With unsentimental logic Eric Schechter, professor emeritus from Vanderbilt University (mathematics), proceeds to systematically examine the case for and against Bernie Sanders. We don't trust Sanders, and think the duopoly is a criminal scam not worth legitimating through voting, but in this time of acute crisis all rational voices need to be heard, and Eric is nothing if not an extremely rational individual, one whom we hold in great esteem, maybe because he's such a stubborn contrarian. So here's his argument.
Bernie Sanders is slightly on the political left, whereas I’m all the way to the left. (I’m for horizontalism and sharing.) Nevertheless, I support Bernie’s campaign for president, and in this essay I will defend him from the other far leftists who have been attacking him. This essay may not make much sense to “liberals,” people who believe capitalism can be reformed. (But if those people are interested, this essay includes a brief explanation of what capitalism and socialism really are.)
And I urge everyone to support Bernie, not just vote for him. The season before the election is one of the few times when many people are actually listening and thinking about political ideas. And Bernie is our best tool for spreading leftist ideas, as I’ll explain below.
Before we get to specifics, here is a general warning: Beware of oversimplifying. Simplicity is appealing, even seductive, but oversimplification can be destructive.
Feel free to suggest additions to this list. The following table of contents provides direct links to particular sections; you can use one of these links when you want to refute a particular attack on Bernie.
- “His tactics aren’t as good as mine.“
- “We should have nothing to do with elections.“
- “We should have nothing to do with Democrats.“
- “The neoliberals will cheat Bernie again.“
- “Lesser evil is still evil, and increases evil.“
- “We should be building the Green Party instead.“
- “You can’t trust politicians.“
- “Bernie should not have endorsed Hillary in 2016.“
- “Sanders was secretly working for Clinton all along.“
- “Bernie can’t actually accomplish anything.“
- “Bernie is not really a socialist.“
- “FDR saved capitalism; that’s not what we want.“
- “Bernie isn’t doing enough about climate.“
- “Bernie is an imperialist.“
“His tactics aren’t as good as mine.”
I don’t think that such comparisons are meaningful. We need to use many different tactics. The main task before us right now is to wake the people and tell them what is really going on — but different people will listen to different presentations, so we need to present our truth by different methods.
In particular, it’s good to have some people working inside the system and some people working outside. Follow whatever path is your passion, but don’t condemn someone just for following a different path. Someone who pulls on a different part of the rope is still your ally, as long as they’re pulling in the same direction. “Are you for socialism” is a good litmus test, but “are you for empathy, solidarity, community, mutual aid” is an even better one, for those feelings are the heart of socialism, and they can be found even in people who have not yet figured out economics. Bernie may not be as far to the left as some of us would like, but he is far more useful than many leftists realize.
“We should have nothing to do with elections.”
Or, in more detail: “Elections can’t solve our problems — the whole system is irredeemably corrupt — we need a revolution.”
Well, I’d mostly agree with that statement. But the revolution isn’t going to happen this week. What will we do in the meantime? We’ll need a lot more preparation first: spreading ideas and organizing people. What will we do to try to slow down the rate at which the plutocrats are destroying the world, so that there will still be a world for us to take over when we’re finally ready for the revolution? Here are the undeniable facts:
- One of these less-than-perfect candidates is going to win the presidency, and
- the president does have some influence over things (through the bully pulpit if nothing else), and
- the candidates are not all identical, and so
- it does matter who wins. Moreover,
- our votes (and even more, our campaigning) do have some influence in determining which candidate wins.
More detail about all those points later. To deny any of those points is to oversimplify. By the way, if you live in a “safe state,” where your vote in November doesn’t matter much, your vote in the spring primary still matters a great deal.
I’m not claiming that Bernie is the “answer,” the messiah, the solution to all our problems. Alone, he can’t stop the apocalypse. But the apocalypse will come more slowly under a President Sanders than under any of the alternatives; that gives us more time to address it.
