By Jeffrey St. Clair
This piece first appeared at Counterpunch.
I’m going to be a happy idiot
And struggle for the legal tender
Where the ads take aim and lay their claim
To the heart and the soul of the spender
And believe in whatever may lie
In those things that money can buy
Though true love could have been a contender
Are you there?
Say a prayer for the Pretender
Who started out so young and strong
Only to surrender
–Jackson Browne, The Pretender
I admit it. I had finally begun to warm to Bernie Sanders. With each new Berniefest, the old animosities melted a little. After years of unmitigated loathing for Sanders, I was beginning to feel a little pride in the homespun campaign waged by the Faux Comrade from Vermont.
Much of this had to do with the creeping anxiety that Sanders and his growing band of adherents, who I’ve taken to calling the Sandernistas, are inflicting on Hillary Clinton. Every time Hillary is forced to pop some political Prozac, a part of me cheers. Thank you, Bernie.
No doubt, it’s a curious appeal. I’ve never thought of Bernie Sanders as a spellbinding speaker. He doesn’t have the polished allure of Obama or the seductive flair of Jesse Jackson in his prime. His Brooklyn accent is thick, his style more stentorian than passionate. The key to Bernie’s charisma is his charming lack of charisma. But his stump speeches, offering a plodding pastiche of the same liberal economic platitudes that have been common currency since Hubert Humphrey, are packing them in, from Denver to Madison. There is a seething desperation on the economic margins of the country that is luring people toward Sanders as the only antidote for their anguish.
In the presence of this largely ad hoc movement, it is almost possible to anesthetize one’s conscience against the moral revulsion prompted by Sanders’ adamantine allegiance to the Israeli state in the face of one atrocity after another. After all, nearly every politician in Washington acts like an automaton programed by the Lobby. One can also temporarily stifle one’s distaste for his stubborn support of a blustery our-way-or-the-highway militarism, from Yemen to Ukraine. Likely it seemed the politic thing to do at the time.
The self-proclaimed independent socialist even initially backed Bill Clinton’s cruel bombing campaign against Serbia, an independent socialist country. Oh, well, the era of Post-Modernism has apparently given way to the age of Post-Irony. Sanders isn’t a pacifist. Unlike most socialists (excepting, naturally, those of the Christopher Hitchens School of Neo-Trotskyist Interventionism), Sanders is not even an anti-imperialist. Understood. But did the senator have to go so far as to call in the cops to arrest anti-war protesters who had peaceably assembled at his office in Burlington? Tough call, I guess. Perhaps his staffers had dinner reservations at a hot new bistro in Brattleboro and needed to close up shop early that day.
One must, I suppose, tolerate Bernie’s ongoing backing of a bloated military budget, especially for the production of fighter jets and aircraft carriers, because it means jobs for Vermonters. That’s merely called bringing home the bacon and all politicians do it, more or less.
Sweep aside, for a moment, Sanders’ bewildering votes for draconian federal crime and anti-terror laws, even one that savagely eviscerated the right of habeas corpus, a minor infraction, apparently, which has hardly been noticed, even on this the 800th anniversary of Magna Carta.
It must be admitted that the Sanders’ campaign isn’t attracting many blacks to his super-rallies, and this is surely unfortunate. Still, the senator’s catatonic reaction in Phoenix when confronted by Black Lives Matters activists can, perhaps, be shrugged off as a lack of advance preparation. He was, in the words of one of his backers, “ambushed.” Almost certainly, he’ll soon get his groove back and do better next time. Yet, it’s easy to understand why so many African-Americans resist his charms. Where was he when they needed him? Where is he now, as the black body count continues to mount at the hands of the state?
Okay, these nagging caveats about the Sanders campaign, which keep percolating up with the annoying persistence of Banquo’s Ghost, can, with maximal effort, be suppressed for the over-riding goal of the second, and final, humiliation of Hillary Clinton and the eradication of the toxic of virus of Clintonism that has ravaged the political body of the American left for more than two decades. Yes, I confess! I’m an ABHer (pronounced “Abhor”)—Anybody But Hillary. I mean anybody, even Martin (Who-the-Hell-is-That?) O’Malley. But Bernie suddenly, even miraculously, has the best shot. He’s the one rattling the gilded cage, getting under her skin and on her nerves.
But here’s the rub. Bernie has no plans to humiliate Hillary. So far he has been an accidental agent of her anxiety and he intends to keep it that way. Bernie refuses to go negative and pledges to support the eventual nominee of the party, that is Hillary. This restraint has earned the senator the patronizing plaudits of Rachel Maddow and the Hipster Chorus at MS-DNC. How refreshing, they swoon. At last, a politician who only wants to talk positively about the issues! No cynical attack ads. No nagging questions about Hillary’s inexplicable enrichment in the commodities market! No unsettling inquiries into her support for the Iraq war or the illegal bombing of Libya. No nasty condemnations of Hillary’s support for the dismantling of welfare or her cozy relations to the economic wrecking crew at Goldman, Sachs. Bernie is going to keep it light and upbeat. He says he likes Hillary, respects her, doesn’t want besmirch the reputation of the presumptive nominee. Keeping it positive. Dig it.
