Activist Cornel West, left, endorsed the Green Party’s Jill Stein for president after supporting Bernie Sanders during his primary run. (Evan Vucci / AP)

Six long months remain before the inauguration of the 45th president of the United States. With Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton both promising to continue to yell “fire!” in our crowded political theater until the blissful, psychotic finale unfolds, 2016 is bound to be one of those years that will be underlined in history books. Something is happening, and it is very strange. There is something for everyone in this ceremony of mutually assured destruction. Shell-shocked neoliberals — still floating in midair like Wile E. Coyote after the graceless collapse of their blinkered worldview — are simply waiting for the laws of demography to hurtle them into the void. Right-wing nationalists — who found themselves in that great throng after stumbling and searching for meaning in the political landfill they were escorted to by both parties — have found something to their liking in a dusted-off, diet version of fascism. Perhaps radical leftists have been the most delightfully perplexed. All of them at some point have had to face the season’s most unbelievable “problem”: A self-avowed democratic socialist was within striking distance of the White House. For those facing down a century whose primary motive force was anticommunism, this was an unprecedented development in need of immediate elucidation. The explanations were varied. Some saw proof of socialism’s undying power. Some saw a “sheepdog” who was using the Democratic Party to corral would-be radicals and denude their real power. Others saw a SINO (socialist in name only) or imperial pig dog who embraced American exceptionalism and claimed an undeserved title. No matter. While the radical left searched for guidance (is Sanders a degenerate or a deformed workers candidate?), millions across the country coalesced into a movement propelling his campaign forward. At various points in the cycle, Sanders seemed to have a genuine and clearly perceptible chance to gain position over Hillary Clinton, the most well-oiled candidate. Of course, it is premature to speak declaratively — even hindsight is not 20/20, as many of us are still considering and reconsidering what it is we just saw — but at this point, some observations can be made, and perhaps some strategy offered, as the Sanders campaign orchestrates his endgame. I first saw Sanders speak in August of last year at a campaign event in Los Angeles. At the time, his campaign was on the cusp of becoming the Big Thing, and I was inclined to approach it with a skepticism shared by many comrades. Sanders, it seemed to me, appeared to be too gladly playing the role of loyal opposition, with Clinton’s nomination a foregone conclusion. Because the absence of even a nominal selection process within the Democratic Party was suspect, Sanders (along with rental candidates Martin O’Malley, Lincoln Chafee and Jim Webb) stepped in, validating the party’s image of itself as a source of vibrant internal debate and able to accommodate a left faction. At this stump speech, I wanted to hear him say two words that would make me believe otherwise: “socialist” and “Clinton.” The first would signify that his run wouldn’t completely subdue its radicalizing potential to the Democratic Party’s best interests. The second would show that it was meant to contest the political ideology on which the party was built and that fault lines would be exposed. Sanders said neither. Instead of attacking Clintonism, he continuously referenced the Citizens United Supreme Court decision and the Koch brothers, preferring to situate his enemies as far as possible from home turf. He spoke of “a political revolution,” but it seemed that revolution would be constituted by high voter turnout. I left unconvinced. A few months later, Sanders gave a speech on socialism at Georgetown University, and I listened attentively, hoping that his blossoming support would allow him an opportunity to speak more explicitly. He said this: “So the next time you hear me attacked as a socialist, remember this: I don’t believe the government should own the means of production.” Paired with the terms of endearment he reserved for NATO, it was difficult to read this as anything but a dispiriting mangling of the socialist tradition. I was now convinced, but not of what I originally hoped for. Instead, Bernie Sanders was not a socialist. He said so himself. But then — and the particulars of this are unnecessary to rehearse — things got interesting. The most notable of these is that Bernie “took the gloves off.” Led by the brawler Jeff Weaver, my conception of the Sanders campaign as a tomato can for Clinton’s handlers dissolved. Maybe Sanders thought no one wanted to hear about “the damn emails,” but people were sure as hell going to hear about Clinton’s scandalous hobnobbing with Goldman Sachs as well as the lavish sums she siphoned off from those who brought the economy to catastrophe, and (in a display that, honest to God, made me pump my fist) how Henry Kissinger was a mass murderer whom Sanders was proud (proud!) not to call his friend. The Clinton administration, which had for decades survived with its mythical legacy intact as an exemplar of 1990s progress, underwent what seemed like an overnight revision in the minds of many. Now it was the harbinger of working-class immiseration, courtesy of NAFTA and welfare reform, and carceral proliferation, courtesy of the newly notorious crime bill. Genuinely spurred on by Black Lives Matter (whose mobilizations at early Sanders events unequivocally benefited his campaign despite the unfortunate outcry of his supporters at the time), Sanders told a debate crowd that Clinton’s use of the term “superpredator” was “a racist term, and [she] knew it was a racist term.” The secretary’s “experience” was singled out as mainly being the experience of turning once-stable nation states into collapsed war fields and Islamic State strongholds — her crown jewel, Libya, now an utter wreck devolving into ceaseless civil war with at least three competing governments (if one includes Islamic State’s control of Sirte). As impressive as Sanders’ offensive was, he was aided by the incompetence of his opponents. One watched the spectacular display of liberalism’s best and brightest come apart at the seams. Bill Clinton could hardly make a public appearance without displaying his inability to leave the race-baiting ’90s behind, chiding Black Lives Matter supporters while simultaneously insisting, “We are all mixed-race.”
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