Layton or Lenin? Is Bernie another Barack?
American elections are long and expensive, but entertaining. Another dramatic episode of America Votes is set to begin, and it will be hard to top the drama of last season. In 2012, there was a pizza entrepreneur who quoted a Pokémon movie song as “poetry,” a homophobic Texas governor earned Bieber-esque levels of flack on Youtube, and an extremely wealthy man learned that writing off 47% of the electorate might count as flouting your elitism a bit too much.
In some ways, the script is familiar. The Republicans are prepared to further tarnish America’s global image in a battle between the far-right (Ted Cruz, Rick Santorum, etc.), the slightly more secular military and fiscal far-right moderates (Jeb Bush, Carly Fiorina, Marco Rubio, etc.), and the vaguely libertarian Rand Paul. Meanwhile, the Democrats seem destined to crown Hillary Clinton their next champion. However, unlike in 2011-12, or even 2007-08, a new type of politician will star in this epic reality show — a representative of the left by the name of Bernie Sanders.
Sanders has served as an independent senator for Vermont since 2006. Prior to that, he was in the House of Representatives, and before that still he served as Mayor of Burlington, Vermont. What separates Sanders from most of Washington’s other political stalwarts, however, is that he calls himself a socialist. This automatically makes him an underdog in a political climate where Barack Obama was chastised simply for referencing “spreading the wealth.” Sanders is clearly not afraid of such attacks, engaging in rhetorical class warfare through emphasizing America’s vast income inequality and not beating around the bush by exclaiming, “To the billionaire class, your greed has got to end.”
Sanders currently sits well behind Hillary Clinton in the polls, so is his character in the primaries, the socialist underdog, a fresh one? Yes, in the sense that past underdog left-democrats like Dennis Kucinich have not had the Independent and Socialist monikers. On the other hand, it may still be worth asking if Sanders is not as distinct a candidate as he really seems, and if his socialism is “hope-and-change style smoke and mirrors.”
One thing that seems to make Sanders stand out, especially compared to other supposed radicals, is that he seems to get a fair amount of air time on mainstream media outlets. To be fair, perhaps some of this coverage is due to the novelty of Sanders calling himself a socialist. Indeed, Fox News, and its now-dead Canadian equivalent, Sun News, seem to employ a strategy of making liberals look bad by having socialists come on their channel to represent them. What I’ve found, however, is that even when Bernie Sanders appears on Fox, rather than criticizing liberalism, as I would hope, or tarnishing liberalism, as Fox would hope, he simply comes across as one of liberalism’s better representatives.
On an appearance on The O’Reilly Factor prior to announcing his candidacy or joining the Democrats, Sanders defined his socialism as meaning “[America has] a lot to learn from democratic socialist countries like Denmark, Sweden, Finland, Norway, where all people have healthcare as a right, where higher education is free, where they have strong childcare programs.” This familiar answer contains some good content, like his support for free education, and puts Sanders not just to the left of the Democrats, but social-democratic parties like Canada’s NDP and UK Labor as well. Nevertheless, it gives us a clue about how watered down Sanders’ politics are. In Marxist and other radical circles, socialism means a system where private industry is replaced with state and cooperative control. The countries Sanders listed, however, are simply capitalist, or private-property based, economies with higher levels of social spending than America.
It is only later in the interview, however, where Sanders’ indistinguishability from the Democratic party’s liberal establishment really becomes an issue. When asked about how America should respond to Putin’s advances on Crimea, Sanders, as any good socialist would, ruled out military action. That’s where the good red news ends, however, as Sanders’ answer specifically went, “We don’t repeat what we did in Iraq and Afghanistan, we can’t go in alone … the entire world has to stand up to Putin.” Much like Barack Obama’s opposition to the Iraq War on the grounds that it was a “rash war,” Sanders’ critique of American wars hinges more on the idea of wars being tactically bad than wars being immoral.
When Bill O’Reilly asserted that America is right to invest heavily in war because America is freedom’s defender, Sanders had a chance to respond but missed the mark again. Rather than challenging O’Reilly’s categorization of America as a benevolent force, Sanders simply pointed out that investing in war hurts veterans and indebted American college students.
Sanders’ analysis did not touch on the biggest victims of the Iraq War — Iraqis. Civilian casualties of war are virtually inevitable, and they don’t just accumulate in lengthy, expensive, American-lead wars like Iraq, but also in short, coalition-fought wars like Libya, a country now in political chaos. Sanders’ analysis also ignores the fact that sanctions, such as those imposed against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq in 1990, can accumulate massive civilian death tolls. Finally, on the specific issue of Putin and Ukraine, Sanders failed to do what most socialist rhetoricians were doing at the time by presenting a counter-critique of America’s involvement in the rise of Ukraine’s current Yatsenyuk government.
Sanders’ foreign policy shortcomings have also shown up in his voting record. During Israel’s bombing campaign on Gaza last summary the US Senate voted unanimously to give political and moral support to Israel with no mention of Palestinian suffering. This led to a town hall clash between Sanders and his more radical supporters who called him out for not viewing the issue through an anti-colonial lens. While Sanders initially criticized Israel for its “heavy-handedness,” he resorted to an answer that would make not just Democrats, but Republicans proud, describing Israel as a buffer against ISIS.
So is Sanders a revolutionary candidate? A new addition to the soap opera world of American electoral primaries? He will certainly be presented as such, but I would argue he simply represents hope for liberals who are disillusioned with Hillary Clinton and the Democratic establishment, but have not thought in a deeply analytic way about where else they should turn. Committed socialists can sense that Sanders is not one of them, as internationalism and radical anti-war politics have long been key points of socialist platforms. Cuba’s commitment to providing free health care around the world, Rosa Luxemburg’s anti-WWI politics and Hugo Chávez providing cheap energy to Harlem residents are but a few examples of this point.
Socialists looking for an electoral representative in Sanders must face two hard truths. The first is that despite Sanders’ embrace of the socialist label, a genuine anti-imperialist candidate is much harder to find. After all, it’s easier to appeal to voters’ self-interest via promises of public investment than morally argue that waging wars on the third world for capitalist material gain is wrong.
A second, more painful truth is that Sanders perhaps could have been a better candidate than he has become. As Mayor of Burlington in the early ’80s, in addition to trailblazing some now more common municipal policies such as maintaining public land to use for affordable housing, he was also more comfortable in the anti-imperialist role. Mayor Sanders even went to Nicaragua to meet with the country’s revolutionary socialist Sandinista government. This happened at the time when the Sandinistas were at war with proxies of the US government.
Some left-liberals and socialists have argued that Sanders’ primary challenge is a good thing even though he won’t win, on the grounds that he will push Hillary to the left. I would argue socialists, at the very least, have to one-up that goal. So long as Sanders and his socialist label are in the spotlight, the socialist public has to use that as an opportunity to amplify socialist questions. This means asking Sanders tough questions on his closeness with establishment Democrats, his relative support for Israel, his feelings on the morality of American war, his support for the #JeSuisCharlie campaign, his lack or perceived lack of support for the Black Lives Matter movement, etc.
So yes, Bernie may be more Barack than Bolshevik, but that does not mean his candidacy is meaningless to the far-left. If a “socialist” is in America’s race, it’s time for real socialists to show America — and Bernie Sanders — exactly what that means.
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