Bernie Sanders

Joseph Moore pieinsky at igc.apc.org
Thu Mar 2 05:42:23 MST 1995


To the Marxism Listers who've been discussing Bernie Sanders:

At the risk of being shunned in certain parts of Vermont, here are
some personal observations about Bernie Sanders, the man and his
politics.  I have observed and tried to figure out Bernie for more
than a decade--having moved to Vermont shortly after he was
elected mayor of Burlington for the first time in 1981.  Indeed,
hearing of the election of a "self-avowed socialist" was one of my
reasons for seeking refuge in the Green Mountain State from the
beginnings of Reagan's horrible regime.  Burlington seemed, at
that time, one of the few bright spots out there in a rapidly
darkening universe.

So here goes on Bernie, both the positive and the negative sides:

Bernie calls himself a "socialist", and he has done so for a long
time under conditions when it was certainly not politically easy
to do so.  This I think is a genuine matter of principle for
Sanders.  I respect him for doing so, as well as for his
consistent refusal to let himself be sucked into the swamps of the
Democratic Party.

Nevertheless, I think Bernie is more accurately classified as a
left-populist rather than a socialist.  To my knowledge, Bernie in
Burlington as mayor and in Washington as congressperson has never
once articulated anything at all resembling a socialist programme
for the present or future (whether that may mean nationalizing or
municipalizing industries, instituting workers's self-management,
establishing cooperatives, or whatever).  When pressed to say just
what he does mean by socialism, Sanders will occasionally point to
Sweden. (In his last election campaign, he once mentioned France!)
Beyond the label and keeping a portrait of Eugene Debs on the
wall, "socialism", in whatever guise, is evidently not something
that Bernie ponders much about.  He is definitely not very big on
theory or on what George Bush once inimitably called "the vision
thing."  In Congress, he has advocated nothing more radical than
Keynesian spending programs (on highways, etc.) to put people back
to work.

I have heard of people who, when asked by some media hound why
they had just voted for an "avowed socialist", replied that Bernie
in their opinion was not really a socialist.  However you look at
it, if you really are a socialist and if your goal is more than
winning elections, this kind of statement indicates you're doing
something wrong.  But maybe the people who voted for him (and
pundit Kevin Phillips) are right: Bernie's a populist in a period
when populism (of various sorts) is resurgent in U.S. politics.
He just happens to be a populist with some left-wing rather than
right-wing roots.  With the Left in a heavy crisis/rethinking mode
everywhere around the world these days, you would think Sanders
would at least use his office and attendant resources to
facilitate the reconstructive processes, even if he does not know
what to do or to say himself.  This might be a way for him to show
his socialism.  But he hasn't.

Bernie's rhetoric about the injustice of the system to hard
working people is deeply heart-felt and can be very
effective--although he tends to repeat the same refrains ad
nauseam without much analysis.  Still, there isn't any other U.S.
politician pounding out a loud class struggle kind of beat.  So
that in context is very positive.  His success shows the potential
for a more class-oriented party.  The Sanderista model seems to be
something like the Canadian NDP, with which the VT Progressives
have been developing fraternal ties,  but there hasn't been much
thinking of that model's pros and cons.  Indeed, there doesn't
seem to be much of a Progressive plan at all.  Bernie's
personality and ego are basically allowed to dominate and
determine whatever happens without any real political oversights.


Bernie is very strong on class issues.  With respect to the "new
social movements", though, Bernie is very weak.  I remember the
difficulty feminists and gay rights advocates had with him in his
early days as mayor getting him to come out on their behalf.  He
could barely even say, "gay," without choking on it.  Admittedly,
he has gotten a bit better at pronouncing there (although clearly
the Crime Bill vote reveals a new speech-problem when it comes to
racism).  Once, not so long ago, people may not know, Sanders was
a backer of nuclear power plants, and, while he speaks-up some
about protections for the environment nowadays, he still does not
really seem to comprehend, or to have any serious desire ever to
comprehend, the radical environmentalist critiques of capitalism.
The Burlington Greens have been among Sanders's harshest critics.

Sanders has been able to develop good working relations with many
union people and farmers.  But from what I can tell he definitely
seems to be holding onto a very outdated--if it was ever
valid--and stereotypical Old Left image of what constitutes the
working class: straight, white, middle-aged males, preferably
manufacturing, with crewcuts and khaki workclothes.  There is
seemingly no awareness that the typical worker in the world today
is a woman and (at least outside of Vermont--the U.S.'s white-est
state) a person of color and that she may also well identify, as
much or more, with various "nontraditional" cultural identities as
with anything mainstream.

