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Sanders and the Empire

Photo by Phil Roeder | CC BY 2.0

The au courant merch for the 2020 Presidential election begins and ends with the “Hindsight Is 2020” Bernie t-shirts. The implication of the shirt is that Bernie should have been elected in 2016. With clear hindsight, that being the 20/20 vision, we will anoint The Chosen One in 2020. Whenever I see this shirt I am reminded of T.I. rapping “Hindsight 20/20, future not as clear.” Bernie has officially started to gather his team to discuss running in 2020, with all signs pointing to him doing so. The fact that he has already started planning shows how long, expensive, and mind-numbing our Presidential elections are. If Bernie does run what makes anyone think that Bernie will be treated any differently in 2020 than he was in 2016? The deck was stacked last time, and the rich are getting richer by the day.

Who can blame people for hoping though? Our options in 2020 are lacking hindsight, foresight and insight. Personally I wish Tulsi Gabbard was the the fashionable choice in the Democratic Party, but she may not even run. Elizabeth Warren is just a step to the right of Sanders and would be a fine choice too. Sanders himself is one of the most sane voices in American politics. But most of the Democrats are dreadfully corporate. A second term of Trump would be a disaster.

There is a small part in me that would be interested in helping out Bernie’s campaign again. While Sanders is personally quite unappealing, knocking doors and making phone calls for issues such as universal health care, free college, a 15$/hour minimum wage and the like is by no means a waste of time. At the very least it is a way to build community and connections in an increasingly isolated and reactionary political climate. When Noam Chomsky compared Bernie to Dwight Eisenhower he said it wasn’t a criticism. And it certainly doesn’t have to be in these last stages of capitalism. Chomsky used the word “refreshing” to describe Sanders. This is absolutely true. Bernie talks about issues the corporate media and politicians routinely ignore.

For what it’s worth Sanders is far from personally refreshing. He is grumpy and monotonous. He is an American style workaholic who grits his teeth as he effectively automates a thesis that centers around Making America Great Again (thankfully New Deal style rather than Trump-KKK style). In short, his political imagination is in short supply. Bernie is here to save capitalism and imperialism. Bernie is here to save the Democratic Party, the CIA, and the FBI. He is here to return us to the days of prosperity. He is here to save us from our decline.

While there is no doubt crossover in the feeling that Bernie and Trump may invoke, there is far less crossover in policy. Attacks associating Bernie and Trump are disingenuous smears. Yet what Bernie and Trump do share is the element of return. Anyone who isn’t a middle class white American man of a certain age and a certain sentiment may see little merit in returning to the good ol’ days. To his credit, Bernie does support the ways our society has gotten more liberal. But he seems to do this more to check off boxes. Like a good neoliberal, class remains separate not only from things such as gender, race, and sexual orientation but also from love, nature, animals, peace, and community.

The central question for Bernie and his cult following may be whether we can afford to negotiate with the elites and their corporate duopoly at all. The pattern of late has been a gargantuan rightward shift by both parties. Bill Clinton’s triangulation has turned Democrats into Republicans. While Republicans have become extremists. Chomsky correctly called them the most dangerous organization ever. The Paris Climate agreement is an example of this. The Democrats may believe in climate change they just don’t believe in changing the climate. What Chomsky and Bernie both lack though is a political and moral imagination that transcends the current climate of hopelessness. Bernie, as Chomsky correctly noted, is a moderate Republican of a certain time. They both not only see a solution in Sanders, but also if necessary, a Clintonite Democrat.

Both men raise important questions about the current state of affairs but both end up choosing reform, despite the fact that our country now stands with more economic inequality than pre-revolutionary France. Questioning this cynical philosophy is necessary and urgent. Of course there is also a certain cynicism in never engaging in the zeitgeist of the times, which makes the Bernie question such a vexing one.

