I admit I’ve been slow to warm up to the idea of supporting Bernie Sanders. Maybe it’s because I publicly backed Barack Obama in 2008 and quickly came to rue that decision after he took office.
But I have decided Bernie Sanders is different.
It’s too facile to simply label him another “hope-and-change” Obama, or just another Bill Clinton liberal poseur, put in the Democratic race to lure left-leaning voters. When I wrote that I backed Obama, back in ’08, I said that it would be important for people on the left to stay organized and to press Obama, after election, to live up to his promises on health care reform, labor law reform and other issues. There will be no need to push Sanders on his issues if he wins. Unlike Obama, who after all was pretty much selected and groomed by elements of the Democratic Party leadership and the Wall Street crowd to run for them and their agenda, in the outsider Sanders’ case these issues have been the driving force of his political life since he was in college or maybe earlier. The party establishment is terrified that he might win.
As Sanders demonstrated in Sunday’s debate, and as he has been demonstrating on the campaign trail with his full-throated call for a single-payer national health care program and a trust-busting break-up of the giant banks whose assets (the six largest banks combined) are equal to a staggering and totally unconscionable 60% of the nation’s economy (the US GDP), and particularly as he has demonstrated by resolutely refusing to take corporate money to fund his campaign, while denouncing the buying of his Democratic opponent, Hillary Clinton, by the financial and the pharmaceutical industries, Sanders is out to make change, not promise to make it.
Let’s start there. Sanders is not your ordinary, run-of-the-mill left liberal political candidate. When is the last time that you’ve heard a candidate for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination jump into a question posed on national television by the high-priced corporate news “talent” about whether he’s a “democratic socialist” and answer, “Yes, I am.”
We can debate what that means, as opposed to being a socialist or a social democrat, but the point remains — Sanders wears and has worn the label “socialist” with not just pride but with a refreshing in-your-face assertiveness. And yet he is threatening to upend the presumed front-runner in this race — an avowed capitalist. Why? Because most Americans are fed up with the rapacity and inherent corruption of American capitalism.
During its coverage of the debate, NBC flashed on its screen the results of a Seltzer & Co. poll of likely voters planning to attend Iowa’s Democratic caucuses on Feb. 1. They had been asked whether they considered themselves capitalists or socialists. The surprise result: 38% said they were capitalist, and 43% said they identified themselves as socialist.
My complaint, and that of many on the left, regarding Sanders has been his record over the years since he became a member of Congress in 1990, of supporting US military actions abroad, as well as other imperialist policies, such as the deadly 1990s embargo of Saddam Hussein’s Iraq which reportedly led to the death by disease of as many as half a million Iraqi children who had to drink untreated water because of the resulting unavailability of chlorine.
Sanders makes much of his having opposed the invasion of Iraq in 2003, but he was a supporter of the Clinton war on Serbia and the bombing of Kosovo in 1999. He also supported the Bush/Cheney administration’s launching of war against Afghanistan in 2001, and the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) resolution that doubled as a declaration of the more or less unending so-called War on Terror. More recently, Sanders has supported US military intervention in the civil war in Syria, and as recently as Sunday’s debate reiterated his horrific call for the US to insist on having the “wealthy Arab states” in the region take on the job of fighting ISIS — a call that would have the US providing deadly arms to some of the most brutal dictatorships in the world to help them slaughter people in Syria.
Sanders has been a stalwart backer of Israel too, at least while in Congress, though earlier he had been critical of its treatment of Palestinians.
This is pretty wretched stuff, and makes supporting Sanders’ campaign a tough position to defend. But I think given the state of US politics it is the right thing to do at this juncture.
Why? Because it looks like Sanders has a real chance to defeat a craven warmonger, Hillary Clinton — a neoliberal who hasn’t met a war she doesn’t like, and whose bloodlust and unthinking support for Israel makes Sanders look like a pale imitation. At least Sanders did say Israeli forces, in their last attack on Gaza, had gone too far, for example by bombing a UN compound. Clinton, for her part, had no criticism of IDF viciousness — she actually defended it — and earlier even went out of her way to defend the IDF’s murderous 2010 assault on an unarmed peace flotilla sent from Turkey towards Gaza carrying relief supplies (an assault that included the brutal IDF murder of a young American-born activist).
But my point is not that Sanders is a less monstrous defender of US imperialism than Clinton, though that’s clearly true. It’s that given the issues facing us and the globe, a Sanders presidency — and if he defeats Clinton and manages to win the Democratic nomination for president polls suggest he would likely defeat, even soundly defeat, any of the current Republican candidates for that office — would represent a sea change in American politics.
Vladimir Lenin, back in 1917, wrote an important work: Imperialism: The Highest Stage of Capitalism. In it, he advanced Marx’s theories about capitalism into the 20th century to explain how capitalism had moved beyond just extracting surplus value from the workers of individual countries, to exploiting the vast population of the Third World in search of ever harder to obtain profits.
