What “That’s Not Realistic” Really Means: Bernie Sanders, Social Democracy, and Capitalist Apologetics

When discussing politics, or listening to pundits in the mainstream media in the run up to the 2020 presidential election, you’ve probably heard a common refrain: certain policies are “not realistic.” It’s similar to the close-minded remark that certain politicians, such as Bernie Sanders, have issues regarding their “electability”. What are these elites and people who continually parrot these media narratives actually saying?

The most obvious translation of “that’s not realistic” is this: we the people are powerless to change things. Of course, most of those who use the “unrealistic” fallacy conveniently have power and money, which has disillusioned them from imagining any possibilities for transformative changes, and blunted their ability to feel empathy for those less fortunate. It makes zero sense to call Sanders’ policies unrealistic when nearly all of Europe maintains core social democratic institutions with mass public approval.

The question of “how can we pay” for programs like Medicare for All, free college, debt relief, and a Green New Deal always comes up. This is hilarious, of course, because no one asks the elites to justify the annual $750 billion US military budget. Drastically cutting the military budget and redistributing the surplus is how you pay for these social programs.

Another accurate and blunter rendering of what the unrealistic/unelectable memes mean would be: “Don’t ask for too much. Know your place, peasants.” Notice how you don’t see poor people claiming that socialism or “democratic socialist” policies are unrealistic. I’m fairly certain slaves were told their freedom was unrealistic, the suffragettes were told their right to vote was unrealistic, JFK was told by many of the “smartest” people that a moon landing before 1970 was unrealistic. We can go on and on.

Then there are others who are somewhat “progressive”, sympathetic but disillusioned and cynical, and many will say that socialism or even social democracy sounds nice, but we all know the powers that be will never go down without a fight and allow for a systematic reconfiguration of society. In other words, it’s not so much that socialism is unrealistic; but rather, the threat of the elites turning up the authoritarian dial to full-blown neo-fascism is real; therefore, we still cannot afford to nominate a reformist social democrat. Egalitarian, humane, and fair policies are too much to ask for: the best we can do is tinker around the edges and reform capitalism incrementally and very slowly.

This is a blatant falsehood. It’s nothing more than a media-blasted form of collective hive-mind Stockholm syndrome, your basic case of false consciousness. There is a kernel of truth here, and that is the elites will never voluntarily allow for a transfer of power to the masses. The point of electing Sanders (despite his severe foreign policy limitations and reformist inclinations) is the potential of elevating working class consciousness and activating a mass base that will fight, protest, and strike when the ruling classes attempt to drop the hammer on him, his allies, the citizenry, and his policy and legislative agenda.

Just like with any other massive whopper, if enough people in the media parrot that Sanders is “unelectable”, it takes on a life of its own. The “unrealistic” narrative becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy, and perception becomes paramount over reality. Material facts count for nothing, what matters are the feelings and ideological fables of pro-capitalist apologists. Only gradual change can occur, don’t ask for too much or you risk collapsing the whole system, because a Sanders presidency upholding democratic socialist principles would somehow turn the US into another Venezuela. Which, by the way, Venezuela is a democracy, and was a rapidly developing and improving nation before the combination of the drop in oil prices, sanctions, and US imperial meddling took its toll. A tragic example of how perception “trumps” reality in our new game show upside-down world.

Somehow changing things too fast will “rock the boat” and gulags and purges will come back into fashion. Promoting democracy will somehow work against citizens’ interests and do the opposite. It’s quite telling how the elites and the media view the prospect of the masses actually having power, no?

Isn’t it obvious how screwed up things are, and that the primary culprits are capitalists? Just consider global warming for a moment. Only one hundred companies are responsible for 71% of global emissions. If just those one hundred companies invested their profits in renewable energy technology, they could potentially mitigate the worst effects of future warming on their own starting right now. Not to mention that even the smallest green tech breakthroughs in the sector could generate massive federal subsidies to help with the high cost of research and development. Rather than that, however, these one hundred companies continually choose short-term profits over the health of the planet; hire some of the best and brightest scientists and engineers from all over the globe, all in order to divert their brainpower into constructing the most destructive industry the world has ever seen.

What kind of nation is so cowed and beaten down that the moderate reforms offered by Sanders are viewed as impossible to achieve? What about the millions of others who view his economic and social priorities with such fear, hatred, and derision?

Policies such as a Green New Deal, $15 an hour minimum wage, free college, universal healthcare, a universal jobs program, and student debt relief are extremely popular. These are simply the next logical steps to blunt the worst effects of capitalism on a path towards social democratic governance. The ideas promoted by Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar have a democratic mandate with many policies that have over 70% support. If centrist liberals and conservatives want to fight the will of the people, not only are they showing their true colors (as promoters of oligarchy), they are going to lose in the long run. If the Democratic Party had any intelligence and backbone, which of course they don’t, they would put Sanders and “the Squad” at the center of a new progressive agenda.

