“People Have a Right to Go Into a Restaurant and Have Dinner”
Bernie Huckabee-Sanders said he did not support being rude to “people” when he was asked about incidents in which Trump administration officials were publicly harassed because of their vicious policy of kidnapping migrant children at the southern U.S. border.
"I'm not a great fan of shouting down people or being rude to people," Sanders told MSNBC host Kristen Welker two weeks ago. "I think,” Sanders lectured, “we have a situation and a Congress that's way out of touch with where the American people are. People have a right to be angry when Congress gives tax breaks to billionaires and wants to cut nutrition programs for low income pregnant women. You have to a right to be angry. Take that out in a constructive way."
"I think people have a right to go into a restaurant and have dinner," Sanders elaborated. "That's where we got to place our energy. I do know that people are angry. They are angry about these terribly inhumane immigration policies. They're angry about the fact they can't afford prescription drugs. They are angry about tax breaks that go to billionaires. The way to deal with that is exactly what Alexandria did."
Sanders was referring to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a progressive Democrat who won a Democratic Party primary election against 10-term incumbent New York Rep. Joe Crowley.
“Bernie doesn’t understand that these particular ‘people’ stand out from the common lot of humanity as agents of racist evil.”
"Organize at the grass roots level. Win elections and get involved in the political process," Sanders said.
I’m not a big fan of venting at terrible public officials in public venues myself. (Anything less than arresting them and dragging off to revolutionary peoples’ tribunals looks weak and boring to me.). Still, I found Sanders’ comments disturbing. It is depressing and revealing that he folded in-power and proto-fascistic white nationalist Trump administration operatives into the broad and overall category of “people” --- you know, just everyday folks, no different than anyone else trying to have a dinner out.
If Bernie doesn’t understand that these particular “people” stand out from the common lot of humanity as agents of racist evil, then it’s kind of hard to take his call for “civility” very seriously.
It blows me away that it would enter Sanders’ mind to say that “people have a right to go into a restaurant and have dinner” when we are talking about children and families detained, caged, separated, and terrorized by U.S. border authorities. So, “people” – highly class- and race-privileged Trump officials, that is – “have a right” to go out for dinner, do they, Bernie? Well, Senator, thousands of people who happen to be brown-skinned migrants fleeing U.S-backed terror and stuck in racist U.S. holding pens don’t have the right to leave the oppressive facilities in which they are detained. Many of them have had their children stolen from them and sent to distant locations somewhere in the U.S.
- told Bernie that racist and nativist white nationalists are “people,” anyway? I am reminded of the great Soviet sniper Lyudmila Pavlichenko, who killed 309 German Nazis invading her country. When Eleanor Roosevelt observed that Pavlichenko had killed hundreds of “men,” the sniper corrected, pointing out that she shot “fascists,” not “men.”)
Keeping People off the Streets, Herding Them to the Ballot Box
Bernie Sanders uses the “civility” issue to pose a false dichotomy: either (1) be destructively uncivil by “shouting down” and “being rude” to “people” (to vicious racist policymakers, that is) or (2) be “constructive” by “organiz[ing] at the grassroots level,” understood as getting involved in U.S. major party electoral politics and “win[ning] elections” – doing “exactly what Alexandria did.”
What, you haven’t won a major party congressional primary election yet this year? You better get to work, my fellow American!
That is the not-so “independent” Senator from Vermont continuing to play his longstanding role of trying to sustain progressives’ deadly and dysfunctional attachment to the nation’s narrow and strictly time-staggered election- and candidate-centered politics. That is Bernie feeding what the great radical American historian Howard Zinn called “the election madness” that “engulf[s] the entire society, including the left” once every two years “because we have all been brought up to believe that voting is crucial in determining our destiny, that the most important act a citizen can engage in is to go to the polls.”
“The really critical thing,” Zinn once sagely wrote, “isn't who's sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in —in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating—those are the things that determine what happens.”
“The only thing that’s going to ever bring about any meaningful change,” Noam Chomsky (a Sanders backer to some degree) told Abby Martin in early 2016, “is ongoing, dedicated, popular movements that don’t pay attention to the election cycle.”
Bernie was and remains all about the masters’ election cycle, which is dedicated to the delusional and empirically false notion that U.S. citizens get meaningful input into policy by spending three minutes in a voting booth once every 2 or 4 years choosing from among a handful of candidates selected in advance for us by the nation’s unelected and interrelated dictatorship of money and empire. It’s about keeping the people off the streets, where they belong on a regular basis if they are serious about progressive change in this time of viciously racist, classist, sexist and eco-cidal reaction. It’s about selling citizens false hope in politicians – the snake-oil promise that all or most of our energies should be poured into herdingpeople to the polls to take a painfully brief and coldly time-staggered moment (three minutes once every two or four years) to mark a ballot for the right masters to nominally rule over us (the real rulers are in corporate and financial suites, not elected offices). That’s the basic “sheep-dog” message.
