Bernie Sanders is a cruise-missile progressive: False hope, foreign policy and the stubborn endurance of American exceptionalism

Sanders would do nothing to change America's worldwide meddling. This is a dangerous moment, and he's ducking it

Published November 13, 2015 12:00AM (EST)

  (Reuters/Mark Kauzlarich)
(Reuters/Mark Kauzlarich)

Whatever happened to Bernie Sanders?

It is always preferable to be first in my trade, but this is not why I pose so loaded a question. Neither am I into political predictions. If called upon in this case I would make one: The senator from Vermont is not going to be our 45th president. Forecasting this has lately become like shooting at the side of a barn, in my view, but this is not my point, either.

It is time we think anew and very hard about Sanders, for there are two of them before us now. There is “Bernie Sanders” the progressive fixer of all that ails us, the broom who will set America on a positive course, the savior of all those hopes that are near to dying within us. This Bernie Sanders requires quotation marks.

And there is Bernie Sanders plain and simple, just as he is. This is the working-class Brooklyn boy who migrated to Vermont in 1968, that totemic year in the counterculture scene, and who went on to the mayor’s office in Burlington and then multiple terms in both houses of Congress. Given Sanders’ political tilt, this is an impressive record of survival in a two-party system.

At the University of Chicago Sanders had joined the Young People’s Socialist League, which was founded in 1907, the Debs era, on the thought that the ballot box was the key to our great republic’s transformation into something it was always supposed to be but never quite was. A socialist Sanders has ever since professed to be, roughly in the Michael Harrington mold.

These are two different people with a shared fate, it is important to understand. “Bernie Sanders” lives solely in some people’s minds—many, by the extraordinary opinion poll numbers coming in week after week. I am beginning to find this sad. The thought that “Bernie Sanders” as president could effect anything like the fundamental change in direction “Sandernistas” seem to expect is sheer angélisme, as the French say. In politics as in love, to sustain false hope is exceeding cruel.

As to Bernie Sanders sans quotation marks, we are required to keep our eyes very wide open, no blinking. Put this man in the context of American political history and he is not merely in danger of co-optation by the forces that control this nation: He awaits his chance to sign up for it. Bernie Sanders, socialist? It is hard to type while laughing. This real Sanders is merely an imaginative variant on the vote-the-lesser-evil mode in American politics, so sadly familiar to all of us.

Never mind “Feel the Bern,” if you are behind this guy. The slogan that awaits you is “Feel the Burn.”

* * *

I have for some months looked favorably on numerous aspects of the Sanders campaign. He and his people may or may not have thought this through, but his use of plain language and honest vocabulary marks an important advance in our political culture. He may be no more than a right-wing social democrat by any worldly standard, but we are talking about socialism in America for the first time in seven or eight decades. He has made it possible to discuss such things as universal healthcare—I have always considered “single-payer system” a ridiculous dodge—and corporate thievery. Goodness, we can now converse even about “working people.” In time we might get to “working class.”

“He has at least temporarily liberated Democratic Party liberals from the silence imposed upon them by party leaders for decades,” a commentator named Brian Becker wrote in a political newsletter  that periodically arrives in my inbox. Again, this stands to deliver consequences quite beyond the Sanders campaign. Free university tuition, a decent minimum wage, a broad shift from deregulation to reregulation: These are sound positions; Sanders has put them on the table.

I started to reconsider Sanders while watching one of his television interviews some weeks ago. “Inequality… inequality… inequality”—he reverted to this theme a few too many times, driving home a point he surely did not intend to convey: Sanders is an “issue politician,” as they say. But he is not a political mind, well- or mal-intended. Or if he has one he keeps it thoroughly in check. On either side of the aisle, to harp on a single issue is another way of refusing to engage others just as vital.

To put the point another way, Sanders has no holistic take as to the American predicament—top-to-bottom cause and effect—or, if he understands the crisis we find ourselves in, he declines to say so. (Given his evident political sophistication, I incline to the latter explanation.) He is not willing to look squarely at, or tell us, where we stand in the second decade of the 21st century. We live in a daunting moment, admittedly. Too bad for us, maybe. But if you are going to traffic in the aspirations, hopes and dreams Sanders likes to reference, you have to begin with an honest appraisal of our circumstances.

This is the essence of the Sanders problem: He insists on flinching from anything close to such an appraisal. All in, this is a disqualifier, in my view. “Bernie Sanders” is nothing more than vapor. Bernie Sanders is a string of promises waiting to be broken. Neither is ever going to do anything for those who support him.

Readers will be familiar with my views as to where we stand. We are an empire and the empire is crumbling. We are in the late-exceptionalist phase all people whose ideologies define them as chosen must eventually pass through. This imposes a very big burden. In our time one must stand outside the tent and urinate in. This is how things that need to get done will get done. It is our bitter reality. Everyone knows the Dylan line: “To live outside the law you must be honest.” This is not an easy thing to do, as anyone who does so can tell you. Sanders is simply among the many who do not want to face this and break the molds we must break.

* * *

I do not think this is anywhere more evident than in Sanders’ thoughts, such as one can make them out, on America’s conduct abroad. My strong impression is that the Sanders campaign has little interest and no depth on the foreign policy side. I have heard this from several people close to the senator and his campaign. I conclude that the Sanders foreign policy is at bottom a collection of go-along, get-along default positions, safety being the prized value.

(In the way of transparency, my brief effort, just after he announced his candidacy, to begin a conversation with his campaign on foreign policy questions yielded perfect indifference. Blessing in disguise, I now conclude, having heard him articulate a few positions and having learned that what foreign policy advisers he has include former staff at AIPAC, the Israeli lobby in Washington.)

