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The Overwhelming Sex Appeal Of Bernie Sanders

“the obligation to confess is now relayed through so many different points…that we no longer perceive it as the effect of a power that constrains us” —Michel Foucault

Happy Valentines Day to all Bernie Bros, Bernie Gals, and non-binary Berners.

The first time I heard the Daddy component of Bernie Sanders explained was when Jeffrey St. Clair described the devoted young female support for Bernie in 2016. The second time I got a whiff of Bernie in this form was when the young female rapper Cardi B advised us to: “Vote for Daddy Bernie”.

In my first piece ever for Counterpunch I lamented that Donald Trump had captured America’s heart because he had the most sex appeal of any candidate. I underestimated Sanders. Since this time I have become far more open-minded to other people’s sexual preferences. I’ve never had the hots for Sanders. But I’m a modern man. I’m in a word, open to it.

For some reason America really seems to be looking for some sort of Father figure in its elections. There are a couple of reasons for this. The first is just corporate media bias towards traditional hierarchy. The second reason may be that the sexual revolution has come too fast and too soon and Americans are trying to hold on to the old through a counterrevolution that “forgets” our new awakening. Sorry, this is impossible. Innocence will not be returned to the American mind. The third reason may be that neoliberal global capital has left us in such a precarious position we are left looking for that traditional paternal figure to lead us.

Bernie and Trump are both sexy old men who arouse interest by loudly proclaiming a new day, despite years of normalcy and establishment careers. Ultimately the symbolic Daddy only mediates the path we are already going down. For Bernie, it is the path of revolution, up-ending norms, while Trump is the counter-revolution—returning to them.

Both men have effectively capitalized on the loss of interest in traditional corporate centrism which no longer speaks to enough within the American Empire to have any relevance. The crisis for establishment politics today is quite frankly that it doesn’t solve a problem, when there clearly is one. Bernie and Trump provide opposite answers, but both ask remarkably similar questions: what do we lack? How can Daddy fix it?

The mainstream media is so frightened of the working class that it will compare Bernie and Trump. Absolutely outrageous. Bernie and Trump are at opposite ends of the establishment. It is for this reason that Bernie is the only candidate who can beat Trump. He proves answers to the lack, just as Trump did. Bernie says our lack comes from the 1% taking what we had, Trump says our lack comes from the poor immigrant taking what we had. Everyone else may admit to a lack but nobody but these two leaders put lack as their central thesis.

This is because no other candidates put sex at the center of their political philosophy. For the middle of the road politicians, our lives are already fulfilled, and this is why they hold no purpose for us beyond superficial brand identification. For them, our lives are fulfilled one step removed from the carnal. Their worth is commodified through ideological values. Buy this, you will get this. Vote for me, you will get this. Bernie and Trump cut deeper. I am this, I am that. I am the revolution, I am the return. For Bernie and Trump there is no mediator, they act for us directly, not through traditional political values but through unique charisma.

If it wasn’t clear before, it is clear now, rather than strive for progress, human nature drives us towards death. After all what could be more deadly than the progress of industry and agriculture, which gave us more immediate pleasure in exchange for total extinction.

Here we must begin making distinctions or risk sounding like a total prude. The liberator and the capitalist both have a death drive. The liberator opts for symbolic death, death through surrender to a higher ideal, while the capitalist simply offers real death, a sincere belief. In reading Susan Block’s book on Bonobo sex, I have become more and more convinced of the idea of sex and war being the opposites, and simultaneously the same, almost like Bernie and Trump.

What do we make of the fact that Bernie is pro-war? Cost of admission to American politics? We’ll come back to that.

Let’s start abstractly with the idea of the alternative visions of death purposed by Bernie and Trump. First off, why death? Americans are losing control, whether that be wealth inequality, climate change or globalization, we feel like we are dying. Death drive gives us control of our inevitable conclusion. So, the question is, which kind of death?

Bernie offers a symbolic death: join me, in my revolution, we’ll lose ourselves in a rave or ecstasy. We will die trying, but we will die on our terms. Trump offers real death: I’ll poison your water, take your money, but here watch this immigrant die first. You will die, but you’ll have control over who dies first.

And I hate to be a downer in the middle of a fun piece about sex, but Bernie is the symbolic order, and Trump is the real order. Bernie, as long as he does not challenge the Democratic Party, capitalism, and the American Empire, remains a symbolic revolution, a chance only for a lesser death, a failure that feels good. He does not provide the opportunity for real death because he does not offer real revolution and therefore real rebirth is impossible. Trump simply is at the last step: death. Real death. Fast death. And have fun doing it.

