The Sanders Ceiling and the Dirtbag Left: Why Democratic Socialism Fails Without Social Justice

Friends, humans, socialists! Lend me your eyes. For I come to bury Bernie, and to praise him.

When the histories are written – if histories are written, and more on that later – I think Bernie Sanders, though he will almost surely not be President, will rank as a transformative figure in American politics. How can he not? Things that are mainstream now, things like Medicare For All, a $15 minimum wage, a Green New Deal, were politically unthinkable four and five years ago, and it is, for the most part, entirely thanks to Bernie Sanders.

Turns out that progressive policies are actually pretty popular. As many of us suspected they would be, if the media could be convinced to take them seriously (more on that, too). Bernie’s run in 2016, and the energy that manifested behind it, put those issues into both the Democratic Party platform and, more important, the marketplace of ideas, where they sell like hotcakes at a lumberjack convention. Because why wouldn’t they? They’re great fucking ideas that would make almost everyone’s life better.

So why can’t Bernie, and Democratic Socialism, seem to break through electorally? Or at least get past the dedicated core of supporters who have already joined his Political Revolution?

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The answer is complicated. But it can be broken down into elements, some of which can be controlled, some of which can’t. For instance, one element that can’t be controlled is the cultural and historical weight of the word socialism, whether you modify it with the word democratic or not. Especially among Americans over the age of, say, forty. You know, the people who actually vote in meaningful numbers. I’m pushing fifty, myself, and remember the Cold War pall that hung over my childhood, where at any moment the United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics might erupt into nuclear holocaust. That’s some heavy shit to lay on a kid. But more important, that early training (friend/enemy, good/bad) is hard to transcend even if you’re consciously trying.

And yeah, socialism is much more agreeable to Millennials and Gen-Z and whatever we end up calling the ones who’ll come after them. We could have had it already, too, if they’d fucking turn out to vote in bigger numbers. Not that any generation ever has any moral high ground on that. So file that under ‘we’ll work on it, but don’t hold your breath.’

Also in that file is what I’ll call the Resistance of the Punditariat, who perform our national political discourse on TV and podcasts and radio, and from the pages of newspapers and magazines and political websites, and who are, for the most part, handsomely compensated for doing so. Their salary depends on their not understanding certain things, especially those that might upset the status quo. Not only are they invested in that status quo – as the successful will be in any situation or system – they have also been worked like sports refs for decades now by the folks on the right, who never miss an opportunity to accuse them of liberal bias. It’s to the point where a fair observer has to say they’ve overcompensated. Why else was every third question Elizabeth Warren was asked – back when she was the front-runner in national polling – whether or not she would raise taxes on the middle class? The question’s as loaded as an AR-15. Like in middle school when that kid thought the funniest thing in the world was to ask ‘Does your mom know you’re gay?’

So figure the punditariat – who are mostly fairly liberal in their personal attitudes; I do believe that – will continue to skew anti-liberal/progressive/socialist for the foreseeable future. You can’t control it, but you can take it into account and start working them yourself, calling out bias in framing and the focus on horse-race ephemera when lives and livelihoods are on the line. Like anything, if enough people do it for long enough, that tide can be turned, too. Evolution has a thousand mothers.

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So what factors can we control? And what does this have to do with Bernie Sanders and his Political Revolution? I’m glad I asked, cuz I got a theory.

My theory is we have two problems, which are inter-related. The first is simply this: socialists, especially the core of Bernie Sanders’ Political Revolution, are really shitty at being allies, and, as such, are even shittier at building coalitions. If you think I’m wrong, I’ll point you to all the people demanding Elizabeth Warren endorse Bernie Sanders because of their friendship and ideological similarities. People who, some of them, got in a flame war with Warren’s supporters back in January when her so-called friend and ally called her a liar on national TV, and who called the person who built the Consumer Finance Protection Bureau (and was forced out of running it) a corporate stooge. Shit, Warren’s people reached out to Sanders weeks before Super Tuesday and her dropping out of the race, and were rebuffed.

