Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair
The Democratic presidential nomination race is a fascinating case study in how power works – not least, because the Democratic party leaders are visibly contriving to impose one candidate, Joe Biden, as the party’s nominee, even as it becomes clear that he is no longer mentally equipped to run a local table tennis club let alone the world’s most powerful nation.
Biden’s campaign is a reminder that power is indivisible. Donald Trump or Joe Biden for president – it doesn’t matter to the power-establishment. An egomaniacal man-child (Trump), representing the billionaires, or an elder suffering rapid neurological degeneration (Biden), representing the billionaires, are equally useful to power. A woman will do too, or a person of colour. The establishment is no longer worried about who stands on stage – so long as that person is not a Bernie Sanders in the US, or a Jeremy Corbyn in the UK.
It really isn’t about who the candidates are – hurtful as that may sound to some in our identity-saturated times. It is about what the candidate might try to do once in office. In truth, the very fact that nowadays we are allowed to focus on identity to our heart’s content should be warning enough that the establishment is only too keen for us to exhaust our energies in promoting divisions based on those identities. What concerns it far more is that we might overcome those divisions and unify against it, withdrawing our consent from an establishment committed to endless asset-stripping of our societies and the planet.
Neither Biden nor Trump will obstruct the establishment, because they are at its very heart. The Republican and Democratic leaderships are there to ensure that, before a candidate gets selected to compete in the parties’ name, he or she has proven they are power-friendly. Two candidates, each vetted for obedience to power.
Although a pretty face or a way with words are desirable, incapacity and incompetence are no barrier to qualifying, as the two white men groomed by their respective parties demonstrate. Both have proved they will favour the establishment, both will pursue near-enough the same policies, both are committed to the status quo, both have demonstrated their indifference to the future of life on Earth. What separates the candidates is not real substance, but presentation styles – the creation of the appearance of difference, of choice.
Policing the debate
The subtle dynamics of how the Democratic nomination race is being rigged are interesting. Especially revealing are the ways the Democratic leadership protects establishment power by policing the terms of debate: what can be said, and what can be thought; who gets to speak and whose voices are misrepresented or demonised. Manipulation of language is key.
As I pointed out in my previous post, the establishment’s power derives from its invisibility. Scrutiny is kryptonite to power.
The only way we can interrogate power is through language, and the only way we can communicate our conclusions to others is through words – as I am doing right now. And therefore our strength – our ability to awaken ourselves from the trance of power – must be subverted by the establishment, transformed into our Achilles’ heel, a weakness.
The treatment of Bernie Sanders and his supporters by the Democratic establishment – and those who eagerly repeat its talking points – neatly illustrates how this can be done in manifold ways.
Remember this all started back in 2016, when Sanders committed the unforgivable sin of challenging the Democratic leadership’s right simply to anoint Hillary Clinton as the party’s presidential candidate. In those days, the fault line was obvious and neat: Bernie was a man, Clinton a woman. She would be the first woman president. The only party members who might wish to deny her that historic moment, and back Sanders instead, had to be misogynist men. They were supposedly venting their anti-women grudge against Clinton, who in turn was presented to women as a symbol of their oppression by men.
And so was born a meme: the “Bernie Bros”. It rapidly became shorthand for suggesting – contrary to all evidence – that Sanders’ candidacy appealed chiefly to angry, entitled white men. In fact, as Sanders’ 2020 run has amply demonstrated, support for him has been more diverse than for the many other Democratic candidates who sought the nomination.
How contrived the 2016 identity-fuelled contest was should have been clear, had anyone been allowed to point that fact out. This wasn’t really about the Democratic leadership respecting Clinton’s identity as a woman. It was about them paying lip service to her identity as a woman, while actually promoting her because she was a reliable warmonger and Wall Street functionary. She was useful to power.
If the debate had really been driven by identity politics, Sanders had a winning card too: he is Jewish. That meant he could be the United States’ first Jewish president. In a fair identity fight, it would have been a draw between the two. The decision about who should represent the Democratic party would then have had to be decided based on policies, not identity. But party leaders did not want Clinton’s actual policies, or her political history, being put under the microscope for very obvious reasons.
Weaponisation of identity
The weaponisation of identity politics is even more transparent in 2020. Sanders is still Jewish, but his main opponent, Joe Biden, really is simply a privileged white man. Were the Clinton format to be followed again by Democratic officials, Sanders would enjoy an identity politics trump card. And yet Sanders is still being presented as just another white male candidate, no different from Biden.