The hope is that our imagination can grow beyond a return to the very Party that has brought us endless war, destruction, and despair. The hope is that we grow beyond a return to the predatory systems of capitalism and imperialism that have expanded to abuse all creatures and people of the world save the Euro-American middle class that Bernie represents. Notice Bernie’s rhetoric is always about restoring the middle class, while he seldom mentions the poor.

Bernie is desperately trying to plug the holes in the sinking ship known as American Empire. If any man can reform this system it would be Bernie. He inspired many people to get politically involved, myself included. But we must ask ourselves if this ship is worth saving. Trump is helping to take the veil off of the Evil Empire. Now is our chance to jump ship. If Bernie wins, would this usher in a new era for the Democratic party? One that returns to the evils of the New Deal Democrats, a welcome reform if we could get it. Or will his win not be replicable by less charismatic figures in a endlessly corrupt political climate? And what if he loses? Do we chant 2024 or do we ditch the War Party once and for all? Will we settle for Bernie’s reforms or will we create our own revolution?

The revolutionary psychoanalyst John Helmeke provided me with some insight about the Bernie quandary. He said that it is very scary for people to leave Bernie behind. We fear that by doing so we will leave the Democratic Party to the corporate elites. And that the corporate Democrats don’t even know how to beat a Republican anyways. These things are true. But why are we scared of leaving behind the duopoly, Bernie included? We have seen the costs of lesser evil voting. We have seen that when we simply leave things as they are the money has conglomerated. We have seen that no matter who runs the show war is endless. We have seen that reformers, while they do some good, often save the very system they are rebelling against. Bernie aims to move some wealth around and return us to a capitalism that we remembered working. But can it work anymore? And how well did it work for many of us in the first place?

It is hard to blame anyone for sticking with Bernie. These are dark times. And while accepting Bernie is accepting a brutal world hierarchy, half this country doesn’t have a dime to save. Who can afford solidarity with our sisters and brothers abroad under these conditions? On the other hand, stopping capitalism and imperialism’s conquests is the only option we can afford if we are to be free.

Freedom is not an existential question. Anyone who calls out Bernie for what he really is—an apologist for American Empire is framed as a purist. But that’s far from the truth. Bernie, on a global scale, is an extremist on foreign policy. Compare him to other leaders around the world and he is right wing, plain and simple. He would continue to violate international law. When he does question the American military his tears are for the American middle class and our tax dollars. What really separates Bernie from his political competition is that he has a realistic plan to save this Empire. Mainstream Democrats will continue to split the gap between rich and poor, and Republicans will do this without blinking. What Bernie offers us is a chance to save our Empire. He will restore the American middle class. And when he saves the American middle class, revolution is an impossibility.

Bernie will tempt us. He offers us a smart Empire. One that takes care of it’s own middle class while making sure that no government abroad is powerful enough to challenge us. Trump and Clinton and the rich people of today are among other things, dumb. How do you run an Empire that doesn’t offer anything to the majority of it’s own people? Bernie knows that in the days when America was not only the greatest military power, but also the greatest economic power, we actually took care of many of our white people. How else could an Empire run?

Is this all a pre-calculated plot? I’m not one for conspiracies. But let’s just admit that Bernie’s political imagination is stuck in America. He hasn’t even considered the rest of the world. Seriously, he never even talks about foreign policy. What he offers is not a change in the world order, but an Empire that actually can maintain itself. The disposable people today will still be disposable. But Bernie’s people will be saved.

What Bernie is yet to realize is that capitalism and imperialism may not share his biases or his foresight. It may be most rational for these systems to actually elect Bernie. But the powers that be want nothing to do with him. Rightly so, as Bernie would take away dollars from the rich, even if makes some sense. So most likely the show will go on without Bernie and his reforms. It will be up to us to not just make the American Empire Great Again, but destroy it from the ground up.

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Nick Pemberton is a student at Gustavus Adolphus College. He is currently employed by Gustavus Dining Services. Nick was born and raised in St. Paul, Minnesota. He can be reached at pemberton.nick@gmail.com

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