Don’t fear the Bern.

With Super Tuesday primaries concluded, it is looking like the Democratic presidential nomination will be a two horse contest much like it was in 2016, with Joe Biden replacing Hillary Clinton as the centrist pick backed by the Democratic National Committee (DNC). Bernie Sanders once again carries the underdog aspirations of the progressive wing of the party. This year Sanders represents a more significant threat to the centrists than he did in 2016, and they have worked very hard to disparage him as “unelectable” and “”too radical” for the American voting public. I believe that this may be a wrong assumption to make.

Let’s address the issue of Sander’s socialism first. He professes to be democratic socialist, running as such under the banner of “Independent” throughout his political career until registering for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2016. But his “socialism” does not include socialising the means of production or doing anything other than using tax policy to redistribute wealth downwards, reforming health and education so that they become affordable to lower and middle income earners, promoting public works projects, re-establishing the role of the State as a macro-manager in economic areas prone to excess or abuse and diminishing support for fossil fuel production and defence spending.

Everything else on his policy agenda, while different than those of his opponents (say, when it comes to the US relationship with Israel and Palestine), may be alternative but are not socialist per se. In fact, all of his policy prescriptions are more akin to those of European social democracy than to democratic socialism (where the decisions about socialising the economy are done via democratic processes) because capitalism as a socio-economic construct is not challenged or replaced. It is just humanised and re-oriented towards the welfare of the majority, not of the elite minority. Sanders himself has pointed out that the stress is on the “democratic” in his democratic socialism, so it does not appear that he is doctrinaire when it comes to policy outcomes.

To this intrinsic aspect of his political philosophy can be added the extrinsic constraints on what he can do. The structural power of capital in the US is not going to be seriously challenged, much less undermined by a Sanders presidency. The US economy and its social relations of production are deeply rooted in notions of private property, self-initiative, “free” enterprise and a host of other market-focused orientations that transcend the business world. The US remains a huge economic engine that, even if it has lapsed into cowboy, crony and parasitic capitalism in places (such as the financial and health industries) and is very dependent on the State for its competitive edge (say, in awarding of defence- and other technology-related contracts), is largely impervious to whole-scale reform or collapse.

Along with an economy that is “too big to fail,” it is best to think of the relationship between US capitalism and the presidency as that of a monkey driving a machine–it is not so much the monkey that matters but the ongoing movement of the machine. In that light, Sanders can play the role of the monkey, acting as a corrective that tries to reign in the baser urges of the cowboys, cronies and parasites now dominating the US economic engine without impeding the forward momentum of the entire combine.

Added to the sheer structural inertia that must be overcome in order to reconstitute US capitalism is the political influence that it wields. Corporate influence permeates all levels of the US political system. Its influence is corrupting and often corrosive in places, and it extended deep into the Democratic Party–particularly the Party’s centrist, corporate-friendly faction. As Poulantzas wrote, the capitalist elite is not homogeneous and is divided into ascendent and descendent class fractions. The GOP defends the interests of the descendent class fractions that represent fossils fuels, auto manufacturers, agricultural interests, the military-industrial complex and traditional financial sectors. Democrats represent high tech, telecommunications, renewable energy, new financial sectors and other nascent and ascendent industries. The Democrats also represent, however diminished in presence when compared to the 1960s and 70s, the organised labour movement in traditional manufacturing industries as well as the public sector.

The capitalist class divisions in the US are not razor sharp and there is some overlapping in their political representation (for example, pharmaceuticals and insurance), particularly when the lobbying interests incorporate cultural idioms (such as the case with the gun lobby). Needless to say, there a host of other non-economic interests represented in the political system, although identity and value-based groups tend to aggregate in polar fashion (say, among ethnic, LBGTQ and religious communities). The main point is the centrist Democrats are corporate Democrats, not progressives, and for all of the talk of the “Gang of Four” leftist female representatives, the majority of Democrats in Congress are underwritten by and represent the corporate interests of the capitalist class fractions that they are associated with.

A Sanders presidency will therefore confront not only a hostile Republican opposition in Congress and in states dominated by Republicans. It will also have to contend with the very centrists that tried to impede his nomination in the first place. These corporate/centrist democrats will demand concessions and challenge anything that see as too radical to pass as law. That means that a Sanders policy agenda is likely to be watered down if it is to be implemented, which means that the final product will be anything but radical. The end result will be an incremental approach to policy reform, not revolution.

