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Sanders v. Warren: Why It Still Matters

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

When the body politic suffers severe trauma, there will be people yearning for a return to “normalcy.” Their efforts almost always turn out poorly.

Voters who see in Joe Biden, of all people, a chance to return to the normalcy of the Obama era – the normalcy of President Drone, the Deporter-in-Chief and Best Friend Forever of Wall Street and corporate America – are a case in point. Expect their buyer’s remorse to be monumental.

However, if the forces brought to life through the Sanders insurgency play their cards right, the Biden victory could actually have redeeming political consequences. It could lead eventually to the emergence of a genuine Left Opposition in the political mainstream, either within the fold of the Democratic Party or, better, apart from it.

The Trump trauma that is a root cause of the justly despised Democratic Party establishment’s ability to defeat the Sanders insurgency is now entangled with the coronavirus trauma.

For that, it is hard to imagine redeeming features in the offing, except perhaps for improvements in personal hygiene and in the nation’s health disaster management infrastructure.

With that plague raging and about to become even worse, it has become difficult even to think about the electoral circus. However, its vicissitudes and trajectories and the coronavirus crisis are now effectively melded together – in ways that make it more important than ever to think about how we got to a point where the awful choices voters faced in 2016 will be even more awful in 2020. Gaining some purchase on that question can be helpful for figuring out “what is to be done?” now.

***

The sad fact is that, for Americans who want to change the political economy of the country for the better in more than superficial ways, the Democratic Party is both an insurmountable obstacle and an indispensable means. Progressives – the radical, not the goody-goody Pelosiite, kind — can’t live with it, but can’t abandon it either without becoming politically marginal.

It is like a bad marriage without the possibility of divorce.

However, circumstances change. Thus, in Catholic countries decades ago, marriages were for life, but while there was death there was hope and, for those with enough money and status, annulments could happen.

For progressives currently stuck in the Democratic Party, Republican – specifically, Trumpian — incompetence may now be providing something like a functional equivalent of a knock-down case for annulling a marriage.

This has only become clear in the past few weeks as a previously unknown virus, against which there is no herd immunity and, perhaps for a year or more, no vaccine — has given rise to a global pandemic, creating tumultuous disruptions of ordinary life the world over.

In retrospect, though, it is plain that, at least since 9/11, there have been reasons for thinking that Republican incompetence just might be salient enough to alter the troubled relationship between progressives and the Democratic Party.

Thanks to the Trump administration’s extreme incompetence in dealing with the covid-19 pandemic, and thanks to Trump’s moronic, self-congratulatory bluster, those reasons have become increasingly evident.

Trump himself may not quite get it, but some of the people around him seem to be coming to the realization that he is digging his own grave. Increasingly many Senate and House Republicans are starting to get it too.

Democratic Party donors and grandees, determined to hold onto their power, would just as soon not dwell on the ways that the coronavirus has been bad news for the Donald, inasmuch as fear of a Trump victory was their main weapon against their party’s leftwing. Many of them have no doubt realized all along that Trump has been busy from Day One turning himself into a Paper Tiger. But, even now, they are determined to keep that realization to themselves.

Tragically, rank-and-file Democrats and independents, suffering from “Trump Derangement Syndrome,” remain largely in the dark, even now with the coronavirus crisis on full blast.

They seem to have decided months ago that Biden was the candidate most capable of sending Trump packing; and, though they could hardly have been more wrong, they are sticking with their choice, no matter how preposterous it may be. It is hard to make Hillary Clinton look good, but the doddering doofus is more than up to the task.

Even Trump’s handling of this latest crisis seems not to have affected their determination to regard Biden as the nation’s savior. Could it be that they are nincompoops who see in their candidate a reflection of themselves? Or are they just slow to appreciate how much Trump’s rank incompetence has expanded the boundaries of political feasibility?

Before Trump, there were only intimations of the depth and extent of Republican incompetence that could be easily ignored or glossed over.

Now, with the pandemic changing everything, the facts have become too evident to deny, except perhaps to Democratic voters too obtuse to acknowledge what is staring them in the face.

