn’t even get the date right (the bombs were dropped in 1945), not to mention his casual reference to the bomb saving “billions” of American lives. But what do facts matter when your reason for voting for someone is their willingness to wage genocide?
Vulgar Republicans, Hypocritical Democrats
It’s almost too easy to put down Trump’s ignorant, bullying mentality, the bigotry and narcissism, the lightweight intellect contained in the brain of a billionaire with all the personal sensibility of a cement truck. But, objectively, is Trump really any less vulgar politically than Clinton, who once laughingly declared “we came, we saw, he died” to describe the horrific death—sodomized by bayonets—of Libyan leader Muammar Qadaffi? Some liberals in their search for reasons to support Clinton over Sanders have pointed to her “extensive” foreign policy experience. Actually, they would be better off not bringing up the topic. Does it matter that this experience includes supporting the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq? Does it matter that she supports global assassinations by drone as an instrument of foreign policy? Or that as Secretary of State in 2009 she had her slippery hand involved in the right-wing coup in Honduras? Does it matter she has stood as an unabashed apologist for Israel’s repeated genocidal assaults on Palestinian Gaza?
To wrap one’s mind more around the kind of diplomacy Clinton comfortably travels in, consider the more than 2100 Palestinians slaughtered by Israeli forces in Gaza in the summer of 2014, the majority civilians and including some 495 children. Think of the thousands of homes and infrastructure left damaged and destroyed. Think of the UNICEF report on the 258 schools and kindergartens targeted by the Israeli military, including the 26 schools destroyed beyond repair. By comparison Hamas attacks on Israel that summer led to 66 Israeli military and 7 civilian casualties. Yet Clinton considered much of the global condemnation of Israel’s wildly disproportionate assault on Gaza “unfair.”
Tellingly, Clinton attacks Sanders for his sympathies in the 1980s for the Sandinista revolution in Nicaragua and the social accomplishments of the Cuban Revolution. To her, Sanders was guilty of praising “the revolution of values in Cuba and talked about how people were working for the common good, not for themselves. I just couldn’t disagree more. You know, if the values are that you oppress people, you disappear people, you imprison people, even kill people, for expressing their opinions, for expressing freedom of speech, that is not the kind of revolution of values that I ever want to see anywhere.”
What hypocrisy! Of course, Clinton in her moral vacuousness has never much cared if the people oppressed, imprisoned, and killed happened to be residents of Gaza, Egypt, Honduras, Iraq, and anywhere the American empire chooses to stomp its heavy boots. This is a woman who once called Egyptian dictator Hosni Mubarak a close “family friend,” who as secretary of state proudly sought foreign policy counsel from one of the planet’s most notorious war criminals, Henry Kissinger. Ask the relatives of those murdered and disappeared in Chile in 1973 what they think of Kissinger? It’s obvious Clinton never has.
Who Will Challenge the Power?
According to the 2015 Institute for Policy Studies (IPS) report, The Forbes 400 and the Rest of Us, gains in wealth in the United States over the last decade flowed at vastly disproportionate rates upward to further enrich the top one-tenth of one percent of the richest Americans. There are now 20 people in the United States who own more wealth than the bottom 50 percent of the American population. These figures IPS acknowledges also likely underestimate the concentration and inequality of wealth as the shadow economy of offshore tax havens and legal trusts prevent the true extent of ruling class wealth from being known.
Speaking to the broader economic divide that defines the United States, sociologist G. William Domhoff, author of the 1960s best-seller, “Who Rules America?” reports in recent years that about 20 percent of the people now own 89 percent of wealth, while the bottom 80 percent owns only 11 percent. Undoubtedly, “The Other America” of poverty that socialist writer Michael Harrington described in his early 1960s bestseller remains in the United States of 2016 entrenched and growing, separated by an even wider divide than existed 50 years ago.
But here’s the question. Does anyone seriously believe Hillary Clinton or Donald Trump will do anything to challenge this growing economic divide, the increasing concentration of financial wealth in the hands of a very few? Does anyone believe the power of a socioeconomic system upon whose throne sits the most privileged, ruthless class of super-wealthy human beings to ever dominate a society can be voted away in an election? The answer to the latter question is suggested in the 54 percent of all federal discretionary spending, a total of $598.5 billion, the rulers of this country currently devote to military armament. Indeed, considering the history of systematic violence associated with American capitalism in the last century it is naive to believe that entrenched corporate power can even be seriously reformed by electing a singular political leader such as Sanders.
