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Getting Sanders Backwards

Reading the recent piece by Norman Solomon, I was struck by how deeply mistaken his closing paragraph was:

The only real hope for the 2020 Bernie Sanders campaign is that a grassroots uprising will become powerful enough to overcome the massive obstacles. It’s a huge cooperative task, but success is possible.

I live in Rhode Island, the Petri dish of Democratic Party policy initiatives, the incubator where legislative measures are given a test drive before making a wider premiere first along other sections of the I-95 corridor and later nationwide. In the past 4 years that Bernie Sanders has been a force on our national political landscape, the impact has been wildly erratic, spanning a range from notable to negligible. Yet even at its most impactful, something that I will elaborate upon momentarily, his impact has been in the realm of protest politics, not Washington policy initiatives, and claims to the contrary amount to little more than wishful thinking combined with self-important grandstanding.

In my estimation, I think that the most notable impacts made by Sanders have been:

A) Skipping AIPAC in 2016, thereby breaking the longtime taboo twinning American Jewish politicians in either party with hawkish Israeli foreign policy support;

B) Using his platform to return single payer healthcare to the mainstream Democratic agenda after Obama successfully marginalized it during his first term;

C) Helping turn a previously ineffective and marginal caucus, Democratic Socialists of America, into a mass-membership organization that can turn out bodies reliably for Progressive Democratic Party political campaigns and direct action protests while having wildly varied connections to longtime grassroots activism hubs in minority communities.

Solomon’s entire worldview is a warped, upside-down vision of how politics works and what is necessary to get the duopoly to adopt policies that the Left advocates for. It also seems he, like many other progressives, think that having neoliberal Democrats co-opt Left policies and put a progressive name on a neoliberal policy initiative is an accomplishment as opposed to a defeat.

For instance, Rhode Island’s neoliberal Democratic Gov. Gina Raimondo rolled out a program called Rhode Island Promise which was sold as a free tuition program at community college. However, it in fact was a corporate power grab that may have set back the cause of tuition-free higher education for a generation. Getting robbed of a policy and then having it rolled out in a way to insure it fails is not a victory for progressives in the Democratic Party or the Left (such as it is) in general, it instead is a monumental defeat.

The difference between contemporary progressives and Leftists today is noteworthy and substantial. The Old Left of the Great Depression, while quite imperfect on a multiplicity of issues, did have some qualities that were important necessities for success. The Socialist and Communist Parties, independent and antagonistic of the Democratic Party, used their respective branches, locals, and youth organizations to organize and educate workers in their workplaces. The respective parties were hubs that aggregated and distributed policy proposals that were quite detailed, step-by-step instruction manuals that elaborated upon how to roll-out everything from truly radical ideas, such as creating a Soviet America, to what became basic pillars of the welfare state, such as Social Security and unemployment insurance.

How has Sanders impacted these three causes that I think he created a shift around? There’s some serious variation that should be analyzed honestly.

A) Skipping AIPAC in 2016, thereby breaking the longtime taboo twinning American Jewish politicians in either party with hawkish Israeli foreign policy support

In this matter, I think Sanders has made a clear rhetorical impact that led up to the recent publicity fracas over Rep. Ilhan Omar’s infamous Tweets about the impact of the Israel lobby. While he did not firmly and clearly break in a permanent fashion the false tautology between Zionism and Judaism (a form of actual antisemitism), the refusal to genuflect before AIPAC hawks was impressive. It was also a continuation of a series of actions going back several years, such as when he refused to attend the speech Benjamin Netanyahu gave to a joint session of Congress that the Republicans held behind the back of President Obama so to attempt to scuttle the so-called Iran nuclear deal. It certainly was not as radically humane as espousing solidarity with Mumia Abu-Jamal but milquetoast liberalism is better than nothing. Yet simultaneously there has been zero legislative challenge to end American aid to the Occupation and the Blockade of Gaza. There hasn’t been a single government contract divested and nobody has yet to try putting even a penalty tax upon imports illegally manufactured in the internationally-condemned and illicit settlements. Instead, there are now bills in Congress trying to penalize those who participate in BDS activism!

