Sanders’ Promises and Problems

Apr 13, 2016
10:51 AM
Bernie Sanders, Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

Bernie Sanders, Vermont senator and Democratic presidential candidate (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

As the Democratic presidential primary carries on, it has turned into a legitimate debate. Hillary Clinton was the presumed nominee and was supposed to win with little competition. She has lost eight of the last nine primaries across the nation. Only a few weeks ago, she was trying to turn her attention to the general election and the larger electorate. Bernie Sanders began his presidential run as a long shot. Many political commentators, strategists, and key players thought that Sanders, an avowed independent who called himself a democratic socialist, had no chance of garnering significant support from the American electorate. They were wrong. Clinton and Sanders have had to engage in a lively discussion of policies, worldviews, and solutions. This primary season has challenged American liberalism in a way that it hasn’t been in many decades. The leftward shift has promised the reemergence of the crucial left-liberal alliance that composed the Popular Front during the Great Depression and made much of the New Deal possible. But, as the tone of this primary turns, it will also challenge this nascent left-liberal alliance, possibly destroying it before it can begin.

There are serious flaws with Clintonian neoliberalism. The slate of policies and postures that Democrats had to take to win office in the post-Reagan era wrought devastation among minority communities throughout the ’90s and early 2000s. Michelle Alexander and Hector Luis Alamo have done excellent jobs in pointing those out. The creation of both the prison state and deportation state began with reforms made under the Bill Clinton administration, policies which were publicly supported by then First Lady Hillary Clinton. In the subsequent two decades, the prison state and deportation state have become inextricably intertwined — the money, economic influence, and racialization of communities are connected. However, there are equally problematic flaws with Sanders’ paleoliberalism.

Yes, Sanders is a liberal, not a socialist. He fits into an American political tradition, not a Scandinavian one. Sanders has admitted as much. On November 19, 2015, in what was one of the most anticipated speeches of his career, Sanders was set to define what he meant by democratic socialism to a young audience at Georgetown University.  American Socialist Party leader and four-time Socialist Party presidential candidate, Eugene Debs, once described why he was a socialist: “I am for socialism because I am for humanity.” Debs organized the 1894 Pullman Strike, one of the largest strikes in U.S. history, before it was put down by the federal government. His experience led him to the conclusion that capitalism could not be reformed. Instead of Debs, or a myriad of other American socialists, Sanders opened his speech with a quote from President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s second inaugural.

Sanders’ use of Roosevelt to define his socialism was telling because Roosevelt was not a socialist and the New Deal was not socialism. Roosevelt believed in the productive powers and moral strength of capitalism. There was no better force available at the time. Yet capitalism had faltered and failed. In his second inaugural, Roosevelt’s language followed the U.S. peoples’ political inclinations leftward. In his first inaugural in 1932, the president had declared the most pressing problem confronting the nation was “fear itself.” By 1936, it was economic inequality and the “economic royalists.” Roosevelt was unwilling to destroy the profit system, but did want to reform the free-market system. Roosevelt and New Deal liberals believed that if left unchecked, capitalism tended to inequality. Therefore, it was the government’s role to encourage not only a benign industrial capitalism but promote a benevolent and beneficial one. This was the crux of statist liberalism: government could be a force for good and for social change. Norman Thomas, the leader of the Socialist Party after Debs and six-time Socialist Party presidential nominee, criticized Rooseveltian statist liberalism in 1936. The Presbyterian pastor turned socialist explained that the New Deal was “an experimental attempt at reformed capitalism — that is a degree of government ownership and a much greater degree of government regulation of economic enterprises for the sake of bolstering up the profit system.”

