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Bernie’s Tragic Flaw: Too Soft on Clinton

By Andrew Levine. This article was first published on Counterpunch.

From Day One, Bernie Sanders said that he would support the eventual Democratic nominee – Hillary Clinton. It looks like he will make good on his word.

The near certainty that he would jump on the Hillary bandwagon eventually has always been one of the best arguments for being wary of his campaign.

But while there was still a hope and a prayer that maybe, just maybe, Bernie would defeat the Clinton juggernaut, it didn’t seem to matter. That was always wishful thinking, however; Bernie never had a chance. The Democratic Party was against him; corporate media were against him too; and the system was rigged.

And so, Hillary is now the Democrats’ “presumptive nominee,” their Donald Trump. It was bound to happen; deep down, everybody always knew it would. Even so, in the immortal words of Chester A. Riley: “what a revolting development this turned out to be!”

If Sanders now does what he has all along said he would, it will diminish all that he has accomplished.

But at least he won’t be a “spoiler” in the eyes of liberal pundits – like, horror of horrors, Ralph Nader. The idea that Nader was a spoiler is nonsense, of course; Al Gore was a piss poor candidate who ran a piss poor campaign and an even worse post-election recount battle in Florida. Even so, sixteen years later, Democrats still won’t let it go.

Conjuring up Bush v. Gore memories is the least of it; liberal scribblers and talking heads are pulling out all the stops trying to get Sanders to go away. If he doesn’t, they caution, he will have hell to pay; if he does, he can count on them regaling him, Hillary-style, with condescending praise for getting young people involved in the electoral process. Yippee!

He has other options, though; thanks to all the supporters he has. Were he to lead some large portion of them out of the rotting hulk that the Democratic Party has become, joining forces with the Greens or starting a new, genuinely progressive party from the ground up, he could become one of the great heroes of American history. That is more than can be said of any American President in living memory.

Chances are that he will succumb instead.

Whatever he does, it will take a protracted struggle and a mass movement to rid the body politic of “Clintonism,” that distinctive constellation of economic, foreign and military policies that has afflicted the United States and the world for the past quarter century,

Clintonism exacerbates inequality, encourages murder and mayhem abroad and terrorism at home, and renders the country dependent on a perpetual war regime that undermines First, Fourth and Fifth Amendment protections along with other traditional rights and liberties.

The Clintons didn’t think it all up themselves; they aren’t clever enough. But through happenstance and design, they did help put those policies in place, and they have been working assiduously to sustain them throughout their too many years in public life. For these reasons, and because they have been in the public eye for so long, the name is appropriate, notwithstanding the fact that it gives the two of them more credit than they deserve.

It is unfortunate that Clintonism is, by now, too deeply entrenched to be easily expunged — because it constitutes a clear and present danger to world peace, and because it undermines environmental sanity and the material well being of ninety-nine percent of the population.   The general problem is made worse by the fact that, compared to other Clintonites, Hillary’s neoconservative leanings and bellicose inclinations are extreme, and because she is Wall Street’s Girl Friday.

The pundits who go on about the harm Bernie could do as a “spoiler” don’t talk about that. Instead, they stir up fear of an imminent fascist takeover by Donald Trump. Their confabulations serve Hillary well.

Trump is as awful as they say he is, maybe worse. But the Trump menace is a red herring that diverts attention away from the plain fact that the struggle against Clintonism is the paramount struggle of our time.

Hillary’s defeat at Bernie’s hands would have handed the Clintonites a defeat; if only for that reason, it would have done a world of good. But awareness of this simple truth seldom registers. Hillary’s flacks have done an outstanding job keeping the dangers of Clintonism generally, and of Hillary in particular, out of the public mind.

Instead, the conventional wisdom has it that the Madam Secretary is a progressive, like Bernie, who, unlike him, knows how to get things done. The term of art her defenders use is “progressive pragmatist.”

It hardly matters that in all the many months that they have been promoting this mythology, no one has come up with a single example of anything worthwhile, much less progressive, that Hillary has actually accomplished.

Meanwhile, the landscape is littered with her failures: from Hillarycare to the dismemberment of Yugoslavia and the destruction of Iraq, and then to everything she touched in her tenure as Secretary of State. Libya and Syria are the most conspicuous examples, but there are many others.

Now that Hillary no longer needs to worry about those huge rallies full of people “feeling the Bern,” she and her handlers are letting the “progressive pragmatist” jibber jabber of recent months lapse. It is easier for them to make the nefarious Donald the one and only issue.

There is an abundance of polling data suggesting that Bernie would do a lot better than Hillary running against Trump. Even so, Team Hillary managed, not without success, to use anti-Trump hysteria against Sanders’ candidacy.

Now, that Clinton is the presumptive nominee, they are repurposing their fear mongering – directing it, more plausibly, against Trump himself. From their point of view, this is a no-brainer. Trump really is one scary son of a bitch, and Hillary could hardly campaign on her merits or on the merits of her ideas.

***

With or without Bernie on board, the insurgency his campaign got going is, for the time being, leading the fight against the Clintonite menace.

