Months after Bernie Sanders lost the Democratic presidential nomination to Hillary Clinton, and weeks after Republican nominee Donald Trump’s shocking victory, you might be tempted to pass up a biography of Sanders. Whether it’s the crushed humanity in you still coming to terms with Trump’s victory, or the political cynic in you brushing Bernie aside as now irrelevant, pay no heed to those urges. Cartoonist Ted Rall’s graphic biography of Bernie Sanders is more important now than ever.
The opening third of the book, summarizing Democratic political strategy since the ‘60s, resonates even more strongly in the wake of Clinton’s defeat, because her defeat proves Rall’s thesis right. Successive (yet for the most part unsuccessful) Democratic strategists and political consultants argued that the Democratic Party was too far to the left of the average voter. He illustrates how, ever since Republican Richard Nixon defeated Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern in 1972, the Democrats have become obsessed with the notion that they can only win by moving to the right.
Relying on polls and political theory, they argued that successful candidates needed to follow the average voter to the right, rather than try and lead them to the left. Various movements and groupings within the Democratic party brought centrists and right-wingers—some of them advocating policies even more right-wing than Republican platforms—into power within the party, while the party’s left wing and even moderate liberals found themselves ostracized and excluded from decision-making.
When Democratic nominee Jimmy Carter was (narrowly) elected in 1976, it seemed to prove the right-wingers, well, right. Carter proceeded to implement one of the most right-wing regimes in Democratic presidential history, ramping up military spending and becoming the first Democratic president to not propose a major anti-poverty program. In the lead-up to the 1980 election, Senator Ted Kennedy launched a challenge to Carter’s right-wing leadership from within the party, but the Democratic establishment changed convention delegate rules in a way that favoured Carter, ensuring his selection. Carter went on to a crushing defeat at the hands of Republican Ronald Reagan, which Rall attributes to “the soon-to-be cliché that given the choice between a fake conservative and a real conservative, people will vote for the real one.”
Indeed, people continued doing so until 1992, when Democrat Bill Clinton won the presidency. Rall attributes this to his challenger (and predecessor) George H. W. Bush’s failure to address the ongoing recession, as well as the Reform Party candidacy of billionaire Ross Perot, who was able to use his enormous personal wealth to make his third party a viable challenge. Clinton claimed Democratic cred by ceding tiny ground on social issues—gays in the military, for example—while continuing to push the party to the right on everything else, from free trade to corporate investment. The right-wing Democrats were convinced their strategy was working and continued trying to chip away at the Republican voter base by adopting increasingly right-wing policies; all the while ignoring the fact that they were losing their left and progressive voter and support base.
This became glaringly obvious when former Democrat Ralph Nader contested the 2000 election for the Green Party, challenging his former Democratic colleagues over their right-wing shift. Democratic candidate Al Gore actually won the popular vote, but perplexingly allowed Republican George Bush to take the presidency without challenging the legitimacy of the election (a Republican-controlled Supreme Court had suspended the vote count in Florida, where the margin was narrow). Instead of acknowledging the growing alienation of progressive voters with the Democrats, they blamed Nader for undermining them. They accused him of being a cause for the party’s defeat, instead of recognizing his candidacy as being an inevitable product of the party’s rightward shift and the growing alienation of its support base.
Of course, Democrat Barack Obama’s victory seemed to reinforce the narrative: push the party to the right. But did it, really? As Rall points out, Obama promised far more than he provided. He promised a single-payer, government-run health care program in 2003; what he eventually provided in the name of centre-right compromise was such a disastrously watered-down contrast to the socialist program he’d promised that it alienated and disgusted many of the very people who needed it most. Obama’s presidency, argues Rall, illustrated how far right the Democrats had moved. First, he ignored liberals and progressives and stacked his cabinet with right-wing Democrats. Second, he failed to produce the socialized health care program he’d promised. Third, in the face of the banking and housing crisis, he did virtually nothing to help the average American while showering trillions of dollars in government support to the big banks that had caused the meltdown.
Rall’s indictment of the Obama years is ruthless yet fair:
The voices of the dispossessed are not heard in Obama’s America. Neither major political party talks about income inequality, which has been growing steadily since the 1970s. Average wages and benefits are stagnant or shrinking. Almost all of the vast wealth created by the internet boom is going into the pockets of a tiny elite, the so-called top 1%. Jobs are so hard to find that millions of people are giving up looking, dropping out of the workforce entirely. They’re no longer counted as officially unemployed. They’re invisible. Recent college graduates emerge into a bleak job market, staggering under the burden of student loans they’ll never be able to repay… [yet] America isn’t poor. There’s always money for war: to invade Afghanistan. To invade Iraq. To build so many new military bases that—it’s true—even the Pentagon might not know how many there are. What there isn’t is money for average people. Unemployment benefits run out after a few months. After those paltry assistance payments end, it’s your tough luck. Your problem. If you’re jobless or poor, you are on your own. There’s no money to fix infrastructure, even though bridges are collapsing and the nation’s train systems have been eclipsed by those of third world nations. No money for schools, or teachers, or veterans, or job training.
