The People vs. Bernie Sanders

Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will.

–Frederick Douglass

There was a wide variety of responses to my most recent column which asked if we could finally get over Bernie Sanders. Quite a few scorned my words for their alleged bitterness and nastiness towards Sanders, which I can handle, but it also occurred to me that I really should have teased out one final point that indicates what is wrong with the current coordinates.

Perhaps it is worth pointing out a few things. First, as someone who follows the entryist tactical playbook of Irving Howe and Michael Harrington’s Democratic Socialists of America, he has always been and always will be a Democratic Party politician regardless of whether CNN and MSNBC put an (I) next to his name. As Paul Street wrote in 2015,

“[I]n 1988, Sanders got a lesson on the perils of third party politics when he ran for federal office. In the election for Vermont’s seat in the House of Representatives, the independent Sanders and Democrat Paul Poirer divided the majority vote and the contest went to a Republican. Sanders responded by drifting right and cutting a deal with the Vermont Democrats: the party would permit no serious candidate to run against him while he blocked serious third party formation in Vermont and adopted positions in line with the national corporate war Democrats.”

The notion that Sanders somehow is an independent anything is part of a larger campaign that is intended to consolidate the Democratic Party’s control of a base they do no have a firm grasp on yet (thankfully). Whether Sanders sticks to the noble goals of Howe and Harrington, to transform the Democrats from the inside out without a third party creating an equal external pressure, is besides the point, in effect by refusing to work with third parties he is simply doing a very nasty and duplicitous job in a more effective fashion than Hillary Clinton was able to (which is not exactly a large feat with all things considered in hindsight, by the way).

Second, as someone who was involved with the Rhode Island Green Party’s efforts in 2016 and has remained involved with them since Election Day, I can dutifully report that Sanders has made absolutely zero outreach to any third parties at all. In my mind, this is an issue of high school level political physics. You need to have pressure exerted both internally and externally on the Democratic Party to hope for any change. Yet instead the Democrats have done the following to hinder this. First, they perpetuate a myth about Jill Stein being the reason Trump was elected. Second, the leadership of booster clubs like the Progressive Democrats have remained ambivalent if not outright hostile to Greens, instead allowing random brain fart balloons to float into the aether every once in a while about how “we need a new party” as if good people have not already been working on that issue for over 20 years.

Third, the so-called “resistance” is really not much more than middle-class flash mobs who congregate in a location with signs and feel a sense of accomplishment at the end of a day where no tangible gains were made. Sorry folks but the Civil Rights movement actually got a tangible set of policies from the Democrats. And even then Martin Luther King, Jr. threw up his hands in disgust and denounced the Democratic Party, which at that time was controlled by an entire generation of politicians who were far to the left of Sanders on major issues.

The reason for what is wrong here is borne out by this old myth.

Many people already know the apocryphal tale of when FDR hosted A. Phillip Randolph at the White House. After being presented with demands, he is alleged to have said “Very good, I agree with your demands. Now go make me do it.

I remain skeptical of that story and have previously speculated my own counter. After he was inaugurated, FDR called for a multi-day banking holiday and hosted the executives of Wall Street in Washington. Not only was Roosevelt their former Governor in a geographical sense, he was a member of their class in the Marxist sense of the term. It is merely conjecture here on my part but it seems pretty obvious in the hindsight of history that he told these bankers “Look, you all know what is at play here. The people are in the streets calling for these Welfare state programs. Now we either agree to give them to them now or the next stop for each and every one of us is going to be the guillotine.” This was less than twenty years after the Russian revolution and at a time when both the Communist Party and the nascent fascist movements neared their moment of most swollen ranks. I tend to believe FDR and his banker classmates accepted an obvious reality and allowed the Democratic Party to be changed from a traditional liberal party into a labor party. Of course the climax here is the anti-Communist hawk John F. Kennedy, son of FDR’s first SEC chairman, began the revocation of these Welfare state measures through a series of tax cuts only after his brother, the left hand man of Joe McCarthy, had delegitimized and defenestrated the Left that had created this Welfare state and helped incubate the nascent Civil Rights movement during the 1930s and ’40s.

