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John Prine and Bernie Sanders: Honoring Two Men Just Brought Down by the Coronavirus Pandemic

Two hugely important people were taken down by COVID-19 this past week. Both have left a legacy, the importance of which cannot be ignored.

John Prine

The first struck down last week is one of the greatest modern songwriters of my lifetime, John Prine. One of my favorite musicians, Prine was a humble, funny and extremely deep and sometimes powerfully political folk musician who had the remarkable ability to infuse his songs with all those characteristics at the same time. He had an ability to could sing about the human condition and about political reality with the same conversational ease, and even to get you to laugh through tears at tragedy.

Prine died of complications from the Coronavirus at 73, an age that was far too young for life to be over, but that was old enough to make him especially vulnerable to COVID-19, even without his also having lungs that were damaged by years of smoking and by a lung cancer and neck cancer both of which he had managed to beat.

Prine will live on through an astonishingly huge trove of songs he wrote and performed himself, which will surely be covered, as most have been already, by hundreds and thousands of musicians, famous and amateur, for decades and generations to come.

Here is a playable list of just 25 of them performed by Prine himself.

Bernie Sanders

The second to go down this past week was Bernie Sanders, the crusty 79-year-old fiercely independent Senator from the state of Vermont who for the second time in four years tried to take on and take over the ossified and corrupt Democratic Party by competing in the nation’s Democratic Party primaries for the presidential nomination. Sanders didn’t die of the Coronavirus, but the pandemic it caused made it impossible for him and his supporters to campaign and make his case for the nomination in remaining primaries in the only way possible in the face of a savagely hostile media and Democratic Party establishment.

For a while last year, after first being ignored by the media again, just as they did early in his primary campaign in 2016, Sanders this time around caught fire. He was aided by the surprisingly large number of other more centrist candidates who also entered the race — everyone from former VP Joe Biden and multi-billionaire Mike Bloomberg to Sen. Elizabeth “Capitalist-to-my-Bones” Warren and tech entrepreneur Andrew Yang. Their numbers divided the votes that didn’t go to Sanders allowing him to be the leader in polls and later in early primaries.

Declaring presciently, a year before the country was slammed and brought to almost a standstill by the Coronavirus pandemic, that the country wanted and desperately needed to scrap its profit-driven train wreck of a healthcare “system” in favor of declaring medical care a universal human right, Sanders called for a government-run, taxpayer-funded insurance program he called Medicare for All that would provide free-at-point-of-service care as needed to all Americans. He also argued that student debt, now at $1.6 trillion and rising, should be cancelled, that all public colleges should be a tuition-free public good, and that the country should go all-out to combat climate change with a goal of eliminating carbon-based fuels, and including a Green New Deal that would replace lost jobs in non-CO2-producing industries.

So popular was his call for these New Deal-like programs, most of which, he noted on the campaign trail, were already being applied to varying degrees in democratic-socialist countries in Europe and elsewhere, that Sanders stunned Democratic Party leaders and the liberal media commentariat by leading in national polls and by winning primaries — first in Iowa, though the incompetence and machinations of the party machine nationally and in Iowa itself kept that from being known for critical months of the campaign — then in Vermont and then, by a big margin, in Nevada. By that point, terrified party leaders in the Democratic National Committee, the halls of Congress and their allies in the newsmedia, began to warn that it looked like Sanders was becoming unstoppable. With  New York Times polling guru Nate Silver claiming Sanders had a better than 70% chance of winning an incontestable first ballot at the convention, desperate public calls began to “Stop Sanders!”

Former New York Mayor Mike Bloomberg was encouraged by DNC leaders to enter the primaries midway into the primary season, beginning with a big batch of contests in states across the South and in California, known as “Super Tuesday.” Bloomberg began spending not just millions but tens and hundreds of millions on glitzy Madison Avenue-produced political ads reminiscent of the stuff you see at halftime in the Super Bowl. Other minor candidates were pressured to drop out and thus stop dividing the vote among so many of Sanders’ competitors. Many did so. So did some more serious contenders, no doubt under pressure too from the DNC. While Sanders was polling ahead of Trump nationally, and specifically among the unaffiliated voters who will decide the election in November (since it’s clear nearly all Republicans will vote for Trump and virtually all Democrats will vote against Trump and for whatever candidate gets the nomination at the Democratic Convention), the media kept hammering the theme, echoed by Sanders’ lackluster opponents, that he “could not win” a national election running as a “democratic socialist.”

