Part III: Tweedledum, Tweedledee, and the Third Party
(continued from October 24 and 25 and now concluded)
There is nothing in Sanders’ declared positions which points to a desire on his part to critique the idea of empire to which the US is wedded, nor has he ever really weighed in with a critique of militarism. It is a telling fact that when the US Air Force relayed its decision to locate the horrendously expensive F-35, the latest generation of its combat aircraft, at Vermont’s Burlington International Airport, Sanders and his two Vermont colleagues from the US Congress jubilantly celebrated this triumph with a press release where they stated: “The Air Force decision to base its newest generation of planes in Burlington is a tribute to the Vermont Air National Guard, which is the finest in the nation. It reflects the Guard’s dedication to its mission and long record of outstanding performance. The Air Force has made clear that this aircraft, which will anchor our national air defenses, is the Air Force’s future.” Sanders has never declined any opportunity to bring military jobs to his state: exasperated by his advocacy of military Keynesianism, one of Sanders’ critics has put it in bald language: “He [Sanders] stands behind all military contractors who bring much-needed jobs to Vermont.”
In attempting to position Sanders in the American political landscape, we should recall his fond admiration for Eugene Debs, whose portrait hangs in Sanders’ office, and the fundamental fact that everything in American politics oscillates between Democrats and Republicans, Tweedledum and Tweedledee. Though Sanders is the longest-serving independent in the history of the US Congress, on the vast majority of issues he votes alongside the Democrats; more critically, let us once again recall, he is seeking to be the Democratic Party’s nominee for the President. His supporters argue that his candidacy cannot otherwise be viable, since no one outside the two main political parties has won the White House after Zachary Taylor of the Whig Party was elected President of the US in 1848. Sanders has declared that, were he to lose the battle for the Democratic Party’s nomination for President, he will throw his weight—not merely his endorsement, but his entire organization—behind the Party’s nominee. But this is scarcely what would have been done by Eugene Debs, “Trade Unionist, Socialist, Revolutionary, 1855-1926,” whom a younger Bernie Sanders introduced for a Smithsonian Folkways audio documentary in 1979 with the following words: “It is very probable, especially if you are a young person, that you have never heard of Eugene Victor Debs. If you are the average American, who watches television forty hours a week, you have probably heard of such important people as Kojak and Wonder Woman, have heard about dozens of different underarm spray deodorants . . . Strangely enough, however, nobody has told you about Gene Debs, one of the most important Americans of the twentieth century.” Sanders go on to say that the deafening silence surrounding Debs owes everything to “the handful of people who own and control this country, including the mass media, and the educational system, [who] still regard Debs and his ideas as dangerous.”
The most apposite fact about Debs, considering Sanders’ run for the presidency, is not that America’s most principled and radical politician was the Socialist Party’s candidate for the Presidency five times, or even that Debs spent three years in prison, 1918-21, after his conviction under the Espionage Act for obstructing government recruitment efforts during World War I. “Let the capitalists do their own fighting”, Debs urged American workers, “and furnish their own corpses and there will never be another war on the face of the earth.” The most striking fact, and here Sanders is not a patch on the man he professes to admire, is that Debs was astute enough to recognize that the United States had been spectacularly successful in creating an institutionalized form of illusory democracy. The Republican and Democratic parties, “or, to be more exact, the Republican-Democratic party”, Debs told his audience in Indianapolis in September 1904 while accepting the Socialist Party’s nomination for the presidency, “are the political wings of the capitalist system and such differences as arise between them relate to spoils and not to principles. With either of those parties in power, one thing is always certain, and that is that the capitalist class is in the saddle and the working class under the saddle.” Objecting to the arrest in 1918, before his own confinement, of three socialists for their opposition to the draft, Debs tore away at the idea that the US was in any manner a democracy: “They tell us that we live in a free republic; that our institutions are democratic; that we are a free and self-governing people. This is too much, even for a joke.”.
However liberal Sanders may be in relation to his adversaries from either party, he signifies the constraints that are intrinsic to the system. Every four years the most progressive faction of the Democratic Party takes heart at the candidacy of someone who promises, if not a “new dawn”, power to the people, checks on corporate power, respect for mainstream America, opposition to an unpopular war—and the US is nearly always at war—and even the return of the country to its real roots—though what are those roots, one might ask, if not genocide and slavery? The last third party candidate with any viability at all, Ralph Nader (Green Party), one of the few figures in American political life over the decades who can speak of a sustained opposition to corporate America and an unblemished record of public service, would suffer the ignominy of being derided as a spoiler when he was held accountable for Al Gore’s narrow margin of defeat to George Bush in the 2000 Presidential election. Most often, of course, the supposed Messiah of the progressives has come from within the Democratic Party—Howard Dean in 2004 and, of course, Barack Obama in 2008. Such candidates may have the effect of energizing the activist base, always a little uneasy at the ludicrous spectacle and scandalous money-laundering machine that the US Presidential election has become, but more importantly it is now a matter of nearly spiritual faith among “progressives” to hope that American democracy is more than the dead letter of the law. Some of Sanders’ followers will be candid enough to admit that their support for him is a matter of tactics rather than principle; in common parlance, when the choice is between a hawk such as Hillary Clinton, or xenophobes like Donald Trump, not to mention other candidates who help illustrate the fifty different shades of lunacy, one has the moral obligation to vote for Sanders and prepare the way for “the real revolution”. They would do well perhaps to read a little more of Marx, such as his March 1850 address to the Communist League in London: “Even where there is no prospect whatsoever of their being elected, the workers must put up their own candidates in order to preserve their independence, to count their forces and to bring before the public their revolutionary attitude and party standpoint. In this connection they must not allow themselves to be seduced by such arguments of the democrats as, for example, that by so doing they are splitting the democratic party and making it possible for the reactionaries to win. The ultimate intention of all such phrases is to dupe the proletariat.” The “democratic party” that Marx spoke of is not, of course, the Democratic Party of the US. But what strikes one is how little has changed, and Sanders inspires, at least at present, little hope that his election would introduce any fundamental alterations in the American Republic.
(See also parts I and II)
A revised and slightly shorter version of all the three parts, put together, has been published as Bernie Sanders and the Noose of American Politics in the Economic and Political Weekly Vol 50 (24 October 2015).