Redefining “unrealistic”: the Bernie Sanders campaign
Moderates…are often correct in perceiving the difficulty or impossibility of racial progress in the context of present social and economic policies. But they accept the context as fixed…They apparently see nothing strange in the fact that in the last twenty-five years we have spent nearly a trillion dollars fighting or preparing for wars, yet we throw up our hands before the need to overhaul our schools, clear the slums, and really abolish poverty. (Bayard Rustin)
A consensus has clearly emerged among moderate pundits and critics regarding Bernie Sanders’ bid for the White House: his campaign and platform, they argue, are wildly unrealistic and reveal just how delusional, if not nihilistic, progressives have become. The campaign and platform are unrealistic, they tell us, because if elected Sanders will face “a House of Representatives firmly under right-wing rule, making the prospects of important progressive legislation impossible” (as Jonathan Chait has argued).
Let’s be real: any proposal that seriously addresses the concerns and champions the needs of working people will not get through this right-wing dominated House of Representatives. In fact, nothing left of center, or even a little right of center, will get through the current House. That truth, however, should force a conversation not on whether or not Bernie Sanders’ campaign and platform are realistic, but instead on what it will take – what kind of mobilization or political revolution is necessary –to remake Congress into one more amenable to policies that really address the people’s needs.
Preferring to “accept the context as fixed”(Bayard Rustin’s critique of moderates remains remarkably relevant), moderate pundits and critics have chosen a different path, which is to focus our ire on Sanders and his supporters by forwarding an argument that basically comes down to this: Bernie’s policies are unrealistic because they are not Republican. After all, following the logic of Sanders’ naysayers, his policies would have to be Republican in order to pass in the current House – and even that’s not guaranteed. One need only look at the fate of Obamacare (a Republican brain-child) to understand how precarious would be the success of a Republican policy ushered in by a Democrat (remind me again: to how many repeal votes has that legislation been subjected?).
Whether pragmatic, piecemeal or revolutionary, legislation addressing the needs of ordinary folk will not fare well in this Congress. Since this is the case, we might as well go for broke. In this way, we can at least change the terms of the debates on work, wealth, and war.
Speaking of war: moderates also slam Sanders’ campaign as unrealistic because his policies are “half-baked plans” (as Matt Yglesias recently characterized them) that are “too expensive” to fund.
But in making their case not one pundit has put on the table the nearly $2 trillion dollars spent thus far on the War on Terror or the $18 trillion dollars that this war has added to the U.S. debt. In fact, even as they correctly perceive that, “in the context of present social and economic policies” – and most certainly within the current political climate – Sanders’ policies will face stiff and uncompromising resistance, pundits “apparently see nothing strange in the fact” that in the last fifteen years we have spent such an astronomical amount “fighting or preparing for wars.” No one is talking about war at all, except to remind us about past votes on the Iraq War or the threat of ISIS.
Indeed, moderates who have decried the possible tax burden that Sanders’ platform might impose on ordinary people have had nothing to say about the billions budgeted for this fiscal year alone to fight a war with an enemy that we keep mindlessly reproducing. Instead, they have thrown up their hands before Sanders’ argument that we need to provide tuition-free college education, invest in our infrastructure, make healthcare truly accessible to all and thus free from the grip of insurance companies, and “really abolish poverty.”
The exasperation some critics have expressed regarding the costs of Sanders’ domestic agenda, coupled with their silence on war spending, suggests that what they consider unrealistic is not our war economy itself – even though it has robbed the American people of real opportunities for economic growth and stability; driven (rather than curtailed) hostilities and instability worldwide; deepened poverty here and abroad; destroyed human, plant and animal life, as well as poisoned natural resources; and, created — from Des Moines to Damascus — bitterness, resentment and hate. None of that is “unrealistic.” Instead, what’s a “no-win” is a campaign and political platform that seek to eradicate economic inequality and the drivers of that inequality, some of whom profit, absolutely and obscenely, from endless war.
In other words, what they don’t say is that the war is precisely what makes Sanders’ platform costly. We can’t keep bombing people or launching drone missiles and, at the same time, educate our people for free. The latter, in fact, is economically irrational given the [fixed] context.
I think it’s time to redefine what we call unrealistic.
But I will concede this: Sanders is not without fault. After all, his platform says nothing about the continued costs of our war and how those costs stymie creative approaches to redistribution. Thus, Sanders’ campaign and platform are unrealistic to the degree that they fail to set their sights on the costs of our war economy and war culture. Sanders needs to show (for example) that the Pentagon’s push to expand the U.S. presence everywhere through the creation of “hubs” or Special Operations staging areas will take money out of our pockets, enrich war corporations and CEOs, and succeed in fomenting (and thus increasing the costs of) the very terrorism it presumably intends to defeat. And he’ll have to talk about these war effects in ways that address as well as allay people’s real sense of vulnerability to terrorism.
In other words, Sanders needs to show that as President he will take “full command of foreign affairs” (Jonathan Chait) and redirect us from permanent war to peace and economic prosperity, and through a framework that galvanizes all of us to unseat every single representative who thrives on both our fear and our hunger.
Of course, putting on the table that $1.8 trillion (and counting) is not solely Sanders’ burden to bear since the failure to speak of the economic, social, and political costs of war make all the candidates – whether they support endless war or not – purveyors of fiction. Pragmatism and conservatism are lies we tell ourselves when we continue to sink billions of dollars every year into death and destruction at the expense of everyone’s well-being and peace. We have to be moved to see such waste, and the fantasies by which they are rationalized, as “strange” indeed, as something that calls for us not only to adopt a different set of domestic and foreign policies altogether, but to actually engage politics in a revolutionary fashion – and most certainly in ways that take us beyond the dangerously narrow focus on the race to the White House.
We all need to get real.
My book is out! Nonviolence Now! Living the 1963 Birmingham Campaign’s Promise of Peace (Lantern Books 2015)