We are all just this screwed: Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton and our muddled, perverted democracy

Hillary will be the nominee this fall. Time to examine what Bernie achieved and how it might go different next time

Published May 1, 2016 9:58AM (EDT)

Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders   (Reuters/Brian Snyder/AP/Keith Srakocic/Photo montage by Salon)
Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders (Reuters/Brian Snyder/AP/Keith Srakocic/Photo montage by Salon)

The consensus is not complete, but it will be soon enough. Bernie Sanders is not going to make it, as some of us forecast many months ago (and as a lot of Hillary Clinton supporters, having pitifully diminished aspirations, assumed from the first). The dream now being all but definitively over, we must look to the post-Sanders period in this political season. What did he get done, what mark does he leave and where lie his failures? In all cases, why have things turned out as they have?

For my money (if not my vote), Sanders has made two of the most consequential decisions of any presidential aspirant now out on the hustings. One was choosing to run as a Democrat even though he has stood outside the party since his student days as a Harringtonian democratic socialist in Chicago. The other was his judgment—apparently more considered than Sanders and his people have let on—to opt out of the disgraceful ritual wherein all political figures striving for high office must touch their foreheads to the floor at the American Israel Public Affairs Committee.

One at a time.


Why did Sanders throw in with the Democratic Party when he decided to reach for the Oval Office? What was the point of sitting in Congress as an independent all those years if, when he looks up at the dangling brass ring, Sanders associates himself with a party that has step-by-step abandoned working-class interests from the mid-1960s onward? Amanda Marcotte, one of Salon’s political writers, posed these questions last week. They are good ones. There is a not-so-simple twist of fate buried in them.

Good questions are good, however, often because they are not so easy to answer.

On one hand, the tale of the Democratic Party’s “realignment,” filled as it is with mistakes and misjudgments, simply has to be plain to someone of Sanders’ political sophistication. Jacbobin, which has made itself must reading in a matter of a few years, recently published Paul Heideman’s superb account, to be found here, of the Democrats’ transformation from New Dealers into what we see before us: a party of professionals, technocratic elites and NPR-addicted suburban liberals who have no habit of thinking for themselves and whose interest in labor or any kind of properly left agenda is more or less zero.

There sits Sanders. Since announcing his candidacy last year he has walked among people even more cynical than the Republicans, in my view, given that they survive by surfing atop an honest political tradition and devouring the straight-ahead aspirations of most—so we would find if we had a credible political process and a principled press—working Americans.

It is hard to figure, for on the other hand Sanders arrived as a presidential aspirant with a domestic agenda vastly more worthwhile than anything put before American voters since Roosevelt’s day. This he should have advanced from within his own tradition as an independent, as some people understood from the first. Sanders’ departure from his own achievement is where the fateful part lies.

He was wrong to run as a Democrat in any number of dimensions. One, Sanders’ positions are wholly at odds with the interests of the thoroughly realigned party leadership, now known as “New Democrats.” Nobody is going to pry these people away from the reigning party orthodoxy, which is neoliberal and imperial. Two, Sanders had already planted the “independent” flag in the Senate, making him a third-party legislator who is missing only a party.

Last but most of all, there is the question of the mark left behind. As of this week even the Sanders camp, in a tacit acknowledgement of defeat, is talking about the impact the Vermont senator wants to exert on Clinton’s platform as it is shaped at the party’s nominating convention. The ambition seems correct but misplaced. It has long been understood that an important aspect of the Sanders campaign, win or lose, is his brave willingness to change the very language of American politics and shift the conversation leftward. Two problems, however.

One, how long does anyone seriously think Hillary Clinton will continue calling herself “progressive” once the Sanders threat is out of the way? At the latest she will revert to type the morning after she secures the election in November. Two, how much greater would the Sanders legacy have been had he left behind a third-party apparatus with a formidable ability to raise funds outside the patronage system and speak directly about the dysfunction endemic in our political process?

There are at least two ways, maybe more, to understand the Sanders-as-Democrat phenom. One reflects badly on Sanders and the other badly on the rest of us. They both have to do with his judgment as to what time it is in our great nation.

It could be that Sanders thinks—against much evidence, I would say—that the American political system as now constituted is capable of self-correction: Stay within the established frame and anything can be done in the providential land of the free. Anyone who continues to make this civics-class assumption after the Supreme Court’s theft of the 2000 election or, at the latest, the Citizens United decision a decade later spent too much time in the Scout troop.

One of the questions the Sanders campaign just has to raise among right-thinking people is what now amounts to a weird allegiance among us to elections as guarantors of justice. Maybe once upon a time but not in ours. In the ocean of reading that washes across my desk daily, somebody recently wondered whatever happened to the street. Good question. How can we frankly accept that the political process has been effectively taken away from us and at the same time act as if elections are the only avenue open as we try to get things done?

Politics in America has been turned into spectacle over the past four decades—a ritual reenactment serving to legitimize power as it is now distributed. There is very little more to it. This is a recognition of considerable magnitude. Given our near to total immersion in the illusions presented by the spectacular, it is difficult to hold on to this recognition, but we must. Then we must ask what responsibilities this reality places upon us.

Bernie Sanders had no intention of facing us with this question, surely. But he has.

These are some of the things the Sanders attempt requires us to ask as his campaign goes gracefully down. An old, politically seasoned friend wrote at the start of the year, “We need the 1960s on steroids.” In my read it will eventually come to this. In this connection, Sanders may have revealed over the past year a faith in elections long typical of Michael Harrington and the rest of the “D-Sock” crowd but emphatically out of date now. If this faith drove democratic socialist Sanders to run as a Democrat, he got it dead wrong.