Admittedly, some people will argue that “we must make things worse to make them better” — i.e., that the revolution we want will only be triggered when things get much worse, and so we must try to make things much worse. I cannot prove those people wrong, but I do not subscribe to their theory. The end cannot justify the means, for we can never be certain that we’ll get the ends we want. We’re more likely to just get a continuation of the means — so if you choose to make things worse, that might be all you get.
“We should have nothing to do with Democrats.”
In more detail: “The Democratic Party is irredeemably corrupt.”
Well, I’d partly agree with that one. The Democrats share with Republicans the responsibility for continuing the perpetual war, the widespread poverty, the rule by the rich, the destruction of the ecosystem, etc. Indeed, I would say that most Democrat and Republican politicians are working for the plutocracy, and they differ only in how they lie about that fact:
- The Democrats say “no, we’re putting the people first.” That fools the blind voters.
- The Republicans say “yes, we’re putting the plutocrats first, but it works out better for everyone that way.” That fools the stupid voters.
But the truth is that the Democrats are not all identical. They’re not robots, after all — they are human beings. The Democratic Party is a “big tent” operation, a loose confederation of different people. Presently it is ruled by neoliberals, and they have a pretty firm grip on it, but some of us believe it may be possible for progressives to shake the neoliberals off and take over the party. That’s what Bernie is trying to do. Running as a Democrat does place some limitations on what Bernie can say and do, but he’s not like the neoliberals.
“The neoliberals will cheat Bernie again.”
Certainly they’ve shown that they’d like to stop him. But in 2016 they got caught cheating, and more people will be watching this time; it will be harder for them to get away with it this time. I think 2020 is their last chance to lay any claim to representing the people. If the neoliberals do cheat Bernie again, I predict that large numbers of people will leave the Democratic Party.
“Lesser evil is still evil, and increases evil.”
The longer version of this claim is that “voting for the lesser evil just moves both major parties further toward evil.”
I’ve seen this claim widely asserted, but I’ve never seen any evidence for it. Here is the contrary statement that I find more believable: If both major parties are growing more evil, that’s because of capitalism, not because of the way we vote. And actually I’m not sure they’re growing more evil — I think they were evil all along, but lately we’ve grown more aware of the evil, thanks to the internet. The USA has been a plutocracy thinly disguised as a democracy ever since its “founding” in land theft, genocide, and slavery.
“We should be building the Green Party instead.”
Actually, the same tactic is required to move the Democratic Party leftward and or to strengthen one of the already progressive parties. That tactic is to promote progressive ideas and thereby move all of society leftward. And right now, one of the best ways to promote progressive ideas is to support Bernie Sanders. So, in effect, supporting Bernie Sanders is a good way to build the Green Party.
Indeed, I’m even further to the left than the Green Party, but I think that currently one of the best ways to move society toward my views is by supporting Bernie.
Some Greens say things like, “if only everyone would vote for the good candidate, the Green Party candidate, then she would win.” But I try to avoid arguments that begin with the phrase “if only everyone would.” I try to focus on what I believe actually has some chance of happening, and what I might be able to affect.
In 2016 the Greens had two attitudes about Bernie:
- Some Greens said “Bernie is a great guy, and we’d love for him to run as our candidate.” (Jill Stein, who ended up as the Greens’ candidate, took this attitude.)
- Some Greens said “Bernie is a terrible person, because he’s a democrat.”
And I think some Greens took both those attitudes.
(I did end up voting for the Green Party in 2016 — in part because I saw so little difference between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, and in part because I live in a “safe state” where my vote wouldn’t matter much anyway. I was hoping that the Greens would get at least 5% of the popular vote, and thereby qualify for matching funds in the next election. But they got less than 1%.)
In some sense, the Democrats and Republicans have “the only game in town.” If you want to actually affect anything, you may have to do it through one of those two parties. That’s not fair, and that’s not Bernie’s fault, but that’s the way it is right now, and we have to live with it. We have to fight on the battlefield where we find ourselves; we don’t get to choose the battlefield.
If you want to play the long game, sure, join the decades-long effort to “build” a third party. But I don’t think we have time for a long game any more. The recent IPCC report said we have only 12 years left to limit climate catastrophe; a Harvard professor recently said we have only 5 years left; and some of us think that we have less time left than that. It’s time for the Hail Mary Pass — i.e., we have very little time left, so we should turn to a tactic that requires very little time.
