A Socialist in the Senate?
On the surface, the election in Vermont to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Jim Jeffords was a classic battle between capitalists and workers.
In one corner loomed the Republican’s forward Richard Tarrant, a multimillionaire and former CEO of the software company IDX. Nicknamed “Richie” Rich, he spent nearly $7 million of his own money to create the illusion of popular support, blanketing the state with obnoxiously large campaign signs.
In the other corner thundered Independent Bernard Sanders, known throughout Vermont as simply “Bernie.” Sanders served four terms as mayor of “the People’s Republic of Burlington” during the 1980s, and eight terms after that as Vermont’s lone representative in the House of Representatives. He built a reputation for attacking corporate interests, supporting universal health care and defending union jobs.
Sanders knocked out “Richie” Rich, winning the vote by a whopping 2-to-1 margin. Everyone -- from the British newspaper, the Guardian, to Democracy Now’s Amy Goodman -- has heralded the election of the first socialist senator in U.S. history, an independent who will stand up to the two mainstream parties, oppose war, roll back corporate power and lead the fight for workers and the oppressed.
While it was fantastic to see Tarrant humiliated, Sanders’ election to the Senate doesn’t represent a radical departure from politics as usual. He may have a portrait of Eugene Debs hanging in his office, but his politics have little in common with that great American socialist.
In the 1980s, as Burlington’s mayor, Sanders mounted a challenge to the Democrats and Republicans, maintaining a consistent anti-imperialist position in solidarity with the Nicaraguan Revolution and trying to implement pro-worker policies.
But that was long ago. Now Sanders is independent in name only -- he in fact supports the Democratic Party.
As his long-time antagonist and now ally, Democratic National Committee Chair Howard Dean, said on the NBC’s Meet the Press, “He is basically a liberal Democrat, and he is a Democrat at that -- he runs as an Independent because he doesn’t like the structure and money that gets involved... The bottom line is that Bernie Sanders votes with the Democrats 98 percent of the time.” Ironically, that’s more often than most Democrats vote with the Democrats.
Sanders’ voting record is also not so very left wing; one study found that 38 other congressional representatives had a more progressive voting record.
Sanders’ relationship to the Democrats has been developing for many years. In 1992, he supported Bill Clinton as a “lesser evil,” though he later abandoned this impolite phrase to unapologetically endorse Democrats for the White House ever since.
In the 2006 Senate election, he didn’t even really run as an independent. The Democrats cut a deal with Sanders -- they wouldn’t run a candidate against him, in exchange for him supporting Democrats in other races. The Democrats backed up their word by nominating Sanders in their primary, which he refused to accept to preserve his nominal independence. But Sanders did accept support from national Democrats like Chuck Schumer, Harry Reid, Barack Obama and Barbara Boxer. He also accepted a large donation from Hillary Clinton’s Political Action Committee, HILLPAC, which featured him as one of its most important candidates.
Sanders in turn backed Democrats against third-party alternatives. In the election to fill his House seat, he and his supporters helped dissuade Progressive Party hopeful David Zuckerman from running, and went on to support the Democrat Peter Welch, who eventually won.
Sanders’ endorsement of the Democrats no doubt helped him build his war chest of about $5 million, over 80 percent of which came from out of state.
To put an exclamation point on his all-but-declared membership in the Democratic Party, Sanders celebrated his election victory, contrary to his tradition of hosting a separate party, with the Democrats. He has promised to caucus with the Democrats in the Senate, and the media thus takes him for granted as part of the new majority in the Senate.
For veteran Sanders watchers, this capitulation to the corporate Democrats and their apparatchiks is nothing new. He has made it one of his missions to agitate against voting for Ralph Nader, the Green Party and, in some cases, Vermont’s Progressive Party.
During the 2004 election, Sanders announced on Vermont Public Television, “Not only am I going to vote for John Kerry, I am going to run around this country and do everything I can to dissuade people from voting for Ralph Nader... I am going to do everything I can, while I have differences with John Kerry, to make sure that he is elected.”
