Sorry, Bernie, We Need Radical Change

Photo source Alex Hanson | CC BY 2.0

One of the more darkly amusing narratives in current establishment Democratic Party positioning for the 2018 mid-term elections and the 2020 presidential contest is the claim that the Bernie Sanders tendency represents a radical “socialist” threat that will tip the races to the Republicans and Trump.

Never mind that the progressive and mildly social-democratic policies Sanders and his cadre of Democrats back – Medicare for All, progressive taxation, free college tuition, a significant increase n the federal minimum wage, the re-legalization of union organizing – have longstanding majority support from the U.S. populace.

Never mind that it precisely the centrist neoliberal nothingness of the dollar-drenched dumpster- fire that is the current corporate Democratic Party (aptly described by Sheldon Wolin as “the Inauthentic Opposition” in early 2008) that has delivered state and federal government over to the widely hated, radically regressive and arch-reactionary (racist, sexist, white-nationalist, and eco-fascist) Republicans.

Never mind that Sanders goes out of his way again and again to proclaim that the changes he advances “are NOT radical ideas” but are instead moderate reforms.

And never mind that Bernie continues to function as an electoralist get-out-the-major party-vote “sheep dog” for the aforementioned dumpster-fire and inauthentic opposition – the dismal demobilizing Dems.

“Don’t Be Rude to White Nationalists, Do What Alexandria Did”

A few weeks ago, Sanders said he did not support being rude to “people” when he was asked about incidents in which Trump administration officials were publicly harassed because of their vicious policy of kidnapping migrant children at the southern U.S. border.

“I’m not a great fan of shouting down people or being rude to people,” Sanders told MSNBC host Kristen Welker two weeks ago. “I think,” Sanders lectured, “we have a situation and a Congress that’s way out of touch with where the American people are. People have a right to be angry when Congress gives tax breaks to billionaires and wants to cut nutrition programs for low income pregnant women. You have to a right to be angry. Take that out in a constructive way.”

“I think people have a right to go into a restaurant and have dinner,” Sanders elaborated. “That’s where we got to place our energy. I do know that people are angry. They are angry about these terribly inhumane immigration policies. They’re angry about the fact they can’t afford prescription drugs. They are angry about tax breaks that go to billionaires. The way to deal with that is exactly what Alexandria did.”

Sanders was referring to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive Democrat who won a Democratic Party primary election against 10-term incumbent New York Rep. Joe Crowley.

“Organize at the grass roots level. Win elections and get involved in the political process,” Sanders said.

I’m not a big fan of venting at terrible public officials in public venues myself. Anything less than arresting them and dragging off to revolutionary peoples’ tribunals looks weak and childish to me.

Still, I found Sanders’ comments disturbing. It was depressing and revealing that he folded in-power and proto-fascistic white nationalist Trump administration operatives into the broad and overall category of “people” — you know, just everyday folks, no different than anyone else trying to have a dinner out.

If Bernie doesn’t understand that these particular “people” stand out from the common lot of humanity as agents of racist evil, then it’s kind of hard to take his call for “civility” very seriously.

“People” Have a Right to Dine Out

It blows me away that it would enter Sanders’ mind to say that “people have a right to go into a restaurant and have dinner” when we are talking about children and families detained, caged, separated, and terrorized by U.S. border authorities. So, “people” – highly class- and race-privileged Trump officials, that is – “have a right” to go out for dinner, do they, Bernie? Well, Senator, thousands of people who happen to be brown-skinned migrants fleeing U.S-backed terror and stuck in racist U.S. holding pens don’t have the right to leave the oppressive facilities in which they are detained. Many of them have had their children stolen from them and sent to distant locations somewhere in the U.S.

Who old Bernie that racist and nativist white nationalists are “people,” anyway? I am reminded of the great Soviet sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko, who killed 309 German Nazis invading her country. When Eleanor Roosevelt observed that Pavlichenko had killed hundreds of “men,” the sniper corrected, pointing out that she shot “fascists,” not “men.”

Keeping People off the Streets, Herding Them to the Ballot Box

Bernie Sanders used the “civility” issue to pose a false dichotomy: either (1) be destructively uncivil by “shouting down” and “being rude” to “people” (to vicious racist and eco-cidal policymakers, that is) or (2) be “constructive” by “organiz[ing] at the grassroots level,” understood as getting involved in U.S. major party electoral politics and “win[ning] elections” – doing “exactly what Alexandria did.”

What, you haven’t won a major party congressional primary election yet this year? You better get to work, my fellow American!

