A Suggestion for Bernie: On Crimes Detectable and Not

Bernie Sanders claims to be an anti-plutocratic populist and sometimes even a “democratic socialist” opponent of the wealthy corporate and financial Few.  Let me therefore make a recommendation for Senator Sanders and his “Our Revolution” movement.  Bernie should call a press conference to demand the replacement of current Congressional and Justice Department investigations of a mythical non-problem – Russia’ supposed swinging of the 2016 United States presidential election – by Congressional and Justice Department investigation of a real problem: the control of U.S. politics and policy by the nation’s biggest corporations and financial institutions.  In his press conference, Sanders could cite a remarkable passage from a recent New York Times interview with the nation’s leading intellectual Noam Chomsky.  As Chomsky remarked:

“For liberal opinion, the political crime of the century, as it is sometimes called, is Russian interference in American elections. The effects of the crime are undetectable, unlike the massive effects of interference by corporate power and private wealth, not considered a crime but the normal workings of democracy. That’s even putting aside the record of U.S. ‘interference’ in foreign elections, Russia included; the word ‘interference’ in quotes because it is so laughably inadequate, as anyone with the slightest familiarity with recent history must be aware.”

Then Sanders could cite the findings of the leading liberal political scientists Martin Gilens (Princeton) and Benjamin Page (Northwestern). Over the past three plus decades, Gilens and Page reported nearly three years ago, the U.S. political system has functioned as “an oligarchy,” where wealthy elites and their corporations “rule.” Examining data from more than 1,800 different policy initiatives in the late 20th and early 21st centuries, Gilens and Page found that wealthy and well-connected elites consistently steer the direction of the country, regardless of and against the will of the U.S. majority and irrespective of which party holds the White House or Congress. “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy,” Gilens and Page wrote, “while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent influence.” As Gilens explained to the liberal online journal Talking Points Memo (TPM), “ordinary citizens have virtually no influence over what their government does in the United States.”

(It was good of Gilens and Page academics to give empirical backing in support of something working-class “ordinary citizens” had long and already known: “money talks and bullshit walks” in capitalist America.)

Even more stark was the judgement of Simoon Johnson, the chief economist of the International Monetary Fund from March 2007 through 2008.  In a remarkable May 2009 Atlantic essay titled “The Quiet Coup,” he noted that “the finance industry has effectively captured our government,” turning the U.S. into a “financial oligarchy” and “banana republic” where top financial investors and managers get whatever they want regardless of technically irrelevant public opinion.

Such is the harsh reality of “really existing capitalist democracy,” humorously acronymized by Chomsky as “RECD, pronounced as ‘wrecked.’”

Who Cares?

Just what great American “democracy” was it exactly that the Kremlin supposedly undermined last year? In a telephone survey of more than 1100 randomly selected U.S. adults in the Spring of 2015, the Times reported, the paper and CBS found that the U.S. citizenry stood to the progressive and populist left on numerous key political-economic issues. Pollsters working for the two corporate media giants learned that:

*Two-thirds (66%) of Americans thought that the distribution of money and wealth should be more evenly distributed among more people in the U.S.

*61% of Americans believed that is was mainly just a few people at the top who have a chance to get ahead in the U.S. economy.

*83% of Americans thought the gap between the rich and the poor was a problem.

*67% of Americans thought the gap between the rich and the poor needed to be addressed immediately, not as some point in the future.

*57% of Americans thought the U.S. government should do more to reduce the gap between the rich and the poor in the U.S.

*“Almost three-quarters [74%] of respondents sa[id] that large corporations have too much influence in the county, about the double the amount that said the same of unions.”

*68% of Americans favored raising taxes on people “earning” – the pollsters’ term (a better one would be “taking”) – more than $1 million per year.

*50% of Americans supported limits on money “earned” by top executives at large corporations.

