Saturday, January 30, 2016

What Does Bernie Want?

The assumption was that Bernie Sanders would have no chance of becoming the Democratic Party's presidential nominee. It was understood that he would get a few months to highlight the issues of austerity and inequality before quickly succumbing to Hillary Clinton's highly experienced and well-financed political machine in the early primaries—probably right after the votes were counted in New Hampshire, if not Iowa.  He would then exit gracefully, assuring his supporters, with Hillary at his side nodding in agreement, that the important problems facing the “middle class” had been forcefully and irreversibly placed on the Democratic Party's presidential agenda, that it was going to be wonderful for America to have its first woman president, and that the most important thing to do now was to make sure the goddamn Republicans don't win.

I'm still betting we are going to hear that speech. But the path to it is becoming considerably more complicated, and the stage may not look the same. It’s interesting to consider how the dynamic of the Sanders campaign within the Democratic Party is unfolding.

Preliminary note: I am not going to focus on the deep problems with Bernie’s politics, which are important, but not crucial for this essay. For the purposes or this discussion, I’m going to treat the Sanders campaign as a vehicle that has attracted and mobilized many good progressives for substantively good reasons. My point here is to think about where this campaign is likely going. To clarify where I stand, I’ll put some remarks on two of the substantive political issues that should not be ignored into the first endnote.1

Let’s first consider Hillary’s assets and advantages.

We must begin with the superdelegates. The superdelegate system, through which 20% of the convention delegates are appointed essentially ex officio, with no vote of the party’s constituency, was created after the McGovern defeat precisely to prevent anyone remotely leftist from winning the Democratic nomination. This system gives the un-Democratic Party’s establishment great confidence that it can squelch the kind of uprising of its popular base that is now roiling the more democratic Republican Party. Those superdelegates, and the Party establishment to which they belong, are, of course, overwhelmingly Hillary supporters. That means she starts out with a 20% lead.

To be sure, there are scenarios that imagine scores of those superdelegates peeling off into a Sanders campaign after a couple of primary wins, as happened with Obama in 2008. These sugarplum visions ignore the fact that the difference between Obama and Hillary is nothing like the difference between Hillary and Bernie. Obama was vetted and approved by the ruling class and the Democratic Party establishment as entirely non-threatening, manageable, and amenable to its neoliberal agenda.

In 2008, Democratic politicians may have ticked off the Clintons by defecting to Obama, but they faced no reprisal from their ruling class donors,, or from the party apparatus as a whole for doing so. In 2016, Bernie Sanders is anathema to the Democratic Party establishment because he's anathema to the sectors of the ruling class that support it. it will be made quite clear to every Democrat that he or she will be pay a high cost for defecting to Sanders. Obama was not the leftist candidate the superdelegates exist to stop; Sanders is.

The dynamic of upheaval in the Democratic Party that would follow a Sanders win in Iowa and New Hampshire, and the resulting increase in public momentum will be entirely different, and much more complicated, than what happened in 2008.

Hillary, of course, entered this contest with an enormous advantage in money, organization, and media. She is the preferred candidate — Democrat or Republican — of the ruling class, and the capitalist elite that pays her $200,000 for a speech will give her all the money she needs to become President. She has a political organization with decades of experience. Though despised by the conservative media, she is looked on with great favor by the liberal commentariat, which has, also for decades, been anticipating her ascension as the first female president, another jewel in the crown of equal-opportunity imperialism. As Bernie has emerged as unexpectedly threatening, we have already seen a slew of Very Serious liberal people— Paul Krugman, Ezra Klein, Joan Walsh, etc.— arise to proclaim her superiority to Sanders. Also, she’s not a socialist.

Conventional wisdom has it that this array of assets poses a seemingly insurmountable obstacle to any challenger.

Bernie Sanders, however, turns out to be a much stronger candidate than anyone expected. He has been able to raise considerable amounts of money from the grassroots, including over two million online contributors. Although it's unlikely to have sufficient depth for a longer fight against Hillary, his fundraising has been more than adequate for the early primaries. His organization in Iowa and New Hampshire has been quite good. He’s campaigned enthusiastically, and has made nary a false step. Despite Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s efforts to limit and marginalize debates, and the media’s insistence that Hillary wins every one, Sanders’s support continues to increase. He draws huge, enthusiastic crowds, and his poll numbers climb every week.

