Why I have not felt the Bern – Reflections on perspectives for American left

Jill bernie or bust

Jill Stein addressing the “Bernie or Bust” crowd outside the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia (photo: philly.com)

The Democratic National Convention of Philadelphia is now in the history, but the most iconic event of the entire meeting has been the Bernie Sanders’ endorsement of Hillary Clinton against all the odds, even after the scandal of DNC leaked emails. Even after a year of unfair treatment from media outputs, officials and representatives of the Democrats. Even after Clinton pushed the rhetoric of primaries to the limit, accusing him to be a socialist loony, unfit for power and negotiations and without tangibly rewarding him after a very narrow defeat in the race. Even after garnering an amount of grassroots supporters and donors that party moguls could only dream to have last summer. These facts will not matter, and Bernie will be remembered as the idealistic but chivalric opponent of Hillary that did not hesitate to stand behind her after the nomination before vanishing from the news.

Honestly, I don’t care about what the fuss from Sandersites was all about at the convention, and sincerely I struggle to understand why they feel so enraged and betrayed. It was inevitable. This is the game of the primaries, this is the game of the duopoly, this is the game of the “lesser evil”. And the “lesser evil”, since democracy was born, lies in the centre of the spectrum. That is the putative home of the Democrats, and Sanders, accepting to endorse Clinton (and the even more centrist VP candidate Tim Kaine), told the last truth of his campaign: there is no room for progressivism in this party, completely immersed into the business of corporate finance and industrial lobbies and with a tendency to autocracy which is probably bigger than the GOP’s. Take down your banners, stay quiet and remember to “vote Blue, no matter who”.

Sanders caught a lot of international attention, particularly from Europe, where thousands of youngsters involved in politics (those so called “millennials” which fell in love so hardly with the Vermont senator) started to follow him because of his peculiarities in regards of other Democratic past candidates and hoped that a relevant change in the presidential campaign could shake up also the centre-left in Europe. But it did not happen, because nowadays, in the Union, institutional left is dominated by parties of the S&D group (Socialists and Democrats), which, after the decennial leadership of Martin Shulz, have turned into the most affordable allies of European Popular parties, in a model of government that mirrors the German “Grosse Koalition” led by Angela Merkel since 2005; a deeply moderate group so far from the values of Jaurès, Hardie and Turati, fathers of continental social democracy, and heavily influenced by the “American third way” (and consequentially firm in endorsing Clinton). Those values are left over for parties of the smaller and more radical GUE/NGL group (United European Left + Nordic Green Left), whose are growing today as the only left-wing answer to the uprising of far right movements in the continent, and were in fact the lone coherent Sanders supporters in Europe.

If today personal charisma is more efficient than party structures in politics, in Europe it is only partially true. As usual, the most fitting comparison is between United States and United Kingdom and, particularly, between Sanders and the British Labour Party leader since 2015, Jeremy Corbyn. Both Sanders and Corbyn are over-65, professional politicians since 30 years to date and have a long-standing record on issues like pacifism, environmentalism and equal redistribution of national wealth. But Corbyn emerged as the leader of his party because of its members, which in these years have felt a growing detachment from their parliamentary counterparts and, when asked to choose a leader, elected the more radical in the race, reacting to their continued weakening from Conservative majority and other growing oppositions. Without the direct involvement of the membership, probably Labour would still have a faceless party official as leader, cheered by its MPs and international political venues (unlike Corbyn), but disliked by its historic electorate and unnoticeable for the general public.

Sanders, even at the highest point of his campaign, could have never achieved a similar result. The answer lies in the history: Corbyn fought (and won with a landslide) for the leadership of a socialist party, with more than a century of tradition and socialist platform, which partially lost track in the last twenty years during the leaderships of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, but never abandoned its original roots. Sanders fought for the presidential ticket of the Democratic Party, a party which, only sixty years ago, still endorsed segregation policies, a party which is still bonded to conservative Christian communities, just like the GOP, a party which still suffers a massive anti-socialist bias, as underlined by the lack of democracy of its leadership selection process, still handed to a battalion of superdelegates who tends to erase the will of popular vote, as exactly happened with the Vermont senator. The electorate of the Democrats is not and will never be the electorate of a social democratic party, and the results of primaries in key blue states like New York, Michigan and California widely demonstrated it. But what really confirmed these personal doubts about Sanders was the final endorsement for Clinton itself. What in the world could bring a self-described democratic socialist to endorse the most neoliberal candidate of the entire election? I don’t think, as many former Bernie supporters do, that the senator “sold his soul” to Hillary, but surely that it was the worst bet he could have done. A more logical output would have been giving freedom of conscience to his supporters “à la Ted Cruz”, maybe remaining silent in Philadelphia and addressing them in a separate venue, avoiding all the criticism that he received both in and out of the convention.