Cue the Revolution
Occupy Wall Street (OWS) should have been a wake-up call for the Democrats, Rall argues. Dissatisfied with the inaction of so-called progressives in power, people began taking to the streets and looking elsewhere for political reform. Before the shift in Democratic strategy in the ‘70s, Rall says, Democratic leadership would have engaged a movement like Occupy Wall Street that seemed to resonate with so many of the party’s espoused principles. Democratic politicians would have participated in rallies and appointed OWS leaders to positions in government or in the party where they could try to actualize their demands. Instead, rages Rall, “Obama’s Department of Homeland Security coordinated a simultaneous series of violent police attacks to eradicate the Occupy movement. The movement had been peaceful. Nevertheless, across the nation, riot police stormed into the encampments. Swinging their batons and spewing pepper spray, Obama’s Stormtroopers drove the young idealists into the night.”
The second half of Rall’s book comprises a biography of Sanders proper. While clearly endorsing Sanders’ politics, Rall offers an interesting and balanced portrait of the man behind the politics, from the mysterious collapse of his first marriage to his sympathy for Israel, a sore point among progressive and pro-Palestinian activists. He clashed with progressives on other issues too, wavering on drone warfare, targeted assassinations and other right-wing policies (ones that would even have been dismissed out of hand by horrified Republicans a few decades ago, argues Rall). Yet his career, from the early tenacious runs for mayor to his open identification as a socialist in the Senate, reveals an independent thinker who has focused his politics on ideas, not strategy, and who has struggled passionately for issues of economic justice.
The struggle over ideas will be more important than ever in the years to come. Trump’s election, coupled with the surge of support for Bernie during the nomination campaign, illustrates an America that has lost patience with a politics that’s become dominated by strategists, theorists and pundits; lost patience with a purported centrism that merely masked the reality of a rightward drift toward income inequality and social injustice. American politics is now an open debate between ideas that have been muffled for decades: left and right; socialism and fascism.
Post-Mortem, and the Importance of Big Ideas
Rall published his biography of Sanders before the presidential nominations were decided; hopeful, no doubt, that it might do its part in boosting support for Sanders. In retrospect however, the 2016 US election proved Rall’s argument. By moving to the right over the past four decades, the Democratic party has lost its progressive support base. It’s also alienated the very ‘swing votes’ it was obsessed with following. Voters aren’t stupid, and they recognized that the Democrats were simply putting forward right-wingers in disguise. Why vote for seemingly dishonest right-wingers pretending to be progressive, when you can vote for someone just as right-wing who doesn’t try to deceive you by hiding their stripes?
By following the advice of pundits and consultants, by trying to get elected and ‘follow the votes’ instead of staking out principled positions and trying to lead voters to the left, the Democrats have steadily eroded the credibility, legitimacy, and integrity of their party, argues Rall. They’ve abandoned progressive ideals and even basic good old-fashioned liberalism, and become the party of the right in disguise.
Sanders offered an alternative. It was one the Democratic establishment ignored and they wound up paying the price.
After a person is radicalized, whether they’re motivated by disgust at unfairness or a strong desire to fix a problem, they’re presented with a choice between two roads: the way of the rebel and that of the reformer… Bernie’s political credibility, his currency with ordinary voters and Americans in general, derives from his willingness to tolerate years of ridicule and contempt for his self-description as a “democratic socialist”… the massive crowds that began coming to Bernie’s campaign rallies after he announced his run for president, many of them drawn from the ranks of the young, demonstrate that there is a raging appetite for new leadership. If Bernie turns lame, or stays true and loses the nomination or the election, the hundreds of thousands of voters who turned out will never do so again. They will become jaded and cynical, much like the young men and women who canvassed for Obama in 2008, only to find out after the election that their politics bore little resemblance to his.
It’s a bittersweet warning, because it proved true. It also resonates eerily with Trump’s victory. While the Democratic establishment rejected the rebel in their ranks, the Republican establishment was dragged kicking and screaming behind a rebel of their own, and it led to an electoral victory. Now it is not merely Bernie’s young supporters who risk turning jaded and cynical, but an entire country that fears for its future.
As Rall points out, the Sanders phenomenon that erupted during the Democratic nominee race illustrated a fundamental point. “Millions of people are angry. As history shows, oppressed masses won’t forever suffer in silence. It’s only a matter of time before the deluge.”
Rall’s hope was obviously that the Sanders phenomenon would be that deluge, and for a time it was—until the Democrats dammed it by appointing Clinton as their candidate. And so the deluge erupted on the Republican side, instead. It cost the Democrats the White House (and both of the other houses, too). But its cost on America, and on the world, could wind up being much greater.
There will be many short-term challenges for Democrats and liberals and progressives of all stripes. But the long-term challenge for Democrats, if they wish to rebuild their party, will be to figure out how to reverse a rightward shift that has become deeply structural and deeply ingrained in the party.
Reading insightful, prescient, and well-argued analyses like that of Rall would be a good place for them to start.
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