No Remorse: Reflections on Radical “Purism”

Photo Source Chairman of the Joint Chief | CC BY 2.0

John McCain’s legacy represents an unparalleled example of human decency and American service.

— Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, August 27, 2018

I have this recurrent experience as an “iconoclastic” Left critic of what gets sold as progressive and Left. It starts with me getting a radical truth-telling rush discovering and showing how some political figure, organization or “movement” is nowhere near as progressive, portside, revolutionary, and transformative as widely advertised and perceived.  That’s stage one.

Then comes stage two: momentary guilt over having burst people’s hopeful leftish bubbles (or having tried to, anyway) and a related fear of seeming excessively alienated and overly “purist” – the standard charge from my target’s “left” and progressive defenders. (Do I hate cute little puppies and small children too? Why must I be like the leftist Grinch Who Stole Christmas?)

The guilt fades in stage three.  That’s when I learn that I was actually too mild about the rightward faults of the politico and/or political phenomenon I critiqued. It dawns on me that “hey, I’m not a doctrinaire purist after all.  If anything, I was too polite!

The Empire’s New Clothes, or How I Got My Book Title

I had some of this experience with the rise of Barack Obama.  Between the summers of 2004 and 2008, I wrote a large number of essays and even (during 2007) an entire book warning liberals, progressives, and leftists that the left political scientist Adolph Reed, Jr had gotten it right way back in January 1996 when he described the recently elected and unnamed state senator Obama as a “vacuous-to-repressive neoliberal” marked by a “fundamentally bootstrap line…softened by a patina of…talk about… small-scale solutions to social problems, and the predictable elevation of process over program — the point where identity politics converges with old-fashioned middle-class reform in favoring form over substance.”  Fleshing out the critique to include Obama’s years as a state legislator and a Wall Street-/Robert Rubin-sponsored U.S. Senator and presidential candidate, my early 2008 book bore the deceptively neutral title Barack Obama and the Future of American Politics.  It unflinchingly exposed the liberal-left heartthrob Obama as a silver-tongued fake-progressive agent of each of what Dr. Martin Luther had identified in the mid-1960s as “the triple evils that are interrelated”: economic injustice, racism (deeply understood), and militarism-imperialism.

I’d originally wanted to name this volume “The Empire’s New Clothes: Barack Obama and the Triple Evils.”  This was nixed by my publisher, who had sound marketing fears of alienating  Obamanist “hope and change” readers with an overly strident title.

Beyond seriously Left outlets like Black Agenda Report and ZNet, left and liberal media “gatekeepers” (I hate to use that “truthy” term, but it applied well in this case) were not interested in providing any platform for my less-than flattering findings on Obama’s career or for my predictions (extrapolations) on what to expect from the coming Obama presidency. So what if my book boasted strong endorsements from the eminent Dr. Reed, the leading left author and filmmaker John Pilger, and the world’s foremost intellectual Noam Chomsky?  I had two horrific liberal-left-media television experiences in New York City (including a same-day cancellation at one) during the period between Obama’s election and his inauguration.

The left-liberal establishment’s disdain for my radical take on Obama was clear. The dreamers atop The Nation were harping about how Obama supposedly wanted workers and citizens to make him advance a new progressive New Deal for the 21stCentury.

Katrina Vanden Heuvel and Amy Goodman weren’t about to let some unknown (outside the marginal “ultra-radical” Left) author from the wrong side of the Hudson and even (after 2006) the Mississippi river try to steal hope for progressive change out from under their Obama-lusting readers and viewers.

I did not relish exposing Obama for the horrible fake-progressive fraud he was (something seriously Chicago-based lefties like myself had an early heads-up on). Having moved from Chicago to a liberally Obama-mad campus town (Iowa City, Iowa) at the time of Obama’s presidential ascendancy (I had a new front-row seat for the Obama phenomenon – the endless Iowa Caucus campaign), I occasionally felt twinges of “too radical” Grinchy guilt and met no small resistance as I confronted bamboozled locals with the real historical facts on how their supposedly “antiwar” darling “progressive” Obama was actually a white-pleasing, Wall Street-friendly corporatist and imperialist.