One would think that extreme inconvenience, significant illness, and premature death — not in distant corners of the world, but in one’s own front yard – would concentrate the mind; apparently, this is not always the case.

***

Republican incompetence didn’t cause the 9/11 attacks on the Pentagon and World Trade Center, but it did play a role in allowing it to happen. There were, after all, plenty of indications that something was afoot, and there were ample warnings from the intelligence services and from Bill Clinton and his national security team, but George W. Bush and Dick Cheney chose to pay them all no heed.

9/11 changed America profoundly, but changes to daily life were slow in coming, and those of us who ought to have seen how far-reaching the social and political consequences of those changes would be were more interested in explaining how 9/11 or something like it was all but inevitable “blowback” from American depredations in the historically Muslim world.

The implication was that 9/11 was unlikely to change America all that much. We were right, of course, about the blowback, but wrong about what it implied.

Assuming that civilization survives global warming, Cold War mongering, and Donald Trump, I would venture that future historians will likely marvel at how little concern was voiced at the time and subsequently about the competency of persons in the Bush government tasked with maintaining the security of what we have now come to call “the homeland.”

The response to Hurricane Katrina that Bush would go on to manage exhibited incompetence even more blatantly. Its consequences were more salient too, but only for people living through it directly or, to a lesser degree, following events closely on TV. It was the same only more so with Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico.

Katrina hit the US mainland directly – but its most dire victims were economically desperate African Americans in New Orleans and its environs. It was clear at the time, and has become even clearer since, that Bush and Cheney could have cared less about them.

Maria, which happened on Trump’s watch, mainly ravaged Puerto Rico. Trump doesn’t just not care about Puerto Ricans; he seems to harbor some animus against them. How could he not? They may be American citizens, but they are latinxs, after all.

However, once it dawned on the Donald that there would likely be substantial numbers of defectors, even from his hardcore base, if the virus crisis gets even worse than it already is, and if it shows no sign of subsiding anytime soon, and once he realized that he had better listen at least somewhat to what people who know what they are talking about were telling him, he, and the sycophants who follow his every word, flip-flopped so fast that even George Orwell would have been astonished.

The Comintern’s contradictory responses to the fascist menace in the twenties and thirties – spanning the gamut from attacks on Social Democrats or, as they called them, “social fascists” to the popular front alliance of all anti-fascist political formations, and then to the Hitler-Stalin pact and its demise with the German invasion of the USSR – took place in slow motion by comparison.

But now, or at least as of this fleeting moment, Trump, with his propagandists at Fox News and elsewhere in tow, has at least stopped calling the crisis “fake news” and claiming that it is a Democratic plot against him.

Needless to say, though, inasmuch as he is anchored only by political expediency, and is in thrall to delusions about the sheer wonderfulness of his own “amazing” intuitions, he could revert back to his old ways at any time.

However, even if he does remain ever so slightly tethered to reality from this point on, Trump is still far from exercising the kind of leadership that the situation he helped bring on, or rather made worse than it might otherwise have been, calls for.

This all but assures that the extra measure of discredit the he has brought upon himself and his administration since the crisis erupted is unlikely to dissipate any time soon.

And so, Trump is even more likely than he was a few weeks ago to come out of this electoral cycle a loser. This would – or rather should — make “electability” a less important consideration in choosing a nominee then it used to be.

Too late, though; we’re stuck with Biden. There is, therefore, nothing to do but make the best of it.

Every cloud has a silver lining, however; this one’s is that defeating Trump is now, as it were, easier peasier than it would otherwise be.

Even with Biden for a standard-bearer, and even if lockdowns and social distancing are bitter memories by the time election day comes around, everyone will still be in varying ways discomfited by the way that Trump and his minions have dealt with the crisis.

Also, the economy will almost certainly still be in dire straits, leaving the Donald with no straws to grasp besides his appeal to the darkest side of human nature.

In short, even with Biden as the nominee, and notwithstanding the Democrats’ penchant for turning sure victories into shameful defeats, Trump is on his way to becoming toast.

