by Jim Kavanagh
I wrote six articles (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6) about the Bernie Sanders campaign during the 2016 primary. As everyone keeps saying, Bernie is a paragon of consistency, so my understanding of him stands unchanged. The political situation in 2020 is, however, significantly different, and has opened up new possibilities for the Sanders campaign. On the eve of the first primary vote in Iowa, let’s consider what those possibilities are and where this campaign is taking its constituents and the Democratic Party.
Bernie himself is the same as he ever was. a moderate welfare-state Social Democrat, not a socialist or even anti-capitalist; anti-war with an historically anti-imperialist, but now imperialist-accommodating, tinge; nominally independent but functionally an auxiliary Democrat; fiercely critical of Republicans but stubbornly shy about criticizing Democratic colleagues. He is also, I think, honest and trustworthy. You can see that he takes and fights for the positions he does because he believes in them, not because he is opportunistically pandering to a specific audience segment or to the donor class.
To be clear, even though, from my decidedly more leftist, socialist point of view, I have no illusions about Bernie’s faults (and was pretty ruthless about them in those 2016 essays), I hope he wins and will vote for him. Indeed, I changed my registration in New York to vote for him in the Democratic primary, and I would certainly vote for him in the general. He would be the first Democratic presidential candidate I have voted for in decades.
That’s because there is a difference in kind between Bernie and the other Democratic candidates, a difference unlike the differences among them. It’s the difference between a principled Social Democratic program to meet human needs, based on and supported by a mass movement, and a program of neoliberal tinkering to protect profit-making possibilities, based on and supported by capitalist donors/the donor class.
His nomination would be a radical departure and would radically disrupt the Democratic Party and the whole political game, and he would have a great chance to win, opening new and substantively different and left, social-democratic possibilities in the U.S.
Nowhere is this more evident than in his Medicare-for-All program, and nothing has been more revelatory then watching fauxgressives like Warren and Buttigieg moonwalk away from it. Bernie’s universal coverage single-payer program establishes healthcare as a human right, not a commodity. It concretely benefits the lives and enhances the social power of the great majority of citizens by taking public control of an essential service, and eliminating a predatory capitalist industry. That is why all the other Democratic candidates (save perhaps Tulsi, who has been unfairly but effectively rendered moot) reject it: they prefer maintaining health care as a commodity sold to consumers for a profit, just adding a generic version on the supermarket shelf; their “public option” is all about preserving the “profit option.”
Similar principled differences can be seen in programs like free tuition, and cancellation of medical and student debt. Bernie’s framework, which establishes a universal public right, is different in kind not just degree from other candidates’ frameworks that maintain tiers of assistance based on income—thus, reinforcing class divisions and resentments, keeping everyone aware of who gets “welfare” and who’s “paying their way,” reminding poor people that they’re not precariously “middle-class,” and vice-versa.
So, no, Bernie’s programs will not overthrow capitalism. Indeed, as he constantly says, they are standard fare in most advanced capitalist countries. They are just the kind of “non-reformist reforms” that establish greater control of resources and services by and for the public, governed by “human needs and demands” rather than profitability—a basic social democratic framework.
But for the United States that’s a hell of a “just.” If these programs don’t achieve a workers’ revolution they sure put the working class in a much less precarious position from which to fight for it. Bernie deserves enormous credit for being the single politician who has brought all these issues—and the concept of “socialism” itself—into U.S. political discourse in a way that cannot be ignored or dismissed, and he’s done it by inspiring a mass movement with incredible energy. What leftist, no matter how radical, would not want to see a real social democratic framework starting to displace a neoliberal one in the U.S.? Who can’t recognize there’s something unprecedented and seriously positive about a leader who, instead of promising to walk us more slowly to the cliff, is showing us we can turn around and go in another direction?