Some of this is the Dirtbag Left, who not unlike the above-mentioned punditariat, have found a profitable sort of noise to make, and whose new salaries depend on their not understanding things like how being an exclusivist jerkwad pretty much guarantees nobody wants to join or even work with you. It’s somewhere between a faith tradition and a cool kidz club from what I can tell: you’re in or you’re out, and fuck you if you’re out, even a little. It works as entertainment, but it’s no way to build a governing coalition. Which is what you need if you want to enact policy to, like, change people’s lives and shit.

But there’s a whopping dollop of blame to put on Bernie Sanders’ fudge sundae, too. For some of his hires, definitely. But the man made some seriously flawed choices. For one thing, his insistence on running as much against the Democratic Party as the Republicans and the billionaire corporate oligarchy is just a really not good way to get Democrats to support you. It riles up the kids, but til they show up to vote that’s a human interest story at best.

But it was Bernie’s choice to dismiss social justice issues as ‘Identity Politics’ for so long that really doomed him.

Put it this way: the backbone of the Democratic party is not, as many white college-educated progressives believe, white college-educated progressives. The ‘Democratic Wing of the Democratic Party’ as folks used to put it. We think we are, and there’s a certain logic to it. But we aren’t the party’s backbone, nor its heart and soul, either.

Women of color are the backbone of the Democratic Party, its heart and soul and animating force. People of color generally, but women of color particularly, and African-American women particularly-particularly. They’re the ones who show up, no matter what. The ones who do the actual work that makes the party go.

Women, people of color, the LGBTQ+ community, immigrants. You can win without them. But only if you’re a Republican.

So, if you want to, say, get the Democratic Party nomination for President, you’d best have a plan to win those voters over. Give them a reason to take a chance on you, Because as previously detailed, anything that can be labeled ‘socialism’ has a hard row to hoe in the US, and since those folks are the ones who catch the worst when Republicans and their coalition of White Christian Nationalists and the Actual Oligarchy are in charge, yeah, they tend not to want to take chances. I mean, put yourself in their shoes for a minute. If the house is on fire, you want to hear from the guy talking about how to put the fire out, not the guy talking about what kind of house you might build later.

And that brings me to the second prong of my theory, which has to do with the limits of a purely materialist critique of the status quo’s utility, not only as rhetorical but an analytical tool.

Like any reductive analysis, a purely materialist (the corporations and the 1% have captured the state and unofficially enslaved us all to an unsustainable economic system with disastrous and unjust real-world consequences) critique flattens the object of its critique, examines it through a lens that shrinks the spectrum in order to highlight certain wavelengths over others. All too often, issues of social justice are among those excluded wavelengths.

Those for whom social justice issues are of more than academic or conscientious interest aren’t thrilled to have their concerns so cavalierly excluded, it turns out. Nor are they thrilled when, as I’ve seen so often, they are blithely told how their issues will be magically solved through solely economic justice, and called names when they fail to achieve the expected moment of epiphany and join the faith tradition.

Remember, these are the natural, obvious allies any effective democratic socialist movement needs to achieve even a fraction of its goals. It’s time to stop asking why they aren’t joining us, and start asking how we can grow not only our tent but our worldview to include them.

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I have a deep and abiding respect for Bernie Sanders and the movement he’s built. I think we all owe him a debt of gratitude for bringing the issues – and policy solutions – of economic justice and class war and democratic socialism into the American mainstream, where even a resistant punditariat has to take them seriously. But I think it’s safe to say we’ve reached the limits of not only a Sanders-style Political Revolution that demands adherence instead of building alliances and coalitions, but of a purely materialist socialist critique of late capitalism that filters out issues of social justice and asks those for whom social justice is lived reality to take it on faith that they’ll be included.

For what it’s worth, on a personal level, I still think that more actively fighting the class war and striving to establish economic justice will go a long way to righting social and historical injustice. Like the cereal commercials from when I was a kid used to say: it’s an important part of this nutritious breakfast.

We just have to remember there are other things on the table, which are just as important, some even more so.

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If you want to change hearts and minds, you have to meet people where they are. You have to find out where they’re coming from, what they need, what they want. And you have to, you know, help them get it. Do the work for them. Don’t tell them how being your ally will benefit them. Show them how it does. It means reaching out, but it means stretching out, too. Becoming bigger yourself.