To that end, Bernie could be a big help in the short run, were he to resist demands for his surrender. In the long run, what he does in the coming weeks and months will hardly matter, but, for the time being, his acquiescence would dishearten his many supporters, causing some of them to retreat back into their private lives.

It would also diminish Sanders’ legacy. For what? Not to be called a “spoiler” the way that Nader still is? For helping to elect a corporate Democrat whose neoconservative inclinations and bellicose disposition all but guarantee that, before long, she will become the most detested President in the history of the United States?

These questions answer themselves. Even so, the likelihood is that Sanders will indeed acquiesce – perhaps not overtly, and perhaps not before Philadelphia – but nevertheless. To save face, he’ll probably take the bait – declaring that his first duty is to do all that he can to keep the Donald at bay.

Tragically, then, he will have fallen victim to the occupational hazard that politicians who try to repair the Clintonite rot from within the Democratic Party face: the rot overpowers them or gets into their heads, or both.

Witness the case of Elizabeth Warren, another rare opponent of the Democratic Party’s neoliberal turn. She has acquiesced already.

Perhaps she is more cowardly than Sanders or more self-serving. More likely, she is just a little ahead of him in demonstrating what a politician has to do, if she or he wants “to stay viable within the system,” as Hillary’s better half once put it.

Team Hillary has enlisted her to take the lead in making Trump the issue. She is good at it; she knows how to get under his skin. And so, for now, Warren’s signature issues, protecting consumers from banksters and regulating corporate predators, are on the back burner; chez Elizabeth, it’s all Trump all the time.

Talk about being used! Clinton’s flacks are even letting rumors fly about Warren and the Vice Presidency. Everybody knows this isn’t going to happen, but the thought that it might is enough to get more than a few Sanders supporters intrigued.

Were Hillary to pick Warren, she would be defying more than two hundred years of accumulated wisdom about the advantages of “balancing” presidential tickets — unless pairing a Wall Street flunky with someone whom Wall Street detests counts as balancing.

And if Clinton and her crew really do think that Trump has a chance, why would they waste the Vice Presidential slot on someone from a state that Hillary already has sewn up?

Naïve liberals should therefore forget about the Senator from Massachusetts becoming Hillary’s running mate. The rumor is a public relations ploy, good only for keeping gullible progressives from grasping the implications of Bernie’s defeat.

Public relations ploys that promote the idea that Hillary is a progressive at heart have lately become useful for Clinton — because anti-Trump hysteria may not be enough to turn most Sanders supporters into grudging lesser evil Clinton voters. She is therefore holding out a straw for those Sanders supporters to grasp. If enough do and therefore stay on board a while longer, it will damage the chances of getting a real alternative to Clinton and Clintonism going in time to do any good.

Thanks to Bernie, Hillary has been faking left for some time now. But, of course, it is all a charade, portending nothing whatsoever about any real change of heart. Once the election is over, she and Bill will revert back to their old neoliberal ways in less time than it will take their entourage to pack up their personal effects for the move back to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

By then too, Warren will be yesterday’s lunch. If she wants to let herself be used now to make Trump, not Hillary, the issue, she can go to hell. If there isn’t already “a special place” there for Hillary-boosters like her, there ought to be.

Clintonites take progressive constituencies for granted, confident that workers and people of color have nowhere else to go. To be on the safe side, though, they sometimes do pander to labor leaders and to black and brown notables.

No doubt, they would prefer to hobnob with Wall Street predators and Hollywood celebrities, but they can hardly ignore the major poobahs of their most loyal voters – not when they get so much bang for the buck by throwing a little attention their way.

The beneficiaries of their efforts are so grateful to be acknowledged at all that coopting them is child’s play.   On the other hand, rank-and-file workers and politically unconnected persons of color are on their own as far as the Clintons are concerned – except, of course, when they find it expedient to feel their pain.

In their hearts, the Clintons regard everyone to their left – that is to say, nearly everyone with any significant chance of voting Democratic — with contempt. If they pretend otherwise, as they are doing now in order to entice Sanders supporters into the Clintonite fold, it is because they feel that they have no choice; and because they believe that, before long, the need will pass and normalcy will return.

***

If Bernie ends up following Warren down the path of acquiescence, he will be doing those constituencies, along with the rest of the ninety-nine percent, no good at all. Must we therefore conclude that there is a special place in hell for him too?

I would say emphatically No. A just God, if one existed, would realize that he deserves better than that.

Not only did he get an insurgency going: he also brought talk of “socialism” back into the mainstream, defied the Israel lobby (barely, but enough to shatter a longstanding taboo), proved that presidential campaigns don’t need to sell out to money interests, and reinforced the idea that another world is possible.

He also demonstrated — inadvertently, but undeniably — that another Democratic Party is not possible; that the idea that Democrats could become good for anything more than keeping Republicans at bay is a pipedream at best.

When the dust settles, these achievements will stand out, even if Sanders ends up doing the wrong thing. He used his time in the spotlight to make history in ways that put his country and the world in his debt. If that doesn’t merit a “get out of hell free” card, nothing does.

