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My Primary Objection to Bernie

by Bill Onasch

I’ve already tipped my hand to regular readers. But now the junior Senator from Vermont has officially launched his campaign for the Democrat nomination for President at a big outdoor rally in his home state. This event got only scant attention in the mass media but has consumed much ink and pixels in The Jacobin, Socialist Worker, Portside, In These Times and Socialist Alternative. I have a few extended comments to offer to the lively discussion Hillary Clinton’s first long-shot rival has generated.

I’ve never voted for a Democrat, and the only Republicans I’ve ever backed are in Ireland. Normally I would not have much to say about a race in which I have no horse. But the American political system, like the Lord it constantly praises, moves in mysterious ways.

Not only liberals, whose first choice would have been Senator Elizabeth Warren, are now excited about he who calls himself “Bernie”; so are many good people I have long known and collaborated with in the labor movement who consider themselves socialists. Even many from the Occupy movement sympathetic to anarchism are rushing to get on board the Bernie Bandwagon. In planning a vacation visit to some old friends in Ames, Iowa—professionals who probably would identify themselves as progressive but not “radical”—we need to work around a house party they are hosting for Bernie in that campus town in the state where the all-important first caucuses will be held.

Bernie Who?

While most Movement people are aware of Senator Sanders, he is relatively unknown in the broader political arena. A war baby a year older than me, Sanders was born and raised in Brooklyn and unashamedly still speaks with the distinct accent of that borough. While a student at the University of Chicago in the Sixties he became active in the civil rights movement, an organizer in the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).

After graduating in political science, he spent several months in a kibbutz in Israel. These agricultural communes were founded in Palestine in the early twentieth century by utopian Jewish socialists. Over the years some failed and most successful ones, in industry as well as farming, were converted to private ownership—often hiring Arab wage workers. Sanders has said little about his kibbutz experience but remains an advocate of worker-owned co-ops.

When Sanders returned to this country he joined the emigrant wave of New York radicals moving to Vermont. For years he diligently worked on building a grass roots political movement. In 1981, he was elected to the first of four terms as Mayor of Burlington. In 1990, Sanders was elected to Vermont’s only seat in the House of Representatives. He upgraded to an open Senate seat in the 2006 election, his present day job.

At various times and places Sanders identifies himself as a socialist. His Wikipedia article says, “Sanders is a self-described democratic socialist who favors the creation of employee-owned cooperative enterprises and has praised Scandinavian-style social democracy. He runs for office as an independent but caucuses with the Democratic Party and is counted as a Democrat for purposes of committee assignments. He was the only independent member of the House during most of his service and is the longest-serving independent in U.S. congressional history. Since January 2015, Sanders has been the ranking Democratic member on the Senate Budget Committee.”

Caucus Dues

It’s not only desired committee assignments that are controlled by congressional party caucuses. Loners who don’t get with the program soon find government spending in their districts drying up. The very practical socialist Sanders sought the security of one of the ruling class parties. Like the Godfather, the protection offered by the Democrats demands some occasional unpleasant returned favors. Sanders not only had to dutifully vote for Bill Clinton’s budgets but his Three Strikes crime bill as well. He joined in with a bipartisan bellicose “support the troops” resolution as Bush II invaded Iraq. This advocate for single-payer health care reform cut a last minute deal for some money for community health centers in exchange for his crucial vote for the disastrous Affordable Care Act.

Declaration of Dependence

Senator Sanders raises some worthy reform proposals. Despite his cave-in on what many call ObamaCare, he still advocates Canadian-style Single-Payer. Recently he’s been beating the drums for Free Higher Education. These were two central planks of the 1996 Labor Party project—a once promising movement studiously avoided by Sanders. He also supports a version of the Robin Hood Tax on financial transactions devised by Dean Baker and vigorously championed by National Nurses United, and he also calls for creating Green Jobs in the fight against climate change.

If Bernie was running for President as an independent socialist advocating such substantial reforms, in the absence of a broader working class alternative I might well give him critical support. But he has rejected many such calls to do so from those more influential than I. He has declared he will never be a “spoiler.” His fight to make capitalism more fair through reform has now been reduced to reforming his Democrat landlords.

A leader of the Georgia Greens has called Sanders “a sheep dog for the Democrats.” This is unfair—to German Shepherds. The dogs defend the sheep—sometimes giving up their own life in fighting predators. A more appropriate animal metaphor would be the goat traditionally employed at packinghouses to lead the sheep up the ramp to their final destination. If you think this is too harsh, then you clearly don’t know much about the history of the Democrats.

Whistling Into the Cemetery

Going back to at least the 1890s, when William Jennings Bryan sweet-talked the once mighty Populist Party into “fusing” with the donkey-logo, that "Dem" Party has been, if not always a graveyard at least an isolation ward, for nearly every significant independent mass political and social movement.

