In previous posts (here, here, and here) I’ve expressed skepticism about whether Bernie Sanders will really go through to the end with the knockdown fight against the Democratic Party machine that will be required to win the nomination.
My skepticism is based on the contradiction between, on the one hand, Bernie’s call for a political revolution against the “rigged” social economy of the 1%, and, on the other, his explicit commitment to running in the Democratic Party, keeping it united, and supporting whatever candidate the party chooses, including Hillary Clinton.
The Democratic Party as an institution, and Hillary as a political persona, are primary obstacles to any such political and social revolution. It is the programmatic ideology promoted and practiced by Bill and Hillary Clinton, and honed by the Obama administration, that has defined the Party as a strategic partner of the ruling class for at least twenty-five years. It’s hard to make a revolution from within a principal political institution of the counter-revolution. And I think it’s beyond Bernie’s ability (and perhaps his intent) to transform that institution into its political opposite.
This contradiction within the Sanders campaign, and within Bernie’s political persona, is, of course, a reflection of the contradiction within the Democratic Party between its popular class base and its elite institutional interests. For leftist Sanders supporters who accept this analysis of the Democratic Party, the implicit argument must be that he’s indeed mounting a coup to revolutionize the Party. But there’s a flip side to that argument: If he’s not mounting a coup, he’s not really running a campaign. For skeptical leftists, it is obvious that Bernie systematically avoids and elides this contradiction in order to protect the fictional and precarious unity of the Democratic Party against what he sees as the greatest evil of the Republicans. That strategy of protecting, via avoidance and elision, the precarious and pernicious unity of the party makes Bernie Sanders at one with Hillary Clinton, as a Democrat.
If FDR’s grand historical project was to save capitalism from itself, I fear that Bernie’s more modest mission is to save the Democratic Party from itself.
But the more unexpectedly successful Bernie’s campaign is, the longer the primary contest goes and the more contentious it gets, and the more his supporters get fired up for the political revolution he calls them to, the more likely it is that this contradiction will become evident, forcing Bernie to make choices he had hoped to avoid. Winning the Democratic nomination will require defeating not just Hillary, but the entrenched Clintonism of the party tout court, and will inevitably split the party radically. Will Bernie fight to the finish, or will he pull his punches, allowing Hillary or some other Clintonian surrogate to defeat him, if that’s what it takes to avoid dividing the party?
In those previous posts, I’ve explored my wariness about how Bernie might react to such pressures. In a twist on the “leading from behind” strategy sometimes ascribed to Obama, we may find that, as Bernie’s campaign gathers momentum, he will be less charging ahead for the win than following from in front
We can see this contradiction simmering beneath the surface of what Bernie has been saying, and not saying, as his campaign has garnered wide popular support, new media attention, and unexpected success.
It struck me, for example, that, early in his speech celebrating the blowout victory in New Hampshire, which established him as a serious contender and sent the Clinton campaign reeling, he took pains to say the following:
But, I also hope that we all remember -- and this is a message not just to our opponents, but to those who support me as well. That we will need to come together in a few months and unite this party, and this nation because the right-wing Republicans we oppose must not be allowed to gain the presidency.
I heard: “Yeah, it’s great that we won. But remember, guys and gals, our real goal is to unite the Democratic Party—behind Hillary if necessary--and defeat the Republicans.” Nice and principled (in Democratic terms) of him. A caution about where this will end up?
I also heard Hillary’s concession speech, and it was more in the vein of: “I’m the one for the job. We’re going to win!” To quote her exactly: “We're going to fight for every vote in every state.” Hillary is charging ahead. She thinks the important thing is to elect her. Telling her supporters: “Be prepared to unite behind Bernie”? Not so much.
In the subsequent debate in Wisconsin, Hillary was again very much on the offensive. She also took up the tactic of constantly marrying herself to Obama. It’s a cynical and despicable attempt to curry favor with black voters, from a woman who at the time applauded, and today “continues to invoke the economy and country that Bill Clinton left behind as a legacy she would continue”—that legacy being, as Michelle Alexander painstakingly chronicles, a mass-incarceration regime that “legalized discrimination in employment, housing, access to education, and basic public benefits,” and “relegated [millions of African-Americans] to a permanent second-class status eerily reminiscent of Jim Crow.”
No matter how transparently phony Hillary’s posture is to leftists familiar with such critiques, it has purchase with many Democratic voters who have convinced themselves that the Clintonian Democratic legacy, which the Obama administration has continued and refurbished, is some kind of progressive thing—because, well, Republicans. In saying: “I’m carrying on the Obama program,” Hillary also means “I’m carrying on the Clintonian Democratic program.” And every moment of hesitation in identifying, fighting, and defeating that introduces an incoherence, a weakness, in Bernie’s position.
The Obama hook is the Democratic hook. Will Bernie stay bait, or wriggle off to swim free?
