The Long Bern

 It’s fitting that my return to writing, after about a six month hiatus, should concern one of the most pressing and important issues of the day (and – full disclosure – near and dear to my own heart): Bernie Sanders’s political revolution. While this essay will discuss the persona of Bernie Sanders, it will also cast a wide net over the larger sociopolitical and cultural implications of his campaign, as well as the future of American politics. I will discuss the large rift among the left (voting for Hilary in November), and briefly outline the rift on the right, including the phenomenon of Trump.

 

What’s in a word?

 

            First thing is first. We have to lay the terms on the table. What is a political revolution? Are there different types of political revolution? The answer to the last question is yes. But that prompts us to consider the word “revolution” itself. Revolution is often juxtaposed to evolution. In political terms, evolutionary change is slow and methodical; revolutionary change is abrupt and often violent. Indeed, violence – often against people, as well as property - is usually the key indicator of revolutionary activity.

            This basic breakdown, however, is not always borne out by the historical record. At any rate there is a continuum to consider, where a gradation of extreme and revolutionary tactics is present. In other words, how “revolutionary” are you compared to your neighbor? Consider Rosa Luxemburg and Karl Liebknecht. In the immediate years following WW1, Germany’s SPD (Social Democratic Party), of which they were both previously members, became too “tame” a political organization. The SPD supported Germany’s war effort, and the hardline socialists believed war to be the inevitable outcome of capitalist friction. In their view, people should stay away from supporting nationalisms in the war. However, the Bolsheviks in Russia were not simply anti-war. The Bolsheviks wanted the world war to occur – as they saw it as part of the fall of capitalist society – and chose to await the international response to that war: established global Communism. Luxemburg and Liebknecht became more radical and moved further left on the spectrum, while at the same time issuing criticisms of Lenin and the Bolsheviks in Russia. The Bolsheviks, in turn, were not as radical in the spectrum as Stalinism would be later become - defining, in tandem with Hitler’s Germany, the extent of extremism in the totalitarian regimes.[1] (Consider also the decentralized but potent revolutions of 1848 across Europe. Also consider the differences between the American and French Revolutions, as well as the differences between factions in each setting – Jacobins and Girondins, etc.) So, while words like “radicalism” and “revolution” certainly have meaning, they are not so ossified as to become problematic. As political systems change and evolve, what is considered “radical” or “revolutionary” will change and evolve as well. In democratic, capitalist America, right now in the 21st century, “political revolution” has its own meaning. The movement for this revolution is non-violent and comparatively non-radical, but it is just radical enough in its own right to make an essential difference to the future of our democracy.[2]

 

Stacking the deck

 

In America the majority of us are fighting against a stacked deck, a deck of cards that crumbles on the whim of millionaires and billionaires. But hasn’t this always been the case? Yes and no. Socialism is as old as capitalism, and as long as there has been an exploitative relationship between people – employer and employee – there have been concerted efforts to adjust or adjudicate this problem. Furthermore, the relationship between socialists and capitalists have fared the rocky waters of rapprochement and discord from the very beginning. In the late 19th century, the accumulation of wealth at the top became so stark (among “robber barons,” industry and commodity moguls, bankers, and others) that it prompted a progressive movement to restore democracy. But why would democracy be affected by free market success, this the grandest theory of liberty since the founding of the nation? We can see how it would have affected the lower classes’ economic situation, but why democracy? President Teddy Roosevelt understood that to entrench and ensure their wealth and future opportunities, the moguls of Rockefeller-type fame would financially and intellectually prop up those who make the rules: in other words, marry the business and political spheres in a grotesquely unfair and undemocratic way. If you can buy off the politicians who do the country’s bidding, and instead have them do your bidding, you have assured both economic and democratic unfair playing fields – in your favor. This was an ingenious idea, because the democratic and economic (and moral) components are inextricably tied together. Consider that the only way to structurally upend unfair economic practices – monopolies, trusts, etc. – is through your vote. When one vote per person stopped counting, it became exponentially harder to have your voice heard.[3] Roosevelt understood this, and he did his best to break up the trusts and restore democracy.