Thus, the coronavirus news is not all horrific; some good can come of it.

But Democrats will be defeating Trump by relaunching the very politics that made Trump or someone like him all but inevitable. Add that to the bad news column.

But there is a possible silver lining even there. If they set about it wisely, Sanders and his dedicated supporters, working on behalf of true progressives running down-ticket and in the states, should be able to affect political outcomes in the years ahead at least as effectively as they would have been able to do were Sanders to have become the nominee.

A President Sanders would be mostly hamstrung without a supportive political party behind him. The actually existing Democratic Party is emphatically not that; and even with Sanders at the head of the ticket, and Biden back out at pasture where he ought to be, the 2020 election would be unlikely to change that situation nearly enough.

It is, of course, worth trying to change things at the top, but a more effective course to follow, in the circumstances that currently obtain, maybe to work to build a powerful, principled, and militant Left Opposition within the otherwise Bidenesque – or what comes to more or less same thing, Clintonite or Obamaphiliac — Democratic Party.

Because building that opposition is as important as it is, it is timely still, perhaps even more than ever, to reflect on the Sanders v. Warren question, notwithstanding how it has recently become moot.

Except for what it shows about the exercise of power in Democratic Party politics today, the Sanders v. Biden question is of little interest in its own right.

Sanders is as good as mainstream politicians get under current conditions, and Biden is bad news all around. There is no point in mulling over his thinking; the man is a smirking, rightwing nitwit.

On the other hand, the Sanders v. Warren question can be of great use for determining what is to be done – everywhere but at the top of the ticket, where the wisest course may just be to avert one’s gaze.

Paradoxically, in these circumstances, now is a time for the Sanders insurgency to ramp up, not close down. The best thing Sanders can do now is to keep at it – either by staying in the race as long as he possibly can or, if it seems like a more effective path, by chipping away at Bidenism from outside the tent.

If that makes the Democratic Party’s bloviating flacks at MSNBC and CNN unhappy, it would be icing on the cake.

***

All things considered, I would much prefer that Sanders were the nominee, not Warren; though, unlike any of the more plausible “moderates” who were running, she would have been perfectly acceptable.

My reasons for holding this view are germane to questions about what is to be done now; about how, for want of a better alternative, efforts to build a Left Opposition within the Democratic Party should proceed.

Before turning to that problem, however, I would note two pertinent considerations that favor Warren over Sanders. Also, for the umpteenth time, I will briefly revisit “the glass ceiling” question, a red herring that cannot be avoided until a woman actually does become president.

One reason to favor Warren over Sanders is that she is eight years his junior. This would hardly matter except that when people are in their seventies and eighties, a few years difference can be as important as when they are in their teens and twenties. The question is not who has their act together better now; in that respect, unlike Biden, they are both perfectly fine. But who knows how they will be in four or eight years’ time.

All we can say for sure is that eight years from now Warren will be roughly the age that Sanders now is; this is worth considering.

To be sure, age is only one of many factors determining fitness for office. Trump is three years older than Warren, but she is fit as a fiddle, while he is borderline non-compos mentis. Sanders and Biden are only a year or so apart in age, but Sanders is still many times more astute than Biden ever was, while, from the looks of thigs, Biden is well on his way to Reagan-like senility.

Nevertheless, there is much to be said for going with the odds, and they favor Warren – not by a whole lot, but by a non-trivial amount. With life, as with the coronavirus; for anyone past middle age, each additional year brings increased susceptibility to debilitating illnesses and death.

Also, with Trump and his soulmates having brought anti-Semitism back from the dead, along with all the rest they have done to make America hate again, another reason for favoring Warren over Sanders is that a WASP from Oklahoma, with or without a few traceable Cherokee genes, is less likely to rattle the cages of Trumpian deplorables than an elderly Jewish socialist with a Brooklyn accent.

Then, there is that glass ceiling. Talk of it had waned since 2016, but when Elizabeth Warren pulled out of the race, it came bounding back. That was not entirely Warren’s doing, but she did encourage it somewhat.