Even on those foreign policy (loosely-defined) issues where I find his positions atrocious—calling Maduro a “dictator,” refusing to defend Julian Assange, reinforcing the phony Russiagate narrative, clinging to two-state liberal zionism, etc.—Bernie is a different kind of political actor than any Democratic politician who is now or ever has been close to the nomination. I would say with some confidence that Bernie is not going to attack Venezuela (or Iran) and may very well remove sanctions, that he is not going to endorse Israel’s annexation of the West Bank, that he will try to reverse the nuclear and space-arms race and try to reduce defense spending, that he may possibly stop the prosecution of Assange, etc. I cannot say any of those things about any of the other candidates. So, yeah, Bernie Sanders is not going to end U.S. imperialism; he will just put it into hibernation and take us back from the brink of war with countries like Iran and Russia. Just.
So I won’t begrudge leftists who find some of these positions disqualifying, but I’ll vote for him, and I hope he wins the Democratic nomination and the general election, since either of those victories would disrupt the US political order in a promising way. I also think he would have an excellent chance of winning the general election, and a slight chance of winning the Democratic nomination. It is the fight for the latter that is going to disrupt the American political order over the next six months, and will, I hope, deal a catastrophic blow to the two-party system.
To win the Democratic nomination, Bernie Sanders would have to have a majority of pledged delegates going into the Democratic convention, which is highly unlikely. The value of my left vote in that context is to make sure that Bernie Sanders goes to the convention with as big a plurality of delegates as possible. Thus, if/when the DNC gifts the nomination to another candidate, it will be clear to Bernie supporters that the Democratic Party could never be anything but an obstruction to a progressive social democratic program. The better Bernie does, the more likely his rejection by the Party will result in an irreversible mass Demexit.
If I had written this a few weeks ago I would not have added “virtually” to “impossible” above. And it’s worth noting what’s changed since the primary in 2016, as evidenced by the events of the past few weeks, that gives this year’s Bernie campaign unprecedented strength.
The first thing that’s changed is that Bernie has been in it to win it from the beginning. This contrasts with the 2016 primary campaign, where his advisors admitted he entered the race “to spread his political message…rather than do whatever it took to win the nomination.” Like everybody else, Bernie assumed that Hillary was the inevitable nominee. After all, he had nowhere near her public recognition. It was understood that he would get a few months to highlight his signature issues of healthcare and inequality before exiting gracefully, probably right after the Iowa and New Hampshire primaries, to attend Hillary’s unimpeded march to her coronation.
It was only after his virtual tie in Iowa (49.8-49.6%) and surprise blowout win in NH (60.1-37.7%) that his campaign shifted into the higher gears of contention. But he was still having to make up ground against a well-known party luminary with widespread support among the party constituency and with a highly experienced and well-financed political machine that had been prepared for years. Hillary’s victory was assumed by everybody, including the Bernie camp, at the outset and throughout the campaign. That’s a main reason Hillary is so pissed off at him for not dropping out earlier.
Bernie was definitely a sheepdog in 2016, because he herded good and sincere progressives into the establishment-Democratic Clinton campaign. But he was also an underdog, who—like most of his supporters—knew, and was primed to accept that outcome as inevitable from the beginning.
Bernie enters the 2020 primary campaign under entirely different conditions. There is certainly no inevitable candidate. Bernie has public recognition, a base of support, and a campaign organization at least as good as anyone else in the race—as well as a fundraising capacity that is nothing short of spectacular. He’s riding on a larger wave of disgust among the Democratic constituency with all the party establishment’s political and policy failures—including Hillary’s inability to defeat Donald Trump—that has already brought insurgent progressives like AOC to the fore. He comes in as the guy with the bold progressive policies, in relation to which every other candidate must define themselves—usually by pretending to agree with them and concocting some hollowed-out ersatz version thereof. There is certainly no inevitable candidate that impedes him. If anything, he enters the race in the strongest position.
As the campaign has progressed, he has certainly become stronger while most of the new cool kids (Beto, Kamala, Booker) have fallen by the wayside. Most pleasing to me were the unintended effects of Elizabeth Warren’s various maneuvers—starting with her moonwalking away from her oft-stated support of Medicare-for-all and culminating in her foot-shot stunt, accusing Bernie of dismissing the possibility of a woman becoming president and oh-so-cleverly putting herself in a tight “Either he’s lying or I am” box. ‘Cause who would disbelieve a Native American woman?
