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Bernie Sanders in the past year has betrayed his base again and again. Whether it was his refusal to admit defeat after Super Tuesday, his shameless submission to the Clinton machine at the Democratic Party convention in Philadelphia, or now his role as the hype man for Charles Schumer, the Senator from CitiBank, he has continuously thrown his supporters under the bus by prolonging the use of a strategy that has repeatedly proven to be ineffective, working within the Democratic Party. And yet, like a battered loved one, these supporters return again and again to him. Is it all rank hypocrisy or is there something else afoot here?
I lean towards the latter and in fact argue that, for a significant number of progressives, particularly of secular Jewish background, he has become a kind of totem that reinvigorates an identity that was being continuously framed as white supremacist over the past quarter century. In other words, after decades of Bibi Netanyahu being the most pronounced public face of Judaism, megalomaniacal enough to declare himself the representative of all Jews worldwide, and the identity being conjoined at the hip with Zionism and Israel’s wretched treatment of Palestinians (“I went to Paris not just as the prime minister of Israel but as a representative of the entire Jewish people.”), Sanders was not just a nostalgic figure recalling the Keynesian Happy Days of the Democratic Party but also a formulation of American Jewish identity that was based around the coordinates of progressive/radical labor and socialist politics. Jeffrey St. Clair made me giggle in his book Bernie and the Sandernistas when he wrote these lines:
No doubt, it’s a curious appeal. I’ve never thought of Bernie Sanders as a spellbinding speaker. He doesn’t have the polished allure of Obama or the seductive flair of Jesse Jackson in his prime. His Brooklyn accent is thick, his style more stentorian than passionate. The key to Bernie’s charisma is his charming lack of charisma.
But those lines ultimately betrayed a lack of understanding more than anything else. What Sanders quite obviously tapped into was the fond memories of Grandpa Herschel the Yiddish anarchist and Uncle Leo the Communist and Aunt Midge the Bundist who later supported the Norman Thomas-Irving Howe-Michael Harrington brand of Socialist Party/Democratic Socialists of America political formations. His gruff aura probably evoked not just Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society but also memories of Yiddish being shouted in the backrooms of mid-century delicatessens, bagels with mounds of cream cheese and lox, and the old broadsides of Freie Arbeiter Stimme. It’s been a long time since secular Jews were able to hold their head aloft and not be nagged by guilt over association with monsters like Ed Koch, Yitzak Rabin, or (G*d help us) Adam Sandler.
This sort of identification is not abnormal to my thinking because I was steeped in a variation of it as a child. The Rhode Island Democratic Party has a significant base element composed of Irish Catholics who revere John F. Kennedy in a near-beatific fashion, with the murdered president’s portrait hung on the wall or emblazoned on a collectable chinaware plate that has a memorial candle lit before it every St. Patrick’s Day. Frankly the only difference between Irish Catholic guilt and Jewish guilt is who you are shaming, the family or mother.
This sort of ethnic identification worship can be found in many different households. Poles had Pope John Paul II, Italians had Pope Pius XII, ad infinitum. What is particularly interesting about this tendency is that it is linked to another element of discussion that can be utilized in a productive and even revolutionary fashion, by which I mean the abolition of whiteness.
These ethnic identification markers are part of a larger matrix that I have found is presented when you try to point out a person’s white privilege. “What do you mean?”, they exclaim. “My grandparents weren’t white, they came over as poor people from <insert European country>!”
This is a sort of spontaneous and organic compliment to the scholarship of Theodore William Allen’s The Invention of the White Race and others including Prof. Noel Ignatiev (How the Irish Became White) and Dr. Carolyn Fluehr-Lobban (Race and Racism: An Introduction). In brief, they argue the pseudo-scientific notion of race and imposition of racism upon the working class was first and foremost an ideology created as a form of control by the European ruling class in the 1600’s. In particular we can look to the colonization of Ireland and Bacon’s rebellion as two major benchmarks in between which the preliminary notions of racism were formulated, with the reaction to the French revolution creating the period when Gobineau wrote his infamous Essai sur l’inégalité des races humaines (Essay on the Inequality of the Human Races). Admittedly this comes into striking contrast with Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism, which argued that racism was inherent to the European foundation dating back to antiquity, but such contention is given a detailed analysis that I do not necessarily endorse by Gregory Meyerson. In either event, with the rise of the deceptive and quite dangerous alt-right that is working hard to mainstream and legitimize neo-Nazi ideology within the framework of mainstream politics, it is important to recognize this organic spontaneity as an asset as opposed to a misguided hindrance to building anti-racist coalitions in the immediate future.
