02.01.2016
  • United States

Bernie and His Critics

  • Nivedita Majumdar

Whether he wins tonight's Iowa caucuses, Bernie Sanders has provided an opening that we can't squander.

The unthinkable is happening. A self-proclaimed socialist is not only forging ahead in the Democratic primaries, but could actually win.

Yet even as his popularity rises, even as he raises issues no candidate has brought into the public arena in decades, Bernie Sanders faces attacks from all quarters of the Left. He’s accused of not having radical enough economic proposals, of being oblivious to race, of diminishing the chances of electing a woman president, of not being electable and potentially paving the way for Republican victory, and of threatening social movements by herding progressives into the Democratic Party.

There is no doubt that aspects of this criticism are deserved. Sanders doesn’t offer anything close to a comprehensive solution for the myriad problems facing the poor and oppressed, and some parts of his political agenda are genuinely backward. But when we place his candidacy in the context of the challenges the Left faces, the orientation of his political rivals, and the incredible enthusiasm he has generated in a climate of general defeat, the attacks on him from the Left become harder to justify.

Some of the critiques are unexceptional. Bernie is just a social democrat. He is not advocating socializing the means of production, nor is he seeking to dismantle the American empire; he has at times fallen short of demonstrating an experiential empathy towards racial minorities; and of course, it would have been nice if Sanders was a woman.

But politics is always contextual, and this is the United States, not Europe or Latin America. It is a country with a deep history of anticommunism, of little memory of an organized left politics, of a sustained, unremitting, three-decade-long attack on the working class. And the fact is that today, after decades of retreat by the Left, Sanders’s campaign has resonated with working people all over the country — not in spite of his embrace of the word “socialism,” but because of it. Ponder that for a minute.

Sure, he isn’t calling for wholesale expropriation. But when was the last time a candidate was winning on a plank that called for breaking up large banks, raising taxes on the wealthy and on corporations, shifting revenues toward huge increases in the social safety net, establishing universal health care and child care, providing tuition-free higher education, spending a trillion dollars on public works, and raising the minimum wage nationwide to $15 an hour?

It’s really not much of an insight to point out that this is still short of the kind of revolutionary transformations that we desire. Those are not on the table. What is remarkable, however, is that until recently neither was Sanders’s vision or proposal — and now he has a vast section of the country eating off that table.

Bernie the Man

Liberal feminists like Katha Pollitt and Gloria Steinem have put forth the argument that Clinton must be supported because her win would be a victory for feminism. Neither of the two seems to have a substantive objection to Bernie’s policy stances.

In her Nation piece “Why I’m Ready and Excited for Hillary,” Pollitt cites three reasons for her support for Clinton: first, her electability, second, it’s time the United States elected a woman as president, and third, Clinton, unlike “the Republican who beats Bernie Sanders” will work toward gender justice, particularly through progressive Supreme Court appointments.

Pollitt’s first and third reasons are not that different. They both proceed from the assumption that Sanders can’t win. If he could, then Clinton’s supposed role in appointing judges and otherwise using executive power to liberal ends would not matter because Sanders would do the same or better. What’s more, since Politt wrote the piece last June, the electability argument has come into question. Multiple polls show Bernie coming out some twenty points ahead of the Republican frontrunners. 

This only leaves the call for electing a female president, a position shared by Steinem, who has proposed the bizarre theory that the reason liberal women oppose Clinton is because of sexual jealousy. While campaigning for Clinton in 2008, Steinem came to the conclusion that white, well-educated women often led “precarious and unequal [married] lives,” so they were jealous of Clinton because “their own husbands hadn’t shared power with them.”

Steinem does not entertain the idea that women could be opposing Clinton for her militarism, or immigration policy, or because she has wavered on abortion, or due to the disastrous impact of welfare “reform” on working-class women.

Pollitt and Steinem are long-time progressives, and they are fully alive to the political contrast between Clinton and Sanders. For them, the contrast is simply subordinate to the mission of making a woman president. We’re asked to be excited at the prospect of electing a candidate with a corporate agenda.

Yes, “symbols matter,” as Pollitt reminds us, but in this instance it is proffered at the expense of substantive issues with direct consequences for working women’s lives. Such positions evince a willful blindness to the class dimension of Clinton’s policies, all in the name of feminism.

Bernie the Class Reductionist

The criticisms of Sanders for his supposed blindness to issues of racism have been plentiful, and to his credit, he has responded to them more carefully and fully than any other candidate. The most recent broadside has come from Ta-Nehisi Coates, who upbraids Sanders for his refusal to support reparations, championing instead race-blind structural transformation.

Coates bases his argument on a moral appeal for reparation without ever bothering to explain how something like a one-time payment solves the issue of institutional racism or why it’s more effective at improving the condition of black Americans than the reforms Sanders supports.

Coates denigrates Sanders’s initiatives like a higher minimum wage and free college because he believes that institutional racism ensures whites will always be the primary beneficiaries of any universal initiative.

