Feel the Bern

Radical, but not revolutionary

Wednesday, March 23, 2016

Hours before Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders spoke in Seattle, an estimated crowd of 20,000 had gathered in the drizzle to get into an arena that holds 17,000. By mid-afternoon, the line coiled from the Space Needle and EMP Museum and along Fifth Avenue.

Logistically, the crowd overwhelmed KeyArena.  Seattle Center staff estimated the crowd for the speech at 10,300 inside the arena, with 5,500 more outside. Another 1,500 listened eagerly as the Vermont Senator briefly addressed the overflow crowd outside.

Enthusiasm for Sanders echoed through the arena even before he entered, as speakers led the stomping crowd in chants of “Feel the Bern” and “This is what democracy looks like.” They shook the stands.

Sanders himself is shaking things up, speaking for millions of Americans who thought they had no voice in electoral politics. And in speaking for them, he has given them voice. He has commanded the attention of a political party apparatus that perhaps wanted to have a different sort of conversation in 2016, more incremental than a radical shift.

Who is the socialist rabble-rouser that has mounted such an unexpectedly successful challenge to the long-awaited coronation of Hillary Clinton?  The son of an immigrant raised in Brooklyn, New York, Bernie seems to represent the consummate political outsider—laughed off initially, but now a serious contender for the presidency. But is Bernie an outsider, asks author and syndicated editorial cartoonist Ted Rall.

Rall attempts to get at the answer in an illustrated guidebook to the Sanders phenomenon. Along the way—and very much by necessity—Rall also delivers a political biography of the post-Vietnam Democratic Party, chronicling its rightward drift over the past 30 years.

Praising a new political revolution, Rall asks, “Who among us wants to lose everything we most believe, everything we most love without even having fought to save those things? Who is willing to accept that we can’t fix what’s broken or that we can’t dream of a better life—not only for future generations, but also for ourselves?”

Cascadia Weekly: The mainstream media paints Bernie Sanders as a political outsider. Your view is different, that he embodies a long tradition of the radical end of the American Left, a portion of the political spectrum that has been dark and without organization for a number of decades.

Ted Rall: Yes; I had written a similar illustrated guidebook to Edward Snowden last year. Snowden blew the whistle on the covert surveillance of citizens by the National Security Agency and, for me, he is a true unvarnished hero—someone who performed a service to this country and someone that people can look up to. And, frankly, there are not a lot of those kinds of people in public life. Snowden is a young man who had a pretty radical ideological transformation in a short period of time, and became the consummate rebel.

And while Bernie Sanders is also an admirable person, he is very much the opposite. He’s a man who has been politically consistent for 50 years. Regardless of how the winds of politics were changing over the years, he’s always had the same message, which is exactly what has given him his credibility. People know that he was saying the same things in the ’80s and ’90s during the Reagan and Clinton years—when no one wanted to hear it, he was saying it anyway.

And we now have a country, or a sizable portion of it, that has come around to Bernie’s view, and he is surfing the wave of the progressive wing of the Democratic Party. Those voices have been marginalized for all these years—liberal votes have been taken for granted by the Democratic Party. The party has spent the last decade chasing down swing votes.

It’s always been assumed—by both parties—that you didn’t have to worry much about the base of the party. Now party strategists on both sides have come to realize that swing voters aren’t as important as an enthusiastic base, and both parties are facing challenges with that enthusiasm.

And that brings me around to a realization that if Hillary Clinton is the nominee, that could pose real problems for the Democratic Party this fall.

CW: Is enthusiasm the driver of the Bernie wave? Or is it frustration from the widespread realization that things could be better, but they’re not?

TR: Well, yes. There is that.

When you live in the United States and see the tremendous wealth that this country has, and you see every other country has high-speed rail, every other country has free college tuition and so on, you must wonder, “Where the hell is my money going? And why can’t we do better than this?”

Why are people so angry? It’s not that complicated: You can’t back free trade agreements that throw millions of people out of work or underemployed. Or take people who once had great jobs who are now working as greeters at Walmart, and have them not be pissed off. Especially when there is no concern expressed for them whatsoever. There’s no programs to retrain them, there’s no financial aid, no attempt to keep them in their homes—it’s just “Fuck you, you’re on your own.”

What do you expect from that? You get anger.

CW: In your 2010 book, The Anti-American Manifesto, you called for a new American Revolution, noting that the purpose of a revolution is to abolish unnecessary suffering. “The United States,” you wrote, “is a massive case study of people putting up with untold suffering when they shouldn’t have to.” Yet, at the same time, you lamented that there really wasn’t an organized Left, and there hasn’t been an organized Left for so long people have forgotten what that looks like or how to build it.

Does Bernie represent the nucleus of a new organized Left?

TR: The Bernie movement, even though he uses the phrase “political revolution,” is not a revolutionary movement. It is a revival of progressivism within the context of electoral politics. But it is not a Left movement, a Socialist movement, in the European sense.

Outside of this country, Socialism and Communism are viable political ideologies. Most European countries have a viable Socialist party. And certainly the ideology of the Communist party favors the overthrow of the state.

