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Time to Get on Board With Bernie

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a Nov. 2018 event in Washington, D.C. (Alex Brandon / AP)

On CNN last week, morning host Poppy Harlow interviewed liberal Democratic Rep. David Cicilline of Rhode Island. Harlow aired a poll showing that socialism is now preferred over capitalism by fully 57 percent of U.S. Democrats. Then she asked Cicilline if this indicates that the Democratic Party is shifting in the direction of socialism.

Cicilline denied any such radical change. He declared all the Democratic presidential candidates besides Bernie Sanders to be capitalists, and said, “I don’t see any movement in the Democratic Party towards socialism at all. I know the president is making that argument; I think it’s a silly one.”

It’s curious that a five-term, liberal House Democrat insists that his party is still true-blue capitalist and is making no “movement toward socialism at all,” even as the percentage of Democratic voters who prefer socialism over capitalism climbs up to 6 in 10.

That might seem like a paradox. It isn’t. The Democratic Party is mainly about big corporate donors, who love capitalism, not its voter base, which prefers socialism.

There is something for the actual left to work with here. Think about it: Six in 10 voters aligned with the political organization that former Nixon strategist Kevin Phillips once rightly called “history’s second most enthusiastic capitalist party” now say they prefer socialism over capitalism. That is a momentous development.

Now, it strikes me, is not the time to be beating up on Bernie Sanders from his radical port-side. Yes, comrades, the Democratic Party is an inherently elitist, fatally flawed vehicle for progressive change. It is a corporate and imperial institution, owned and controlled by the nation’s interrelated and unelected dictatorships of money and empire.

Yes, generations of progressive and leftist activists have found out over and again that “you don’t take the Democratic Party over; it takes you over.” We need to build and expand real people’s movements beneath and beyond the “inauthentic opposition party” (the late political scientist Sheldon Wolin’s dead-on term for the dismal, dollar-drenched Democrats) and U.S. major-party election cycle, which function together as shock absorbers for potentially radical popular anger and “the graveyard of social movements.”

Yes, Sanders is a fake “independent” who is maddeningly unwilling to confront the Pentagon system and the criminal Pax Americana. And yes, he isn’t really a socialist. He isn’t talking about workers’ control of production or of the workplace (where working-age Americans spend most of their waking hours) more broadly. He isn’t demanding the overdue nationalization of the nation’s top, archparasitic financial institutions. He isn’t calling for a general strike or a Gilets Jaunes-style rebellion of the proletariat. He hasn’t joined serious ecosocialists in calling for the Green New Deal he advocates to be funded with massive, required reductions in the U.S. military budget—or for the Green New Deal to be buttressed and protected by government control or takeover of the big banks so that capital can’t just leave the country in response to the demand of environmentally responsible investment.

(While speaking to Cicilline last week, Harlow quoted Democratic Rep. John Delaney of Maryland on how the Democratic Party supposedly now faces a choice between Sanders’ socialism and “a more just form of capitalism.” Delaney is off base. In reality, Sanders is just calling for a more moral capitalism. That’s what Scandinavian-style social democracy and neo-New Deal progressive populism is all about, after all. Sanders is calling for basic progressive reforms, such as single-payer health insurance, progressive taxation of the rich, free college tuition and clean-energy government jobs that are part of the broader Green New Deal. Sanders isn’t lying when he repeatedly says that his demands “aren’t radical.” The more mainstream Democratic candidates—well to the right of the majority progressive public opinion with which Sanders runs in policy accord—have been forced by Sanders and their party’s increasingly “socialist” base to cloak their amoral and Wall Street-captive, neoliberal-capitalist agenda in the populace-manipulating shroud of a “more just capitalism.”)

Fine, but here are six things for understandably angry and alienated leftists to keep in mind going forward.

First, the U.S. electoral system is a two-party regime by design. It has been from the start. And the notion that we are going to get something seriously progressive done via third and fourth presidential candidates under that system is every bit as much of a pipe dream as the notion of lefties seizing power in the Democratic Party.

The high-water mark of third-party, democratic socialist presidential politics in the United States is Eugene Debs getting 6 percent—that’s right, 6 percent, and a great, Christlike candidate to boot—of the popular vote in 1912. And we don’t even elect presidents by popular majority vote in the U.S., anyway.

Want viable third-party candidates for the top elective offices in the U.S.? Buy some yellow traffic vests and hit the streets to join France’s Gilets Jaunes in calling for a new constitution that privileges real, popular sovereignty, bourgeois representative democracy. Demand the establishment of a constituent assembly to draft a new charter with new rules of the electoral game, including (for starters) full public financing and proportional representation, an end to the insane Electoral College, an end to the ridiculous apportionment of two U.S. senators to each state regardless of population, the abolition of gerrymandering, an end to voter suppression and felony disenfranchisement, and the drastic shortening of the campaign season. Without fundamental change in the institutional structure of U.S. electoral politics, which nobody seems to want to talk about beyond small circles, the third-party thing is just another way to waste scarce energy.

