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Bernie Sanders Won’t Win, But His Rise Represents Something Greater For American Politics

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By David Mallory:

PROSPECT PARK, BROOKLYN, NEW YORK, UNITED STATES - 2016/04/17: More than 28,000 people flooded Brooklyn's Prospect Park for Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders.  The campaign called it his biggest rally yet.  Guests included the indie band Grizzly Bear, Danny Devito, Justin Long and  Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, D-Hawaii, and Brooklyn Councilman Jumaane Williams, an Occupy Wall Street activist who revved up the crowd with a "mic check". (Photo by Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images)
By Michael Nigro/Pacific Press/LightRocket via Getty Images.

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.

Hundreds of anti-capitalist protesters have flooded the area around Wall Street to demonstrate against corporate greed. For over a month, Occupy Wall Street activiists have occupied the financial district and camped out in nearby Zuccotti Park.(Photo By: Howard Simmons/NY Daily News via Getty Images)
Credit: Howard Simmons/NY Daily News via Getty Images.

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.

NEW YORK, NY - JULY 19:  People participate in a demonstration against the death of Eric Garner after he was taken into police custody in Staten Island on Thursday on July 19, 2014 in New York City. New York Mayor Bill de Blasio announced in a news conference yesterday that there will be a full investigation into the circumstances surrounding the death of Garner. The 400-pound, 6-foot-4 asthmatic, Garner (43) died after police put him in a chokehold outside of a convenience store for illegally selling cigarettes.  (Photo by Spencer Platt/Getty Images)
Image credit: Spencer Platt/Getty Images.

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.

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  1. David Mallory

    The title is misleading. The article states: “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.”

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An ambassador and trained facilitator under Eco Femme (a social enterprise working towards menstrual health in south India), Sanjina is also an active member of the MHM Collective- India and Menstrual Health Alliance- India. She has conducted Menstrual Health sessions in multiple government schools adopted by Rotary District 3240 as part of their WinS project in rural Bengal. She has also delivered training of trainers on SRHR, gender, sexuality and Menstruation for Tomorrow’s Foundation, Vikramshila Education Resource Society, Nirdhan trust and Micro Finance, Tollygunj Women In Need, Paint It Red in Kolkata.

Now as an MH Fellow with YKA, she’s expanding her impressive scope of work further by launching a campaign to facilitate the process of ensuring better menstrual health and SRH services for women residing in correctional homes in West Bengal. The campaign will entail an independent study to take stalk of the present conditions of MHM in correctional homes across the state and use its findings to build public support and political will to take the necessary action.

Saurabh has been associated with YKA as a user and has consistently been writing on the issue MHM and its intersectionality with other issues in the society. Now as an MHM Fellow with YKA, he’s launched the Right to Period campaign, which aims to ensure proper execution of MHM guidelines in Delhi’s schools.

The long-term aim of the campaign is to develop an open culture where menstruation is not treated as a taboo. The campaign also seeks to hold the schools accountable for their responsibilities as an important component in the implementation of MHM policies by making adequate sanitation infrastructure and knowledge of MHM available in school premises.

Read more about his campaign.

Harshita is a psychologist and works to support people with mental health issues, particularly adolescents who are survivors of violence. Associated with the Azadi Foundation in UP, Harshita became an MHM Fellow with YKA, with the aim of promoting better menstrual health.

Her campaign #MeriMarzi aims to promote menstrual health and wellness, hygiene and facilities for female sex workers in UP. She says, “Knowledge about natural body processes is a very basic human right. And for individuals whose occupation is providing sexual services, it becomes even more important.”

Meri Marzi aims to ensure sensitised, non-discriminatory health workers for the needs of female sex workers in the Suraksha Clinics under the UPSACS (Uttar Pradesh State AIDS Control Society) program by creating more dialogues and garnering public support for the cause of sex workers’ menstrual rights. The campaign will also ensure interventions with sex workers to clear misconceptions around overall hygiene management to ensure that results flow both ways.

Read more about her campaign.

MH Fellow Sabna comes with significant experience working with a range of development issues. A co-founder of Project Sakhi Saheli, which aims to combat period poverty and break menstrual taboos, Sabna has, in the past, worked on the issue of menstruation in urban slums of Delhi with women and adolescent girls. She and her team also released MenstraBook, with menstrastories and organised Menstra Tlk in the Delhi School of Social Work to create more conversations on menstruation.

With YKA MHM Fellow Vineet, Sabna launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society. As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

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A student from Delhi School of Social work, Vineet is a part of Project Sakhi Saheli, an initiative by the students of Delhi school of Social Work to create awareness on Menstrual Health and combat Period Poverty. Along with MHM Action Fellow Sabna, Vineet launched Menstratalk, a campaign that aims to put an end to period poverty and smash menstrual taboos in society.

