Chuck Todd delivered a rare gem on Meet the Press a few weeks ago, saying that had the Covid-19 pandemic occurred several months earlier Bernie Sanders would be the Democratic Party nominee. He didn’t elaborate but it was hardly necessary. Virtually every flaw in our system that Bernie’s rhetoric has exposed since entering the presidential fray has been thrown into relief.
The privatized healthcare system is embarrassingly inadequate to the tasks of dealing with the pandemic, the countries with degrees of universal healthcare clearly in a much better position to at least slow its spread. What good will it do to improve an Obamacare secured through profit-making and just-in-time delivery systems that block necessary planning for the public welfare? How many thousands of deaths have resulted from this system that defers to the private sector in the interest of efficiency? Many of course have already been dying prematurely every year due to a lack of any coverage.
The greater incidence of deaths in poor communities and especially those of color exposes the dearth of access to medical care, how strained economic circumstances collapse social distancing, and how pervasive and deep the inequality in our society is that had unfortunately remained mostly hidden until this crisis.
The configuration of the “stimulus” packages supports Bernie’s persistent claim that we have “socialism for the rich.” In fact, the grant program for small businesses was quickly depleted since many big corporations that in many instances didn’t need the relief—some using the funds to pay dividends—raided it, means testing apparently not operative due to the urgency of getting the funds into the economy. But there’s hope. The Trump administration has apparently asked them to pay it back. This is in addition to the seemingly inexhaustible fund reserved exclusively for big corporations, which it turns out includes hidden tax breaks.
The New York Times editorial board’s analysis of the stimulus’s shortcomings syncs with what Sanders has been saying. This is especially interesting since it didn’t endorse him. It has not only come down on the dollar limits of the small business grant program, but its design as well, the funneling of the funds through the Small Business Administration, an agency overwhelmed and unequipped to handle this epic task, in partnership with banks. Banks, “legally required to exercise caution,” brought to bear exclusionary rules and “new conditions, such as refusing to deal with new customers,” leaving a great deal of confusion and uncertainty, not to mention frustration for many from being unable to get the money they need. Therefore we need crisis lending, what Bernie has termed disaster relief. This demands that direct and sufficient payments get out the door fast (“’We’re Going Down, Down, Down, Down, Down’,” New York Times, 4/10).
The bottom line here of course is that the crisis we face can’t be solved adequately through the private sector. It must be solved through the coordination of government, the public structure that can bring the strengths and capacities of the private sector together to reduce delays and inefficiencies and overlaps and redundancies. This was the lesson learned during the Great Depression, though forgotten in the neoliberal era along with the discrediting of the figure, John Maynard Keynes, who preached it. Hoover let the situation lie in private hands until the arrival of FDR, deepening and extending the damage.
But the Times’ editorial board goes even further to call for a “blank-check promise to provide the money necessary for employers to pay workers,” a different approach from un-tethering workers from jobs and sending them to the unemployment office. It supports the approach practiced in Germany and other European countries that subsidizes employers to keep workers on the job and prevent the colossal dislocations that will ensue in the labor markets, not to mention the depletion of tax revenues. The latter inevitably leads to a downward spiral and endless austerity. The austere effects from the 2008 Recession are still with us.
Bernie argued for comparable measures in the debates on the stimulus. So it is perplexing that at the very moment when the system is imploding and mainstream institutions are showing signs of moving in Bernie’s direction, hope for some real alternative to the state of things is dashed with the suspension of his campaign.
This turn of events has been rationally justified. It means his “revolution” succeeded in pushing debates to the left and normalizing the progressives’ issues. Noam Chomsky agrees with this idea and claims further that Bernie made a calculation about “how best to get rid of the Trump malignancy” (Email correspondence, 4/11/20). Key Democrats have recently come out for providing a stipend of a few thousand dollars per month to all citizens for the duration of the crisis period. The likelihood of this passing is slim but if the crisis deepens these Democrats could conjure the political will to get it done. Then there’s Joe Biden’s sop to single payer, agreeing to drop the Medicare qualification age to sixty, no doubt a ruse to get Bernie’s voters but another sign of the effects wrought from the “revolution.”