The most basic tenet of democratic socialism is that we’re all in it together. So let’s start acting like it. Let’s start acting like we understand the only socialism worth having is one that begins with social justice. Maybe then we can get some shit done.

How Warren Handled the Dustup, How Sanders Did

Start with the caveat: I’ve wanted Elizabeth Warren to run for President since 2009, when she first came to national prominence helping manage the Troubled Assets Relief Program. I was thrilled when she took Ted Kennedy’s Senate seat back from the Republicans, and I would have loved her to run in 2016, though I understood why she might choose not to. I’ve been a supporter since she announced in 2019, and I think of all the candidates running she’d make the best President, for reasons I’ll get into in a different post.

Bernie Sanders is my second choice. I was thrilled when he announced in 2016. Even though it was the longest of longshot candidacies, I was glad to see an out loud and proud progressive democratic socialist in the race, making news and getting the kinds of policies and critiques of the status quo I believe in into the mainstream discourse. I was thrilled with how far he exceeded expectations. But a tipping point came, at which he’d done what good he was going to, and the math was against him, with or without superdelegates and Clinton’s institutional support. And Bernie kept going.

Still, I’m glad that, this time around, not one but two progressive champions are not only in the arena, but have made it to the quarter-finals, when votes start getting cast and delegates allotted. And while I prefer Elizabeth over Bernie, I’ll be glad to see either of them collect delegates, because it means more legitimacy and power for the progressive wing of the Democratic party. If either of them win the nomination, they’ll have my full-throated support and whatever time or money I can cobble together to give them.

Okay? Okay.

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Isn’t this peaceful? Take a moment and appreciate it. Please.

You probably haven’t been hiding under a rock, but in case you have, the non-aggression pact Warren and Sanders worked out a year ago, and that’s been working out for both of them pretty well, started to fray a bit last week. Whether it’ll crumble further’s up for grabs, as much as the mainstream press would like it to, since news means eyeballs and progressives in elected office means cracking the oligarchy trying to murder American Democracy right now and their salaries depend on their not understanding that.

Bernie swung first, with some talking points for canvassers that could be read as anodyne or insulting depending on where you sit. Warren stayed mum for a day, then made either a proportional response or a sacrilegious slander in which she revealed that Bernie Sanders told her a woman couldn’t win the Presidency of the United States. Bernie denied it, blamed it on lying staffers. Warren confirmed her recollection. Bernie denied it, calling Warren a liar by implication. Then the debate happened.

 

 

 

Wolf Blitzer was clearly trying to get them to fight, wording his questions in such a way as to presume Sanders had said it. It was obvious, it was trite, and it showed Blitzer for what he is, a hack more interested in causing news than a journalist whose work is to report it.

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This guy, amirite?

There’s not a whole lot of daylight between Warren and Sanders, policy-wise. Certainly compared to the rest of the candidates on stage (don’t get me started on the Republicans). But there are differences of temperament and character that I think are telling and important, and I think the way the two of them handled the question in the moment — and after the debate, while the cameras were still running, though they mics weren’t hot anymore — tells us a lot about those differences.

I think it tells us a lot about the different standards men and women are held to, also. Even on the progressive left, where we really ought to know better.

You could see Elizabeth Warren on the split-screen while Bernie answered. Because he is Bernie — and, like so many men of his generation, can never do or be wrong, nor have done, or been, wrong, ever — he denied outright that he said it, called it ludicrous he or anyone would ever say such a thing (as if the person to whom he said it it were not right there next to him and also his longtime friend and ally), and corrected the record surprisingly meticulously for a conversation had a very busy year ago.

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TFW your friend says you lied.

If you’re at all able to read facial expressions, you could actually watch Elizabeth Warren swallow her rage at being called a liar in public in real time. (Link is to the exchange in question)

Now, I’m not here to try and settle the he-said/she-said here. The fact is human memory is unreliable, language is complex, perception of subtext and body language and facial expression necessarily idiosyncratic. They could very well both be telling the truth as they know/recall it. To be honest, settling that particular ambiguity — saying who’s right, who’s wrong, yadda yadda yadda — is beside the point I’m making here.

