Bernie Sanders and the Future of the American Left


(Source: Huffington Post)

With the US’ next presidential election looming on the horizon in 2016, candidates have already begun campaigning in the hopes of capturing the attention and votes of the American public. The Republican party, which has in recent years come to represent a particularly reactionary and vitriolic strand of conservatism, has gained notice this year as much for the absurd number of candidates (15 as of last count) as for their insane promises, such as building a giant wall between the US and Mexico to prevent immigration and repealing essentially all major policies instituted by the Obama administration in the past 8 years.

By comparison, the Democratic nomination race, which held its first primary debate on Tuesday October 13th, seems almost quiet. Yet this perceived calm belies a more nuanced, and perhaps ultimately more important, conflict between Hillary Rodham Clinton, famed former first lady and Secretary of State, and Bernie Sanders, a senator and self-proclaimed Democratic Socialist from the small northeastern state of Vermont (population 626,000) who until this year most Americans had never even heard of. Since announcing his presidential run in April, however, Sanders has accomplished incredible feats, with record-breaking numbers coming to hear him speak and running a campaign that’s raised $26 million dollars from 1 million individual donors, a landmark not even Obama’s meteoric rise in 2008 reached.

So why exactly are American voters so excited about Bernie Sanders? Both his campaign and popularity rest heavily on one key point; addressing the staggering economic inequality prevalent in the US, and doing so by standing up to the big-money interests that control much of the country’s economics and politics. This rallying cry, along with more progressive stances on issues like criminal justice reform, universal healthcare, and addressing college debt has ignited a storm of conversation, with people calling Sanders everything from a communist to our savior of 21st century American capitalism. Reactions amongst those on the left vary; while some are excited to see such an unapologetically progressive candidate gaining such major traction, many who lived through the Obama fervor of 2008 (and subsequent let-down) remain cautiously optimistic at best. And still others see Sanders as yet another well-intentioned but ill-prepared individual trying to take on the world and destined to fail. As someone who identifies as an American but has spent the past two years working with the Korean social movement, I want to make clear for international left audiences the attraction Sanders’s campaign holds for those who center their political work as “transforming the American imperial project from within,” while also honestly interrogating what this may mean without a true commitment from Sanders to international left solidarity.

On the one hand, it’s exciting to see someone with Sanders’ stances make it to the spotlight. While America’s mainstream media has thus far done an impressive job keeping Sanders out of the spotlight[ref][/ref], his impact is nonetheless visible in subtle ways, such as Hillary Clinton rushing to proclaim herself a “progressive” in the first Democratic debate, an unprecedented move. He has also incorporated aspects of many of the populist movements that have emerged within the past couple years, not just paying them lip service, but incorporating their ideologies and policy suggestions in concrete ways, such as introducing speculation taxes on Wall Street (as called for by the Occupy movement), and introducing civilian oversight committees to hold police departments accountable (as called for by many Black Lives Matter communities). Perhaps most interestingly, he has called for a “revolution” multiple times in his stump speeches so far, noting that

“The economic and political systems of this country are stacked against ordinary Americans. The rich get richer, and use their wealth to buy elections. Working families get poorer, and give up on the political process. This is not democracy. This is oligarchy. We need a political revolution."

While it’s impossible to judge any candidate’s authenticity or intent with any certainty, and the reality of the presidency and its political constraints may not allow Sanders to fulfill every pledge, based on his previous political track record and insistence on remaining a grassroots-funded campaign, he is the most radical candidate we have seen in a long time. For those who have been working to shift American political ideology to the left, it’s hard not to get excited by what seems to be a growing interest and support for these ideas as embodied by Sanders.

Sanders shot to popularity precisely because he presents an appealing solution to what is first and foremost a domestic problem. Yet, by failing to move beyond conventional liberalism and bring an equally critical framework to America’s international affairs, specifically linking oppression at home with that abroad, Sanders shows the limits not just of what his presidential campaign can achieve, but of the American project’s so-called liberty and justice for all. One of the best examples of this is Sanders’ stance on the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Obama’s proposed twelve-country trade deal which would go down in history as the largest trade deal of our time and would cause unprecedented damage to some of society’s most vulnerable workforce populations like farmers, small-scale enterprises, and laborers.[ref][/ref] Sanders has been one of the few consistent critics of the deal, rightfully calling out the increased power it gives to corporations. Yet his main argument, that the deal sends work overseas at the expense of hardworking Americans, is premised on a long-standing problematic idea that encourages division and rivalry amongst workers based on nationality, instead of locating the problem as a global class oppression on all fronts that merely encourages a “global race to the bottom.” This inability to link the ills of the American people with those worldwide persists in his track record voting on international issues. Although he tends to eschew the war option when possible, and voted against the first Gulf War and the Iraq War, considering his support of the Obama administration’s wars, US military support for Israel, and military contractors that bring jobs to his home state, it’s clear that, when push comes to shove, he takes the same stance as the rest of the liberal imperialists, who at the end of the day believe in using American power, hard or soft, to promote the American project and its primacy over the needs and sovereignty of other nations.

In his calls for greater social welfare infrastructure in the US, Sanders frequently presents countries such as Sweden and Denmark as examples of successful socialist models; however, he makes no mention of countries like Cuba, which has one of the best healthcare systems in the world,[ref][/ref] and Venezuela, which has reduced national poverty by half and extreme poverty by over 70%.[ref][/ref] At best, this demonstrates an extreme ignorance of the reality of global social conditions, especially in areas where the kinds of reforms he champions have actually been carried out; yet, even if that is the case, it demonstrates just how deeply Sanders is embedded in mainstream distortions of the world.

What, then, is to be done? As a young person, it’s hard not to feel hopeful about change - and he provides the most compelling case for that in the near future. Yet, especially for those who feel obligations to an international framework for social justice and solidarity, there are very serious concerns about his campaign and leadership. “Bernie Sanders has many limitations, some of which are ultimately rooted in the very position of presiding over the US as empire. To see Sanders as any sort of end-game solution, therefore, would be a mistake. Ultimately, as many on the left seem to agree, the road ahead lies with supporting Sanders strategically as the best alternative to the current broken system, while also making sure to criticize the campaign’s shortcomings from within. Perhaps most significant is the fact that, even if Sanders were suddenly to align his foreign policy stance with the global left, the work still would not be done. We cannot locate our salvation in Sanders alone, but in a grassroots tide change, something he has been smart enough to point out himself in his campaign speech:

“Let me tell you something that no other candidate for president will tell you. No matter who is elected to be president, that person will not be able to address the enormous problems facing the working families of our country. They will not be able to succeed because the power of corporate America, the power of Wall Street, the power of campaign donors is so great that no president alone can stand up to them. That is the truth. People may be uncomfortable about hearing it, but that is the reality. And that is why what this campaign is about is saying loudly and clearly: It is not just about elected Bernie Sanders for president, it is about creating a grassroots political movement in this country.”

The kind of country that Sanders and those supporting him envision will ultimately come to pass not through electoral magic, but by work ultimately rooted in the community. As tempting as it is to place your bets with a heroic figure who will save the day at the eleventh hour, the reality is that change has historically come from, and will continue to come from, community; from the naming of what now nationally is known as the “school-to-prison pipeline” at the Labor Community Strategy Center in Los Angeles, to the birth and development of a Fight for $15 from the coalition efforts of labor organizations nationwide. As organizers, our task is to figure out how best to harness this passion and convince people of the urgency of these needs, and of their own protagonism in this fight, to achieve that which we so desperately wish to see.

written by Stephanie Park (editor, World Current Report)