As political scientists Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page concluded in a 2014 study that drew upon an empirical analysis of variables for 1,779 policy issues, “The majority does not rule—at least not in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes. When a majority of citizens disagrees with economic elites or with organized interests, they generally lose.”
And lose they will again in November 2016.
At this juncture the endlessly prolonged torture of the campaign season appears designed not only to foster the illusion of democratic rule, but maybe more important to leave the people exhausted of “politics” in the post-election wake. What to do then but retreat back into the disempowered, atomized culture of American life where almost every problem remains an individual problem? For galvanized Sanders supporters especially, how will the spirit of activism for social and economic justice be sustained once their candidate endorses a conservative Democrat, another ward-heeler for Wall Street and the global American empire, for president?
Notably, one of the few prominent left progressives not to endorse Sanders is Michelle Alexander, author of The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness. It is not because she’s hostile to Sanders social-democratic vision. In a Facebook post, Alexander explained she welcomes Sander’s call for “political revolution,” but not his Democratic candidacy. As she explained, “I do not endorse Bernie Sanders, as a candidate, because I do not believe the Democratic Party can be saved from itself, and therefore, I will not endorse any Democratic candidate.”
Hopefully, such thinking will expand in the wake of the election. As some old socialist of another generation once noted, the idea that the Democratic Party (or the Republicans, for that matter) can be transformed from an instrument of Wall Street into a party that fights for the cause of working-class America, for socialism, is a delusion. Both parties are essential apparatus of Wall Street. The AFL-CIO might as well announce it intends to seize the stock exchange for the cause of economic justice.
What Kind of Socialism?
It’s true the Sanders campaign has helped to break down the public stigma surrounding the word “socialism.” But it’s worth asking now what kind of socialism can really solve the crisis of society? Isn’t the essential idea of socialism that the workers who make the economy run should also run the economy? In this socialism envisions a dramatic expansion of democracy into the very heart of the economy. A century ago the great Polish revolutionary Rosa Luxemburg described socialism as workers’ self-rule, workers power. It is less the Sanders vision of breaking up the big banks than taking over the big banks, nationalizing the essential public resources under democratic public ownership and control. At heart socialism is a vision of a society guided by genuine economic democracy, one inspired and guided by humane values of solidarity and cooperation, not the profits of a few.
Writing in Rolling Stone, columnist Matt Taibbi recently cautioned Democrats not to gloat over the chaos Trump’s rise has brought to the Republican establishment. He warns the Democratic Party establishment the Republican upheaval offers “a terrible object lesson in the perils of prioritizing billionaire funders over voters,” a lesson that if they’re not careful will soon enough also leave the Democrats “tossed in the trash like a tick” should they ignore it.
It’s a warning that predictably will fall on deaf ears. The rule of capital has demonstrated time and again its readiness to defend its wealth, power, and privilege by the most deceptive, violent means imaginable. The wealth and profits of bankers, corporate CEOs, hedge fund managers, industrialists and assorted scions of vast inherited wealth will always remain sacrosanct under the present corporate two-party system.
With its cycles of periodic war, economic instability, and political repression, Luxemburg saw modern capitalism as “murder on a grand scale.” As she famously warned, the choice facing humanity was one between socialism or barbarism. In the century since that prophetic warning was raised, the counter-position of these two alternatives has only become even more urgent.
Of course, some will say socialism is utopianism. But isn’t it naive to think this era of endless wars and environmental destruction, of vast economic inequality and entrenched global poverty, can be healed under the very same socio-economic system that continually recreates this diseased social reality? Despite their differences, Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (and yes, Bernie Sanders) are ideologues of archaic capitalism, a system that for Trump and Clinton has earned them enormous personal riches, but which for the majority has long outlived its social purpose.
Is there any alternative now to so much needless human suffering and social deprivation, to all the horrors of the modern era, than to embrace a revolutionary vision of democracy—socialist democracy—on the grandest scale ever imagined?