The New Deal saved capitalism, but it was pushed there by the left. Roosevelt made much of the demands of the 1928 Socialist Party platform actual policy, making them palatable in American politics through reforming capitalism to protect people but not removing profit. Sanders is not a socialist either. He is a mid-20th-century liberal. He doesn’t think that capitalism is a morally reprehensible corrupt system that needs destroying. He believes it is a productive system that needs reforming. He believes that free-market capitalism does not produce freer people, but instead tends to inequality. Government can address these problems. Government can check economic inequality for the benefit of society; private profit should not be the sole benchmark of social benefit. That puts him wholly in the progressive political tradition that emerged after the Great Depression and continued to grow into the middle of the 20th century. His limited radicalism is born of the New Left of the 1960s and ‘70s, which brought important critiques of imperial American foreign policy and racist domestic policies. During this time the government had gotten it wrong, but it still had to power to fix it.

Ta-Nehisi Coates of the Atlantic has pointed some of the problems of the mid-20th-century liberalism that Sanders is promoting, causing a stir across social media with many accusing him of being a shill for Clinton. He asked his readers, “why is the Vermont senator’s political imagination active against plutocrats, but so limited against white supremacy?” In “Bernie Sanders and the Liberal Imagination,” Coates explained that Sanders’ primary method for dealing with racial inequality and racial economic inequality is through a mid-20th-century slate of policies that promoted general economic growth through corporate regulation and increased wages. The idea, then and now, was that “a rising tide lifts all boats.” That is, as the economy grows, all poverty will be reduced, eliminating the need to address ethno-racial discrepancies. Sadly, these economic policies at mid-century did nothing to address racism and historically helped perpetuate it. The Black community had a tense relationship with mid-20th-century liberalism, seeing government as an adversary as often as an ally. The Keynesian growth liberalism of the time did not deal with its internal contradictions. The white working class often found itself at odds with not only the Black working class but also with the Black middle class. Liberal promises of economic equity did not naturally create racial amity. Without political commitment and overt policies to deal with racial economic inequality, it will not happen in the U.S. For those reasons, Coates called out Sanders, though he eventually endorsed him.

In the second half of the 20th century, many Americans lost faith in the powers of the government to produce social change. The Cold War pushed leftists from their positions of political respectability. After the Vietnam War and the FBI’s attempts to destroy the Civil Rights Movement across the nation, many leftists saw liberal policies as too limited. Social programs were a means of satiating unrest for the benefit of corporations. Government was back to the game of protecting corporations, not citizens. At the same time, an emergent neoliberalism also criticized government intervention in the economy as a fool’s errand that upset the natural forces of the market to create optimal social outcomes. The criticisms of the New Left and the New Right have left subsequent generations on the left disenchanted with government.

If in the middle of the 20th century government was the solution to the problems created by industrial capitalism, by the 1980s government was the problem. A conservative backlash ushered in an era of tax breaks and deregulation. Republicans won three consecutive presidential elections on this new platform. In 1992, Democrats led by Bill Clinton made key rhetorical and ideological concessions in order to win election. They adopted the language of racialized criminality — “super-predators” that needed “to be brought to heel” — from Reagan’s war-on-drugs. They adopted the language of the undeserving poor’s government dependency from the New Right as well. It appeared as if the Democrats and liberalism in general, too, had concluded that government itself was the cause of the nation’s ills. That has been the case until recently.

Sanders has achieved something remarkable. He has politicized young voters, inspiring them with the belief that the government can be made better and the government can be a force for good. Through the guise of revolution, he has committed a generation that is wary of nearly every major social institution in the nation to reform. But this change cannot be based on an ephemeral cult of personality. Those “feeling the Bern” must have more than a passing sensation. They must have a deeper commitment to political engagement and transformation.

The problem is not with Sanders’ economic message, but with his political plan, or in some cases the lack thereof. In a recent interview with the New York Daily News, this was evident. While it was not as devastating as some made it out to be, it did show some of Sanders’ weaknesses. Many wrote of how Sanders’ global economic policy would be devastating for world trade. The interview showed how difficult it would be to break up too-big-to-fail banks and companies. Sanders was not certain which specific laws or agencies would be responsible for such actions. This doesn’t make Sanders’ important critiques of corporations and large banks less valid. It just highlights the difficulties and policy problems the nation needs to confront.

