Do Sanders’ supporters really believe that even a totally principled leftist could turn the enormous repressive forces of the U.S. into forces for good?
“We should never promote the dangerous illusion that elections themselves can fundamentally change the national state.”
Every presidential election year we see activists' resources -- organizing time and money -- move from local grassroots activism to promoting the candidacies of people who allegedly will advance such issues on a national scale.
This year, though, the scale is virtually unprecedented. Activists from as varied quarters as avowed revolutionary socialists, to anarchists, to those with less precisely defined affiliations have gone whole hog into the Sanders campaign.
This should raise hard questions for those of us on the left: Is this expenditure of activists' resources worth it? What is the "end game"? Can Sanders transform the Democratic Party, and with it, the U.S. government?
It's been a few generations since anti-war activists went "clean for Gene" McCarthy and Joseph Kennedy. As I've written elsewhere, the Democratic Party's reaction to their candidacies, and George McGovern's candidacy four years later, is instructive to today's activists. But rather than rehash that history here, let's look at the objective hurdles to a left candidate taking hold of the highest office in the land.
“Can Sanders transform the Democratic Party?”
A central pillar of American capitalism's strategy for success since World War II has been military control of the world. To discuss serious change to U.S. capitalism with little or no discussion of its military is like trying to bake bread without grain. Yet this disconnect is rampant in discussions this election year, including on the left.
It's hard to underestimate U.S. leaders' commitment to military domination as the key to future success.
800 U.S. military bases ring the globe. Military budgets will soon top $1 trillion a year. Half of federal discretionary spending already goes to "defense."
"Moderate" Democrats' promises of social spending remain vague for a reason: non-discretionary budget items like Social Security and Medicare are headed for train-wrecks within the next few decades. The annual federal discretionary budget deficit has increased 68%over just the past three non-recessionary years.
Regardless of who wins, after the longest economic expansion in U.S. history, we are long overdue for a recession. With interest rates already at very low levels, actions by the Fed are bound to have little ameliorating effect. Massive, additional deficit spending could conceivably cause the dollar to be replaced as the world's reserve currency. The result would be that currency speculators could do runs on the currency, with devastating effects on working class people, as the rest of the world's countries often encounter.
“To discuss serious change to U.S. capitalism with little or no discussion of its military is like trying to bake bread without grain.”
Thus, far from a "New Deal," neoliberal Democrats look set to deliver token reforms that cost little or no money. The reforms that many of us on the left call for – affordable higher education, debt forgiveness, repairing crumbling infrastructure, a Green New Deal, massive public spending on housing to put downward pressure on skyrocketing private rents and actually solve rampant homelessness – are pipe dreams in their opinion.
Older generations of working-class Americans who have seen well-paid jobs disappear, who have watched the economies of their towns and small cities hollowed out, and who have blamed immigrants, gays, Blacks, Muslims, women, pro football players – you name it – for the collapse, will be disappointed. Meanwhile, younger working-class Americans who are hoping not to be the first generation of Americans economically worse off than their predecessors, also will be disappointed.
Among many white Americans this will be a combustible mix, with even more extreme, violent right-wing activism – with more scapegoating and more people hurt – than we've already seen.
But What About Bernie?
Those who control the Democratic Party would rather break their own rules than allow a Sanders nomination. The DNC's cheating in favor of Clinton in 2016 should have taught us that.
In the extremely unlikely event that Sanders manages to gain the nomination, history gives a clear indication as to what the party chieftains and the corporate press will do. They will pull a "McGovern" as they did in 1972 – sabotaging their own party for one election cycle – rather than allow a Sanders victory. One option for them will be to back neo-liberal third-party challenger.
But beyond debating which particular machination is most likely to sink Sanders' candidacy, there is a far more important question – one that goes to the heart of why sinking most of the Left's energies into electing a president to save us is badly misplaced.
Can the wealthy who really run this country be persuaded to peacefully give up their immense wealth and power?
