By David Mallory:
Bernie Sanders, American candidate for the Democratic Party Presidential nomination, simultaneously represents continuity with the liberal political tradition as well as the generalised rejection that permeates our historical moment.
Liberals and other unsettled Americans are venerating Sanders with the same vigour last seen in Obama’s 2008 campaign. To his supporters, those that “feel the Bern”, he promises a break-up of the corporate-political nexus and the commensurate stranglehold of big money on the American political process. His policies of free college tuition, universal healthcare and a living wage are, in fact, simply traditional welfare state policies; that they are perceived as ‘radical’ only highlights the extremity of right-wing influence in American politics and the demoralising effects of the Obama Administration’s lacklustre centrist posturing.
Sanders’ positions capitalise on the demands of New Left movements such as Occupy Wall Street, and adopt the language of opposition to ‘corporate greed’ and ‘the 1%’. Indeed, Sanders’ platform reads, in many ways, as a restatement of the various manifestos released by the fragmented Occupy movement over the past five years. Similarly, he has tried to incorporate language related to racial justice in his platform, of obvious appeal to New Left movements such as Black Lives Matter, even as he has not been very successful rallying people of colour. His campaign supports socialism, however bland, and acknowledges the confrontational leftist movements already on the scene.
Therefore, to his supporters, it is clear that Sanders represents something different and even messianic, just as it is equally clear that his soon to be triumphant opponent, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, does not represent that. Her record of collusion with Wall Street and connection with her husband’s two terms of financial sector deregulation is clear, as is her equally infamous speeches given to Wall Street insiders.
Sanders’ appeal hinges on the paradox of appearing as a political outsider even when he most certainly isn’t. Rather he appeals to people as an ideological outsider, untainted by the tergiversations of the Clinton campaign.
To further complicate matters, his supporters seem uneasily divided on how he fits into the legacy of President Obama, even as Sanders has routinely criticised Obama from the left. It follows that if one opposes the trajectory of Clinton’s platform, then one certainly must have serious qualms about the policies of the current President; while many of Sanders’ supporters do criticise Obama, others seem to simultaneously support the current President and support Sanders’ campaign built largely on a rejection of the Obama legacy.
Recall that Obama’s legacy, for many liberals, doesn’t depend on what he did or even said but rather the perception that he is fighting for the right team. His vision of a hopeful America has included the Wall Street bailout and perpetuation of a failing economic system; he has surrounded himself with individuals firmly committed to the financial sector’s well-being, such as former Secretary of the Treasury Timothy Geithner. Similarly, his campaign rhetoric, largely a rejection of Bush’s international thuggery, has transformed into a reconstitution of the ‘War on Terror’ and the perpetuation of state terrorism. We live in an Orwellian reality where a Nobel Peace prize winning president is or has been at war in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Pakistan, Libya, Yemen and Somalia. We can see the complicated legacy this leaves behind as both Sanders and Clinton distance themselves from, and laud Obama, depending on the audience, issue and moment.
Ultimately this knotty problem is dismissed by an act of legerdemain – that old liberal belief in ultimate American redemption, of having one’s cake and eating it too. In this morality play, the United States has simply lost its way, and can regain the true path. Of course, this implies that America was ever on the right path and that the so-called American Dream isn’t really an American Nightmare for so many at home and abroad.
Sanders, and to a far lesser extent, Clinton, represent continuity with this old repentant liberal belief in the essential good of the American project and the need to temper (visible) excess with wisdom and prudence. American Exceptionalism, which is the twisted logic of Imperial hubris, does not leave the narrative at any point, even if it is presented in more benign terms than the carpet-bombing rhetoric of former Republican primary candidate Ted Cruz or the bellicose cowboy lunacy of former President George W. Bush.
