The “don’t vote for what you want” campaign

January 28, 2016

The flurry of criticism against Bernie Sanders as he rises in the opinion polls is rooted in the age-old complaint that left-wing proposals and policies just aren't "realistic."

AFTER SEEING Bernie Sanders surge in public opinion polls with the first contests of the Democratic presidential primaries weeks away, supporters of the frontrunner and establishment choice Hillary Clinton have decided that they've seen enough.

Over January, Clinton campaign officials fed articles to the New York Times and Washington Post to signal their displeasure with Sanders, whose left-wing populism was tolerated in the early months of the campaign--but who now shows alarming signs that he might be more than an also-ran.

At about the same time, political commentators from across the spectrum uncorked their anti-Sanders criticism. On the conservative side, the Wall Street Journal editorial board raised the alarm about this "true-blue man of the left," warning its conservative followers that, at a time of deep anger over inequality, Sanders wouldn't be as weak a candidate in the general election as they might think.

From liberal pundits, the tone of the headlines was more condescending: "Bernie Sanders Doesn't Get How Politics Works," according to Boston Globe columnist Michael Cohen, while Politco ran a piece by American Prospect co-editor Paul Starr titled "I Get Sanders' Appeal. But He's Not a Credible President."

Hillary Clinton speaking on the campaign trail
Hillary Clinton speaking on the campaign trail (Gage Skidmore)

Many liberals whose stated beliefs are much closer to Sanders than the reliably centrist and conventional Clinton nevertheless went after the self-identified socialist from Vermont. The common element among them was a curious outbreak of selective criticism.

Liberal economist and New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, for example, complained that Sanders' plan to break up monopolistic banks didn't go far enough, while saying nothing about the empty rhetoric and tame-at-best proposals from Hillary "I represented Wall Street" Clinton.

Well-known anti-racist author Ta-Nehisi Coates took Sanders to task in the Atlantic for not supporting slavery reparations for African Americans. Coates was right about that, but he didn't mention that Clinton rejects reparations, too, or that her record on racism is far worse than Sanders. What should have been an important discussion degenerated into another partisan hit job.

There was also a wave of complaints about Sanders' idea of bringing American health care into the mid-20th century with a single-payer plan.

Hillary Clinton herself and her daughter Chelsea falsely implied that Sanders would leave people with no insurance by undoing Barack Obama's Affordable Care Act (ACA), while leading liberal voices Ezra Klein and Matt Yglesias denounced Sanders' plan for its simplicity.

Really? Anyone who has to actually deal with the still-dysfunctional American health care system is sure to appreciate Sanders' case that simplicity would be a major benefit of removing the profit motive from health care--as opposed to the ACA, whose 1,000 pages are riddled with loopholes and corporate giveaways that give the privatized system the ability to continue screwing ordinary people.

BUT THOSE were the surface policy criticisms. More important was the underlying theme shared by politicians and pundits alike: Bernie Sanders just isn't the "realistic" choice.

"Here in the heartland, we like our politicians in the mainstream," lectured Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon, a promoter of traditional American values like deploying troops to face off against Black protesters angry about police violence. "[Sanders] is not--he's a socialist."

Nixon's fellow Missourian, Sen. Claire McCaskill, added: "The Republicans won't touch him because they can't wait to run an ad with a hammer and sickle."

The problem with the claim that Sanders' ideas are off on the left fringe is that they are clearly not. That's the meaning of the opinion polls showing that more and more people are embracing his message.

The reason we're hearing Clinton backers denounce Sanders is not because he's turning off voters--but because he's attracting them in larger and larger numbers.

As for the "socialist" label, far from it being a negative, Sanders' identification with socialism seems to have prompted many more people to decide that they're one, too--including in the "heartland." The Washington Post reports that in Iowa, "a remarkable 43 percent of likely Democratic caucus participants describe themselves as socialists, including 58 percent of Sanders's supporters and about a third of Clinton's."

Sanders' success in drawing support is based on a continuing move to the left among millions of people who typically make up the Democratic Party's voting base--and they've become increasingly sick of their party's pro-corporate agenda, a similar trend to the polarization that has taken place across Europe in recent years.

But when you read the "stay away from Sanders" articles carefully, you find that their authors aren't worried about Sanders alienating voters, but candidates, consultants and especially donors--i.e., alienating the Democratic Party power structure itself.

Democratic Rep. Steve Israel told the Washington Post that among his colleagues, there is an "elevated concern expressed in the cloakroom and members-only elevators" about the effect of a Sanders victory on their congressional races this fall.