All of this triangulating, pandering, and betrayal helped many well-meaning progressives see what many of us have been trying to get across for years: that Warren is not at all a bird of Bernie’s feather, but a creature of an altogether different serpentine order. It’s now quite clear that Bernie is the only real progressive candidate in the Democratic race.
With Warren nicely slip-sliding down in the polls, Bernie is also now alone in the top tier with Joe Biden.
Problem is, Joe Biden is a compulsive liar and fabulist. As Shaun King demonstrates in a devastating analysis and Twitter thread, it’s a lifelong pattern. He really can’t stop himself from lying in the most transparent and self-destructive ways, “creating entire fictional storylines to impress white liberals & connect w/ Black voters.” He continues to this day repeating false stories about his heroic activities in the civil-rights movement that he admitted thirty years ago were lies. Joe’s zombie lies. It’s the same pattern with his lies about his stances on the Iraq War and Social Security.
Biden already had one presidential campaign destroyed by this compulsion, in 1988. The only reason it hasn’t happened in this campaign yet is because the Democratic establishment-aligned media, and its oh-so-concerned-with-the-truth fact-checkers who keep a running tally of Trump’s lies every day, have been glossing over Joe’s lies to help him in the primaries. But the internet preserves forever and distributes everywhere, and Biden would be Trump toast:
When running for office, @JoeBiden does not just have gaffes or embellishments, he creates wildly fictional storylines about his life and work that simply are not true.
These are lies. And he tells them to get votes and build a rep he has not earned.pic.twitter.com/FUjALdqA3C
— Shaun King (@shaunking) January 30, 2020
It gets worse, because right now Jumpy Joe is also an awkward and often incoherent campaigner. Take a look at this exchange with an Iowa voter concerned about pipelines, where a petulant, angry Biden gets all pushy and grabby, tells the guy to “go vote for someone else,” misprofiles him as a Bernie supporter, and refuses to take a picture with him:
Original post (I shot the video) pic.twitter.com/TMp60C5oXm
— Kathy Byrnes (@KathyM_Byrnes) January 30, 2020
Turns out this guy is Ed Fallon, a former Democratic state representative and climate activist who walked and documented the entire Iowa route of the Dakota Access pipeline. He was “shocked” by the encounter, and wrote a response that perfectly captures the Biden problem:
What was even more shocking was how Biden pushed and poked me, and then took hold of my jacket with both hands as he lectured me.
I’ve said this before, and I’ll say it one more time: Joe Biden is the Democratic candidate LEAST likely to beat Donald Trump. His demeanor on the stump will inevitably come back to bite him, perhaps repeatedly. His propensity to violate personal space is a huge non-asset in politics, and his frequent gaffes are prime fodder for opponents and the media.
So front-runner Joe can’t exactly be inspiring confidence among the Democratic establishment. More like an electoral disaster percolating before our eyes. Joe Biden is a zombie candidate telling zombie lies. Nothing would be more disastrous for the Democratic Party’s anti-Bernie strategy (and nothing seems more inevitable) than an egregious, public Biden meltdown.
As I write, Bernie is now a clear favorite in Iowa and New Hampshire, likely to be coming out of those contests in a couple of weeks with at least one strong win, the lead among diverse swaths of the electorate and a huge cash war chest. He’s now leading the polls in California and within 2 points of Biden in Texas in the latest poll. Things will change rapidly, but right now, Bernie has the mo.
Furthermore, the new 15% rule that the Democrats created to advantage to the early frontrunner, whom they never imagined would be Bernie, is now working in his favor. Under that rule, delegates are allocated only to candidates who receive at least 15% of the vote. That is going to make it hard for third-place, and very hard for fourth-place and below finishers to get delegates. The second-string moderates—Warren, Buttigieg, and Klobuchar—are all right now struggling to hit that 15% mark. One New Hampshire poll has nobody but Bernie over 15%. It will be hard for any candidate who cannot get a single delegate in the first three primaries to stay in the race.