His biggest strength, of course, is the enthusiasm he generates among the party's base. The conventional wisdom wants to attribute this to young, millennial voters, but it goes beyond that. Bernie is seen, with good reason, as a honest, transparent, fair-minded person who has a long, open-book, record of fighting for real progressive causes. He is perceived as unbeholden to corporate and monied interests, and is generally committed to what he calls “democratic socialism.” In a nutshell, Hillary flies on private jets and defends the private health insurance industry; Bernie flies coach and fights for single-payer. In today’s America, that’s the kind of difference that gives Sanders a wide appeal to the whole party constituency, not just to millennials — and, in fact, not just to Democrats. Also, he’s a socialist. Turns out, to the utter shock of the Democratic Party establishment and the media that tries to ignore him, that Bernie’s socialism may be more of an asset than Hillary's capitalism.

One might say that Bernie’s biggest strength derives from Hillary's weakness. Let’s not forget that there’s a wild card in play that could blow up the Clinton campaign in a minute: her private email server.2 But her most politically substantive problem is that too many Democratic voters are sick and tired — disgusted really — with the betrayal of their values that Clintonite neoliberalism and “We came. We saw. He died.” militarism represents. The contradictions between the party establishment and the base are becoming too hard to hide or to swallow, and Democrats are repelled by the idea of voting for a Republican-Lite again. And with every word from her, and Chelsea, and Paul Krugman denouncing the foolishness and naiveté of Sanders’s single payer and socialism, they become even more convinced that they will not. Too many progressives have seen the devastating left critiques of Hillary’s career in books like Doug Henwood’s My Turn (see essay here) and  Diana Johnstone’s Queen of Chaos. Even mainstream commentators perceive that “Hillary Clinton’s desultory campaign is sinking.”

Everything Clinton represents in the Democratic Party, every scrap of neo-libservatism that Democratic voters have been force-fed for the past twenty years, is being vomited up by large swaths of its base. No matter what happens in the primary, there are going to be a lot of erstwhile Democratic voters who will just not pull a lever for Hillary. This is the fundamental dynamic that is now unfolding with the Sanders campaign, it is taking on some serious momentum, and it will be very hard to reverse.

Be Careful What You Ask For

Therein lies a big problem — not just for Hillary Clinton and not just for the Democratic Party, but for Bernie Sanders and his supporters.

Bernie Sanders is now dead-even with Hillary Clinton in Iowa, and has what looks, even to the mainstream media, like an “insurmountable” lead in New Hampshire. These states have been given a prominent early role in the media circus that presidential elections have become, precisely because their white, rural character helps, it is thought, to weed out leftist candidates. Given this, plus the assumed superiority of Hillary and the low expectations he started with, if Bernie Sanders wins both of these primaries it will be a big thing — a big media thing, and therefore a big political thing.. Even if he comes in a close second in Iowa, if he wins New Hampshire by double digits, it will be a big thing.

Let’s do consider the shitstorm in the Democratic party that will ensue. If Hillary’s campaign is tanking, and Bernie has built a powerful momentum, and the media can no longer ignore him, and the imagined black “firewalls” in South Carolina and elsewhere start melting away,3 what will the Democratic establishment do? It is certain that they will go into full-spectrum attack mode to derail him, but, as with Trump and the Republicans, everything they do or say to reject him will be further proof to the base that he’s the real alternative to the status quo. If they have to, they will, of course, go fishing around for another “moderate” Democrat who can put a stop to all this “socialist” nonsense. But who, this late in the game? Who, with enough street cred among the riled-up progressive base to stop the momentum of the Bern? Al Gore? Return of the Living Dead, I’m afraid. Ta-Nehisi Coates, perhaps?4

For certain, the Democratic Party will do everything it can to prevent Sanders from being nominated, and they will probably succeed. Whatever the party leadership does in that effort, it’s going to be too crystal clear that they are acting against the wishes of the party base. It will be too clear that the superdelegates, which Democrats don’t like to talk about because they’re so, well, undemocratic, are in fact the party’s firewall against democracy in its own ranks. As more and more Democratic bigwigs proclaim the need to stop Sanders at all costs, and, in support of that need, their own intention not to vote for him if he’s the nominee, it will become too clear to too many of the party’s progressive constituents that the Democratic Party will always trash any remotely leftist contender, and will never move in any direction but right.

But what will Bernie Sanders do when it’s clear the script no longer calls for him to go gently after being knocked out in a fair fight in the early primaries? When it's clear he no longer has to content himself with being the warm-up act, generating enthusiasm to pass on to the "real" Democratic nominee, but has a shot at top billing himself? Is he going to engage in a knockdown fight with not just Hillary or her replacement, but the whole Democratic party machine that will be out to sabotage him? Because that is what it will take to win the nomination. And if he wins the nomination, will he engage fully in the knockdown fight with the Republicans and the legion of Democratic defectors that it will take to win the general election?

