The Spectre of Bernie Sanders Is Haunting the American Establishment

An attack on the Left, especially on Senator Sanders, is a not-too-subtle rejection of the politics of class and promotion of the politics of identity.

The New York Times recently endorsed Senators Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar as its preferred candidates for the Democratic nomination for the November 2020 presidential elections to take on White House GOP incumbent Donald Trump. This would appear to be a ‘blocking’ move by one of the principal voices of American centrism to prevent a socialist victory and slowdown a broader upsurge in support for socialism across the United States, including among registered Republicans.

There is also a serious suspicion that the centrist-liberal establishment would ultimately prefer a Trump second term to a Bernie Sanders presidency, despite Trump’s draconian attacks on working people, misogyny and racism, reckless militarism and attempts to place himself above law and constitution.

While the Times rejects Sanders as “too old” and “divisive”, it admits that the really compelling new ideas in Democratic politics are coming from the Left of the party. Its endorsement of Warren and Klobuchar is a pointed attempt to mobilise anti-socialist bias and close down the Leftward shift in the US that favours a full-blooded challenge to untrammelled corporate hegemony, however mild it may be considered in European or other terms.

The growing popularity of socialism

There are echoes here of the ‘Red Scare’ of 1919-21 – when the US saw the formation of dozens of labour and socialist parties, the election of hundreds of socialists to local and state office, while socialist Eugene Debs won almost a million votes in the 1920 presidential election. From President Trump on the extreme Right to the leadership of the Democratic party and its corporate media allies, the overall message is that socialism is a threat to the American way.

Yet, a large and pretty stable proportion of Americans begs to differ according to opinion surveys over the past decade:

A 2009 Rasmussen poll showed 53% of American adults thought capitalism was better than socialism, and among adults below 30 years of age 37% preferred capitalism and 33% socialism, while 30% were undecided.

A June 2015 Gallup poll found that 47% of American citizens would vote for a socialist candidate for president: 59% supported this view among Democrats, 49% among independents and, most interestingly, 26% among Republicans.

Also read: The Meme Endorsement of Bernie Sanders You Might Have Missed – and Why It Matters

Gallup 2018 found that 57% of Democratic-leaners viewed socialism positively, up from 53% in 2016. The perception of capitalism among Democratic-leaning voters has seen a decline since the 2016 presidential election, from 56% to 47%. Sixteen percent of Republican-leaning voters and 37% of American adults overall had a positive view of socialism in the 2018 poll.

A 2019 YouGov poll showed that 70% of millennials would vote for a socialist presidential candidate, and more than 30% think highly of Communism.

An attack on the Left, especially on Senator Sanders, is a not-too-subtle rejection of the politics of class and promotion of the politics of identity, a politics that leaves untouched one of the most significant sources of the legitimacy crisis that faces the American body politic – income and wealth inequality.

What Bernie Sanders represents

Sanders has made no secret that he is against the “billionaire class” and for the unity of working people, the provision of universal healthcare and the abolition of student debt. Whatever impact such a position may have were Sanders to win the election is beside the point. The sheer ideological power shift that his victory would represent would send shockwaves throughout the whole corporate parties-media-Wall Street nexus, not to mention the Pentagon and intelligence agencies. The dominant elements of the political and military establishment promote identity politics largely as a foil to and at the expense of redistributive politics.

Sanders also questions the US’s “forever wars”, military interventions along with record-breaking levels of military spending, and uncritical support for Israel. For all the talk of “political polarisation” and “partisanship” – there is almost no difference over military power between the two main parties in terms of their voting behaviour in Congress. The recent passing by Congress of the military budget – over $700 billion – also included diversion of Pentagon funds to the Mexican border wall to which the Democratic leadership has quietly dropped opposition. Another $7 billion (on top of $11 billion already diverted) therefore is headed to the southern border to boost ‘security’ against hapless refugees from criminal violence, poverty and state repression in Central America.

Also read: The Corporate Media’s War Against Bernie Sanders Is Very Real

In their bid to explain their defeat in 2016, and contain the more unreliable and challenging aspects of the Trump presidency, the Democratic leadership has thrown in its lot with the military top brass, the CIA and other intelligence services. Even its attempts to impeach and remove President Trump depend on aggressive warmongers like the neoconservative former national security adviser, John Bolton.

The love affair of centrist-liberals with identity politics (race and gender in particular) – including the Times and other major news outlets close to the Democratic leadership – has long been its staple and main claim to ‘progressivism’. They have championed, for example, the claim that practically any accusation of sexual harassment by a woman against a man is to be believed per se. The very idea that an accusation is in and of itself sufficient for a conviction violates the most basic norms of legal due process and the right to a fair trial based on evidence, rather than by accusation and conviction by media. None of this is to excuse at any level the rights of women to the full protection of the law from any kind of discrimination, harassment and violence. But the corrosion of due process, a key constitutional protection, is the road to arbitrary justice and undemocratic rule.