(We could take this argument even further and note that the other candidate who no one, least of all the Democratic leadership, ever mentions as still in the race is Tulsi Gabbard, a woman of colour. The Democratic party has worked hard to make her as invisible as possible in the primaries because, of all the candidates, she is the most vocal and articulate opponent of foreign wars. That has deprived her of the chance to raise funds and win delegates.)
Sanders’ Jewish identity isn’t celebrated because he isn’t useful to the power-establishment. What’s far more important to them – and should be to us too – are his policies, which might limit their power to wage war, exploit workers and trash the planet.
But it is not just that Democratic Party leaders are ignoring Sanders’ Jewish identity. They are also again actively using identity politics against him, and in many different ways.
The ‘black’ establishment?
Bernie Sanders’ supporters have been complaining for some time – based on mounting evidence – that the Democratic leadership is far from neutral between Sanders and Biden. Because it has a vested interest in the outcome, and because it is the part of the power-establishment, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) is exercising its influence in favour of Biden. And because power prefers darkness, the DNC is doing its best to exercise that power behind the scenes, out of sight – at least, unseen by those who still rely on the “mainstream” corporate media, which is also part of the power-establishment. As should be clear to anyone watching, the nomination proceedings are being controlled to give Biden every advantage and to obstruct Sanders.
But the Democratic leadership is not only dismissing out of hand these very justified complaints from Bernie Sanders’ supporters but also turning these complaints against them, as further evidence of their – and his – illegitimacy. A new way of doing this emerged in the immediate wake of Biden winning South Carolina on the back of strong support from older black voters – Biden’s first state win and a launchpad for his Super Tuesday bid a few days later.
It was given perfect expression from Symone Sanders, who despite her surname is actually a senior adviser to Biden’s campaign. She is also black. This is what she wrote: “People who keep referring to Black voters as ‘the establishment’ are tone deaf and have obviously learned nothing.”
Her reference to generic “people” was understood precisely by both sides of the debate as code for those “Bernie Bros”. Now, it seems, Bernie Sanders’ supporters are not simply misogynists, they are potential recruits to the Ku Klux Klan.
The tweet went viral, even though in the fiercely contested back-and-forth below her tweet no one could produce a single example of anyone actually saying anything like the sentiment ascribed by Symone Sanders to “Bernie Bros”. But then, tackling bigotry was not her real goal. This wasn’t meant to be a reflection on a real-world talking-point by Bernie supporters. It was high-level gaslighting by a senior Democratic party official of the party’s own voters.
Survival of the fittest smear
What Symone Sanders was really trying to do was conceal power – the fact that the DNC is seeking to impose its chosen candidate on party members. As occurred during the confected women-men, Clinton vs “Bernie Bros” confrontation, Symone Sanders was field-testing a similar narrative management tool as part of the establishment’s efforts to hone it for improved effect. The establishment has learnt – through a kind of survival of the fittest smear – that divide-and-rule identity politics is the perfect way to shield its influence as it favours a status-quo candidate (Biden or Clinton) over a candidate seen as a threat to its power (Sanders).
In her tweet, Symone Sanders showed exactly how the power elite seeks to obscure its toxic role in our societies. She neatly conflated “the establishment” – of which she is a very small, but well-paid component – with ordinary “black voters”. Her message is this: should you try to criticise the establishment (which has inordinate power to damage lives and destroy the planet) we will demonise you, making it seem that you are really attacking black people (who in the vast majority of cases – though Symone Sanders is a notable exception – wield no power at all).
Symone Sanders has recruited her own blackness and South Carolina’s “black voters” as a ring of steel to protect the establishment. Cynically, she has turned poor black people, as well as the tens of thousands of people (presumably black and white) who liked her tweet, into human shields for the establishment.
