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Electoral politics vs. Movement Politics: The Conundrum of the Bernie Sanders Phenomenon

This week, I’d like to talk about the Bernie Sanders 2020 presidential campaign and electoral politics in general. And I’d like to frame that talk in a few different contexts that speak to where I’m coming from:

  1. As a non-partisan evolutionary who agrees with economist Richard Wolff, Kali Akuno of Cooperation Jackson and Black Socialists of America that our ability to change an exploitive, consumption-addicted empire that is rapidly destroying an ecosystem on which we depend for life may hinge on building dual power—i.e., simultaneously growing an alternative economy of democratically run, worker-owned enterprises AND supporting politicians in the admittedly corrupted electoral realm who are most likely to respond to popular movements and citizen pressure.
  2. As an avid student of American socio-political culture, its trajectory over time, and its current state of being.
  3. As a flesh-and-blood person who has empathy and respect for others—and attempts to show it in my approach to public discourse.

Let’s keep this baseline in mind as we dig into the Bernie Sanders issue as it relates to electoral politics.

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What follows may be painful to read for Sanders’ supporters and I take no pleasure in the issues I’m about to raise, but for the U.S. to have any hope of overcoming its own worst attributes, we must be ruthlessly honest with ourselves as we assess the terrain we’re on and what our best strategies will be for successfully traversing it.

With that said, I’d like to start by looking at a variety of criticisms that have been made about Sanders. The ones I’m most interested in are those emanating from the non-partisan left, of which I consider myself (somewhat reluctantly, as I dislike labels) a part.

Sanders approach to the 2016 primary.

The first set of criticisms relates to the 2016 Democratic Primary and speaks to Sanders overall courage and character. They are:

  • He never truly went for the jugular against Hilary Clinton—perhaps due to temperament or perhaps because her campaign had some kind of agreement with/leverage on him to ensure he didn’t push his critiques too far. Some believe this marks him as a candidate who wasn’t fully committed to winning, but rather disingenuously running an issue campaign (though he may have become emboldened when his campaign unexpectedly caught fire). Had he been more forceful, many believe he would have posted even bigger numbers and overcome the margin of cheat (credit to Debbie Lusignan for that turn of phrase).
  • He never mobilized against the blatant election fraud perpetrated against him—and, most importantly, voters—by the Clinton campaign and the Democratic Party. His campaign staff not only learned about the fraud in real time and did nothing, but Sanders and team didn’t even address the fraud after-the-fact. To many, this is disturbing because: a) Knowingly sitting on the sidelines when an election is shown to be a farce is unforgivably cynical/selfish. b) It represents a betrayal of people who gave Sanders millions of dollars in the belief he was fighting for them. Allowing an election to be rigged in broad daylight is certainly not the definition of fighting.
  • He refused to contest Clinton’s nomination at the convention (without the super-delegates, she wasn’t anywhere near a lock). He shut down his own delegates to prevent them from withholding their support from her and he allowed the party to ram Clinton through. Many of his delegates were so angry, they got together and walked out of the convention.
  • He went around the country stumping for Clinton, even though it’s virtually impossible he wasn’t aware the nomination had been stolen from him by her campaign and the Democratic Party. This act of fealty to the party that cheated his voters, whether done out of conviction, pragmatism, or political self-preservation, effectively made maintaining the illusion of democratic fairness more important than dealing with the reality of corruption, and this was very difficult for many on the left to swallow.
  • After Clinton was humiliated in the general election by what political comedian Jimmy Dore has derisively called a “political novice TV game show host”, Sanders embraced and propagated her evidence-free excuse, that Russia had somehow manipulated the election results from thousands of miles away. This not only sought to exonerate Clinton for the soporific campaign she ran, but also served dangerous Pentagon and intelligence agency agendas to ignite a new cold war with a resurgent nuclear power.

These are valid, even urgent criticisms if you believe in actual, not figurative, democracy (not to mention peace), and those who level them wonder how Sanders can be trusted to do the right thing by his supporters as his second campaign for the presidency heats up—especially given that nothing has been done to address the continuing vulnerability of the vote to fraud and manipulation (for a bracing primer, go talk to voters in Georgia or Broward County, Florida who were easily defrauded in 2018).

There is also another set of criticisms that are even more systemic and speak less to Sanders himself and more to the current state of the U.S. government as an entity that has become, even more so than in the past, a thinly disguised puppet of private moneyed interests and the military industrial complex—an entity that has only lengthened its tentacles since Eisenhower named it in 1960.

Sanders ability to effect change if he becomes president.