*“Americans [were] skeptical of [so-called] free trade.  Nearly two-thirds [63%] favored some form of trade restrictions, and more than half opposed giving the president [fast-track] authority to negotiate trade agreements that Congress could only vote up or down without amendments.”

These were noteworthy findings, consistent with surveys that have long revealed a preponderantly progressive populace in the U.S. They show strong majority support for greater economic equality and opportunity, increased worker rights, a roll-back of corporate power, and trade regulation.

The U.S. economic power elite has always a response to such popular sentiments: so what? Who cares?

Putrid Peak Neoliberalism: How the Democratic Party Lost the Election

Look at the militantly finance-corporatist record of the Obama administration, which was stocked with Goldman Sachs and other Wall Street operatives.  Nowhere was this disdain and dismissal more evident in the 2016 Hillary Clinton presidential campaign. The vapid 2016 Hillary Clinton campaign epitomized the late Princeton political scientist Sheldon Wolin’s notion of a “timid … Democratic Party mesmerized by centrist precepts” and functioning as an “inauthentic opposition.” It defeated a progressive-reformist uprising within its own party—that of the Bernie Sandernistas. Having made sure that the party remained one of “inauthentic opposition,” devoid of any remotely serious “vision of the good society,” the Democratic National Committee (DNC) helped the party resume its normal neoliberal-era role as an out-of-power junior partner to the in-power and more radically reactionary and regressive Republicans. As Conor Lynch noted at Salon after the noxious Trump defeated

“The Clinton campaign tried to make this election all about Trump’s hatefulness (‘Love Trumps Hate’) and his ‘basket of deplorables,’ while offering no real vision of progressive and populist change. And when those on the left raised legitimate concerns about Clinton’s uninspiring message or her political baggage during and after the primaries, they were ridiculously labeled sexist or racist ‘bros’ by establishment figures (even though some of Clinton’s harshest progressive critics were in fact women and people of color).”

Earlier in the year, journalist Daniel Denvir accurately described Clinton’s strategy as “peak neoliberalism, where a distorted version of identity politics is used to defend an oligarchy and a national security state, celebrating diversity in the management of exploitation and warfare.”

The all-too predictable but mostly unpredicted consequence (I myself believed the pollsters picking Mrs. Clinton) of all this is that the dismal dollar Dems handed the White House back to the more openly right-wing major party. Hence the basic truth of Sanders’ comment at the “People’s Summit” in Chicago this summer: “I am often asked by the media and others, ‘How did it come about that Donald Trump, the most unpopular presidential candidate in the modern history of our country, won the election?’ And my answer is that Trump didn’t win the election, the Democratic Party lost the election.”

Sanders was right.  Trump didn’t ride any great “populist” wave of working class votes into office.  He fell into the White House because of the neoliberal Democrats dismal and “pathological demobilization” (Anthony DiMaggio) of its former working- and lower-class base. And Sanders would very likely have mobilized enough of that base to have prevailed against Trump.

Support Without Condition Even After WikiLeaks

What Bernie didn’t tell the Peoples Summit is he, too, was a part of Trump’s victory.  No, not as many Clinton Democrats argue, because he was a “spoiler.”  His sin was the opposite. By promising from the start and then acting without conditions on his pledge to back the lying arch-neoliberal Wall Street warmonger Hillary in the general election, Sanders never tried to compel the Democratic Party to run a populist and hence winning campaign.  He imposed no conditions for his backing of her even after it became clear from a treasure trove of hacked emails released by WikiLeaks that the Clinton campaign and its allies in the Democratic National Committee and the corporate media had rigged the game to prevent Sanders from wresting the nomination away from the listless and reactionary Hillary.