But given this shifting political soil, already in motion weeks before his decision, why drop out now? After all, he was down just 300 delegates with almost 2,000 to go and could have simply matched Biden’s first-half performance to tie him overall (Nick Pemberton, “Bernie’s Missed Opportunity,” CounterPunch, 4/14/20). And as the crisis deepens the effects could’ve helped flip the script. More and more would possibly see how limited Biden’s offerings in a national crisis are. Or, at least Bernie could’ve amassed more delegates to negotiate with at the Convention, giving him the power to make real change. Trying to coax the party he’s been very critical of into accepting significant elements of his agenda as an outsider with less clout will be less effective.
He might even have been able to flip the effects of the South Carolina election—that momentous event that seemed to signal the end, with Black voters choosing Biden overwhelmingly—and convince them in due course how wrong they were. The numbers were so surprisingly lopsided at that election that voters likely sensed a sea change was in the offing and jumped on the bandwagon. Momentum is hard to reverse in the short term.
Of course, the media hardly helped his cause in overkilling his “socialism.” This stuck for the masses of voters who cringe at the sound of a word that’s tainted with malaise and defeat. They want the endless re-runs of the success narrative that celebrates individualism and easy optimism. But the issues that this supposedly foreign ism brings to the fore have never been more popular for many who believe they deserve a bigger piece of the pie.
Since “socialism” is Bernie’s term, he needed to define himself better to help overcome the media’s distortion and misrepresentation of it while crafting a credible option for the public. But the problem is that however passionate he has been about socialism over the course of his career it has remained mostly a concept in his imaginary since, as many have shown, he’s mostly aligned himself with positions dominant during the long 1960s when the old Democratic Party refined elements of the New Deal.
The problems of definition have been compounded by labeling. He’s stressed above all that he’s a democratic socialist, a necessary nuance since for many the mere mention of socialism conjures the lack of freedom to choose, believing unchecked capitalism is what produces it (But can a wide disparity in wealth contribute to the relatively equal chance to choose?). The “democratic” prefacing helps to soften the piling on of negatives since the regimes in this category are easily slotted as authoritarian nightmares. But does anyone believe “Rocket Man” executes anything close to socialism in North Korea, a country commonly referenced? And there are few mentoring models left of the old type of socialism. Both China and Cuba have evolved to absorb degrees of free market economics and political freedom. These inflections are hardly adequate, however, to temper most voters’ sympathies.
By removing the “ist” and exchanging the positions of the terms we get social democracy, a different concept that stresses the comingling of aggregate social wills and democratic dispositions. For Bernie it perhaps conjures too much of a compromise with capitalism, though he’s passionately subscribed to this form, sympathizing with the systems in northern Europe that practice it, especially Germany and the Scandinavian countries. It’s interesting that the vision and policies of social democracy are not far removed from what the old Democratic Party proffered here, but Americans’ incessant complaints about big government and high taxes make it more alien than it is. But the tax rate structure in the 1950s and 1960s here was not proportionately different than what it tends to be in northern European societies. This is especially true for the upper brackets. Progressive taxation, exacting more revenue as the payer moves up the income scale, was key to producing the relative equality that masses of citizens here want today. Bernie could explain more here.
Then there’s the “progressive” label. Few of the current progressives are much further left than the old Democrats or social democrats, despite the mainstream media’s continued demonizing of progressives as “far left.” The term is a euphemism, a linguistic alternative that offers a kinder and gentler form for pondering what is otherwise deemed noxious if not unpalatable. But the operation performed through language also sanitizes substances, delivering a lite left for an in-the-system “revolutionary” impulse.