Sanders has already reframed the narrative on universal health to the point that some variation of single-user pay is likely to meet with congressional majority approval (assuming that the Democrats hold the house in 2020). He would be smart if he allowed for private health insurance schemes to co-exist with the public option (as in many other liberal democracies), since that will allow those with disposable incomes to afford things such as elective or cosmetic care outside of the public health system. The larger point is that he has offered some alternatives and initiatives that could well find support in Congress, especially if his election victory over Trump is significant. The greater the margin of his victory, the more a mandate he has within the Democratic Party as well as amongst the national electorate, and a large win will also help diminish GOP resistance to post-Trump corrections because in defeat Trump will have few political friends.

All of which is to say that although Sanders has many constraints on what he can do once in office, he potentially will have enough political clout and flexibility to pass legislation and enact significant reforms even if they cannot be described as “radical” or “revolutionary.”

It is true that Trump and the GOP dirty tricksters relish the opportunity to run against Sanders, who they see as easily beatable in a general election. The Republican smear machine is primed to go all out with its Cold War style fear-mongering. For them, Biden is a harder opponent to defeat because he cannot be painted into an ideological corner and tarred by spurious associations with the demons of the bi-polar world past.

But just like the centrist Democrats, the GOP may be wrong in its appraisal. Many younger voters are not frightened by the epithet “Socialist!” and have no memory of the Cold War. Bernie’s cantankerous independence from machine politics is seen as a positive. It is therefore possible that they will turn out in numbers that otherwise will not be seen in support of a Biden candidacy. The defensive “anyone but Trump” vote might be enhanced rather than diminished by Sanders. After all, Bernie represents a true break with the Swamp, whereas Biden is its product and Trump is basking in it while trying to monetarily benefit from the immersion. So it could well be that dismissals of The Bern are premature because his strengths as an honest alternative within the Democratic Party outweigh his weaknesses as an outsider in a system that is rigged in favour of insiders (for example, via the use of Superdelegates as tie-breakers in the Democratic National Convention).

What is clear is that the DNC fear a Sanders nomination not so much because they think that he will lose to Trump but because he represents a threat to THEIR interests. Even if diluted, his policy reforms will target them as a first order of business, as a way of clearing the path for substantive reforms in the policy areas in which they are vested.

Hence the disparaging of Sanders and downplaying of his chances at a general election victory. The proof of whether the anti-Sanders campaign has worked will come in the next two weeks when a cluster of primaries are held, including in Florida where I, just as a did in 2016, voted (via absentee mail ballot) for the Bern. If nothing else, just like then, my rationale is that even if Sanders does not win the nomination, if he gets a substantial amount of delegates he will have influence on Biden’s policy platform. Biden needs Sanders’ supporters to back him–and many “Bernie Bros” have said that they would rather sit on the couch or vote for Trump than see another corporate Democrat dash their progressive aspirations–so my thinking is that if the convention vote is close or at least not a Biden landslide, then the centrists will have to negotiate with Sanders over the campaign platform in order to get him to endorse Biden and encourage his followers to join the “anyone but Trump” camp.

Given the obstacles in front of him, Sanders may not be able to implement the progressive agenda that he campaigns on and which his supporters yearn for. But when compared with Biden, he certainly is not more of the same. Building on the momentum of the 2018 mid-term elections, perhaps that is the best we can hope for.

23 thoughts on “Don’t fear the Bern.

  1. An excellent summary. I doubt that Bernie Sanders will be allowed to win the DNC nomination for all the reasons you state. It is quite different to electing someone like Bernie in comparison to Obama, as many in his own party will fight tooth and nail to prevent this happening. It would be great it he did, though – it would help make the world feel a slightly better place than it does at the present time.

  2. While its would a positive for the US but should we be concern for Bernie’s age, I mean looking at him I would not be surprise if he dies some time in office due to how demanding it is.
    It would be more important to see if any successor he have would be able to carry on his legacy in office if he wins.

