Could President Sanders make it a Red House?

June 6, 2016

Bernie Sanders' campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has inspired millions, but it appears likely to come up short of victory, even if he can come from behind and win the California primary this week. But let's step back and ask a hypothetical question: What if Sanders somehow were to be the next occupant of the White House come January? What would happen next--and why? Todd Chretien considers an Inauguration Daydream.

IMAGINE IF you will:

It's Friday, January 20, 2017. Inauguration Day is an unseasonably warm 72 degrees in Washington, D.C. "I guess Sen. Sanders was right about global warming," sniggers NPR's Cokie Roberts as the president-elect steps up to be sworn in.

Earlier in the week, Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell was forced to distance himself from Tea Party Republicans in the House who hinted that Sanders' Jewish heritage disqualified him from placing his hand on a Bible while taking the oath of office. "I want to state for the record," grumbled McConnell," that the Republican leadership does not believe the Jews can be held solely responsible for the murder of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ."

While Sanders smiles and waves to the yuge crowd assembled on the National Mall, Chief Justice John Roberts slithers over to administer the oath, hissing: "Nasties socialists, we'll see what the courtses say about his political revolution, my precious."

Undeterred, Sanders swears to uphold the Constitution and then steps up to give his Inaugural Address, flanked by rapper Killer Mike, National Nurses United Executive Director RoseAnn DeMoro, The New Jim Crow author Michelle Alexander and United Farm Workers hero Dolores Huerta--who finally gave in to "the Bern" after Sanders beat Hillary Clinton in the California primary with an incredible 78 percent of the vote, leading to a floor fight at the Democratic convention where Sanders prevailed.

Could President Sanders turn the White House red?

"Bernie! Bernie! Bernie!" roar a million Sandernistas. Media surveys will estimate that their age matches the average contribution donated to Sanders' campaign: that magic number 27.

"It's okay, dear," Bill whispers soothingly, as the once and never again First Family watches Sanders' inauguration on television from the Nixon suite at the Watergate Hotel. "We'll always have Davos."

Working on her fifth vodka and tonic, Hillary shoots back, "Don't touch me, you creep. It's all your fault." Chelsea, oblivious, smiles brightly, but somehow also dimly, repeating, "Now we can all be a happy family again." Bill and Hillary groan in unison, and Hillary mumbles under her breath, "What a freakin' idiot."

Meanwhile, The Donald has signed a three-year contract with NBC to host The Fürher's Apprentice, a new reality show featuring David Duke, Marine Le Pen and Norbert Hofer that will pit defeated right-wing demagogues from around the world against 7-year-olds and their favorite pets in a game of wits. Things had been looking good for Trump in the general election, but he never recovered after chickening out of a debate with Sanders in California, and he was hounded by massive protests wherever he went.

Back on stage, President Sanders shouts "Thank you! Thank you!" to delirious applause, his voice hoarse from months of nonstop super-rallies. "Now we will proceed to construct the social democratic order!"


THIS TONGUE-in-cheek scenario may be a highly unlikely, but it's worth considering what the best-case scenario of the Bernie Sanders campaign--that he somehow prevails in both the primaries and general election to become president--would face.

We can use this as a jumping-off point to think through the very real obstacles Sanders' "political revolution" would face from the economic, political, police and military powers that be.

In doing so, I find a notion from the revolutionary socialist thinker Antonio Gramsci very useful. The dictator Mussolini so feared Gramsci's insights that, upon tossing him in prison in the 1920s, he declared, "For 20 years, we must stop this brain from functioning."

Here's what Gramsci noticed:

In the East [he was referring to, for example, Russia under the Tsarist autocracy], the state was everything, civil society was primordial and gelatinous; in the West [he meant Western Europe or the United States] there was a proper relation between state and civil society, and when the state tottered, a sturdy structure of civil society was immediately revealed. The state was just a forward trench; behind it stood a succession of sturdy fortresses and emplacements. [excerpted in The Gramsci Reader, page 229]

Under any form of capitalism, the state is always dominated by the ruling class and can be counted on to defend that class's interests. Today in the United States, we can see this plainly in Wall Street's control over bipartisan economic policy, the Pentagon's global power and the racist police brutality of the New Jim Crow.

So the first obstacles to President Sanders pursuing a "political revolution" should be expected to come from within the massive state machine itself.

