Why I’m not feeling The Bern

by · March 2, 2016

Bernie Sanders


Last weekend dealt a blow to the Bernie Sanders juggernaut. Pipped at the post by rival Hillary Clinton in Nevada and crushed by her in South Carolina, Sanders’s route to the Democratic nomination is looking tougher than ever.

Many will mourn this potential loss. Yet I am not feeling the pain. In fact, whilst I think there has been some value to Sanders’s campaign, as it has gone on it has been a significant diversion from the types of social movements we need to build. Going any further would have been a disaster.

The Role of the President 

I have a lot of affinity with Bernie Sanders. In fact I align with him significantly more closely than I do with Hillary Clinton on the majority of issues (although I don’t think the gap between the two is as significant as Sanders’s fans like to make it out to be). Despite this I’ve never been that excited about his campaign, and in particular I have little desire to see him enter the White House.

My reasoning for this has nothing to do with the man, but instead is all about the role of the president in modern US Government. While Sanders may be the most progressive in the current presidential race, the role of the president would limit any actual change he may be able to make.

Many have already pointed this out. Hillary Clinton likes to call herself a “progressive who likes to get things done”, a not-so-subtle attack on Sanders’s bigger-than-life demands. Others have pointed to the dominance of Republicans in both the House of Representatives and the Senate, arguing he will never get his reforms through Congress. But the limits on him go well beyond this, and sit with the very nature of modern government itself.

Our political system under capitalism is designed specifically to stop any form of socially progressive governance. The modern state as we understand it, as well as all of its apparatuses, were designed and maintained to ensure the integrity of the system. Just as capitalist social relations underpin the state, so the state underpins capitalism. In turn, when elected, politicians become entrenched within the “political class”, a class that looks after its own interests first.

Marx and Engels described this, saying that “the executive of the modern state is nothing but a committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie.” The owning class relies on the power of the state, even when arguing for smaller government. As Engels described in his book The Condition of the Working Class in England in 1844, “the law is sacred to the bourgeois, for it is his own composition, enacted with his consent, and for his benefit and protection. He knows that, even if an individual law should injure him, the whole fabric protects his interests.” In turn, the system shapes the way in which politicians act. As Marx argued, as soon as “the deputies” of civil society are authorised by their constituents to enter the state they stop being deputies and instead become part of the state apparatus. Their status, role, and more importantly their class changes — they are now part of the political class, disconnected from the interests of the social group whose members elected them.

When entering positions of power within the modern state, therefore, politicians are forced to preserve the capitalist society on which the state depends for survival. While Sanders rails against “Wall Street” and the big banks, in reality the very structures of the presidency are based on the survival of these economic interests. Politicians, in turn, make active choices to reinforce the power of these structures, in order to ensure their own survival. Jolasmo describes this best in their response to the election of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the UK Labour Party:

Governments, of any political stripe, can act only by wielding the power of the state. To maintain a powerful state, governments need a strong economy, and that means managing capitalism and maintaining a capitalist social order. Different governments can try to do this in different ways, but they’re all bound by the same basic logic, and none of them offer any real hope of a way out of the cycle of capitalist domination and human misery. That’s why left wing and socialist governments routinely disappoint us.

Survival within government means maintaining the strength of capitalism. Otherwise you risk bringing the whole system (and your role in it) down. In turn government becomes an impossible place to create change — one that is inherently slow, conservative and a resistant on any progress.

A history of betrayal

We can see this play out in a history of betrayal by progressive politicians and governments.

Current US President Barack Obama, for example, represents two terms of progressive failure. Obama was heralded as a progressive champion when elected in 2008 but has largely not lived up to that hype. This has been particularly true in the areas of international security, where Obama has failed to close Guantanamo Bay, overseen a system of forced deportations for illegal immigrants and implemented a drone war that has killed many civilians.

It could be easily argued that Obama was never truly a progressive and that these moves were expected. But recent evidence of true “socialist” parties points to similar problems.

Since his election to the leadership of the UK Labour Party for example, Jeremy Corbyn has begun to disappoint followers. Corbyn and his economic team for example have bought into the myth of the need to tackle the UK’s budget deficit, starting to use conservative lexicon to look more “serious” on economic matters. Corbyn has already signalled a backtrack on his policy of making university free, a move designed to ease the concerns of his more conservative MPs.

But potentially the best example of this is Syriza in Greece. Elected on an anti-austerity position Syriza backtracked within less than a year, ushering in a huge austerity package. In its attempts to play the game by the rules Syriza was faced with a stark choice — stay in the EU and stay in power, or stick with its policies and feel the full brunt of that decision. The choice was simple — the system simply did not allow for anything different. Syriza pursued a “failed strategy” that focused too heavily on the mechanisms of government, instead of building real social movements to create change.

These betrayals are not ones necessarily done due to cravenness or because people have necessarily changed their ideological views. They are part of our system of governance — a part of our system that we cannot escape, no matter what kind of “movement” there is behind a progressive candidacy.


The problem with a Sanders presidency

It is here where we can see the potential problem with a hypothetical Sanders presidency. While we may not like to believe it, it’s inevitable that if he were to win the nomination Sanders would start to moderate his views in order to improve his chances of election. In fact we’ve already seen this. Commentators have noted for example that Sanders’s history of support for gay rights is not as strong as it seems, and in fact has often been shaped by political calculations. The same is happening on his position over Israel-Palestine, with Sanders dampening his views throughout the campaign. More recently the Vermont senator has gotten into a fight with Hillary Clinton over who would best continue the Obama legacy, with Sanders backing away from previous criticisms he’s made of the current President.

As Sanders goes further into the campaign this could have a real impact on left-wing politics.