Given her chance to respond, Elizabeth Warren confined herself to two words, “I disagreed.” Then she turned and faced the 800-pound gorilla in the room head-on, and talked about how being a woman running for President in 2020 is not only not a disadvantage, it’s an outright advantage. She got the line of the night with how the men on stage had lost ten elections while the women hadn’t lost any. She made the case that the wave election of 2018 was attributable to the engagement of women as candidates and voters, which led to the Democratic House majority that have brought us not only four hundred plus pieces of legislation but impeached our corrupt gangster wannabe oligarch President.

In the back-and-forth after, Sanders reiterated his denial (reiterating his implicit claim that Warren is lying about what she said he said to her), and, in the middle of a pretty good line about how if any of the women — or men — onstage with him got the nomination, he’d be happy to support them, went off on a tangent about how he hoped it wasn’t any of them, he hoped it was him.

Elizabeth Warren talked about what she wanted to do as President, and made a case for why she was the candidate to unite both sides of the party. A thing that’s pretty important going into a campaign year that could decide more than just who’s in charge of various government entities for the next few years (hey there, climate change! Whatcha got in store for us?).

Then, at the end, when the debate was over and the mics turned off, Warren confronted her erstwhile buddy. From the transcript:

“I think you called me a liar on national TV,” Warren told Sanders.

“What?” asked Sanders.

“I think you called me a liar on national TV,” Warren said.

“You know, let’s not do it right now. If you want to have that discussion, we’ll have that discussion,” Sanders said.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as billionaire activist Tom Steyer listens after the seventh Democratic presidential debate in Des Moines on Jan. 14. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)
Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) speaks with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) as billionaire activist Tom Steyer listens after the seventh Democratic presidential debate in Des Moines on Jan. 14. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

“Anytime,” Warren said.

“You called me a liar,” Sanders said, adding: “You told me — all right, let’s not do it now.”

She ignores his proffered handshake. He’s confused, then dismissive. We’re not having this conversation right now, says his body language.

I have a feeling every woman I know has had something like that happen to her. Had her concerns — her integrity, even — dismissed and devalued by a man constitutionally incapable of admitting he was wrong.

[Caveat/Spoiler alert: I have also been that guy. Count me chagrined.]

Bernie Sanders could have done a little diplomacy and defused this whole nonsense. He could have made the whole situation disappear just by telling his friend and respected colleague that he recalled their conversation differently, but that he regretted giving her the impression he meant otherwise. He could have accepted some small degree of fault, apologized, and the whole thing would have been over.

Elizabeth Warren does not and did not have that option. Even if she did, that’s not her style. She’s done her damnedest this whole campaign not to go negative on anyone. She’s pointed out behaviors, and drawn distinctions between herself and, say, Pete Buttigieg. But she’s run a relentlessly positive campaign about what she means to do, how she means to do it, and why she’s the person who ought to be doing it. Even in the face of a callous, off-the-cuff insult from a self-proclaimed friend, she kept her cool and kept on mission.

And that, much as anything else, is why she’s my first choice, and Bernie only second. Because my political allegiance is not a fandom, it’s a reflection of my values, my character, and my honest best assessment of political effectiveness. Bernie’s good, and I think he’ll do the things I’d want a President to do more than he won’t, and it’ll be good for the country to elect someone so progressive. But Elizabeth Warren has a better temperament, is a more effective leader of large organizations, and will, I think, not only do better unifying the Democratic party behind her, she’ll do a better job winning the campaign and then governing after.

In more ways than one, I think it’s because she’s a woman.

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You may feel differently, and that’s fine. That’s what primary season’s all about. And in the next month or two, we’ll all have a way better idea which candidate’s doing better. Til then, I think we’re all gonna be way better off remembering we’re all on the same side, and concentrating on who the real bad guys are.

Iowa Debate Hot Take

For what it’s worth, and in no particular order, here’s what I thought:

Elizabeth Warren had a *great* night. All her answers were sharp, cogent, and, I’m not afraid to say it, Presidential. She was the strongest candidate up there, and to my mind has the best chance of uniting the Democratic party’s sometimes disparate elements, bringing new folks into the tent/coalition, and inspiring people who don’t normally vote that it’d be worth it to elect her.

