Though there is much I could say, I will certainly attempt to keep this brief. It may be hard, however, since I have been quite the fan of Bernie Sanders for years now. His recent announcement that he will be running for president, as well as reading numerous articles from various viewpoints in response to this announcement, has forced me to think long and hard about this announcement. Ultimately, I am “Ready for Bernie”, but with a full understanding of what Bernie is….and what he isn’t.
The best place for one to start exploring both sides of the “should we support Bernie?”, the U.S. Senator from the great (and quite progressive) state of Vermont and self-identified “democratic socialist”, argument is two articles published on Jacobin magazines website. Bhaskar Sunkara demonstrates his support for Bernie Sanders in a fantastically argued article which touts Bernie’s socialist credentials and argues that, although Bernie is running as a Democrat, his candidacy will create openings for Left-wing ideas currently marginalized by mainstream discourse. In essence, a Sanders candidacy can go a long way toward pushing the Democratic Party to the left, while opening up room for other forms of left-wing organizing and coalition-building. Ashely Smith, however, argues that a Sanders presidential run with do more harm than good for Left-wing organizing. Citing Sanders’ decision to run as a Democrat, the softening of many of his positions over the years (especially on Israel and militarism), and his choice to run as a presidential candidate (where he has little chance of winning and a great chance of compromising much of what he, and his supporters, believe in) and not as a more viable choice, such as Governor of Vermont (where he could have capitalized on his tremendous independent support in Vermont) where he could have had more effect. Ultimately, a Sanders’ Democratic candidacy will push Sanders to the right, not the Democratic Party to the left, and will cause erstwhile organizers to waste their time on a Sanders candidacy which could better be utilized in organizing independent challenges to the status quo, argues Smith. Both points are well taken, and I find much I agree with in both articles. If anything, I find myself leaning more towards the arguments put forward by Smith. That being said, I am still willing to put my support behind Bernie. It is certainly true that Sanders’ call for a “political revolution” falls far short of a “social revolution” hoped for by many leftists (and Sanders’ version of a ‘political revolution’ is perfectly in keeping with the rules of the status quo and, by definition, is not a ‘revolution’ at all), his self-identification as a ‘socialist’ is a bit misleading (he would be best characterized as a “social democrat”, a la Scandinavian social welfare states, rather than a ‘socialist’), and his decision to run as a Democrat has robbed many on the progressive-left of an opportunity to run an independent campaign which challenges, rather than subjects itself to co-optation by, the status quo. With all of this in mind, I am still willing to support Bernie as a step, (nothing more, nothing less), in the right direction.
Bernie has a unique ability to vocalize the most desperate need for changes in the United States during the second decade of the 21st century. Bernie has a hostile, straight-shooting style that is a breath of fresh air compared to the politics-as-usual dialogues coming from other candidates in the field (think of the anti-militaristic Libertarian Rand Paul giving a speech in front of a battleship). Bernie had the courage to give a more than 8-hour filibuster speech in defense of what little there is of the American welfare state (which was published in book form, and I highly recommend reading it…). He has been a champion of working people, calling for strengthening Social Security, Expanding Medicare and Medicaid, calling for a single-payer healthcare system, demanding campaign finance reform, calling for constitutional amendments to overturn Citizens United, fighting global climate change, and declaring war on the big banks. In a time when candidates are bending over backwards to attract corporate funding (Hillary Clinton was once on the board of WalMart…enough said), demonstrate how “pro-business” they are, and show support for U.S. militarism abroad and the police state at home, Bernie has a unique ability to tie the seemingly different strands of exploitation in an almost complete critique of the system as a whole. He can vocalize how the need for universal healthcare relates to the need for a minimum wage and how each relates to the corporate dominance of our culture and how that dominance, in turn, is leading to the destruction of our planet. Democrat or not, Bernie is alone among the candidates to make these connections and, however softly, to criticize capitalism itself. Sanders even puts forward ideas about what a future society might look like. He persistently applauds the achievements of the Nordic countries and at one time even put forward a bill to support a worker-owned economy (the Worker Ownership Readiness and Knowledge, or WORK, Act, -which never made it to the Senate floor), which is more than one can say about any other candidates.
Undoubtedly, the future of America generally, and working people specifically, rests in making a break from the two-party establishment (and, dare I say, the process of building a post-capitalist society?). Many applaud the success of people like Kashama Sawant in Washington State as a model for future organizing. Unfortunately, we are a long way from replicating that type of organizing or success on any large scale. Sanders, an Independent Senator from Vermont (who often caucuses with Democrats), thought long and hard about whether to run as Independent as he has his whole career (Sanders has never been a registered Democrat), or to take a different course. Ultimately, he chose to make use of the infrastructure already available in the Democratic Party rather than starting from scratch with an independent organization (which would cost time and money that Sanders and supporters, quite frankly, do not have). Bernie has pledged not to accept corporate money (as if any would be made available to him anyway…), and will thus face an uphill battle against his corporate Democratic opponents.
In the end, what impresses me most about Bernie’s candidacy is that he is “in it to win it”. He’s not running a “symbolic” campaign because, quite frankly, the vast majority of the struggles of working people in America are not symbolic. They are more real than anything else in America. He is putting forth his ideas as winning ideas. He’s going all the way. In this way his ideas have an opportunity to be taken seriously, which they must be if humanity is even going to survive another century, to be exposed to millions of Americans who, for various reasons, may not have even had access to such ideas. It is highly unlikely that Bernie will win the presidency of the United States (the Democratic Party establishment alone will likely kill that dream), but by fighting for these ideas, and encouraging people to organize around those ideas, can provide an opportunity for different groups to come together in common cause, for workers’ organizations to finally get behind a candidate that stands for them (lets go labor…), and be a stepping stone for future (and hopefully more radical) organizations and advocacy. It is essential to recognize Bernie’s candidacy for what it is and what it isn’t. If nothing else, working people will get a chance to see what a real workers’ candidate looks like. If only for a moment, the people of the United States can flirt with the transcendent ideas of democratic socialism and it will strengthen the debate and be a step in the right (or left…) direction.