We mustn’t forget that Sanders also favours the continuation of American Empire. His more bleeding heart supporters seem hesitant to address this, and most Americans simply don’t care. When Sanders says in his campaign platform that, “As President and commander-in-chief…I will defend America’s vital strategic interests, but I will do it responsibly,” we must realise that Middle Eastern oil is a ‘vital strategic interest’. We must acknowledge that ‘strategic interests’ is a euphemism for the perpetuation of state terrorism throughout the world and that the American way of life is built on a foundation of strategic interests that just happen to be detrimental to much of the rest of the world. Even as Sanders is much more of a ‘peace’ candidate than Clinton is, or Obama was, we must remember that Sanders supported the authorisation of force declaration, sought by George W. Bush, which began the state terrorism of the ‘War on Terror’. Similarly, he voted to fund the War in Iraq and the War in Afghanistan.
Sanders maintains an ahistorical belief in the moral maintenance of American Empire. In many ways, he adds another level of farce to it: part of Sanders’ economic populism is predicated on the maintenance of the military-industrial complex vis-à-vis the F-35 fighter programme in his home state of Vermont. This long-held position flies in the face of the rhetoric of Occupy Wall Street when they asserted, “They [corporations] continue to create weapons of mass destruction in order to receive government contracts.” Sanders’ domestic agenda implicitly recognises the maintenance of the military-industrial complex as a way to preserve what is left of American economic power. Moreover, it is disingenuous when he asserts noncompetitiveness within a capitalist framework and peace even as the system sustains itself on creating the weapons of war.
At the same time, Sanders’ candidacy represents something far more encouraging and salvageable, from the perspective of the pressing need to develop a concerted movement of New Lefts. We can see that the Sanders campaign has offered a rallying point for some in the multiplicity of New Lefts. New Left refers to those groups that eschew the bureaucratic nature of the Old Left and its dogmatic rigidity; moreover, they have increasingly brought forth a leftist critique of society that, whilst continuing to critique capitalism, also highlights gender, ecological and cultural concerns. The New Lefts of the 1960s, such as the Black Panthers and Students for a Democratic Society, have evolved into a myriad of coalitions fighting neoliberal corporate greed, institutional racism and a variety of other issues through the development of movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. To what degree these organisations, if it is possible to speak in such general terms, feel invested in the electoral system is debatable. This is another contradiction that is being played out in the primary campaign at the moment.
It is clear that Sanders won’t win the nomination but it isn’t as clear that he will relinquish his attempt before a contested Democratic Convention. In fact, this past week Hillary Clinton has been declared the presumptive nominee based on delegates won and pledged superdelegates; moreover, she has received the endorsement of President Obama. It seems unlikely that these New Lefts can be contained within the manufactured spectacle of the electoral arena or the strictures of the Democratic Party, even as this is precisely what Sanders hopes to achieve. Sanders and the establishment seek to institutionalise these movements, thereby depriving them of their overtly critical character.
Many of Sanders’ supporters seem to feel he is currently being cheated out of the Democratic nomination. In fact, he is simply playing a game designed to work against ‘outsider’ candidates and additionally, has received fewer votes. His supporters’ anger is actually an expression of disillusionment with the party process, and speaks to the potential of future independent, leftist campaigns if the electoral realm is to be contested at all. For better or worse, this is the trajectory of third party movements such as the Green Party under Jill Stein.
For all the liberals that ‘feel the Bern’ there are also those who refuse to be co-opted by the Sanders campaign, or politicians in general. This is the ‘the Great Refusal‘ of critical theorist and 60s New Left inspiration Herbert Marcuse – the creative and transformative power of rejection. The Great Refusal is a concerted refusal to buy into the games the system socialises us to play, and instead push the field of play, the realm of action, somewhere new and truly revolutionary. This Great Refusal is embryonic now but has gained expression through the untamable actions of Occupy and Black Lives Matter and the instability that permeates the American scene today. Glimpses of it appear when we see Sanders supporters cry foul; the next step is to stop playing the game – to reject Clinton when Sanders calls on his supporters to back her in the general election and, therefore, reject the theatre of the electoral process.
Therefore, recognition of the fundamental importance of the Great Refusal is the great opportunity of the 2016 election; this recognition entails the further exposure of the patent falsehood of the American system in general, and the two-party system in particular, and the recognition that New Left movements do not necessarily need to be expressed electorally but rather as an outside force, independent of the de-radicalising and institutionalising effects of the electoral game.