His younger cousin, Franklin, also brought the government hand back to the market, and he did so in a way that, like Theodore, helped the common man. The mixed economy – that is, the government and private sector working together to produce the best and most efficient means of bettering life – was the key success of American democracy and American capitalism. Indeed, the reason why socialism never “took off” in America like it did in Europe was because the means of forward and upward mobility were always available. The “capitalist” system was never as unfair and inhibitive as it became in the Gilded Age, and this is why the Progressive Age followed. FDR used government power and authority to help the destitute citizens of America, part of a situation caused by the grand and unrealistic belief in the “free market,” as practiced with reckless abandon in the 20’s.[4]

Eisenhower was the last Republican who truly believed in proper government intervention, and that laissez-faire economics can lead to devastating results. The immediate postwar period saw unprecedented growth and then solid sustainability in incomes, as well as a solid decrease in income and wealth inequality. President Eisenhower’s top tax rate was 91%. Most people were doing very well, including those at the top. Those at the top were doing less complaining about that tax rate. Today, the top marginal tax rate evidently cannot be low enough. Ironically, the top 1% has had more than it ever has in the history of this country, and they are rigging the game to their benefit, just as they did during the first Gilded Age. This time, however, the globalized economy – along with our technology – allows for an unparalleled system of injustice and moral depravity. And now it is easier than ever to root that behavior.

 

Who holds the chips?

 

            Today the top 1% - and specifically the top of that class – holds all the chips. They hold the economic chips. They hold the chips of democracy (if we can use the word). Perhaps most importantly, they hold the chips to the future. Can this be changed? The people who believe in Bernie Sanders and his message believe that he is at least the only chance in starting this process, the process of political revolution. And if he and this process fail, it will be a long time yet until we once again gain the courage and wherewithal to take on the big moneyed interests with full force.

            The rise of Reagan, trickle down economics, deregulation, and the bastardized “invisible hand” market ideology all led to a cultural amnesia of what made America great. Regan’s economic policies didn’t work, but his eventual success in ending the Cold War shadowed this failure (although it was Bush who oversaw the final dissolution of the Soviet Union in ’91). Reagan had some economic success after his reelection in ’84, but that was due in large part to reneging on his ideological policy of not imposing additional taxes. No matter, for the die was cast. Reagan was deified and promoted to saint in the conservative pantheon – an ideologue cut from the same cloth as the uncompromising Barry Goldwater (but much more personable and charming). This was his legacy, and for the last thirty years America has witnessed the rise once more of anti-government and laissez-faire business practices. We have also seen the concomitant rise of the left moving ever right, firmly rooting itself in the “center” of American sociopolitical life. But even Reagan would be appalled by what his party has become, and he would shudder at the injustice and the neo-fascist/corporatist way American moguls run their businesses.

            Since the Citizens United decision in 2010, the revolving door between Wall Street and Capitol Hill has become fast and loose. Due to the nature of how power is entrenched, it is almost impossible to weed out corruption, to say nothing of changing the system. This isn’t democracy; this is plutocracy and oligarchy: rule by the rich and few, respectively. One vote per person no longer counts. Now, money is speech, and campaign finance is ruled by the rich few. Now, shadow businesses create fronts to hide their money. Now, multinationals can “legally” claim foreign tax status – by shifting papers, merging with some “subsidiary,” and setting up a mailbox somewhere in Bermuda or maybe the Cayman Islands - while operating entirely in America.[5] The people in Congress getting the right kickbacks and rose-colored promises continue to obstruct any meaningful change in the political system, such as progressive taxation. The current political system – buttressed by stories of the misremembered, halcyon Reagan days – is one based on the business model of pure greed. And peoples’ lives and livelihoods hang in the balance.

            So why is Bernie Sanders the solution? Why can his “political revolution” make a difference? Also, what are the consequences of missing this chance and capitulating once more to the establishment?