The Progressive Movement of the 1890s, for example, tapped into the liberal populist sentiment stoked by the persistent failures of capitalism in an era dominated by trusts and monopolies and lacking in regulations and union protections. It offered its own milder version of a critique that in Europe was ballasting far left parties and movements and seeding the way to significant change, even real revolution in Russia. By the time this revolution is realized in 1917, the populist surge and the Progressive Movement are history, its planks not revitalized until the New Deal 1930s, the moment that the old Democratic Party of the post-WWII era will canonize. Of course, movements further to the left battle for supremacy from the 1890s through the 1930s but none were able to amass the kind of support that sustained the Progressive Movement and its values.
However limited the definition or confusing the limited reference to promising alternatives on the left, Bernie’s online position statements are fairly clear, much more so than what trickled from the debates (where unfortunately most voters get their fill). Many sympathize with this warrior who was never able to get much support in Congress as an independent in an era when Democrats have shifted to the right. Perhaps this has helped his supporters accept gaps in his voting record. As Jeffrey St. Clair claims, he has often been a “good soldier” for the “very same Democratic Party he claims not to be a card-holding member of,” supporting Clinton’s wars, his crime bill and even Obama’s overthrow of Libya (“Roaming Charges: Bernt Offerings,” CounterPunch, 4/17/20).
His position statements and passion for change have also likely made it easier to ignore his performance this time around that tended to conjure an angry professorial lecturer. Of course given the deficiencies in the system he’s challenging this mindset would be difficult to suppress, and it kept his supporters stoked until the South Carolina surprise so style was not an appreciable blockage. In fact the polls showed he was gaining and on course to beat Trump.
Yet he could’ve given voters a better primer on what his socialism is all about, what might’ve given him that extra edge to overcome the South Carolina surprise. His persisting and credible expose of inequality, hitched to Occupy Wall Street’s critique from a decade ago regarding the power of the elite 1%, is central to any discussion of socialism. It after all provides the rationale as to why inequality exists in the first place, not as some freak eruption from nature but an inevitable disruption caused by social forces.
Bernie adeptly drew attention to inequality as a moral outrage but was less effective in mapping these causes. The billionaires are doing fine in our economy, unlike the rest, he continually harped, but what about the system that creates billionaires? What are the preconditions for this disproportionate bulge? They have too much money and power so we should get some back through taxation, but more pathways of explanation and the connecting of more dots were needed. The redistribution argument is a sound one as well since the existing tax system was a catalyst in transferring this wealth in the first place, and the low wage economy was a big factor in generating it. Bernie of course knows this. But mostly exposing the billionaires and calling for higher taxes on them comes off for many as a form of Nietzschean “ressentiment” that blames individuals for success who merely work the system.
To mitigate this problem he needed to explain more about how the fates of those on the top and the bottom are linked, the former extracting value from the latter but somehow appearing to be independent, a separate force in their own right performing in one economy whose operations are mostly hidden. This orientation would’ve provided a perfect counter to those journalists at the debates with gotcha-jabs about the low unemployment rate. A few well-placed responses could’ve stymied a few of them and opened up discussions about how in fact we have two economies and the one that occupies the bottom rungs is limited by the power performances at the top. A solid debate about socialism could’ve helped to expose this illusion.
Then there’s the endless repetition of the 1%. This segment is an especially worthy target in the expose, but there are many more who’ve benefited from unfair taxation and other neoliberal policies. How about the top 20%? Looking at a larger chunk of the elite can help present a clearer picture of the counter-revolution that has been wiping out the middle class.
Perhaps Bernie’s most significant failing is his lack of clarity on the workings of capital, the assets and resources whose possession grants owners disproportionate power to advance; and how to control it, distribute its benefits, and maximize its usages for as many as possible without dampening the motives that contribute to its creation. The relatively pure socialism that he periodically wished to fruition, figures these issues differently than how they are in social democracy. The rigor of near state control governs the former, whereas the hybrid accommodation of the latter attempts to include more citizens from the commons in the wealth-making communities, the stakeholders who are not direct owners of stock and other assets and seek to share power in a less-total state.
Even with his limits Bernie could conceivably have won. The pandemic moment was made to order for progressive values if not exactly “socialism.” He could’ve worked out the bugs through on-the-job-training.