Bernie’s blind spot

March 17, 2016

Bernie Sanders' left-wing message is inspiring millions of people, but the left can't ignore his political stances that aren't radical at all. Pranav Jani explains why.

I ATTENDED the Bernie Sanders rally in my hometown, Columbus, Ohio, on Sunday March 13, just before the primaries. I was definitely moved by the event, but it also clarified for me why I will never vote for someone who cannot break with the Democratic Party.

The Sanders campaign has opened to door to millions of people thinking of progressive ideas that are quite common in other countries, including the idea of socialism. But at the very same time, Sanders' nationalist rhetoric and his refusal to take on US imperialism has locked him into the usual stranglehold of Democratic Party politics.

Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, in his 1967 speech against the Vietnam War, that we need to fight the "triple evils" of racism, poverty, and militarism. It's not just that Sanders is weak on the "militarism" part. It's that this weakness undermines his claim to struggle against racism, especially as far as Asians, Arabs and Latinx are concerned.

For leftist activists and organizers who aim to work with and shift existing consciousness--and not just preach from the sidelines--it is essential to understand both what a huge opening this represents in terms of building a resistant left in the U.S., and what its limits are. It can be a tough balance. It's easier to either "feel the Bern" and dive in, or to dismiss the entire Sanders campaign as cheap political theater.

Bernie Sanders joins fellow Democratic presidential contestants in a debate
Bernie Sanders joins fellow Democratic presidential contestants in a debate

It was truly wonderful spending time with thousands of people excited about voting for a person whose policies are the leftmost of any Democrat we have seen in a long time.

The first speaker, from the Communications Workers of America (CWA), shared his union's endorsement of Sanders--and I recognize how brave that is in a union movement that's always marched to the drum of the establishment Democrat. Thus, even SEIU, which has been committed to the Fight for 15 campaign for raising the minimum wage, endorses Hillary Clinton, despite her former position on the board of Walmart!

The several other speakers who preceded Sanders, all of whom were Black, were also quite inspirational. These included Morgan Johnson, an OSU student and head of College Students for Bernie in Ohio, said: "For once, it feels like it is going to be 'we the people' again. It is not going to be 'we the money' or 'we the lobbyists,' it is going to be 'we the people,' one person, one vote." And Nina Turner, a former state senator in Ohio, who introduced Sanders with a powerful speech that tied together the fight against poverty, student debt, mass incarceration and racism.

It was amazing to see thousands of people in what was, after all, a mainstream political party event cheering for all the progressive ideas and principles in Sanders' long and detailed speech, including the end of mass incarceration, punishment of racist cops, free college tuition, a $15 an hour minimum wage, an end to Islamophobia, an end to targeting Latinos, respect for Native Americans, money for schools and jobs, not wars and jails, a defense of gay marriage, and on and on--and along with all of this, an attack on the billionaires who have benefited while ordinary people have suffered.

BUT NOW let me say a few things about what I really disliked about the politics Sanders was putting forward--and why I feel that we need to get all of this energy into grassroots organizing and, since we are talking about elections, into building alternative political formations left of the Democrats.

This task has to happen now, and not in some distant future when it is "safe" to do it. Such a utopian moment without any right-wing threats will never come.

Sanders' nationalism and soft-pedaling of U.S. imperialism turned me off completely. And I'm not saying this as part of a checklist--I liked these 10 things, but not these two, so I'm out. I'm saying it because nationalism and defense of empire have everything to do with his domestic policies. It's not a question of "not going far enough," but actual disagreement.

Sanders' pandering to nationalist sentiments in opposing NAFTA and TTP was hard to stomach. Knowing his Ohio/Midwest/Rust Belt audience, he repeatedly dwelled on how terrible it is that U.S. jobs are "going to China." With hardly any nuance at all, his rhetoric for American jobs rested on the knowledge that citing big bad China would make his argument for him.

This nationalism has been the worst and weakest part of the labor movement's thinking on globalization, and in fact, it has laid the groundwork for right-wing ideas among U.S. workers about immigrants and people of color around the world.

[Needless to say, HRC's critique of Sanders--an open defense of neoliberal capitalism and globalization--isn't even worth discussing here.]

Sanders was mostly silent about U.S. empire--not a word on drones--but here's how it did express itself at the rally: "Why are there billions for war and not for improving infrastructure" turned into "Let's spend money for building the infrastructure of America, and not the infrastructure of Iraq and Afghanistan." (These are not exact quotes, but very close to exact.)

Hearing the same thousands cheer for that was quite chilling for me as a South Asian American. As we know, in fact, there's no great rebuilding going on in Iraq and Afghanistan--these countries were destroyed. ISIS is going on. Sectarianism is going on. And the idea that the U.S. is "wasting" money on Arab and Muslims countries is the very foundation of the Islamophobia that Sanders challenged when it took place domestically.

Any truly left-wing candidate that is opposed to racism and tied to the mass social movements Sanders talks about must openly agitate against U.S. nationalism in all areas. Otherwise, they are contributing to the ideological groundwork that is used to secure U.S. workers' support for war, immigrant-bashing, and racism.

We know Sanders' positions on Palestine and foreign policy fall short. Hopefully, he won't take AIPAC support--but even if he does not, he's proved that he's willing to go along with the status quo: A world in which the U.S. dominates, competes with and/or makes alliances with other imperialist and sub-imperialist powers, end enriches the global 1 Percent while the people of the world suffer.

YOU MIGHT say that anyone running for president of the U.S. in the Democratic Party has to make these kinds of statements and compromises. But that just underlines my point.

In an interview with Ashley Smith for Socialist Worker in December 2015, Dr. Jill Stein, the likely presidential candidate of the Green Party for a second time, had this to say about the connection between domestic policy and fighting the U.S. empire:

They are absolutely inseparable. Our message is that we have multiple threats to humanity's survival. Inequality, racism, climate change, militarism--none of these can be solved separately. Our economy at home is not going to survive the cost of war. We've already spent $6 trillion on these wars, when you include the long-term medical costs that we have incurred...We can't have a military that simultaneously heaps destruction on the rest of the world and have a viable economy here at home.

A leftist organizer today who is frustrated with the Democrats has to understand the dynamic nature of how consciousness forms, and how struggle erupts.

On the one hand, the Democratic Party always shuts down left insurgents, who are themselves hamstrung and constrained by making their deal with the devil. We can't be naïve about that.

On the other hand, many of the same people who are today inspired by party rebels like Sanders are those who are either on the streets already, or will be tomorrow--pushing for real change and against the limits of the two-party system. We can't be so cynical that we miss the opportunity to dialogue with people who are radicalizing.

And yes, some of these are also Hillary Clinton voters today, pulled to vote for her by a number of factors, including wanting to defeat the racist demagogue Donald Trump.

I will always link arms with people on the actual left who happen to vote Democrat because of "lesser evilism," but want to build the independent, grassroots, social movements like Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. These are the forces that have even allowed for Sanders to emerge, and that have made him shift towards talking about racism.

Yet I believe we need to become completely independent of the Democrats, who consistently block and narrow our vision. I will not vote for that party, because the lesser and greater evil are far too related to each other, especially from the point of view of racism and imperialism.

First published at Pranav Jani's blog.

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