Is Democratic Socialists of America member Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez different from the general run of corporate major party politicos, including “people” like Crowley? Sure. If I lived in the New York 14th Congressional district and was registered there (I wouldn’t be) as a Democrat (New York does not have open primaries), I would likely have taken three minutes to vote for Ocasio-Cortez in the primary. I would have done so (a) to help bring down the corrupt, high-ranking corporate-imperial Democrat Crowley and his local Democratic machine backers and (b) to show some support for Ocasio-Cortez’s progressive, social-democratic domestic policy agenda, including Medicare for All, free college tuition, and the abolition of racist-nativist Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE) agency. I would have been motivated also by Ocasio-Cortez’s professed “socialism” and concern with class inequality and by her history as someone with recent experience in a real working-class job (waiting tables) and in social and protest movements (e.g. Standing Rock).
Still, I am doing no cartwheels over her victory. I cannot follow Sanders in pointing to “Alexandria” as the holy grail national and “grassroots” alternative to “being rude to people.” This is for five reasons. First, Ocasio-Cortez won with incredibly low turnout (13%), something that falls quite short of a leftist landslide and reflects local peculiarities in the operation of the New York City Democratic machine.
Second, as the veteran Left urban political strategist, activist, and commentator Bruce Dixon recently noted on Black Agenda Report, “Joe Crowley pretty much gave up the seat: After 10 terms in Congress and with lots of corporate friends, Joe Crowley knows he can start at seven figures, at least six to twelve times his congressional salary plus bonuses as a lobbyist. That had to be a powerful motivation not to campaign too damn hard, and another circumstance unique to this particular contest.”
“I would have been motivated by Ocasio-Cortez’s professed ‘socialism’ and concern with class inequality.”
Third, Ocasio-Cortez’s victory partly reflects a combined demographic (racial and ethno-cultural) and party anomaly: the over-long presence of a white Democratic machine politician atop a recently redistricted and now nearly majority Latinx and majority non-white district where the Democratic Party had failed to cultivate a neoliberal candidate of color – the kind of safe Latino or Black politico the nation’s second corporate and imperial party has developed across the nation’s urban minority-majority congressional districts. As Danny Haiphong recently observed in the American Herald Tribune, “New York District 14 is one of the few [urban minority Congressional districts] left where neoliberal Black and Brown politicians do not dominate the political landscape. It will be difficult to replicate Ocasio-Cortez’s victory across the country because neoliberal, Black politicians in other districts are protected by the politics of representation.”
Fourth, as Dixon notes, “while there are no institutions under US law and custom that can hold leftist candidates and officeholders accountable to left constituencies or organizations…there are a galaxy of institutional levers and pressures operating inside the Democratic party aimed at flipping progressive elected officials rightward.” Ocasio-Cortez will face enormous power disparity between local grassroots pressure from below and the nationally mobilized monopoly, empire, and party pressure exercised on her from the top down.
Fifth, Haiphong is right to note that the dismal Democrats are dead and buried as a means of progressive transformation:
“The Democratic Party is incapable of reform and serves not as a vehicle for change but rather as a graveyard of social movements. It will be the graveyard of Ocasio-Cortez’s principles too if we don’t build independent institutions and organizations capable of moving popular excitement over her campaign away from the Democratic Party’s corporate grave diggers…We need to build a political alternative to the Democrats because when it comes to the Democratic Party, there is nothing left to hold it to account. Left-leaning youth and workers must break free from the ball and chain that keeps them shackled to the Democratic Party. Social movements are the only vehiclethat can convince struggling people in this country that the Democratic Party is accountable to Wall Street and Wall Street only.”
(Well – accountable also to related and overlapping wealth and power structures in Silicon Valley, Hollywood, and the military-industrial complex.)
It’s nothing new. I’ve been listening to nonsense about supposed chances for the progressive takeover and reform of the Democratic Party since I was a grade-schooler in the original Mayor Daley’s Chicago. When will this childish dream finally die? (The best primer on the Democrats’ longstanding corporate captivity is Lance Selfa’s The Democrats: A Critical History[Haymarket Press, 2012]).
Sorry, No Shortcuts
The Democrats are running a large crop of former intelligence operatives and ex-military candidates this November. This is the broad imperialist slate that Bernie Sanders is asking citizens to mark ballotsen massefor in the fall, playing his well-established role as a leading Democratic voter-turnout “sheepdog” for the nation’s not-so “leftmost” major war party – and for the “election madness” Zinn tried to warn us against. Ocasio-Cortez, with her progressive “peace economy” platform (which disappeared “mysteriously” from her Website right after her primary victory over Crowley), will be highly atypical among the Democrats who enter Congress next year.
It’s good that Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez took down the lazy white corporate good-old boy machine Democrat Joe Crowley. But it’s not all that big a deal. The young Puerto Rican “democratic socialist’s” victory is not going to be replicated across the U.S. It is a highly localized and largely anomalous occurrence. It is certainly no compelling argument for progressives to center their activism around an election-frenzied run to that great “coffin of class consciousness” (historian Alan Dawley) that is the American ballot box. There are no short-cuts, electoral or otherwise, to the more serious and urgent politics and difficult work of building an actual American Left – something that would steer clear of the seductive siren songs of major party electoral extravaganzas.
Paul Street’s latest book is They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy (2014).