On what logic should we base our attitude to the Sanders campaign? And once our attitude is clear, what should we do about it?
To me the key points to consider are can the Sanders campaign gain near term benefits for deserving constituencies – or long term gains if it wins the nomination and presidency? And can it enlarge intellectual, emotional, or organizational means to win larger gains than otherwise with Sanders in office – or with Clinton, or even with a Republican? Can it broaden popular desires and activism even beyond its immediate stated priorities? Can it do these things as well or better than any available other approach?
The Sanders campaign can certainly win gains and is arguably doing so already well beyond any other current progressive endeavors I am aware of.
Likewise, the campaign can certainly generate intellectual, emotional, and organizational possibilities, for winning more gains. People are talking, getting angry, meeting, and forming local organizations. The campaign addresses most current social issues, makes links, and calls forth participation on a grand scale. Yet most left critics seem to judge it by whether or not Sanders openly agrees with them rather than by the more contextual and general criteria.
People say any campaign ratifies campaigning and thereby bolsters corrupt electoral processes. But Sanders himself says U.S. electoral processes are not only corrupt but structurally echo and pursue policies of the elites of society. He repeatedly says that even if he is elected he can’t do much unless there is a massive surge of political activism by millions of people demanding change. Is some other progressive saying this more clearly and with a capacity and desire to deliver?
If I was dead sure the campaign could not deliver under any eventualities – and it is hard to see how I could be – still, what would be gained by saying that even once, much less over and over – as compared to indicating another path to pursue? And what could possibly be gained by claiming or even intimating that those who hope for Sanders to win, or who donate cash, or who volunteer, are deluded or otherwise foolish?
People say the campaign is weak on international affairs and indeed it is. But how does one know if that is to avoid having to forgo talking about economy, polity, race, gender, and climate due to being able to do nothing but answer endless idiot assaults on being a coward or traitor – or if, instead, Sanders and his constituencies literally prefer imperial options? Maybe we should ask whether in the huge constituencies he is addressing the trend resulting from his proposals, words, and activities is toward a more military mindset or toward greater peace thinking? Could he do better on war and peace issues while maintaining his other positive gains and potentials? I think maybe so, but that suggests we ought to offer constructive proposals, not aggressive dismissals nor proposals that ignore the implications of choices.
Perhaps one doesn’t like that while Sanders’ public rhetoric about socialism has made the word acceptable, it has not furthered the specific conception one favors. Fair enough, but whatever your particular conception may be, could Sanders and his campaign have credibly or even understandably advanced it now? I doubt it. And isn’t giving the word any credibility at all, much less what he has accomplished, remarkable? I would have thought it impossible.
Perhaps one doesn’t like that Sanders’ positions on the Mideast are insufficiently anti imperialist. But could an explicitly anti imperialist position be broached now successfully, without derailing his ability to reach out widely, including on that issue itself? Maybe you think so – so you might propose doing it, and I happen to think it is possibly the case. But also maybe it isn’t, so perhaps you might skip saying that not raising an anti imperialist banner means he is part of the problem and should be dismissed or actively reviled.
On the national stage we may wish there was something better, bigger, more militant, more clearly anti capitalist and pro – something – than the Sanders campaign, and with comparable support – but I don’t see that. Do you? Which critic of injustice offers some semblance of a proposal for making progress on a similar scale by another approach?
It seems to me left criticisms of the Sanders campaign almost always imply, ultimately, don’t run for office. Okay, that is a position. But even thinking one knows that in every possible case running for office will will derail into business as usual, what does one gain by denigrating those who are pursuing the effort in lieu of seeing anything else they can do that is remotely as promising? Wouldn’t the task for someone who feels thus be to offer a more compelling, promising, alternative pursuit – rather than disparaging those trying what they find promising? And why disparage in any event.
I am 68. I have never voted for a presidential candidate. Not McGovern, not Obama, and none in between. Of course that is partly because I live in Massachusetts, but still. Yet, I would vote for Sanders in a heartbeat. Might I later get less from him than I hoped? Of course, almost certainly. Might I even get something very close to business as usual. Maybe. Look at Greece. But might I also get more than I expected? Yes, not too probably, but possibly. If I was Venezuelan and I voted for Chavez when he first won office, against the advice of the many highly sophisticated leftists who poked holes because he didn’t address the entire Venezuelan population in the terms they most wanted to hear but instead ran a campaign barely more left than the one Sanders is running, but, like Sanders, appealed to the important constituencies, and became beholden to no power brokers – then, in that case, yes, I would have gotten more and better than I had hoped for. It can happen.
Imagine President Sanders. I bet you can if you try. See him sitting in the Oval Office confronted by corporate movers and shakers shortly after being elected. See them talking to him as if he was their servant. Hear them say, “Okay Bernie, let’s get real and get you a plan to serve profit.” Can you hear Sanders replying, “Okay, sure, I am on board?” Or, can you hear him replying, like Chavez, “I ran to serve the poor and weak, and that is what I intend to do. Please close the door on the way out.” The biggest variable affecting that prospect, and so much else, whether he gets the nomination, or becomes president, or neither, is the number of people ready to actively engage in the streets, just as Sanders says.
What about actually working for Sanders, as compared to simply voting? Well, if I was much younger, yes, I would work for Sanders and try assist the campaign as best I could, as, indeed, I am doing now. Does that mean I think his views are perfect? Of course not. It means I think his effort, in context, can yield valuable gains over the next few years. More, it means I think such work could help arouse huge numbers of citizens into new levels of understanding and continued participation and victories in a way that greatly outstrips anything else I see in place or on the horizon.
When I look at Sanders’ program and compare it to what the bulk of the left compellingly communicates as a whole, in a shared way, to a large audience, I find myself embarrassed at our lacks, not outraged at his lack of perfection.
I can, I should acknowledge, see two arguments that make sense on the other side of this issue. One – Clinton is a woman and having a woman president would be historic. And two – the Republicans are maniacs and Sanders running against them might propel the entire ruling class into supporting the maniacs due to fearing Sanders even more, and the maniacs winning, which would be cataclysmic.
I think both those arguments are substantive but they don’t convince me. To the first, I say it would be very meaningful, yes, but we know from Obama by analogy and from women heads of state in various other still horribly sexist countries that the impact on gender would be quite modest. What is needed is a good woman president, not just a woman president. So if Katha Pollit was running, with a chance to win, I would support her over Sanders. But Hilary Clinton, a horrible woman candidate? Against Trump, Cruz, or Rubio – sure, I greatly prefer Clinton. But against Sanders – no.
And on the second reason, people seem to think Sanders would lose where Clinton would win against a maniac, but I am not sure that Sanders wouldn’t get considerable elite support out of their fear of the maniacs, but even if Sanders got none, having beaten Clinton with no elite support, I believe he could go on and beat the maniacs, too. In fact, I think unless he literally was made totally invisible, no debates, no ads, no nothing, and perhaps even in that case, he would destroy the likes of Trump and Cruz. Democrats have trouble beating Republicans because Democrats have no believable substance to offer. So they win, if at all, by buying the election. Sanders would offer substance, and it would prevail against a maniac, just as the polls already suggest. The biggest hurdle is getting the nomination.