Mad (Mos)Cow Disease: A Dismal Dem and Imperial Affliction

But what about now? Ever since their epic 2016 defeat, the dismal, dollar-drenched Democrats have been digging their grave further by running 24-7 with the bizarre and unsubstantiated charge that Trump owes his election to Russian interference.  A Harvard-Harris survey poll conducted last month shows that majorities in both major parties are saying “enough with Russia.”  They want Congress to drop the Russia madness and get progressive things done on healthcare, the economy and jobs. Almost three out of four respondents to the Harvard-Harris poll said that lawmakers aren’t focusing on the issues that matter most to them. More than two-third of Democrats (68 percent) say that. Sixty-two percent of voters say there is “no hard evidence” that Trump has colluded with Russia.  Sixty-four percent say the investigations are “hurting the country.”

According to the Washington political journal The Hill one month ago, “Frustrated Democrats hoping to elevate their election fortunes have a resounding message for party leaders: Stop talking so much about Russia…rank-and-file Democrats say the Russia-Trump narrative is simply a non-issue with district voters, who are much more worried about bread-and-butter economic concerns like jobs, wages and the cost of education and healthcare.”

Gee, imagine that. Half the U.S. population is poor or near-poor. More than a fifth of the nation’s children (including well more than a third of its Black and Native American children) are living at less than the nation’s Dickensian poverty level.  42 million Americans — including 13 million children — live in “food insecure” households with limited or uncertain access to enough food to support a healthy life.  All this and more terrible to contemplate exists in a nation where the top 1% has pocketed 85% of all income growth since the 2008-09 recession. The top tenth of the upper 1 Percent (Pelosi’s class) has as much net worth as the bottom 90 percent. Globally, the world’s richest five people have as much wealth between them as the poorest half of humanity.

The mad neo-McCarthyite Moscow obsession (so looney tunes that former DNC honcho and leading Democratic Party henchwoman Donna Brazille recently referred to the Russians as “the Communists”) has helped moved the Dems far off issues that any self-respecting Left or even liberal Opposition would be fighting on: racism, racist voter suppression (which may have elected Trump, by the way), the police and prison state, immigrant rights, economic exploitation and inequality, sexism, environmental ruination – stuff like that.

Folks are dying out here in “the heartland”/”homeland” while the Democrats, CNN, MSDNC, Wapo, and the New York Times are frothing at the mouth with Mad [Mos]Cow Disease, shooting up their Russia-addicted veins with yet more steamy rhetoric on the frankly “undetectable crime of the century” (Chomsky). The rest of us are all supposed to dutifully forget there was no detectable homeland democracy left for dastardly Russian hackers to destroy in the first place!

Why this muscle-brained neo-McCarthyite Moscow mania?  The Democrats and their many corporate media allies and their faux peoples “resistance” have advanced an all-too alluring and tantalizing explanation for their epic electoral fail: it wasn’t about the dismal, dollar-drenched neoliberal inauthenticity of their fake-progressive and corporate party; no, it was because of Russia and its reprehensible ruler Vladimir Putin. Yes, the bear ate their homework.

So what if there’s been no real evidence of relevant Russian meddling in “our” supposed “great democracy”? They story has been irresistible to the Democrats. Russiagate was designed by Democratic Party elites (including Hillary’s campaign chief John Podesta) from the night of Hillary Clinton’s final (let’s hope) election defeat to take the heat off the Inauthentic Opposition party’s corporate-financial and professional class nothingness and place all the blame for their loss on a demonized foreign Other. It was crafted, among other things, to shut-down the progressive/Sanders challenge within their own party.