Here’s how it’s been going so far:
Bernie says something like: “We need a single-payer Medicare-for-all health insurance system. It’s a disgrace that we’re the only developed country in the world that does not guarantee healthcare to its citizens as a right.”
Hillary responds with something like: “I want to build President Obama’s wonderful accomplishment, the Affordable Care Act (ACA). Before it was Obamacare, it was Hillarycare. That’s already got us 90% coverage. We’ll figure out a way to get the last 10% without dismantling the ACA, Medicaid, and CHIP, raising taxes on the middle class, or eliminating the private health insurance industry. This has been the way
Democratic Party our progressive President Obama has chosen. I don’t want
to start all over with a new contentious debate.”
Bernie does not say: “Whatever good it does, the ACA has serious shortcomings. It will never achieve full coverage. The fact that it preserves the private health insurance system will always make some of its products unaffordable. We see the insurance companies raising premiums and deductibles, and narrowing networks, as they must to make their profits. Furthermore, the subsidy structure has inherent flaws. We will see more people paying extra taxes and still not getting health insurance. That is absurd. Subsidizing private profits with public monies is absurd and unjust. Medicare is a known and well-liked system that is a better replacement.”
Instead of pushing forward with something like this, in however reasonable a tone, Bernie will repeat what he said before. He has avoided making any specific points—paying taxes for not getting insurance!—that might lead to a critique of the policy as a whole, because the policy as a whole is entirely the product of the Democratic Party (and of his collaboration with it), and cannot be blamed on the Republicans. He avoids these points even if they are points that everyone understands, and is pissed off about, and would strengthen his position.
By the way, I hope Hillary’s ongoing use of the ACA as a club against single-payer makes clear to everyone, for once and for all, that Obamacare is not, and was never meant to be, a “step towards” a single-payer system, but is an obstacle to one—exactly as Hillary is using it. As David Sirota showed, it was designed by the Obama administration "specifically to prevent it from evolving into a single-payer plan." Yes, as I’ve pointed out, the Democrats are entirely responsible for the fraud and con that is the ACA, and liberals who think Obamacare is some kind of some kind of step in the right direction, rather than a deliberately-planted obstacle to moving forward, are no less deluded than Tea Partiers who think it's some kind of socialism.
We can see a similar reticence on Bernie’s part with another of his mainstay progressive topics: growing inequality. Bernie says it’s a disgrace that “almost all new income and all new wealth going to the top 1 percent,” that no banksters have been jailed but kids carrying a joint are thrown in prison. And Hillary then throws the bone of how wonderful the Obama administration’s economic policy has been.
Can Bernie, while Hillary taunts him with Obama, pretend to continue a serious critique of inequality without mentioning that, as Andre Damon put it “the so-called economic ‘recovery’ is nothing but the transfer of wealth upwards, from the great majority of the working population to a handful of financial oligarchs,” and that it was the Obama administration that shepherded the greatest transfer of wealth in history to—forget the top 1%--the top one-hundredth of 1%?
Note “recovery” trend since 2008
Can we criticize Hillary’s embrace of Henry Kissinger, and ignore Obama’s embrace of Larry Summers and Ben Bernanke? Would it not strengthen Bernie’s position, make him more “electable,” to point out problems that everybody knows are real?
Ah, but that would open up a critique that cannot be limited to Republicans, but would have also to encompass the Clinton-Obama administrations. The $4.5 trillion shoveled from the American public to Wall Street banks through Quantitative Easings over the last 8 years can’t just be blamed on George Bush and the Koch brothers. Mentioning that would not be good for preserving the unity of the party, or persuading his supporters to vote for someone who will exacerbate those very problems.
And there is, of course, Bernie’s other crucial issue, the “corrupt campaign finance system,” which he rightly insists is a foundation of the “rigged economy” that funnels all wealth to “Wall Street” and the top 1%. In that regard, he has not been shy about mentioning Hillary’s $600,000 in speaking fees from Wall Street financial institutions. To which Hillary responds that of course she is not at all influenced by that money, any more than was Barack Obama, who, she correctly notes, “was the recipient of the largest number of Wall Street donations of anybody running on the Democratic side ever.”
In fact, precisely because he was getting so much Wall Street money in 2008, Obama reneged on his promise, which John McCain kept, to use the public financing system. That decision was arguably every bit as consequential as Citizens United. A different decision by Obama would have created a bipartisan precedent that would have put severe pressure on subsequent candidates. The decision Obama made, as an ostensibly progressive Democrat, guaranteed that the presidential race would be an unlimited private fundraising contest ad infinitum. As McCain later lamented: “No Republican in his or her right mind is going to agree to public financing. I mean, that’s dead. That is over.”
