There are two versions of Bernie Sanders. There is the old Bernie Sanders, who mounted a quixotic campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination as a democratic socialist who refused corporate cash and excoriated corporate Democrats. And there is the new Bernie Sanders, who dutifully plays by the party’s rules, courts billionaires, refused to speak out in support of the lawsuit brought against the Democratic National Committee (DNC) for rigging the primaries against him and endorses Democratic candidates who espouse the economic and political positions he once denounced.
If we are to defy corporate power, which is vicious when it feels threatened, we need leaders with the fortitude to withstand the onslaught. Debs never sold out. He was sent to prison in 1919 and ran for president in 1920 from his prison cell. If we are not willing to pay this price we better not play the game.
Those who support Sanders’ capitulation, including his high-priced establishment consultants, will argue that politics is about compromise and the practical. This is true. But playing politics in a system that is not democratic is about becoming part of the charade. We need to overthrow this system, not placate it. Revolution is almost always a doomed enterprise, one that succeeds only because its leaders eschew the practical and are endowed with what the theologian Reinhold Niebuhr calls “sublime madness.” Sanders lacks this sublime madness. The quality defined Debs. And for this reason Sanders is morally and temperamentally unfit to lead this fight.
“I never had much faith in leaders,” Debs said. “I am willing to be charged with almost anything, rather than to be charged with being a leader. I am suspicious of leaders, and especially of the intellectual variety. Give me the rank and file every day in the week. If you go to the city of Washington, and you examine the pages of the Congressional Directory, you will find that almost all of those corporation lawyers and cowardly politicians, members of Congress, and misrepresentatives of the masses—you will find that almost all of them claim, in glowing terms, that they have risen from the ranks to places of eminence and distinction. I am very glad I cannot make that claim for myself. I would be ashamed to admit that I had risen from the ranks. When I rise it will be with the ranks, and not from the ranks.”
Gautney calls the system broken, but it works exactly as it is designed to work. The Democratic Party elites have been refining the mechanisms and exclusionary rules since the presidential election, along with purging the party of progressives, to ensure that an insurgent candidate like Sanders will never get close to the nomination. Sanders, no doubt, thinks he can overcome these obstacles by being obedient to the party hierarchy. This is a terrible miscalculation.
In state after state, as Gautney details, Sanders was systematically robbed. And he and any other insurgent can expect the same treatment in 2020.
The rules and bylaws committee and the DNC are stacked with lobbyists, consultants, establishment and Clinton loyalists, and people, like Brazile, who rigged the election against Sanders. They retain control over any changes to the rules. The public has no say. There is not one Sanders supporter on the committee. The final recommendations submitted by the commission said nothing about the chief source of corruption that grips the Democratic Party—corporate and billionaire money. It didn’t mention campaign finance reform. Any attempt at reform is meaningless until corporations and billionaires stop bankrolling the party.
The Democratic Party is neither democratic nor in any real sense a political party. It is a corporate mirage. The members of its base can, at best, select preapproved candidates and act as props in a choreographed party convention. Voters have zero influence on party politics.
Sanders, who calls himself an independent, caucuses as a Democrat. The Democratic Party determines his assignments in the Senate. Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York, who oversees Wall Street campaign donations to Democratic candidates, offered to make Sanders the head of the Senate Budget Committee if the Democrats won control of the Senate, in exchange for the Vermont senator’s support of Clinton and the hawkish, corporate neoliberal Democratic candidates running for the House and Senate. Sanders, swallowing whatever pride he has left, is now a loyal party apparatchik, squandering his legacy and his integrity.
There was about $6 million left from the Sanders campaign, and it was used to form an organization called Our Revolution in August 2016. The organization was set up ostensibly to fund and support progressive candidates. It was soon taken over by Weaver, who ensured that it was not registered as a political action committee (PAC), a group that can give money directly to campaigns. It was set up as a 501(c)(4), a group prohibited from having direct contact with candidates and giving donations directly to candidates. The 501(c)(4) status allowed it to take and mask donations from wealthy donors such as Tom Steyer. Sanders’ decision to quietly solicit contributions from the billionaire oligarchs who funded the Hillary Clinton campaign and control the Democratic Party betrayed the core promise of his campaign. Yet, even as he created a mechanism to take money from wealthy donors he continued to write at the bottom of his emails “Paid for by Bernie Sanders, not the billionaires.”
The Democratic Party is as much to blame for Trump as the Republicans. It is a full partner in the perpetuation of our political system of legalized bribery, along with the deindustrialization of the country, austerity programs, social inequality, mass incarceration and the assault on basic civil liberties. It deregulates Wall Street. It prosecutes the endless and futile wars that are draining the federal budget. We must mount independent political movements and form our own parties to sweep the Democratic and Republican elites aside or be complicit in cementing into place a corporate tyranny. Sanders won’t help us. He has made that clear. We must do it without him.