Should United States Senator Bernie Sanders (Independent, VT) come to Iowa and run in the US presidential 2015-2016 Caucus race here, as many Progressive Democrats are urging? He seems interested. In less than three weeks, “Bernie” will visit three Iowa Cities (Dubuque, Waterloo, and Des Moines) to hold “town halls” in which he will share his ideas on rolling back corporate power, raising the minimum wage, controlling climate change, and other matters.
As a radical who resides in Iowa City, I was at first intrigued by the idea of a Sanders presidential run. Sanders calls himself a “democratic socialist” and could be expected to raise critical and interrelated issues of economic inequality, poverty, plutocracy, corporate rule, and environmental catastrophe. He would do so in a way that will stand to the popular left of Clinton Inc.’s Hillary 2016 machine.
I can certainly understand why many decent and well-intended, left-leaning progressives in Iowa and elsewhere might be excited at the prospect of a Sanders White House bid.
So I will try to be as careful as I can as I explain why I won’t back a Sanders presidential run within or beyond Iowa as the next US big money-big media-major party-candidate-centered quadrennial electoral extravaganza (QEE) builds momentum moving into 2015. It comes down to five considerations.
Eye to Eye
First, I am convinced along with a longstanding US majority that the two dominant corporate- and empire-captive US political organizations (both of which stand well to the right of the majority progressive US citizenry on numerous key issues) do not adequately reflect or capture real, majority-progressive popular sentiments in the US. As Andrew Levine, a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, writes on Counterpunch, “our government – and therefore our tax money – enables the crimes we deplore. And there seems to be nothing that we can do about that. In part, this is because in American politics, at the national and state levels especially, money talks; indeed, money is ‘speech,’ according to our Supreme Court. It doesn’t help either that we have two highly polarized, semi-established political parties that fight each other tooth and nail, though they see eye to eye on nearly everything of political consequence” (emphasis added).
The reigning duopoly is an authoritarian disaster, something the de facto Democrat Sanders will only reinforce if and when he enters the Iowa Caucus, which will require him to drop his technical status (more formal than substantive for some time) as an independent and formally enlist as an open Democrat.
Why Help the Elite Manipulation of Populism?
Second, the Democratic Party has long been a full-fledged rich folks’ party, not to mention a party of war and empire. As such, it will never allow a candidate sincerely committed to progressive and populist domestic policy goals – much less, one who calls himself (however vaguely) a socialist – become its standard-bearer. It will nominate either Hillary Clinton or some other murky corporate Democrat in the summer of 2016. Why help the dismal dollar Dems disguise their oligarchic essence? Why abet their attempt to seem to have had a full and open debate over the issues that concern ordinary Americans? Why assist any effort to make either of the two dominant political organizations that Upton Sinclair accurately described as “two wings of the same [Big Business-dominated] prey” (both now stand well to the right of majority public opinion on numerous key policy issues) seem more democratic and progressive than they really are? Why give succor to those who would wrap vile plutocracy in false rebels’ clothes? Why lend a hand to the corporate-captive Democrats’ effort to play their pivotal role in what the formerly left Christopher Hitchens (in a cleaver book on the first Clinton presidency) called “the essence of American politics…..the manipulation of populism by elitism”?
“Elbow Deep” in Empire and “the Blood of Gaza Children”
Third, I am convinced that it is impossible to deal meaningfully with the nation’s massive economic inequalities or to overcome the poverty of millions at home and abroad without fundamentally challenging United States global Empire. This is a lesson that US progressives have been given over and over again: US Empire and inequality are two sides of the same racist, classist, and authoritarian coin. The lesson was given most dramatically perhaps during the 1960s, when President Lyndon Johnson’s briefly declared “war on poverty” was strangled in its cradle by Johnson and John F. Kennedy’s imperialist and racist war on Southeast Asia. That episode is one of many to remind us that, as Dr. Martin Luther King. Jr, remarked, “Injustice anywhereis a threat to justice everywhere.”
Sanders shows little evidence that he’s gotten the historical message. His foreign policy record is pretty much in line with that of any standard imperial Democrat. And it doesn’t help that neither Sanders nor any other “progressive” in Congress could bring himself to oppose the US Senate’s odious “unanimous” vote of support for US client state Israel during its latest openly criminal, mass-murderous assault on helpless civilians in Gaza. Here’s what Sanders had to say when a reporter from The Daily Beast queried him on Israel’s outrages last July: “That’s not where my mind is right now.”
How seriously are we supposed to take a candidate’s claim of concern for poor people at home (or anywhere else) when he cannot lift a finger against the slaughter of innocents abroad by “US jet planes with Israeli pilots” (Noam Chomsky)? As Levine notes, arguing from the moral perspective of Dr. King, “we have no one worth voting for. Gaza proved that beyond a reasonable doubt. Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Al Franken, the handful of progressives in the so-called Progressive and Black Caucuses, and so on – every last one of them is elbow deep in the blood of Gaza children”(emphasis added).
