The Sanders Phenomenon and Socialism in the United States

This is the English version of an article I wrote in the January-February issue of Nueva Sociedad in Argentina on the Sanders election, the socialist tradition in American presidential campaigns, and the question of running (and serving) as a socialist in a neoliberal party. It was written in November, when the Sanders campaign had less momentum than it now appears to have, after the candidate’s win in New Hampshire. I tried to balance cautious enthusiasm for the campaign with what I still think is the certainty that the Democrats would ever let him win.

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The one time I met Bernie Sanders was in high school, when I worked as an intern in his Washington, D.C. congressional office for part of the summer of 1997. I mostly opened mail, answered phones, and recorded how many people called and wrote letters on what issues. I only remember people writing about two main things: the CIA reading their minds (these seemed to come from Vermont) and abortion (these came from everywhere). Sanders himself was in Vermont during most of my time in his office, so I only saw him once at the very end of my internship, when he called me into his office to chat for a few minutes.

The rest of the summer break, I had a paying job in the air-conditioning and heating shop of the Capitol building, assisting the mechanics who kept the congressional staffs cool in the Washington humidity. I spent most of that time helping the A/C mechanics on runs, napping in the locked basement storage rooms for surplus furniture–Congressmen’s reception sofas are long and soft enough to sleep comfortably, and the best of these rooms also had TVs–and doing sometimes grueling labor of debatable necessity, like sweeping years of accumulated car exhaust from underground parking garages, and unquestionably zero necessity, like painting yellow hot-water pipes another shade of yellow. In a full-employment economy, perhaps this wouldn’t have been a summer job for idle teenagers–the irony wasn’t entirely lost on me at the time that in Washington, D.C., a poor city full of people who wanted to work but couldn’t, I, who didn’t but could, was out here cleaning parking garages.

The mechanics who maintained the Capitol air conditioning probably knew little about Sanders, who at the time was a congressman little-known outside Vermont. I could’ve been wrong, though, since political discussion was politely avoided at lunchtime, and working in close quarters with politicians and their staffs tended to nurture in the staff a calloused indifference to the white-marble grandeur of the U.S. Capitol and the politicians who inhabited it. So by the time I got to Sanders’ office, I had inherited some of that indifference too. My attitude at the time—which my jobs had only encouraged—held that the Congress was mostly awful and, at its best, merely ineffectual. (This is actually still my attitude.)

When I finally met Sanders, we talked about his notion of socialism, and the only thing I remember from the conversation was at the end when I asked him (I was 18) whether it made any sense to be a socialist, even a relatively moderate one like him, in the United States Congress. If Sanders really believed what he said he believed, and I’m sure he did, what was the point, I asked him, of all this, as I gestured broadly to his office, the staff outside, the Capitol rotunda down the block—in short, your job? I remember him appearing to enjoy the question, and instead of kicking me out of his office like he might reasonably have done, he gave me a long, thoughtful answer.


Some version of my question still applies to his campaign for President in the Democratic Party. What, in an institution as corrupted and cynical as U.S. presidential politics, is the point of participating? Sanders is not naïve, nor is he the starry-eyed idealist of right-wing and Clintonite caricature, as an anecdote from his Burlington, VT mayoralty shows. Then, Sanders allied with union leaders at a local weapons plant against Central American solidarity activists who wanted to block weapons destined for the Salvadoran dictatorship. Yet he also appears to be a politician of sincere principle, who really wants to reject the cynical bargain that mainstream Democrats demand of their progressive supporters. “The perfect is the enemy of the good” is a popular motto for such so-called “centrists,” who exhort those on the left to swallow their stated principles and vote for a Democrat on the grounds that she or he is “electable.” This has led to what look in retrospect like obviously comical blunders, as when Democrats sought to run a mediocre ex-General, Wesley Clark, against George W. Bush on the grounds that a militarist could placate the jingoist right. Or in 2004, with the sad spectacle of John Kerry, who began his political career as a leader in Vietnam Veterans Against the War, arriving on stage at his nominating convention with a military retinue and a stage-managed soldier’s salute.