If defeating Donald Trump is the real political goal, that road will go through Bernie Sanders. Such a fixation feels like a white flag. After all, is this not just political theatre? Who knows. I refuse cynicism either way. We should both refuse the narrowness of Sanders and the narrowness of defeating Trump while also refusing the cynicism of believing that people coming together to achieve these goals will not be one step closer to the climax we seek. And I actually think electing Sanders and defeating Trump are the same goal. The Democrats are so damn uninspiring, that no other option will do.

On Democracy Now the other day I heard a conservative reference Mr. Sanders’ outdated views on sexuality. They were referencing old essays. These essays are insane! Mr. Sanders, as a young man, clearly had a very different, and very sexual idea of his revolution. Makes me wonder what will happen to me when I age. Makes me wonder too, what kind of quotes could be pulled if I ran for political office!

Still, the essays are worth going into. Clearly America’s young people have a very sexual idea of Mr. Sanders. This is the age demographic who is thinking the most about sex and it clearly has chosen Sanders. It is also the generation most sexually free, although this is complicated too. Mr. Trump does well for the sexually frustrated—controlling husbands, suburban housewives, the socially alienated and angry, and those with a race complex, not to mention daughter complex!

But Sanders speaks to this sexual moment. I don’t think his essays made me like him more. Despite their shocking content, they aren’t that inconsistent with how I imagine him sexually. I did write recently how efforts by heteronormative white women Warren and Clinton to paint Sanders as the traditional man with the phallus simply didn’t work. No, the young people are asking for more from their Daddy these days.

Let’s quote Bernie directly, and then dissect. First off, we see how Bernie developed his Medicare for All plan: “What do you think it really means when 3 doctors, after intense study, write that ‘of the 26 patients (who developed breast cancer) below 51 (years of age), one was sexually adjusted.’ It means, very bluntly, that the manner in which you bring up your daughter with regard to sexual attitudes may very well determine whether or not she will develop breast cancer, among other things.”

What would modern anti-identity politics Bernie say? That corporate greed causes health care disparities? That probably is a more important political point but I like his idea here too. That sexual repression literally leads to cancer in the sexual organs. But would this play well in his base today?

I wonder, and here’s why. I think the #1 appeal of Bernie sexually is that he’s sexually safe. Trust me, from growing up around the Midwest and seeing how miserable everyone is, I think America, and perhaps especially young Americans love to be shamed for sex. Which is why we are constantly confessing it. Foucault is just so essiential on the idea of confession. And he developed his theory before social media, which has only proved him right.

Bernie offers the type of safe sex revolution that tickles your parents but never escapes the repressive apparatus of control adults put on children’s behavior. Bernie: I am doing it (revolution, socialism, etc), I am saying it, stop me, stop me, stop me. It’s a demand to be policed, it’s a source of conflict where all sides are ultimately comfortable.

Take this paradox of modern life: the subject is always confessing their newfound sexuality and yet the sexual satisfaction remains almost entirely in the sphere of the internet and the performative. It is as if the continued discourse and multiplication of sex replaces sex itself. Not just in terms of outward performance, but inward fulfillment.

Such is the same with the Sanders spectacle. Now please be patient here. I say this all as a sexually repressed Sanders supporter myself. How much attention does this guy get for the vote machines screwing him over in Iowa? Ok, it’s horrible, the media hates him, yes, absolutely. But the media hates poor people, the climate, foreigners, trans folks, I mean the list goes on, right? I just find the outrage around Sanders getting screwed to be slightly misplaced? I think we shouldn’t care so much about what the media and billionaires and Clintons have to say. Like their opinion on all things suck, not just on Sanders. I worry that like Trump, Sanders is swallowing up a real moment of universal class warfare here.

And yet, and yet! Let’s not let good be the enemy of great. Yes, we should encourage our young people to develop their own sexuality, even if it’s not sexual fulfillment. Just as we should encourage our young people to go to Sanders, even if it’s not revolution. This is where I have a slight disagreement with the sheepdog narrative. Sure, Sanders himself is a sheepdog, but we aren’t sheep! Who knows what good will come of people joining together? Think of all things as a first step, rather than a replacement for the final solution, and we feel a lot better about any sort of naive exploration. Isn’t that how we all learned who we were?

Back to Sanders, I’m sorry, this is wonderful. Trump could learn something from this: “How much guilt, nervousness have you imbued in your daughter with regard to sex? If she is 16, 3 years beyond puberty and the time which nature set forth for childbearing, and spent a night out with her boyfriend, what is your reaction? Do you take her to a psychiatrist because she is “maladjusted,” or a “prostitute,” or are you happy that she has found someone with whom she can share love? Are you concerned about HER happiness, or about your “reputation” in the community.

With regard to the schools that you send your children to, are you concerned that many of these institutions serve no other function than to squash the life, joy and curiosity out of kids. When a doctor writes that the cancer personality “represses hate, anger, dissatisfaction and grudges, or on the other hand, is a ‘good’ person, who is consumed with self pity, suffers in stoic silence”, do you know what he is talking about, and what this has to do with children, parents, and schools.”