This is a terribly skewed argument. It ignores the fact that the large majority of workers who would be lifted out of poverty by raising the minimum wage would be people of color. Coates is similarly oblivious to studies showing that the black-white wage gap narrows as the educational level goes up — hence decreasing the benefits of white privilege — but the gap between high school and college-educated blacks grows at an increasing rate compared to the white population. It means the benefits of a free college education would be enormous and weighted overwhelmingly toward working-class blacks.

The popularity, however, of Coates’s criticism of Sanders is striking. Coates speaks for a political constellation where class is taken to be a distraction from racial issues, where race politics is set against class politics, instead of being seen as complementary in the struggle for social justice. But make no mistake — what Coates is arguing for is not just a particular vision of race politics, but also a very specific class politics.

Bernie the Moderate

It isn’t entirely surprising that Sanders is being attacked by people close to the traditional Democratic Party — liberals who think he’s too concerned with the dynamics of class. But what is genuinely puzzling is the response from some radicals. They object to Bernie not because he’s different from Clinton, but because he’s not different enough, not left enough. They want him to be more radical on restructuring the economy, and they rightly question his foreign policy statements.

Most of all they ask why a real socialist would run on a Democratic ticket. Isn’t that the party where movements go to die? They fear that committed activists will be herded into the Democratic Party. They worry that if he wins, Sanders will not or cannot be very different from other Democrats, but that he would have the added damage of demobilizing a generation of leftward-moving young people.

The problem with the analysis is not that it’s wrong, but rather that aspects of it are apolitical. The point is not whether Bernie can be criticized on his economic or foreign policy positions. Of course he can. The question is whether his campaign offers the Left an opening to bring our politics out from the margins. We should be excited at the opportunity afforded by a presidential candidate capturing the imagination of tens of millions by attacking wealthy elites and their political system.

My own response to Sanders is partly shaped by getting politicized in a very different context. As a student activist in India, I was part of a left organization that was elected to the leadership of the college student union. Our organization started out as an insurgent body on a traditionally right-wing campus. Our numbers were small, and our politics definitely made us outliers. But we were committed to organizing and growing.

Looking back, especially in contrast with the US radical left, I now see that the political mindset we took for granted emerged from a broader context in which the Left was a significant player. We understood of course that being on the Left necessitated that we take extra pains to continually hone our alternative political analyses so we could contend with our more powerful foes. But we also knew that being political means engaging large numbers, and that it was incumbent on us to remain relevant and effective. We knew that precisely because we were the Left, we had to matter.

It seems that decades of isolation and insularity have made the US far left forget a cardinal principle of politics — that it is fundamentally about embedding yourself in mass work, not maneuvering among small groups of like-minded activists.

Sanders’s campaign should be welcomed by the radical left because it provides us with a spectacular opportunity for organizing. Hundreds of thousands of people are coming out to meetings and rallies because he has tapped into a deep revulsion at the ruling class. They are coming out because they are inspired by his railing against the corporate capture of political power, his deepening critique of the carceral system, and his call for working-class mobilization. He has made “socialism” a part of the political lexicon for the first time in decades.

If you’re an organizer, you know that words matter, ideas matter, transforming popular common-sense matters. I’ve heard criticism that his campaign might not lead to much, since it isn’t building on deep political organizing. But isn’t this still better than nothing? And isn’t the deep political organizing — a task the Left must take on — off to a better start when it rides on a wave of an anti-corporate national campaign?

Portions of the radical left reject Sanders both because he might not win and also because he might. If he loses and endorses Clinton, they fear, he will have herded hundreds of thousands into the Democratic Party. If he wins, he will be handcuffed by establishment politics and hence no different from other Democrats.

If Sanders does win, it would be essential for the Left to make him deliver on his promises and push him further left. And if he loses in the primaries, I do not doubt that he will try to point his supporters toward Clinton. But will this really trigger a flow of socialists into the Democratic Party? Who are these activists who will be so easily swindled?

Sure, some will heed his call. But we have to be real here. The Left, such as it is, is so small, so marginal right now, that the biggest challenge it faces is not the possibility of losing some members to the Democrats — but to grow to the point where we might in fact matter, where we might have some social weight beyond campuses and a small set of unions.

In engaging with the campaign, left activists can make links with thousands of working-class Americans who are disgusted with the corporate takeover of America and who are not put off by the idea of socialism. This is an invaluable opportunity to grow, and even to learn. But it is only possible through engagement.

We need to understand that it’s ultimately not about Sanders. It’s about the political moment the campaign has created and its possibilities. Sanders’s anti-corporate, pro-working-class electoral campaign, which has against all odds electrified millions. Whether the Left rejects or chooses to take advantage of this opening may well define its trajectory for a long time to come.

Nivedita Majumdar is an elected officer of an American Federation of Teachers local. This article represents her views alone.