Thinking about Sanders

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.


  1. avatar
    Kim Scipes February 6, 2016 3:38 am 

    Apparently, my url is too long to fit into the Z Net format. You can go to my web site at http://faculty.pnc.edu,kscipes/publications.htm, and go to my 2009 publication, “An Alternative Perspective for the Global South–Neoliberal Economic Policies in the United States: The Impact of Globalization on a ‘Northern’ Country.”

  2. avatar
    Kim Scipes February 6, 2016 3:17 am 

    I’m glad we’re starting to see more interesting discussion/consideration of the Sanders’ campaign that we’ve had so far from the Left, however defined.

    While I’m interested in what Bernie is projecting, I’m actually more interesting in the MILLIONS of people who are responding to him and his campaign. He’s raised a boatload of money from small donations, approximately $27 a piece. Thousands have attended his rallies, gone to demonstrations, and now are voting for him. Something’s going on, and the left needs to think about how to enforce what’s going on and push it further.

    But keep this in mind. Bernie has got the nation talking about income inequality and related issues in ways that we haven’t. First, I cannot remember any substantive discussion of income inequality and related issues between 1973-2011, almost 40 years. This is a time when income inequality has surged, and between 2001-2005, the bottom 80% of all Americans absolutely lost income. By 2005, the US was more economically unequal than all the other “advanced” countries, but was also more unequal than some of the poorest nations on the planet, including Vietnam, Cambodia, Uganda and Bangladesh. And all of this was before the disaster known as the “Great Recession” (and not caused by the recession, either). (For details of this, see my article at http://faculty.pnc.edu/kscipes/Neoliberal%20Economic%20Policies%20for%20US%20(2009).pdf –you probably have to put this in your browser–which was published also on Z Net.)

    The only public discussion of economic inequality in the 1973-2009 period that I can remember was two Michael Moore movies, “Roger and Me” (1989) and “Capitalism: A Love Story” (2009), with a little bit for about two weeks around Hurricane Katrina in 2005. There were some articles written, but they didn’t stimulate mainstream discussion.

    Then came Occupy Wall Street–for all its weaknesses, Occupy developed the meme of 1% vs. the 99%, and got people thinking/talking. It brought the issue of economic inequality into the public domain.

    Now, only 4 years later, we have a major candidate campaigning around this issue. And people are responding in a big way. He’s on to something, and people are responding.

    Will he solve all the problems, if elected? No. To even have a chance, as he recognizes, the US public needs to get off their asses and get engaged. What politician is talking about that? And who is going to educate, organize and mobilize these people after the campaign, if we on the left don’t jump in and earn their respect? And who can push him farther in ways he needs to be published–especially on “foreign policy”–if not us?

    Ed (above) raised the issue of the Green Party. I think a lot of their positions are much better than Bernie’s–no debate. But the Green Party has failed to build an infrastructure on which they can build–and I looked quite interestingly at them in the past. And if you think the mainstream media has ignored Bernie until February 4th, you can’t even imagine how much they’d ignore the Greens unless they had an infrastructure upon which they could build.

    To me, we can sit on the sidelines and pontificate (and bitch). We can get involved with Bernie’s campaign, and push as hard and far as we can, while building relationships with people who have become politically engaged. Or we can dream with the Green Party. The choice is up to each one of us and, in some cases, our organizations.

    But something’s going on that we haven’t seen in a long time. I think it would be a mistake to sit this one out because Bernie’s not good on this issue or that. If nothing else, I think we need to get involved and experiment to see what we can learn from this campaign.

    • avatar
      Ed Lytwak February 6, 2016 3:33 pm 

      Bernie chose to run as a Democrat because he wanted to take advantage of the existing party infrastructure, aka the Wall Street party establishment. The same infrastructure that will make sure that Hillary wins the nomination. The Greens have been slowly but steadily building a solid infrastructure for decades but the little “l” left is too tied into parroting the main-stream media narrative that the duopoly is the only realistic alternative to notice. Its’ not about dreams but imagining that a new kind of politics is possible and in this regard Bernie is just another hustler selling more of the same tired old bull.

      • avatar
        Ed Lytwak February 6, 2016 4:14 pm 

        P.S. Bernie’s “infrastructure” will disappear faster than the snow piles after the big blizzard of 2016 once the Democratic convention is over.

  3. avatar
    Michael Lesher February 5, 2016 9:26 pm 

    Maybe the most important point in this well-reasoned piece is the stress that Sanders himself places on the importance of a mass movement, not just an election. The fact that electing someone preferable to Clinton won’t in itself solve the problems we face isn’t a reason not to vote for Sanders. The election can’t be the sole objective in any case; but a Sanders presidency could give us much larger opportunities than we’ve seen before.

  4. avatar
    David Jones February 5, 2016 5:32 pm 

    I think a reasonable case could be made that elite opinion (far from a monolithic whole) could favor Sanders as the candidate best positioned to save capitalism from itself. that he could de-fuse anger and channel populist energy into reforms. Maybe lower emissions. Maybe the best we can hope for at this juncture.

    • avatar
      Michael Albert February 6, 2016 6:55 pm 

      I think you may be right that a significant subset of owners and other s of high income and considerable power might support or at least not work against Sanders if he gets to the point of running against some Republican. But it won’t be because they think he is somehow a positive thing – that he is going to save capitalism from capitalism’s intrinsic flaws. Rather, if it happens it will be because they are choosing what they see as a lesser evil – wouldn’t that be a twist . As he runs against Clinton it will be evident just how much he is hated, feared, and aggressively opposed in elite circles. If he wins the nomination, still a long shot, but not inconceivable, then as much as he is hated in those circles, Cruz, Trump, and perhaps even Rubio will be, by some rich and powerful people, hated more. A serious threat to power and wealth of a sort they will likely feel they can keep limited is one thing – but a threat to demolish the planet in an escalating and insane fashion that may be impossible to limit, that’s another thing, and some may reject it even at the expense of suffering Sanders. Not to mention getting along with their kids!

  5. avatar
    Ed Lytwak February 5, 2016 3:19 pm 

    The short answer to most of your many questions: the Green Party and Jill Stein, or whomever they nominate. For me a far more interesting question is when Hillary wins the Democratic nomination, would Bernie try to become the Green candidate?

    P.S. a corollary question is why does ZNet and all of the usually outstanding pundits offer minimal coverage of what is going on in the Green Party? Does this reflect the main-stream media narrative that there is no realistic alternative to the two party duopoly?:

    • avatar
      Michael Albert February 6, 2016 6:44 pm 

      No, not at all. Rather we simply don’t receive articles, much less good ones, on Green Party efforts and views. Sometimes things don’t appear in a venue because they are rejected – actually rather rare with us. Other times material of a certain sort doesn’t appear because it doesn’t exist, or isn’t conveyed conveyed.

    • avatar
      Alan Shank February 10, 2016 7:12 pm 

      Hear, hear!!! Dr. Stein and the Green Party are getting WAAAAAAAAAY too little attention by the Left. I am voting for Jill unless:
      1) Bernie gets the Demo nomination (extremely unlikely) and
      2) the vote in California is projected to be close
      Alan Shank, sustainer
      Woodland, CA

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