Imagine a Functioning Democratic Society
Fourth, I do not think that entering the Democratic presidential Caucus and primary race is the only way to oppose Hillary and other corporate-imperial fake-progressive Democratic presidential candidates in Iowa and New Hampshire. Progressives in those states could simply ignore or more actively resist Democratic campaign events. They could disrupt and protest those events, making statements against the plutocratic and militarist nature of the Democratic Party today and against the farcical, corporate-crafted charade that the US elections process has become. (It’s a charade that is featured for an absurdly long period of time, particularly in Iowa and New Hampshire – the “first in the nation” caucus and primary states).
Alternately, and more positively, progressives could do something along the lines of what leading Left thinker Noam Chomsky suggested to Occupy Boston activists in October of 2011 – hold local people’s caucuses and primaries based on issues, not candidates and their marketing entourage:
“We’re coming up to the presidential election’s primary season. Suppose we had a functioning democratic society (laughter). Let’s just imagine that. What would a primary look like, say, in New Hampshire? … The people in a town would get together and discuss, talk about, and argue about what they want policy to be. Sort of like what’s happening here in the Occupy movement. They would formulate a conception of what the policy should be. Then if a candidate comes along and says, ‘I want to talk to you,’ the people in the town ought to say, ‘Well, you can come listen to us if you want…we’ll tell you what you want, and you can try to persuade us that you’ll do it; then, maybe we will vote for you”….
“What happens in our society? The candidate comes to town with his public relations agents and the rest of them. He gives some talks, and says, ‘Look how great I am. This is what I’m going to do for you.’ Anybody with a grey cell functioning doesn’t believe a word he or she says. And then maybe people for him, maybe they don’t. That’s very different from a democratic society.”
“The Urgent Task”
Fifth, I agree with what Chomsky and the late radical US historian Howard Zinn have written and said about the sort of politics that ought to matter most for serious progressives. As both of these and other left activists and intellectuals have long argued, voting in presidential elections (and primaries and caucuses) is a relatively minor matter within the deeper and more fundamental struggle for a real peoples’ politics. Zinn put it well in March of 2008, as the “election madness engulf[ed] the entire society, including the left” with special intensity in the year of Barack Obama’s ascendancy:
“The election frenzy seizes the country every four years because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls and choose one of the two mediocrities who have already been chosen for us. …Would I support one candidate against another? Yes, for two minutes – the amount of time it takes to pull the lever down in the voting booth…But before and after those two minutes, our time, our energy, should be spent in educating, agitating, organizing our fellow citizens in the workplace, in the neighborhood, in the schools. Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice…. Let’s remember that even when there is a ‘better’ candidate (yes, better Roosevelt than Hoover, better anyone than George Bush), that difference will not mean anything unless the power of the people asserts itself in ways that the occupant of the White House will find it dangerous to ignore…..”
As Zinn said in an interview with the Socialist Worker after George W. Bush was first “elected” to the US presidency, “There’s hardly anything more important that people can learn than the fact that the really critical thing isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in-— in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating – those are the things that determine what happens.”
Chomsky wrote something similar (and quite a bit more) on the eve of the 2004 elections:
“The U.S. presidential race, impassioned almost to the point of hysteria, hardly represents healthy democratic impulses….Americans are encouraged to vote, but not to participate more meaningfully in the political arena. Essentially the election is yet another method of marginalizing the population. A huge propaganda campaign is mounted to get people to focus on these personalized quadrennial extravaganzas and to think, ‘That’s politics.” But it isn’t. It’s only a small part of politics. ..”
“The urgent task for those who want to shift policy in progressive direction – often in close conformity to majority opinion – is to grow and become strong enough so that that they can’t be ignored by centers of power. Forces for change that have come up from the grass roots and shaken the society to its foundations include the labor movement, the civil rights movement, the peace movement, the women’s movement and others, cultivated by steady, dedicated work at all levels, every day, not just once every four years…”
“So in the election, sensible choices have to be made. But they are secondary to serious political action. The main task is to create a genuinely responsive democratic culture, and that effort goes on before and after electoral extravaganzas, whatever their outcome.”
Could a Sanders presidential run help us build the grassroots movements and weight that Chomsky sees (and Zinn saw) as the “serious political action” that ought to count most for those who wish to bring about substantive progressive change? I very much doubt it, for two reasons. First, candidate-centered campaigns tend to pretty much soak up all or at least most of the political energies of their participants. There’s not much left for efforts to build and expand movements for deeper systemic changes beneath and beyond biennial and quadrennial elections. (This is especially true for the absurdly lengthy presidential race, which begins in Iowa and New Hampshire at least 18 months prior to the actual election date.) As Levine observes, “mid-term elections are upon us, and the contest for the presidency in 2016 is about to heat up. These elections, like others before them, will suck up political energy that would be better expended elsewhere; and, as usual, little, if any, good will come from them.”