The political consequence of his capitulation to the Democrats has been a long list of unnecessary compromises and outright betrayals that will only mount in the Senate.
Despite his own claims, Sanders has not been an antiwar leader. Ever since he won election to the House, he has taken either equivocal positions on U.S. wars or outright supported them. His hawkish positions -- especially his decision to support Bill Clinton’s 1999 Kosovo War -- drove one of his key advisers, Jeremy Brecher, to resign from his staff. Brecher wrote in his resignation letter, “Is there a moral limit to the military violence you are willing to participate in or support?”
So outraged were peace activists over Sanders’ support of the Kosovo War that they occupied his office in 1999. Sanders had them arrested. Under the Bush regime, Sanders’ militarism has only grown worse. While he called for alternative approaches to the war on Afghanistan, he failed to join the sole Democrat, Barbara Lee, to vote against Congress’ resolution that gave George Bush a blank check to launch war on any country he deemed connected to the September 11 attacks.
Ever since, he has voted for appropriations bills to fund the occupations of Iraq and Afghanistan, despite their horrific toll on the occupied peoples as well as U.S. soldiers.
Sanders has been critical of the war on Iraq, but he has supported pro-war measures -- such as a March 21, 2003, resolution stating, “Congress expresses the unequivocal support and appreciation of the nation to the President as Commander-in-Chief for his firm leadership and decisive action in the conduct of military operations in Iraq as part of the ongoing Global War on Terrorism.”
He also opposes immediate withdrawal from Iraq, despite the fact that a majority of residents in his home city of Burlington voted for such a position in a town meeting resolution in February 2005.
The day after his election to the Senate, Sanders declared, “I don’t think you can do a quote-unquote immediate withdrawal. I think the policy has got to be we will withdraw our troops as soon as possible, and by that, I mean that I believe we can have our troops out in the next year, and maybe a significant number of them before that. I don’t think you can snap your fingers and just bring all the troops home tomorrow. I just don’t think that’s practical.”
Even more shocking, Sanders scuttled any action on a wave of Bush impeachment resolutions that swept Vermont towns in 2006. Like House Majority Leader-to-be Nancy Pelosi, who has promised not to impeach Bush, Sanders argued that impeachment was impractical, and that activists should put energy into electing Democrats.
Outraged, Dan Dewalt, the organizer of the impeachment resolution campaign in Vermont, said, “We think we have quality politicians in Vermont. We’re wrong. We have politics as usual in Vermont. Our so-called independent congressman, Bernie Sanders, can’t get far enough away from impeachment.”
This summer, Sanders voted for House Resolution 921, which gave full support to Israel’s murderous war on Lebanon. He also voted for HR 4681 that imposed sanctions on the Palestinian Authority with the aim of removing the democratically elected Hamas government.
In response, longtime War Resisters League leader, David McReynolds sent a public letter to Sanders, stating, “Because of your vote of support for the Israeli actions, I would hope any friends and contacts of mine would not send you funds, nor give you their votes.” Indeed, Sanders has consistently defended Israel through it worst crimes against Palestinians and Arabs. Unsurprisingly, some Sanders staffers have also worked with the American Israeli Political Action Committee (AIPAC) -- including David Sirota, now a Democratic Party strategist, and Sanders’ former communications director Joel Barkin.
Finally, in perhaps his worst betrayal yet, Sanders joined a host of liberal Democrats including Barbara Lee and John Conyers to vote for HR 282, the Iran Freedom Support Act -- which bears a striking resemblance to the resolutions that set up the framework for the war on Iraq. The act stipulates that the U.S. should impose sanctions on Iran to prevent it from developing weapons of mass destruction and distributing them to aid international terrorism. It also calls for the U.S. to support democratic change in the country, thereby establishing all necessary pretexts for a war on Iran. Democrat Dennis Kucinich voted against the act and denounced it as a “stepping stone to war.”