 

Brooklyn Ascendant (or, Brief Bernie Bio)

 

            Bernie Sanders was born and grew up in Brooklyn, New York, son to Polish immigrants. Many of his father’s relatives who remained in Poland were killed in the Holocaust. This was Bernie’s first lesson in the importance of politics. His parents died relatively young, and Bernie eventually graduated from the University of Chicago. The nation could witness the integrity and moral rectitude that would serve him a lifetime. He was involved as a foot soldier for important social causes taken up by the “New Left” in the sixties. Bernie organized for CORE and protested segregated public schools in 1963 (for which he was arrested), as well as segregated university housing (the first civil rights sit-ins in Chicago history). Championing civil rights and protesting the Vietnam War, along with other hardline positions of the New Left, was more dangerous than it is today, and actually was not quite as popular as it would become by 1968 when both Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were assassinated. At this point Bernie Sanders was a few years into private careers. He moved to Vermont in 1968, where he worked for a while as a carpenter, filmmaker, and writer.

            He began his run in electoral politics in 1976. He was unsuccessful, but eventually took the 1980 mayoral race in Burlington, Vermont. He would go on to be reelected, eventually serving as congressman, and then senator from Vermont. He described himself as a socialist, and has been the single longest serving independent in Congressional history.

            What’s truly uncanny to note is that Sanders is the only consistent Congressman in modern memory. He has been fighting for the bottom half since he was a young man. His integrity and ideals have always been on the right side of history, and even in the face of opposition – any opposition – he has stood firm and spoken clearly and with conviction.

            Cut to his run for the 2016 presidential election. For his supporters, this choice was a long time coming. The wave of support, already steadfast in the beginning, has grown to unforeseen levels. Citizens recognize his sincerity and his unwillingness to be bought and sold to the highest bidder. They recognize that now is the time to take a firm stand against oligarchy and plutocracy; now is the time to take a stand against the companies that perpetuate global warming; now is the time for long-term social justice. Sanders has been dubbed by many as the new FDR, or perhaps the new TR for his progressive assault on Gilded Age politics.  Time will tell if these similarities bear fruit. Looking to history makes a strong case for these associations. But first we have to get there. And therein lies the biggest obstacle – and it is from an unlikely source.

Well, maybe not that unlikely.

 

A fly in the Chardonnay

 

            His democratic opponent in the election is Hillary Clinton. At this moment in history, the Clinton name, for many, is associated with centrist, establishment politics. Mrs. Clinton’s brand is “politics as usual.” It is true to say that she holds some sincere liberal values and has fought for them throughout her career: equity for women, and the fight against the powerful gun lobby. However, she is only “liberal” – dare I say “progressive” – when seen in the light of contemporary American politics. The old conservative guard no longer exists, has been drummed into silent subservience, or has adapted to keep afloat. For reasons I don’t wish to elaborate on in this piece, the “right” has drifted so far out to sea as to become unrecognizable to anyone from forty years ago. The level of partisan vitriol has become so stark that the political process has come to a grinding halt. President Obama has been able to achieve very little in the face of such obstructionist opposition. The left, instead of standing up to this political and cultural bullying, this false story of Reagan greatness, has capitulated and allowed itself to be pulled further rightward to make due. This was no ordinary push and pull. The right knew it had the reins, and it continued to whip up popular support to whip the left into submission. Now, the “liberal” party has become a firmly “centrist” establishment monstrosity. The few true progressive specks in the party have been told to fall in line “for the sake of moderation.”

            But why is the left being moderate? What’s moderate or “meeting in the middle” about how the extreme right has hijacked political life? The left is being led around by the nose with very little to show for it. Bill Clinton solidly embedded the system of lopsided incarceration that was on the rise, and this eventually led to America taking the lead on the highest incarceration rates in the world (entirely too much of it for low level drug offense). Clinton got “tough on crime” to help win over the Reagan democrats, a constituency of blue-collar workers, often from the south, firmly religious and often racist. Since then the Clintons have been enmeshed in quasi-scandals in one form or another. Mrs. Clinton’s politics have been firmly rooted in the business establishment. Her uneasy ties to Wall Street, Monsanto, and the Pharmaceutical industry have become problematic. The only reason that the American electorate is seriously discussing these issues is because of Bernie Sanders’s candidacy.