Another factor deserves equal consideration.  Also part of the secret behind the Democrats and dominant media’s obsessive Russianization of Trump is likely the simple fact that the orange-tinted beast campaigned and came into office in opposition to the U.S. “foreign policy” (imperial) elite’s consensus in favor of provoking Russia. In a rare commitment to sanity that may or may not be related to his global investment profile, Herr Donald called for a normalization of relations with Moscow. We need not join the Russian historian Stephen Cohen in strangely calling Trump courageous and statesmanlike to acknowledge that dialing down tension with nuclear-tipped Russia was a surprisingly reasonable thing for Trump to advocate. It was also a big “deep state” no-no. It’s a real nonstarter and threat to “sound foreign [imperial’ policy” for the reigning Russophobic, Clintonite, neoliberal Council on Foreign Relations, the neocon crowd, the military-industrial complex, the “intelligence community” and their many “liberal” (Democratic) media allies (including the owners and managers of The New York Times, The Washington Post and most of the major television networks). The foreign policy and media establishment’s dogged determination to keep the deadly U.S.-led “New Cold War” (which has been pretty damn hot in Syria and Ukraine) alive is no small force driving the Russia lunacy regarding Trump is. It’s a war – replete with Western sponsorship of a fascist regime in Ukraine – that threatens to turn the world into a radioactive ash-heap before the capitalogenic climate change that Trump wants to accelerate can cook us to death.

Red Lines

So where is our great “socialist” (please) hero Bernie Sanders on all this?  When will he call for an end to the ridiculous Russia investigations and its replacement by serious Congressional and Justice Department inquiries into RECD – that is, into the longstanding and well-documented trumping of popular governance and sovereignty by domestic capitalist corporate and financial power? Wouldn’t that be what a “democratic socialist” Senator atop a movement for “revolution” would be doing regularly and loudly right now? Isn’t that what Eugene Debs (whose poster sits forlornly behind Bernie’s U.S. Senate desk on Capitol Hill) would be calling for?

Don’t hold your breath.  Bernie F-35 Sanders has been on board with the American Empire project and its Pentagon System for well more than two decades by now – and particularly so when it comes to provoking Moscow. His imperial socialism is ironic given some unpleasant facts: the Pentagon System is a leading agent for the upward distribution of wealth from ordinary working Americans to profit-drenched high-tech “defense” corporations like Boeing, Raytheon, and Lockheed-Martin; the U.S. military budget devours more than half the nation’s federal discretionary spending, thereby negating the social expenditures that Sanders claims to advance as part of his progressive New Deal social policy agenda; the Pentagon is the world’s leading institutional contributor to the problem of climate change, which Bernie rightly identified (in the single best thing he’s ever said) during the 2015-2016 presidential campaign as the leading threat to Americans’ national security during a debate with Hillary Clinton last year.

Progressives who just can’t seem to understand why so many of us on the actual Left couldn’t jump on board the Bernie train last year need look no farther than his support for the war machine and the U.S. imperial agenda. It’s wasn’t about “perfectionism.” We’re as capable of pragmatic compromises as anyone else. But there are red lines you just can’t cross and expect actual Leftists to dutifully follow along with you. It’s just too much to ask, given the monumental and ongoing crimes of the U.S. Empire and the deadly and highly regressive and reactionary impact of that Empire at home as well as abroad.

Not surprisingly, Sanders has for the most part played along with the ridiculous anti-Russian propaganda spewed by the mainstream corporate and war Democrats.  He has joined in calls for investigating supposed Russian interference.

I will throw Bernie a bone, though.  As fellow Counterpuncher Ann Garrison recently remarked online, “Bernie Sanders and Rand Paul were the only two Senators to vote against the nasty new sanctions on Russia, Syria, and Iran, which no one I know of on the left was lobbying against.”  Yes, it was an easy vote to make given the fact that everyone knew the measure was going to pass with a giant majority. But it was the right vote, reflecting the likelihood that Sanders knows (all too privately) that Russiagate is a crock.

Now Sanders needs to call for the substitution I suggested at the outset of this essay – the replacement of Congressional and Justice Department inquiries into an undetectable and fake problem (Russian wrecking of U.S. “democracy”) with Congressional and Justice Department inquiries into a grave and widely detected problem: the control of U.S. politics and policy by the nation’s leading corporations and financial institutions. He must include the nation’s leading “defense” (empire) contractors in the list of democracy-wreckers to be investigated – and that includes Lockheed Martin, the manufacturer of Bernie’s beloved F-35.

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