The distinction between a labor party and a liberal party might be quite obscure to our unfathomably anti-intellectual republic but it is quite real. Liberal politicians and their parties are in favor of policies and actions that favor the unhindered movement of capital, opposing Welfare state policies that require financing through a progressive tax code, protectionist trade policy, deficit spending, and the public sector generating employment opportunities to move as close as possible to full employment. By contrast, labor parties articulate via legislation the demands of the working class and enact such policies to stave off the guillotine. It is true that since prior to the Civil War that the Democrats had included the labor movement in their base. However, as described by W.E.B. Du Bois in his Black Reconstruction in America when he profiles ‘The White Worker’, this was the segregated element of labor movement, based around the antecedents of Horace Greeley and the AFL, that was alienated from the Abolitionists and also in favor of a colonial-genocidal westward expansion. Du Bois writes:

In 1857, George I. Holyoake sent an anti-slavery address to America, signed by 1,800 English workingmen, whom Karl Marx himself was guiding in England, and this made the black American worker a central text… This English initiative had at first but limited influence in America. The trade unions were willing to admit that the Negroes ought to be free sometime; but at the present, self-preservation called for their slavery; and after all, whites were a different grade of workers from blacks. Even when the Marxian ideas arrived, there was a split; the earlier representatives of the Marxian philosophy in America agreed with the older Union movement in deprecating any entanglement with the abolition controversy.

The difference between the two is quite obviously the power dynamic. The ruling class is in charge of liberal parties and the working class is in charge of labor parties.

And so we need to ask a pretty simple question at this point, who is in charge of Bernie Sanders and his Our Revolution (TM) organization? Are the near-catatonic labor unions dictating terms of engagement to either? Do we see the Rainbow Coalition or the NAACP or other minority rights advocacy groups interacting with either of them? Is there any indication that either is just barely maintaining control of a swollen and agitated mass of activists who are thinking fondly of the guillotine at this point?

I have not personally gotten involved with either the Sanders campaign or now Our Revolution. But my overwhelming sense from observation is things are the exact opposite. Bernie Sanders is a curmudgeonly rock star whose every word is clung to with devotion. Trying to organize for real progressive issues like single-payer healthcare or ending war or transition to renewable energy is just a little bit harder these days because really genuine and good progressives who I want to work with are saying “No, we have to wait for what Bernie does first.” The power dynamic here is all wrong and needs to be flipped for anything to develop.

Just consider as an example the single-payer issue. Sanders has been saying for a few months now that he intends to submit a single-payer bill to the Senate. Already Rep. John Conyers has introduced HR 676, considered the gold standard of single payer bills. But as Russell Mokhiber pointed out on March 27, “Sanders has been telling people he will introduce health care reform legislation in the Senate within a couple of weeks. But it’s not going to be a companion bill to HR 676. Instead, Sanders is telling reporters he wants to ‘move toward Medicare for all.’

Someone once told me that procrastination and masturbation are essentially the same thing because in the end you are just f%cking yourself. But the fact Sanders is doing this at the expense of literally millions, including myself, who need a decent healthcare plan, makes this closer to a lewd act that usually gets one put on a sex offenders registry after a stint in jail.

