It is sad to some, infuriating to others. The slow devolution and flame out of the Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign will go down in history as yet another article of indictment against the claim that capitalist parties can be reformed from within. This argument has been made time and again, only for it to resolve itself in the most odious and macabre fashion. Whether Henry Wallace, George McGovern, Jesse Jackson, or Bernie Sanders, progressives fail to change a party the historical role of which is to sideline progressivism. Progressives don’t change the Democratic Party; the Democratic Party changes progressives.
As the late Bruce Dixon called out early in the 2016 race, Bernie Sanders’ role was that of a sheepdog, herding progressives back into the fold of the establishment Democratic Party. Spend a few months castigating the establishment, pointing fingers and thumping lecterns, getting airtime and a few column inches, all to convince the disgruntled millions straggling through the urban distemper that there was at last a cause for optimism. It was undeniable. Look at the hoarse-throated barnstormer raising hell from stump to stump. We must live in a democracy after all.
But when the primaries progress and tensions mount, the establishment circles the Teslas, calls in a few favors, issues a few choice threats, and press-gangs their paper-thin stool pigeon through to victory. Sanders was almost certainly cheated by the DNC, from the shuttering of numberless polling locations, to the historic anomalies in exit polls, to uncounted ballots and countless anecdotes of voting day chicanery.
When it was all over, there Sanders stood, as he knew he would, bereft and bedraggled, owner of some worthless delegates that disingenuous blue MAGAs said he could wield like a cudgel at the convention. Rather than succumb to ignominy like so many defeated primary challengers, the Burlington gadfly gathered himself for a new project. He then suspended his campaign and, turning with the studied aplomb of a Shakespearean actor playing multiple parts, declared, “We must defeat Donald Trump, the most dangerous president in American history.”
Keening press flacks like Jennifer Rubin, a bloodthirsty opinion-maker at the Washington Post, thundered that Sanders was an “inflexible ideologue” who would blame conspiracies against him should he lose. She didn’t realize he was running to keep his senatorial appointments, not to win the race. She didn’t realize that he was a faux socialist who couldn’t be bothered to acknowledge a single socialist country aside from Denmark and other neoliberal states with failing safety nets. She didn’t see his ‘bright red line’, either. It was a threshold he wouldn’t cross. He would never defy the party or accuse it of cheating. He would never break free and make a breathlessly quixotic run at the presidency, like Ralph Nader had. In fact, he wouldn’t do these things because he didn’t want to end up like Nader did, a DC pariah who’s name yet curdles the thin lips of bourgeois liberals. Though he was 78, and could have easily walked off after the election with the praise of millions of progressives warming his departure and penning his legacy, he desperately wanted to remain with the ‘in crowd’, which happened to include all those neoliberal friends he made in the Senate over the years.
Bernie refused to attack Joe Biden with any ferocity, merely attempted to get Biden to admit he wanted to cut Social Security. He did not attack him over the legacy of sexual harassment. He did not attack him over the legacy of a racist crime bill that exploded the carceral state and, as author Chris Hedges said, turned mass incarceration into the “civil rights issue of our time.” Nor did he go hard at the former vice president for any of the litany of charges to be culled from the Obama years, from the slyly achieved destruction of Libya, to the coup d’état in Ukraine, to the class war on minority homeowners and the transfer of a trillion dollars of black wealth from black hands to elite-controlled corporate bank accounts.
Then Bernie endorsed Biden. He endorsed everything he claimed to condemn. All that he derided with contempt, be it billionaires and bankers or Big Pharma and the insurance lobby, he now promised to champion as he climbed aboard the Establishment Express, helmed by savvy political operatives and steady-state lifers, and stage-managed by the punctilious handlers who wrote Joe Biden’s scripts, kept him focused on the teleprompter, and otherwise kept him out of sight. It is truly a scandal that a man in cognitive decline would be so shamelessly repurposed by the power-hungry professional class with dreams of elite appointments in some dreamy future administration.
Also, Bernie finally relented on taking money from billionaires. It was evidently operative Jeff Weaver who finally wore down Bernie and Jill Sanders until they opted to form a C4 fundraising arm that could and would take unlimited donations from billionaires, all of it undeclared and dark. How’s that for betrayal of principles?