B) Using his platform to return single payer healthcare to the mainstream Democratic agenda after Obama successfully marginalized it during his first term

Here Sanders has actually done some harm. Rather than actually trying to initiate the passage of a single payer Medicare for All bill that was called the gold standard for years by advocates, namely the legislation authored by former Congressman John Conyers, Sanders created his own bill rather than submitting a parallel to the Conyers bill in the Senate. The Sanders bill is compromised and less robust than the Conyers version. Now that Conyers has retired from Congress, felled by a combination of old age and the #MeToo movement, Sanders is procrastinating and delaying by continuing to put forward a flawed bill that is not as good as the one in the House. We also are now seeing Kamala Harris, Cory Booker, and Elizabeth Warren, all firmly pro-capitalism, putting forward proposals that may very well provide wider universal coverage by patching up the holes in ObamaCare but which would not be Medicare for All as the single-payer movement has been advocating for generations.

C) Helping turn a previously ineffective and marginal caucus, Democratic Socialists of America, into a mass-membership organization that can turn out bodies reliably for Progressive Democratic Party political campaigns and direct action protests while having wildly varied connections to longtime grassroots activism hubs in minority communities.

DSA has had some noteworthy and admirable moments, particularly hounding Mitch McConnell last July in public  for the kidnapping of children by ICE. Heather Heyer, the young woman murdered at the Charlottesville Unite the Right riot of August 2017, was a member of DSA. But simultaneously, in my experience, there have been moments of serious misstep with how the blossoming organization in Providence has interacted with organizations and movements that are centered on BIPOC testimony and struggles. There has been zero interest, despite multiple efforts on my part, to get DSA to engage and work with the Green Party of Rhode Island. With recent word on the grapevine that DSA has committed to licensing an exclusively-Democratic Party candidate campaign organizing software platform, it would seem that interaction with the third party movement will remain limited to non-existent in the foreseeable future. This is regrettable but also not surprising. Regardless of the fact that people of all political tendencies are joining DSA, the obvious script is going to be the following:

a) Campaign for Sanders

b) After Sanders loses, accept the theft of the nomination again and support the neoliberal nominee

c) Throw away an opportunity to strip votes away from Trump via Sam Husseini’s Vote Pact project, thereby perhaps aiding Trump’s re-election not only by squandering said opportunities butby also playing into right wing talk radio talking points about socialists being in control of the Democratic Party, thereby hardening the support for Trump in flyover country and further discrediting the cause of socialism by creating the false tautological framework where mild Sanders-brand social democracy equals neoliberal austerity when it comes down to brass tacks

Ultimately, Solomon and those of his mind are thinking that grassroots organizing is a project that does not include in its foundational coordinates the idea that the Democratic Party, the 1%’s caucus of Silicon Valley, Big Pharma, Wall Street and warmongers, is one of the enemies that must be destroyed and is beyond redemption. Building support for Bernie Sanders is not movement building, it is instead gathering supporters for a northern liberal New Dealer presidential campaign that has not made a serious lasting impact on the lives of the poor and disenfranchised.

The only real hope for the Sanders project in 2020 is that his followers, realizing there is nothing left to be done with the Democratic Party, will instead build an autonomous mass movement that uses the campaign as a base building opportunity for taking down the Democrats at a later date. The act of voting, while useful in some fashion, ultimately has little to no lasting impact upon base building projects and trying to organize successfully. Leaving aside the circular squabble over Noam Chomsky’s swing state moral voting proposal, the fact is that the American electoral cycle hinders effective organizing and smothers insurgencies. Breaking free of the bi-annual cycle of electoral politics and the adulation of imperfect politicians is the first step towards actually getting progressive policy passed in Washington.

Anything else is a retreat into the lethargy that kills activism and allows the neoliberal policy onslaught to continue unabated, a truly immoral and revolting absconding of responsibility.

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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.

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