Bern Out: Beyond Cowardly Lion Leftism

I thank President Obama and Vice President Biden for their leadership in pulling us out of that terrible recession.

– Bernie Sanders, Portsmouth, New Hampshire, July 11, 2016

I doubt many public figures were happier than Bernie Sanders to see the seemingly endless presidential election carnival overtaken by other news last week. Beneath the headlines on race and criminal justice, the nominal socialist “revolution” advocate Sanders got to make his official endorsement of the right-wing corporatist and war hawk Hillary Clinton with the public’s eyes focused on different and more immediately hideous matters.

No Surprise

Anyone on the left who was surprised or disappointed by Bernie’s long-promised Cowardly Lion endorsement of Mrs. Clinton one week ago hadn’t paid serious attention to his campaign and career. Sanders’ “democratic socialism” has always been a leaky cloak for a mildly social-democratic liberalism that is fiscally and morally negated by his commitment to the nation’s giant Pentagon System.

Sanders’ claim to have been an “independent” politician has long been misleading. Sanders has been a de facto Democrat and an enemy of left third parties in his own hyper-Caucasian state since the early 1990s.

Sanders opened his campaign with pledges to back “the eventual Democratic nominee.” Everyone knew that meant his “good friend” Hillary Clinton. And when asked in an early debate to define what he meant by “democratic socialism,” Sanders rambled about how he was helping boost turnout for the Democrats to defeat the Republicans.

If Sanders had been remotely serious about pre-empting Hillary Queen of Chaos Clinton’s coronation instead of “sheep-dogging” (Bruce Dixon) “America’s disgruntled youth into the stinky feedlot of the Democratic Party” (Joshua Frank), he would have gone after her ugly e-mail and related Benghazi scandals. He would have gone seriously and properly “negative” on Hillary and Bill Clintons’ long and corrupt record of service to Big Business, high finance, the Pentagon complex, and the neoliberal agenda. That rancid record (certain to exploited by the noxious Donald Trump) stretches from the Clintons’ Whitewater-Democratic Leadership Council (DLC)-Wal-Mart days in Arkansas through the two right-wing Clinton administrations to U.S. Senator Hillary Clinton (D-NY)’s sickening vote to invade Iraq to the corporate-globalist and imperialist atrocity that is the Clinton Foundation. (A desire to shield communications related to that foundation is very likely the main reason Hillary took State Department e-mails out of public purview and onto a private server.) The lethal highlights of the “co-presidents’” first two terms in the White House (1993-2001) include: the anti-worker and arch-corporatist North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA); repeal of the Glass Steagall Act (which had set up a useful wall between commercial and investment banking); the de-regulation of deadly over-the-counter financial derivatives; the vicious elimination of poor families’ entitlement to basic family cash assistance; a racist and mass incarceration-fueling crime bill; and the criminal bombing of Serbia, urged on by Hillary and her close ally Madeline Albright (the Clintons’ second and blood-soaked Secretary of State).

The Clintons and their fellow corporate Democratic allies atop the Democratic Party certainly didn’t mind going negative on Bernie when he started doing better than he was supposed to in the primaries.

It’s an old and disturbing story: “mainstream” (Big Business) Democrats dish out condescending abuse to populist-sounding progressive Democrats who can be counted on not to punch back at the end of the day.

Bernie endorsed Hillary in New Hampshire, the same state where Bill Clinton last February called Sanders and his team “hermetically sealed” purists, hypocrites, and thieves and mocked Sanders as “the champion of all things small and the enemy of all things big.” Clinton also falsely derided two of Sanders’ key common sense-progressive platform items – national single-payer health insurance and free college tuition – as pie-in-the-sky programs that could never be funded.

But, hey, never mind. Bernie went to New Hampshire to stand with the Clinton machine last week. He offered hearty congratulations to Hillary for having prevailed in what he called “the democratic nominating process.” He was silent, of course, about the numerous dirty tricks Hillary and the Democratic Party machine pulled to ensure his defeat. He said nothing, of course, about the explicitly authoritarian nature of the “super-delegates” he congratulated Mrs. Clinton for winning. With a straight face, he called Hillary the candidate aligned with “the needs of the American people” and ready to “address…the very serious crises that we face.”