That was the not-so “independent” Senator from Vermont continuing to play his longstanding role of trying to sustain progressives’ deadly and dysfunctional attachment to the nation’s narrow and strictly time-staggered election- and candidate-centered politics. It was Bernie feeding what the great radical American historian Howard Zinn called “the election madness” that “engulf[s] the entire society, including the left” once every two years “because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls.”

“The really critical thing,” Zinn once sagely wrote, “isn’t who’s sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in —in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating—those are the things that determine what happens.”

“The only thing that’s going to ever bring about any meaningful change,” Noam Chomsky (a Sanders backer to some degree) told teleSur English’s Abby Martin in early 2016, “is ongoing, dedicated, popular movements that don’t pay attention to the election cycle.”

Bernie was and remains all about the masters’ election cycle, which is dedicated to the delusional and empirically false notion that U.S. citizens get meaningful input into policy by spending three minutes in a voting booth once every 2 or 4 years choosing from among a handful of candidates selected in advance for us (except in comparatively rare and exceptional cases) by the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorship of money and empire. It’s about keeping the people off the streets, where they belong on a regular basis if they are serious about progressive change in this time of viciously racist, classist, sexist and eco-cidal reaction. It’s about selling citizens false hope in politicians – the snake-oil promise that all or most of our energies should be poured into herding people to the polls to take a painfully brief and coldly time-staggered moment (three minutes once every two or four years) to mark a ballot for the right masters to nominally rule over us (the real rulers are in corporate and financial suites, not elected offices). That’s the basic “sheep-dog” message.

No Cartwheels

Is Democratic Socialists of America member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez different from the general run of corporate major party politicos, including “people” like Crowley? Sure. Absolutely. So is Sanders. No argument there. If I lived in the New York 14th Congressional district and was registered there (unlikely) as a Democrat (New York does not have open primaries), I would certainly have taken three minutes to vote for Ocasio-Cortez in the primary. I would have done so (a) to help bring down the corrupt, high-ranking corporate-imperial Democrat Crowley and his local Democratic machine backers and (b) to show support for Ocasio-Cortez’s progressive, social-democratic domestic policy agenda, including Medicare for All, free college tuition, and the abolition of racist-nativist Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. I would have been motivated also by Ocasio-Cortez’s professed “socialism” and concern with class inequality and by her history as someone with recent experience in a real working-class job (waiting tables) and in social and protest movements (e.g. Standing Rock).

Still, I did no cartwheels over her victory. I cannot follow Sanders in pointing to “Alexandria” as the holy grail national and “grassroots” alternative to “being rude to people.”

This is for five reasons. First, Ocasio-Cortez won with incredibly low turnout (13%), something that falls quite short of a leftist landslide and reflects local peculiarities in the operation of the New York City Democratic machine.

Second, as the veteran Left urban political strategist, activist, and commentator Bruce Dixon  noted on Black Agenda Report, “Joe Crowley pretty much gave up the seat: After 10 terms in Congress and with lots of corporate friends, Joe Crowley knows he can start at seven figures, at least six to twelve times his congressional salary plus bonuses as a lobbyist. That had to be a powerful motivation not to campaign too damn hard, and another circumstance

Third, Ocasio-Cortez’s victory partly reflected a combined demographic (racial and ethno-cultural) and party anomaly: the over-long presence of a white Democratic machine politician atop a recently racially and ethnically redistricted and now majority nonwhite and nearly majority Latinx district where the Democratic Party had failed to cultivate a neoliberal candidate of color – the kind of safe Latino or Black politico the nation’s second corporate and imperial party has developed across urban minority-majority congressional districts. As Danny Haiphong observed in the American Herald Tribune, “New York District 14 is one of the few [urban minority Congressional districts] left where neoliberal Black and Brown politicians do not dominate the political landscape. It will be difficult to replicate Ocasio-Cortez’s victory across the country because neoliberal, Black politicians in other districts are protected by the politics of representation.”

Fourth, as Dixon observed, “while there are no institutions under US law and custom that can hold leftist candidates and officeholders accountable to left constituencies or organizations…there are a galaxy of institutional levers and pressures operating inside the Democratic party aimed at flipping progressive elected officials rightward.”

As a Congressperson (her victory in the general election is virtually guaranteed in the bright blue 14thdistrict), the inspiring Ocasio-Cortez will face an enormous power disparity between local grassroots pressure from below and the nationally mobilized monopoly, empire, and party pressure exercised on her from the top down.