But all hints of remorse went away (never to return) once Obama got into the White House and started making policy as I had forecast. After one year of President Obama dutifully serving the nation’s unelected, eco-cidal, and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire while honoring the embedded national politics of white supremacy and patriarchy, I faced no resistance from my publisher when I titled a follow-up volume on his first year in office… you guessed it, The Empire’s New Clothes (with a new sub-title: Barack Obama in the Real World of Power.)

“Should Democrats somehow be elected,” the left political scientist Sheldon Wolin prophesied in early 2008, as Obamania peaked, they would do nothing to “alter significantly the direction of society” or “substantially revers[e] the drift rightwards. … The timidity of a Democratic Party mesmerized by centrist precepts,” Wolin wrote, “points to the crucial fact that for the poor, minorities, the working class and anti-corporatists there is no opposition party working on their behalf.” The corporatist Democrats would work to “marginalize any possible threat to the corporate allies of the Republicans.”

Wolin called it. A nominal Democrat was elected president along with Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress in 2008. What followed under Obama (as under his Democratic presidential predecessor Bill Clinton) was the standard “elite” neoliberal manipulation of campaign populism and identity politics in service to the reigning big-money bankrollers and their global empire. Wall Street’s control of Washington and the related imperial agenda of the “Pentagon System” were advanced more effectively by the nation’s first Black president than they could have been by stiff and wealthy white Republicans like John McCain or Mitt Romney. The reigning U.S. system of corporate and imperial “inverted totalitarianism” (Wolin) was given a deadly, fake-democratic re-branding.  The underlying “rightward drift” sharpened, fed by a widespread and easily Republican-exploited sense of popular abandonment and betrayal, as the Democrats depressed and demobilized their own purported popular base. The Inauthentic Opposition (as Wolin called the Democrats) lost more than a thousand elected offices nationwide, including the U.S presidency.

As the vacuously neoliberal ex-president Obama crassly cashes in on his eight presidential years as an obedient friend of wealth and power, multiplying his net worth many times over, I cannot sense a hint of the guilt I sometimes felt about telling sour-faced liberals and progressives the harsh truth about who their hero Obama was and what he was really about.


Bernie Sanders is another and more complicated case. I’ll never forget a late 2014 meeting I attended at the Iowa City Public Library.  It featured a pair of sharp Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) activists making a pitch to thirty or so local progressive sorts on Sanders running as a Democrat in the 2016 Iowa presidential Caucus. In opening introductions around the table, all but two of these locals – myself and a Green Party member – expressed “disappointment” in Obama’s presidency and indicated that their hope for progressive change had been transferred to one of two U.S. Senators and potential presidential candidates: Elizabeth Warren and Bernie.

When my turn came, I somewhat sheepishly noted that Obama had proven to be precisely the uninspiring and deeply conservative president I had tried to tell liberals and progressives he would be.  I expressed some polite skepticism about prospects for progressive transformation through candidate-centered under the current U.S. party and elections system.

In 2015 and 2016, I published a considerable number of essays questioning both Sanders’ claim to be a “democratic socialist” and the virtues of his major party candidacy. My writings on Bernie (no small part of what brought me over to CounterPunch) hit on five basic topics: (i) the essentially liberal-progressive and neo-New Deal/-Great Society (not at all genuinely “socialist”) nature of his policy agenda; (ii) his “sheep-dogging” (Bruce Dixon’s phrase) promises to run within the hopelessly compromised corporate Democratic Party and to boost voter turnout for the Inauthentic Opposition’s eventual candidate, the “lying neoliberal warmonger” (Dr.Reed’s language, again) Hillary Clinton; (iii) his mis- and over-direction of activist energies into the narrow channels of U.S. candidate-centered electoral politics; (iv) his giant (and most un-Eugene Debsian) moral and (social democracy-canceling) budgetary blind spots on the criminal and costly American Empire; (v) the deceptive nature of his claim to be giving up “Independent” status to enter the Democratic contest.