With the U.S. government's record of epic bloodshed abroad, are we so naïve as to think that it wouldn't commit similar barbarities at home? A country built on chattel slavery, genocide against Native Americans, post-slavery pogroms against Black people, mass imprisonment of Japanese Americans, serial murders of the Black Panther Party?
Think of the political viewpoints of most personnel in big city police departments and the upper ranks of the military. Would they respect nice pieces of paper like ballots, laws, Bill of Rights and a Constitution and peacefully allow a leftist to take hold of the U.S. government?
Could a totally principled leftist turn the enormous repressive forces of the U.S. state – its police, prisons, military and allied private "security" forces – from institutions or repression into forces for good?
And above them, are we really so naïve as to think that the people who really run this country – the multi-billion-dollar corporations who pay no taxes, the Boeings, Exxons, Amazons, etc. – would they just let such a radical transfer of power happen?
In the end, Sanders will back the winner of the Democratic nomination, as he did in 2016. In the extremely unlikely event that he's the Democrats' nominee, by hook or by crook someone else will enter (or re-enter) the White House in January 2021. Sanders will reluctantly back that result as well, just as John Kerry ultimately signed off on the theft of the election in Florida, facilitated by his own inaction and the Supreme Court.
Preventing a Hangover, Pointing a Way Forward
As unpopular as it currently is on the Left to do so, it is our responsibility to warn of this impending train wreck.
The other side has the vast wealth and institutional power, but if we are honest with ourselves and others, we at least have the unfortunate truth. It is fundamentally wrong to feed the illusion, as most on the Left are doing with the Sanders campaign, that we can take hold of the state and one of its parties and use them to win justice. Feeding such illusions today only serves to accentuate the inevitable hangover of post-November despondency once Democratic Party failure arrives.
It also plays to the worst prejudices of American Exceptionalism that the U.S. state – as opposed to despotisms around the world routinely denounced by the left – is somehow fundamentally different in this respect, and in the end, less barbaric.
Yes, we can win local elections here and there. We can also run national electoral campaigns ala the great socialist Eugene V. Debs, aimed not at winning power that way, but at exposing the violent, undemocratic travesty that is U.S. "democracy." But we should never promote the dangerous illusion that elections themselves can fundamentally change the national state.
And that's at the very heart of the promise Sanders is pushing. It's the illusion that many leftists who should know better have co-signed. For all the dozens upon dozens of U.S. wars and election cycles over the years, wars have never been stopped this way and what social equality we've won hasn't been granted from on high.
“It is fundamentally wrong to feed the illusion that we can take hold of the state and one of its parties and use them to win justice.”
Fortunately, the history that few of us are taught in school provides important examples of how we can win real gains, and glimpses of how we can ultimately win a world of peace, true justice and equality.
It should go without saying that Black people didn't win the democratic right to vote by electing a politician who in turn granted it to them. LGBTs ourselves won the freedom to be out about who we are – it wasn't granted to us by any politician.
The U.S. war against Vietnam wasn't ended by the going "clean for Gene" McCarthy and getting the Democratic Party to respect the right of Southeast Asian peoples to determine their own destinies. That war was ended by a militant, worldwide movement of working people in Vietnam, Europe and here in the United States. Their direct action, including those in the military refusing to fight for empire, was what forced the U.S. out of Vietnam.
Social Security, the 40-hour work week, workplace safety regulations, the right to form unions, and massive building programs to house the homeless were the products of Great Depression era movements which threatened to turn into a full-blown revolutionary movement if massive concessions weren't grudgingly given up by the wealthy and their politicians.
Unfortunately, we cannot simply summon such movements into being today, as urgently as many of us feel we need them. But it should not be the task of left activists to divert from that path, and instead follow political fashion which will lead us down a blind alley. Such is the Bernie fashion.
Salvation will not come from on high. We need honestly and forthrightly to say this now, before November, and continue to say it afterwards no matter who wins.
Andy Thayer is a long-time anti-war activist in Chicago, and part of the Chicago Committee Against War & Racism. He can be reached at LGBTliberation [at] aol.com
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