I’m prompted by some of the reactions to my Bernie Sanders piece the other day, to make some further comments. Many people seem to think I was being unkind and unfair to a man who has had a long and honorable career “wisely and effectively” promoting progressive causes. It was not only unkind of me to suggest that Bernie had “entered this race planning to lose,” it was horribly “cynical” (a word that appeared in a number of comments).
First of all, I want to say that this is not about personally dissing Bernie Sanders. I agree that Bernie Sanders has often been a wise progressive on many issues, consistently head and shoulders above almost all of his colleagues. It is also true that Bernie Sanders is not all that radical. It's not a very progressive cohort, after all. His limitations from a left, socialist, or anti-imperialist perspective are well-known. (You can find them analyzed in the sources in note 1 of yesterday’s post.)
Bernie is an FDR-New Deal-type American liberal, with all the limitations that entails. He's a moderate welfare-state social democrat, who calls himself a socialist in a way that can resonate within the strange paradigm of American politics. It’s another peculiar effect of the American political paradigm that Bernie Sanders ever appeared to be super radical. It’s particularly disturbing, as we should all notice, that his brand of FDR social politics is now seen as marginal, exceptional, and out of touch with reality within the Democratic Party.
It’s also the case that, though Sanders has been an effective, if limited, progressive on a local and congressional level, he’s never been, or tried to be, a nationally transformative figure, and never evinced serious Presidential aspirations.
Bernie has also had a particular, cozy, relation to the Democratic Party. Though he's always identified himself and run as an independent socialist, he has maintained close, reciprocally-supportive relationships with the Democratic Party. He participates in the Democratic Senatorial caucus, and the party defers to him in Vermont, never fully supporting a Democratic opponent for his Senate seat. Bernie may not formally be a Democrat, but he's an Adjunct Democrat as least as much as he's an Independent Socialist.
With his run for the Democratic presidential nomination within the Democratic Party, the contradictions of that relationship have come to a head. This is not a question of a psychological or personal fault of Bernie Sanders. It is a question of the limitations of his political stance and of the tensions of the political relationship he put himself in by running for President in the Democratic Party, and pledging his support to any nominee it chooses:
STEPHANOPOULOS: So if you lose in this nomination fight, will you support the Democratic nominee?
SANDERS: Yes. I have in the past.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Not going to run as an independent?
SANDERS: No, absolutely not. I've been very clear about that.
Anybody who understands the Democratic Party — as I and many other socialists and progressives do — as a positive obstacle to substantive progressive policies, including the ones Bernie champions, understands that there are huge problems and contradictions in that position. Especially when, as Bernie knew, it’s Hillary Clinton that Stephanopoulos was likely talking about. Nothing Bernie Sanders has done in his career or that he promises to do in this election gets him out of the problem, or grants him a pass from us considering how those contradictions may play out.
It's facile to reject a critique of what are the complicated, unexpected considerations that arise from a political personality putting him or herself in that kind of contradictory position, as if that critique were some kind of personal or psychological attack. It’s not a matter of saying that Bernie Sanders entered the race “intending to lose,” in order to charge him with some kind psychological deceit. It’s a matter of saying he entered the race to make sure certain issues were aired publicly and to help prevent a Republican victory (all consistent with what he has done and said), and, probably, expecting to lose, which is a reasonable inference given the objective circumstances of the political situation. It’s possible, but I doubt, that Bernie Sanders was the only person in the country who did not have the expectation that he would lose. At any rate, it is interesting for us to consider the unexpected consequences and decisions that arise if those expectations, which we at least had, change dramatically. It’s a question of whether Bernie Sanders will be forced to make a choice he does not want, and probably did not expect, he would have to make.
That is not, either, a matter of whether Bernie Sanders is prepared to “take on the DNC” — as many of commenters seem to think is the issue. If only the DNC were the only impediment he will face. It's a question of whether Barry Sanders is prepared to take on the ruling class. Has he positioned himself politically in a way that demonstrates a willingness and a preparation to do that? The ruling class can and will mobilize an entire apparatus of institutions and agents against him, including but not limited to the Democratic Party as a whole.
Bernie Sanders is the dog who's about to catch the car. We all thought it would pull away too quickly, but that doesn’t seem to be happening. If he catches it, he's going to have to turn into a helluva ferocious beast, or let it go.
Let's consider the kinds of things that are going to happen if it looks like he’s about to catch that car.
It will be a whole array of meetings and conversations and feelers, but let’s imagine it all at once in one room — the Bernie intervention. Every powerful member of the Democratic Party, from Barack Obama and Nancy Pelosi on down, will lean into to him and say: “We will lose the general election if you are our party's nominee.” He will say, “No, my message, more than that of any Republican, will resonate with the people.” — and he will be right. They will then bring in the A-Team of prominent “progressive” Democratic mayors and governors and emeritus politicians, and the leaders of prominent liberal civil society groups and NGOs and (yes, horrifically) labor unions and prominent liberal businessmen—you know, the good guys, the progressives from Hollywood and Silicon Valley and the media and the law firms. They will point out to him that many of them, and many of their colleagues, who would support some other Democrat, will not give him their full support in the general election. “There will be a lot of Democrats — Not me, of course! — who will perfunctorily say they’ll vote for you, but will just sit back and watch you feel the burn.” They will remind him that he will get very little financial support and very few media endorsements, while the Republican candidate will capture a windfall. “So, no,” they will say, “You won’t win. No matter how attractive your message is to the people, you know very well what edited version of that message will be transmitted to them, and through which channels. No matter how right you are, you will lose.”
They will remind him that, parallel to his weakened support among Democrats, there will be a mass offensive by the ruling class, that he will be made quite aware of, to steer the Republican race to produce a “moderate” nominee. If Trump is leading, and they’re afraid of how he will run in the general election, the Donald will be approached and told that there are billions of dollars of deals awaiting him if he can find a way to lose the race to Jeb Bush or whomever and get back to business.
They will, then — it’s tough love, but a friendly meeting — offer Bernie some serous incentives for him to get out of the race, according to how far he’s already got. Understanding that he is too honest to bribe, they will offer some real ameliorative policy proposals for the “middle class” — the extension of Medicare to 55, increases in student aid and lower interest on student loans, maybe a big infrastructure spending project, etc. — perhaps even the right to name the Secretary of Labor or the Secretary of HUD. “You have already achieved so much. Now don’t blow it by jeopardizing our chances in November.”
Bottom line of the pitch will be: “Bernie, if you win the nomination and take it, it will split the Democratic Party and ensure a Republican victory in November. Do you really want to crash the car?”
Now I may be wrong, and perhaps Bernie Sanders will say: “Fuck you and the limos you rode in on. I’m going to win this election, create a political revolution, and change the direction of this country—your mayors and governors and NGOs and labor unions and newspapers and television stations be damned. It’s on.” — but, mmm, I don’t think so.
You can say that’s just cynical old me, and I may be and hope I am wrong, but I contend that it's reasonable to infer from Bernie Sanders’s political history, and from the position he has put himself in (an integral part of Democratic Party politics!), and from what he has said during this election, that his main goal is to prevent a Republican victory, and that if he thinks his presence in the race will risk that, he will find a way to get back to being America’s favorite “socialist” senator.
Politics. It’s a dog-eat-dog world.
Related Post: What Does Bernie Want?
Related Post: What Does Bernie Want?