As for my scorn for Sanders in the past 24 months, perhaps it deserves explanation. I never had interest in Bernie and I was always scornful of his routine, tempting as it was, because I was seeing every day exactly what the Democratic Party actually was, is, and always will be regardless of what a singular politician from Vermont says to the contrary. I work daily with inner city students in Providence, the poorest of the poor. The city is under a type of austerity that mandates what in any decent civilization would be deemed child abuse. My anger at Sanders, which I kindle and harbor every day I walk into work, is based primarily on the fact he dared try to give anything but scorn and condemnation to the Democratic Party whose machine cities, like Providence or Boston, do such awful things to children. I have seen enough children, at the peak of their adolescent development, eating bags of potato chips for breakfast because things are that tough at home. A few months ago, after a minor bout of snow closed schools across the state for a few days, Providence by contrast opened as soon as possible. Reporter Dan McGowan explained why :

When Providence residents woke up to very little new snow Monday morning, it looked as though Mayor Jorge Elorza made the right call by deciding schools would open on a two-hour delay rather than close altogether… “City families rely on the support services and programs that Providence Public Schools provide, including the more than 20,000 free or reduced-price meals provided daily to qualifying students,” Laura Hart, a spokesperson for the school department, said Sunday… If the mayor chose to close schools Monday, it would have been the fifth consecutive day off for students. (That includes school closures on Thursday and Friday, plus the weekend.) Elorza didn’t want to take a chance that some students would be missing out on breakfast or lunch for another day.

The impoverishment of those children did not come from Donald Trump or Paul Ryan. That was all done by a Democratic Party machine whose xenophobia and racism shuns the “ill-ee-gullz” and excludes them from hiring for even measly jobs. So every day I was seeing this in the morning and at night would go home to see Sanders on television, in his gruff and manipulative way, corral progressives back into the pen of the Democratic Party. How dare he. I was so furious and heartbroken by this that I had nothing but bile in my mouth when I saw his visage on television or heard how people Felt the Bern. Finally one night, after a day of watching this sort of stuff being done to children by the blessed Democratic Party, I finally put on Paul Robeson’s rendition of Shenandoah, one of the most beautiful songs recorded in human history, and cried for a good hour in a way I have not since I was a child.

It was one of those epic sobs that hits the bottom of your stomach like a good sucker punch and cakes your nose with snot so thick it feels like you inhaled a half-quart of cake frosting.

If I am asked if I choose between Bernie Sanders or the kids I work with, what the hell do you expect from me? That is ultimately the crux of what I felt the Sanders campaign was asking of me, to forgive the Democratic Party for this sort of child abuse. I respect the people who follow Michael Harrington’s lead with the Democratic Socialists of America and correspond quite frequently with some. But in Providence, money talks and all else walks. Just a few weeks ago Brown University alumnus and DNC Chair Tom Perez rolled into town and indicated the future of progressive politics in the Democratic Party was embodied by…Gina Raimondo, the queen of privatizing public services and utilities! Whoopee!

Around this same time, a certain ornery New Lefty told me I was a liberal rather than a radical because I said that I think getting those kids decent breakfast was revolutionary. Maybe s/he’s right, saying that kids should be fed decently with a slogan like PEACE-LAND-BREAD-ALL POWER TO THE SOVIETS never got anywhere. Either way, here is what one Bolshevik said about that sort of thing:

Say we want a revolution
We better get on right away
Well you get on your feet
And into the street
Singing power to the people

If progressives want to have Bernie Sanders involved in their efforts for change, make him beg for your respect. Lead him rather than letting him lead you, preferably in a fashion akin to the dog walker who barely has control of his wards as he is dragged down the sidewalk. The collapse of the Old Left was based around a failure to keep that paramount. Instead, they allowed Joseph Stalin to turn their revolution into a top-down organization that was primarily about worshipping him and excusing his awful behavior. That mistake caused the holocaust of the Vietnam War. We owe it to the children to not make that mistake again. And with climate change broiling the Arctic at an accelerated pace, we don’t have the time to make it.

With Sanders, you must go make him do it or else it will be our ruination. It seems clear that many want Sanders involved in the opposition to Trump. I hope he will take up such a challenge rather than arresting the development of a movement.

Andrew Stewart is a documentary film maker and reporter who lives outside Providence.  His film, AARON BRIGGS AND THE HMS GASPEE, about the historical role of Brown University in the slave trade, is available for purchase on Amazon Instant Video or on DVD.