The Uselessness of Bernie Sanders

Shelly Prevost/Flickr (CC) and Gage Skidmore/Flickr (CC).

In April, Bernie Sanders announced that he will not seek the Democratic nomination for the 2024 presidential election, instead backing his 2020 rival and incumbent president Joe Biden. He stated that he would “do everything I can to see the president is reelected.” Earlier this month, another major figure from the Democratic Party’s so-called “progressive” wing, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, went so far as to denounce West’s run based on fears about the tired and discredited so-called “spoiler” effect.

West recently responded to their refusal to back him during an interviewwith The Breakfast Show on Black Entertainment Television (BET). He said of Ocasio-Cortez: “She’s given in to the perceptions of the corporate wing of that party and the corporate wing says over and over again, ‘all we have is two parties.’” Speaking of Sanders, he said: “I love the brother and, you know, even in love people have deep disagreements about these things. But I think, again, he’s fearful of the neo-fascism of Trump… See, part of the problem is that people look at Biden and they really don’t want to tell the full truth.”

West has hit the nail on the head. Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez hasn’t just surrendered to ‘two-party system’ defeatism; she has also proven to be just another lackey of the Democratic leadership in Congress. Amongst her worst moves have been: voting in favor of funding for arming Ukraine (guaranteeing further bloodshed and a likely military stalemate in what is fast turning into a proxy war); voting in favor of thwarting a strike by rail workers; and supporting US intervention into Venezuela. Signs that she would be heading in this direction emerged as early as March 2020 when Politico reported that she had been “replacing some outspoken radicals with more traditional political professionals.”

Biden, meanwhile, is the personification of everything that is wrong with the Democratic Party. In March 2020, I interviewed Jacobin columnist and author of Yesterday’s Man: The Case Against Joe Biden, Branko Marcetic. Marcetic summarized some of the worst things Biden did throughout his career in Congress. He pointed in particular to his Senate votes on criminal justice and immigration policy:

“Biden has well over a decade of pushing really extreme ‘tough on crime measures’ — often more extreme than the Republicans that he was trying to out-posture in these instances… On immigration, Biden, like many Democrats… voted to enable the powers that Trump and Obama have used to launch the kind of deportation state.”

Marcetic added that Biden also supported neoliberal economic policies such as slashing social security and “was the architect of the foreign policy that accelerated the migrant crisis coming out of Central and South America.” Though not in the same league as Hilary Clinton in this regard, he also pointed to Biden’s corrupt dealings, stating that “the Burisma thing with Hunter Biden is just the tip of the iceberg.”

As I argued in CounterPunch in August 2019, Biden’s record has been further tarnished by the fact that he served as Barack Obama’s vice president. From signing so-called “free” trade agreements to continuing the bank bailout, and from renewing the Patriot Act to presiding over an out-of-control National Security Agency, Obama’s two administrations were hardly better than those of his predecessor, George W. Bush. Obama’s record was arguably even worse in terms of foreign policy. His administration played a hand in the 2009 coup in Honduras against the democratically elected government of Manuel Zelaya and intervened in Libya, in the process turning it into a failed state. Bush’s drone assassination program, meanwhile, was accelerated by a factor of ten under Obama’s watch.

Following the disastrous Obama administrations, for many on the left Sanders appeared at the time to be the best hope of transcending the empty promises of the Democratic Party and building a movement for real radical change. However, given both his steadfast support for Biden and his refusal to back Dr. West, he has now outlived whatever utility he may have once had in this endeavor. But I argue that there were major problems with him and his political project long before this. Indeed, many of the warning signs were apparent as early as when he first crashed into the national consciousness in 2016.

To be sure, Sanders failed to win the Democratic nomination in 2016 and 2020 in part because establishment Democrats who dominate the party’s internal structures conspired to rig the primary against him and ensure the victory of one of their own. Even the Democratic National Committee’s own chair Donna Brazile said: “If the fight had been fair, one campaign would not have control of the party before the voters had decided which one they wanted to lead.” But Sanders nonetheless made his own set of unforced errors during his primary battles with Clinton in 2016 and Biden in 2020, respectively.

In 2016, for instance, he said of Clinton during a primary debate in New Hampshire, “I happen to respect the secretary very much; I hope it’s mutual.” In 2020, meanwhile, Sanders frequently referred to Biden, both during and after the primary contest, as “my good friend Joe.” Referring to two of the most ruthless neoliberal warmongers and corrupt Washington insiders in this way lost him all credibility as an outsider candidate who was claiming to be launching a challenge to the stale neoliberal and imperialist status quo.