The New York Times’ recently-initiated campaign to place the struggles of the races, principally white supremacists, as the core driver of American history, ignoring white workers’ struggles against corporate power, let alone wholly class-based cross-racial movements like populism in the 1890s, is another example of the same agenda. The 1619 project has been roundly condemned by historians of the United States as burying the role of class, in particular.

In response to stinging criticisms by academic historians, including failure to consult with any leading figures in the field such as Clayborn Carson of Stanford University, the Times has responded with nothing more than defensive denial of any wrongdoing. While conspicuously celebrating Martin Luther King Day recently, the Times chose to forget what King stated at the end of the marches from Selma to Montgomery in 1965: “And as the noted historian, C. Vann Woodward…clearly points out, the segregation of the races was really a political stratagem employed by the emerging Bourbon interests in the South to keep the southern masses divided and southern labor the cheapest in the land.”

Former Vice President Joe Biden waves from among the seven Democratic presidential candidates, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Senator Elizabeth Warren, Senator Bernie Sanders, Senator Amy Klobuchar and billionaire activist Tom Steyer, onstage during the sixth 2020 U.S. Democratic presidential candidates campaign debate at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, California, U.S., December 19, 2019. Photo: Reuters/Kyle Grillot

Sanders has recently become the focus of a specific case of guilt by innuendo and accusation, adding to the longer-running claim that he is biased against women, that he runs a “Bernie Bros” campaign style and team. It has been taken for granted by news reporters and columnists that Sanders reportedly told Elizabeth Warren, at a private dinner where they were the only people in the room (as confirmed by the Times), that Sanders did not believe a woman could win the presidency of the United States.

Despite repeated denials by Sanders, whose consistency of support for women’s rights goes back several decades, CNN and other outlets effectively acted as if Warren’s claim were true by definition. The spat was recorded by CNN during and after an election debate, and then amplified by an article on their website. That piece claimed that, “After publication of this story, Warren herself backed up this account of the meeting, saying in part in a statement Monday, ‘I thought a woman could win; he disagreed.’” There is something rather absurd in reporting as credible that Warren backed up Warren’s own account of the conversation!

Times columnist David Brooks rejects Sanders’s contention of the significance of class inequality, let alone of “class war”. There is no rigged economy, no rigged political system and no problem of inequality, he claims. According to Brooks, there is no truth to the view that “Capitalism is a system of exploitation in which capitalist power completely dominates worker power.” Brooks has clearly missed the myriad reports from the US Census Bureau, World Economic Forum, Oxfam, Washington Post and CNN, not to mention the Times. But when it comes to the election…

Also read: How Bernie Helped Spark the Teachers’ Revolt

Hillary Clinton has also thrown her weight behind the anti-Sanders strategy: “It’s his leadership team. It’s his prominent supporters. It’s his online Bernie Bros and their relentless attacks on lots of his competitors, particularly the women…[and Sanders] seems to really be very much supporting it.” The candidate who was exposed as the voice of Wall Street in 2016, and for collaborating with the DNC in sabotaging the Sanders run in 2016, as revealed by Wikileaks and the-then DNC chair, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, has merely continued her war on Sanders.

What was noted as a small beginning in January 2019 has become a major political effort to undermine and ultimately block the Sanders campaign as the party heads into the primaries in Iowa and New Hampshire, with Sanders pulling ahead of the pack.

It all indicates a continued long-term move to the political Right in American elite politics, including in the Democratic party’s love affair with the CIA, military and the FBI, and a further separation between the establishment and the electorate.

The Democratic leadership and its media allies are aiming to contain political discourse and election debate within the narrowest of boundaries, to return it to what they still believe is a golden age ‘normalcy’, to bury the ‘nightmare’ of 2016. The American political establishment wants to prevent, by any means necessary, the birth of a new political order that more accurately reflects broadly popular aspirations. That the establishment’s main parties leading factions fail to provide a way forward for ordinary people to deal with growing economic and financial hardship suggests that authoritarian forms of rule are not favoured by Trump alone.

US elite politics as a whole is moving further to the authoritarian Right as the electorate, especially millennials, as well as an important segment of Republicans, move further to the Left, and strikes and mass protests continue to erupt.

Inderjeet Parmar is professor of international politics at City, University of London, a visiting professor at LSE IDEAS (the LSE’s foreign policy think tank), and visiting fellow at the Rothermere American Institute at the University of Oxford. He is a columnist at The Wire.