The undercurrent that is worth returning to in the “it’s not realistic” argument is that most of those who trot out this sort of thing are comfortable, well-off, if not just filthy rich. It’s the elites, but also crucially the conservative and liberal middle to upper-middle classes, the professional-managerial classes (PMCs), as well as small to medium size business owners, those who have climbed our fake “meritocracy” who don’t want to rock the boat.

Many have achieved some sort of professional “success” and secure middle class economic status, and to see a portion of that wealth given back to the poor and working classes makes the PMC class extremely uncomfortable. Of course it’s no surprise that most of these voters are white, unable to see how the structural and generational racism helped their families secure wealth and privilege, and catapulted them into their cushy jobs, while minorities, the poor, and younger voters overwhelmingly support Sanders.

Let’s just take one example: doctors. Doctors are not your typical PMCs, as they frankly do not have to climb a corporate hierarchy which gives them a bit more “freedom” to think and live without completely debasing themselves. One would think they’d be more progressive than your average bank executive or middle manager, and most probably are. Yet, as this survey shows, only 49% of MDs support Medicare for All (M4A below). Medical professionals are supposed to be the “best and brightest” in our society, so this a pitiful figure, really. It turns out they are just another specialist class which cannot see beyond their own narrow material interests, and refuse to make the connections as to how poverty and lack of health care leads to worse health outcomes for the whole of society.

A healthier population would mean less work for doctors, who are constantly putting in long hours. You’d think they’d be all for M4A. Yet the same study confirms the obvious suspicion that it’s all about the money, with 59% being concerned that M4A would reduce physician compensation. Doctors are very highly paid anyways, so the idea that they’d be making a little less should not be a deal breaker. But, yet again, there class interests dictate to them to want to work more, and want to hold a less healthy population captive to our horrible and inhumane health system.

Economic repercussions of a potential President Sanders are in the back of the upper-middle classes’ minds. These folks are worried about their 401k, the stock market dipping, or a that recession could begin. The upper quintile (top 20% of wage earners) or so would probably pay marginally more taxes to fund social programs, and somehow giving back to those less fortunate (as well as accruing the civic benefits of living in a happier and healthier nation) is seen as dangerous. However, the PMCs are so myopic that they can’t see the blinding truth that the vast majority of any tax increase would be paid by the top 1-5%, and that the marginal tax increases they might face would drastically improve the whole of society.

The key thing to remember is that these professional class lackeys of the elite view their wealth as paramount, which they never refer to as such; instead using euphemisms like having “security”, “freedom from worrying about money”, and a “comfortable lifestyle”. Don’t rock the boat or their lifestyles might be impacted, and they might have to share the best doctors in town, rub elbows with the rabble at their favorite café or upscale gym or yoga studio, and generally interact with what they see as the wretched of the Earth. The PMCs also all vote, and though they may lean slightly Democratic, there is a large contingent of Trump supporters as well. Yet the PMCs who vote Democrat are mostly older (40+) and will lean towards those who reflect their beliefs in climbing the “meritocracy,” such as the technocratic doofuses Elizabeth Warren and Mayor Pete in the primaries.

It’s true that imploding the economy via capital flight might be the first thing elites would try to do to undermine a Sanders presidency. Yet that would not be his fault. In this hypothetical situation, the cynical moderate liberal and conservative PMCs would rather pin the blame on the wrong person (Sanders) than try to understand the structural failures of capitalism, and how malevolent and vindictive the elites are.

Another undercurrent of the PMCs and petit bourgeois class is related to the uniquely harsh sado-masochistic traits in US society. I sometimes refer to this phenomenon as “cultural Puritanism.” It was best summed up by H.L. Mencken, when he stated: “Puritanism: The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” ((In “A Few Pages of Notes,” The Smart Set (January 1915).))

In other words, many in the middle classes and petit bourgeois get off on the suffering of their lower income neighbors and work colleagues, as well as finding perverse enjoyment in being exploited by their ruling class bosses and administrators. Brutal hierarchies in work and public life somehow validates and reinforces this cruel behavior in the bourgeois and PMC mind, rather than being viscerally repulsed by the crushing alienation and domination of social and economic life by elite one-percenters. So, universal healthcare, free college, and debt relief aren’t fair, as the poor aren’t “working for it” and “paying their fair share.”

The redistributive policies fundamentally clashes with the PMC worldview, because democratic socialist policies make clear that the poor and working classes built the modern world and deserve better treatment in a vastly unequal capitalist system. The implicit ideology of the “moderate” liberals is ultimately a conservative worldview: the poor are stupid, lazy, and crucially, they didn’t suffer in the right sort of ways; for instance by getting an MBA, by going to law school, by wasting their lives in boardrooms and management meetings, flying around the globe to sell useless products and giving PowerPoint presentations, and whatever else the corporate drones of the world do to convince themselves that they’ve “earned” their riches solely through their own “hard work.”