“You can’t trust politicians.”
Again, not all politicians are identical. I’d say most of them are not trustworthy. Obama fooled a lot of voters. But Bernie Sanders has been consistently espousing progressive views for 40 years. I don’t think he’s about to throw away a lifetime of efforts. Bernie is no windsock.
“Bernie should not have endorsed Hillary in 2016.”
Bernie was running to win and to be heard — not to “send a message” and to be ignored. That’s why he ran as a Democrat, not as a Green. But to run as a Democrat, he had to comply with some of the rules of the Democratic Party. One of those rules was that candidates had to promise that they would endorse whoever the party ultimately nominated. And Bernie had to keep that promise, because he knew that at some point in the future he might want something from the Democrats again — e.g., permission to run as a Democrat again in 2020, or input on revising the party platform.
Bernie also endorsed Hillary because he did not want to split the anti-Trump vote, and thereby make Trump’s victory even more certain. Terrible though Hillary proved herself to be, Trump is even worse, in Bernie’s opinion. You might or might not agree with that opinion, but you have to admit that it’s at least a plausible view.
“Sanders was secretly working for Clinton all along.”
This conspiracy theory is just silly. No one is an actor that good. Sanders and Clinton had real differences of policy, and Sanders really was trying to beat Clinton. It’s true that he called her a “friend,” but that’s how people talk in Washington.
“Bernie can’t actually accomplish anything.”
And a lot of people also said that Occupy Wall Street (2011-2012) didn’t accomplish anything. But both these assertions are wrong. The most important thing we can work on right now is to spread ideas, change perceptions, raise awareness; that’s how we prepare for revolution. Occupy got everyone saying “we are the 99%.” And Bernie’s 2016 campaign, seemingly “unsuccessful,” followed up on Occupy, and got most of America agreeing that capitalism cannot properly manage healthcare or education. (Americans may need such concrete examples before taking on this more abstract notion: Capitalism can’t properly manage anything else either.) All the Democratic 2020 candidates are now echoing Bernie on healthcare and education.
The term “bully pulpit” was coined by Theodore Roosevelt. It refers to the fact that a person in high office has a great opportunity to be heard and to promote his views. A president, for instance, can go on a tour of many cities, giving speeches, drumming up public support for a policy that he wants to implement. If he succeeds in drumming up public support, then the public will pressure congress to support the policy. Some presidents have used this power well, and some have not bothered to use it at all. I feel confident that a President Sanders would use this power well, for he is already making excellent use of the smaller bully pulpit that he already has as a major presidential candidate.
“Bernie is not really a socialist.”
Bernie has called himself a “democratic socialist,” which would indeed be a type of socialist. But Bernie seems to be more of a “social democrat,” which is actually not a type of socialist. Those two phrases are often confused, so much that they are sometimes used interchangeably, and Bernie has added to the confusion. Nevertheless, Bernie has been useful to the cause of socialism, as I will explain below.
First, here are approximate definitions that many leftists would agree with:
“Capitalism” means that workplaces are owned and controlled, not by the workers, but by a few people called “investors” or “capitalists.” Those few people reap the profits, and thus they accrue enormous wealth. This gives them great influence. Ultimately these few people control the whole economy. They also control the news media, and that gives them further influence. Money IS influence, and it finds its way around or through any regulations. Ultimately the capitalists take over the government, and we have a plutocracy, which means rule by the rich, though it may be disguised as a democracy. All sorts of abuses — war, poverty, ecocide — are perpetuated because they make a few rich people richer. The USA is such a system: Polls and statistics show that, regardless of elections here, the rich get the public policies they want, and the rest of us don’t. Capitalism cannot be democratic: Money IS influence (yes, that bears repeating), and so the only way to end rule by the wealthy class is to not have a wealthy class. That will require a very different economic system, which can only be put in place by an enormous popular mass movement, starting with educational efforts such as this one.