Going forward now without his support will be difficult for those who were drawn to the Sanders campaign by the force of his “democratic socialist” ideas — his twenty-first century version of New Deal-Great Society liberalism or, what comes to the same thing for him, his take on Scandinavian-style social democracy, modified for American conditions.

There is nothing especially innovative in Sanders’ politics: nearly everything he has proposed has been commonplace throughout the “developed” world for more than half a century. Aspiring democratic socialists should therefore be able to find their way without his guidance. Their path would be easier right now, however, if he would take the lead.

Clintonites have tried, with great success, to avoid talking about Sanders’ politics, and “conservatives” have been too busy hating Hillary – for all the wrong reasons – to pick up the slack. Sanders’ critics have therefore mostly come from his left. From that quarter, he has been faulted mainly, but not only, for his positions on foreign and military affairs.

Those criticisms are generally spot on. But Sanders’ view even on issues where he ought to be reproached, are, for the most part, slightly better than the average Democrat’s, and a lot better than Hillary’s. His views on domestic politics, trade, the environment, and civil liberties are better by many orders of magnitude.

This is why those who accentuate the negative about Bernie can seem doctrinaire in ways that corroborate the old saw about the best being the enemy of the good.  The sectarian spirit lives on in the views of some of Bernie’s leftwing critics.

This is also why voting for Sanders in the primaries was not a vote for a lesser evil in the way that voting for Clinton over Trump in November will be for many liberals.

It was an honorable way to express disdain for Clinton and Clintonism. It was also a way to signal support for a different, more progressive kind of politics, attuned to conditions in our time and place.

There is still a (small) chance that Sanders will decide that it is more important to make history than to make nice with Democrats and their pundits. But whether he does or not, the task for the rest of us is to keep the spirit of his campaign alive, and to carry its achievements forward.

To that end, the time is past due to break, clearly and decisively, with Clinton and Clintonism.

With Trump for a “presumptive” counterpart to Hillary, this ought to be easy. Trump’s candidacy is a non-starter because, barring an act of God or an eruption of mass insanity, Hillary will be the next President of the United States.

In fact, though, it will be hard to get left-leaning voters to mobilize against Hillary – in part because corporate media are united in supporting her case and in promoting anti-Trump hysteria, and in part because the Clintons are adept at the arts of deception. If they can get otherwise reasonable people to believe that Hillary is a progressive pragmatist who is, as Barack Obama claims, more qualified than anyone in American history to assume the role of President and Commander-in-Chief, they can get people to believe anything.

In the fullness of time, the truth about Hillary will prevail; the truth usually does. She will make every other President and Commander-in-Chief in American history, even George W. Bush, look good in comparison; and there will be no way to put a happy face on that.

It will also seem obvious in retrospect that there never was any need to worry about Trump — because he was bound to undermine himself, and because there were limits to how low even the American electorate of 2016 could sink.

But these understandings are unlikely to emerge in time for the coming election; and, even if they did, it would make no difference. There is no way that the Greens or some yet to be established “third” party would be able to elect a President this November.

But what is impossible now, can become eminently feasible in the not too distant future, as our future President’s ineptitude and war mongering cause awareness of her shortcomings and of the evils of Clintonism to deepen and expand.

The movement that the Sanders campaign set in motion can help with that; Bernie can help too, if he chooses.

So far, though, Trump is the hero of the day. By breaking the GOP, he has already done more than anyone else to undermine the status quo. How ironic that it should fall to a billionaire buffoon, with a gift for drawing out the inner fascist in the basest among us, to mortally wound a pillar of modern America’s ancien régime.

Our duopolistic political culture has become a major impediment in the way of real democracy and justice. Now, thanks to Trump, one of our two semi-established political parties is on the ropes. The chances that it will ever recover are slight.

However, breaking free from the duopoly’s grip is too important a task to leave to a non-electable Caudillo wannabe, a narcissist with bad judgment, poor impulse control, and a taste for over-the-top displays of his own power and wealth.

Now is therefore the time for the “good guys” to do their part too. For that, the indispensible first step is breaking free from any and all Clintonite illusions. If this doesn’t happen soon, the “political revolution” Sanders claimed to be fomenting will end stillborn.

Sanders wasn’t just blowing air. But, by being soft on Clinton and therefore on Clintonism, his political revolution was bound to founder. The time for him to have realized this, and to have reacted accordingly, was weeks or months ago. But it is never too late – not for Sanders’ supporters anyway, and, for at least a few weeks more, not even for Sanders himself.

ANDREW LEVINE is a Senior Scholar at the Institute for Policy Studies, the author most recently of THE AMERICAN IDEOLOGY (Routledge) and POLITICAL KEY WORDS (Blackwell) as well as of many other books and articles in political philosophy. His most recent book is In Bad Faith: What’s Wrong With the Opium of the People. He was a Professor (philosophy) at the University of Wisconsin-Madison and a Research Professor (philosophy) at the University of Maryland-College Park.  He is a contributor to Hopeless: Barack Obama and the Politics of Illusion (AK Press).


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