But it doesn't stop there, Gramsci warns. Even if radical politicians succeed in crossing the "forward trench" of the state, capitalism has a whole network of backup defenses. These "sturdy fortresses and emplacements" of civil society include the corporate media, conservative church hierarchies, cultural production decision-makers in Hollywood, the major publishing houses, sports teams and recording studios, higher education bureaucracies (public and private), and powerful civic organizations like the National Rifle Association.

Then there is the cult of American business leaders and their philanthropic endeavors, typified by Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, Mark Zuckerberg, Warren Buffett and the rest.

All of this rests on a fundamental fact of capitalism that wouldn't change as a result of any election: private ownership of the commanding heights of the economy, which gives the ruling class virtually unchallenged power to hire and fire and set the terms of exploitation for the vast majority of regular working-class people.

Democracy rarely intrudes into the realm of employment, and capitalists have the right to do as they please with their looted hoard of wealth, with very few restrictions. Capital rules over and through the state, but it also rules outside the state. Any serious attempt to challenge this arrangement must find a way to confront these twin powers.


OBVIOUSLY, THE deck would be stacked against President Sanders from day one.

Let's look at one of Sanders' most important campaign goals: "[A]t the end of my first term, we will not have more people in jail than any other country." This implies reducing the U.S. prison population by almost 25 percent--more than 500,000 people--from a recent estimate of 2.2 million, which would bring America close to China's 1,649,804.

In order to achieve this, Sanders would have to ask Congress to change mandatory federal sentencing laws and convince state legislatures across the country to do the same, against howls of opposition from police, prison guards and district attorneys. Even if the laws changed, the functionaries of the injustice system, from top to bottom, would do there best to make sure U.S. prisons remain stuffed.

Thus, we would discover that so-called "gridlock" in Washington arises as a natural self-defense mechanism in the face of radical change. And if Sanders attempted to use executive authority on this point, the U.S. Supreme Court would rule his actions unconstitutional.

Keep in mind: This is exactly how the Founding Fathers designed the American state, with its division of powers, differing election calendars for president, senator and House members, lifetime appointment of federal judges, and so on. In their original form, these bureaucratic safeguards were intended to defend slavery. Today, they defend the capitalist status quo.

Outside the state machine itself, capitalist institutions in civil society would move into action, doing their best to "manufacture consent," as Noam Chomsky famously put it. Recall the media blitz justifying President Bush's 2003 invasion of Iraq. The liberal New York Times beat the war drums, only to admit after the fact that they had peddled a "pattern of misinformation."

Sanders would confront similar impediments whether he turned his attention to national health care, free college, a transition to renewable energy or even a marginal reduction in the Pentagon budget. Each thrust would be sabotaged by the state machine and face well-financed "public" opposition engineered by the medical-pharmaceutical insurance complex, banks, oil giants and arms manufacturers in turn.

And beyond that, a progressive Sanders administration would face the reality that the global capitalist economy, based on anarchic competition and the blind pursuit of profit, routinely vacillates between boom and slump, with legislative policy having little effect. State economic measures can exacerbate or moderate the capitalist business cycle, but cannot control it.

This is the cruel lesson that supporters of the left-of-center Pink Tide governments in Latin America (Venezuela, Argentina, Brazil, Bolivia, etc.) are learning today. In times of boom, a government may be able to redistribute a certain percentage of overall profits, but if profits in private industry provide the baseline for state taxation, then slumps signal an end to those redistributive practices.


DOES THIS mean that it's useless to fight for reforms? Quite the opposite. But it does mean we have to adopt strategies that can actually win.

Sanders himself often states that a political revolution cannot be about just one individual being elected to office. So let's look at our options in the struggle to win change.

First, there are what I would call the soft options.

Sanders rightly points to the corrupting influence of campaign cash. But keep in mind that the Old Jim Crow and the Vietnam War predated the Supreme Court's Citizens United decision. The capitalist class has other means to assert its domination over the state machine besides campaign contributions.

Getting "money out of politics," when discussing the American state, is a bit like saying we should get "money out of economy." The problem of state power and economic monopoly cannot be reduced to tweaking electoral regulations. Something more potent is required.

Faced with this reality, Sanders today advocates pushing the Democratic Party to the left by raising money for liberal candidates and calling on young people to register and vote. His goals as president are premised on a wave of enthusiasm so big that the Democrats might even recapture Congress or at least break up the Republican monopoly on both houses.

