The Serious Left and Bernie Sanders in 2020

Taking down the Democratic Party is the most important task of the new year.
— Danny Haiphong, Black Agenda Report

In a recent piece, Ryan Grim poses the question “Can the Bernie Sanders’ Campaign Alter the Course of the Democratic Party?” (The Intercept,1/3/2020). Citing evidence from economist Thomas Piketty’s new book “Capital and Ideology,” it’s clear the Republicans continue to represent the rich and more than ever, Democrats “the not quite as rich.” As such, “There’s no obvious party home for the working class, and no motivation for the government to do anything for them.” Grim then details Sanders’ attempt to bring together a working-class coalition that will put a “democratic socialist” in the White House.

First, I don’t take Grim’s implicit assumption for granted that it’s incumbent for serious leftists to automatically support Sanders’ bid for the presidency. Second, and closely related, is the unstated inference that the government in its existing form could be “motivated” to respond to working class demands. Both propositions are at least debatable and it’s in that spirit that I’m posing a few questions.

If, on the one hand, Sanders is again denied the Democratic nomination (highly likely) and then embraces a Wall Street Pete, Biden or other corporate neo-“liberal” Democrat and stands by the DNC loyalty letter he signed, only the aggressively ignorant would fail to see that as a revelatory teaching moment. Yes, some Bernie followers might experience feelings of despair, cynicism and powerlessness and our genuine sympathy would not be out of place. But at that point the onus would be on us to expose our failed, fraudulent institutions. Failing that, we’re likely to hear “On to the 2022 midterms!” Or even “AOC in 2024!” On the other hand, if Sanders breaks his DNC pledge (also unlikely and inconsistent with his past), bolts the DP and uses his stature and vast organization to begin building a radical grass roots organization and a mass political party of working people and youth, we should support him.

Alternatively, if a miracle occurs and Sanders obtains the nomination and wins the general election, another option looms. Given the Deep State forces aligned against him, President-elect Sanders’s agenda will be stillborn and he’ll be a lame duck the moment he takes the oath of office. At that point, the potential for a teachable moment increases a thousand fold as do the prospects for major street actions involving massive civil disobedience. I could be wrong but I sense that Sanders’ supporters and perhaps many others would be sympathetic.

A few other questions and issues to consider:

Is Bernie Sanders a socialist? Not today, by any criteria of which I’m aware. He was a Socialist back in the early days, arriving in Vermont in 1968 with a keen interest in third-parties. He publicly identified with Eugene V. Debs (five-time socialist candidate for president) and even posted a photo of Debs on his office wall. In his third party campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1972 (special election) and in 1974 he ran as an independent, receiving 2.2 and 4.1 of the votes. Later, running on both the Democratic and Independent lines in the primaries, he was elected to the U.S.House and later the U.S. Senate as an Independent. In Washington he’s been almost indistinguishable from mainstream Democrats although adding some important progressive amendments to Democratic bills. Until very recently, he held mostly hawkish views on foreign policy.

Sanders’s vision for the United States resembles the so-called Nordic model of a free market capitalist economic system cum extensive social benefits, sometimes called “compassionate capitalism.” However, this comparison ignores the critical roles played in those countries by strong, radical unions, popular movements and left parties. Nor does it acknowledge the recent adoption of neoliberal policies and the rise of the far-right in the Nordic region. (Note: Danish troops were direct participants in the “coalition’s” invasion of Iraq and as of this writing remain there.)

As such, while the term “left populist” is problematic it’s probably a fair moniker for Sanders. Whatever the case, by running for president as a Democrat he’s linked himself to our two-party capitalist duopoly. Tellingly, even his mild reformist program scares the bejesus out of the predator class and its collaborators. As a consequence, the harsh reality is that establishment Democrats would rather lose to neofascist demagogue Trump than gain the White House with Sanders.

Sanders’ rise is a symptom of the incapacity of our two-party corporate duopoly to respond to working demands for genuine economic and political democracy. Sanders is also a catalyst and perhaps even an indispensable transitional figure. I’ve never doubted his commitment to what he professes to believe and his efforts have contributed mightily to the plunging popularity of capitalism, especially among millennials and the revival of socialism as a viable option. According to recent polls, half of young Americans now favor socialism over capitalism. That being said, and his motives aside, if implemented, Sanders’ neo-New Deal program would at best serve to save capitalists from themselves, not unlike what FDR attempted in the 1930s.

Put another way, because Sanders is running as a Democrat and because the two parties share the same corporate agenda, it’s dicey to parse a vote for Sanders in the primary as distinct from providing cover for the DP’s unremitting anti-worker and imperialist foreign policies. For some serious leftists that’s a game breaker, an unprincipled compromise. As Black Agenda Report’s Executive Editor Glen Ford writes, “The Democrats, like their corporate and banking masters, are determined to preserve the neoliberal order — the Global Race to the Bottom in which U.S. workers compete with super-exploited workers in the developing world.” ((Glen Ford, “Trump is a Criminal, But the Democrats Belong to the Same Mafia,” Black Agenda Report, January 9, 2020.))  Is this fact countered by the reasonable assumption that the election outcomes will reveal the futility of trying to reform the DP from within? If so, the better Sanders’ showing the more clarifying the lesson. Again, the burden is on us to make a convincing case that the DP is where all hopes for a socialist future go to die and that top Democrats have no interest in abetting ruling class suicide.

What kind of experiences will advance the prospects for raising class consciousness and socialism in this country. Yes, we should agitate and propagandize but major swaths of the working class retain potent illusions about Congress and the Democrats. As much as we might wish that wasn’t the case, it’s a fact and how could it be otherwise? We know the Democratic Party is a cul-de-sac, but patronizing postures toward those who disagree with us only evidences self-appointed vanguardism and off-putting elitism. We should keep in mind that with few exceptions, virtually all radicals began their political journeys as liberals.

Further, in approaching this entire matter I worry about fencing ourselves off from Sanders’s supporters, many of whom share our values and political positions and are to the left of Sanders. There should be no reluctance to engage in respectful give-and-take but no good purpose is served by disparaging and hence alienating left populist youth and workers.

Finally, I like to believe my political opinions are open to change, subject to acquiring new information and hearing compelling arguments. Wholly satisfying answers still elude me but I suspect these questions merit more dialogue than has been the case and I invite your critical responses. We’ve never needed them more.

Note: I’ve benefited from conversations with Jeff Booth, a veteran left activist and astute political analyst, but brother Booth bears no responsibility for my sometimes inchoate musings.

Gary Olson is Professor Emeritus at Moravian College, Bethlehem, PA. Contact: Per usual, thanks to Kathleen Kelly, my in-house ed. Read other articles by Gary.