It’s easy to see why voters sick of big-business politics as usual are flocking to Bernie Sanders. A self-described democratic socialist, Sanders rails against staggering inequality and denounces the rule of banksters and CEOs. He is drawing huge enthusiastic crowds at campaign rallies and is running neck and neck with Hillary Clinton in some polls.
He has the attention of many fed-up voters, but is Sanders the alternative they really need? And what will be the main result of his candidacy?
A mixed track record. Sanders has a long political history. As a student he was a member of the Young People’s Socialist League, the Socialist Party’s youth group, and was a participant in the civil rights movement through the Student Non-Violent Coordinating Committee (SNCC).
In Congress, he has taken principled stands on specific issues, often as part of a small dissenting minority. He opposed the authorization of force in Iraq in 1991 and 2002 and the invasion in 2003. He calls for a single-payer “Medicare for all” healthcare system. He endorses labor unions, higher wages, and a national public jobs program to rebuild infrastructure.
But one doesn’t have to look very hard to find contrary positions.
Sanders voted for the 2001 authorization of force that gave George W. Bush the green light for military action after Sept. 11 and led to the imperialist invasion of Afghanistan. He supported the U.S./NATO war on Yugoslavia in 1999. He backs indefinite U.S. funding of Israel and defended Israel’s vicious attack on Gaza in 2014. He said during a recent interview on ABC that he wants the United States to remain the world’s strongest military power.
On immigration and jobs, Sanders is basically a nationalist. He accepts the premise that U.S. workers must compete against their sister and brother workers in the global economy. He voted against building the U.S.-Mexico border wall in 2006, but for the deeply flawed immigration reform bill in 2013, since stalled. This would have strengthened “border security” with up to 40,000 more patrol agents and stepped-up interceptions and deportations of desperate immigrants. Sanders also considers the lifesaving idea of open borders to be a right-wing plot to lower wages.
And, in contradiction to his mystique as a friend of workers, Sanders didn’t resist when an ally of his, Vermont Democratic Governor Peter Shumlin, pushed through a shameful austerity budget that meant cutting hundreds of union jobs.
Symptomatic of his weakness on race, Sanders refused to address the issues raised by Black Lives Matter protesters at rallies in Phoenix and Seattle, who were reflecting the explosive frustration of millions of people with racism and politicians’ silence. To Sanders, racism seems to be almost entirely a problem of income inequality. In reaction to being called out, he has recently published more about race on his website and has begun to discuss the epidemic of cop shootings. But solutions like body cameras for cops and community policing, which generally is an excuse for more cops and more surveillance, are no solutions at all. Missing is an emphasis on tackling racism as a Priority One problem for the entire country.
Pulling punches. Sanders’ economic plan is reform as an end state. He calls for increasing taxes on the rich, letting large insolvent banks fail, and using taxes on risky financial transactions to pay for education. But these reforms will hardly break the gargantuan power of Wall Street!
True socialist candidates would demand nationalization and workers’ management of key industries like banking and energy, and for dismantling the military machine and redirecting funds to education and social services. They would show that job losses are not the fault of foreign workers and immigrants, but of speedup, automation, and the bosses’ global “race to the bottom.” They would call on U.S. workers to join with the workers of other countries to take the capitalist class down everywhere.
Forthright socialists would not avoid talking about the basic question of socialism versus the profit system, as Sanders has, but would focus on political education and do everything in their power to win their supporters to an anti-capitalist position.
Support for the two-party shell game. When it comes right down to it, the main problem with Sanders’ candidacy is the role it plays in this election: to shore up support for the Democrats and thus the two-party choke hold.
If he chose to, Sanders has the momentum and the numbers of supporters to break free from the Democrats and contribute toward launching a formidable anti-capitalist party. He has cited as his role model revolutionary Eugene V. Debs, who ran for president five times in the early 1900s as a Socialist Party candidate. But Debs explicitly characterized the Democratic and Republican parties (“the political wings of the capitalist system”) as a poisonous trap for working people. Sanders, on the other hand, is running as a Democrat and has promised to support the party’s eventual nominee.
In fact, though he has technically been an independent in Congress, he votes with the Democrats over 90 percent of the time, and consistently backs their presidential candidates.
The path that Sanders is treading is a well-worn one. Over the last 30 years, the presidential campaigns of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Dennis Kucinich, and now Bernie Sanders have espoused agendas seen as progressive and tried to push the Democratic Party to the left. This experiment has been tried many times before.
And what do the people of the U.S. have to show for it? Both capitalist parties moving steadily to the right, with education and social programs on life support, the planet at risk, war without end, and other symptoms of capitalism brutally hanging on long past its sell-by date.
Sanders’ function is the same as the left-identified Democratic presidential contenders who have preceded him. It is to forestall protest — to give another option to people who might otherwise be tempted to rebel in the streets against the rotten, rigged U.S. electoral system. It is to persuade unionists and those who are disenchanted to once more vote, against their own interests, for a Democrat acceptable to big business — as the final Democratic nominee surely will be.
Unfortunately, some left groups, including the Socialist Alternative of Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant, support Sanders directly or indirectly. They evade or downplay the negative parts of his record and collusion with the Democratic Party. They claim to orient to Sanders in order to build a movement, but cheerleading a populist inside the Democratic Party is no way to build an independent movement for real change!
What would be productive is for socialist groups to increase their impact in the electoral arena by joining together with a common platform. This would also make it more possible to mount a serious challenge to the web of state and federal laws that keep left and independent labor candidates off the ballot. And it could lead to what Sanders isn’t organizing: the launch of a new, anti-capitalist party of, by, and for workers of every color and all the oppressed and excluded.
To this end, the Freedom Socialist Party proposes a national conference of interested leftists to discuss these ideas and work toward realizing them. If you support this, get in touch. Undoubtedly, such an effort would earn the eternal gratitude of great numbers of workers and young people who are now unrepresented!
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