The lesser evil is still evil
The Democratic Party is a top-down political party, controlled by corporations, and indisputably pro-capitalist. When a socialist supports a Democratic Party candidate, it is like boarding a train that is headed in the opposite direction of one’s destination. When Sanders loses the Democratic Party presidential nomination he has insisted he will endorse the Democratic Party primary winner, planting himself firmly within the Democratic Party. Sanders is indistinguishable from Democrats, given that Sanders has voted with them 98 percent of the time, has refused to support the fight for $15 except as a far distant goal, "over a period of years, not tomorrow", and has refused unambiguously to condemn racist police brutality. In a recent CNN interview, Sanders, after expressing sympathy for cops' supposedly "difficult job," managed to call only for jobs and community policing. Howard Dean, a former candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination himself, has declared Sanders to be “basically a liberal Democrat” and the Democrats have rewarded Sanders. They instructed their Vermont candidates not to oppose him and sent corporate lackeys like Sens. Charles Schumer and Barbara Boxer to campaign for him. Even worse, Sanders accepted a $10,000 donation from Hillary Clinton's Hillpac back in 2006, during his first run for Senate. Sanders, the supposed independent, was a bitter opponent of third-party challenges Ralph Nader's campaigns against Al Gore and John Kerry. In 2004, he announced, "Not only am I going to vote for John Kerry, I am going to run around this country and do everything I can to dissuade people from voting for Ralph Nader...I am going to do everything I can, while I have differences with John Kerry, to make sure that he is elected."
How can such a campaign represent principled, independent working-class politics? The Democrats are more aware than anyone that the goods they have been selling for generations have passed their “sell by” date. They will continue in business only for as long as they are able enforce their monopoly by fooling the people. The Democratic Party has co-opted Bernie Sanders, using him to help hinder the development of a genuine alternative to the capitalist parties.
Sanders’ version of “socialism” is the European social democracy model, which has little to do with any authentic traditional definition of socialism. Social democracy accepts capitalism but insists on a strong welfare safety net for the working class. But this acceptance of capitalism is crucial; it means that during any economic crisis, their first impulse is to support the corporations, which are the mainstay of the economy. Europe’s social democrats in one country after another have shamefully embraced severe austerity measures that punish the working class in order to strengthen the corporations. Sanders’ pro-capitalism is not a trivial issue. Capitalism is above all an economic system that promotes diametrically opposed interests between workers and capitalists. Capitalists must compete against one another in order to survive, and to compete successfully they must maximize profits, which in turn requires keeping production costs, including labor costs, to a minimum. Sanders might say he is for ordinary working people or for the “middle class,” but in so far as he embraces capitalism, he is also for corporations, because capitalism cannot operate smoothly without the smooth functioning of corporations, and hence, Sanders’ loyalties are at best divided, sowing more confusion than clarity. His distinguishing attribute is that he favors a tighter leash on corporations and a stronger safety net for the working class, which is mere reformism.
But capitalism is not simply an economic system – it creates an entire culture that invades almost every aspect of life. It is a top-down culture where those on the bottom are virtually powerless and those on the top issue orders. It atomizes people by forcing them to compete against one another rather than join together in the pursuit of the common good. Sanders adopt this top-down structure. His programs are issued as proclamations from high with little input from their supporters. And neither does he make any meaningful effort to forge solidarity with grassroots movements. Sanders is not dedicated to promoting the self-organization and self-liberation of the working class. Just the opposite: he reinforces the top-down culture of capitalism. He does not encourage working people to act collectively to defend their own interests,
Marx and Engels insisted, the overthrow of capitalism will only be accomplished by the working class. “The emancipation of the working classes must be conquered by the working classes themselves….” [ “Provisional Rules of the Association,” in The General Council of the First International]. Hence, the goal of socialists must be to consistently assist in the organization of the working class so that it is in a position to consciously act in its own self-interests independently of the interests of capitalists. Working people must come to the realization that they are members of an exploited class and that capitalism does not operate in their interests, and their only salvation lies in joining together in order to collectively create an entirely different economic system that actually operates in the interests of the majority. Capitalism will never be abolished by a minority of the population.
Sanders has positioned himself as a hero of America's downtrodden workers and yet he doesn't run as a "socialist" even though a portrait of the great Socialist Party leader Eugene V. Debs hangs in his office. Debs spent his whole life building the Socialist Party as an alternative to the two capitalist parties. Debs understood that his call for working-class people to break with the two capitalist parties meant supporting a political alternative that might not win--but he believed this was a necessary challenge to a two-party system that offered nothing to workers. "I'd rather vote for something I want and not get it," Debs once wrote, "than vote for something I don't want and get it." Year in and year out, he insisted that "the differences between the Republican and Democratic Parties involve no issue, no principle in which the working class have any interest."