It’s quite visible when conversing with pro-capitalists, and you can see it on TV all the time when mainstream talking heads discuss Sanders’ policies, whether it’s on Fox, CNN, or MSNBC. I call it the Tucker Carlson look, although his facial expressions are just the most ridiculous of the bunch. He’ll invite a guest on, say a morally decent person like Cornel West, who’ll spell out their ideas to make the world a better place, or at least a slightly less shitty one; and the brow becomes slightly furrowed, mouth goes a bit agape, a look of a mix of befuddlement and incredulity appears, following by either a snide, condescending, dismissive attitude and/or apoplectic rage. These people instantly become either confused, angry, or both at the thought of structurally changing society to help people in need.

What they seem to be thinking, but find it impossible to come to terms with, is this:

“Wait, you’re saying that my actions and lifestyle are implicated in hurting people? You’re making me self-reflect on my empty, hollow concepts of how to care for people and how my bankrupt worldview has made society demonstrably worse? And even though you’re not necessarily blaming me personally, you’re claiming my ideas are not my own, but rather the result of capitalist cultural hegemony which shapes, distorts, and filters my own ideological beliefs to suit capitalism? In the freest and greatest country ever to exist? I refuse to believe this! This is an outrage!”

The whole idea of trying to talk with people who are that far gone is absurd. The good news is conservatives, centrists, and progressive liberals do not always resemble the caricatures that leftists often stereotype them as. Most people are far too normal, boring, and trying to cope with their own problems to rigidly accept capitalist dogmas. Many more are fundamentally uninterested with politics beyond what serves their immediate needs and those of their family and friends, and that’s ok. What’s important is to keep trying to show that the publics’ needs can be better met under a socialist system. There is no nice way to tell someone that their views are ignorant, and it’s extremely difficult to do so without encountering the type of reaction shown above. It’s very difficult, but not impossible. This is the task we are faced with.

It can get depressing when confronting mass ignorance. It’s important to remember that the ultra-rich and their PMC lackeys are in the minority, however. I believe part of what’s been overlooked is that while the elites would be reigned in economically in a social democracy, the PMCs would not lose out much at all, as alluded to above. Rather, they would be hit with a loss in social capital. This is because many, but not all, will be exposed as the selfish burghers they are, for these are the little piggies that helped construct the system for their corporate overlords. It’s very much like in the military, where the officer classes attempt to justify their war crimes by stating they were just following orders.

Like little Eichmanns, they probably know this excuse will not work when the working classes become fully cognizant of their betrayals. Just like US military officers today, who are war criminals for their actions in Afghanistan, Iraq, and many other nations, many of the PMCs are white-collar criminals, upholding a rotten system and implementing neoliberal austerity, structural racism, medical malfeasance, intellectual property theft, and gentrification. Even if their jobs or actions are technically legal, many of them at least can intuit to varying degrees that their work is just plain wrong. They are traitors to their fellow citizens and they know it. They serve the oligarchy and they know it. Therefore, their only hope is to cling to capitalist politicians as their saviors. These people believe that electing the technocrat Warren or the empty sloganeer Buttigieg can clear their conscience, and stop those dark voices in the back of their mind telling them that they are sell-outs, because they voted for a “progressive.”

Perhaps mostly unconsciously, some upper-middle class and elite liberals and conservatives want income inequality, economic stratification, and gentrification to increase, so as not to have to deal with, talk to, or even be forced to interact and look upon the poor and downtrodden, as they are to varying degrees responsible for their plight.

Most people, however, are not getting a fat paycheck from corporate oligarchs, and therefore the unstated and explicit narratives to support this god-forsaken system don’t work. Most citizen are at least willing to listen with an open mind, and the only people who really try to vouch for capitalism are economists, mainstream politicians, or affluent PMC sycophants and business owners who directly benefit from upholding the status quo. This has always been about 20-25% of the populace, a pitiful minority, really. Dismantling the horrible, inhumane system of capitalism will require tact and a sustained effort to repeat the fact that the onus is on those who construct the system to defend and prove its worth. Clearly, capitalism has outlived its usefulness, and the only ones who are unrealistic are those who want to uphold the status quo and insist that everything can stay the same. The only realistic solution is to go beyond capitalism and evolve into a democratic system that works for everyone.

William Hawes is a writer specializing in politics and environmental issues. He is author of the ebook Planetary Vision: Essays on Freedom and Empire. His articles have appeared at CounterPunch, Global Research, Countercurrents, Gods & Radicals, Dissident Voice, The Ecologist, and more. You can email him at wilhawes@gmail.com. Read other articles by William, or visit William's website.