“A spectre is haunting America – the spectre of Bernie Sanders. All the powers of the political establishment have entered into a holy alliance to exorcise this spectre: David Brock and Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, Forbes magazine and the Wall Street Journal, White House staffers and Congressional party machines.” This could certainly be the beginning of a very compelling political manifesto. The next sentences would introduce the dramatic and cataclysmic forces of capital and labor, clashing to the death in a fiery pit of debates, call centers and polling places, all battlegrounds in the epic “political revolution” spearheaded by a sweater-wearing 74 year old.
If only reality were that dramatic, then television would be out of business. Alas, the world we inhabit is alot more boring and prosaic than that outlined by Marx and Engels above, and reinterpreted by myself to fit the present. At the same time, I’ve never seen an electoral cycle as full of zeal and excitement as the present one. We had a candidate who emerged from relative obscurity, a nominally independent Senator from a state whose most famous exports are syrup and ice cream. This candidate, Bernie Sanders, was written off by many in the media — including the always satyrical Jon Stewart — as irrelevant. Little by little, however, Mr. Sanders has seemed to replicate the successes of a junior Senator from Illinois 7 years ago, who also seemed to ride mysterious forces into the White House.
Reawakening the Flame of Occupy
Mr. Obama suggests that his campaign should not be compared with that of Bernie. And, to some extent, he’s right: expectations were likely alot lower for the President, whom Cornel West referred to as “a Nelson Rockefeller Republican in blackface“, than they are for Bernie. And while Obama certainly campaigned to the left of Clinton, his rhetoric was much more similar to that of Martin O’Malley than to Bernie. Obama certainly never used the term “socialism”, least of all to lay claim to the mantle. Indeed, for British voters, Obama was much more an Ed Milliband consensus seeker, whereas Sanders seems an old school leftie, like Miliband’s successor to the Labour leadership position, Jeremy Corbyn, who was similarly elected on a populist and progressive platform last year. Glenn Greenwald has already pointed out the stark similarities between the British and U.S. media establishment’s reaction to the two candidates: they basically parallel.
Ultimately, Bernie is no Corbyn, though he may as well be: the American political landscape has been so dominated by right-wing jargon and defined by the legacy of Ronald Reagan that anyone who dares conjure up the post-WWII consensus is destined to be labelled a “diehard communist” (as Bernie has). All of this leads me to the point at hand: given his decided limitations (and I will get to those later), Bernie is far and wide the most decent and tolerable candidate in the field today. The fact remains that the postwar years were years of declining income and wealth inequality and rising incomes for most people. It would seem that if you took most people’s perspectives into account when crafting a political debate, the post-war years were an ideal situation, with the exception of black disenfranchisement, which took the Civil Rights movement to overcome.
Indeed, the candidacy of Bernie Sanders seems to dovetail nicely with the latter stages of that movement. At the end of his life, Martin Luther King, Jr. and those around him were increasingly concerned with poverty as a cross-racial, cross-cultural, national issue not just affecting one race or region. It was the goal of the Poor People’s Campaign to bring light to this, and focusing on the racial-class-geographical components of poverty. We have not seen that level of awareness and synthesis of pragmatic reality and social theory since, with the possible exception of the Occupy Wall Street movement. And Bernie seems to have picked up the message of both of these movements.
His message has caused comparisons to Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin Roosevelt and others of the Progressive era, and his calls for a national health service, subsidized higher education, police reform, breaking up the biggest banks, increasing the minimum wage to $15 an hour and for raising taxes on the rich certainly call back strongly to that era of “trust busting”, where “harmony” was such an important term.
Bernie Sanders the Social Democrat
Indeed, Sanders’ discussion of “most of the created wealth since the financial crisis going to the top” and his calls for infrastructure spending and a jobs program seem to hearken back to another politician of an era gone by who spoke of “public poverty and private wealth”. That politician was Willy Brandt, the first post-war Social Democratic chancellor of West Germany, and initiator of the iconic Ostpolitik. Brandt famously ended his first speech as Chancellor with the epithet “We are willing to try more democracy!”
Indeed, the Brandt years were marked by similar policy reforms Sanders is campaigning on. According to Wikipedia:
According to Helmut Schmidt, Willy Brandt’s domestic reform programme had accomplished more than any previous programme for a comparable period. More funds were allocated towards housing, transportation, schools, and communication, while substantial federal benefits were provided for farmers. Various measures were introduced to extend health care coverage, while federal aid to sports organisations increased. A number of liberal social reforms were instituted whilst the welfare state was significantly expanded (with total public spending on social programs nearly doubling between 1969 and 1975), with health, housing, and social welfare legislation bringing about welcome improvements, and by the end of the Brandt Chancellorship West Germany had one of the most advanced systems of welfare in the world.