During the middle 1980s, when peace and solidarity activists were
mounting a huge campaign in Burlington against the main employer
in the city, General Electric, whose factory built gatling guns
being used against peasants in El Salvador, Sanders decided this
was all somehow anti-working class (activists made strong efforts
not to attack the workers in any way).  This falling out with the
radical direct action community in Vermont has still not totally
healed.

Many of these same folks also feel that the political energies in
general during Sanders's mayoral administration were drawn off of
the Burlington streets and into city hall.  People stopped looking
to themselves and the movements which they themselves could build.
That is not to say that many good things did not come out of city
hall.  People just weren't much empowered by progressive politics,
and Sanders has done less to empower people since going on to
D.C.

On the more positive side, since the last election, Bernie in this
new Republican Gingrich-led Congress has taken a more aggressive,
confrontational stance.  Of course, compromise with the Democrats
in exchange for a committee appointment is not feasible anymore.


What about the Crime Bill?  I see this more as a sin of omission,
not commission.  Sanders and some of the Progressives (Sanders's
initial successor as Burlington mayor, Peter Clavelle, seems one
exception; he spoke out vigorously against racism--as well as for
gay rights--in the working class communities in Burlington and may
have lost the election in 1993 because of it) just don't have much
consciousness about it (or may well think that race is a diversion
from organizing people along economic grounds).  The Bill pretty
much just slipped by up here, I'm sorry to say.  And compounding
the original shame, in my opinion, since Alexander Cockburn called
Sanders on it as far as I know there has been zilch self-criticism
from Sanders and precious little discussion among the
Progressives.  Did they organize a public meeting or something?
No, they have basically tried to sweep it under the rug here
(where not so many people necessarily read the Nation) while doing
damage control on the Left (Ellen David Friedman's Nation piece)
outside of Vermont.  Some of the local newspapers picked up the
story, so fortunately they could not avoid dealing with the issue
in Vermont altogether.

The Crime Bill vote was not only unconscionable, it was
politically stupid.  If Sanders had voted against it, he would
have protected himself from the NRA-backlash (which almost cost
him re-election) and kept smelling good--through putting another
spin--on his left.  By election time, most pro-gun control
liberals would probably have forgiven him.  (The Republican was
financed odiously by the NRA.)

This, of course, does not deal with the more theoretical questions
about the value of running for a public office as a radical, the
dangers of cooptation, etc.  Sanders and the Progressives are very
much oriented toward the existing political process and to getting
their people into it.  Progressive gatherings I've attended are
centrally focused around recruiting candidates and exhorting
people to vote.  And I don't think they see candidacy as merely
obtaining a forum.  They genuinely think real changes can happen
by winning.  (Sanders canvassed his supporters last year about
whether he should run for the Senate rather than the House because
he ventured that perhaps he could be more "effective" as a
Senator.)  I should say that the above are not necessarily the
political views that I hold.

On the other hand, I should also "own up" that I have cast my
votes for Sanders many times by now.  I thought Cockburn's
criticisms were accurate but that he was going too far in
expecting Vermont's voters to simply turn Sanders out on his butt.
It presumed a level of consciousness about racism along with a
degree of political discourse that does not exist here at present.
Cockburn is to be thanked, however, for pushing our buttons hard
on this issue.  Some of us here, I think, are determined now to do
better in combatting racism--which, unfortunately, is still more
than alive against African-Americans (e.g. a recent incident in
which a rare black high school player was called "nigger" by the
opposing team and fans), against the Native American (mostly
Abenaki) population, and in the form of occasional anti-semitic
defacements and otherwise.

I could keep going but will stop for now.  Maybe other Vermonters
--I see at least several others on the Marxism list--will join in.
I would be willing to try to answer any specific questions of
fact.

For one, two, many revolutions,

J. Moore

P.S. Bernie has gotten an Econet/Peacenet/Labornet/Conflictnet
E-mail address: bsanders at igc.apc.org.  Pose some of your questions
to him or his staff directly.  Satisfy my curiosity by sending me
a copy if you get anything interesting back (as you probably
will).


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