Sanders -- like many liberal Democrats -- rightly calls attention to the plight of workers and the poor in Vermont and across the U.S., demanding reforms to address low wages, lack of health care and the absence of a social safety net. He argues that much of this suffering is the result of U.S. free trade policy. But instead of agitating for internationalist solutions like cross-border unionization, as proposed by the global justice movement against neoliberalism, Sanders argues for protectionist policies and economic nationalism.
Sanders’ support for the Democrats confounds his position. After all, it was the Democratic Party under Bill Clinton that passed NAFTA, established the WTO, cut the big deals with China and imposed some of the worst IMF structural adjustments programs on developing countries.
Ominously, Sanders’ economic nationalism has led him to look for allies among Republican right-wingers like Lou Dobbs and Patrick Buchanan, who see China as a rival to U.S. power and are looking for political justification for a new Cold War.
In denouncing Permanent Normalized Trade Relations (PNTR) with China, Sanders wrote, “As the greatest democracy on Earth, we must ask why American companies are turning communist China into the new superpower of the 21st century? While Microsoft is ‘saving a dollar,’ it is helping undermine our economic and military security by gutting our manufacturing and technological infrastructure, and moving it lock, stock, and barrel to one of our major international rivals.”
Sanders defends his alliances with protectionist Republicans. He told the Nation magazine, “In the sense that we are trying to develop left-right coalitions, we also trying to redefine American politics.” Thus, he appeared on a China-bashing panel organized by the Teamsters’ Jimmy Hoffa along with Patrick Buchanan in 2000 during a union-sponsored demonstration against PNTR for China.
One of his former staffers, David Sirota, recently wrote a glowing review of Lou Dobbs’ book, War on the Middle Class. Dobbs mixes populist rhetoric about deteriorating living standards for workers with some of the worst anti-immigrant racism and China-bashing around. Yet Sirota writes, “It is undeniable that aside from Dobbs and a few politicians, America’s political debate is devoid of economic populists. War on the Middle Class confronts this problem head on -- and thanks to Dobbs’ passion and charisma, it succeeds in sounding the alarm that cannot be ignored.”
In cooperating with right-wing populists, Sanders reinforces American nationalism and its attendant racism toward immigrants. Such ideas are an impediment to workers forging solidarity against both American empire and the corporations’ divide-and-conquer strategy to drive wages down inside the US and around the globe.
Sanders can boast of a good voting record in defending the rights of the oppressed. He has consistently voted for the rights of women, gays and lesbians, and racial minorities. However, he downplays all these questions in favor of a populist appeal on economic issues. As one Progressive Party activist told the Nation, “Sometimes, Bernie’s biggest critics are on the left. Some social liberals quietly grumble that Sanders maintains too rigid a focus on economic issues.”
On some pivotal issues, Sanders does worse than subordinate the demands of the oppressed -- he joins in the attack. For example, Sanders claims to oppose the death penalty, but he voted for Bill Clinton’s 1996 Anti-Terrorism and Effective Death Penalty Act, which broadened the scope of the federal death penalty and laid the foundation for Bush’s “war on terror” and attacks on civil liberties.
In 2004, Sanders was put to the test of whether he would stand up against state-sanctioned murder, and he failed. Then-Attorney General John Ashcroft used Clinton’s act to override Vermont law and force a federal death penalty trial for Donald Fell, who was eventually convicted and sentenced to die. Throughout this trial, Sanders remained on the sidelines.
Said Nancy Welch of Vermonters Against the Death Penalty,
We repeatedly called on Congressman Sanders to join us in decrying the imposition of a death penalty trial on a state that had abolished capital punishment,” said Nancy Welch of Vermonters Against the Death Penalty. “We asked him to participate in a press conference with other political, religious, and labor leaders, but he declined. Even when we directly asked him, on a public radio call-in program, if he would join us in saying Vermont should stay death penalty-free, Bernie wouldn't take a stand.
Meanwhile, on the issue of immigration, Sanders has joined the Democratic Party in its attacks on immigrant rights. While he voted against the reactionary bill sponsored by Rep. James Sensenbrenner and passed by the House last year, he has supported other anti-immigrant bills.