Substantial increases were made in social security benefits such as injury and sickness benefits, pensions, unemployment benefits, housing allowances, basic subsistence aid allowances, and family allowances and living allowances. In the government’s first budget, sickness benefits were increased by 9.3%, pensions for war widows by 25%, pensions for the war wounded by 16%, and retirement pensions by 5%. Numerically, pensions went up by 6.4% (1970), 5.5% (1971), 9.5% (1972), 11.4% (1973), and 11.2% (1974). Adjusted for changes in the annual price index, pensions went up in real terms by 3.1% (1970), 0.3% (1971), 3.9% (1972), 4.4% (1973), and 4.2% (1974). Between 1972 and 1974, the purchasing power of pensioners increased by 19%. In 1970, war pensions were increased by 16%. War victim’s pensions went up by 5.5% in January 1971, and by 6.3% in January 1972. By 1972, war pensions for orphans and parents had gone up by around 40%, and for widows by around 50%. Between 1970 and 1972, the “Landabgaberente” (land transfer pension) went up by 55%.
It would appear, then, that realistically, Bernie Sanders is a social democrat in the model of Willy Brandt and Helmut Schmidt.
Marketing: The Road to Socialism?
Whatever the technical grievances are that those on the left may have of Sanders’ “socialism”, it is certainly re-igniting interest in the idea.
Reviewing the above graph shows that interest in Bernie is actually higher than that in pop singer Adele, at least in the most recent weeks.
Removing Adele and restricting our trend to the past thirty days, we can see a strong correlation in searches for Bernie Sanders and for socialism:
Ultimately, this is a good thing for the left. Even considering Bernie isn’t a socialist in the sense of proposing worker’s ownership of the means of production, the fact that the term is gaining traction is in itself a good thing. 5 years ago, no one would have believed they’d see the day when Anderson Cooper would be asking a popular candidate for the highest political office in the most powerful country in the world their thoughts on socialism. At the same time, neither would anyone have thought a socialist electable to the city council of a major American city. Alas, The Times, They Are A-Changin’…
Where the trouble with Bernie starts: foreign policy
Certainly, I could end this essay here and urge leftists of all traditions to “have their cake and eat it, too”, but that would be disingenuous. Clearly, Sanders has shortcomings, and these lie mainly in the domain of foreign policy. Here, Bernie is very much a product of the political environment he is a part of. His stance toward Saudi Arabia [or here] (“a force for stability in the region”) is ridiculous (although he at the same time has been vocally critical of Saudi’s stance toward the refugee crisis), his stance towards Israel , while not nearly as sycophantic as that of Clinton [or here], is still far too colored by the standard-for-American-mainstream-politics willful indifference toward Israeli injustices. Additionally, his appraisal of Hugo Chavez as “a dictator” is just stupid, and there is a litany of other statements and positions with regards to foreign policy that I, and many others on the left [here, here, and here], don’t agree with Bernie on. These are all important issues to call Bernie out on, both at present during the campaign season where he is vulnerable to attack from both left and right, and — God willing — should he become President.
The campaign cycle is a perfect time to critique and redress grievances with regards to candidate positions. With media present at rallies, in interviews and elsewhere, the pressure is much, much higher than later on. Bringing light to why Sanders wants to keep troops in Afganistan, his veiled embracing of the drone war and other tactical positions is critical both now and should he become President, yet these things should be brough to the fore especially now, because — as stated — he is still much more accountable to voters at the moment and is still shaping his campaign platform. We saw what the Black Lives Matter moment did to Sanders’ campaign strategy.
Given these reservations and qualifications, it seems to me that no other candidate with a realistic chance of winning the office of the Presidency in recent memory has upheld positions as decidedly left-of-center and social justice-oriented as has Bernie Sanders. The fact that commentators must dig back as far as the Progressive era of 100 years ago to find an analogue shows how necessary the positions Bernie is offering are in relation to the politically possible. To some extent channeling Georg Lukacs, for whom the normative qualities of social reality (“is” versus “ought”) were of utmost importance, says Robert Reich, “Hillary Clinton is the most qualified candidate for president of the political system we now have. But Bernie Sanders is the most qualified candidate to create the political system we should have, because he’s leading a political movement for change.” For that reason and for the reason that he’s helping to establish the roots of a politically engaged movement that will hopefully, as promised, culminate into a “political revolution”, I am casting my primary vote for Bernie Sanders.