It got so bad that candidates in several nationally televised debates, notably corporate hack Biden and uber-capitalist Bloomberg, were allowed to red-bait Sanders, suggesting that he was a communist or communist sympathizer. Debate moderators from CNN, ABC and NBC accommodatingly teed up questions about “how are you going to pay for the $50-trillion cost of Medicare?” Over and over they wouldn’t allow Sanders time to point out that this absurdly high number is the estimated cost of publicly funded health care over the course of a decade now under the current system, that it doesn’t include cost reductions that a national government would be able to negotiate as the sole purchaser of health care goods and services, and that in any case every other developed country in the world, all of which have publicly funded health care of some kind covering everyone, does so at half or less what health care in the US costs — and that the US system leaves over 80 million Americans unable to afford to go to the hospital for to see a doctor.

It was a repeated gang-bang on Sanders.

In the face of this onslaught, and with the help of a timely endorsement— just before the South Carolina primary and Super Tuesday — by black Congressman Jim Clyburn, the senior member of that state’s congressional delegation and a man hugely popular among the black voters who make up the majority of South Carolina’s Democratic party membership, Sanders was trounced by Biden in South Carolina.

Off of that rigged loss, which was clearly orchestrated by pressures from a desperate DLC, Sanders was left looking beatable, which was the key issue for the black voters are a key constituency across the majority-Republican states of the South and who are also a significant part of the party in Texas. (Since Democrats cannot win state government control in the states of the old Confederacy, the African American voters in those states feel powerfully the need to have a Democrat in the White House to protect their lives and interests, and when it comes down to it, want a Democrat — any Democrat — to be the candidate who is most likely to win the presidency. This is particularly true this year with Trump as the incumbent.)

Not surprisingly, Sanders fared poorly on Super Tuesday in all the Southern states, where again, black voters are preponderant in the Democratic Party, and with Biden the only other game in town, he morphed from being a pathetic has-been about to have to leave the race in the event of an expected loss or just narrow win in South Carolina, to the candidate with momentum and a virtual lock on the nomination. From that point on Sanders was effectively finished. It was an almost uncanny turnaround of fortune.

The Pandemic Killed the Sanders Campaign

But while an all-out attack on Sanders by the DLC and Party Establishment was to be expected, and shows how terrifying his campaign was to that establishment, what was not in the cards was the arrival of the pandemic in late February, when increasing numbers of Americans began to contract and to die from the disease.  By early March, state primary after state primary began to be moved back to June because of fears of spreading contagion if people had to go to public voting locations, and if candidate continued to hold large rallies — a staple especially of the Sanders campaign.

The Sanders campaign, built around on a ground game that relied on young, enthusiastic volunteers who were going door-to-door, quickly petered out when social distancing became the paradigm for fighting the pandemic. What few primaries were held after March 3 were lackluster affairs in which TV and internet ads provided all the information. A single debate between Sanders and Biden in advance of the Michigan and Florida primaries featured a cheap-shot question about an old remark Sanders had made favorably commenting on the healthcare and education systems established by the government of Fidel Castro in Cuba.

A major live-streamed 13-minute address by Sanders aired less than a week ahead of the last day of multiple primaries (in Arizona, Illinois and Florida), in which he eloquently and in detail proposed a bunch of concrete and dramatic measures for dealing with the worsening coronavirus pandemic and the resulting healthcare costs and access issues and inevitable job losses and recession. The address was virtually blacked out by the national media, while considerable attention was paid to a set of minimalist proposals offered by Biden from his home in Delaware.

Unable to campaign as he had been doing successfully earlier via huge rallies and by door-to-door campaigning by his army of volunteers, Sanders lost all three of those races badly to Biden and finally lost a primary this past week in Wisconsin, where Republicans had fought successfully to block an effort by the Democratic governor to push the balloting out into June as other states have done. This effort, backed by Republican majorities in the Wisconsin and US Supreme Court, forces the state’s Democratic voters to choose between their health and their right to vote.

As long as nearly half the remaining primaries were still to be held, and as the pandemic and a pandemic-caused recession continued to worsen and deepen, threatening unemployment levels worse than in the worst days of the Great Depression, there remained the chance that come June, Democratic and independent voters might come around to seeing Sanders as the right man for the times. But with Florida, Illinois, Michigan, Arizona and Wisconsin all having already voted as well as several other states, the math eventually became too daunting. Technically Sanders could still win enough votes in the remaining 16 postponed two-person races in June to win on a crucial first ballot without corrupted “super delegates” having a say. But to pull that off, he’d have to win better than two-thirds of all the votes in each remaining primary — a feat that nobody believes possible.  So recognizing the inevitable, Sanders has dropped out of active campaigning, clearing the path to the nomination of Biden while leaving his name also on the ballot in those remaining states for those who may still want to vote for him.

Some, including my colleague Laurie Dobson at ThisCantBeHappening!, feel that Sanders’ quitting the primary campaign was a betrayal of all his supporters, and of the cause he was engaged in. I understand that feeling, especially among those like Laurie who worked hard for Sanders in 2016 only to have him humiliated at the convention and to then go on to endorse Clinton. Like many such people, after some bitter soul-searching, she still got behind Sanders again this year, hoping he’d win this time, only to see him fizzle out and quit again. Laurie and many Sanders backers are angry now and I get it.