The reason he did so is not entirely clear. Perhaps he was hedging his bets in case he lost and thought to himself, ‘if I lose I should then try to work with them in the Senate to get concessions from their administrations and so I shouldn’t piss them off too much by going on the attack.’ Of course, since Clinton lost we couldn’t know then whether that would have been successful. But in the years since Biden’s 2020 victory, we have now seen just how fruitless an exercise this has been.

To take just one example, as I argued at CounterPunch in June 2021, Biden’s infrastructure program included only the most modest of progressive components. Predictably, Biden seemed more interested in appeasing other establishment Democrats, and even Republicans as part of the “bipartisanship” cult, than he did in recognizing the mandate that Sanders’ policy ideas had achieved during the primary contest. This deluded notion that Sanders could ever have brokered significant progressive concessions from a Clinton or Biden administration points to another of Sanders’ fatal flaws — he ultimately got too close to the Democratic leadership in Congress to really think and act as an outsider/anti-establishment candidate.

Sanders’ fawning language also played directly into the hands of Donald Trump. Trump was able to present himself as the only such candidate given that, unlike Sanders, he was willing to criticize both Clinton’s and Biden’s obvious and well-documented corruption and profiteering throughout their political careers. With respect to the former, the late polemicist Christopher Hitchens wrote in a 2009 article published at Slate:

“It appears from the donor list of the Clinton Foundation that there is barely an oligarch, royal family, or special-interest group anywhere in the world that does not know how to get the former president’s attention. Just in the days since the foundation agreed to some disclosure of its previously “confidential” clients — in other words, since this became a condition for Sen. Clinton’s nomination to become secretary of state — we have additionally found former President Clinton in warm relationships with one very questionable businessman in Malaysia and with another, this time in Nigeria, who used to have close connections with that country’s ultracorrupt military dictatorship.”

The aforementioned Branko Marcetic, meanwhile, noted in a 2019 articlepublished at Jacobin:

“…the Biden family’s propensity for engaging in money-making ventures that — gee whiz, just somehow seem to constantly overlap with Biden’s political career — will make him a perfect foil to Trump. Whether it’s Biden’s son, Hunter, being hired as a lobbyist for a Delaware credit card company whose favored legislation Biden was voting for; Biden’s brother mysteriously getting hired by a mid-size construction firm shortly before it received a $1.5 billion government contract; or Hunter, again, joining the board of a corruption-tainted Ukrainian gas producer while Biden spearheaded US policy on Ukraine.”

It’s not in my nature to say anything positive about Donald Trump, but when he says “lock her up” and “lock up the Bidens” on the campaign trail and at rallies around the country, I’m with the bastard on that one! (Though, of course, it is something of a case of ‘the pot calling the kettle black.’)

The fact that Trump has been closer to the mark on criticizing Clinton and Biden shines light onto what is perhaps the most important reason why Sanders’ revolution ultimately failed. In defending his decision to endorse Biden for the 2024 election, Sanders stated: “The last thing this country needs is a Donald Trump or some other right-wing demagogue who is going to try to undermine American democracy or take away a woman’s right to choose, or not address the crisis of gun violence, or racism, sexism or homophobia.” By making such a statement, he reveals that he doesn’t understand the reason for Trump’s rise to power in the first place.

Because it was the corrupt neoliberal status quo upheld by Biden and other establishment figures from both of the major parties that created the groundswell of desperation and disaffection that Trump could tap into by falsely portraying himself as an outsider candidate. It is the classic faux populist far-right playbook in which a charismatic (and often buffoonish) figure presents himself as the people’s savior from an out-of-touch elite and then channels legitimate grievances people have about that elite and its failures toward all the traditional scapegoat targets.

The ultimate failure of Sanders’ revolution and his subsequent support for Biden leads to two further conclusions. First, it shows that the left needs someone who understands what led to the rise of Trumpism in the first place and will forthrightly criticize establishment Democrats for being the crooked, self-serving shysters that they are. Cornel West has consistently shown that he gets it on both counts. And second, Sanders’ failure shows the futility of attempting to achieve radical social and political change within the confines of the Democratic Party. Clearly, the only solution is to build an independent left that challenges the neoliberal and imperialist status quo that has been dutifully upheld by administrations of both of the major parties.

Of course, there will always be those who say that this is a fool’s errand given the US’s history of having a two-party system. But I contend this is only true for as long as we allow it to be true and, indeed, believe it to be true. Whether it be Syriza in Greece or the MORENA party in Mexico, across the world new and formerly minor parties can and do overcome the obstacles of their countries’ political systems to win power in spite of the inevitable naysaying of their ‘insider strategy’ opponents. Indeed, Sanders’ failure shows that it is, in fact, the insider strategy that is the true fool’s errand. And with Cornel West, a public intellectual with broad name recognition, running as a Green in next year’s race, perhaps 2024 could be the year when the independent left proves the naysayers wrong.