The other way to consider Sanders-as-Democrat is to ask whether a serious judgment lies behind it. Maybe Sanders’ earnestness as a political figure—a desire to win by any means—led him to conclude that the American environment will not, as of now, sustain a party formation outside the system structured in the mid-19th century precisely to circumscribe popular political discourse. He had no choice but to pose as a Democrat, then.

Only Sanders and his confidants can shed light, but here is the bitter truth in this line of inquiry. If Bernie Sanders concluded that even his many millions of lively constituents are not ready to support a third party that stands for their interests, he is right. Had he better understood what time it is, he would have seen that his task was to lay the first stone and think of the future. This is Sanders’ error, but it is not his problem. That is ours.

We Americans are not there yet, are we? We do not have the political infrastructure, do we? We have not done the work, have we?

Hold the thought, please. I will return to it.


When the Sanders campaign announced in March that he would not address Aipac’s annual convention, just as all other candidates lined up to do so like schoolchildren waiting for lunch, the senator explained in a letter to the lobby that “the campaign schedule that we had prevents me from attending.” As an East European émigré I knew long ago used to say, “Gimme break.” Hardly was this the story. Salon’s Ben Norton, and so far as I know Salon’s Ben Norton alone, got the story. It is here. The story was that Sanders had nothing to say to the Israelis via their corrupting American outpost and wanted nothing from them or it.

I suppose it would have been even better had Sanders gone to the conference and spoken forthrightly of apartheid Israel’s treatment of Palestinians. But silence and a snub are good enough for now. On Monday Sanders made his point a little clearer still. As Reuters reported in an exclusive to be found here, Sanders declined to join nearly the entire Senate in signing a letter urging President Obama to increase military aid to Israel by up to 50 percent from its current $3 billion yearly.

I rank these the most interesting moves any candidate has made in the course of this political season. The stance is principled in two dimensions.

One, no senator or representative has any business addressing an organization that fronts for a foreign power and exists to corrupt the American political process, while mau-mauing any public figure who even daydreams of a rational conversation about the Israel-Palestine question. Whether or not we like to think about it, Americans are political captives of the Israelis, and a presidential candidate finally signaled his objection.

Two, Sanders inched a serious discussion of U.S. policies in the Middle East, which a significant proportion of us are extremely eager to have, a little closer to the surface. Apart from the freakish Russophobia cultivated among us by those benefiting from it, it is hard to think of anything more worth addressing on the foreign policy side.

As a matter of context, this column has been critical of Sanders’s shortcomings in the foreign policy sphere on several occasions. For one thing, he has too little to say. Most of the time he advances safely orthodox Democratic views—Clintonism, in essence—and always as if he wants to change the subject. He is less obsessive-compulsive on the Russians than the rest of Washington but just as wrong. He thinks the Saudis and Turks must do more to defeat the Islamic State even as both are hopelessly compromised. I cannot imagine what he thinks—and I suspect not much of any complexity—on questions such as China, strained ties with Europe, the outdated security treaty with Japan, the regime change program in Venezuela and so on.

A second point concerns Sanders’ apparent unwillingness—it cannot be an inability—to connect foreign policy to the domestic platform. When the Pentagon accounts for nearly 60 percent of discretionary spending, and when it and the national security apparatus run foreign policy, and when foreign policy is conducted in the interest of corporations in search of global market dominance, failing to urge voters to understand that domestic aspirations cannot be realized without a radically renovated foreign policy is a failure of some magnitude.

Against this we glimpse the senator’s interesting stand on Israel and Palestine. It is cautious, a murmur more than a shout, and he is certainly not flinging variants of “political revolution” around in taking up the Middle East or any American policy abroad. But he has done his part to lift the very heavy lid. And it is to be noted that he did not get Aipac’s customarily damning censure when, post-Aipac convention earlier this month, he called for a “more balanced” American policy and invoked the “dignity and respect” Palestinians deserve. In years past, any American pol who asserted, “You can’t just be concerned only about Israel’s needs” might well have found himself in the political tundra.

What can we conclude about Sanders on the foreign policy side? The answer to this question is a variant of the above observation concerning our political limitations at home.

Much as I favor Sanders as the gutsiest, pithiest presidential candidate to come along in many election cycles, I do not withdraw my objections. In the foreign policy sphere what we have in him is another case of underdevelopment. Once again, we are not ready to advance a full-dress alternative foreign policy, are we? Where is the intellectual infrastructure? Where are the position papers on all of the above-noted topics and many others? Why isn’t Sanders’ attaché case stuffed with them?

Note, one cannot say in this case that no one is doing the work. There are plenty of people—well, some—who are developing new thinking on American conduct abroad. Some of this work is exceptional, a building out to another kind of future. While many of us complain about the rain, as Ray McGovern, the principled ex-spook, would say, a few people are building arks.

But how many of us are tuned in and listening? How many of us get beyond complaints about the rain? Who among us forces new, bluntly unorthodox thinking into the conversation? As things stand, one can have all the excellent ideas for policy renovation one wants, but there is no one standing behind them. Once again, this problem is not specific to Sanders. His performance in the foreign policy space is but a symptom. It is our problem, everyone’s.

And we must face, post-Sanders, our bigger problem—the one that makes Bernie Sanders’ fate ours, too: We can see more clearly now what an immense amount needs to get done if America is to fix itself, but we are not ready, in 2016, to get much of it done. We have not equipped ourselves. Too much of the hard work has too long been neglected, and as the election in November will confirm, this leaves us spectators at the spectacle. This is Bernie Sanders’ bitterest lesson—even if he had no intention of teaching it.

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 patricklawrence.us.

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