I felt twinges of Grinchy guilt about criticizing Sanders from the “purist” left.  Bernie, after all, was not Obama or Hillary. He undeniably stood to the social-democratic portside of malicious corporate and state-capitalists like Obama, the Clintons, Biden, Charles Schumer and Nancy Pelosi on numerous important matters of domestic policy (e.g., workers’ right to organize and Single Payer health insurance.) He seemed to be legitimizing and advancing the increasing popularity of the word “socialism” in the U.S. – no small feat in a Red Scare Nation. He seriously challenged the Goldman Sachs- and Citigroup-backed Clinton campaign with his remarkable army of small donors and essentially no – zero – support from Big Business (a remarkable accomplishment).  He denounced the democracy-trumping power of the evil “billionaire class” and the plutocracy that both reflected and resulted from that class’s extreme and obscene wealth amidst mass poverty and widespread insecurity.  He properly identified the main global threat to Americans’ security as “anthropogenic” (really capitalogenic) global warming, not ISIS, Iran, North Korea, China, or Russia.

But my remorse faded as I observed Bernie F-35 Sanders: continually evade the need to drastically slash the giant Pentagon budget to pay for the social democratic programs he advocated; repeatedly trumpet Scandinavia as his social-democratic policy role model without once noting that Scandinavian countries have tiny military budgets; define “democratic socialism” as boosting voter turnout for the corporate Democrats; write-off reparations to Black Americas (for centuries of slavery, segregation, and discrimination) as “divisive;” fail to use the threat (even just to win leverage inside the Democratic Party) of going independent/third party in the general election; defend the racist, apartheid, and occupation state of Israel; call for the arch-reactionary, absolutist, and mass-murderous Saudi kingdom to “step up” its role in the so-called  war on terror; denounce the great Venezuelan left-populist Hugo Chavez as “a dead communist dictator;” do nothing to develop a people’s movement beneath and beyond the election cycle.

Disaster Averted?

Also working against any retrospective remorse I might feel over “trashing Bernie” from the “purist” Left is my sense of what a Sanders presidency might have looked like. Imagine if Bernie had somehow gotten past Hillary, the Clinton-captive Democratic National Committee, and the Clinton-loyal super-delegates in the primary race and the Democratic National Convention. Could he have defeated Trump? There’s no way to know. Sanders consistently outperformed Clinton in one-on-one matchup polls vis-à-vis Trump during the primary season, but much of the big money (and corporate media) that backed Clinton would probably have gone over to Trump had the supposedly “radical” Sanders been the Democratic nominee.

Even if Sanders had been elected president, moreover, Noam Chomsky is certainly correct in his judgment that a President Sanders “couldn’t have done a thing” because he would have had “nobody [on his side] in Congress, no governors, no legislatures, none of the big economic powers, which have an enormous effect on policy. All opposed to him. In order for him to do anything,” Chomsky adds, “he would have [needed] a substantial, functioning party apparatus, which would have to grow from the grass roots. It would have to be locally organized, it would have to operate at local levels, state levels, Congress, the bureaucracy—you have to build the whole system from the bottom.” None of those things would be remotely forthcoming from the Inauthentic Opposition Party.

It might have been worse than not being able to “do anything,”actually. Even as he loaded his administration with corporate and imperial centrists – as he certainly would have been compelled to do to mollify the nation’s reigning economic and imperial power centers – a President Sanders would have been faced with a capital strike: with severe “market instability” and “declining business confidence” raising the specter of a financial meltdown

“With little prospect of the economic tumult subsiding during his 11-week transition period,” the political scientists William Grover and Joseph Peschek wrote in the summer of 2015, a Sanders presidency:

“… would face enormous pressure to calm the fears of the market by announcing the appointment of moderates to hold Cabinet positions—non-confrontational, non-ideological people who would be ‘acceptable’ to political and economic power holders. No radicals for the Treasury Department, no thoughts of Ben and Jerry as Co-Secretaries of Commerce, no union firebrand to head the Labor Department, no Bill McKibben leading the Interior Department. Only nice, “safe” choices would suffice—personnel decisions that would undermine the progressive vision of his campaign. In short, the economics of ‘capital strike’ would threaten to trump the verdict of democracy.”

A Sanders administration would also have been compelled to engage in an aggressively imperial foreign policy. He would have faced what Bruce Dixon calls “immense pressure to demonstrate his unwavering hostility toward the Russians and his fealty to empire”—pressure to which “Bernie the Bomber” would certainly have caved. (Dixon adds that “he’s notoriously squishy on empire as it is … as are pretty much all the Berniecrats.”)

