So Long, Bernie

People, on the political left, need something to believe in if they’re to survive in a right-wing society. While many on the left criticize those of us who supported Bernie Sanders for president, there is a cohort who believes in taking part in the political system and campaigns long after any reasons remain for doing so. Seeing how the mass media treated Sanders during his two runs for the presidency, many who believe that only action on the streets is worthwhile are close to the truth. Bernie was a mild liberal reformer and the system of wealth and greed brought him to his knees. That he is a Democratic socialist is highly suspect, as a primary tenet of Democratic socialism is that the government controls the means of production. In Democratic socialism, the government does the latter through democratic means rather than through a dictatorship of the proletariat. While healthcare for all may come close to the government controlling a major institution, hospitals, doctors, etc. still maintain their independence.

I agree with the late protester and organizer, Abbie Hoffman, when he said (a paraphrase) that protest was like attending religious observances: it was just something that a person did (Soon To Be A Major Motion Picture  (1994). I grew up in a setting where working in electoral politics was like going to religious observances, an archaic idea for many in contemporary society, but it was something that was done. Being a full-time radical is not exactly available work in the reactionary political and economic climate in the US, but protest and electoral politics once lived side by side and they were both something to believe in. The late Philip Berrigan, a champion of antiwar and anti-nuclear protest, who believed that electoral politics was worthless, is probably grinning somewhere at the latest victory of power and money over any kind of electoral reform of the system of capitalism in the US.

Following the great migration of immigrants at the end of the 19th century and into the 20th century, many made it out of poverty and into the middle class. Racism was another matter, as skin color limited masses of people from coming anywhere near the so-called American Dream until the rise of the Black middle class.

Many who made it, so to speak, were New Deal Democrats and they believed that the system could work for ever-growing numbers of people. They gave significant support to both the Kennedy and the Johnson campaigns. A global economy was just over the horizon, as was the grotesque level of income inequality, but the candidacies of Eugene McCarthy and George McGovern gave a good many people policies to believe in, beginning with critiques of the military-industrial complex. There were always third-party candidates, but as in recent history, the power elite would have none of their calls for radical reform. The government threw Eugene Debs into prison for speaking out against World War I, and one of his presidential campaigns was conducted from behind bars.

Many of my cohorts from the generation of World War II baby boomers got a taste of the hideousness of the government and its taskmasters in industry, and primarily from the so-called defense industry, as we were forced to confront the contradictions of empire and its many wars. Some of those who protested couldn’t wait to drop their radical accoutrements and become both careerists and apologists for the system when their confrontation with war ended.

I think the best mass media portrayal of the turn toward acceptance of the political and economic status quo and consumerism came from the movie The Big Chill (1983), which was a scathing critique and reversal of 60s and early 70s values and attitudes, and an all-embracing acceptance of middle-class consensus and a consumerist lifestyle.

Trump, the poster child of greed and wealth, ended up being the ultimate in-your-face reversal of 60s radicalism and politics and perhaps that is why some of us wanted to keep our feet somewhat in the political system and have it vindicate our ideals in the face of a liar and a coward.

The book The 60s Without Apology (1984) sums up my take on that decade. I see the contradictions with alliances between leftists and liberals, especially in the face of corporatism and militarism that has given us corporate neofascism here in the US. It may be too late to salvage anything resembling republican democratic traditions and institutions. I don’t know. Many left the system following the early 1970s and they will not engage with it even today. With all of the contradictions of working at street level in the Sanders campaign, I will still grieve for the missed opportunity of changing the system even in what seems to me to be for mild reforms.

Bernie Sanders thought by being dutiful to the Democratic establishment, such as supporting Clinton in 2016, that the establishment would come to support him in 2020. But the mass media’s blitz against him for issues such as electability and the policies at the heart of his campaign gave the Democratic establishment fodder to cast him off as a presidential candidate in 2020. His policies such as Medicare for all (Especially important as Black and Latino people are dying at higher rates than some white New Yorkers from Covid-19: “A tale of two New Yorks: pandemic lays bare a city’s shooting inequities,” Guardian, April 10, 2020), free college tuition, student debt cancellation, along with breaking the hold of income inequality and its effects on people, met with the jaundiced eye of the establishment in the Democratic Party. Sanders may have broken the hold of neoliberalism in the party in very small ways, but he would have never gotten away with a foreign policy that backed diplomacy over military force. He voted against the war in Iraq in 2003, but supported military funding authorization bills for a time. I think he would have began the slow walk toward relying on diplomacy in foreign affairs, but the track record of the Democrats, especially Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden vis-à-vis war, is abysmal. They both said that the Iraq war was a mistake, but only after lots of blood was spilled.

Mass incarceration and the destruction of a large part of the social safety net are other policies that the standard-bearers of the Democratic Party have used, along with deregulation of financial institutions that precipitated the Great Recession of 2008, and paved the way for the insanity of the neofascist Trump. The disaster of environmental destruction could not have happened without neoliberal collusion, but again, neoliberalism is not the liberalism of the New Deal and the Great Society.

With all the contradictions of working at street level for the Sanders campaign, I will still miss the chance for changing the system even in what seems to me to be the mildest of ways.

Howard Lisnoff is a freelance writer. He is the author of Against the Wall: Memoir of a Vietnam-Era War Resister (2017).