  3. JC:

    Yes, his choice of VP will be crucial. As I said in the previous post about the primaries, the question is whether he goes with someone progressive or centrist. Warren would seem a natural but that may be too much for the general electorate to stomach (plus, they apparently are not that friendly). A centrist might be seen as a way of corralling him policy-wise. But whatever the ideological choice of VP, that person will have to be younger and preferably female and of color in order to satisfy/appease/appeal the various constituencies that make up the non-MAGA electorate. It is rumoured that Biden will go with Kamala Harris on a centrist ticket. That would be interesting to see since she is a formidable personality. But Bernie has to be careful. Maybe an outsider like Yang? Maybe someone like Corey Booker or Andrew Gillum? But they are not female. AOC is too polarising at the moment, so a younger female who would accept the VP nomination might be hard to find.

    Anyway, your point is taken.

  4. The difficulty in getting across the (correct) argument that Bernie is a nordic-style social democrat is that he has called himself a democratic socialist consistently for several decades now. For most voters in their late 30s and older, what they heard was Bernie calling himself mumble socialist. Those decades of self-identification are going to be hard to shake, even if Bernie showed any inclination of trying (which he hasn’t so far).

    Bernie’s ideas may well be inspirational to younger voters. But that has yet to show up in turnout. Apparently turnout is indeed up, but it’s been older voters turning out for Biden, not younger voters for Bernie.

    Biden’s lead coming out of Super Tuesday would be tough to overcome even with a moderately favourable calendar coming up, but Bernie’s had his two best states and the biggest states coming up are at best neutral to downright hostile for him (looking at you, Florida). So short of suffering a major medical event, I find it hard to see any other outcome than Biden as nominee.

    So right now, it strongly appears that in November the choice will be between a nice-ish old man apparently showing early stage Alzheimers that will try to hire competent people and try to improve things for Americans in general in a bumbling inadequate manner, and a gratuitously malicious old man showing mid-stage dementia running a nepotistic kakistocracy for the sole purpose of his personal benefit.

  5. Most here agree on toppling Trump – with the exception of a few MNZGAlomaniacs – the contention is whether Sanders’ bold progressivism or Biden’s cautious moderacy will pull it off. Some say Sanders is America’s Corbyn, but Corbyn is still way to the left of Sanders.

    Either way, they just have to hold all the states Hillary won in 2016, while also retaking the Rust Belt (tilted by heavy non-voting) or NC & FL (ridden with gerrymandering & disenfranchisement). Or better still, both as Obama did in 2008.

    If Biden is the nominee, a left-leaning VP may partly head off a Bernie-or-bust third party challenge. If it’s Sanders, a centre-leaning running mate could minimise the “Never Bernie” factor. I’d still like Liz Warren to get a senior post like Treasury Secretary.

    What happens in November is pivotal to “keeping the Republic” from absolute monarchy by another name. Even if Trump doesn’t roll back the 22nd Amendment on term limits, he’d still rig the US Supreme Court & 9th Circuit, & groom Junior or Ivanka for the White House. The Assads & Kims would be proud.

  6. “whatever the ideological choice of VP, that person will have to be younger”

    …it would be hard to find a potential candidate for VP who isn’t younger than Bernie.

  7. I was talking to my wife the other day about how dysfunctional the USA political system is, and she asked what i thought the endgame would be – AOC as the new Abe Lincoln in a re-run of the civil war? A descent to fascism? Would the US reform itself? After a bit of a think I told her that the only functioning federal agency left with mana and competence is the military. Therefore, I would not be surprised if the United States has a “Young Turk” style military coup within the next twenty years. Trump’s insulting of senior generals must already have some of them wondering if maintaining the current Washington farce is worth it.

    Anyway, a bit off base but I can’t see anyone of the three candidates on offer – three very old men (average age 76) two clearly descending into senility and one with health issues – making much positive difference. Surely, Biden, Sanders and Trump are the very physical symbol of a much deeper malaise in US politics.

    IMHO, Biden will lose to either Sanders or Trump, but he will lose. He is not the unity candidate. US political operators are way less clever than they think. It is obvious that AOC is the most charismatic politician since JFK, yet there is no attempt by the Democrat establishment to get onboard with her and groom her for the presidency as an unity candidate and – lets be honest – someone who would wipe Trump out.

  8. “US political operators are way less clever than they think.”

    If only they could be as clever as you, huh Sanc.

  9. Great dialectical description Pablo of the current class forces involved in this US election.

    Am a Bern supporter since 2016. The ST primaries were difficult with the last minute withdrawal of Mr Buttigieg, and Ms Warren staying in. But nonetheless, the Sanders Campaign strategy was found wanting and they will surely need to win Michigan among others to regain traction.