Second, there’s the deepened sense of popular powerlessness that will be engendered when Sanders is defeated if not in Iowa and/or New Hampshire then later on, as he almost certainly will be given the giant financial expense of presidential politics and the inevitable and powerful bias of elite campaign donors and “mainstream” (corporate state) media against any candidate who calls himself a socialist (however vague and mild that candidate’s usage of that term may be) and runs against the over-concentration of wealth. The fact that Sanders will campaign on behalf of policies that most US citizens actually support but will lose will obscure the fact that most of those citizens are progressive. It will fuel the deadly illusion that progressive, social-democratic policies lack majority support and further a sense of futility and isolation among progressive activists.
These impressions are not positively correlated with meaningful popular action of any kind, outside or inside the reigning US elections racket. Quite the opposite.
That’s all worse than “little, if any good” (Levine). It’s harmful for progressive causes and people.
The Liberal “Will to Believe” in Savior Candidates
“As democratic politics have moved from the stump to the airwaves,” the leading US political scientist Jeffrey A. Winters (Northwestern University) noted last April, in a Huffington Post Op-Ed titled “Oligarchy and Democracy in America,” “the cost of campaigns has exploded. And they are overwhelmingly financed by the rich, particularly during the primaries when the choices are narrowed and the agenda gets set. In the end, ordinary Americans still get to vote. But their choices are vetted via a wealth primary (with $30,000 a plate dinners) that starts long before ordinary citizens hear about candidates or issues.”
Let’s face it: the US party and elections systems are hopelessly captive to big money campaign donors and corporate media spinners. Those systems are therefore incapable of meaningfully advancing the progressive social and democratic (and social-democratic) policies and values that most US citizens support. As Levine notes, “in a sham democracy like ours, voting is not how justice is advanced.”
This is a harsh reality that may US progressives simply do want to confront. “Lesser evilism happens,” Levine adds, “when elections are held; it will be no different this November or in 2016. And progressive hearts will again be set atwitter – by one or another meretricious savior….In liberal circles, the will to believe is irrepressible. The Obama experience hasn’t stifled it; and even complicity in war crimes and crimes against humanity will not overcome it” (emphasis added).
Why work to help the United States’ frankly oligarchic elections and candidate-as-“savior” arrangement seem like anything different than what it really is – a coldly cynical plutocratic caricature of democracy? Far better to save and invest our energy in a different kind and definition of the politics that matters. Far better to steer clear of the next QEE* to focus instead on developing day-to-day grassroots progressive organizations pushing for fundamental democratic transformation and for transcendence of the nation’s core authoritarian institutions, including its party and elections structures, which are hopelessly ensnared by the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorships of money and empire.
The point is not to denounce or reject electoral politics as such, but to advance and advocate (among other things) electoral and party systems that accurately reflect and empower public opinion and thereby merit popular participation.
*Qualification: How to Maybe Make it Useful
There is, I suppose, one caveat to my negative judgment on a Sanders presidential run. The way to make it useful would be for him and others to use his candidacy as an opportunity to bring substantive issues – including the authoritarian fiasco that is the corporate-dominated and militaristic US elections system and political culture – into the public eye, without illusions about his campaign. It could be worthwhile, perhaps, if Sanders exploited his platform to, among other things, note the absurdity of how he is going to get clobbered even though he is advancing policies that most citizens support – and to tell folks to follow Chomsky Zinn’s advice on the real politics that matters most beyond those minutes in the ballot box (or those two hours at the caucus). Along the way, he could (ironically enough) mock the delusions and trickery of US candidate-as-“savior”-centered politics and follow the example of Dr. King by realizing and stating unequivocally that one cannot meaningfully oppose domestic poverty, racism and inequality without meaningfully confronting Empire at home and abroad.
None of that would be easy. Little of it strikes me as likely. But it’s probably the only way to create a Sanders presidential run that would help rather than harm the interrelated struggles for justice, peace, democracy, and environmental sustainability.
In the meantime, maybe progressive Iowa and New Hampshire residents should try to launch some version of the bottom-up people’s caucuses and primaries that Chomsky proposed to Occupy Boston – the way we’d approach presidential and other candidates in “a functioning democratic society.”
Paul Street (www.paulstreet.org) is the author of many books. His latest is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (Paradigm, 2014, https://paradigm.presswarehouse.com/Books/BookDetail.aspx?productID=367810)