As we have it the policy includes, among a few other things, 1) support for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, including President Obama’s recent decision to maintain a troop presence; 2) blank-check support of Israel, including its savage bombing campaign in Gaza last year; 3) a freshly articulated commitment to Obama’s illegal use of drones, with faintly expressed regrets that they claim the lives of so many innocent civilians; 4) full-on enthusiasm for our ruinous military spending, especially when it sends jobs Vermont’s way—witness his fight to get the latest F-35 fighter jet based at Burlington Air Base.

You get the picture. Sanders is a cruise-missile progressive, to borrow a friend’s pithy phrase. He is all for our dangerous, intentionally provoked confrontation with Russia in the name of NATO expansion. Let the “war on terror” proceed just as it has since Bush II declared it. Given Sanders has so far said nothing conclusive about the Syria crisis—the most pressing foreign policy question of the year—you have to assume he waits to see which way the wind blows.

The other week an interviewer on another television program asked Sanders if he thought America was an exceptional nation. The question is key, of course. But Sanders flinched. After stumbling for half a minute he replied that of course he did: His father arrived in America “without a dime in his pocket,” and look how far the son has come.

A straight shuck. Sanders deflected the question, which concerned America’s claim to primacy and unchallenged prerogative abroad.

To me this is a decisive question. As a political calculation in an election year I may be wrong, but I do not see how one cannot partake of a political process so corrupt that we must send to high office anyone unwilling to address the essential questions: exceptionalism, hegemony, empire.

Credit where due. Jeffrey St. Clair and Joshua Frank, respectively, editor and managing editor at CounterPunch, have been blasting Sanders on the foreign policy side for months. Two recent zingers, both straight to the point, are here and here. It is this kind of work that has shoved me toward the conclusions you are now reading about.

“His is a disgusting record,” Frank writes bluntly in the second of the pieces linked above. “Want to change in the U.S.’s meddling in the Middle East? Bernie isn’t your guy. Bernie doesn’t oppose U.S. power, nor does his campaign do a single thing to build independent politics in the country, perhaps the last chance to salvage any democracy we may have left.”

Frank makes two essential connections in this passage.

One, any thought that our conduct abroad is somehow unrelated to the way we live, an adjunct of the domestic policy platform, is preposterous. It is nothing of the kind. In the end, foreign policy and domestic policy are one. What is at issue abroad, the motor of all policies, is the extension of the neoliberal economic model. It is precisely the same that is at issue at home.

Ask yourself: Who shapes American foreign policy and whose interests are served by it? How, then, can Bernie Sanders continue to advance policies serving political cliques and corporations while fundamentally altering relations of power at home? Answer: It is a logical impossibility. Not even worth arguing about. If you need any further persuasion, think about what Hillary Clinton stands for, why, and where she gets her money.

Two, Sanders’ decision to abandon his political stance as an independent and run as a Democratic candidate was fateful. It tells you all you need to know as to where he wants to be in relation to the tent, inside or outside. The “socialist” bit goes down like a stick of butter when this politician gets even a glimpse of the brass ring.

“He’s a Cold War liberal lost in a post-Cold War world,” Jeff St. Clair wrote in the first column linked above. It is an astute description with several implications worth thinking about, but if we go back further in history we learn even more about this man. I am thinking of the 1820s, believe it or not.

In 1819, our republic all of three decades old, Americans suffered the first severe economic and financial crisis in the nation’s brief existence. The Panic of 1819, as these events are named in the history books, exposed Americans for the first time to a few things we may find familiar: the boom and bust of capitalism, mass impoverishment and persistent inequality, banks with too much power, rampant speculation, unchecked power and corruption in Washington in behalf of said banks and speculators—and most of all an assault on all values other than market values.

The 1820s, in consequence, amounted to a decade-long convulsion. The funny thing is, while one could change “1819” to “2008” in the above description without altering much else, most of us would find Americans of this time utter strangers. Radical politics, militant farmer-labor movements, class consciousness and charged rhetoric were all part of the scene—as American as the Declaration, which was, of course, among the principal inspiration.

What happened? How did we get from then to now?

Well, Jackson was elected in 1828—an Indian killer, yes, but a fighter of the good fight against the “moneyed interests.” But before then, something else: Jackson’s rise and the political irruptions long-earlier evident led people into what is now too familiar: a two-party system wherein party identification was supposed to express political preference but ended up fixing the parameters of political discourse. It was in 1824 that Jeffersonian Republicans began to call themselves Democrats.

From this flowed one other thing worth noting. As paper-money elites in Eastern cities fretted over the politically rambunctious masses spread across the 22 states, it was expedient to adopt their rhetoric and pledge allegiance to their demands. This was done by way of a new technique in American politics, the co-opting of popular leaders.

More or less ever since the 1820s, Americans have lived in a sort of ideologically defined corridor: We are all members of the well-wishing middle class: This is a de rigueur article of faith. Democratic capitalism as it emerged during this time, with the market at the center of life, is the only way to go. Whatever may be wrong or out of whack in our Providential (and therefore perfect) land, it is nothing that one or the other of our two parties cannot repair with a few adjustments around the edges. Anyone who does not accept these things is—no other word for it—anti-American.

Bernie Sanders, to put the point another way, has ancestors going back 190 years. Are you ready yet to feel the burn?

Footnote: Doozy of the week comes from John Kirby, the State Department spokesman. In response to The AP’s ever-persistent Mike Lee, he insisted that—I can hardly write this—Russia is on NATO’s doorstep. Yes, Russian troops within their borders are a threat to NATO—which knows none, of course. Watch this surreal video here. As you do, ask yourself: As the decorated admiral speaks for State, can the Pentagon’s long intrusion into American foreign policy be any more plainly displayed? What would “President Sanders” have to say about this very fundamental problem in the policy process and how we see and portray the world? By the evidence, as much as candidate Sanders: nothing.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is

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