Would Bernie the politician ever say this? That doctors and parents and school and the whole damn system cause cancer? Unlikely. I do think it’s worth noting here, that the policing of the child’s behavior is not so much about reputation of the parent, who is after all secretly proud his child is desired because that means the parent is desired. No, I think, it’s worse. I think the policing of the child is plain and simple: the parent wants the child to themselves. I’m not saying this necessarily manifests itself in physical abuse but if there’s one thing I’ve learned about the way adults treat children is that it generally isn’t about making the adult publicly proud, it is more about the adult having their private desires fulfilled.

Back to Sanders: “All aspects of life are intimately related—and it is only a schizophrenic society such as ours which segregates them and puts them into separate little boxes. We go to school and study ‘education’ and ‘psychology’ and ‘sexuality’ (if it’s a ‘progressive’ school). How absurd: all of life is one and if we want to know, for example, how our nation can napalm children in Vietnam—AND NOT CARE—it is necessary to go well beyond ‘politics.’ We have got to get into the areas of feeling and emotion, pain and love—and how people related to each other and how people shut off their feelings. And all of this takes us way back to our mommies and to the way they dealt with us when we were infants.”

Wow! Which is more a surprise? Sanders saying “mommy” or “napalm”? But once again, he’s spot on. How can we not care? Does this have to do with emotional repression? Is not the purpose of all education and parenting to protect the child—protect the child from the truth about our capitalist imperialist system or else this child would simply self-destruct—the world would become too much to bear.

Yes, I think that’s pretty much it. But in all this effort to control, to keep this one thing innocent for our own gain, don’t we create the repression necessary to repeat the horror? Who is spared? Nobody. The radical argument by Sanders here is that the maladjustment literally kills us.

Now it’s not deadly in the same way Trump’s EPA is. This is the symbolic death, although Sanders is not entirely wrong to link it to the real death. I do wonder if we can trace the Sanders experiment. He moves from cause in his youth (control of young) to result in his old age (corporate capital).

Bernie, the anti-capitalist: “In Vermont, at a state beach, a mother is reprimanded by Authority for allowing her 6 month old daughter to go about without her diapers on. Now, if children go around naked, they are liable to see each others sexual organs, and maybe even touch them. Terrible thing! If we [raise] children up like this it will probably ruin the whole pornography business, not to mention the large segment of the general economy which makes its money by playing on peoples sexual frustrations.” Where did he go?

And then, all of a sudden, he addresses the drive! “The years come and go, the suicide, nervous breakdown, cancer, sexual deadness, heart attack, alcoholism, sensibility at 50. Slow, death, fast, death. DEATH.” This climax, this uncontrollable fit of madness here is just so unlike the coached Sanders of today that has hit the comfort zone of millions of Americans. Give him credit for channeling this energy, but man would it be cool to see him lose control more often.

“The Revolution is coming and it is a very beautiful revolution. It is beautiful because, in its deepest sense, it is quiet, gentle, and all pervasive. It KNOWS. What is most important in this revolution will require no guns, no commandants, no screaming “leaders,” and no vicious publications accusing everyone else of being counter-revolutionary. The revolution comes when two strangers smile at each other, when a father refuses to send his child to school because schools destroy children, when a commune is started and people begin to trust each other, when a young man refuses to go to war, and when a girl pushes aside all that her mother has ‘taught’ her and accepts her boyfriend’s love.

The revolution comes when young people throughout the world take control of their own lives and when people everywhere begin to look each other in the eyes and say hello, without fear. This is the revolution, this is the strength, and with this behind us no politician or general will ever stop us. We shall win.”

Schools destroy children! Yes! Now it’s all about raising teachers salaries. I’m glad, obviously. But we see the cost of compromise. I still wonder if any of the children escape the alienation of capitalism with better payed teachers or even a higher minimum wage. What we need is a full scale global assault on the system that drives a wedge between us, the natural world, and even our own souls. Yes, we have to tear down not just Wall St. but every damn capitalist institution which continues to normalize the present era of cruelty and unhappiness. We must stop this merciless system and tear down every aspect of it, even the parts we like.

I also find the example of a girlfriend pushing aside her mother and joining her boyfriend to be quite amusing as a young man myself. Bernie was feeling the Bern! I especially like the hello without fear. Today every greeting, at least in America, is fearful. We are afraid of love and intimacy and basic decency. We are afraid of respect, fun and most of all joy. And so much of this is repressed into the ultimately meaningless sexual expression that means nothing as long as capitalism still controls the interaction.

Let me elaborate here. I have found America to be a horribly confusing place to grow up in. Like Slavoj Zizek, I felt a tremendous pressure to have sex, and to more generally be “free and open” and all that bullshit. There was always an expectation here in liberal land that one must be completely reckless, have no self-worth, no respect for others, no appreciation for the mundane, no satisfaction within your own skin, we must be constantly performing, especially sexually or else we are supposedly not happy.

