Expect to hear an uptilt in praise for the Bernie Sanders campaign in the coming weeks from the liberal commentariat in the build-up to the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia. The Sanders campaign has elicited remarkable terror and concern trolling from liberals who like progressive ideas in theory but evidently not in practice. In order to beat back his advance it has been necessary to red-bait, invent the ‘BernieBro’, call in some favours from New York Times editors, pardon the banks for their role in the GFC and stalk the elusive creature that is the Hillary socialist. But with his eventual defeat, all of the spectacular fails of the party and punditry can be forgiven in the ritual rebirth through the primary process. My God, how liberals love process. As a loser, Sanders can be a liberal hero, a testament to big-tent neoliberalism as the party consumes his eccentric youthful wing. ‘See, the system works!’
All of this hinges on the fate of Bernie’s database. In case you have not been following the election closely, Sanders has achieved something astonishing. The secular Jewish socialist has rejected lobbyist contributions and does not have a super-PAC on principle, instead amassing a database and fundraising juggernaut of six million individual contributors. They continue to organise, contribute, win primaries and turn out for massive rallies in the face of derision by their own generation’s liberal curmudgeons. The Democrats will turn Sanders into a wistful progressive touchstone in the vein of George McGovern, Eugene McCarthy or Howard Dean if he simply hands over to the DNC the ATM card which is his email list. The pressure on Sanders to yield will be immense, but to do so would be a betrayal of the movement and a return to the electoral brokerage politics that simply entrenches the elites he has run against.
While there will be rhetoric of party healing and unity, there is very little to indicate that Bernie’s supporters will gain anything from Hillary. The early framing of Sanders by the mainstream media was of a quixotic foil necessary to nudge Hillary leftward (see Sanders’ interview with Katie Couric). However as Sanders emerged as a credible threat, the opposite was true. On core positions such as the expansion of social security and Medicare, single-payer healthcare, a $15 minimum wage, and free state-college tuition, Clinton has remained staunchly neoliberal. She has offered herself as an idealist for gradualism, what Ezra Klein calls ‘the audacity of political realism’ (surely they taught him in J-school to avoid oxymorons?), inspiring only the powerbrokers and even drawing the ire of Joe Biden. In foreign policy, Clinton remains as hawkish as ever, defending the Libyan catastrophe and calling for a no-fly zone in Syria, presumably putting America on course for war with Russia. In terms of campaign decorum, Clinton has accused Sanders as being in league with the Koch brothers, border vigilantes, the Vermont gun-running cartel and the Sandinistas. Sanders’ consistent messaging on Wall Street, lobbyists and establishment politics has been labelled McCarthyism and negative campaigning; meanwhile David Brock has set up a troll farm that coordinates directly with the Clinton campaign. Hillary herself is defiant at the notion that she owes Sanders’ supporters anything, while her confidantes in the party claim that she couldn’t possibly move any further to the left.
The liberal establishment and the party’s antipathy for Sanders is not simply a product of ‘Her Turn-ism’ but the sense that he is an impostor. For party loyalists, his decision to run as a democrat after a career as a left-wing independent is akin to a palace coup attempt aimed at destroying the party simply in the interests of Sanders’ own ego. Clinton herself has stated that she is unsure whether he is a Democrat or not and 170 members of Congress have endorsed her to Sanders’ 10. As a Marxist I find this party discipline admirable, but it is strange to see such loyalty for an institution that stands for so little and recoils at the notion of youth-led social democracy. The outrage of party loyalists is particularly empty when you consider that the two-party system is essentially entrenched by the state. This is where the state-by-state asymmetries in the primary process is particularly galling, with closed primaries, early registration rules, voter irregularities and the mishandling of party roles. Clinton supporters have pointed to her fundraising for other Democrats through the ‘Hillary Victory Fund’ as proof positive of her concrete movement-building, as opposed to Sanders’ self-serving candidacy. However, it was revealed this week by Politico that the fund and the DNC have funnelled 99 per cent of this cash back to Clinton as an elaborate money-laundering scheme, allowing big donors to bypass contribution limits. At this stage, it is really difficult to think of the Democrats as a party of principle so much as a vehicle for the agents of liberal oligarchs.
Yet in spite of the DNC’s attempts to run a smooth coronation process, the Sanders campaign remains a credible challenge, radically undermining Clinton’s electability argument with far superior head-to-head polling against the Republicans. While Sanders is certainly a reluctant Democrat, he has offered the party a credible electoral path forward in energising youth and appealing to blue-collar independents and Republicans. One might assume that Bernie’s inroads with white working-class voters, who for the past generation have been voting for culture wars as opposed to economic self-interest, would be seen as a huge achievement. Yet in the confluence of neoliberalism and vulgar intersectionalism, Bernie’s universalist politics are deeply offensive to elite liberals. Joan Walsh of The Nation offered the bizarre assessment that Bernie’s white working-class rapprochement is racist because Hillary attempted to mobilise white resentment against Obama in 2008.
With very few exceptions, the party is just not into Bernie Sanders. Elizabeth Warren, who has been a fantasy figure for Bernie supporters as a torch recipient for the movement, has sat this primary out, not wanting to risk her place within the party. There are no signs that the ‘Sanders Democrat’ will emerge as a serious force within the party. Bernie has achieved a remarkable thing in demonstrating the potential of movements and the limits of the Democratic Party, liberalism and the two-party system. The system and process that liberals love above all else is about to stand the two most unpopular candidates in modern US political history. Our disappointment should be instructive and an opening to something else.
Bernie’s database is no silver bullet. It is coveted by the DNC because of the way in which it can slot into the party infrastructure of email blasts and fundraising. There has been a lot of money raised by stoking a sense of impending fascism in America without building lasting solidarities or clarifying what progressivism stands for aside from these acts of resistance. It is this kind of politics that produces lesser-evilism and finds #Bernieorbust unconscionable. Despite what you might have heard in a TED talk, data itself is not an answer to political problems. There is serious organisational and ideological work to be done.
Perhaps the left is ready to learn that presidential campaigns are not movements in and of themselves and, despite some of Bernie’s more sanguine rhetoric, that revolution does not occur at the ballot box. Bernie’s database might be a tool for creating a left culture that overcomes a reactive sense of being besieged. Whether this leads to a new labour party, a ‘Social Democracy for America’ PAC, or a coalition of the Greens, Sanders Democrats and independents remains to be seen. There is a very real chance that network-centrism takes hold and this political energy devolves into an Occupy-style horizontalism. The key here is the concept of socialism, which is still an empty signifier at this stage. What is crucial about Bernie’s invocation of socialism is that it acknowledges what the late Ernesto Laclau called the ontological necessity of antagonism.
Our political problems are not problems of communication, or what Clinton might say is the lack of a national conversation, but of bitter struggle and the necessity to defeat an enemy. What began with modest social-democratic demands for a decent society has destabilised the poles of American political life and allows us to imagine a left no longer held hostage by elite liberal blackmail.