It sounds a lot uglier put like that. But it has rapidly become a Biden talking-point, as we can see here:
The DNC’s wider strategy is to confer on Biden exclusive rights to speak for black voters (despite his inglorious record on civil rights issues) and, further, to strip Sanders and his senior black advisers of any right to do so. When Sanders protests about this, or about racist behaviour from the Biden camp, Biden’s supporters come out in force and often abusively, though of course no one is upbraiding them for their ugly, violent language. Here is the famous former tennis player Martina Navratilova showing that maybe we should be talking about “Biden Bros”:
Being unkind to billionaires
This kind of special pleading by the establishment for the establishment – using those sections of it, such as Symone Sanders, that can tap into the identity politics zeitgeist – is far more common than you might imagine. The approach is being constantly refined, often using social media as the ultimate focus group. Symone Sanders’ successful conflation of the establishment with “black voters” follows earlier, clumsier efforts by the establishment to protect its interests against Sanders that proved far less effective.
Remember how last autumn the billionaire-owned corporate media tried to tell us that it was unkind to criticise billionaires – that they had feelings too and that speaking harshly about them was “dehumanising”. Again it was aimed at Sanders, who had just commented that in a properly ordered world billionaires simply wouldn’t exist. It was an obvious point: allowing a handful of people to control almost all the planet’s wealth was not only depriving the rest of us of that wealth (and harming the planet) but it gave those few billionaires way too much power. They could buy all the media, our channels of communication, and most of the politicians to ringfence their financial interests, gradually eroding even the most minimal democratic protections.
That campaign died a quick death because few of us are actually brainwashed enough to accept the idea that a handful of billionaires share an identity that needs protecting – from us! Most of us are still connected enough to the real world to understand that billionaires are more than capable of looking out for their own interests, without our helping them by imposing on ourselves a vow of silence.
But one cannot fault the power-establishment for being constantly inventive in the search for new ways to stifle our criticisms of the way it unilaterally exercises its power. The Democratic nomination race is testing such ingenuity to the limits. Here’s a new rule against “hateful conduct” on Twitter, where Biden’s neurological deficit is being subjected to much critical scrutiny through the sharing of dozens of videos of embarrassing Biden “senior moments”.
Yes, disability and age are identities too. And so, on the pretext of protecting and respecting those identities, social media can now be scrubbed of anything and anyone trying to highlight the mental deficiencies of an old man who might soon be given the nuclear codes and would be responsible for waging wars in the name of Americans. Twitter is full of comments denouncing as “ableist” anyone who tries to highlight how the Democratic leadership is foisting a cognitively challenged Biden on to the party.
Russian ‘agents’ and ‘assets’
None of this is to overlook the fact that another variation of identity politics has been weaponised against Sanders: that of failing to be an “American” patriot. Again illustrating how closely the Democratic and Republican leaderships’ interests align, the question of who is a patriot – and who is really working for the “Russians” – has been at the heart of both parties’ campaigns, though for different reasons.
Trump has been subjected to endless, evidence-free claims that he is a secret “Russian agent” in a concerted effort to control his original isolationist foreign policy impulses that might have stripped the establishment – and its military-industrial wing – of the right to wage wars of aggression, and revive the Cold War, wherever it believes a profit can be made under cover of “humanitarian intervention”. Trump partly inoculated himself against these criticisms, at least among supporters, with his “Make America Great Again” slogan, and partly by learning – painfully for such an egotist – that his presidential role was to rubber-stamp decisions made elsewhere about waging wars and projecting US power.
Bernie Sanders has faced similar smear efforts by the establishment, including by the DNC’s last failed presidential candidate Hillary Clinton – in his case, painting him as a “Russian asset”. (“Asset” is a way to suggest collusion with the Kremlin based on even more flimsy evidence than is needed to accuse someone of being an agent.) In fact, in a world where identity politics wasn’t simply a tool to be weaponised by the establishment, there would be real trepidation about engaging in this kind of invective against a Jewish socialist.
One of the far-right’s favourite antisemitic tropes – promoted ever since the publication of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion more than 100 years ago – is that Jewish “Bolsheviks” are involved in an international conspiracy to subvert the countries they live in. We have reached the point now that the corporate media are happy to recycle evidence-free claims, cited by the Washington Post, from anonymous “US officials” and US intelligence agencies reinventing a US version of the Protocols against Sanders. And these smears have elicited not a word of criticism from the Democratic leadership nor from the usual antisemitism watchdogs that are so ready to let rip over the slightest signs of what they claim to be antisemitism on the left.