Dream On

Was there anything for leftish progressives to hope for in Bernie’s endorsement statement? Pardon my dated cinematic references, but perhaps some left and liberal Tin Men, Scarecrows, Dorothys, and munchkins were looking for the Cowardly Lion Sanders to follow numerous leading progressive luminaries in arguing that Bernie’s backers and others have no choice – in contested states – except to vote for the Wicked Witch of the West but only as “the lesser evil” alternative to the Wicked Orange Warlock Donald Trump (and yes, I know there was no Wicked Warlock in The Wizard of Oz).

Perhaps some lefties were hoping for Sanders to follow the great left intellectual Noam Chomsky in pointing out that electoral politics once every four years is only one small part of the politics that ought to matter most to serious left activists and that (as Chomsky told Abby Martin last fall) “the only thing that’s going to ever bring about any meaningful change is ongoing, dedicated, popular movements that don’t pay attention to the election cycle.”

Dream on.

Perhaps some progressives wished for Sanders to say something about the need for major electoral and party system overhauls (something much bigger and more significant than the repeal of the Citizen United decision) to move U.S. political culture off of its current abject plutocracy (acknowledged even by mainstream political scientists like Princeton’s Martin Gilens) and make U.S. elections worthy of passionate citizen engagement. After all, the current electoral set up is pretty well understood by untold millions of Americans as a manipulative, populace-marginalizing extravaganza in which the corporate and financial “deep state” few pull the strings behind the Wizard of Oz’s curtains – behind what the longtime Republican Congressional researcher Mike Lofgren calls “the marionette theater” of American politics.

Nothing doing.

“A Fierce Advocate for Children’s Rights”

The Cowardly Lion did not deliver anything than the slightest hints of all that in his endorsement address. His statement of fealty to Hillary concluded with a statement that pleased the Clinton team by privileging identity politics over populist struggle against Bernie’s purported enemy The One Percent:

“Hillary Clinton understands that our diversity is one of our greatest strengths. Yes. We become stronger when black and white, Latino, Asian American, Native American – all of us – stand together. Yes. We become stronger when men and women, young and old, gay and straight, native born and immigrant fight to rid this country of all forms of bigotry…I have known Hillary Clinton for 25 years. I remember her as a great first lady who broke precedent in terms of the role that a first lady was supposed to play as she helped lead the fight for universal health care. I served with her in the United States Senate and know her as a fierce advocate for the rights of children. Hillary Clinton will make an outstanding president and I am proud to stand with her today” (emphasis added).

It was depressing indeed to hear Sanders laud the family welfare-slasher and fierce Serbia- and Middle East bomber and regime-changer Hillary Clinton as a champion of children. Who can ever forget her good friend and ally Madeline Albright (whom Hillary helped put in as Bill’s second and most mass murderous Secretary of State) telling CBS News’ Leslie Stahl that the murder of a half million Iraqi children by U.S.-led economic sanctions was “a price worth paying” for the advance of U.S. foreign policy goals? Did Hillary shun Madeline (her choice to succeed the insufficiently militarist Warren Christopher atop the State Department) after that horrific comment like the Clintons’ former liberal friends Peter Edelman and Marian Wright-Edelman (of the Children’s Defense Fund) shunned Bill and Hillary after the Clintons joined with the malicious racist Newt Gingrich in kicking millions of poor children off welfare? Of course not. She embraced Madeline more passionately as a cherished member of Team Clinton.

(Ms. Albright was even enlisted by Hillary in the recently concluded primary campaign. In New Hampshire, the bitter old woman who provided the “diplomatic” engineering for the Clintons’ bombing of Serbian children distinguished herself by consigning young women who voted for Bernie instead of a fellow female [Hillary] to “a special place in Hell.” Madeline Albright and her vicious imperial comrades the Clintons know a thing or two about sending women and children to “special places in Hell” at home and abroad.)