That’s not just because it will be hard as an individual to raise money and support, but also because the Party establishment, well aware of Biden’s precarity, will be desperate to keep delegates away from Bernie. It will pressure candidates who have shown an inability to reach 15% to get out of the way for someone who can.
But who? One would think they’d settle on Warren, but if she’s clearly on a downslide she might actually be the first to go, allowing them to pour money and resources into someone who has been moving up a bit, like Warren’s New York Times sister wife, Klobuchar.
Of course, she, or Mayo Pete, is such an obvious dud that they may fall back on clearing everyone else out and hope Michael Bloomberg, as the third candidate (presuming Biden hasn’t decompensated on national television), can buy 15% of the vote in enough primaries to prevent Bernie amassing a majority of delegates.
Truth is, because all the other candidates are so clearly pandering opportunists and/or dedicated “nothing will fundamentally change” establishmentarians, all of whom will be shredded by tough-talking faux-populist Donald Trump, and because his strongest opponent, Joe Biden, is slipping in the polls and at risk of a meltdown, it is now possible for Bernie Sanders to win a majority of pledged delegates, and it’s very possible that he’ll win a plurality. Bernie’s now a top dog.
But there’s also a lot that hasn’t gotten any better for Bernie since 2016.
First of all, the full resources of the Democratic Party’s machines in every state as well as its donor caste will be mobilized in every primary to prevent Bernie from winning or minimize any victory.
This will include the panoply of cheating mechanisms that were at work in 2016, including blatant cheating in Nevada and Chicago, the suppression of likely Bernie votes (200,000 in New York, 750,000–2 million in California), and of course the designed-for-fraud electronic voting systems that gave Hillary statistically anomalous victories in 2016—way beyond pre-election and exit polling and only in states with impossible-to-audit electronic voting machines.
Will any or all of these stratagems be used to cheat Bernie again? Per Nick Brana, the national outreach coordinator for Bernie’s 2016 campaign: “Absolutely. The people that I worked with, the Democratic Party institution that I worked with in 2016, will never allow Bernie Sanders to become President. They are going to cheat him again. It’s going to be a repeat of 2016.”
The biggest problem here, from the perspective of those who are working hard for the “political revolution” that Bernie has inspired is that Sanders has had four years to publicize, denounce, and insist on correcting all of these methods of cheating, and has said or done nothing substantive to that end.
So if/when he, and that movement, are cheated out of the majority or large plurality of delegates by these stratagems, there is no one more responsible for it than Bernie himself. Cheat me once…. And if he refuses to identify this cheating and back up his own voters’ and supporters’ complaints about it as it is happening…well, that’s an element of Bernie’s troubling pattern: He doesn’t back himself as much as his supporters do.
We also know that Democratic establishmentarians, their donor base and their allied media will be engaging in a ferocious and constant ideological and personal assault on Bernie and his campaign. The Dem-aligned media have already spent months ignoring and erasing Bernie in their coverage. We will now see a constant stream of attacks, that has begun with the “Bernie Bros,” “women can’t win the presidency,” “doctored video,” Joe Rogan, and, of course, “anti-Semitism” jabs. These were so transparently concocted that they ended up helping Bernie. It’s also the case, as Krystal Ball says: “They don’t have any really good ways to take him on.” The trove of old Bernie videos shows him actually fighting for civil rights, chained to his black comrades. But the very powerful and wealthy powers-that-be are not going to stop. They are right now “scrambling” to find ways to take him down.
The key here is what Bernie does. Will he Corbyn-ize himself with death-by-a thousand apologies and backtracks, or will he take Kate Aronoff’s advice and “nip that shit in the bud”? Sanders’s refusal to back down on Joe’s Social Security/Medicare record, on the Warren accusation, and the Joe Rogan attacks augurs well in that respect. His apology for Zephyr Teachout’s entirely reasonable op-ed on Biden’s corruption problem, an apology even Bill Maher thought was unnecessary, not so much. Again, Bernie’s biggest potential weakness is Bernie himself.