As a start, the campaign aims to begin conversations on menstrual health with five hundred adolescents and youth in Delhi through offline platforms, and through this community mobilise support to create Period Friendly Institutions out of educational institutes in the city.

Find out more about the campaign here.

A native of Bhagalpur district – Bihar, Shalini Jha believes in equal rights for all genders and wants to work for a gender-equal and just society. In the past she’s had a year-long association as a community leader with Haiyya: Organise for Action’s Health Over Stigma campaign. She’s pursuing a Master’s in Literature with Ambedkar University, Delhi and as an MHM Fellow with YKA, recently launched ‘Project अल्हड़ (Alharh)’.

She says, “Bihar is ranked the lowest in India’s SDG Index 2019 for India. Hygienic and comfortable menstruation is a basic human right and sustainable development cannot be ensured if menstruators are deprived of their basic rights.” Project अल्हड़ (Alharh) aims to create a robust sensitised community in Bhagalpur to collectively spread awareness, break the taboo, debunk myths and initiate fearless conversations around menstruation. The campaign aims to reach at least 6000 adolescent girls from government and private schools in Baghalpur district in 2020.

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A psychologist and co-founder of a mental health NGO called Customize Cognition, Ritika forayed into the space of menstrual health and hygiene, sexual and reproductive healthcare and rights and gender equality as an MHM Fellow with YKA. She says, “The experience of working on MHM/SRHR and gender equality has been an enriching and eye-opening experience. I have learned what’s beneath the surface of the issue, be it awareness, lack of resources or disregard for trans men, who also menstruate.”

The Transmen-ses campaign aims to tackle the issue of silence and disregard for trans men’s menstruation needs, by mobilising gender sensitive health professionals and gender neutral restrooms in Lucknow.

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A Computer Science engineer by education, Nitisha started her career in the corporate sector, before realising she wanted to work in the development and social justice space. Since then, she has worked with Teach For India and Care India and is from the founding batch of Indian School of Development Management (ISDM), a one of its kind organisation creating leaders for the development sector through its experiential learning post graduate program.

As a Youth Ki Awaaz Menstrual Health Fellow, Nitisha has started Let’s Talk Period, a campaign to mobilise young people to switch to sustainable period products. She says, “80 lakh women in Delhi use non-biodegradable sanitary products, generate 3000 tonnes of menstrual waste, that takes 500-800 years to decompose; which in turn contributes to the health issues of all menstruators, increased burden of waste management on the city and harmful living environment for all citizens.

Let’s Talk Period aims to change this by

Find out more about her campaign here.

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A former Assistant Secretary with the Ministry of Women and Child Development in West Bengal for three months, Lakshmi Bhavya has been championing the cause of menstrual hygiene in her district. By associating herself with the Lalana Campaign, a holistic menstrual hygiene awareness campaign which is conducted by the Anahat NGO, Lakshmi has been slowly breaking taboos when it comes to periods and menstrual hygiene.

A Gender Rights Activist working with the tribal and marginalized communities in india, Srilekha is a PhD scholar working on understanding body and sexuality among tribal girls, to fill the gaps in research around indigenous women and their stories. Srilekha has worked extensively at the grassroots level with community based organisations, through several advocacy initiatives around Gender, Mental Health, Menstrual Hygiene and Sexual and Reproductive Health Rights (SRHR) for the indigenous in Jharkhand, over the last 6 years.

Srilekha has also contributed to sustainable livelihood projects and legal aid programs for survivors of sex trafficking. She has been conducting research based programs on maternal health, mental health, gender based violence, sex and sexuality. Her interest lies in conducting workshops for young people on life skills, feminism, gender and sexuality, trauma, resilience and interpersonal relationships.

A Guwahati-based college student pursuing her Masters in Tata Institute of Social Sciences, Bidisha started the #BleedwithDignity campaign on the technology platform, demanding that the Government of Assam install
biodegradable sanitary pad vending machines in all government schools across the state. Her petition on has already gathered support from over 90000 people and continues to grow.

Bidisha was selected in’s flagship program ‘She Creates Change’ having run successful online advocacy
campaigns, which were widely recognised. Through the #BleedwithDignity campaign; she organised and celebrated World Menstrual Hygiene Day, 2019 in Guwahati, Assam by hosting a wall mural by collaborating with local organisations. The initiative was widely covered by national and local media, and the mural was later inaugurated by the event’s chief guest Commissioner of Guwahati Municipal Corporation (GMC) Debeswar Malakar, IAS.

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