Meanwhile, many of the Dems’ corporate and professional class “elites” would have attributed Sanders’ victory to “Russian interference” while joining hands with Republicans in undermining Sanders’ supposedly “far left” (mildly progressive) agenda – and his political viability in 2020. The nation’s paranoid, white Christian and proto-fascistic right would have gone ballistic, its underlying anti-Semitism on appalling display with an ethnoculturally Jewish “democratic socialist” (and purported atheist) from Brooklyn in the White House.

Sanders’ oligarchy-imposed “failures” would have been great fodder for the right-wing white-nationalist and bipartisan neoliberal disparagement and smearing of progressive, left-leaning and majority-backed policy change. “See,” the reigning plutocratic media and politics culture would have said, “we tried all that and it was a disaster!” It might well have been a real train wreck for everything and anything progressive.

(Sorry to be such a counter-factual historical spoil-sport.  Running this scenario on Truthdig recently cost me one of my bigger reader-supported writing backers – a dedicated and, it turned out, noxious and hateful “Bernie Bro” [I don’t like that term  but it fits in his case] who couldn’t handle my dark sense of how a Sanders presidency would have gone down.)

AOC: “An Unparalleled Example of Human Decency”

Earlier this summer, Sanders said he did not support being rude to “people” when he was asked about incidents in which Trump administration officials were publicly harassed in restaurants because of their mind-bogglingly 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…I think people have a right to go into a restaurant and have dinner,” Sanders elaborated. “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. Organize at the grass roots level. Win elections and get involved in the political process,” Sanders said

It was depressing and revealing that Bernie folded in-power and proto-fascistic white-nationalist Trump operatives into the broad and overall category of “people” – everyday folks, no different than anyone else trying to have a dinner out. If Sanders doesn’t understand that these particular “people” stand out from the common ranks of humanity as agents of racist evil, then it’s kind of hard to take his call for “civility” seriously.

By “Alexandria,” Sanders was referring to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC), a progressive Democrat and self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist who won a Democratic Party primary against the ten-term incumbent Joe Crowley in New York’s 14thCongressional district.

So, what about AOC? Except for a couple of essays in which I have collaterally noted that her victory was a bit of an urban-political and ethno-cultural anomaly, I’ve been quiet about her. I certainly haven’t wanted to come off as an ultra-radical Grinch raining on the parade of an inspirational young Puerto Rican woman who took on the Democratic Party machine and won while calling herself a socialist.

I’ve been less quiet in so-called social media, where I have nodded along as “friends” note various positions she’s taken suggesting the usual tack to the center in accord with the media and party powers that be. I’ve quietly “liked” these Left criticisms, despite the voice in the back of my head saying, “there you go again, Street: something kind of neat and progressive happened and again it’s just not good and radical enough for you!”

And then I read AOC’s Tweet about the recently departed war criminal and warmonger John McCain. “John McCain’s legacy,” AOC wrote “represents an unparalleled example of human decency and American service…He meant so much, to so many.”

“An unparalleled example of human decency and American service”?  Seriously? These are depressing words to hear or read from the mouth, pen, and/or Twitter feed of a “democratic socialist” regarding a man like “Maverick” McCain, who:

+ Participated eagerly as a Fortunate Son U.S. Navy flyboy in the mass-murderous U.S. crucifixion of Southeast Asia (the so-called Vietnam War) as a reckless pilot in the merciless bombing of Vietnamese civilians.

+ Unapologetically and publicly describing (as late as 2000) as “Gooks” the Vietnamese forces who (doing their national, revolutionary and anti-imperial duty) captured and brutally interrogated him after he lost control of his plane.

+ Championed the vicious and arch-reactionary Islamist mujahedin in Afghanistan as part of the U.S. effort to collapse the Soviet Union.

+ Enthusiastically supported the murderous right-wing Contras and right-wing death squads across Central America.

+ Served on the board of the World Anti-Communist League, an organization including fascists, neo-Nazis, anti-Semites.

+ Strongly backed U.S. economic sanctions that killed at least a million Iraqis.