There are variations possible within capitalism. Neoliberalism is an extremely harsh version of capitalism, where everything is privatized, everything has a price, and no empathy is shown for the poor. The market is worshiped like some cruel god; “fairness” is devoid of kindness, and simply means that the market’s rules are obeyed.
“Social democracy” is a kinder, gentler version of capitalism. It means various social programs are implemented, such as universal healthcare, free education, support for unions, a living wage, and perhaps even a guaranteed basic income. Workplaces are regulated somewhat by the government. But under social democracy, investors still own and control the workplaces and take most of the wealth for themselves, etc., so it’s still capitalism. This is Bernie Sanders’s position. In practice, the social programs are only temporary; the plutocrats who are still in control may eventually roll those back to increase their own profits and power. Indeed, Sweden is the nation where economic inequality is now rising fastest.
“Socialism,” in contrast, means that there are no capitalists. Workers control the workplace and allocate its profits, and the whole economy is run democratically. Generally the people then democratically choose to also implement the various social programs, but that’s a corollary, not the main defining ingredient of the system. Any society which fits this definition of socialism is democratic. Some societies which have called themselves “socialist” have not fit this definition; it is debatable whether those societies have really been socialist.
“Democratic socialism” is socialism, presented with an emphasis on democracy (at least, according to Wikipedia and several other sources).
Many people, including Bernie, confuse the two terms — i.e., they use the term “democratic socialism” when they mean what I have called “social democracy.” Perhaps that usage has become so common that it should be accorded legitimacy — i.e., definitions are taken from popular usage; a word’s definition does not remain permanently fixed at what the word used to mean. I’m not sure where DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) stands on this dichotomy. Keep in mind that anyone who wants to win an election in the USA probably can’t afford to say explicitly that they want to end capitalism. Not yet, anyway. That may be changing.
At any rate, this confusion may have actually worked to the advantage of us real socialists. Bernie has ended a century’s demonizing of the word “socialism,” and enabled the rest of us to talk openly about what the word means and can mean.
And our society currently is run by the neoliberals, so even social democracy may be an improvement, a step in the right direction. Bernie has gotten people to realize that capitalism can’t properly manage healthcare or education. That may be a step toward recognizing that capitalism can’t properly manage anything else either. There is an ongoing and unresolved debate among leftists about whether, in our present situation, social democracy is a step toward real socialism, or whether it actually prevents the development of an understanding of real socialism.
The other 2020 candidates are following Bernie’s lead on social programs, but they differ from Bernie in how they promote those programs. They are all saying, essentially,
“universal healthcare and universal education are things that we Americans can achieve if we all work together,”
and the implication is “all 100% of us Americans.” No hint of class war here. If there is an enemy, it is the Russians or the Chinese. These politicians have not followed Bernie’s confrontational style, a crucial trait that Bernie shares with real socialists. When Bernie says “not me, us,” he is not talking about 100% of Americans. He is just talking about the 99%, the working class, the people of Occupy. The remaining 1% of America, the capitalist class, actually is the enemy. Bernie doesn’t use exactly that terminology, but he does convey that meaning. For instance, here is his concluding statement at the end of the June 27 “debate”:
“I suspect people all over the country who are watching this debate are saying these are good people, they have great ideas. But how come nothing really changes? How come for the last 45 years wages have been stagnant for the middle class? How come we have the highest rate of childhood poverty? How come 45 million people still have student debt? How come three people own more wealth than the bottom half of America? And here is the answer: Nothing will change unless we have the GUTS to take on Wall Street, the insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the military industrial complex and the fossil fuel industry. If we don’t have the guts to take them on we will continue to “have plans,” we will continue to have talk, and the rich will get richer and everybody else will be struggling.”
And I think he’s right about that. (“Continue to have plans” is a dig at Elizabeth Warren, who “has a plan” for everything.)
The capitalists clearly see Bernie as a real threat to their power. The corporate news media constantly smear him in assorted ways. They call him “unrealistic,” though he explains how he would pay for every program. They call him “unelectable,” though he is the most popular politician in America. If it is true that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” then every enemy of corporate greed should be supporting Bernie. This is why I created a Facebook group named “Real Socialists for Sanders.”