In particular as Sanders inevitably starts to moderate his positions he will give left-wing credibility to this moderation. The best example of this is Syriza. As the anti-austerity party that soon embraced a harsh austerity package, Syriza legitimised the policy more than anyone else could have possibly done. As a self-proclaimed “socialist” Bernie Sanders would likely do the same — making support for Israel or the Obama legacy (and all the problems it entails) “socialist ideals”.

Here is why I’m quickly cooling on the value of Sanders’ campaign (even though I’ve never been excited about him potentially winning the nomination). When he entered the campaign Sanders had the potential to do some work to disrupt the Democratic political order. He’s pushed these themes throughout the nomination race, in particular with his focus on Wall Street. For Democrats he became a much-needed symbol of dissatisfaction with the political class.

This I think has potential value, but that value is limited. As Sanders and his supporters have started speaking more openly about winning the nomination he has shifted from challenging the political order to trying to get access to it. In doing so he has given it credibility it simply does not deserve. This is a credibility that many Democratic voters have already given up on. Turnout numbers have been way down in 2016 compared with 2008 levels, suggesting people have given up on the Obama “hope for change” formula. For those who are left, if Sanders continues further it is entirely likely he will reinforce this political credibility, pulling momentum away from other social movements and pushing it in to a political process that will ultimately disappoint.

I think Sanders has played an important role in this nomination fight. He has made important issues part of the debate and given voice to dissatisfaction with the Democratic political class. Importantly he has also given himself a stronger voice, allowing him to continue his advocacy through the campaign and in the years that follow. But I don’t want him to go any further. Otherwise he will give increasing Leftist credibility to a system that does not deserve it.

Sanders will probably be done after Super Tuesday. Hillary Clinton will be on the march to the nomination. But we shouldn’t be too sad. He’s played a vital role and will continue to do so.

Discussion3 Comments

  1. Claudio says:

    I was feeling rather upset this morning when I read the Super Tuesday results. Thank you for cheering me up!

  2. Diego says:

    I don’t understand the point of this article. Sanders shouldn’t win because he can’t win, or because he will soften his positions?

    Even if he softens his positions to some degree, which I agree is likely, this doesn’t mean his election cannot lead to significant improvements in the lives of most Americans and, for that matter, since we are talking about the Empire, the lives of millions of people across the planet. The sheer power that the US has in the world means that even marginal differences in policy in a more progressive humane direction will have a huge impact on the lives of so many people. We can’t just ignore that.

    Why should we care more about the supposed “legitimacy” of leftist politics within the representative democratic electoral system than about all these people? At the moment, leftist ideas in the US are simply buried deeply under the ground, hardly anyone talks about them. It’s not as if there is a burgeoning left-wing movement in the US whose steam and momentum will be halted by a Bernie presidency.

    The more exposure left-wing ideas get, the better. And there would be no better exposure than a Bernie Sanders presidency. If these ideas and policies come up against the wall of the structure of modern capitalist democracy, as happened in the Syriza case, then this is nonetheless a much better outcome than for them not to be tried at all. And that situation also provides the public with the opportunity to question the system itself, seeing as it prevents such popular, reasonable and fair ideas and policies from being applied. It would provide more space in the mainstream for the ideas you’ve presented in this post. It would allow for more people to question whether the straight-jacket that a Sanders government would be placed in should exist, and to ask how we can change it and what we could replace it with. I would say the same for Corbyn and Syriza. I don’t think Greece would be better off right now if the right or the Socialists were in power. It’s like you’re saying: don’t try, because people will get too disappointed when it fails. Yes, there is the risk that people get disappointed if it fails, but there is also the opportunity that people get inspired by the possibility, motivated by the vision and the ideas.

    Finally, I find your comparison with Obama’s campaign in 2008 puzzling. Obama’s campaign, while big on hype and marketing (Advertising Age’s brand of the year, or maybe it was a tie with Apple, I can’t remember…) was not very left-wing to begin with. There was nothing in his platform anywhere near Sanders’ policies for health care, education, prison reform, Wall Street, etc.

    • Reilloceer says:

      I find your comment, in its entirety, “puzzling” if I may say so. The point of the article is: Sanders shouldn’t be elected, not because he stands for the wrong things, but he stands for the wrong reasons. When, and if, elected, how will any of what he proposes pass through the Legislature, much less the Court? That is, unless, he whittles away at the ideological claims he’s been spouting/shouting since the beginning, much to the complete disappointment of any and all who voted for him.

      The author is correct in his assessment: Sanders has, himself, said numerous times that his goal is to upset the capitalist system (“Wall Street”) via democratic socialism (aka his somewhat skewed interpretation of it). Do his followers not, by extension, believe the same?

      Of course they do and, of course, they will all be sorely disappointed when they see that, for all of his boasting and declarative fist-pumping, he comes up less than short of his promises. If he (they) truly wanted to create a revolution, why would he adhere to the strict formulae of what he sees as a corrupt, stagnant system?

      Tell me, how did the French, the Norwegians, the Dutch he so often cites become democratically-socialist states? They scrapped their outdated constitutions and took care to elect people at ALL LEVELS who stood for their rights. If you can’t name the person who represents your House district, why should anyone take you seriously in your bid to revolutionize American politics?

      Want a revolution? Start one. In the – elected – system in which we live, it ain’t happening otherwise. As an added bonus, sore-losing Sanders supporters will ensure that a Republican enters the White House (prolongs our corrupt way of life) by sulking at home instead of voting for Clinton.

      P.S. Obama not left-wing enough on healthcare? ACA..? (Take a guess as to why it isn’t a better system 😉 )

      P.P.S Exposure of ideas (that majorly fail) = better than nothing? I dunno, no good deed goes unpunished, I suppose.