Not What Bernie’s About

There was little reason to expect any call for a serious left movement beneath and beyond electoral politics from the strictly electoral politician Sanders. For months during the primary campaign he stood before large and rapt audiences full of people ready to take overdue popular action against capitalist and imperialist targets of evil in their communities and regions. Instead of encouraging such action, Sanders instead continued giving the latest updated iteration of the same basic populist-sounding, barrel-chested speech he’s been giving for forty years. As Jeffrey St. Clair noted last April in a passage I have already quoted too many times:

“If Sanders could turn 30,000 people out for a pep rally in Washington Square Park, why couldn’t he have had a flash mob demonstration mustering half that many fervent supporters to shut down Goldman Sachs for a day? If he could lure 20,000 Hipsters to the Rose Garden in Portland, why couldn’t he turn out 10,000 Sandernistas to bolster the picket lines of striking Verizon workers? If Sanders could draw 15,000 people in Austin, Texas, why couldn’t his movement bring 5,000 people to Huntsville to protest executions at the Texas death house? If Sanders could draw 18,000 people to a rally in Las Vegas, why couldn’t he just as easily have lead them in a protest at nearby Creech Air Force Base, the center of operations for US predator drones? Strike that. Sanders supports Obama’s killer drone program. My bad. But you get the point. Instead of being used as stage props, why hasn’t Sanders put his teaming crowds of eager Sandernistas to work doing the things that real movements do: blocking the sale of a foreclosed house in Baltimore, disrupting a fracking site in rural Pennsylvania, shutting down the entrance to the police torture chamber at Homan Square in Chicago for a day, intervening between San Diego cops and the homeless camp they seek to evict? Why? Because that’s not who Bernie Sanders is and that’s not what his movement is about.”

Bernie Sanders was once accurately described by Alexander Cockburn as “the hot-air factory from Vermont.” He wouldn’t know a people’s “revolution” if one jumped up and bit him in the rear end.

A Strange and Revealing Thanks to Obama

The most revealing line in Sanders’ endorsement statement didn’t receive much attention but it speaks volumes on how supine Cowardly Lion Bernie really is beneath his bluster to the Dismal Dollar Democratic Party elite. “I thank President Obama and [for some bizarre reason- P.S.] Vice President Biden,” Sanders said, “for their leadership in pulling us out of that terrible recession.”

I really did a double take when I read that. Nobody remotely on the progressive left would suggest that the Obama White House deserves gratitude for its response to the Great Recession. Obama’s richly Wall Street-permeated administration played along stealthily with what the left economist Michael Hudson calls “the coup of 2008: bailing out the banks, not the economy.” He has helped “enable…the One Percent to monopolize the recovery since 2008, widening their wealth and income advantage over the rest of the population.” As carried out by the Federal Reserve, Congress, the lame duck Bush 43 White House, and then above all the Obama 44 presidency, the basic outlines of the moneyed elite’s putsch have been to: let the nation’s leading and reckless financial institutions keep their criminally bad debts on the books instead of making them “take their losses as bad loans to be written off their balance sheets”; meet those scandalous liabilities with taxpayer dollars while leaving millions of ordinary Americans to go bust and foreclosed-on; “re-inflate a new stock market bubble” (and thereby create new Wall Street super-profits) by granting “nearly free credit to the banks” (trillions of dollars in so-called Quantitative Easing) to “bailout finance but not to finance tangible growth or demand write-downs of the household debt and the junk mortgages that triggered the breakdown” (Hudson). Along the way, Obama issued dire warnings on the need to cut social spending, Social Security, public pensions, other so-called entitlements to balance future budgets – this while keeping Wall Street’s outrageously high compensation packages intact and the federal government has spent a regular king’s ransom of “new money…only on financial securities,” not on tangible and productive investment or economy-stimulating social expenditures. (See the thirteenth chapter of Hudson’s 2015 book Killing the Host: How Financial Parasites and Debt Bondage Destroy the Global Economy, linked above. For a quick and sharp reflection, see this Mike Whitney essay from last January).

Obama has gone to remarkable lengths to offer political cover (see the remarkable account by the eminent journalist and author Ron Suskind, quoted at some length in this past essay of mine) as well as taxpayer subsidy to the arch-parasitic financial overlords who crashed the national and global economy in the first place. Thanks in no small part to his financial-privilege-serving administration, 95 percent of new national income generated during his first term went to the nation’s top hundredth. The upward distribution of wealth and income in the nation and the world has accelerated dramatically under Obama. The president has helped bring us to the literally and figuratively sickening point where a handful of Wal-Mart heirs possess as much wealth between them as the bottom 42 percent of Americans while the world’s richest 62 persons have more net worth collectively than half the world’s population.