+ Championed the criminal U.S. bombing of Serbia.

+ Eagerly pushed for and backed George W. Bush’s monumentally criminal and imperial invasion of Iraq on thoroughly false pretexts.

+ Voted for legislation that helped make torture seem legal to Bush.

+ Contradicted his repeated declared opposition to Pentagon waste by advocating giant wars that poured billions of dollars into wasteful death and destruction.

+ Cultivated Al Qaeda allies and affiliates in Libya and Syria.

+ Fervently backed massive U.S. arms sales to the butchers atop the Saudi Kingdom, perpetrators of horrific war crimes in Yemen – crimes perversely denied by McCain

+ Wooed and abetted flat-out neo-Nazis in Ukraine.

Max Blumenthal writes:

“There were few figures in recent American life who dedicated themselves so personally to the perpetuation of war and empire as McCain…McCain did not simply thunder for every major intervention of the post-Cold War era from the Senate floor, while pushing for sanctions and assorted campaigns of subterfuge on the side. He was uniquely ruthless when it came to advancing imperial goals, barnstorming from one conflict zones to another to personally recruit far-right fanatics as American proxies…While McCain’s Senate office functioned as a clubhouse for arms industry lobbyists and neocon operatives, his fascistic allieswaged a campaign of human devastation that will continue until long after the flowers dry up on his grave. …American media may have sought to bury this legacy with the senator’s body, but it is what much of the outside world will remember him for.”

Along the way, the imperialist senator managed to get himself embroiled in an epic Reagan era Savings and Loan money-politics scandal (the “Keating Five”) and to unleash the despicable pre-Trumpian proto-fascist Sarah Palin on the national political scene.

Seattle City Council member Kshama, Sawant, a socialist and Marxist who means it when she calls herself a socialist, put things very well:

“A politician’s legacy is a political not personal question. An enthusiastic supporter of every imperialist war while in office, John McCain shares responsibility for hundreds of thousands of deaths. To whitewash that is to disrespect those who died in Iraq, Afghanistan, elsewhere. Not to mention the countless working people’s lives damaged by McCain’s support, as a Senator, for brutal neoliberal social and economic policies in the United States. Our solidarity belongs with the millions of families suffering under such policies here & abroad.”

AOC’s heralding of McCain as some kind of Christ-like statesman crosses a bright red line. Real “socialists” (people like Sawant) just don’t say stuff like that.

McCain “mean so much to so many.” Indeed. Ask the Vietnamese, Central Americans, Iraqis, Afghans, Libyans, Syrians, Serbians, and Russian-speaking Ukrainians what he meant to them.

No Excuse for B.S.

My educated guess is that AOC’s paean to McCain was recommended to her by Democratic Party consultants eager to wrap the party in the bipartisan flag of America’s supposedly benevolent foreign policy – and to poke Trump by praising McCain, with whom the president feuded. I also sense that the young and engaging “democratic socialist” from Queens knows very little about McCain’s history and why she might want to keep her distance from him. She was tending bar just a year ago and is still very much a newcomer to the national political arena.

What’s Senator Bernie Sanders’ (“I”-VT) excuse? He’s not much younger than McCain and has been in the “game” for a very long time.  He knows full well the nasty things McCain has done and said.

Here’s what Sanders, the nation’s Democratic Socialist-in-Chief (a man who eagerly joined McCain and sickened antiwar activists in his own state by zealously backing Bill Clinton’s air assault on Serbia) had to Tweet about killer McCain: “John McCain was an American hero, a man of decency and honor, and a friend of mine. He will be missed not just in the U.S. Senate but by all Americans who respect integrity and independence” (emphasis added).

The principled anti-imperialist Eugene Debs (Sanders’ purported hero) vomited in his grave over that one.

What a load of politically crafted bullshit (B.S.) from Bernie Sanders (B.S.).

“The Guts to Do the Right Thing”: A Translation

Bernie protested the so-called Vietnam War and Ronald Reagan’s bloody proxy-war on Central America back in the day.