“FDR saved capitalism; that’s not what we want.”
Bernie Sanders has on his office wall a picture of Eugene Debs, a “real” socialist leader of the early 20th century. But the historical politician who Sanders resembles more closely in his rhetoric is Franklin Roosevelt. I highly recommend listening to the speech Sanders gave on June 12 echoing FDR’s ideas.
As I see it, Franklin Roosevelt was both the best and worst president the USA has ever had.
- He was the best, in that his New Deal reduced the suffering of millions of people in his time. This made him immensely popular.
- He was the worst, in that his New Deal concessions averted a socialist revolution that was about to happen in his time. In this fashion he extended capitalism for another century, and increased the suffering of billions of people during that century.
But the situation we’re in today is actually opposite from the one FDR faced in 1933.
- Back then, political awareness was very high, the communist and socialist parties were very strong, and the USA was on the verge of a socialist revolution. The New Deal was a step back from that change.
- Today, political awareness is very low, and we are nowhere near a socialist revolution. Today, a new New Deal would actually raise consciousness, and bring us closer to socialist thinking and socialist revolution. Recognizing that capitalism is not the way to do healthcare or education may be a step toward recognizing that capitalism is not a good way to do anything.
“Bernie isn’t doing enough about climate.”
Most establishment politicians have been terrible on climate legislation. The Republicans say “never,” and most of the Democrats have been saying “later,” which — if you think about it — is actually the same thing.
But Bernie has been saying climate change is our greatest threat. And Greenpeace gave Bernie the best score on climate, among the electable presidential candidates.
AOC’s Green New Deal is not very good. It’s too little, too late, and and it’s too much of a gift to the corporations. The earlier Green New Deal proposed by the Green Party was much better. But AOC’s Green New Deal is the best thing that is within reach right now. The best we can do is support it now and try to get something better soon after. Bernie is supporting it now.
“Bernie is an imperialist.”
This is the one point where Bernie is weakest, and where my counterargument is weakest, but still I will make one.
Bernie has been saying little about foreign policy. Mostly he repeats one or two mainstream platitudes, conforming to the other politicians around him, so that he can be inconspicuous and not get JFK’d. Perhaps he is opposing war as much as he can get away with. Bernie is trying to get elected in a society that has been heavily propagandized for militarism.
There is no denying that Bernie has supported some unnecessary wars in the past. This puzzles me, because it is not consistent with the humanitarian, empathic positions he has taken on domestic policy and economics. I can only speculate, and guess that he — like so many Americans — has been fooled by some of the propaganda put out by the military-industrial complex over the decades.
In recent years, I would describe the foreign policies of the candidates this way:
- The other Democratic candidates say things like this: “Russia, China, North Korea, Syria, Venezuela, etc., are bad countries, and we should attack them either with bombs or with economic warfare, killing thousands of innocent people.” The corporate press backs them up on this.
- Bernie is closer to the truth. He says things like this: “Russia, China, etc., are bad countries, but we should not attack them, because that just makes things worse.”
- The Green and socialist candidates, who cannot possibly win this election, actually tell the whole truth. It’s this: “Russia, China, etc., are not bad countries, and they are not attacking us or posing any threat to us. We should try to get along peacefully with them.” I wish Bernie could say that too, but I think that if he did, he would be viciously smeared by the corporate press, or perhaps even JFK’d. He’s walking a fine line.
My impression is that Bernie’s foreign policy has been improving (i.e., becoming less warlike) in recent years, but I have no statistics to back that up. I’m hoping that he’ll become less warlike immediately after we elect him, but that remains to be seen. If he doesn’t, I’ll begin demonstrating against his wars a day after he is inaugurated. But first we have to get him elected. The fact remains that if Bernie is an imperialist, he is less so that any of the other electable candidates, according to Code Pink.
And so if Bernie doesn’t improve on foreign policy, I’ll start protesting against his foreign policy the day after we elect him. But first I’ll work to elect him.
In conclusion, supporting Sanders is the best thing we can do right now, in the short run — simultaneously with handing out leaflets against capitalism.
2019 July 13, version 2.21.
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