Anyone who knows me is painfully aware that I am a staunch Democrat. I have been a registered Democratic voter since I turned 18, and though I flinched and almost didn’t vote for Clinton
after his Welfare “Reform” disaster, I have voted straight-line Democrat my entire voting life. I wouldn’t even have voted for Matt Gonzolez, the quite viable and superbly talented Green candidate for mayor of San Fransisco. Third-partyism is so inherently flawed a political strategy in my mind that a victory for the Greens in SF would have meant a thousand more spoilers out there in the rest of the Country. In a non-partisan race, in a city with a broad and contentious Democratic community, there seemed to me no good reason for Gonzolez to run as a Green.
So, it is with those hard-nosed and stubborn bona-fides that I confess my elation at the prospect of an independent United States senator from Vermont. Bernie Sanders, who is so fiercely anti-party that he has refused even to join Progressive Vermont, the party-like formation organized by his own supporters and staffers, has begun his campaign for the U.S. Senate. This is very welcome news.
Bernie Sanders has great politics, and he’s gonna win. The Democrats in Vermont have wisely stepped aside (many of have stepped in line behind him), assuring that this will be a two-way race between Sanders and a Republican. This is a wise move on many levels, not least of which is the simple fact that Senator Sanders will be a vote for a Democratic majority, as well as a strong progressive voice- something sorely missing on our side of aisle since the death of Minnesota’s Paul Wellstone.
Perhaps the most salacious thing about Sanders’ political success and the reason his campaign is being watched closely by my friends in the Social Democratic left in Europe is the fact that he has been consistently unafraid of the “s” word. Sanders is not a member of a Socialist party, and for many years even refused to join the Democratic Socialists of America, even though their non-party status and raft of political-celebrity members (John Sweeney, president of the AFL-CIO, Ron Dellums, longtime Bay Area congressman, Gloria Steinem, feminist matriarch, etc) seemed to make it a perfect fit for him. However, he has doggedly refused to condemn or refuse the label, connecting his political beliefs to that of Eugene V. Debs, Martin Luther King and other American heroes who also identified with the ideas and traditions of socialism. In Vermont, this hasn’t mattered a wit. There, the demographic gods have created a perfect combination for Bernie’s politics- a hodgepodge of hippies, intellectuals, small farmers, environmentalists and anti-establishment free-soilers for whom labels are fungible so long as candidates are plain-spoken, independent and fiercely anti-authoritarian. However, it will be interesting to see how the national media attempts to beat Sanders up with the right’s favorite stick- accusations of socialism are about as deadly as they get in American political life. Consider this account of an interview with Howard Dean (from an article on Bernie.org):
“On a recent Sunday, Tim Russert of NBC’s Meet the Press needled Democratic Party leader Howard Dean over Sanders' run. “He is a self-described, avowed socialist,” Russert said to Dean, using the word in its popular beltway parlance, as if it were a bomb about to go off. “Is there room in the Democratic Party for a Socialist?” “He’s not a socialist, really,” Dean answered.”
I’m not sure how effective flat denial is really going to be. It’s a conundrum for the Democrats and the left in general- the Right has destroyed our vocabulary so thurroughly that it is difficult to develop a strategy for self-presentation when any word which may clarify our position can be used as a weapon against us (more on this theme later). For this reason, the Sanders campaign will be an crucial race to watch for hoverbike, and anyone interested in expanding the scope of the “possible” in American politics.
So, why do I make this exception to my usual rabid partisanship? Three simple reasons: First, Bernie is not trying to build a third party which will compete with and split the base of the Dems. Second, Sanders is working closely with Democrats both on the ground and in Washington, and understands his run and future tenure as part of a broader effort to shift the rules of governance, a project which includes the Democratic Party. Third, and this may sound a bit counter-intuitive, Bernie Sanders is not an exportable commodity. This whole experience will be a serious downer if people in California, New York or Arkansas start to believe that he is.
Let me be clear here: Sanders’ plain-spoken anti-corporatism, patriotic populism, critique of budget priorities and opposition to unfettered trade are all fantastic and important. He is both inspiring and instructive in his rejection of poll-based Clintonian triangulation. However, the way in which he does it, and the fact that he does it alone, rejecting the Democratic Party or any other organizational base, is a feature of the micropolitics of Vermont. You don’t need a powerful organization at the grassroots in a state that is smaller in population than San Diego.
Sanders is very much a creature of Vermont. For example, he is a rare progressive who opposes most forms of gun control- rural Vermonters are fine with criticizing free trade but would bristle at being disarmed. And, let’s face it, broadcasting progressive populism is a different beast in a state which is 96% white. Racist appeals from the right are less effective- it’s harder to paint the welfare state and social protection as handouts for the undeserving without the coded language of racism. Racially-tinged urban issues like crime, affirmative action and immigration don’t dominate political life in Vermont the way that they do in Illinois, Ohio or Missouri. Sanders doesn’t face the difficulties which hobble progressive politicians in less "idyllic" or homogenous places.
I do not mean to sound like those who say that Scandinavian social democracy is wholly irrelevant to the United States because of our diversity. It’s a strange notion that justice is impossible if there are black people around. The point here is that what works in Norway or Vermont won’t necessarily work in California. Witness the paradigm shift in the politics of Northern Europe forced by immigration from Africa and the Near East. The old reliance on automatic class solidarity is insufficient in the era of globalization, upward mobility and the emergence of a brown and black underclass. In diverse social environments, organizing, coalition-building and directly confronting racialized poverty and inequality are crucial for building a viable progressive majority. There is no end-run around these realities.
A recent Nation cover-story by the often pollyanna-ish John Nichols misses some of these nuances in its excitement about Sanders’ imminent victory. Though Nichols includes the critique that Sanders, like Jesse Jackson and other insurgents have failed to build something sturdy enough to outlast their own careers, he is a bit too quick to draw lessons from Sanders’ successes. He quotes one supporter:
"Some people are uncomfortable when they see a yard where there are signs for the Republicans and for Bernie, but I see that as evidence that he has figured out how to talk to people that the Democrats just have not been able to reach."
It’s certainly true that the Democrats will only be able to reach voters lost to the right by being solid and clear-spoken on economic issues. These bread and butter questions of jobs, health-care and education have been Sanders’ stock-in-trade for his whole career. However, there is something to the fact that these folks will post Bernie signs and Bush signs in their yard. I’m not worried that Bernie is insufficiently progressive, but rather that while people like Bernie, Bush and his crowd are still also speaking to them on some level. It’s no secret that Republican economic policies are not supported by a majority of Americans, and Democrats are suicidally inept on tapping into their dissatisfaction. However, the idea that we will win people back simply by appealing to their pocketbooks is naive. We have to cut down the salience of the right’s flagship wedge issues- race, religion, sex and security. Vermont is simply not the best laboratory for figuring that strategy out.
So, god bless Vermont for sending us two important progressive leaders, Bernie and Howie. It’s good for their state, and good for America. Let us take from Bernie’s rise and his good works a lesson that it is indeed possible to win and govern by sticking to principles and offering a fighting spirit. However, history will not be made by having one, two, many Bernies. It will be made by long, slow and deliberate work to shift the “center”. Let’s make more Bernies possible, even inevitable, by digging in for the long haul. That will mean building lasting institutions and organizations at every level of social life, and doing so with intellegence and an eye for construting lasting and deep majorities. I can’t envision that project without a key role for the Democratic Party.