Unfortunately, the congressional Democrats in charge would be, with rare exceptions, the same congressional Democrats (Harry Reid and Nancy Pelosi) who worked so hard to defeat Sanders in the primaries and get Hillary Clinton nominated.

Thus, even if the Democrats controlled Congress, most of Sanders' proposed legislation would grind to a halt in congressional committees, as bankers and CEOs retreated to their secondary state trenches, deploying an army of lobbyists to huddle with congressional staffers.

A Sanders surge might give him the political clout--or "capital" as it's revealingly referred to in Washington, D.C.--to reduce student loan rates by a point or two, for instance, by directing the federal government to bypass the private banks and issue student loans directly. However, raising taxes on the wealthy in order to finance free college--a proposal that would cost tens of billions--would encounter almost as much opposition from the current Democratic Party as could be expected from Republicans.

Overcoming this would require yet another very difficult political leap. Sanders would have to spend his first two years in office recruiting, financing and campaigning for a new crop of Democratic congressional representatives. This is a tall order on many counts--to begin with, most senators won't even be up for election in 2018 because of their staggered six-year terms.

Further, if faced with any significant threat, Democratic politicians are often capable of feigning left for a few months in order to head off a challenge--just think of Hillary Clinton! So uprooting hundreds of entrenched, veteran neoliberal Democrats is no easy task.


TO RETURN to Gramsci's terms, how should we think about the institution of the Democratic Party? Is it part of the state apparatus, or part of capitalist civil society?

I would suggest that it is both. For 150 years, the party has sunk deep roots in American society, nourished from deep springs of economic and political power. It is not reducible to a few "sellout" politicians.

At its summit, there are thousands of well-off, professional, political operatives and politicians at the federal, state and big city levels, and even better-off political contributors behind them. Together, they employ an army of lawyers and aides to run the party's day-to-day affairs.

Almost all of the Democratic Party's leaders and hired staffers rotate seamlessly between the private sector and "public service." Staffers become lobbyists; elected officials become consultants; Wall Street executives take over the Treasury Department and the U.S. Federal Reserve. It's a never-ending Merry-Go-Round.

Down the ladder, low-ranking state, city or county officials, union leaders, and liberal non-governmental organizations see the party as the mechanism to advance progressive reform--or their own careers. Victories can be achieved at times, but it's obvious who's in charge. The farther up the ladder, the closer to power and capital, the more that the Democratic Party's interests converge with those of big capital.

Thus, Bernie Sanders' stated goal of reforming the Democratic Party requires at least a decade-long fight to break up this juggernaut. Otherwise, his political revolution would grind to a halt.

Sanders and many people on the left suggest that working inside the Democratic Party is more "realistic" than fighting it from the outside. Yet social and political movements in the 1890s, 1930s, 1960s and 1980s were defeated time and again when they followed precisely this strategy.

And those efforts were not without consequences. Energy sunk into an internal battle inside the Democratic Party is energy than cannot be marshaled to build a political alternative to it.


THIS BRINGS us to what I would call the "strong options" for winning a political revolution. If socialism can't come about through the Democratic Party, one of American capitalism's core civil and state institutions, as I have argued here, then we must find another route. There is much more to say about that route than I can fit in this space, but here are some starting points.

Instead of becoming bogged down inside the Democratic Party, we must build up social movements, from Black Lives Matter to immigrants rights, alongside fights to challenge sexism and homophobia, oppose U.S. military intervention abroad and save the planet. The recent strikes by Verizon workers and Chicago teachers show it is possible to rebuild our unions.

Simultaneously, we have to find ways to defend these movements from the compromises demanded in the name of "respectability" by the Democratic Party--including by taking steps to construct a working-class political party or parties. We can win reforms, but they must be based on our own power, not on backroom quid pro quo deals with politicians.

Misplaced faith in the Democratic Party produces cynicism more often than radicalization. So long as the left is willing to subordinate itself to the institutions of capital, its influence will always be based on the economic premises that spontaneously reproduce its own impotence.

This strong option would face many obstacles, of course. But then again, "the Bern" itself shows that millions of people seem to be pushing up against the limits of mainstream politics.

Unfortunately, the most likely similarity with my imagined Inauguration Day is the 72 degree temperature brought on by global warming. The reality will be that President Clinton's or Trump's administration will put all of us who want to fight for a better world--and the ideas we adopt to do so--to the test.

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