Bernie Sanders is currently the most popular politician in America. Ideologically, Bernie is very slightly leftish, but he is supported for different reasons by voters with many different ideologies – liberal, conservative, whatever.
* (footnote) I’m all the way to the left. I blame all the world’s troubles on hierarchy and property; I would like to see an end to both those 10,000-year-old institutions.
Personally, I am much, much farther to the left than Bernie.* And yet I am supporting Bernie’s 2020 presidential campaign. In this essay I will explain my position to other far leftists, and urge them to support Bernie as well. The campaign urges us Berners to canvass people at random, but I can speak much better to other leftists, who are my own people. Bernie is not a far leftist, but he is more useful to the far left than many of its members realize. We don’t have to be at the same place on the rope, to be pulling in the same direction.
- If you don’t like this essay, don’t take that as a reason to reject Bernie. His views are not identical to mine.
- If you do like this essay, don’t take that as a reason to devote your political efforts solely to supporting Bernie. Continue your other leftist activities as well.
Throughout this essay, note that I say “support,” rather than just “vote for.” What you do in the year and a half before election day may be even more important than what you do on election day.
This essay is intended primarily for an audience of leftists. In talking to right wingers, I wouldn’t even know where to begin. Right wingers are likely to say “Bernie is a socialist, and socialists will rob us.” That’s two errors right there. I would direct right wingers, “centrists,” and beginners to my primer.
Bernie is being attacked by a few pundits on the left for a variety of reasons, all erroneous. I will start with the broadest of these:
We leftists agree that this world needs enormous systemic changes. But in working for those changes, is it more effective to work within the system, or outside the system? Elections or revolution? You may have a strong opinion on one side of that question or the other, but I believe it’s a misleading question, a false dichotomy. Either way – working inside or outside the system – our current task is to spread the ideas that we think best, and recruit support for those ideas. Presently we have too few people, and too little unity and understanding, for a successful revolution or successful legislative change. Either way, we need to do a lot more consciousness-raising first.
Should you even consider supporting a Democrat? Members of the Green Party and the various socialist parties say no. They want you to support their own party, and so they describe the Democrats as uniformly evil and irredeemably corrupt. They pick on Bernie in particular, and sometimes call him a “sheepdog,” because he is the Democrat most likely to “lure away” votes that the Greens and socialists hoped to capture for themselves. They claim that, over the decades, voting for the lesser evil has turned both of the money parties more evil. In contrast, they claim that, by voting for their party, you would contribute to a decades-long process of “building” the party.
I would call that illogical, and a gross distortion of history. I’m not at all sure that both money parties have been turning more evil. Perhaps they’ve been evil all along, and the internet is simply making that more visible. But if the money parties are turning more evil, I see no reason to believe that this is caused by lesser evil voting. Indeed, I find it more plausible that capitalism causes the increasing evil, and it would increase even faster without lesser evil voting.
Certainly the Democrats are evil: They (like the Republicans) support the unnecessary continuation of war, poverty, and ecocide. But the Democratic Party is not a single entity with a single mind. It is a very loose confederation, a very temporary alliance of very different people. Whether it can be redeemed depends on whether the handful of neoliberals currently controlling it can be dislodged by the progressive movement. That’s precisely what Bernie is trying to do. Bernie is different from most of the Democratic politicians we’ve seen over the years.
Admittedly, Bernie doesn’t speak in terms of “controlling the party.” That’s for political reasons: He is trying to maintain some party unity, because he doesn’t want to split the anti-Trump vote and thereby assure victory to Trump. Whether you agree with Bernie’s judgment or not, apparently Bernie sees neofascist Trump as even worse than the neoliberal Democrats.
Still, it is a reasonable question: Should you be working on trying to move the Democratic Party leftward, or should you be working on trying to strengthen one of the little parties left of the Democrats? Again, I think that is a false dichotomy. Pulling the Democrats leftward or strengthening the further left parties are both accomplished by the same method: We have to move society leftward, by promoting leftist ideas such as labor unions and universal healthcare.
Bernie Sanders currently has a much bigger megaphone than (for instance) Green candidate Howie Hawkins. Thus to promote universal healthcare, it may be more effective to support Bernie than to support Howie. Indeed, perhaps the best way to strengthen the Green Party is by supporting Bernie (and thereby moving society leftward)!!
Greens will reply, “if only everyone would support Howie, then he would have the bigger megaphone!” Well, certainly. But I try to avoid the “if only everyone would” arguments. Instead I try to focus on arguments of these two types:
- What can you and I (just the two of us) actually do?
