Democracy is central
In the wake of Bernie Sanders’ withdrawal, Daniel Lazare responds to recent contributions
For half a decade - from May 2015, when he launched his first presidential campaign, to just last week, when he folded his second - Bernie Sanders riveted the attention of what passes for an American left. Even Marxist sceptics watched in astonishment, as thousands of working people flocked to his rallies and millions of small campaign donations (average size: $18.50) flowed in. With social democracy on the ropes nearly everywhere else in the world, the United States seemed poised for a singular breakthrough.
But, now that he has formally withdrawn, the post-mortems are pouring in. On the positive side, it is clear that Sanders shook up American politics and showed that there is life beyond the neoliberalism of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama.
But the list of shortcomings on the negative side is long - very long:
- He left nothing behind in the way of an organisational legacy - no party, no think tanks, no educational network, etc. As much as Sanders tried to deny that his campaign was a personal vehicle, that is just what it was, which is why nothing is left now that he has gone.
- After two failed attempts, the argument that the left can turn the Democratic Party into a vehicle for social democratic reform is deader than a doornail. It will be years, if ever, before another leftwing Democrat launches a similar bid.
- While demonstrating that socialism still has broad appeal, Sanders failed to distinguish it from the middle class ‘progressivism’ of the Democratic Party’s liberal wing. Followers are thus left with the impression that it is nothing more than a 1930s-style New Deal - with a little more in the way of identity politics and environmental protection. Interestingly, Sanders did not mention the S-word once in his April 8 concession speech.
- Most importantly, he has endorsed former vice-president Joe Biden - one of the most odious politicians the Democratic establishment has ever produced. Where Trump has at least shown a degree of independence vis-à-vis the intelligence agencies, his Bernie-approved opponent is a perfect CIA tool.
So Sanders’ bid to use America’s archaic constitutional machinery to create a New World version of Nordic social democracy has not only flopped: it has backfired by leaving the left in even worse shape than it was before. Celebrity radicals like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez will find themselves more isolated now that their leader has thrown in the towel, while corporate pundits will once again crow that socialism is unAmerican. As social democrats watch from the sidelines, voters will troop to the polls to vote for either Biden or Trump - a choice between cyanide and arsenic if ever there was one.
Creegan v Demarty
How did things fall so low? And how do American socialists begin climbing out of the hole they have dug themselves into?
Perhaps the best way to answer this is by way of the recent exchange in these pages between Paul Demarty and Jim Creegan. The subject was Sanders and the nature of the upcoming American revolution; if nothing else, it shows how social democrats are not the only ones to have arrived at a dead end, but self-described Marxists have as well.
Creegan started it on March 6 with an article acknowledging that, even though Biden had taken the lead in the wake of Sanders’ ‘Super Tuesday’ wipeout, his class-conscious troops had nonetheless developed “an ability to see through lesser-evilism” and a scepticism about Democratic politicians that led him to speculate about the possibility of a revolt when Democrats convene this summer to nominate Biden. If a walkout occurred, not only would it bust up the Democrats, but it would “present an opportunity for the formation of the closest thing to a Labor Party that the US has seen in recent history.”1
A Labor Party might thus arise out of the Democratic Party rather than strictly in opposition to it. A week later, Demarty agreed that “a mass movement” had opened up, but suggested that it was “bringing the class question to the fore” within the confines of the Democratic Party rather than breaking it in two. If the Democrats were to remain intact, he suggested, the next great upsurge would not necessarily be socialist in character, but a democratic revolution in the grand old American tradition. It would be a revolution
… that will irreversibly reshape the USA as a democratic, not an aristocratic, republic; that will build on the firm foundation of the political liberties enshrined in the Bill of Rights, and the fleeting egalitarian promise of the best of the country’s political history, to consign the twin evils of technocratic ‘moderation’ and Bonapartism to oblivion. We cannot overcome Donald Trump without also rejecting Alexander Hamilton.2
To which Creegan replied that democratic concerns would necessarily take a back seat: “The age of bourgeois-democratic revolution is long gone,” he responded, and, while “legal-juridical questions” may play a part “in the broad political struggles, and revolutionary upheavals, of the future … such questions will be intertwined with, and secondary to, the major challenges of economic organisation and class power that crises in advanced capitalist countries have always pushed to the front in short order”.3
So either Bernie is paving the way for democratic revolution or he is setting the stage for a Democratic split that will usher in struggles that are primarily social. Needless to say, both Creegan’s and Demarty’s prognostications turned out to be wrong, since Sanders fizzled so prematurely.
Still, they are revealing. The problem with Demarty’s is obvious. It represents a return to the popular front of the 1930s, when, amid growing Stalinist terror, the US Communist Party tried to paint itself as more Jeffersonian than the Jeffersonians. “A full and complete application of Jefferson’s principles,” wrote Earl Browder in the dark year of 1938, “…will lead naturally and inevitably to the full programme of the Communist Party, to the socialist reorganisation of the United States, to the common ownership and operation of our economy for the benefit of all”4 - which is more or less what Demarty is saying today. Given Jefferson’s deep racism and conservatism, one dreads to imagine what this anti-Hamiltonian revolution would look like.
But Creegan’s point about democracy is misleading as well. Yes, the bourgeois-democratic revolution is behind us for the simple reason that the bourgeoisie has long ceased to be a progressive force. But democratic concerns are not. Rather than secondary, they loom larger than ever.