Glass ceiling jibber-jabber is a big part of Hillary Clinton’s legacy.

In accounting for her loss to Trump, the idea that the country was not yet ready for a woman president, that there is an infrangible glass ceiling keeping women from holding that office, was one of the excuses that Clinton and her supporters used to direct blame away from herself and her politics.

The kindest term for this line of argument is: hooey.

We haven’t yet had a woman president not because the country hasn’t been ready, but because, we change presidents so infrequently and because, before 2016, no suitable woman had been ready at the right time. Of all the many reasons why Hillary lost to Trump, the country’s readiness for a woman in the White House hardly figures at all.

Running against Trump, she got the most votes by some three million or more. She lost, however, because the United States is encumbered constitutionally by the Electoral College, an institution concocted mainly to keep slave owners happy and on board when the Constitution was written some two and a third centuries earlier. Thanks to the way Electoral College votes are apportioned, Clinton didn’t get enough of them.

She also lost because she ran a poor campaign, and because she turned many voters off with her and her husband’s – and, since she was his Secretary of State, Barack Obama’s — neoliberal and liberal imperialist politics.

And she lost because, also like Obama and her husband, she was too corporate and Wall Street friendly.

Her private parts didn’t figure in most voters’ deliberations at all.

All over the world, even in countries where patriarchal attitudes are more extreme and deeply entrenched than in the United States, women have shown themselves to be every bit as electable as men.

By world standards, the United States has generally been a leader in promoting sexual equality; why would it be uniquely backward in this one respect?

And why, when women face few, if any, obstacles attaining other high-power, traditionally male-dominated, offices, would the presidency be uniquely out of bounds. Could it be because the office is so special, so preternaturally august?

When Clinton and her team concocted the glass ceiling excuse, it was still not too unreasonable to draw, implicitly, on that notion. After Trump, this is no longer so; where the White House is concerned, Trump has made it too hard to deny that the scum rises to the top.

I cannot prove it, of course, but I would venture that a woman could have been elected president at any time from the early eighties on, or perhaps even before that. Walter Mondale didn’t pick Geraldine Ferraro for a running mate in 1984 because he wanted to lose.

Neither did “maverick” John McCain pick Sarah Palin in 2008 so that he would lose to Barack Obama.

Contrary to what liberals today seem to think, McCain was no hero and certainly no genius; and, in the end, Palin turned out to be such a piece of work that she hurt the ticket more than she helped it But where McCain went wrong was not in thinking that, as a woman, she could help him win; it was in not vetting her adequately.

Needless to say, there are plenty of voters for whom a candidate’s gender is an issue. It is plain as can be, however, that, among them, the misogynists comprise a tiny minority; for most voters, being a woman is a plus.

I think they are right about that, but not so much for the sake of the little girls that Warren made so much of with her pinky swears, but because, until a woman becomes president, concerns about candidates’ gender will swamp concerns about their politics.

On this, again as with preparations for combatting the coronavirus, we Americans are way behind other countries. We need to get past that, as soon as possible, but not too much at the expense of what matters a lot more. That would be to coin a phrase, with apologies to James Carville and in the spirit of Plagiarism Joe: it’s the politics, stupid.

In short, the main problem with the class ceiling argument is not that there is so little substance behind it, but that it deflects attention away from a genuinely important and timely discussion that everyone trying to make sense of what actually is going on, the better to figure out what to do about it, ought urgently to engage.

***

Why, then, did Warren’s campaign fall behind Sanders’ in what she and others call “the progressive lane?” She was ahead of Sanders in that lane at first, but then, by Fall, he overtook her – for two reasons of particular pertinence that make him the better choice.

The first is that, whether they realize it or not, quite a few voters’ grievances have more to do with the prevailing political economic system – if not with capitalism generally, then with the prevailing form of it — than with particular policies that they do not like. This is undoubtedly the case with many Trump voters as well.

Sanders’ political line is counter-systemic – verbally, but also to some extent substantively too.