The tendency to watch out for—Bernie’s possibly fatal flaw—is that, while he bites back hard on phony attacks from, and reactionary stances of, Republican opponents, he withholds or soft-pedals criticisms of the same things on the same issues from his Democratic “colleagues.” Can’t be too hard on Biden (as with Hillary), for example, lest you help Trump (or call Obama’s presidency into question). This is why it will be harder for him to win the Democratic primary than the general election.
A telling moment in the “villainous and shameful” CNN/Des Moines Register debate was when Bernie—after being shivved by Warren and portrayed as a reckless fantasist by everyone else on the stage—felt the need to declare, for the umpteenth time, that he would “do everything in my power” to get her or any of them elected.
Why? Nobody asked him for that. Nothing in the context demanded it. He signed the pledge. Why, in the midst of a personal betrayal and deliberate nuclear attack on his political life, does he feel the need to renew his vows, and make sure the people who are trying to kill him politically know he supports them?
Bernie, the people on that stage are not your “friends”! They are your enemies, every one of them. (The only exception might be Steyer!) It doesn’t make any difference how ferocious you are against Trump if you’re pulling all your punches against your Democratic opponents. You’ve got to beat them to get the nomination.
This is nothing else but Bernie signaling submission to the Democratic Party, which is—and keeps telling him it is—the enemy of everything he claims to stand for. It’s telling the party it can betray him in any way and still get his support. A foolish forfeit in advance. If there’s anything we learned from Trump in 2016, it’s that, in today’s U.S. political culture, an “anti-establishment” candidate only benefits from attacking their own party.
The end game of all this is now being prepared by the DNC which is stacking the Rules and Platform Committees for the convention with, as Kevin Gosztola painstakingly lays out in a must-read tweet thread and Grayzone article, “a collection of neoliberal and imperialist hacks,” Israeli lobbyists, corporate (including health insurance industry) hacks, and Clintonites, who are “determined to sabotage a Sanders nomination.”
As Gosztola points out, this means that even if Bernie wins the nomination he can “still find his agenda thwarted by the standing committees. For example, members of the DNC’s Platform Committee beholden to corporate interests could vote against measures including Medicare For All.”
Not to mention that the Rules Committee can, you know, change the rules, and, per Brana, “can force it to a second ballot if they want to.”
We have to ask: What is Bernie saying or doing about this? What is he doing to support not only himself, but the many thousands of people who are working hard for the “political revolution” he is claiming to lead—supporters who see the Democratic Party right now organizing to deprive Bernie of the nomination and derail anything like that movement from taking hold in the party, whether Bernie is nominated or not? Not him, us, and all that—and “us” want to know. ‘Cause if Bernie is doing or saying nothing about this, if he’s willing to ignore and accept it without raising hell, then it’s fair for “us” to suspect we’re seeing a hair of the Democratic sheepdog emerging through the revolutionary lion’s mane.
Let’s take a cold look at what the possibilities are for the Democratic convention, and what that means for the Democratic Party and Bernie—for both of whom this is a last chance. That look must be based on the understanding that the Democratic Party is an institution dedicated to plutocratic class rule and imperialism, is now the preferred party of the ruling class and the national security apparatus, and will do everything it can to prevent Bernie Sanders from becoming its nominee. The plutocracy and its party do not want Bernie Sanders to be the CEO of American and world capitalism, let alone the Commander-in-Chief of the American empire.
The first possibility is that Sanders will win a majority of pledged delegates in the primaries and capture the nomination on the first ballot. Bravo Bernie! I hope that happens, and will vote to make it possible.
Bernie’s organization, in the name of his movement, will then immediately have to turn to destroying the Democratic Party as we know it and replacing it with something else. Bernie would have to undertake a thoroughgoing creative destruction of the party, including purging all of the personnel like those identified by Gostzola, around which the party organization and financial base is built, and replacing them with dedicated progressives and an entirely different financial structure. The fight, and Bernie, will go on.
It will be a hell of a fight, it has to happen, and it has to start right away, for two reasons: A) Because, left intact, the current Democratic Party personnel and organization will work assiduously to undermine Bernie’s presidential campaign, and B) Because it’s the same kind of fight that will have to happen in the structures of government if Bernie Sanders becomes president, and if he’s not willing or capable of doing it in the party, he won’t be in the government.