Such formations, however, require a profound level of maturity. Already there have been plenty of rebuttals of the slogan Make America Great Again, with many progressives asking when was it ever great. But at the same time I do not think white progressives who are wed to the Democratic Party still are capable of a deeper kind of reflection. In concrete terms, their adhesion to a fantastic set of notions about FDR and the New Deal is just as racist as the Trump base. Their fundamental, undeniable, and ultimately terminal flaw is that they do not recognize the American welfare state always was a white supremacist one. In fact, the narrative arc of the welfare state’s rise and fall corresponds exactly with its margins being expanded to include Blacks in the bounty. Even in an absurdly ahistorical American public the overwhelming consensus is that the last great president before the social collapse was John F. Kennedy and that problems began with his successor, Lyndon Johnson. But in reality it was Kennedy who was the more conservative of the two. LBJ was the longtime New Deal coalition political power player whose signature of the Voting Rights and Civil Rights Acts, along with the Great Society programs, went much farther than the slain prince of Camelot would have ever gone. In effect the myth of Kennedy’s Camelot and the collapse of America wrought by LBJ is the perfect compliment to the alt-right ideology.
On April 25, I attended a small antiwar protest at the Rhode Island State House with members of the Providence branch at Socialist Alternative. At one point a member scorned the notion of building a coalition with Libertarians, something that struck me all wrong. Here you have an organization that quite openly and actively endorsed Birkenstock Bomber Bernie, a man who has given a pwogwessive sheen to imperialism for decades via his position in state seats of power, scorning an openly anti-war contingent because of what amounts to a mistaken grasp of political economy caused by little more than a syntactical error. As I have argued in a previous book review, the Libertarians are essentially the true liberals in our society that could compose one element of a united front. They certainly have a right wing that is just as fascist as the Dixiecrats were under FDR and that is to be seriously confronted. But their left wing is openly and outright socialist, just as the Communist Party USA was on the day FDR dropped dead in 1945. In my book, the Libertarians have less to account for than the Bikenstock Bomber because they have not actually had the same position of state power that Sanders has. Alexander Cockburn grasped this better than anyone else and explained it in a speech many years ago to a crowd in Seattle:
I mention all these things because it is important to build an anti-imperial coalition with a foundation of honesty. After the Philadelphia convention, Bernie Sanders endorsed a candidate who had the same agenda as the Libertarians regarding the privatizing of Social Security but was much more duplicitous than the upfront and honest Gary Johnson. The affinity for Sanders that remains after his predictable (and frequently predicted) sell-out is based on nothing more than nostalgia for an idealized bygone era that only really ever existed on Happy Days. The major problem facing our generation is total ahistoricism regarding left politics in America. This ironically was borne out by the fact Sanders ran successfully as a self-professed socialist whose base was composed of youth who had no memory of the old anti-Communist shibboleths that defined pedagogy in America for a 75 years.
To abolish the white race, the ultimate goal of anyone who wants to bring about genuinely democratic socialism, we need to get over Bernie Sanders. Those who have not already should check out the amazing commentary by Bruce Dixon to hear about the major flaws in the Our Revolution (TM) organization also (https://www.blackagendareport.com/node/5651). We need to put away our nostalgia for our forebears and the old political and organizational tropes that were ultimately part of failed older models of organization. The notion of ethnic nostalgia needs to be placed firmly into the same space that you placed your belief in Santa Claus in. It certainly is uncomfortable to do so but it ultimately provides the route of salvation for us all.