This is why, though he is more of a twenty-first century version of a New Deal-Great Society liberal or an American version of a mid-twentieth century European social democrat than a socialist according to the usual understandings of that term, his sympathies and convictions are generally in line with those of the socialist movement of the past two hundred years.

Although, at a policy level, there has never been much light between Sanders and Warren, no one could say that about her.

Sanders’ “political revolution” hardly resembles the great social and political upheavals that transformed the world from the seventeenth through the twentieth centuries. It is not about anything like storming the Bastille or the Winter Palace. Nevertheless, it is, in its own way, revolutionary, just as Sanders claims.

Warren’s plans for dealing with a vast panoply of problems are more technocratic in spirit; they are about fixing kinks in the prevailing system and correcting for some of its more deleterious effects. She wants to make actually existing capitalism work better for “working families,” not to build a new world on the ashes of the old; her aim is not so much to replace the old regime as to make it more humane.

In practice, over the next one or two presidential terms, the difference would likely be nil. From a more future-oriented, dynamic perspective, however, it could be significant.

Over the next four or eight years, the best we could ever have hoped for at an institutional or policy level, under either Sanders or Warren, would be capitalism with a more human face. But the future lasts a lot longer than that. With that thought in mind, it is fair to say that, when Sanders calls himself a “socialist,” and when Warren declares her opposition to socialism and her support for capitalism, they are not just blowing air.

Another reason to prefer Sanders over Warren is that, despite her having been a Republican in an earlier life, Warren is now a true-blue Democrat. Sanders’ connection to the Democratic Party, much like Trump’s connection to the GOP, is very different; it is basically opportunistic.

This might seem like a distinction without a difference, inasmuch as ninety-nine percent of the time, the real-world consequences of Sanders’ opportunism put him and Warren in more or less the same place. If Warren means what she says, she is happy to be there. For Sanders, it is more a matter of grudging acquiescence.

Not acquiescing is more intellectually honest, more honorable. But it also guarantees marginalization.

We know in retrospect that had Sanders not done so much for Hillary after he bowed out of the 2016 race, his “political revolution” would now be more dead than “hope and change” soon became after Obama took office. He would forever be blamed for Trump’s victory, just as Ralph Nader is still blamed for George W. Bush’s.

This would make him all but useless for forging a Left Opposition capable of outlasting the current crises, and for dealing forthrightly with their effects.

Who knows how much the coronavirus will change things as its effects wane.

The one sure thing is that Trump will use that crisis as an excuse for getting what he otherwise could not; for “bailing out” his corporate cronies, sealing the borders, and perhaps even delaying elections or not honoring their results.

Even before the coronavirus crisis erupted, there was reason to fear that Trump would not cede power voluntarily. With the virus on peoples’ minds, he may come to the view that he has a pretext he could deploy to that end.

Democrats happy that Biden will be their nominee might find it worthwhile to ask him what he would do should Trump try anything like that as his term expires.

Warren would have a plan for that; and Sanders could be counted on, if necessary, to go down fighting. Either way would probably be good enough. Perhaps even Biden, with the right backing, could get past that problem, should it arise.

But then, once Trump is dispatched, the real struggle will begin – to rid the world not just of Trump and Trumpism, but also of the conditions that brought the Trumpian trauma on. A technocratic fix for the conditions that brought the coronavirus crisis on may be just what the doctor ordered, but for Trumpism, with or without the Donald, a technocratic fix is not nearly enough.

Sanders’ counter-systemic radicalism, pumped up to a deeper, more far-reaching – more socialist – level, just might be.

To that end, given the institutions that encumber us, the best we now can do is build a true Left Opposition, grounded more in Bernie-style than Warren-style politics. That would be, by far, the best feasible way forward.

Meanwhile, Biden’s way is no way at all. However, to get beyond it, we have no choice, for the time being, but to live with it; taking solace in the fact, much appreciated by women and men in unhappy marriages in times and places where the civil and ecclesiastical authorities forbid divorce, that circumstances do eventually change.

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ANDREW LEVINE is the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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