Sanders will agitate for trade unionists and social movement activists to vote for the lesser of two evils. The result is that he will help corral people from taking any steps toward building a genuine alternative. He is already serving that function by luring people on the left, like the Occupy activists who launched People for Bernie, into a Democratic Party campaign when they might have concentrated their energies on politics outside the Democrats. Instead of shifting the Democrats to the left, the leftists who join the Democrats get dragged to the right.
Sanders’unfortunately only serves to blur class lines and mis-educate about the most basic principle of socialism: the self-emancipation of the working class.
In 1999 Bill Clinton and other NATO governments began an intensive bombing campaign against Serbia. Bernie Sanders made it clear he was completely on board with the action.
In September 2001 after thousands of people were killed in the World Trade Center and Pentagon, George Bush declared war on Afghanistan. Sanders joined the bandwagon and voted to adopt the joint resolution that authorized the President to use the United States Armed Forces against anyone involved with the attacks of September 11th, 2001 and any nation that harbors these individuals.
In October 2002, after two years of war on the people of Afghanistan while Sanders voted against the original authorization to use military force against Iraq, he followed that vote with several subsequent votes authorizing funding of that war and the debacle in Afghanistan.
The other piece of legislation passed was the PATRIOT Act. To his credit, Sanders voted against the original PATRIOT Act legislation and attempted to curtail its effect in subsequent votes. However, in 2006, he voted Yea on legislation that made the remaining fourteen provisions of the Patriot Act permanent and extended the authority of the Federal Bureau of Investigation to conduct “roving wiretaps” and access certain business records through December 31, 2009. In a similar vein, Sanders voted against the original legislation that created the Department of Homeland Security, but by 2006 he had joined the majority of Congress in passing continued funding of that agency.
In 2008, Sanders was elected to the Senate. His voting record changed little: voting for some war authorization funds while opposing others; funding intelligence operations while voting to remove immunity for communications companies involved in government surveillance; supporting contraception funding and funding for children’s health insurance programs; and opposing John Brennan’s appointment to head the CIA while supporting Chuck Hagel’s appointment as Secretary of Defense. He continued authorizing grants and loans to Israel, even after Israel ruthlessly attacked Gaza on two such operations, attacked the Mavi Marmara and supported illegal settlements in the West Bank. Most recently, Sanders joined ninety-seven other Senators and approved a $1 billion aid package to the coup government in Ukraine. He is, again to his credit, on record opposing US ground support for the war against ISIS and Al Qaida, as well as opposing arming Syrian mercenaries.
In 2010, the Air National Guard base in Burlington was one of the top choices of the Pentagon to base the multimillion dollar F-35 fighter plane. Immediately, some citizens began organizing against that possibility due to the fact that the fighter-bomber's ear-shattering noise would make working-class housing unsafe for habitation. Some members of the organizing group thought Sanders might be in support of their position. They were quickly disappointed. By October 2012, after a series of victories by opponents of the plane, Sanders stated in part, “I’m very proud of the role that the Vermont National Guard has played in our state and I do not want to see that role diminished or eliminated…. The F-35, whether one may like it or not, is the plane of choice not only for the U.S. Air Force, but for the Navy, Marines and much of NATO. If the F-35 ends up not being located here, it will end up at a National Guard base in Florida or South Carolina. I would rather it be here.”
There are those who say Sanders will “at least move the discussion leftward.” Authors William Grover and Joseph Peschek regarding their book The Unsustainable Presidency, when asked if Sanders could actually move the US leftward and institute policies for working people and other disenfranchised. The key part of their answer was “No. He would be among the first to admit that. Indeed, in an interview last week he did just that: “We can elect the best in the world to be president, but that person will get swallowed up unless there is an unprecedented level of activism at the grassroots level.”
How does Sanders expect to create radical change in the US if this radical grassroots activism he correctly states is needed is hijacked by the Democratic Party–a political entity that is owned lock, stock and barrel by the very same banks and corporations he claims to oppose. That is not enough. Conversations are meaningless without bold, concrete action. The Democratic Party has proven over the past six and a half years that not only is it incapable of bold action in favor of the vast majority of working people in this country, it is barely capable of concrete action. How else does one explain the disastrous austerity policies taking place in the United States?