I would argue that what we are now seeing in the 21st century is a rising Third World that, with increasing success, is resisting that imperialist model. Russia, China, Brazil and other countries are banding together and are effectively blocking the ability of the US to continue exploiting them. The dollar is losing its grip as a global currency, and with that, the US is losing its ability to simply ignore its ballooning trade deficits in order to finance its imperial schemes.
The crisis in the US is now a domestic crisis, and the American working class (even in the higher reaches of the so-called middle class) is reaching a point of anger, fear and desperation where it is ready to support radical change. Of course one way societies can go in such a crisis is towards fascism, as represented in the Republican Party today by the likes of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz. The other way would be towards socialism, as represented by Sanders.
Granted that backing a Sanders candidacy means having to hold one’s nose and ignore his pro-imperialist positions on things like Syria’s civil war, and perhaps even on the Obama administration’s dangerous efforts to confront Russia on its western doorstep. But I think in the end, if elected, Sanders’ clear focus on wanting to create a modern European-style social-democratic state in the US, with a more secure, generous Social Security system, a Canadian-style universal medicare system for all Americans, and a system of free public education through college, would compel him to pull the nation back from imperial over-reach and continuous war. It’s a simple matter of budget priorities: There is no way any of his key programs could be funded if the military and the fading empire it props up continue to claim more than half of all discretionary federal spending.
Furthermore, if Sanders succeeds in winning the presidency, and if, as some polls suggest could happen, he wins big and brings in Democratic majorities in one or both houses of Congress along with him, he has vowed to attack and break up the power of the big financial companies, and to end the control of moneyed interests over the political system. These are important actions that, while difficult to pull off, could be done. The public clearly wants it to happen, and a Sanders electoral victory would mean that they’re serious about that.
Sanders is not, like Obama or Bill Clinton, a mealy compromiser and “triangulator.” He’s not financially beholden to special interests, or interested in winning lucrative seats on corporate boards or earning huge speaker “fees” after leaving office (as the always acquisitive Hillary Clinton has done). One of the least wealthy members of the millionaires’ club called Congress, Sanders is a life-long fighter for working people, for equal rights for minorities and women, for the environment, and if he wins the White House, he can be expected to go for broke in tackling his big goals.
I would argue that if Sanders succeeds in attacking Wall Street and corporate corruption of the political system, and maintains his principles and plain-spokenness about them, public support for the US war machine will wither. Lenin’s “highest stage of capitalism” will collapse under its own ponderous weight if the power of the capitalist elite inside the US to run the US government as if it were just another corporate subsidiary were seriously eroded.
So there it is. I don’t know how readers feel, but I’m convinced that Sanders, despite his sorry record of support for US militarism, is the real deal, not just a socialist poseur. Not only is he far and away the most serious leftist to sport a real chance of taking the White House in my lifetime (and I was born in the first half of the 20th century!), but the alternative is either Hillary Clinton — a greedy willing servant of capitalist crooks on Wall Street and a neoliberal former Secretary of State with blood on her hands who has supported coups in Latin America and eastern Europe (Honduras and Ukraine), and who enthusiastically supports endless wars and interventions — or alternatively one of several fascists in the Republican candidates’ stable, among them people who talk blithely of “carpet bombing” the Middle East, tossing American muslims into concentration camps or driving undocumented Latinos like cattle across the border into Mexico, and even of going to war with Russia and/or China.
If a vote for Bernie in the primaries was just a symbolic thing and he had no chance of beating Clinton, I’d probably still vote for him, just to ding Clinton. But he does have a chance, which means we on the left need to enthusiastically work to help him win. And if he does manage to win the Democratic nomination and goes up against some Republican, there is no question in my mind: he can win and must be actively supported.
A Sanders victory in November would not be just another depressing case of chosing “the lesser of two evils.” Warts and all, it would still represent a real people’s victory.
Standing on principle and voting for a Third Party in such a situation would be a travesty (Lenin would have called such behavior “infantile leftism”). What should happen, and what I have already proposed in an earlier article, is that parallel to the Sanders campaign, but independently of it, we on the left need to work to build a movement around progressive goals — most notably the goals of an expanded Social Security program and a single-payer Medicare for all program, as well as such important goals as a real minimum wage, a revitalized labor movement with fair labor laws, and higher taxes on the wealthy and on stock trading and investment profits –one that will both demand action from Washington should Sanders win and that will become a bulwark against reaction should he lose.
Meanwhile, if you’re looking for a another good reason to support Sanders, consider this: Bill O’Reilly, the blowhard Fox-TV promoter of racism and fascism, has vowed to “leave the country” if Sanders becomes president.