So given this state of affairs, what does Sanders campaign actually stand for? One of the Sanders’ campaign’s responses to the “why bother?” question is to point out that his campaign’s demands are not, in and of themselves, especially radical, and that they are also widely popular among the American electorate. Here, I remember the air-conditioning mechanics, who enjoyed the spoils of federal employment, the only functioning welfare state America had left: health insurance, a well-funded pension, affirmative action in hiring, and wages much higher than their peers in the private sector. Sanders wants to expand benefits like these to workers everywhere: government-funded health insurance for all, free public college education, and a doubled federal minimum wage are his core campaign issues.

Yet in a country where the last decade has been a ruinous climax of a disastrous three decades for working people, and in a political culture that can barely even manage its usual sad pantomime of democracy, Sanders’ humble proposals feel almost radical. In the Republican campaign, leading candidates like Ted Cruz and Donald Trump—two sides of the same ultra-reactionary coin–have ably exploited the current mood of crisis and fear. As the United States enters its second decade of war in Afghanistan, ISIS, the fruit of our last war in Iraq, beckons the country’s war machine and its nativist, anti-Muslim fears. Their racial and religious appeal to a middle-class and working-class white electorate has been brazenly xenophobic: mass deportations of Latin American migrants, federal surveillance of Muslims, more bombing, more “security.” As for Hillary Clinton, when challenged on her close ties to Wall Street she waved the “bloody shirt” of 9/11. She supported Wall Street finance, she said incredibly, because downtown Manhattan—where Wall Street is physically located—was attacked by terrorists. To the anti-Black police violence that young activists have made into a national crisis, Clinton offers sentimental bromides about identifying with the mothers of sons lost to “violence,” though she leaves the police perpetrators of the violence artfully unnamed.

For Clinton, there is almost no structural economic problem–from health care to higher education through job growth—that cannot be washed away with the elixir of the “free market.” Sanders is alone, at the level of national politics, in articulating the country’s prevailing mood of national crisis and decay from anything that might be called “the Left”: for him, the word “oligarchy” appears on his campaign bio about three times as often as “innovation.” And his policy statement on Black Lives Matter appears not under “criminal justice reform,” as with Clinton, but under a heading devoted to the “five central types of violence waged against black, brown and indigenous Americans: physical, political, legal, economic and environmental.” Perhaps it’s just a mere rhetorical distinction, but Sanders’ framing is at least one that reflects a political point of view about anti-Black violence as more than a policy “issue,” but a consequence of deeper, older inequalities in American life.

It’s a rhetorical framework that doesn’t particularly belong in the Democratic Party. Especially since Bill Clinton led the revival in the 1990s, the Democrats are, like Tony Blair’s Labor, committed to what many on the U.S. intellectual left call “neoliberalism.” This is a word that I first heard in Spanish–my impression is that it arrived in U.S. political discourse via the Latin American left, a critical reference point, intellectually and symbolically, for U.S. leftists. As the Washington Consensus has come home to roost, with large-scale privatizations, “structural adjustment” at the state and municipal levels, job cuts and public service shut-offs applied in cities and states across the U.S.A., we have needed to name the process. More than just a set of policies committed to austerity solutions to economic problems, neoliberalism is a way of understanding the nature of the problems in the first place. In other words, it is an ideology, and one that elevates the market and market logic—the pursuit of profit—as what the scholar Wendy Brown calls “the, rather than a site of verediction…for every arena and type of human activity.” Look, for example, at how President Obama introduces his commitment to primary and secondary education on the White House’s official website: “In today’s global economy, a high-quality education is no longer just a pathway to opportunity—it is a prerequisite for success.” And this is Barack Obama, our intellectual president, in his first sentence on education–the market’s rule is so complete here, it is almost as unworthy of special mention as the oxygen its writer breathed while he wrote it. The employing class, with their workforce requirements, are not some visitor to the schoolhouse that must be introduced–with the Democratic Party, it’s their house, and we and our children are only guests.

So, again: why bother with this bunch? In a November speech laying out his vision of “democratic socialism,” Sanders framed his political philosophy as a basically conservative one–a return to the United States’ brief Depression-era experiment in social democracy, when the Democrat Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal regulated banks, built public housing, funded pensions for the elderly, and promoted (and also regulated) industrial unionism. Roosevelt “saw one-third of the nation ill-housed, ill-clad and ill-nourished,” Sanders told a sympathetic audience of students at Washington’s Georgetown University. “And he acted, against the ferocious opposition of the ruling class of his day.” The New Deal now stands in tatters, shredded by Ronald Reagan and all the presidents who have come after. Sanders’ appeal to tradition, therefore, only looks back a couple generations, and his “socialism” is what others might call “social democracy.”