But to this I ask, what is happiness? Is it really the endless pursuit of goals that capitalism demands, forcing us to always be busy, always be lacking, always be screwing each other over so we can get what we want, supposedly so badly? Or is happiness mutual love, material stability, and deep purpose?

Then there is the easier to target essay from Sanders, the rape essay. We could actually learn a lot from it. Particularly about the commander in chief, who is a rapist, who was elected likely because, not in spite of, this fact.

First off, let’s give Sanders credit for confronting the violence and the horror head on. “He writes: A man goes home and masturbates his typical fantasy. A woman on her knees, a woman tied up, a woman abused….A woman enjoys intercourse with her man — as she fantasizes being raped by 3 men simultaneously.” Now here we have something radical, which only a few feminists have even stated. Consent isn’t good enough. What are the social expectations and material conditions that problematize a seemingly free interaction under capital?

Ok, a delightful anecdote: “The man and woman get dressed up on Sunday — and go to Church, or maybe to their ‘revolutionary’ political meeting.” Maybe that is where they’re going!

Sanders is so optimistic at the end: “And she said, ‘You wanted me not as a woman, or a lover, or a friend, but as a submissive woman, or submissive friend, or submissive lover…’

“And he said, ‘You’re full of ______.’

“And they never again made love together (which they had each liked to do more than anything) or never saw each other one more time.”” Even in the face of horror, he believes love to be the thing both parties ultimately want. That’s politically incorrect, but it’s the sort of attitude we need if we want to change society. The problem is not just “good and evil” it is the alienation from love itself that creates a context for epidemics of violence. Sanders though has never addressed domestic violence or the horrors of the family in his campaign.

Sanders and Trump, the good and bad Dad double, is a binary worth addressing. Just like any binary, we can recognize it as a binary not only because of differences, but because of similarities. So a quick word In response to homophobia and transphobia. The future is pansexual, pansexuality, pangender. The jailed sexual binary that Mr. Sanders addresses in his essay relies not only on the sexual difference, but sexual similarity. There is an idea that somehow the heterosexual relationship, the family relationship has some form of completion to it. Man completes woman, woman completes man. Together they function fully. Conflict is natural, makes us complete, etc.

Let’s push back on this. I think it is fairly obvious that a certain amount, perhaps an overwhelming amount of similarity is needed for a relationship to function in this way, where the differences are seen to complete each other. If the difference is too wide, there simply is too much to complete. Too much work to do.

Why don’t we fall in love with say, a chair? A chair is much more different than a human than we are from each other. Well, it is because chairs are too different from us. So it becomes upsetting for people when gay or trans people seem too similar, but isn’t this a sort of Goldilocks predicament? Not too different, not too similar, but just right. In fact, we couldn’t even isolate the differences in each other unless we were overwhelmingly similar. That’s how differences seem obvious.

So what actually happens is the difference itself is fetishized and isolated. It becomes a completely narcissistic question: what do I lack? How do I fill it?

How does one describe the appeal of Bernie Sanders? It isn’t, it can’t be, the imperialist capitalist policy that continues to co-opt with the Democratic Party? What’s exciting about that? Yes, take a close look and Bernie is mostly a pop culture sheepdog for the very establishment he rails against. However, this does not mean that America isn’t taking steps forward in its confrontation of class contradictions.

But American elections aren’t about the working class. The working class knows that the only victories are in protest, and that nine times out of ten, there won’t be victories at all.

America has the choice between a Father who says no and a Daddy who says yes. The mainstream media is doing everything in its power to prevent this showdown between Trump and Sanders. Sex is hard to repress. It may be the one thing the oligarchs can’t control. Oh well, that’s just more Daddy for us.

I’d like to purpose a more radical future. Why buy into any version of Daddy? The pansexual revolution seems to be even more inevitable than the communist revolution. Dad will say no, Daddy will say yes, but what do we think? How do we feel? America then is just in its revolutionary puberty, as Daddy Bernie enthusiastically tosses us condoms.

Our purpose is not to continue Daddy’s line, or even our own. Our purpose is to die in the arms of another (or several others), not necessarily in a sexual or literal way but in a radically communal one. Ultimately all progress, all revolution, comes from a death of an old order, and a birth of a new one. The only way to break our own selves, our own perception, our own smallness, is to learn and experience this world, as someone else. From here our fragility and our futility are apparent and revolution is not only easy, it is natural. For we are no longer completing our own lack but adding the lack of the Other. Life multiplies and we feel invincible—and all over again we fall in love with this world. This all must be done soon, before the real death eclipses the symbolic one.

More articles by:

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at pemberton.nick@gmail.com 

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