Among others in the RIP category is the Minnesota Farmer-Labor Party. For two decades the FLP was dominant in that state, the Democrats relegated to minor third party status. A 1944 wartime shotgun marriage of the two was brokered by Hubert Humphrey and the Communist Party, then influential in Minnesota unions. (The two did not remain pals for long. HHH supported the Cold War campaign to drive “reds” out of the unions and later co-authored the Humphrey-Butler Communist Control Act of 1954 that essentially outlawed the Communist Party.) The only trace remnant of the FLP is its name—to this day the Democrats do business in the Land of Sky Blue Waters as the Democratic Farmer-Labor Party, blocking any revival of that once proud name by workers and farmers.

Among the living but voluntarily self-quarantined are organizations with missions crucial to a just society, and who came out of activist origins, such as the National Organization for Women and the NAACP. But accepting the two-party status quo, they today devote the lion’s share of their time and resources to electing and lobbying Democrats—without much to show for their efforts. Knowing they think there’s no alternative, the Democrats need give them little more than a Joe Biden smile.

Those of you in unions know all too well that most leaders of our only mass class organizations stand by their donkey like the late Tammy Wynette stood by her man. Instead of clearly explaining growing concentration of wealth at the top as capital’s exploitation of the working class, the unions center their fire on CEO pay—and blame it all on the evil Republicans. Still justly bitter about Bill Clinton’s imposition of NAFTA, the unions may soon be stuck with President Obama’s even worse TPP. While the House of Labor has been the most faithful supporter of the Affordable Care Act, an ungrateful friend in the White House is using his signature legislative achievement to wreck multi-employer union health plans and to proceed with the “Cadillac plan” punitive tax on workers negotiating decent coverage. The Obama administration, as well as state and local governments of both major parties, are carrying out unprecedented attacks on the public sector, privatizing, slashing services, and reneging on pension obligations. Recently even the New York Times ran a piece confirming a point often made in this blog: These policies on the watch of the first Black President have had a huge adverse impact on employment and living standards of African-Americans. Just this past week, Administration negotiators declared an impasse in contract negotiations with postal worker unions whose ranks have already been decimated by privatization and processing center closings–sending everything to mediation where the employer is certain to get most of the further job cuts and degraded working conditions and benefits demanded.

And we should not forget that President Obama has still not given up on his hope to lure the Republicans into a Grand Bargain that would do a number on Social Security, Medicare, and Medicaid just as they have already done in cutting Food Stamps and long-term unemployment compensation.

All in all, I think a case can be made for labeling the current Democrat administration as the most reactionary in living memory. None of what I have cited are secret conspiracies—like the government spying on our e-mails and phone calls exposed by Edward Snowden. These are policies reported in the press and network television news. I post links to news stories about such shenanigans Monday through Friday on the Labor Advocate news blog and write about some of them every week in the Week in Revierw (WIR). I’m sure our movement leaders—and Senator Sanders—have access to even more information.

The leaders of our movements are not stupid. Nearly all these days are college educated, and they hire bright people for their staffs and research. Few are cowards and fewer yet criminally corrupt. Some even do good work in collective bargaining and organizing. So what explains their bungling loser behavior in politics and their pathetic determination to keep coming back for more of the same?

The answer is simple. Almost without exception, after generations of brain-washing, the top rungs of Movement leadership remain faithful to the boss class's two-party political cartel deemed as sacred as the divine right to rule once claimed by monarchs.

It seems to me that certainly class-conscious socialists who know better should not be enabling this debilitating delusion. We should speak truth to misused power, trying to win over our leaders to the reality of class war—and replacing those too set in the old ways to change.

In doing so we will find powerful allies—the working class majority. Polls show they no longer share the fidelity of their leaders but instead demonstrate their record disapproval of both major parties—and sentiment for a new one.

An important piece of anecdotal evidence supporting polling was the election of an open socialist to the Seattle City Council in 2013. Kshama Sawant of Socialist Alternative, and a recognized leader of the 15 Now movement, unseated a long-serving Democrat incumbent and went on to use her Council seat to drive the fight for 15 to a victory that meant substantial raises for 100,000 Seattle workers. She is already facing a reelection campaign, and the Democrats hope to take her out. But important sectors of the labor movement—including most SEIU locals—are backing her against the boss candidate.

By contrast, no Democrat leaders are attacking the socialist in their midst—Bernie Sanders. They recognize that far from a red menace the respectful advocate of Scandinavian-style reform may help rehabilitate their tarnished reputation among disgruntled workers and liberals. They believe he is honest in his pledge not to spoil the election for Hillary or whomever.

In reviewing the Sandernista side of the debate among the left I noticed numerous references to the fact that the Senator has a picture of the great socialist pioneer and union leader Eugene V Debs hanging in his office. A young Occupy activist commented “that’s pretty cool.”

I don’t have any Debs icons on display in my office, but I admit Debs is a hero of mine. When puzzling over strategic questions I sometimes query myself about what would Debs do? In a future WIR I will take up some of this speculation about WWDD. For now I have stated my case about my primary objection to what Bernie is doing in real time.