Life of the (wrong) party

Millions of people heard a defense of socialism from Bernie Sanders, but they also watched a candidate duck a debate with his rivals. Danny Katch explains why.

Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton at the Democratic Party debateBernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton at the Democratic Party debate

THE NATIONALLY televised debate between the candidates for the Democratic Party presidential nomination began with a discussion of socialism.

Considering how much American history is bound up with the ruling class's hostility and downright violence toward socialism, this was a remarkable moment--one that shows how Bernie Sanders, the Vermont senator and self-described socialist, has helped bring the leftward shift in political consciousness into the normally intelligence-free zone of mainstream American politics.

But for most of the corporate media, the key moment of the debate came later when Sanders drew wild applause for coming to the defense of frontrunner Hillary Clinton regarding the controversy over her use of a private e-mail account as Secretary of State. "The American people are sick and tired hearing about your damn e-mails," Sanders said--and was rewarded with a warm handshake from a grinning Clinton.

Political commentators usually look for style over substance. Even the question about socialism from CNN's Anderson Cooper was meant to be about Sanders' "electability."

But in this case, they were right: the feel-good e-mail moment was the perfect encapsulation of a night in which Sanders presented himself as a contradiction--a socialist hoping for "a political revolution" who can be counted on to be loyal to the Democrats, a pro-capitalist party and pillar of the political status quo.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

LET'S START, though, by quoting at length from the exchange between Cooper and Sanders about socialism:

COOPER: Senator Sanders. A Gallup poll says half the country would not put a socialist in the White House. You call yourself a democratic socialist. How can any kind of socialist win a general election in the United States?

SANDERS: Well, we're going to win because, first, we're going to explain what democratic socialism is. And what democratic socialism is about is saying that it is immoral and wrong that the top one-tenth of 1 percent in this country owns...almost as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent. That it is wrong, today, in a rigged economy, that 57 percent of all new income is going to the top 1 percent.

That when you look around the world, you see every other major country providing health care to all people as a right, except the United States. You see every other major country saying to moms that, when you have a baby, we're not going to separate you from your newborn baby, because we are going to have...medical and family paid leave, like every other country on Earth.

Those are some of the principles that I believe in, and I think we should look to countries like Denmark, like Sweden and Norway, and learn from what they have accomplished for their working people.

Sanders' response was a breath of fresh air from typical Democratic politicians who run screaming from the "s" word, and would sooner stab themselves to death with a thousand flag pins than admit that this country is not completely and God-blessedly awesome in every single way.

It was also a chance for many Americans who are angry about inequality to hear a clear and positive definition of socialism for the first time. That's a big deal--even for those of us who believe socialism can and must be more than Scandinavian-style social democracy--and its possible long-term effects won't be captured in a post-debate poll.

Sanders' best line came in response to a question about the financial industry. "Congress doesn't regulate Wall Street," he said. "Wall Street regulates Congress."

This is the message that has resonated most strongly with millions of people and catapulted Sanders' long-shot campaign into a strong second place behind Clinton. Last year, an academic paper by two well-regarded professors made headlines by making a similar argument: the U.S. political system is more oligarchy than democracy. According to Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page:

Americans do enjoy many features central to democratic governance, such as regular elections, freedom of speech and association, and a widespread (if still contested) franchise. But we believe that if policymaking is dominated by powerful business organizations and a small number of affluent Americans, then America's claims to being a democratic society are seriously threatened.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

THE CONTRADICTION of the Sanders campaign is that if the U.S. political system is an oligarchy, then the Democratic Party, whose presidential nomination he is trying to win, is one the two major pillars upholding that oligarchy.

The setting of the debate itself provided ample evidence for this point, as the New York Times pointed out:

[T]he debate was held at the Wynn hotel, a slender golden curve of Las Vegas excess, conceived by the billionaire Steve Wynn. In a strange tableau for a political party preoccupied with the gap between rich and poor, a mix of around 1,300 prominent officials and wealthy donors filed into a ballroom down the hall from rows of luxury fashion stores and poker tables. (Before the debate started, one Clinton donor bragged of winning $25,000 at the tables.)

No active Democratic politician represents the parties' deep ties to the American ruling class and political establishment more than Hillary Clinton--with the important caveat that her gender and the horrible sexism constantly thrown her way make it impossible for her to be simply a member of the old boys' club.

At one point in the debate, Sanders had a golden opportunity to go after Clinton's role in creating the inequality that he decries. "I represented Wall Street as a senator from New York," she said in the discussion about the regulating banks. "And I went to Wall Street in December of 2007--before the big crash that we had--and I basically said, 'Cut it out! Quit foreclosing on homes! Quit engaging in these kinds of speculative behaviors.'"

Leaving aside the silliness of "Cut it out!" being Hillary Clinton's idea of getting tough on bankers, here was the chance for another Sanders sound bite: "Hillary Clinton represented Wall Street. I represent the 99 percent."