- What do you think is likely to happen?
Answering (2), I think Bernie is likely to be widely heard, and has a very good chance of winning, and neither of those can be said for Howie. Answering (1), I write leaflets and hand them out; you can pass this one along if you like.
Beyond these considerations, still, you may have personal reasons for preferring to work for the Green Party. I won’t argue against that. Indeed, until election day you can actually support both Howie and Bernie.
Is Bernie an establishment figure? This question lacks nuance. Being an establishment figure is a matter of degree, not an all-or-nothing classification. Sanders has held public office for almost 40 years, so to some extent he certainly is an establishment figure. But he has sometimes made speeches and introduced bills against corporate crimes, war, private healthcare, and other evils, and in so doing he has drawn attacks from other politicians and from the corporate press; thus he can be described as anti-establishment. On many of these issues, though, other politicians have begun to follow his lead.
The truth we can all see, with near certainty, is that no third party candidate will be elected president in the near future. One of the establishment candidates will win the election. They are not all identical, so it does matter which one wins. And our actions do have some effect on which one will win.
Why did Bernie choose the Democrats rather than the Greens? Well, I can’t give all his reasons; I can’t read his mind. But he did say that he was running to win, not just to “send a message.” Running as a Green would give him a smaller megaphone and a smaller chance of winning. Also it would split the anti-Trump vote and assure Trump’s victory. Bernie ended up endorsing Hillary in 2016, both to avoid splitting the anti-Trump vote, and also because the Dems would only permit him to run with them if he promised to endorse the eventual Dem nominee. That promise was not binding on Bernie’s supporters, however.
Will the Dems cheat Bernie again? I don’t know. But I predict that if they do, this time the progressives will see it, and will leave the Democratic Party in large numbers.
Consciousness-raising. The campaign season preceding an election is one of the few times when most people are actually listening and thinking about political ideas, so that may be our best opportunity to spread our ideas. Mimi Soltysik, the 2016 presidential candidate of the Socialist Party USA, said that he was quite certain he would not win, but he said “The campaign I will be running will not be about votes, will not be about ballot status, and will not be about revenue raised. It will primarily focus on the unique media opportunities that are presented during a general election.”
Bernie Sanders has not promoted socialism as much as you or I might wish. But a century of capitalist propaganda cannot be reversed overnight. In the year 2016, even without winning the Democratic nomination, Bernie accomplished more than all our socialist parties have accomplished in decades. Most of the American public now sees that capitalism cannot properly manage healthcare or education, and I would give Bernie much of the credit for conveying that insight to them. Keep in mind that most people are not abstract thinkers, and so they needed the concrete examples of healthcare and education before they could go on to the more abstract realization that capitalism can’t properly manage anything else either. Bernie has not made it clear whether he intends to eventually pursue that broader understanding, but in any case he has laid the groundwork for you and me to pursue it.
And what will replace capitalism? I will grant that Bernie has explained socialism poorly. But even we real socialists aren’t all agreed on what socialism is. At any rate, Bernie has ended a century of demonization of the word “socialism”; he has made it possible for you and me to think and talk about what the word really means and can mean.
Is Bernie an imperialist? A few of his detractors say so, but I think they are twisting his statements out of context. The truth is that Bernie has said little about foreign policy. When he does speak about it, generally he just repeats one or two mainstream platitudes, conforming to the other politicians around him. Apparently his goal in this subject is to be inconspicuous, to not get JFK’d. Perhaps Bernie is saying as much against war as he can get away with.
At any rate, his voting record is less imperialist than the voting records of any other presidential candidates who have any chance of winning – including Tulsi Gabbard. Still, I’m glad Gabbard will be in the televised “debates,” and I hope Mike Gravel will be too – have you sent $1 to his campaign yet?
Can Bernie be trusted? I believe so. He has been consistently progressive for forty years; he is not likely to throw a lifetime’s work aside. This makes him far more trustworthy than most politicians. Norman Solomon has pointed out that most politicians are like windsocks – they change direction whenever the political wind does – but Bernie is no windsock.
Can a President Sanders get anything done? If Sanders has a really big “coattail effect,” he may help many progressives get elected to congress in 2020, and then yes they can accomplish a lot. But even if a President Sanders is faced with an obstructionist congress, I still expect he’ll accomplish an enormous amount of consciousness-raising both before and after the election. And that’s what our society needs.
2019 May 21, version 1.03.