            Bernie represents the anti-establishment view, crazy as it sounds, that doing business with the people who are ruining our democracy (and ultimately our economy) will not serve the American people. How can Hillary change the establishment or the status quo when she accepts donations from it? Bernie’s campaign was financed entirely by individual small donations, and he was the only candidate without a super PAC. Hillary should be running on the Republican ticket as the “sane” candidate. She represents the old conservative guard very well. Her positions on ninety-five percent of issues will change as the need arises, and her record bears witness to this problem.[6] This falls right in line with establishment politics across the board. Indeed, the GOP establishment is beginning to realize they might have more in common with Hillary than they thought. (Clinton, at the moment of my writing, is thoroughly eviscerating anything “Republican,” vowing her allegiance to President Obama. I imagine when the time comes to move rightward in the general election, you will hear a swift change in tune.)

            As former labor secretary, author, and political analyst Robert Reich, points out, the “left/right” divide is fast becoming an anachronism. It isn’t how far left Bernie can push Hilary (or society); it is about an establishment that does not care about the citizens of America or American democracy. The time is now, and we are primed for a candidate – as anomalous as Bernie is – to bravely stand up and take on the establishment, to tell the extreme right and center to push off, that the country is ready for social and economic values that erase misplaced fear and address the concerns of the “other 98%.” Sanders is the only candidate doing that.

 

A brief digression on the other side of the aisle

 

The right has recently undergone a transformation as well. With the rise of Tea Party politics, an anti-establishment sentiment has pervaded the right. What separates populists on the right and left is usually social issues. Progressive populists tend to focus on what brings Americans together. Authoritarian populists like Trump focus on what makes us different. Fear is a potent driver of emotional manipulation. The rising tide of nativism in America has been harnessed by people like Trump, perhaps especially by Trump. The misplaced fear of the other is used to drum up outrage and help mobilize the base. Whereas Bernie directs his outrage at the right targets – Wall Street, Big Ag, Big Pharma, crooked politicians, excessive war mongering – Trump not-so-subtly blames immigrants and Muslims, and then sort of blames politicians and bad trade policies. This isn’t new. But Trump himself is a new phenomenon. He is the first non-politician who is barely coherent, and for whom domestic or foreign policy particulars consist of a few guttural non-sequiturs. He has no experience, and he has very few sustainable policy particulars. Reich is right to point out that the establishment is feeling the squeeze, even if in the case of Trump supporters the line of fire extends to underserving others (the Mexicans didn’t cause the recession that put people out of their jobs and homes).

            The GOP has big questions to grapple with, and the future of the party is unclear. Social media and the new “entertainment” value of politics has allowed for a Frankenstein Trump to emerge. But the Republican Party – as with the rest of us – has to accept this fact. As the presumptive nominee, and with no one standing in his way, Trump will head to the convention with huge momentum. The GOP is now in an uncomfortable waltz with their nominee, deciding how to support him. Many on the right have decided not to support him. All this, however, is largely due to Republican rhetoric over the last thirty years. They have spent enormous resources ramming the virtues of ill-disguised bigotry and misplaced fear down the throats of whomever would listen. They now have a reckoning. It’s a homecoming. How they congeal or fracture over the next six months will be equally interesting and novel.

            If the focus remains only on Trump and Hilary, however, something important – and almost irretrievable – will be lost.