Before Roosevelt, the standard-bearer for presidential socialism–“democratic” or otherwise–was Eugene V. Debs, a self-taught railroad worker from Indiana, who won 1,000,000 votes campaigning from prison in the 1922 presidential elections. Sanders is not much like the old firebrand who called private ownership and wage-slavery the curse of the nation in the speech that kicked off his 1904 campaign. “Capitalism is dying and its extremities are already decomposing,” said Debs, who had a way with metaphor and a zealous disposition that Sanders, who is impatient with what he regards as substance-less political rhetoric, generally lacks. Arguably his biggest moment in the campaign thus far [ed.: before January] came during a televised debate when he told his rival Clinton, to her evident delight, that he was “sick and tired of hearing about your damn emails,” a reference to an email scandal that has embroiled the Clinton camp but which Sanders clearly regarded as a media distraction from the country’s “real” problems. In a campaign defined by Trump’s demagoguery, Ted Cruz’s Christian Bible-thumping, and Clinton’s superficiality, Sanders stands out as an earnest critic of all the above.

Sanders is neither as rabble-rousing nor, for that matter, as anti-capitalist as Debs was. He wants to increase state regulation of the financial sector, not nationalize it; he wants to increase the federal minimum wage to $15 an hour, as union activists have demanded in a national campaign, but he wants to phase it in “over the next several years.” As he told his Georgetown audience, “I do not believe government should own the means of production, but I do believe that the middle class and the working families who produce the wealth of America deserve a fair deal. (Compare: “The blotches upon the surface show that the blood no longer circulates,” Debs continued in his 1904 campaign announcement. “The time is near when the cadaver will have to be removed and the atmosphere purified.”)


From Nueva Sociedad, Jan/Feb 2016,

For this reason, some of Sanders’ radical critics in the United States argue that a national campaign in a technocratic, conservative party like the Democrats offers little hope for the transformational change we desperately need, unlike Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign in Britain’s Labor Party or the European anti-austerity campaigns, like Podemos or Syriza. Unlike those European systems, the American party primaries are less open to insurgent campaigns than parliamentary elections, and the U.S. Democrats have no living tradition of socialism, like British Labour does. And such critics are certainly right about that. Ashley Smith in the U.S. Socialist Worker newspaper argues that American leftists need to “win the new left born out of Occupy, public-sector union struggles, and the Black Lives Matter movement to break with the Democratic Party and build an electoral alternative as a complement to struggle from below.” This argument is a familiar one, borne out of disgust with the electoral system that many on the left regard as a distraction from the real work of movement building. But it is also unconvincing, since of the movements Smith cites, one (Occupy Wall Street) is effectively defunct, and the other (“public-sector union struggles”) only flourished in one state, Wisconsin, until they were defeated by that state’s right-wing governor in 2012. She’s right that the Democratic Party is where every socialist vote goes to die, but this is true with or without Sanders’ participation. If a self-described socialist is running a competitive race for President, for arguably the first time since Debs, it demands more sympathetic critical attention.

Political campaigns, corrupt though they are, do command our citizenry’s political attention like little else. And Sanders is the only candidate who offers even a glimpse of a horizon beyond the farce of the American democratic process. His most popular proposal, free public university tuition, is not a radical restructuring of property relations, but it also seems unthinkable in the context of official American politics at the moment. And yet for my parents’ generation, such a public investment in the education of young people was completely normal.

Smith is quite right, however, that in an election that Sanders cannot win, the only mark of real success is what the campaign leaves behind. Tellingly, Sanders frames his candidacy in terms of movement politics, at least rhetorically: “If we are serious about transforming our country,” he told his Georgetown audience, “if we are serious about rebuilding the middle class, if we are serious about reinvigorating our democracy, we need to develop a political movement which, once again, is prepared to take on and defeat a ruling class whose greed is destroying our nation.” The appeal here is in many ways conventional in American presidential politics and its strange paradoxes: the country that acts like it invented democracy and pretends to export it abroad at gunpoint is also perpetually “reinvigorating” its own, apparently decrepit version. And even as he addresses a mythical “middle class,” a standard liberal constituency to which everyone claims to belong, Sanders also says that workers “produce the wealth of America,” wealth stolen by the “ruling class.” He describes himself less as a charismatic instrument of transformation than the leader of a “movement”–and the measure of his candidacy’s success will be in what, if anything, it helps produce outside of the Democratic Party. Because it won’t produce a President Sanders, that’s for sure.