But the urgency of dealing with Sanders may be the reason normal conventions have been discarded. Sanders isn’t a loud-mouth egotist like Trump. A vote for Trump is a vote for the establishment, if for one of its number who pretends to be against the establishment. Trump has been largely tamed in time for a second term. By contrast, Sanders, like Corbyn in the UK, is more dangerous because he may resist the efforts to domesticate him, and because if he is allowed any significant measure of political success – such as becoming a candidate for president – it may inspire others to follow in his footsteps. The system might start to throw up more anomalies, more AOCs and more Ilhan Omars.
So Sanders is now being cast, like Trump, as a puppet of the Kremlin, not a true American. And because he made the serious mistake of indulging the “Russiagate” smears when they were used against Trump, Sanders now has little defence against their redeployment against him. And given that, by the impoverished standards of US political culture, he is considered an extreme leftist, it has been easy to conflate his democratic socialism with Communism, and then conflate his supposed Communism with acting on behalf of the Kremlin (which, of course, ignores the fact that Russia long ago abandoned Communism).
Antisemitism smear at the ready
There is a final use of weaponised identity politics that the Democratic establishment would dearly love to use against Sanders, if they need to and can get away with it. It is the most toxic brand – and therefore the most effective – of the identity-based smears, and it has been extensively field-tested in the UK against Jeremy Corbyn to great success. The DNC would like to denounce Sanders as an antisemite.
In fact, only one thing has held them back till now: the fact that Sanders is Jewish. That may not prove an insuperable obstacle, but it does make it much harder to make the accusation look credible. The other identity-based smears had been a second-best, a make-do until a way could be found to unleash the antisemitism smear.
The establishment has been testing the waters with implied accusations of antisemitism against Sanders for a while, but their chances were given a fillip recently when Sanders refused to participate in the annual jamboree of AIPAC, the American Israel Public Affairs Committee, a prominent lobby group whose primary mission is to ringfence Israel from criticism in the US. Both the Republican and Democratic establishments turn out in force to the AIPAC conference, and in the past the event has attracted keynote speeches from Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.
But Sanders has refused to attend for decades and maintained that stance this month, even though he is a candidate for the Democratic nomination. In the last primaries debate, Sanders justified his decision by rightly calling Israel’s prime minister Benjamin Netanyahu a “racist” and by describing AIPAC as providing a platform “for leaders who express bigotry and oppose basic Palestinian rights”.
Trump’s Vice-President, Mike Pence, responded that Sanders supported “Israel’s enemies” and, if elected, would be the “most anti-Israel president in the history of this nation” – all coded suggestions that Sanders is antisemitic.
But that’s Mike Pence. More useful criticism came from billionaire Mike Bloomberg, who is himself Jewish and was until last week posing as a Democrat to try to win the party’s nomination. Bloomberg accused Sanders of using dehumanising language against a bunch of inclusive identities that, he improbably suggested, AIPAC represents. He claimed:
“This is a gathering of 20,000 Israel supporters of every religious denomination, ethnicity, faith, color, sexual identity and political party. Calling it a racist platform is an attempt to discredit those voices, intimidate people from coming here, and weaken the US-Israel relationship.”
Where might this head? At the AIPAC conference last week we were given a foretaste. Ephraim Mirvis, the chief rabbi of the UK and a friend to Conservative government leader Boris Johnson, was warmly greeted by delegates, including leading members of the Democratic establishment. He boasted that he and other Jewish leaders in the UK had managed to damage Jeremy Corbyn’s electoral chances by suggesting that he was an antisemite over his support, like Sanders, for Palestinian rights.
His own treatment of Corbyn, he argued, offered a model for US Jewish organisations to replicate against any leadership contender who might pose similar trouble for Israel, leaving it for his audience to pick up the not-so-subtle hint about who needed to be subjected to character assassination.
For anyone who isn’t wilfully blind, the last few months have exposed the establishment playbook: it will use identity politics to divide those who might otherwise find a united voice and a common cause.
There is nothing wrong with celebrating one’s identity, especially if it is under threat, maligned or marginalised. But having an attachment to an identity is no excuse for allowing it to be coopted by billionaires, by the powerful, by nuclear-armed states oppressing other people, by political parties or by the corporate media, so that they can weaponise it to prevent the weak, the poor, the marginalised from being represented.
It is time for us to wake up to the tricks, the deceptions, the manipulations of the strong that exploit our weaknesses – and make us yet weaker still. It’s time to stop being a patsy for the establishment.