There have been complaints about how realistic Sanders’ education policies are, too.  He has not answered with detailed policies who will pay and what this system would look like. The emphasis on education is also in line with Clintonian neoliberalism. There is a belief that higher education will on its own solve economic inequality. If every person in the nation has a college degree, that makes the degrees relatively unimportant. Not to mention, higher education costs Latinos and minorities more and has less value for them. The interview also highlighted how little could be done without congress.

Obama could not usher his barely left-of-center agenda through an intransigent Republican-led Congress, and his polices were mildly reformative. Sanders’ redistributive policies would require a significant level of political support. In fact, the composition of Congress would have to change dramatically. But here, Sanders has stumbled upon an important clue to the future — young voters.

Young voters are overwhelmingly voting for Sanders. Young white voters, young Black voters and young Latino voters are all voting for him. They have been the driving force in his campaign, supporting it financially and ideologically. But they have had a singular focus on Bernie himself. Bernie has failed to use his popularity to influence the larger Democratic Party — although he has succeeded in pushing Clinton to the left. He has not promised to raise funds for the party (albeit, he is an independent, but there is no way the Republicans are going to take up his agenda). He has not raised funds for down-ticket candidates — Hillary has raised $26.7 million to Bernie’s $1,000. He has not promoted down-ticket candidates who are supportive of his policies either.

Take Lucy Flores, for example. Lucy Flores endorsed Sanders. She is running for congress in Nevada’s 4th district, a crucial state in the Democratic primary and a key swing state in the general election. In an emotional and inspiring note, Flores explained why she chose to support him over Clinton:

Choosing which candidate to support for president was one of the most difficult tasks I have done in the recent past. … I have never made a political decision based on what was the ‘smart’ or ‘safe’ thing to do (just ask any of my often times dismayed political advisors) and I have always done what I believed aligned with my values and my ideals. But this decision was difficult because both Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton are both accomplished and worthy candidates. …

I believe that Bernie Sanders wakes up every day with these things on his mind. That the unfairness of it all weighs on his heart, just like it does mine, and that when he is elected, he will do whatever it takes to make America the land of opportunity again. I believe that Bernie Sanders will lead the charge, with many millions of Americans behind him, against the unfettered Wall Street greed that has threatened the very existence of the middle class and shackled so many more to permanent poverty.

While Clinton ultimately won that context, it was clear that many young Latinos in Nevada, politicians and voters alike, supported Sanders’ message. Flores’ endorsement was important, but after the primary she was left out to dry. Emily’s List, a Democratic organization that sponsors women for public office, denied her their support, just days after they announced a program to encourage more Latina participation. The organization was led by two influential Clinton supporters, María Teresa Kumar and Dolores Huerta. While Emily’s List claims that Flores’ endorsement of Sanders over Clinton had nothing to do with their decisions, it seems more than coincidental.

If Sanders wants his reforms, he needs to reform the Democratic Party. He needs to revive the crucial left-liberal alliance that pushed liberalism leftward and made leftist prognoses liberal policies. In order to do this, he needs to change the composition of Congress. He needs the Lucy Floreses of the nation to endorse him and be elected. And with the right leadership, he can. If he really wants to be at the head of a dramatic reorganization of American politics and a revision of American policies, he needs to be more strategic. He has the momentum on his side. Young people are voting for him. He can create a new political coalition, but he needs to be better. Van Jones, CNN political commentator and co-founder of #cut50, said as much in a Democracy Now! interview: “They’re going to go after [Sanders] on specifics, you know, way beyond anything any candidate has had to address. … He’s going to have to step up his game, because you can’t, you know, write excuses for people. He’s got to be able to answer those tough questions.”

Make no mistake, Sanders has flaws. His vision has limitations. His message reframes the promises that the American economy and government make to workers and citizens. But he has struggled to address the policies and institutions that will carry out those promises. He is not a political savior, but in our democracy no one person should be.

Sanders is not a prophet, but he is a man with a message. If left with just his message though, he’s a broken record — old technology playing a half-century-old song made cool again by Millennials with a detached sense of irony.


Aaron E. Sanchez received a Ph.D. in history from Southern Methodist University. You can connect with him .