The CIA Democrats

Fifth, Haiphong was right to note that the dismal Democrats are dead and buried as a means of progressive transformation:

“The Democratic Party is incapable of reform and serves not as a vehicle for change but rather as a graveyard of social movements. It will be the graveyard of Ocasio-Cortez’s principles too if we don’t build independent institutions and organizations capable of moving popular excitement over her campaign away from the Democratic Party’s corporate grave diggers…We need to build a political alternative to the Democrats because when it comes to the Democratic Party, there is nothing left to hold it to account. Left-leaning youth and workers must break free from the ball and chain that keeps them shackled to the Democratic Party. Social movements are the only vehicle that can convince struggling people in this country that the Democratic Party is accountable to Wall Street and Wall Street only.”

(Well – accountable also to related and overlapping wealth and power structures in Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and the military-industrial complex.)

I’ve been listening to nonsense about supposed chances for the progressive takeover and reform of the Democratic Party since I was a grade-schooler in the original Mayor Daley’s Chicago. (The closest that’s ever come to really taking place was Harold Washington’s Chicago mayoralty of 1983-1987 – one city for just four years, with strict qualifications and thoroughly transcended by the long-term neoliberal mayoralties of right-wing corporate Democrats Richard Daly II and Rahm Emmanuel.)

The Democrats are running a large crop of former intelligence operatives and ex-military candidates this November – all strong advocates of an aggressively imperialist US foreign policy dedicated to the full prosecution of the New Cold War with Russia. As the World Socialist Website’s Patrick Martin explains:

“the anti-Russia campaign mounted by the Democrats is…aimed at pushing the Trump administration to sharply escalate the war in Syria and adopt a more aggressive policy against Russia. At the same time, it has been used as the justification for a massive and coordinated campaign to censor the Internet. The manipulation of search and news feed algorithms by Google and Facebook will be followed by more direct efforts at the suppression of left-wing, anti-war and socialist publications.”

“The campaign has also served to position the Democrats as the party that stands up for the ‘intelligence community’ in its conflict with the Trump White House. This is now being supplemented, in advance of the November midterm elections, byan influx of candidates for Democratic congressional nominations in competitive districts drawnheavily from the ranks of the CIA, the military, the National Security Council and the State Department.”

“The conduct of the DNC demonstrates the reactionary and bankrupt character of the claims by liberal and pseudo-left groups—all of whom have maintained a complete silence on the isolation and persecution of Julian Assange—that the election of a Democratic-controlled Congress is the way to fight back against Trump and the Republicans. The truth is that the working class confronts in these parties two implacable political enemies committed to war, austerity and repression” (emphasis added).

With all due respect for the progressives and social democrats (“democratic socialists”) running in Democratic primaries this year, this broad imperialist “CIA Democrat” slate that Bernie Sanders will be asking citizens to mark ballots en masse for in the fall. This is Sanders playing his well-established role as a leading voter-turnout “sheepdog” not just for the nation’s not-so “leftmost” major war party but also and more broadly for the “election madness” Zinn tried to warn us against.

No Electoral Short-Cuts: The Real Issue to be Faced

It’s good that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took down the lazy white corporate machine Democrat Joe Crowley. But her locally distinctive triumph is no compelling argument for left progressives to center their activism around an election-frenzied run to that great “coffin of class consciousness” (historian Alan Dawley) that is the American ballot box. Want to vote?  Great. It takes two minutes.  There are no short-cuts, electoral or otherwise, to the more serious and urgent politics and difficult, day-to-day nuts and bolts organizing work of building an actual American Left – something that would maintain a healthy distance from the seductive siren songs of the narrow and time-staggered major party electoral extravaganzas that are sold to us “politics,” the only politics that matters.

And there’s no great virtue in selling progressives as “not radical.” Sorry, but the diagnosis right now is dire.  We need radical – radically democratic change – to replace the racist, imperialist, classist, and now fully ecocidal rule of capital with peoples’ power.  “The real issue to be faced,” as the actual democratic socialist and non-electoral social movement activist Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. wrote in his last published essay, “is the radical reconstruction of society itself.” King’s judgement was right-on in 1968, when thousands of U.S. troops were briefly diverted from the American Empire’s mass-murderous “crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (Chomsky’s phrase at the time) to bloodily suppress Black rebellions in U.S. ghettoes.  It’s even more accurate 50 years later, in a time when three absurdly wealthy Americans (Jeff Bezos, Bill Gates, and Warren “my class is winning the class war” Butfett) possess between them the same net worth as the poorest half of the U.S. populace and when the growth- and accumulation-addicted profits system is ever more obviously drive humanity over the ecological cliff.

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