Sanders’ Failings

But, not having been a Sanders campaign activist myself either time, but rather a sympathetic journalist who did hope to see him win the nomination in 2016 and this year, I see things a bit differently. Sanders clearly did make mistakes, as Laurie incisively points out. He focused so much on the vote of young people, the so-called Millennials who responded to his call for a democratic socialist solution to this nation’s problems, that he tended to ignore the older voters — those (like me!) who are most threatened by the pandemic, by the threats to Social Security, and by rampant ageism in the workplace, but who are much more reliable voters than the young. Millennials, many of whom are new to voting, would often show up enthusiastically at Sanders rallies (which usually featured popular musicians for entertainment), but then wouldn’t show up to vote.

Sanders inexplicably also never really managed to connect with older black voters. This is another reliable Democratic voting bloc of people who are less interested in socialist rhetoric than in proposals to address basic challenges of their survival — having enough income, from a job or welfare support when jobs are scarce, to provide food for their families, confronting a criminal justice system that is stacked against them and especially their young male children, about the scourge of drugs and gun violence in poor urban neighborhoods, etc.  Sanders has a pretty solid record in the Senate on those issues (with the notable exception of his support, along with Biden, of the 1995 Crime Bill authored by Biden that launched the era of mass incarceration). But he didn’t do a good job of communicating his long history of fighting on the issues of concern to poor urban and rural blacks. So the issue for black voters in the Southern states came down to who was most likely to defeat Donald Trump. And at that point, Sanders’ commitment to democratic socialism didn’t inspire confidence and may have been viewed as a liability.

Finally, Sanders never seriously took on the US military industrial complex. Refusing to call for a major slashing of US military spending, which is now running at $1.3 trillion a year, made it hard for him to credibly explain how he hoped to pay for the cost of his many progressive proposals.

I understand Sanders’ reason for bowing out of the campaigning when he did. He doesn’t want to damage Biden at this point by campaigning hard against him in the primaries. Yet campaigning hard is the only way at this point that Sanders could remotely hope to win the nomination, and it would be an absurdly small hope anyhow. Seeing as Biden at this point is going to be the nominee, Sanders doesn’t want to be seen as kneecapping his opponent and as helping or being accused of helping to re-elect Trump.

By keeping his name on the ballots, I suspect Sanders hopes to keep alive the possibility that, should something happen to the 78-year-old and clearly mentally deteriorating and often out-of-touch Biden, he could become an instant alternative for voters, who might by then realize that his proposals — including opening up Medicare for all Americans for the duration of the pandemic and financially supporting all those who lose their jobs in a pandemic recession —  are literally “just what the doctor ordered” for the current crisis. If he were, as he might well be, to continue polling well against Trump, late primary voters might make that leap — especially if Biden continues to be so invisible and uninspiring during this unprecedented health and economic crisis.

Sanders’ Achievement

I can’t call what Sanders has done a betrayal. He stood firm through the campaign in his believe in and espousal of democratic socialist ideas for the US in the face of shamelessly McCarthyite attacks from opponents and the media. In so doing, Sanders has made socialism into a household term — one that a person can support and defend now as a political position without being accused of backing Stalinist or Maoist excesses and brutality. Indeed, Sanders has made it clear that a socialist actually could conceivably be elected president in the US, along with a socialist majority in Congress.

He also has inadvertently performed the valuable function of proving that such a radical change won’t happen by working through the Democratic Party. Sanders has now given that approach his best shot twice, and it’s clear that the party is so thoroughly corrupt, so riven with rules that allow its sclerotic neoliberal leaders to crush any true radical uprising within its ranks, that the only way socialist ideas will make it into power in Washington will be by developing a new party that will supplant the Democrats as a true party of the left. As Laurie has pointed out in her angry article, Sanders has also shown that such a party and movement cannot be built around one man or woman. It needs to be a true grassroots movement rooted in all the struggles of working people of all races, sexes and creeds.

So I say let’s thank Bernie for what he’s accomplished, which is a lot, and get over the fact that he couldn’t batter down the wall the Democratic leadership built to keep him from winning the nomination. Now we need to continue that struggle for a just, humane and peaceful socialist society. Let’s get to work on that now. Whoever wins control of the White House and Congress in November, we’ll need to spend the next four years building a movement that cannot just hold the line on what we’ve won, win some victories, and maybe even challenge them for power next national election.

Let’s go out with John Prime’s “Take the Star of the Window.”

 

Dave Lindorff is a founding member of ThisCantBeHappening!, an online newspaper collective, and is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).

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