That was then.  This is now. Somebody should ask Sanders what he thinks of his fellow US Senator Johnny Isakson (R-GA) statement on the Senate floor.  After strangely applauding McCain as one of the many military personnel who “saved us as a country” and “kept our freedom when we [were] about to lose it,” the meanspirited Isakson said that “John was the best of our generation.  John was and is a great man.…He gave everything for us…Anybody who in any way tarnishes the reputation of John McCain deserves a whipping. Most of the ones who would do the wrong thing about John McCain didn’t have the guts to do the right thing when it was their turn.”

A whipping?  How chillingly Antebellum that sounds from the mouth of a right-wing Senator from the Deep South.

Just to be clear, there’s an honest translation for “do the right thing” in Isakson’s s oration. The phrase there means “signed up for and eagerly participated in the U.S. military crucifixion of Southeast Asia” (a criminal and imperial U.S, assault that may have killed as many as 5 million people in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos between 1962 and 1975).

The U.S. war in/on Vietnam (and Cambodia and Laos) was a monumental crime against humanity.  Senator Isakson calls for the “whipping” of anyone who calls into the question the morality of having participated in that epic crime. How shameful.

The DNC: A Committee of Corporations

Speaking of guilt, as the son of liberal Democrats who has spent most of his life surrounded by liberal Democrats, I felt a twinge of self-reproach when I referred to the Democrats earlier I this essay as “hopelessly compromised” and “corporatist” (did I call it imperialist and objectively racist too?  If I didn’t, I should have).  The guilt went away instantly, however, when I read the following press release from the Movement for a People’s Party:

“DNC Kills Caucuses, Keeps Superdelegates, Retains Joint Fundraising Agreements, and Expands Control Over 2020 Primary

Los Angeles — The Democratic National Committee (DNC) took several steps to expand and consolidate its power over the 2020 presidential primary at its summer meeting in Chicago this weekend. The party reduced caucuses, which heavily favored Bernie in 2016, and replaced them with primaries. It rebuked progressive demands to eliminate superdelegates, moving them to the second round of voting at the nominating convention instead. It preserved the use of joint fundraising agreements, which Hillary used to launder money to her campaign and take over the DNC. It approved a rule allowing the DNC to block candidates who have not been “faithful” Democrats from running. It kept nearly a hundred lobbyists on the DNC. And it did nothing to extricate corporate and billionaire money from the party, preserving rampant corruption.

The Democratic Party is a committee of corporations. Goldman Sachs, CitiGroup, News Corp., Pfizer, CitGo, Verizon, Aetna, and many other corporations sit alongside high-priced consultants on the national committee. After big donors and corrupt party officials rigged the 2016 presidential primary, the DNC gave its voters no say in the “reform” process and put the culprits in charge instead.

That explains why the Democratic Party is now moving to eliminate the caucuses, which supplied more than half of Bernie’s 2016 state wins. The party approved six states switching from caucuses to primaries in Chicago.

The party also kept superdelegates, ensuring that the media and search engines like Google will continue to add them to a candidate’s running delegate count during the primaries. This creates the perception that the establishment candidate is leading and reduces turnout for progressive candidates. Because the party establishment controls the Rules and Bylaws Committee, the party reserves the power to force a second ballot at the convention too, allowing the superdelegates to vote on the presidential nominee and defeating the purpose of the rules change.

Superdelegates also kept their power to vote for the vice-presidential nominee, the platform, party rules, and everything else on the first ballot. Each superdelegate wields the power of 10,000 voters.

Moreover, the DNC kept joint fundraising agreements that allow the party to turn over control of its strategy, hiring, communications, and spending to an establishment candidate again.

The party meeting comes just as the DNC repealed a ban on accepting donations from fossil fuel corporations. The ban had only been in effect for two months before it was dismantled, demonstrating how impermanent advances in the party are. The party intended to secretly repeal the rule before being caught by a journalist, revealing how unaccountable the party is.

The Democratic Party also continues to cheat progressives in the midterm primaries. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez remains the only progressive Democrat to have unseated a congressional incumbent.”

Someone tell Bernie: the ruling-class professionals in charge of the Democratic Party are not about to let it be turned into an instrument of Scandinavian and social-democratic decency.  It’s going to take a real and many-sided revolution, and not just a political one, to humanize this nation.  And it won’t happen though the Democratic Party, only over its dead body.

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