Can Bernie Sanders pretend to be serious about campaign finance while being unwilling to critique Obama’s egregious betrayal of public financing? As Hillary taunts him to address Obama’s record, doesn’t Bernie become weaker by ignoring it? You can bet he, and Hillary, would be all over it, if it had been McCain who reneged on that promise. But, again, because it implicates Democrats at least as much as Republicans, because it might undermine the support he might want them to give to Hillary and her Wall Street money in a few weeks, Bernie does not want his supporters thinking about that too much.
Of course, I’m not touching here on any of Bernie’s terrible avoidances and pronouncements on all the issues surrounding American imperialism. (Call the Saudis to take care of ISIS! Stop Russian aggression!) I’m just talking about issues where Bernie promotes substantively positive progressive positions.
Now some will say that Bernie is just being shrewd here. It’s not that he’s holding back and weakening himself in order to preserve the unity of the Democratic Party at the expense of his own chances for nomination. It’s not that he’s, in principle, unwilling to fight the Democrats for his political revolution. It’s a tactical decision, to avoid antagonizing any sector of the party so he has a better chance at the nomination. There’s certainly no reason, by criticizing Obama’s policies, to alienate the black voters he must persuade to defect from Hillary. Once he gets the nomination, all the gloves will come off in the general.
Let’s, for our purposes here, dismiss as electorally naïve (even if it’s supported by considerable anecdotal evidence at this point) my nagging feeling that there’s something patronizing and inaccurate going on here. I know my point has been that Bernie doesn’t want to criticize either Hillary or Barack too much, even though criticizing both is necessary for his political revolution. At the same time, I think it’s fair to say that Bernie has been more willing to criticize Clinton than Obama, and fair to ask whether that implies less respect for black voters’ ability to distinguish between criticizing a policy and insulting an identity.
Let’s acknowledge that Bernie has been getting more assertive. He admirably pushed back on Hillary’s implication that it was a sin to have any disagreements at all with Obama. He hasn’t let up on Hillary’s Wall Street money connection. He's unabashedly put the concept of "socialism" in the public discourse in a positive way. He’s talking about the U.S. not being the world’s policeman, and he even—finally!—mentioned Libya, which starts to go beyond the 12-year-old critique of Hillary’s 2003 judgement. I hope he now takes on her nefarious rhetorical tactic of implying that promoting progressive social policies, like single-payer and free public college tuition, implies some kind of surreptitious capitulation to racism and sexism. That line of attack can be easily and mightily turned against her—if it’s met head-on and forcefully demolished, without concern for the inevitable cost to her credibility as an eventual Democratic nominee.
For all the reasons mentioned above and in my previous posts, I still doubt Bernie will go much further into questioning the whole Obama-Democratic administration policy. I may be wrong, and I do hope Bernie crushes Hillary in the debates and at the polls, fights to a victory over the Democratic establishment, and becomes the nominee. It would make for a hell of an election in November. Then again, I don’t care what damage that does to the Democratic Party.
Even accepting the tactical, don’t-ruffle-too-many-Democratic-feathers-right-now argument, that leaves one more issue that seriously affects the nomination process: the superdelegates. With Bernie’s unexpectedly strong showing, his supporters are now all over this issue. Given the electoral results so far, the fact that Hillary Clinton has about 350 more delegates than Bernie is inarguably a travesty in a party that calls itself democratic. There are at least three petitions I’ve seen, calling either for the Party to do away with the superdelegate system or to require those delegates to support the candidate who wins the most votes (not the same as trying to persuade them one-by-one). This is purely and simply a demand for democracy. Advocating it does not require a deep, complex critique of any politician or any administration. It doesn’t require being moderate, or progressive, or socialist. Just democratic. The only possible reason to resist it is an impulse to thwart the electorally-expressed will of the people. And the only target of that impulse in the present instance is Bernie Sanders.
If Bernie unequivocally wants the nomination, he should immediately—and certainly if the results in Nevada and South Carolina confirm that he’s a serious contender—join his supporters in demanding that the superdelegates be eliminated or required to follow the popular vote. Call Hillary and the party out on their commitment to democracy, straight up. It’s a demand that nobody can begrudge, and it would jump start the possibility of real change in the party—the kind of change that is indispensable for his proposed political revolution.
I can see no reason Bernie wouldn’t make this demand. I can see no reason why he wouldn’t join his supporters who are already agitating for this, and no reason why they would not ask him to join them in this simple demand not to let their efforts go to waste or let him be cheated out of the nomination.
Is there some reason, besides not wanting to discomfit the Party too much, for him to demur on this demand? Does he not have to be willing, if not eager, to incite infinitely more disruption in the party to win the nomination, run as a Democrat in the general election, and create anything like the political revolution he proposes?
If Bernie does forcefully make this demand regarding the superdelegates, when it looks like he has a real chance of winning the majority of elected delegates (if he’s already out of the race, it doesn’t count), it will allay much of my skepticism about his ultimate intentions in this election. If he doesn’t, I have to ask him and his supporters: Why not?