As the venerable liberal-left commentator William Greider noted while, the president helped give the nation “a blunt lesson about power, who has it and who doesn’t.” In a March 2009 Washington Post column titled “Obama Asked Us to Speak But is He Listening?,” Greider noted how Americans “watched Washington rush to rescue the very financial interests that caused the catastrophe. They learned that government has plenty of money to spend when the right people want it. ‘Where’s my bailout,’ became the rueful punch line at lunch counters and construction sites nationwide. Then to deepen the insult, people watched as establishment forces re-launched their campaign for ‘entitlement reform’ – a euphemism for whacking Social Security benefits, Medicare and Medicaid.”

More than seven years later, the wage, poverty, debt, health, suicide, violence, and precarity recession is alive. It’s all the other side of the hideous anti-egalitarian New Gilded Age coin that Obama has done so much to mint and re-brand. The question remains: where’s the people’s bailout? The neoliberal rot promises to deliver another epic financial meltdown.

But, hey, guess what everybody, Bernie sends Obama and, for some reason, Joe Biden a great big “Thank You” for their “leadership in pulling us out of that terrible recession.” I suppose the gratitude makes some sense if we take “us” to mean The One Percent.

The strange statement of gratitude from the “democratic socialist” comes in an address endorsing the Clinton machine, a major player in the neoliberal financial deregulation, public welfare-slashing, union-busting, war-making, ecology-wrecking, and racist mass-incarcerating that has brought us to the present “very serious crises that we face.”

Green New Deal

Now that Sanders is formally on board with Hillary as originally pledged, it’s worth remembering that there’s an actually left-progressive-antiwar-socially democratic and environmentalist candidate on the ballot. She is Jill Stein of the Green Party. The Green New Deal she would significantly attack the grave threat to human life and a decent future that is anthropogenic (really capitalogenic) climate change, which is rightly identified by the philosopher John Sanbonmatsu as “the biggest issue of our or any time.” It would also take on poverty, health insecurity, economic precarity, permanent war, empire, and inequality by combining massive Pentagon cuts with steep new progressive taxes, single payer national health insurance, free college tuition, the abolition of student debt, and giant public works programs putting millions to socially, ecologically, and (t be perfectly frank) existentially necessary work building and maintaining a post-fossil fuels and post-nuclear economy and society. As Ms. Stein explained two years ago:

“The Green New Deal…proposed by the Green Party…would end both the economic crisis and the climate crisis in one fell swoop. It would create 25 million jobs in green energy, sustainable agriculture, public transportation and infrastructure improvements – as well as jobs that meet our social needs, including teachers, nurses, day care, affordable housing, drug abuse and violence prevention and rehabilitation. It would be funded by scaling back the oversized military budget to year 2000 levels, adopting a Medicare for All insurance system that would save trillions of dollars, requiring Wall Street gamblers to pay a small (0.5%) sales tax, taxing capital gains as income, and taxing income more progressively. These key provisions of the Green New Deal enjoy majority public support in poll after poll. The Green New Deal addresses the concocted deficit/debt problems by solving the bigger, underlying crises of an unraveling economy and accelerating climate catastrophe. The enormity of these threats compel solutions of equal magnitude.”

Indeed. There’s just no excuse for any serous left progressive not to vote for Jill Stein and the Green New Deal in a “safe” (reliably Republican/red or Democratic/blue state). There’s also an argument for voting Green in “unsafe” states, where third and fourth party votes could cost Electoral College tallies for one of the two major parties. In the absence of overdue Constitutional changes abolishing the nation’s authoritarian winner-take-all first-past-the-post elections system and party duopoly, left progressives cannot compel the dismal Democrats to break from their deadly captivity to the corporate plutocracy and Pentagon System without making actual existential challenges (as in “do things we want or we will withhold voting support for you and thus potentially cost you the next election”) to the not-so leftmost major party. Why should the Democrats change when they know that Cowardly Lion leftish progressives and liberals will always be there as dutiful co-dependent partners to forgive neoliberal and imperial Democrats’ ever more nauseating betrayals of democracy and justice in the name the endless, viciously circular, and self-fulfilling “game of lesser evils” (Michelle Alexander)?

Paul Street’s latest book is This Happened Here: Amerikaners, Neoliberals, and the Trumping of America (London: Routledge, 2022).