Many on the non-partisan left have been asking for quite some time…what good is the idea of representative democracy or a progressive president if:

  • The majority of Democratic and Republican reps in the House and Senate owe their seats to corporate donors, and thus have little incentive to represent the interests of their constituents. As a result, they are unlikely to partner with any president who wants to create and sign legislation that benefits the general public. An AOC or an Ilhan Omar here or there can make hay rhetorically, but they are easily outnumbered, overwhelmed, neutralized or co-opted into maintaining a corporate-friendly agenda.
  • From a foreign policy perspective, as I observed in a previous piece, most reps are on board with the empire and, as a result, fail to exercise any genuine oversight of the Pentagon, the intelligence agencies, etc. As such, they are unlikely to partner with a president intent on reigning in those actors. What would happen, for instance, if a president Sanders dared to veto the next massive military budget? The obvious answer to many on the left would be a bipartisan Congressional override and the continuation of the war state.
  • The most powerful arms of the government and their corporate allies are more sophisticated than any Congressional committee and have shown their ability time and again to blackmail, lie to, hide from, circumnavigate, or sabotage any committee that does actually attempt to hold them to account.
  • As occurred with JFK, a president who exhibits traits such as humility, compassion, restraint, independence or integrity can simply be countermanded by their own advisors and cabinet members, undercut and disobeyed by military brass and intelligence officials, and quickly forced into isolation and defensive posture. We could go much deeper here, but a good place to begin understanding this dynamic is by reading JFK and the Unspeakable by James Douglass or Destiny Betrayed by Jim DiEugenio.

Given all of these existing realities in politics and governance, for many on the left (and some on the libertarian right), it seems like a strategic dead end to focus solely on electoral politics and more effective to be involved in the creation of a counter-economy, nonviolent civil disobedience, third party and union organizing, or community and movement-building that interrupts the normal course of the empire’s domestic and international functioning.

I have been a party to all of these critiques, of both Sanders and the current state of our political institutions. Many of Sanders supporters have heard these critiques as well and have their reasons for pushing forward despite them. I also suspect that Sanders himself, with his “Us Not Me” message, well understands the forces which will array against him if he manages to overcome a corrupt electoral process and become president.

I suspect he’s aware of the limits on executive power that will suddenly appear if he attempts to use that power to benefit the people. I suspect he knows that only a militant social movement would ensure he accomplishes anything as president. Consequently, I suspect he knows the danger a cult of personality poses to the genuine success of even a limited, FDR-style agenda. Because we must recall that FDR was only able to accomplish what he did, as system-preserving and temporary as it was, due to massive movement pressure from the outside.

Yet, at the current moment, savior syndrome is largely what we have. To date, there is no true widespread social movement in the U.S. to challenge the powers that be and, like a gale-force wind filling a sail, push elected leaders to greater acts of courage. Yes, we have some encouraging activity. An increase in teachers’ strikes. Successful $15 minimum wage campaigns. The passage of populist-tinged state ballot initiatives. A growing, youth-led climate movement.

But, more than anything, we have voter focus on Sanders the candidate. And, especially for non-partisan leftists who want to see a movement explosion, elections wrested away from our corrupt political parties, community control of government, an end to the pathological fiction of corporate personhood and more, this continued spotlight on Sanders himself is strategically disheartening.

“Why?!!, why?!!?!!”, cries the frustrated leftist. “Why don’t my fellow citizens see the broader picture that I see so clearly?” There is arrogance and heightened self-regard in this question, to be sure. There is also sometimes a lack of empathy—even disdain for fellow citizens—embedded there as well. But the question itself is still important and needs to be answered.

Which leads me to the next part of this essay.

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It’s been said over the years that politics lies downstream from culture. This can be very troubling because culture is ineffable, a living mystery whose sources are scattered, difficult to trace, hard to understand, and harder still to change. My attempt here will then be necessarily unsatisfying, so apologies in advance.

Americans are an especially paradoxical people. We are perpetually rife with the most confounding contradictions. One of our most potent paradoxes is our belief in community (which is different than conformity, another one of our pecadillos) and our coexisting bent towards individual freedom, even a kind of selfish isolation.

These two strains are like the grinding tectonic plates of our cultural existence, constantly in tension with one another and often in crashing upheaval. Spend some real, engaged time in any small town community and you can see this tension at work. It was certainly palpable in the little New Hampshire hamlet where I grew up. So it was easy for me to laugh back in the 90s (painfully) when I watched the Simpsons episode where the town is gathered to make decisions about raising local taxes and seesaws between cheers (“think of the children!”) and groans (“It’s gonna cost ya!”). This little scene is a near-perfect encapsulation of the American paradox—the desire to take care of one another directly opposed by the desire to hold on exclusively to mine.

I bring up a comedy like the Simpsons because one of the best ways to understand our cultural paradox is to pay attention to American mythology, which among other places, resides in our TV shows and movies, particularly Westerns that depict a single heroic savior, usually anti-social and stoic in their use of violence, who goes to great lengths to create safety and security for a vulnerable community they may never truly join. (See Shane, The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and many others).