Bernie Sanders is not that!

Bernie is a McGovern Democrat—maybe not even quite as liberal as McGovern was. Perhaps that shows how far we’ve drifted right, that Bernie Sanders looks radical. And he does, in the context of today.

But he does not favor the overthrow of the state.

He says he is an antiestablishmentarian. I think it may be more accurate to say he is against corruption.

The American political system—certainly the campaign finance system—is corrupt. The revolving door between Corporate America and Washington, D.C., is inherently corrupt. The influence peddling, the paid political speeches are corrupt.

CW: Circling back to that earlier point about the absence of an organized Left, there seems to be an almost messianic quality to support for Bernie, as if—not knowing how to do it themselves—the Left has invested him with the qualities of a Savior, and that without him all is lost. And certainly part of that must be that, for an entire generation at least, no one has heard anyone talk like this before.

TR:  Yes. McGovern was probably the last national figure that even came close to talking about these things. That was four decades ago. So certainly people who are younger than that have never heard anything like this—and that is probably the bulk of the population at this point, under 45.

You are always going to be able to resonate with people when you can articulate something that they believe and have thought, but weren’t able to put it into words themselves. And when someone in power says it, it is like a shout of ”YES!” that can fill an arena.

CW: What do you give his chances of pulling this off, becoming the Democratic nominee for President?

TR: It’s a long shot now. Perhaps ten to one at this point?

It sucks; but if you’re running the campaign at this point, you’re running it for two reasons. You’re running it to keep the message going—which was the original purpose of this campaign, and it was only after the Michigan primary that everything looked like it was about to change. Ohio was devastating for that momentum. But the other reason is this is the Clintons. There’s always some scandal, some political gaffe—there is always something that could tank her. So hanging in there holds value for Bernie’s campaign.

Anything could happen, and Bernie could be there to pick up the pieces.

And apart from him, it is a grim march to the nomination. Whatever excitement this election holds, it does emanate from him.

CW: Washington state is a stronghold for Bernie. Bellingham will vote powerfully for Bernie this weekend. And for a lot of liberals in this state, there is safety in being radical with your vote because the general electorate is not going to vote Republican. But I wonder what you think of the larger implications of the “Bernie or Bust” mood that has seized many of his supporters—that they’d rather see everything burned to the ground than cast a vote for Hillary Clinton.

TR: There are lots of messianic politicians. A lot was invested, for example, in the candidacy of Barack Obama. But I don’t think in American politics, political movements ever really keep momentum going past election day if they’re based around a politician.

Real organization is from the grassroots up, the local level.

If there’s ever going to be a real Left, it is not going to arise from the political remnants of Bernie’s revolutionary force, or shock brigade.

What’s going to happen is, probably Hillary Clinton will suffer a devastating loss to Donald Trump in the fall. All the data suggests that. Donald Trump will eat her alive; and it will be another example of the Democratic Party falling prey to its establishment politics.

They should have embraced Bernie Sanders, which really would have amounted to giving him a fair shot. And he would have won the nomination.

CW: Is not voting a reasonable response? How does boycott assist democracy?

TR: The two-party system was always inherently flawed. If you look at voter turnout rates in industrialized democracies, two-party systems have lower voter turnout than parliamentary elections with large numbers of parties. And the United States has one of the lowest voter turnouts.

You have 320 million people here. Two narrowly focused, center-right parties is not enough to represent the breadth of the American people.

This election is a clash of “lesser evilism” versus idealism.

I’m not a big fan of “lesser evilism,” but never has there been a stronger case for it than this year. There is no question that Donald Trump represents an existential threat to the United States’ political system. And we may be voting not just for a President; we may be voting to see if our current system of government continues. We’re looking at the potential for a radical threat to our Constitutional structure.

He is not stupid; but he is reckless and irresponsible. He has contempt for the office and for the position that he is running for. There is no way he would come this unprepared for a business deal.

So I do not begrudge people who say they would vote for Hillary rather than him.

However, I’m not one of those people. For me, it is a personal decision. I feel I would betray the Afghanis, the Iraqis, the Syrians, Libyans, Yeminis, Somalis and so on whose lives she helped end, due to her cavalier, idiotic decision-making.

To me, a vote is an endorsement.

Bernie Sanders isn’t perfect. He is that flawed candidate whose faults I can overlook. He’s in favor of drones and voted in favor of the Afghan War, which I found appalling. But I can swallow that and vote for him anyway.

To the broader point, a lot can be accomplished by a voter boycott. Or perhaps better, voting for Jill Stein or writing in Bernie. It signals a hunger for something new.

If you’re trying to organize a new political party, clearly there is an opportunity to present something new to the American people, and help it take off. That is not going to be the case if you have large turnouts for the parties as they currently exist. The two parties hold too much power to lock out third parties.

A low voter turnout can send a message that the state is not legitimate. It could send a message to the world that the American people are not happy with their government.

It’s a very personal decision.

Ted Rall is the author of Bernie, a biography written with the cooperation of Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders published by Seven Stories Press,

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