Creegan’s efforts to work his way through the problem are confusing:
One could … imagine a confrontation sparked by a court ruling or legal technicality employed by the ruling class to thwart an overwhelming popular mandate. But the essence of the struggle would be the content of the mandate itself - which would surely be of a social-economic nature - rather than the legalities surrounding it.
But how does one even begin to separate the two? Indeed, isn’t it the job of the revolutionary party to make connections by not only showing how a reactionary legal structure necessarily gives rise to reactionary policies? Creegan no doubt believes strongly in the struggle against racism and the like, even though, strictly speaking, they are democratic concerns. But how can one separate the struggle against racism from the struggle against a racist Senate that multiplies the power of lily-white “rotten boroughs” like Wyoming, Montana and the Dakotas? Or against an electoral college that does the same?
Moreover, how can workers struggle against such inequities without struggling against the constitution in which they are embedded? This means not only the document itself, but the legal norms and political logic it imposes. In a Gramscian sense, this logic has worked its way deep into the typical American’s very soul. So how is it possible to combat racism without purging the constitutional assumptions that entrench it?
Which brings us back to why Sanders failed. To his credit, his appeal was not patriotic. Rather than a country retreating ever more deeply into its own political traditions, he wanted an America that would do the opposite: ie, struggle to be more like other countries that take socialised medicine for granted. Even though would he never come right out and say it, he clearly wanted America to be less American and more like the Danes, British, Finns, etc.
But he wanted to have his cake and eat it too by ignoring the political structures that drag America back. As someone who was once close to James Cannon’s old Socialist Workers Party - not to be confused with Tony Cliff’s SWP in the UK - he must have understood on some level that social transformation is impossible without sweeping political change. But as a left-talking bourgeois politician making his way up the greasy pole, he did his best to push such ideas aside. As a senator from Vermont, he never said a word about an upper chamber based on equal state representation that confers disproportionate benefits on his home state, even though it is the second least populous in the country. So loyal was he to his institutional home of the last 13 or 14 years that he even supported the Senate filibuster rule - an extreme form of minority rule that allows 41 senators representing as little as 11% of the population to veto any measure sought by the remaining 89%.5
This is an example of how thoroughly he has absorbed America’s pre-modern constitutional logic. Even though the Senate is an anti-democratic atrocity, he thought he could use it to nationalise a $3.65-trillion-a-year healthcare industry - which, if successful, would have represented one of the most radical social democratic advances in US history. Even though the House is corrupt and gerrymandered, he thought he could use it in that way too. The same goes for the Democratic Party, which has been dominated by neoconservatives ever since Bill and Hillary Clinton took control in the 1980s. Somehow, Sanders thought he could ignore such unpleasant facts and proceed on his merry way.
It was a pipedream from beginning to end, which is why the only surprise is how quickly the bubble burst, once Barack Obama signalled to Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar that it was time to pull out of the Democratic race and endorse Biden.
But that was not the only pipedream. It is equally deluded to imagine that America is poised for a rebirth along the lines of 1776 and 1861, since it is no longer a modest little republic, but a global empire, whose crisis will engulf the world. The same goes for Creegan’s assurances that “parliamentary forms are too great a source of legitimacy for the existing order to be abolished” and that “[i]t is therefore highly unlikely … that even newly arisen authoritarian figures - Viktor Orbán, Andrzej Duda, Trump - will conduct a frontal assault on electoral democracy”.
This is misleading, since - especially in the US - such forms are so hollowed out after decades of corruption and economic polarisation that there is no need to confront them head on: they are so decrepit that such figures have no trouble bending them to their will.
This is doubly true in the wake of Covid-19. A recent example occurred in Wisconsin, where, thanks to the miracle of gerrymandering, Republicans have managed to retain control of 64% of the state assembly despite winning just 47% of the vote. As the liberal New York Times columnist, Paul Krugman, recently pointed out, they were able to use such advantages to ram through a special election on April 7, even though in big cities like Milwaukee polling places would be closed due to the pandemic. But that was the point: to discourage participation by poor people and non-whites in order to deepen their own minority rule. With Trump declaring that “you’d never have a Republican elected in this country again” if early voting or mail-in ballots are expanded in response to the pandemic, we can expect more such dirty tricks in November - perhaps enough to throw the entire election.
If Trump steals a second election, he will have a free hand to do whatever he wants amid the worst economic depression in US history. Instead of a constitutional democracy, America will wind up as a constitutional dictatorship - which is to say, a society in which ancient constitutional norms are used to reinforce a lurch toward authoritarianism. One-man rule will arrive without a single Brownshirt in the street. Yet the constitution will be more sacred than ever.
The fact that Sanders failed miserably in his attempt to do an end-run around the constitutional question suggests that there is nothing the least bit secondary about the issue of a grossly undemocratic political structure.
J Creegan, ‘Primary contradictions’ Weekly Worker March 3 2020.↩︎
P Demarty, ‘Lessons being learned’ Weekly Worker March 12 2020.↩︎
J Creegan, ‘Overdrawn lessons’ Weekly Worker March 26 2020.↩︎
Quoted in WZ Foster History of the Communist Party of the United States New York 1952, chapter 23: williamzfoster.blogspot.com/2013/01/chapter-twenty-three-roosevelt-and-wall.html.↩︎
D Lazare, ‘Abolish the filibuster’ Weekly Worker September 26 2019.↩︎