There's no doubt that Republicans would try to use Sanders' identification with socialism against him in a general election--although some polls show Sanders doing better than Hillary Clinton against various Republican candidates.

But that's not actually the problem. Democrats like Israel and Nixon are less worried that they they'll be damaged by Sanders' left-wing platform than that they'll be exposed by it.

"Whether or not he wins," wrote the Washington Post, "Sanders' rise has created challenges for party leaders by highlighting policy differences between the Democratic establishment and the party's support base. Many Sanders proposals--Medicare for all, free college and breaking up big banks--go beyond congressional Democrats' agenda but are embraced by an ascendant wing of the party."

In other words, it's not even socialism that party officials are declaring to be beyond the pale, but positions and policies that used to be basic elements of liberalism and Democratic Party politics.

THIS IS the essence of the con game at the heart of the "pragmatic politics" long practiced by the liberal wing of American oligarchy. They tell supporters that radical change is unrealistic because the people will never go for it--while they do everything in their powers to prevent radical change from ever being a legitimate option for people to choose.

It's the very opposite of the combative and independent politics promoted by the Socialist Party leader and five-time presidential candidate Eugene Debs, who used to say that he'd rather "vote for something I want and not get it than vote for something I don't want and get it."

Sanders' success up to this point is poking a big hole in the national myth that the U.S. is a conservative country at heart. But how far Sanders can take his campaign is limited by the fact that he's running for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party--a party that is showing it will undermine him every step of the way.

Sanders himself and many of his supporters believe that the limits of the two-party system make working inside the Democrats the only realistic path for progressive politics. And it's true that Sanders is probably getting far more attention than he would as an independent, third-party candidate--since those figures are outright shunned by the media and political establishment.

But it's also true--whether or not Sanders is willing to face it--that the Democratic Party will never allow itself to be taken over by its left wing. So by staying within the Democratic Party, Sanders is dooming some of his "pragmatic critics" to be correct.

Sanders' insistence on talking about health care is a breath of fresh air in the post-ACA political climate. But it is, in fact, unrealistic to propose a single-payer health care system as a candidate of a party that is just as much in the pockets of the insurance and pharmaceutical industries as the Republicans. Were Sanders ever to find himself in a position of trying to achieve single-payer, his own party would stab him in the back.

Michael Cohen is, in fact, right when he says that Sanders is too simplistic in only blaming Wall Street money for our broken political system. "It's not just about money; it's also about a political system constructed and reinforced to block the kind of massive reform Sanders is advocating," Cohen wrote. "Money is important, but it's not even close to the whole story."

Of course, the lesson drawn by Cohen and other "realistic" liberals is that we need to elect moderate candidates who will work for incremental change. We know the result of that strategy--from the long trail of broken promises left behind by Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, to cite two examples.

Sanders supporters should take the opposite message from Cohen: In order to fix a broken system, we need a real and thorough political revolution--not just against corporate influence in Washington, but against the two-party oligarchy as a whole.

THE POPULARITY of the Sanders campaign shows that such a political revolution is possible. So do the protest movements of the recent past that have achieved marriage equality; the beginnings of an improvement in the minimum wage; greater awareness of racist police violence and the indictments of some killer cops--and the lessons of history show us achievements on an even greater scale.

We are constantly told that it's far-fetched to talk about building a party to the left of the Democrats. But if in 2016, a self-identified socialist can poll as well as any declared candidate for the presidency, then why can't we build a party that goes behind the Democrats' lame rhetoric and proven record of betrayal? Why can't we bring together the spirit of Occupy, Black Lives Matter and other movements that have laid the basis for Sanders' success?

Right now, most Sanders supporters are excited about what will happen in the early primary contests. Their candidate is almost certain to win in New Hampshire, has a good shot in Iowa and could rack up other successes well into the primary season.

But the odds are still overwhelming that at some point in the months to come, Bernie Sanders will concede that he won't win the Democratic presidential nomination and--as he has promised all along--call on his supporters to vote for whoever the nominee is, no matter how far from his beliefs they may be.

For decades on end, the independent and socialist Sanders has supported a string of disappointing Democrats for the presidency over genuine independents like Ralph Nader or the Green Party's likely 2016 candidate Jill Stein.

Socialists need to challenge that version of political "realism," just as much as the current variety. And the time to start preparing to do so is now. Understanding what it will take to make the Sanders promise a reality and break with his pragmatism will deepen the understanding of what the socialist project is all about--real self-emancipation through self-organization.

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