Second, if you don’t think it’s a big deal that the word “socialism” is now received favorably by majorities of Democrats and millennials, then you are too damn cynical for your own and the common good. So what if it lacks precise and fully radical definition in the national political culture? Why expect that? Meanwhile, think about it—four interrelated developments have taken the totalitarian fear-sting out of the word for millions upon millions of people living in what is still the world’s most powerful nation: 1) the end of the Cold War; 2) the miserable performance of oligarchic neoliberal capitalism as experienced by most of the majority working-class U.S. population; 3) the transparent absurdity of the American right’s constant redbaiting of almost everything to its left as “socialist;” 4) the remarkable success Sanders experienced running as a self-declared socialist in 2016.

Sorry, hyperalienated cynics, but that is a big freaking deal. It is nothing to sneeze at in a time when capitalism seems determined to turn the entire planet into a giant greenhouse-gas chamber.

Hard-core Sandernistas give Sanders excessive acclaim for legitimizing the word “socialism” in the U.S. The lion’s share of credit belongs to capitalism and to the ironies of its victory over the Soviet Union. Capital’s Cold War triumph helped give free rein to rapacious global capital while depriving the capitalist powers of the tyrannical Stalinist foil that let them easily equate socialism with authoritarian dungeons and totalitarian thought-police.

Still, Sanders has played a significant role in raising the United States’ new democratic socialist potential. His success can help actual socialists to his left advance a more meaningful and genuinely anti-capitalist (not merely and oxymoronic “moral capitalist”) definition of the term.

Third, as I have previously explained here and elsewhere, Medicare-for-all (single-payer health care) is a powerful and sweeping reform, with revolutionary implications for ordinary and working-class people’s ability to fight class rule and its partners: sexism, racism, imperialism, nativism and ecocide.

Fourth, we have no choice but to get behind and then push to the left the Green New Deal, even with its current insufficiently radical formulation in the hands of welcome novices like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The climate-crisis clock is ticking with ever greater ice-sheet melting and rainforest-ruining urgency every day. If environmental catastrophe isn’t averted over the next 10 to 20 years through drastic green policy change within and beyond the United States (the homeland and headquarters of the fossil fuel industry’s almost unimaginably evil project of turning the entire planet into a greenhouse-gas chamber), then nothing else we on the actual left care about is going to matter very much. We’ll just be calling for the more equal sharing out of a poisoned pie, the turning upside-down of a disastrously overheated world. Refusing to get on board with the Green New Deal because it isn’t yet fully anti-capitalist and radically ecosocialist is foolish. It is, in fact, “making the perfect enemy of the good.”

Fifth, we on the actual left should look forward to the debate that a robust new Sanders campaign can force on the Democratic Party. Already the mainstream corporate Dem politicos and pundits are lining up with the standard charge—certain to be lobbed at Sanders again and again as the election cycle deepens—that there’s “just no realistic way to pay for” the supposedly “fantastic,” “unrealistic,” “extreme,” “radical” and “socialist” things (such as single-payer health care, a green jobs programs, free college, expanded Social Security, etc.) that Sanders and Ocasio-Cortez want. This will be a good moment for an actual left to speak up. In accord with the limited vision of the 1967 AFL-CIO-backed Freedom Budget, Sanders will insist that we can afford the good progressive things that most Americans want simply by taxing the wealthy few and their corporations. He’ll hold back from courageously and honestly acknowledging that we’ll have to take huge slices out of that great, unmentionable institutional and budgetary elephant in the room—the Pentagon system—and that we’ll have to institute real popular control over the nation’s financial surplus and thus over its top financial institutions.

That will be bullshit. The truth is that we can’t bring social democracy and a desperately needed World War II-style environmental reconversion about without dismantling the war machine and bringing the nation’s unelected dictatorship of money to heel.

Let the debate proceed.

Sixth, it will be very instructive to millions to watch the dismal, demobilizing and dollar-drenched Democrats knife Sanders and rig the game against his majority-backed, progressive-populist agenda all over again in the 2020 primaries. The Democratic Party’s handlers can be expected to demonstrate again that they prefer to risk losing to the right, even a creeping-fascist, white-nationalist right, over losing to the left, even the very mildly social democratic left, in their own party. Even if they sneak past the GOP this time (as they occasionally do), their likely miserable capital- and empire-captive performance in office will remind millions of citizens who get it that the country needs socialism; that the time is long past when We the People can capture the Democratic Party and wield it for genuinely popular purposes that privilege people over profits; and that we need to embrace an actually left and socialist People’s Party that is intimately linked to great and locally rooted grassroots social movements that function beneath and beyond the election cycle.

Paul Street
Paul Street holds a doctorate in U.S. history from Binghamton University. He is former vice president for research and planning of the Chicago Urban League. Street is also the author of numerous books,…
Paul Street

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