From the second the polls close on a clear Sanders defeat of Clinton, the Democratic Party will begin to split in an obvious and serious way that will intensify exponentially through the primary season, and the general election if Bernie wins the nomination. To be clear: That split will happen, not because Bernie won’t support any of the other candidates and the eventual nominee of the Democratic Party, but because a lot (most?) of the Party establishment will not support him.

But everybody knows this — including, I hope, Bernie himself. Not that it makes a difference. The situation creates the conundrum for him. It is not his message, or anything the Republicans have to say, but that sabotage by the Democrats that can most hurt his “electability.” And it can. And he knows it, and worries about it.

Here nub of it: Is Bernie running to win the Presidency or to defeat the Republicans? To start a political revolution or to ensure a Democratic victory?

Does Bernie Sanders want to win the nomination and contest the general election in a fight that will — even through no fault of his own — split the Democratic Party, if he thinks that will risk allowing a Republican victory?

Or (This would be the really strong position!) is the 74-year-old Sanders confident that he can win the Presidency against any Republican challenger, whatever upheaval occurs in the Democratic Party, and relentlessly build an administration that will confront and transform Congress, and catalyze a “political revolution?

A Bernie Sanders who answers any of those questions in the negative, and who has defeated Hillary Clinton decisively in Iowa and New Hampshire, will be tempted to start slowing down his own momentum. He’ll consider putting feelers out for compromises (increased student aid, assurance of extending Medicare to 55-year-olds, etc.), and look for ways to give that concession/endorsement speech, no matter what Democratic candidate may be standing beside him.

Under any circumstances, it won’t be hard for Sanders to lose, and it will be very difficult for observers to discern whether he was just defeated despite his best effort, or let some chances slip away to avoid damaging the party. It would be devastating to his supporters and damaging to the Party to think the latter, or to think that the nomination was stolen from him. This Bernie Sanders would not allow himself to get so far ahead as to engender such suspicions. It will be very important to him, if he withdraws for any reason, to keep his supporters’ enthusiasm alive for the Democratic nominee.

This Bernie will drop out for the same reason he did not run as an independent in the first place: because his purpose is to keep discontented progressives in the Democratic Party.

Sorry to say, I think this is the Bernie we have — a Bernie who is not running to win the Presidency for himself, but to help some other Democratic nominee defeat whomever the Republicans nominate, to get as many of those disaffected voters as possible to pull that lever for Hillary or whoever is at the top of the Democratic ticket. I don’t think Bernie Sanders ever wanted to be President, to spend four or eight years managing the federal government and deciding when and on whom to unleash the imperial strike force. I think “Keep the Republicans out” is his sincerely-felt prime directive, and that his campaign has always been about helping the “real” Democratic nominee with that.

I think he, along with those Democrats who belittle him as naïve, does not understand or accept that there is a fundamental, insurmountable contradiction between even the vague “political revolution” and mild social democratic policies he claims to want, and “keeping the Democrats in.” He does not understand or accept that, by choosing to run as a Democrat, and pledging to support Hillary Clinton or any similar Democratic nominee, he has put himself into a political structure that is antagonistic to the social and political policies he espouses.

As Barry Finger put it, in an artcle in  New Politics: “The position that the Sanders movement articulates – of opposition to the prevailing austerity orthodoxy in current disregard for the task of breaking with the Democrats – is at length self-defeating and cannot be sustained.“ 

That contradiction will be resolved during the course of the campaign, by Bernie Sanders and by his supporters. He and they will either reconcile with Democratic Party’s austerity and imperialism, in return for mild concessions on a few “middle class” issues — the choice, in fact, he has already announced, or break with the party decisively and undertake a campaign completely independent of the Democratic Party for real social reforms.5  From everybody's point of view, the quicker this happens, the better.

What’s creating complications for Sanders and the Democrats is that Hillary’s campaign has been too weak to win quickly — and maybe too weak to win at all — while his campaign has been more successful than anyone expected at building a sense that something different was possible . That unexpected situation may well make the process of Sanders’s capitulation more complicated and grotesque for his followers, and more damaging for the Party, when it all shakes out. It’s not a process that’s going to persuade many of those already-disgusted Democrats to pull hat lever. The bad news, in the present American context, is that the resulting disillusionment is at least as likely to result in depression and withdrawal rather than redirected militance among his supporters.