Bernie, well, Bernie was Bernie. If you like/love him, you probably thought he did well. If you have your doubts, he probably didn’t win you over (especially, I’m guessing, if you’re a woman: more on that below). He was his usual forceful, self-involved self (which came through when he mentioned he hoped it would be him who was nominated rather than saying what he was running to do, and his mansplainity when it came to whether a woman could win the Presidency).

Joe Biden stumbled and slurred and lost the thread at least a dozen times. He’s too far past his prime (a prime in which he made a lot of bad calls, see: Iraq War, Anita Hill, the 2005 Bankruptcy Bill) and seemed like he was up past his bedtime. But it won’t hurt him, because he’s graded on a curve like Donald Trump is, albeit a slightly steeper one.

Amy Klobuchar had a decent night, and makes a decent case for herself. Which no one seems to be buying, and is not particularly inspirational. I like her okay, but I don’t think she could have moved the numbers much even if she’d turned in a Warren-grade performance, which I don’t think she did.

Pete Buttigieg made a few good points, and is obviously doing some tacking left-ish now that his surge is done. I see him as a party functionary or pundit when all’s said and done, which I imagine will help him out with that whole ‘poorest candidate on stage’ thing he keeps talking about.

Tom Steyer wasted a hundred million dollars to go on that stage and tell everyone which others he agreed with. He also stole Kamala Harris’ donor list and seems to have some bobble-head somewhere in his ancestry. I wish he’d fuck off and spend his money supporting someone who’d actually be a good President.

Moderators were okay, I guess, though I wish they were more interested in policy differences than trying to get people to fight. Still, I thought the ladies did well enough to cover for Wolf Blitzer.

The big dustup between Warren and Sanders was, I thought, pretty instructive. I was particularly impressed with how Warren handled her anger and turned the conversation to the 800 pound gorilla of sexism. I thought Bernie didn’t do himself any favors, basically calling Warren a liar (a charge she pointedly did not respond to, though I saw what looked like a quick throwdown after the debate: I’d give good money to hear what she said to Bernie when she refused to shake his hand) and mansplaining the fuck out of sexism in politics. That they gave Joe Biden the last word was as sadly predictable as the rambling nonsense that came out of his mouth about the subject.

I was glad to see foreign policy take such a big role, since that’s a big chunk of what a President does. “We’ve turned the corner so many times we’re turning in circles” is a great fucking line. I was also glad to hear Warren on trade — another big chunk of what Presidents actually co — especially the notion of making labor and environmental standards a prerequisite for access to American markets.

Will it move any numbers? Convince any voters? Who the fuck knows? Debates aren’t that big a deal. But if you were watching to see which one looked and acted like a President, I think you have to say Warren walked away with it. Do I think the MSM will agree? Prolly not. They’re too invested in the status quo, and their bosses don’t want to pay a wealth tax.

Make America What Again?

What with the shit-show we’ve got going on right now as a nation — concentration camps on the border, a wag-the-dog escalation to a war of choice with Iran, a serious bump in hate crimes and people identifying as Nazis and white supremacists, a climate crisis that will destroy life as we know it starting to kick in for real, a nationwide election coming up that will undoubtedly be fucked with by hostile foreign actors while the beneficiaries insist nothing’s wrong, and a legislature unable, thanks to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, to do anything but confirm hardcore conservative federal judges to lifetime sinecures, just to skim the surface — it’s easy to understand the widespread longing to go back to the way things were under the Obama Administration. To get things back to normal so we can all go back to living our lives without having to worry that the demented narcissist with the nuclear football will bring about Armageddon in a fit of pique or even just to avoid jail time.

I get it. I really do. I also would like not to live my life in a fog of existential dread, in which every action is pointless because, Rapture or not, the end is probably nigh for the American experiment and possibly human civilization and what can possibly matter anymore?

But even were it possible to return to whatever passed for normal before — and it isn’t — such a return is not even desirable, both on its own merits and especially in light of the challenges we face as Americans and human beings who live on the rapidly-warming, ecologically-imbalanced, and soon-to-be-downwardly-spiraling Earth.

I’ll explain.

Continue reading “Make America What Again?”