Bernie has since asked his loyal supporters to donate to the DNC, the organization that openly betrayed his cause in successive elections. What will he do with the dollars he raised from the millions of believers who faithfully funded his run? Will he funnel that money, too, into the coffers of Sleepy Joe?
As Nick Brana said, “Nobody goes into the Democratic Party and emerges further on the left. Every institutional pressure in the party moderates elected officials and reels them into the mainstream. The Democratic Party blocks most progressives from getting into office and the few that make it through are then dependent on the party for their power, privilege, and career. They have to befriend neoliberal committee chairs and party leaders for committee assignments, and to get their legislation heard.”
As Jimmy Dore notes, how evident this process has become with Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, Ilhan Omar, and Ro Khanna. They will end up like other spirited progressives that enter the corridors of liberal power. They end up voting for war and austerity. And if they slip through an amendment or progressive scrap, they build their next campaign on it, promising that change is hard, slow, and incremental. They defend themselves with the language of compromise. And sooner or later, they turn on the very progressive challengers they used to be.
There you have it.
The revolutionary theorists in the past, from Marx and Engels to Lenin, did not eschew parliamentary politics, but they did not place it at the center of their struggle. The revolutions come from the bottom and from outside, not from the top and inside. Some reforms may ameliorate vicious neoliberal strategies to strip-mine the institutions of the state, but they are always merely a support and temporary succor to the rebellion outside the walls that grows until it overwhelms the establishment. It is interesting that some, like Chris Hedges, have remarked that the goal isn’t to take power, but to frighten those who have it. Hedges has related a scene from the Richard Nixon presidency, when Nixon and Henry Kissinger stand at a White House window, gazing out at the antiwar and civil rights demonstrators chaotically demonstrating at the gates of the estate along Pennsylvania Avenue. “They’re coming for us,” Nixon tells Kissinger. “They’re coming for us, Henry.” There’s something to Hedges’ suggestion; at the very least it evades the corruptions of absolute power and holds those that have it to account.
Rather than calling Hugo Chavez a “dead communist dictator” and railing on about the farcical Russiagate conspiracy as though it were real, Sanders would have done well to read Marx and Engels on capitalism, and particularly on reformism. In their edition of the pair’s writings on reformism, editors N. Kolpinsky and N. Fedorovsky write that, “…the main feature characteristic of reformism as a whole no matter how its character and forms change still remains, namely, the reactionary hope that it will be possible to change and improve capitalism while avoiding the path of its revolutionary reorganisation.” The hope, as always with quasi-socialist reformers, is a gradual emancipation that avoids direct confrontations with capital—and with the liberal capitalist reformers with whom they’ve often made common cause. This is likely the product of both a naive faith in the goodwill of the species, on one hand, and a revulsion at the prospect of violent revolt, on the other. This dichotomy perhaps overlooks Hedges’ argument that nonviolent civil disobedience offers a viable path to structural transformation overlooked by the proponents of incrementalism.
In a recent poll, some 60 percent of respondents said a third party was needed in this country. Less than 40 percent said our duopoly was sufficient. The perceived need for another party to challenge the duopoly has been rising for years. Bernie could have left the Democratic Party in the dust and reconfigured the momentum of his organization into a third-party powerhouse that could have seriously challenged the two-party system. But he abdicated that duty, and it was a duty to his followers. He quit on them—again. It has long since been time that everyone with a progressive twitch in their body quit on Bernie and the Democratic Party. And it’s also time they quit on everyone who doesn’t quit on the Democratic Party, but still makes the tiresome, threadbare, and ahistorical argument that we can make change from within. This position encompasses a deliberate naivete that punts the aforementioned confrontations into the future, generations hence. That is mere dissembling huddled behind a blue flag, hoping to maintain a semblance of sham integrity as it hurries back inside the warmth of the trembling herd.
Jason Hirthler is a writer, media critic, veteran of the communications industry, and author of two essay collections, The Sins of Empire and Imperial Fictions. He lives in New York City and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.