When the Sanders campaign started up, I read and agreed with Bruce A. Dixon’s analysis that Bernie is playing the role of a “sheepdog,” whose job is “to divert the energy and enthusiasm of activists … away from building an alternative to the Democratic party.” Dixon’s sheepdog candidate gathers in and riles up the disaffected progressives for the Democratic primaries until some comfortable point before the convention, when he “surrenders the shreds of his credibility to the Democratic nominee in time for the November election,” and “the narrative shifts to the familiar ‘lesser of two evils.’” Dixon foresaw the Bernie Sanders campaign ending “as the left-leaning warm-up act for Hillary Clinton.”

I understand that Sanders is not your typical corrupt, opportunist politician, that his career has been unusually honorable, and that his policy proposals (single-payer alone!) though very far from comprehensively addressing what’s wrong with America, incorporate real saves rather than adjustments to the speed with which we hit the wall. Having just watched former Ohio State Senator Nina Turner give a fabulous, impassioned, and spot on defense of Bernie to Chris Hayes, and knowing many of his supporters, I also understand that a lot of good people have been positively energized by his campaign. So I hate, really hate, to say that I think Bruce Dixon’s is still the operative paradigm.

It has, however, become more complicated and potentially interesting. Hillary Clinton is having a lot of trouble getting out of the Green Room, Bernie’s act is going over very well, and the producers are going to have a hard time finding an understudy for the fading star, who will keep the audience in their seats. The upshot is still, I think, infinitely less likely that Bernie gets to be the star of the show than that he delivers that concession/endorsement speech, standing with a new cast member, and our next president, who has not yet appeared on the stage.


Related Post: What Does Bernie Want, Part 2

Notes and Links

1 The first political problem political problem is Sanders’s terrible foreign policy stance. His, let’s call it ”legacy,” Zionism is objectionable, though he's not the worst kind of congresscritter in that respect, and I suspect he’s educable. I am sure the Israelis do not want to see him become President. I know, from a friend of mine in the FIRE industry, who had a high-level guided tour of Israel last year, that all the Israelis he spoke to were ecstatic at the prospect of Hillary’s election. Bernie’s proposal that we should get the Saudis more involved in fighting terrorism in the Middle East is horrific, bordering on the delusional. It is certainly reasonable for any leftist to reject Sanders on that basis of these stances. It’s an obvious, inexcusable cop-out to think you can promote a transformation of all kinds of American social policy while avoiding any thoroughgoing critique of American exceptionalism and military alliances. If even it were possible, single-payer imperialism is no better than equal-opportunity imperialism.

Another important issue is the question of what Bernie Sanders means when he says “socialism.” There are, of course, many different uses of the word.  Nonetheless, I think it’s fair to say that Bernie’s “socialism” is what historically been called “social democracy.” That distinction runs, roughly, as follows: “Social democracy” is a form of altruism. It seeks social justice through the fair taxation of the rich, the redistribution of income, and ameliorative, “New Deal” or “welfare state,” policies. “Socialism,” on the other hand, seeks permanent social justice through the working class taking control of social capital, replacing the political hegemony of the capital of class with the political hegemony of the working class, the great mass of society, through all means of democratic struggle. The question for social democracy is: How much inequality is there between the poor and the rich? The question for socialism is: Who controls social capital and therefore the polity? Those who call themselves “socialist” in the latter sense (as I do), would want to be clear (and I think he would agree) that Sanders is not talking about the same thing they are , or about what historically was understood as the strong meaning of the word.

2 Despite the attempt of liberal commenters (and Bernie Sanders) to insist “There's nothing to see here. Move along,” it is inexcusable for a Secretary of State to keep state documents and correspondence about sensitive diplomatic and national security matters on a private server in her bathroom. We now know this included information that was classified “Above top secret/SAP” (Special Access Programs). SAPs are the “crown jewels” of the intelligence community, Alien Bodies-type secrets. If Donald Rumsfeld had done something like this when he was Secretary of Defense, Chris and Rachel and Lawrence would have done ten shows each on how outrageous it was. It is outrageous, and prima facie illegal, and the scuttlebutt that FBI agents are pushing for an indictment and will revolt if it is quashed, is credible. This is an egregious example of the kind of personal appropriation of classified information for which the Obama administration has prosecuted many good people. If such an indictment comes down, it will destroy the Clinton campaign in an instant.

5 It’s worth remembering that there is an electoral campaign—that of Jill Stein, which is doing that. Here's Bernie's pledge to support the Democratic nominee:

    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.

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