Our propensity for hero worship and reluctance to engage in collective action, while culturally ingrained, has historically been balanced by remarkable local and national community engagement. Lecture clubs. Veterans groups. Historical societies. Community gardens. Church groups. Food pantries. Education societies. Neighborhood improvement associations. For Pete’s sake, until the 1980s presidential debates were run by The Women’s League of Voters, which is essentially a national community group.

If you radiate out from the local scale, our country has seen national collective action throughout its history. Two significant labor/progressive movements—often filled with Socialists, Anarchists, Communists and Humanists—as well as suffragist movements, temperance movements, religious movements, anti-slavery movements, antiwar movements, farmers movements, civil rights movements, women’s rights movements, gay rights movements, environmental movements, anti-global capital movements, international solidarity movements, anti-nuclear movements. All of these things are part of our cultural DNA as well and shouldn’t be cynically pooh-poohed because many of them were stymied from their ultimate goals or defeated. Constant struggle is one of democracy’s costs, after all.

But something happened after WWI and got super-charged after WWII that knocked a lot this counterbalancing instinct towards collective action out of our cultural imaginations. And it wasn’t just state violence, though that was and continues to be devastating. No, it was the advent of mass culture, widespread consumer capitalism and the propaganda that drives it that had its way with us.

This ubiquitous narrative force (one of Caitlin Johnstone’s most profound contributions to our discourse has been her assertion that narrative determines reality) now permeates nearly every aspect of our economy and social lives, seducing and coercing us in equal measure to focus only on our individual desires and concerns. Not even the rejection of consumerism by the 1960s counterculture could withstand mass consumer capitalism’s narrative power. Sadly, that movement was quickly absorbed and commodified, even though its traces continue to nurture us.

The truth as I see it is that most citizens are now so enmeshed in the matrix, so atomized, and so bereft of time (due to consumer capitalism’s demands on their labor), that if Bernie Sanders were to tell them to go out and join a social movement, their faces would go blank. They would have no idea what to do or how to do it. It’s as if a splice was introduced into an important strand of our cultural DNA and messed it up so much that we’re now in the unenviable position of having to evolve ourselves all over again.

This poses a challenge for movement-focused leftists who desperately want their fellow citizens to turn their gaze away from the political rally podium and the singular savior syndrome it represents, and instead engage in widespread collective action. Because in the cultural environment I’ve just described, even for the millions of people who do see the destructiveness of neoliberalism and feel the hot hands of climate catastrophe grasping at their shirt-tails, rallying for someone like Bernie Sanders is the only collective action that makes sense.

Conversely, this poses a challenge to Sanders supporters, who often see critiques from the left as mean-spirited, unrealistic sniping and a recipe for doing nothing—and getting nothing done.

I would observe that bridges must be built here, because only massive groups of people acting in loose unity have a shot in hell of taking power away from those who currently have it. What could those bridges look like? For movement builders, it could start with giving a little support to the electoral realm. One idea: outreach to Sanders supporters to join locally based teach-ins on how elections currently function (corruptly). There could also be significant organizing around how to not only ensure the integrity of the vote, but longer-term efforts to get elections out of the hands of either party.

Since Sanders will likely be subjected to election manipulation in the 2020 primary, election integrity organizing seems like a sensible bridge issue. Additional outreach to bring Sanders supporters into the small but growing worker co-op movement would be beneficial as well. These areas of confluence could be a great place for people to re-learn how to behave collectively without condescension towards their enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders.

For Sanders supporters, the bridge might simply be to commit to exploring one way to get together with other people and do something that either makes life uncomfortable for local and national leaders or helps build counter-institutions that make space for people to sidestep pre-existing exploitive systems. It may also be about recognizing that even the most well meaning politicians have both limited power and feet of clay and, as Chris Hedges likes to say at the close of some of his best speeches, democracy works best when leaders are afraid of the people. If he were to become president, this would hold true for Bernie Sanders just as much as anyone else.

This is what dual power is all about. Elect leaders. Then, scare the bejeesus out of them. At the same time, build a cooperative society that circumvents the power hierarchy altogether. That’s the ticket. Electoral politics and movement politics could be the Reese’s Peanut Butter Cup of evolutionary change—if we just have the will, the compassion and the imagination. Click To Tweet

I encourage readers to expand on these bridge-building ideas because, quite simply, we need each other. And we have limited time to get it together.

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Stephen Boni
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Stephen Boni

Stephen Boni is a writer of socio-political missives, children’s books and emails. Lots and lots of emails. A conflicted New Englander with an affinity for people, music and avoiding isms, he lives in Oakland, California with his wife and young daughter.
Stephen Boni
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