    It ridiculous that Bernie is the only Democratic runner holding public events even approaching the size of Trump rallies and yet the pundits discount his appeal to some of the very voters Trump persuaded in ’16. Bernie is up against it–the most powerful forces imaginable and the DNC as well–he really is made of strong stuff.

    Bernie would likely not have a campaign #2 without the disparate movements that have grown since the Dubya era, that support him, let alone a campaign that has seen so many others drop out–including the $500 mill spend man–so that movement continuing must be a positive.

  10. Geez If the DNC fear Sanders then how do they feel about Tulsi Gabbard?

    Changing the rules so she can’t be heard

  11. Wow! Coming from you Paul…that’s heavy!

    The only thing I see in the dnc primaries is a huge void in political leadership.

    Say what you will about Gabbard ( I choose to disagree)
    She is a refreshing voice against the US wars in the middle east

  12. Sorry Edward,

    She is just parroting the Russian line, somewhat crassly I might add since she is reading from an RT script. Not sure what it is in it for her, but regardless of the mistakes the Yanks make, being pro-Assad and denying the atrocities committed in his name pretty much discredits her in my eyes. Remember, not all critiques of the obvious are sincere.

  13. What I’d like to see after 2020 is Bernie and friends founding a new party (example name: Progressive Party), that would have a sort of alliance with the Democratic Party and would run a joint presidential primary and joint primaries in most electorates but would run against Democrats in places like California, which has its new “top two” system.

    I think this has real long term potential to break the two party system. After all voters don’t really vote for people, they vote for parties (especially below the presidential level).

  14. “What I’d like to see after 2020 is Bernie and friends founding a new party (example name: Progressive Party),”

    I’m not sure picking the name is really a crucial step to establishing a viable third party.

    I’d be more interested in any proposal addressing the question of what this party would do when the Democrats don’t want to hold joint primaries.

  15. @Pablo: There has always been a strand of the activist left that, while it (rightly) criticises American imperialism, not only ignores non-western imperialism, but believes it is anti-imperialist. Gabbard is a fresh presentation of this ideological strand with a very different biography to its usual practicioners, but intellectually she is more of the same. So I think she’s not getting anything out of this – she believes what she’s saying. Which is not really a compliment to her.

  16. “I’d be more interested in any proposal addressing the question of what this party would do when the Democrats don’t want to hold joint primaries.”

    Yes, well, currently there does not seem to be any mechanism to stop third parties entering candidates into the Democrat primary system so it could be done without the cooperation of the Democrats if required.

  17. Yeah I know people like to talk about how powerful US parties are, and they may be powerful compared to an ideal, but they are actually substantially less powerful than they are in most other western democracies. It’s hard to imagine any other country where a non-party member could run in the party’s internal elections without their non-party status providing any significant impedence. The fact that Sanders isn’t a democrat barely rates a mention.

    Having said that, I think the democatic primaries at the local level might not be so open.

  18. In many states the govt runs the party primaries and in California, Washington, and Louisiana the Dems and Reps are combined into one single primary like some sort of battle royale but where the top two go on to face each other in general elections (often two Dems face each other in California while two Reps do so in Louisiana).

    In these states the strategy could work at the local level and it could speed the spread of this new way of doing things.

  19. Aren’t those battle royale primaries the ones where the progressive party would potentially want to stay out due to the “split the vote” risk?

    I would assume it would instead focus on safe Democratic elections where there is next to no risk of a Republican getting in even with the anti-Republican vote divided

  20. “Aren’t those battle royale primaries the ones where the progressive party would potentially want to stay out due to the “split the vote” risk?”

    Yes, that is a risk.

    “I would assume it would instead focus on safe Democratic elections where there is next to no risk of a Republican getting in even with the anti-Republican vote divided”

    Ideally a new party like this would want to de-emphasise social issues and emphasise economic ones so it is not just a more left party than the Dems on *every* issue. That way it could pull a few votes from traditional right voters and have greater viability in more seats. Of course this is only the ideal case, probably it would go as you say with only safe Dem seats challenged.

  21. De-emphasising social issues is a whole other can of worms. That would be a very different branding to the Sanders campaign.

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