The reasons for this are demographic and political: he is white, and he represents a small, rural, mostly white, and relatively prosperous state in New England. His base has been in the urban north–in wealthy coastal cities like Seattle and New York and college towns like Burlington, VT, where he got his start, and Madison, WI, where he has drawn huge, enthusiastic crowds. Organized labor, long cowed into desperate loyalty to the Democratic Party establishment, has not rallied around him in large numbers. He has been endorsed by a few small unions, but the major American labor federations are too weak to support Sanders, their clearest ally. Most will bet on Clinton, hoping to earn some favor in return for backing a winner.

Sanders, then, still draws most of his support from politically active young people, the sort who might have interned for him in 1997. Clinton, meanwhile, draws nearly half of Democratic voters over age 45. More dangerous for Sanders, though, is a racial and ethnic divide–54% of African American voters and 62% of Latino voters prefer Clinton, compared to just 4% and 12% for Sanders. The reasons for this have a lot to do with Sanders’ low national profile among all voters, and a lot to do with Bill Clinton’s longstanding popularity among African American Democrat voters. But Hillary Clinton also beats Sanders among all white voters, 43% to 32%: so Clinton is a polished politician with a name everybody knows. She also has far more money, due to her deep connections to Wall Street, corporate America, and the liberal wing of the American oligarchy.

Sanders’ candidacy, and particularly his performance in the televised spectacles that stand in for “politics” in the official American sense, is notable for his stubborn reluctance to provide the reassuring pieties or the bleeding demagoguery that most candidates trade in. His basic honesty seems convincing; his impatience with the political media mirrors, I think, that of most Americans, who do not even bother voting in a system most see as corrupted or irrelevant. His basic mode is critique, rather than reassurance. Socialism, for him, is an indictment of our current unequal system, rather than a revolutionary star of human liberation.

His campaign shows, at the very least, that the word “socialism” is no longer contaminated by the Cold War, especially for young people born after it. According to polling data–whatever that’s worth–half of American voters, and 3/4 of voters under 30, would vote for a socialist. Sanders is playing a part–how small or large, time will tell–in recuperating socialism in the United States. “Socialism has been lost in American politics for a generation,” says Bhaskar Sunkara, publisher of the new socialist magazine, Jacobin, which has itself become one of the country’s best political magazines. “Just having someone calling themselves a socialist on the national stage is incredible.”

As Sunkara suggests, the test of Sanders’ campaign is what contribution it makes to awakening a long-dormant American socialist tradition that even many American leftists don’t realize exists. Debs was “opposed to every war but one,” as he famously said in the wake of World War I, when he was imprisoned for sedition for his anti-war views. In the depths of that cataclysmic war and the country’s xenophobic nationalist response to it a century ago, a moment not unlike our own, Debs insisted that “The earth rocks with the fury of the awful carnage, but out of the appalling welter of blood and desolation rises the bright star of hope.” In his famous 1918 Canton, OH anti-war speech, for which he was arrested and sentenced for sedition, Debs asked his audience about Wall Street:

You need to know that it is for you to know something about literature and science and art. You need to know that you are verging on the edge of a great new world. You need to get in touch with your comrades and fellow workers and to become conscious of your interests, your powers and your possibilities as a class. You need to know that you belong to the great majority of mankind. You need to know that as long as you are ignorant, as long as you are indifferent, as long as you are apathetic, unorganized and content, you will remain exactly where you are. You will be exploited; you will be degraded, and you will have to beg for a job. You will get just enough for your slavish toil to keep you in working order, and you will be looked down upon with scorn and contempt by the very parasites that live and luxuriate out of your sweat and unpaid labor.

This isn’t Sanders’ style, obviously, and he doesn’t have the privilege of running in the wake of a world-wide revolutionary surge (or from prison). One of the great achievements of latter-day Republicans, and plenty of Democrats, has been to convince large swaths of the American public (hence the Trump campaign) that the real “parasites” are not the dukes, counts, and owners of capital, as Debs would have said, but in fact those who labor in “slavish toil” for their crumbs. Sanders is the first major presidential candidate I can remember who can bring himself to at least call this is a lie. His campaign will not win, but I also would never have expected it 8 years ago. What comes after is the real question.








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