Bernie Sanders is if nothing else a shrewd politician. Sanders campaigns on progressive and populist themes. Sanders usually sticks to his positions on issues relating to labor, veterans, children, corporate cheats, and certain social issues (marriage equality, for example.) Sanders went to Chiapas to support the Zapatistas and he’s against the various free trade agreements and the WTO. However, when it comes to matters of war and peace, his record is at best a mixed bag. Remember, all US wars involve a defense of the capitalist economy and, consequently, a belief in that economy’s superiority. Bernie Sanders actions make it clear he shares that belief. The wars fought by the US military are ultimately fought for one reason only–to maintain and expand the power of corporate America at the expense of workers and the poor around the world. Didn’t neoliberal writer Thomas Friedman write during the bombing of Serbia and Kosovo, “McDonald’s cannot flourish without McDonnell Douglas, the builder of the F-15. And the hidden fist that keeps the world safe for Silicon Valley’s technologies is called the United States Army, Air Force Navy and Marine Corps.” (New York Times 3/29/1999) Sanders must understand the connection. Hence, his support for those elements of the war machine that allow him to support labor in the manner he does.
Bernie Sanders’ attacks on the excesses of Wall Street and its cohorts are usually addressed to the “middle class,” that US ideal. Indeed, Sanders was one of many Congressmen who voted for the 1994 Omnibus Crime Bill that its author Bill Clinton recently acknowledged placed too much emphasis on mass incarceration and barely any on keeping young people out of prison or rehabilitating them if they ended up there. Failing to conduct a critically honest discussion that includes solutions to this problem that are not predicated on making profits for the private sector would be a mistake for Sanders or any candidate.
The question here is not whether Bernie Sanders is the progressive savior so many people want him to be. It is whether or not such a politician can even exist in the United States. Sanders’ record on labor, veterans, and most civil liberties issues is mostly decent, especially for someone who is part of the ruling elite (even if he doesn’t see himself that way.) However, this fact is probably irrelevant. The system in place in the Executive Branch is implacable and essentially without redemption. With the exception of a very few social issues, Obama has done very little that is any different from his right wing predecessor Bush or the neoliberal champion Clinton. In part, this is certainly because Obama is not a leftist or even a progressive. The primary reason, though, is because politicians who do not agree with the US insistence on military superiority and economic hegemony rarely get to Washington, much less to the White House.
Anyone involved Jesse Jackson campaign of might remember Jackson’s progressive and populist politics were succeeding beyond his (and his supporters) dreams. Then the establishment moved in. Big business donors and media commentators took a private comment made by Jackson out of context and splashed it across the pages and television screens of America. Racial code words began being heard in relation to Jackson’s name. Soon, his chances of winning the Democratic Party nomination were gone. Instead, the party limped out of San Francisco that summer with the Cold War liberal Walter Mondale as its loser candidate. The reality of US politics in the current age is that any progressive in a position of power must temper their left-leaning politics if they want to keep their power. The more powerful their position, the more compromise is required. The anecdotes related above suggest Bernie Sanders understands this all too well and acts accordingly. So, even if the reader might believe President Bernie Sanders could bring us back from the precipice we find ourselves on the edge of, the very nature of the US economic and political system ensures that he cannot.
In his resignation letter to Sanders, former staffer Jeremy Brecher explained the Clinton administartion's position at the time. "While it has refused to send ground forces into Kosovo, the U.S. has also opposed and continues to oppose all alternatives that would provide immediate protection for the people of Kosovo by putting non-or partially-NATO forces into Kosovo," wrote Brecher, "...The refusal of the U.S. to endorse such proposals strongly supports the hypothesis that the goal of U.S. policy is not to save the Kosovars from ongoing destruction."
Brecher's note to Sanders closes with a set of rhetorical questions, "Is there a moral limit to the military violence you are willing to participate in or support? Where does that limit lie? And when that limit has been reached, what action will you take? My answers led to my resignation."
The attack on Kosovo is hardly the extent of Sanders' hawkishness. While it's true he voted against the Iraq War, he also voted in favor of authorizing funds for that war and the one in Afghanistan. More recently, he voted in favor of a $1 billion aid package for the coup government Ukraine and supported Israel's assault on Gaza. At a town hall meeting he admitted that Israel may have "overreacted", but blamed Hamas for the entire conflict. After a woman asked why he refused to condemn Israel's actions, he told critics: "Excuse me! Shut up! You don’t have the microphone.”
Sanders voted against was the Brady Act of 1993. The act instituted federal background checks on firearm purchasers (albeit later supporting such legislation). Sanders voted for the Protection of Lawful Commerce in Arms Act of 2005, a piece of legislation that prevents gun-violence victims from suing a gun manufacturer when its product is used to harm people. By way of comparison, he notes that you can sue Toyota for “manufacturing a faulty pedal.” He was elected to Congress after being mayor of Burlington in 1990, and he can partially thank the NRA for that. His opponent, Republican Rep. Peter Smith, came out in favor of an assault weapons ban, sparking an NRA smear campaign against him. This ended up helping Sanders.