He has consistently voted to restrict visas for skilled workers -- like the L-1 Nonimmigrant Reform Act, which he himself cosponsored, arguing that it was wrong for corporations to import workers when they are laying off U.S. employees. He voted for the Goodlatte Amendment to eliminate the visa lottery that distributes 55,000 visas a year to foreign workers on a random basis.
Sanders voted for the Border Tunnel Protection Act that criminalizes digging tunnels under the border, and anyone who uses them. And he voted for the Marshall Amendment to the 2007 Homeland Security bill that funds electronic verification of employment eligibility.
With Bush promising to work with the Democratic majority in Congress to pass anti-immigrant legislation, including more aggressive border enforcement as well as a new guest-worker program, Sanders will be pressed to line up with a lesser-evil attack on some of the most oppressed workers in the country.
Like Al Gore’s attempt to rehabilitate himself through environmentalism, Sanders has begun to trumpet green issues, especially global warming. But while his voting record is good on this issue, Sanders has long antagonized environmental activists. After getting elected mayor with the slogan “Burlington’s Not for Sale,” Sanders attempted to cut a deal with developers for hotel construction on the city’s waterfront and other projects in its wetlands. Activists built a campaign with the slogan “Burlington’s Still Not for Sale” that effectively halted the worst development plans.
Once in the House, Sanders made one of his worst environmental decisions. He worked with then-Texas Gov. George Bush to lead the charge for dumping nuclear waste from Vermont’s Vernon reactor in Sierra Blanca, an impoverished town inhabited mainly by Chicanos on the border with Mexico.
Together, they worked to pass the Maine-Vermont-Texas nuclear waste compact, and then took advantage of Bill Clinton’s decision to allow interstate transportation of low-level nuclear waste. Sierra Blanca, already a toxic waste dump, has thus been poisoned for generations. However much Sanders may oppose the transportation and dumping of nuclear waste in Yucca Mountain for threatening the health of people in Las Vegas, he and the Toxic Texan, George Bush, established the precedent for this with their compact in the 1990s.
Sanders’ positions on energy are also tinged with nationalism. He repeatedly calls for US energy independence from the Middle East, even though most U.S. oil comes from other countries like Venezuela. Such demagogy plays into the widespread anti-Arab racism that surrounds oil politics.
Even with these faults, Sanders’ overall record looks good, but his support for the Democrats compromises even his best positions. As Jeffrey St. Clair has documented in Been Brown So Long It Looks Green To Me, the Democrats are every much a part of the destruction of the environment as the Republicans.
AS IT was with Howard Dean, it is a bit hard for Vermont leftists to believe the national reaction to Bernie Sanders.
As Vermont’s long-time political commentator Peter Freyne noted, “He will not leave a party behind him. So what will be his legacy? I don’t see a next Bernie on the horizon. I don’t see what comes after him. There’s a lot wrapped up in one man, and I don’t know where that gets you in the long run.”
But, in truth, Sanders is leaving a party behind -- the Democratic Party.
Whatever his betrayals, Sanders can still give an excellent speech about the evils of corporate power and the barbarity of class inequality, but he does so as a fellow traveler of the corporate Democrats, who he supports even as they move further and further to the right.
Figures like Bernie Sanders could help workers form a party of their own to challenge the corporate duopoly, and build a more politically self-conscious working-class movement. Instead, like Jesse Jackson and other Democratic liberals, he is the progressive bait on this capitalist party’s hook -- to tempt people who would otherwise want a genuine alternative into supporting a party opposed to their demands and aspirations.
Anything we want from Sanders or the Democrats we will have to fight for. And if we want a genuine socialist alternative, we should follow the lead of Sanders’ hero, Eugene Debs, who said, “The differences between the Republican and Democratic Parties involve no issue, no principle in which the working class have any interest.”
Instead of capitulating to the corporate parties, Debs spent his life building the Socialist Party and the struggles of the working class and the oppressed for our own self-emancipation.
is a correspondent for Socialist Worker. This article first
appeared on the Socialist Worker web site:
http://socialistworker.org. Thanks to Alan Maass.
Other Articles by Ashley Smith