But Bernie’s disarmament strategy makes little sense, understood in the context of the political combat of contemporary presidential campaigns, where, in theory at least, the stakes are as high as they come. Sanders’ non-aggression pact will certainly not be reciprocated by Hillary in the unlikely event that her now prohibitive lead begins to shrink. The Clintons play gutter politics. Recall Bill’s racist shivving of Obama during the 2008 primaries in South Carolina.
So, alas, Bernie and the Sandernistas have succeeded in squashing every little bit of joy I was taking in his campaign. There’s nothing like the rampaging delusions of acolytes to reinvigorate the repressed hatred of a political realist.
I should have known better. There was that insistent voice in the back of my head with the familiar Anglo-Irish accent, the one saying: “Jeffrey, what has happened to your bullshit detector?” Yes, the shade of Alexander Cockburn, sometime summer resident of Vermont and longtime critic of Sanders’ special brand of political impotence. “Bernie and the Pwogs,” Alex snickered, “Really, Jeffrey, you’re slipping.”
And, of course, the Shade of Cockburn is right. Pull the Sandersmobile into the garage for inspection, pop the hood and you’ll soon discover the vacuous truth: no engine, just an exhaust pipe, pumping out rhetoric. So much talk, so little action. The deeper you look at Sanders, the less substance you see.
The real problem with Bernie is that he won’t allow you to suffer illusions. Obama was a neophyte, with hardly any record, except the ominous warning signal that flashed when he picked Joe Lieberman as his senatorial mentor. It was easy to inhale the aroma of hope and become momentarily intoxicated. Bernie has a 40-year record as a politician. He is what he is. To say what he is and what he has done is not to imitate Cassandra at the wall, predict the flames of the future, but is more akin to the task of Tacitus combing through the dusty annals, year after year, of a politician who promises one thing and delivers, time and again, something else entirely.
These are the times when I wish the psycho-historians were still active to put the Liberal-Left onto the couch. The left-wing of the Democratic Party has been abused since at least the Jackson campaign, but the decades of abuse by the party establishment only draw them tighter into the grip of the abusers. They are constantly on the hunt for the Good Father and they see him in the strangest incarnations: Dennis Kucinich, Mario Cuomo, Paul Wellstone, Barack Obama. They are so desperate to be accepted, to be loved, to be coddled, that they remain completely blind to the fact that they are about to be tasered back into submission.
The Democratic Party bought into neoliberalism with the election of Carter (they’ve always been imperialistic) and the sale was completed during Clinton time. Since then there’s been no revolution or even minor rebellion inside the party. Even Bernie, the putative socialist, speaks fondly of the booming Clinton economy. How can this party be saved? Why should it? Give Bernie credit for honesty–at least. He has finally admitted what he is: a Democrat with all the baggage that comes along with that membership card and a pledge to support (and never attack) the inevitable nominee: HRC, the preeminent neoliberal politician in the world today.
It is time for a little political realism: a realism that comes from understanding who Bernie Sanders is and the role he is now playing. Bernie has inherited the time-honored role of the Pretender, an essential character in Democratic Party stagecraft. There have been other mighty figures who have strutted and fretted their way across the primary season: Gene McCarthy and Shirley Chisholm, George McGovern and Jerry Brown, Cuomo and Jesse Jackson, Bill Bradley and Patricia Schroeder, Kucinich and, yes, even Barack Obama, the Pretender who became president.
Yet, none of these insurgencies, dating back to McCarthy’s 1968 campaign, have ever moved the party even one micron to the left. Instead the DNC has lurched ever rightward, one election after the next. If nothing else, the Obama experience has demonstrated that the potency of the change agent dissolves almost instantly when dropped into the swells of the System.
The sole purpose of these insurgencies is to keep the Left locked inside of a party that no longer actively represents any of their interests. It’s a sad and hopeless confinement, a kind of political life without parole. Sure, many of the Left’s most cherished issues, from abortion rights to climate change, minimum wage to single-payer, get put “on the table” as a way to keep the backers of the losing campaign animated enough to vote in the general election. Some of these planks will even get inscribed into the Holy Writ of the Platform, where they will be promptly embalmed and entombed until the next convention.
Bernie Sanders had a choice. He could have run as the outsider he claimed to be. He could have run as an independent. He could have run as a Socialist or a Green. He could have been a threat to the immiserating status quo. But he wilted. Either because Sanders really is at heart a Democrat or because he is a political coward who feared retribution, he chose to lend credence to a party that has brutalized nearly every progressive policy he claims to champion.
Meanwhile, truly independent campaigns, the ones that forcefully challenge the neoliberal dogma and imperialistic militarism of the Democratic Party from the outside, are crushed, their candidates and supporters vilified and demonized. Go ask Ralph Nader.