 

This way, that way, or…off road? (Split at the polls)

 

November is gut check time. The left is split and the split is irrevocable. There are two crowds: blue no matter who, and Bernie or bust. I belong to the latter. The argument against Trump – and not necessarily for Hilary – says that four years of Hilary would be by and far better than the same with Trump. That’s probably true. Although, briefly consider that while Trump is a bloviating narcissist, it would help the American worker if he follows through on his putative trade policies (some of them, anyway). We cannot count on Trump, though. He is unprincipled and has no conviction or allegiance, which could make him dangerous or helpful depending on how the chips fall.

Let’s assume, however, that Hilary would make America at least better than Trump over the next four years. How far does that comparison really get us? What happens after that? The argument from the other side is that if we don’t stand up for these anti-establishment convictions now, then we will have no voice for the indefinite future. If we do not stand with Bernie now, then we will lose credibility in these stances. This is a unique time in political history. The long game is more important to consider, even if it means risking four years of Trump. He wouldn’t be as bad as Ted Cruz would have been (somebody with actual convictions). Nevertheless, abstaining from a Hilary vote is much more important. The Bernie or bust mentality is centered on this abstention. If when it were the hardest we capitulated, shrugged our shoulders, and ticked Hilary’s name, we would lose all credibility. We would compromise the integrity that has supported this entire movement. Does it mean anything after all if we do what we have always done: choose the lesser of two evils? It’s time to choose a new path, and the circumstances are ripe. When the progressives stand up at this historical event, they will be remembered in history as the ones who finally said no to corrupt politics and policies. They will be remembered as the ones who stood up for democracy. They will be remembered as the ones – if things get bad with a Trump or Hilary administration – that risked the short term negative consequences so that, in the long run, the American citizen could once again have a fair shot at the American dream.

 

“Next year in Jerusalem”

 

            If not now, when? If the time to take a clear stand on these issues is not now, then when is it? The circumstances have primed the electorate to make a statement in November. Even if that statement is silence on the ballot. Occupy Wall Street was dipping the toes into the water. Obama’s tenure was a test of quasi-liberal policy put to the jury of conservative extremism. The extreme right in this country have no interest in meeting anyone in the middle for sane policy prescription. It’s time for the left to stop clearing its throat, and to stop hedging its bets. It’s time for ideology and moral policy to weigh heavily against establishment pragmatism. No more “next year in Jerusalem” for us.  There is no promise land and, at the end of the day, this revolution will still operate within the confines of our federal system. But the days of talking about a better future are over; now is the time to make a statement of delivery. After all, what is else is there but the continuation of a system that does not work you or I? Nothing less than the restoration of American democracy, our economy, and the future opportunity for something akin to the American dream is at stake.

            I started this essay by examining some important historical moments. It’s an important project, because it allows you to realize when you are in one yourself. See you in November.

 

 

 

 [1] Traditional Marxism, at that point, was a leaf in the wind, and the apogee of the totalitarian regime lasted from about 1936-1956. Leon Trotsky, a former top radical and Leninist, was later murdered in Mexico by Stalin’s goons – one of the many examples of radicalism being redefined and calcified as the years passed.

[2] The oft-mentioned comparison between the obscene Stalinist regime and a democratic socialist, secular Jew from Brooklyn is only made by historically illiterate and conversationally obnoxious individuals. They would do well to seriously study the differences between historical revolutions. “Seriously studying” seems to be the problem.

[3] The system, of course, was never fully fair in this regard. Women did not get the vote until 1920. And although blacks were by law allowed to vote after the 15th amendment of 1870 (after almost one hundred years of being constitutionally 3/5 of a person), the de jure Jim Crow laws – especially since 1896 – disabused them of their lawful right to cast a vote. It would take until 1965 before this atrocity was remedied.

[4] The market never existed in a vacuum. It only works because it is regulated and buttressed by the power of the Federal government. Adam Smith said some things in his day to lead us to believe he would agree if were alive today. He would certainly be appalled at today’s situation.

[5] An estimated $90 billion in Federal tax money is lost every year due to these manipulative techniques.

[6] From social policy to trade policy to domestic economic policy she has flip-flopped multiple times, as it became convenient to do so. Her foreign policy hawkishness is one of the few areas of consistency.

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