But Sanders didn't go for the kill and let the moment pass. With it, he passed on one of numerous opportunities to score points for his own campaign, and it's hard to avoid the conclusion that he did so because he didn't want to bring on the wrath of Democratic Party leaders by handing Republicans a line of attack next year: Hillary Clinton represented Wall Street.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

IF THAT seems unfair to Sanders, then consider the most talked-about exchange of the night: about Clinton's e-mail controversy.

First of all, let's be clear: The uproar is mostly a product of the Republicans' cynical attempts to score political points--but not entirely. It's also a prime example of the arrogance of power, which Clinton possesses in abundance, as Elizabeth Schulte pointed out at SocialistWorker.org:

Hillary Clinton thinks she can do whatever she wants to do, regardless of how much it contradicts her rhetoric. Like everyone in Washington, Democrat and Republican, Clinton lectures piously about holding political leaders accountable and keeping government transparent. But those are apparently rules that other people need to follow--not her. So "e-mail-gate" is a classic example of Washington hypocrisy--on all sides.

But back to the debate on Tuesday night: As Clinton finished her unmemorable answer, Sanders stepped up to add a stirring defense: "Let me say something that may not be great politics. But I think the secretary is right, and that is that the American people are sick and tired of hearing about your damn e-mails."

It was great politics, of course, to call out the Republicans' tired efforts to create another Hillary scandal, and as the crowd roared its approval, Sanders added in his campaign themes about wealth inequality, before concluding, "Enough about the e-mails. Let's talk about the real issues facing America."

At this point, with the audience eating out of his hand, Sanders could have explained how Clinton has played a major part in creating that inequality during her time as a political powerbroker during her husband's presidency, as a senator and then secretary of state. Instead, Sanders warmly shook Clinton's hand when she offered it and smiled for the cameras--making the moment a triumph of party unity, in contrast to the Republican presidential hopefuls' sniping and bickering.

Afterward, the Sanders campaign boasted that the "damn e-mails" line got the "biggest applause of the night." But the well-heeled crowd wasn't cheering Sanders' political point about the "real issues," but his subservience. Political insiders told Politico that Clinton triumphed thanks in part to her supposed competitor.

"She won it the moment Bernie Sanders got his loudest applause of the night sticking up for her, which he should've never done," an Iowa Republican said. Added a Nevada Democrat, "With an assist from Bernie, she did a magnificent job of sweeping the e-mail nonsense aside."

These political operatives may not care about inequality, gun control or the cost of college tuition, but they have a finely tuned sense of who is and isn't a threat to their political careers. Sanders didn't pass muster.

Sanders supporters might argue that his unwillingness to sharply attack Clinton is a sign of his virtuous refusal to engage in negative campaigning. But there is nothing unethical about speaking truth to power and exposing the fact that Hillary Clinton and the rest of the Democratic Party establishment form part of the bedrock of the American oligarchy.

In some ways, Sanders' vow to stay positive with corporate-friendly Democrats like Clinton mirrors the frequent calls of those same Democrats to "find common ground" with Republicans. These appeals to bipartisanship typically serve as a cover for some of the Democrats' worst policies--from Bill Clinton's ending of welfare to Barack Obama's record-setting deportations.

By talking about a bought-and-paid-for political system, capitalism and the 1 Percent, but barely talking at all about the role that Clinton, like other party leaders, has played in upholding those same institutions, Sanders made it easier for her to bathe in the reflected glow of his populist appeal.

During the debate, Hillary Clinton responded to Sanders' defense of socialism by borrowing from the title of Robert Reich's new book and saying that she wants to "save capitalism from itself."

It would have been impossible to imagine the old Hillary Clinton suggesting that capitalism needs saving. The leftward shift of her campaign reflects not only the success of the Sanders campaign, but the impact of grassroots movements in recent years around police racism, raising the minimum wage, marriage equality, climate change, immigrants rights and more.

But it also shows how easily Democrats like Clinton can shift their rhetoric to try to bring protest movements back under the control of the 1 Percent.

- - - - - - - - - - - - - - - -

CNN ANNOUNCED that over 15 million people watched the first Democratic debate, which means that 14 million Americans might have just heard their first defense of socialism.

The U.S. left has been handed a lucky break, and we don't get that many. There is a major presidential candidate, whose actual voting record is not different from many Democrats, but who happens to call himself a socialist because, let's face it, Vermont is a funny place.

This is an opportunity for socialists to have public forums and private discussions about whether capitalism can or should be saved from itself, as Hillary Clinton put it. But we should also be clear that making socialism a real possibility requires challenging the power of both parties of the American oligarchy.

That makes our agenda very different from that of Bernie Sanders. His performance in the first debate--passing up chances to challenge Clinton for the sake of preserving unity on the Democratic side and fielding the strongest candidate, still most likely to be Clinton, in the general election--shows he's less interested in promoting a genuine independent alternative than in the narrow project of saving the Democratic Party from itself.