So someone else did it in his place: Jill Stein, just a week before being nominated as the official Green Party candidate, obtained a considerable media attention for participating to the protests outside the Wells Fargo Center, and, since those days, her chances to gain a decent result as a third party ticket have become finally realistic. Probably both Sanders and Stein have the profile of a left-wing leader like European ones (with Sanders more similar to yet cited Corbyn or France’s Jean-Luc Mélenchon and Stein more resembling to Germany’s Ziska Keller, Spain’s Pablo Iglesias and Greece’s Alexis Tsipras), but only the latter, refusing to surrender to the so called “left shift” of the Democratic platform, has preserved her integrity, reaching a small but relevant goal for future developments for the American left. The retired Massachusetts physician is the most relevant option to choose among other passionate candidatures, like the long-standing socialist activist Gloria La Riva or the sadly small-scale campaign of Mimi Soltysik of the US Socialist Party, but her pragmatism is a breath of fresh air in a year where being “over the top” is being considered worryingly normal.

My most sincere political hope in America is that someday a left coalition will prevail in the progressive horizon. Only a broad and plural alliance of greens, socialists, left-leaning libertarians and civil activists will be able to bring a real change to national politics, whose deeply conservative nature is justified and protected by the two-party system. Jill Stein ticket could be the beginning of an interesting perspective if anyone who is truly interested in fulfilling a peaceful and fairer society would ditch forever the unamendable Democrats and start to widen the criteria of ballot access and electability, working specifically on state and local candidatures and thickening the membership of parties, on sight of a future merger of all left parties in a single one. American voters are ready and experienced enough to accept other options, and a unified and principled left-wing subject can be the right answer to their desires.

3 responses to “Why I have not felt the Bern – Reflections on perspectives for American left

  1. Good stuff.

    While there are likely good reasons to be more sympathetic to Corbyn than to Sanders, I’m not so sure Labour is all that different from the Democrats. Most authentic leftists in the USA have long since abandoned trying to reform the (corporate-controlled) Democrats. Given Labour’s recent history, I’m not convinced Labour isn’t similarly hopelessly compromised, though I understand that (democratic) reforms in Labour’s decision-making processes were critical to Corbyn being elected party leader.

    It’s fair to criticize Sanders for not running 3rd party and potentially missing a key opportunity to build an alternative but in his defense I’m not sure he could have reached as many people as he did if he hadn’t run Dem, which in turn required the devil’s bargain to support Clinton when the time came.

    The American people are slowly radicalizing. Prolonged economic recession has played a role, endless war and the spy state have played theirs, and Occupy was a nice jolt. Still, most Americans remain plugged into the corporate machine and are unable to think outside the box they’ve been assigned. It’s been a pleasant surprise that despite decades of relentless pro-market, pro-corporate propaganda, most ordinary Americans have sufficiently healthy instincts to embrace Sanders’ economic message when they’re exposed to it. The more they hear from Sanders, the better he looks compared to ordinary Democrats. The disenchantment with the Democratic Party in the wake of the campaign is an enormous opportunity for the Green Party.

    To be fair though, neither Democrats nor Republicans are popular these days.

    Sanders made excellent use of the opportunity (eg, by playing the system’s game, corporate media allowed Sanders to play the populist hero, the role Ron Paul played in 2008 and 12). Sanders didn’t waste it–he stayed on message and maintained his dignity. Now Sanders’ legacy is likely to depend on the role he plays in the next few years now that he has the public’s attention. Will he sheepdog for the Democrats and support American militarism abroad? Or will he continue to speak truth to power?

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    • In my own opinion Bernie did a good job in his campaign, but, to be fair, I think that even he was pretty sure that Hillary was umbeatable since the beginning. His “hijacking” of the Democratic platform would work only if the international agenda will not impose other issues for the presidency and the Congress, and this seems very realistic, following advices from foreign policy experts. I agree that a Sanders campaign outside the Democrats could have been practically invisible for the national audience, but if no one begins to challenge this “third party bias”, when their status is going to change?
      Talking about reflections on Democrats – Labour similarities, I decided to consider the effort of membership only on leadership selection, because American and British electorate are radically different. Since 25 years to date Labour shifted to the centre of the spectrum, but also Tories left their traditional diehard right-wing positions in favour of a more multicultural approach, and British two-party system is permanently challenged by relevant competitors like Liberal Democrats, Greens, Scottish Nationalists and more recently the UKIP (I will write an article on this topic here). Polarization of institutions was never imposed by law in UK, as happened in the US, and even parties with less than 10K members are entitled to take part in national debates. This is a primary aim for any third party in America, and, in particular, for any proper left wing subject.

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  2. Pingback: Federico Garcia: Why I have not felt the Bern – Reflections on perspectives for the American left | MassCentral, United States

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