I’d love to see that fight happen because it would again open up new political possibilities. It is also the fight that Bernie Sanders has been unwilling to undertake over the past decades and through two presidential campaigns. If he refuses to make it again, his “not me, us” movement will be defeated and/or co-opted by the plutocratic, imperialist Democratic Party. The revolutionary Bernie will disappear into the reactionary party and both will become irrelevant, despised, and politically dead to the millions of people who were energized by the movement.
Given all the variables, I rate the chances of Bernie winning a majority of pledged delegates and the nomination on the first ballot at 10-15%—which is 10-15% higher than I would have said a month ago.
The more likely scenario is Bernie (and everyone else) coming to the convention with less than a majority of delegates. In that case, the chance that Bernie would win the nomination is exactly zero.
Though we assume in that case that no one will win on the first round of voting, we should not exclude the possibility of the wily DNC arranging deals to combine other candidates votes behind the DNC’s favorite on the first ballot (Yes, they can do that!), in order precisely to be able to say that the nominee won a majority of votes on the first round without the intervention of super delegates.
At any rate, that’s what the DNC will do in a second round of voting, with the superdelegates included. All the other candidates (save Tulsi and maybe Yang) will instruct all their delegates to vote for Biden, Bloomberg, or whoever is the DNC candidate. (That, of course, includes Elizabeth Warren, who never was going to endorse Bernie.) “After all,” they will say, “What’s wrong with not nominating someone who did not get the majority of votes/delegates?”
The political optics of that will depend on who has the plurality of delegates and how large that plurality is.
If someone else comes in with a plurality of delegates, then Bernie’s campaign failed (and, as stated above, if it was cheated, that’s still its failure), his political chance is over, and millions of those who were energized by his movement will leave the Democratic Party to become the dead shell it deserves to be, fronted by whichever zombie Clintonite is nominated.
If Bernie comes in with a plurality of delegates, the superdelegates will come in and give the nomination to Biden or equivalent. It will look a lot worse if Bernie came in with 40% of delegates to Biden’s 30% than if it had been 35%-31%. (And one reason I’ll vote for him is so that scam will be as clear as possible.) But with any Bernie plurality, there will be no spinning it away: There are two elections—one for the public, one for the donors. The people get one shot; donors get the do-over.
In which case, I agree with Krystal Ball:
If Sanders is headed to winning a plurality or majority of delegates and you take it from him through superdelegates or rules changes or other dirty tactics, you will absolutely destroy the Democratic Party…[and] destroy the idealism and political engagement of the young people who overwhelming back Sanders.
It will be clear, I hope and think, to those very good people, once and for all, that they can never get what they want from the Democratic Party.
What happens to Bernie and those people politically after that depends on what Bernie does. if he fights like hell with his plurality all the way through, refuses to accept whatever centrist the DNC picks, and calls for a Demexit and third party, then he, those people, and the movement he led will be alive and kicking.
If he accepts himself and his “us” being brushed aside, embraces the DNC’s centrist pick, and does “everything in my power” to keep their game going—well, I hope and think his supporters will see once and for all that they can never get what they want from the Democratic Party or from him, and it will be the political death of both of them. Bernie will then have sheepdogged from the top dog position.
What will he do? Whatever he does, it will not be from opportunism or pandering, but from his sincere conviction in answering these questions: Is there a dispositive ethico-political difference in kind between the Democratic and Republican parties? Will any Democrat be decisively better than Trump? Is the two-party system the best of possible worlds in the U.S. today and for the foreseeable future? Do “yes” answers to all of those questions require putting away “the mass movement for political revolution”?
I think we all know what Bernie will do. He’s nothing if not honest and consistent. Believe him. He will not break his vow.
At any rate, it should be clear the Party is over, it’s Bernie’s last dance with the Dems, and for the good people he’s invited to his movement, their last dance with both. I hope it works out, but they’ll probably have to go home with someone else than the man that brung them.