Ron Radosh

What's Really Behind Bernie Sanders' Boom?

Bernie Sanders had a good month.

Ten thousand people came out to hear him in friendly Madison, Wisconsin, 5000 in Denver, 2500 in Council Bluffs, Iowa, and 7500 in Portland, Maine. As the Wall Street Journal editors write, it’s a true “boomlet.” The editors, however, ask the fundamental question:

Could a 73-year-old self-avowed socialist from Vermont really win the Democratic presidential nomination?

The answer they give is one on which we all could agree — no.

Despite all his protestations that he is running to win and will do it, we can rest assured that Bernie will not be the Democratic candidate for president of the United States. He will not even be the vice president, and the anointed one — Sec. Hillary Clinton — will continue to publicly ignore him, unless and until she can’t.

What he will do, as I argued earlier, is succeed in pushing her to take even further-left positions than she already has. She wants to make it clear to her party’s base that she can be depended on to address the issues which have given rise to Bernie’s popularity.

Most analysts know that Sanders’ campaign will soon falter. Political analyst Nate Cohn explains that while Sanders has been able to consolidate liberal supporters dissatisfied with Hillary Clinton’s ties to Wall Street, Clinton has a wide lead among moderate and conservative Democrats, including the white working class. Cohn also points out that Sanders is not likely to appeal to affluent, socially liberal but fiscally moderate Democrats, such as those who vote solidly Democratic in Silicon Valley.

The Sanders campaign reminds me of past efforts — all of them — by American socialists to enter the presidential contest. Eugene V. Debs, the leader of the Socialist Party in its heyday, ran for president five different times: 1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, and 1920. In 1920 he received 900,742 popular votes, about 6 percent of the ballots cast for president — the single largest tally any socialist candidate ever won in a general election.

Debs’ successor as head of the party, Norman Thomas, ran for president six different times, starting with each presidential election from 1928 through 1948. Thomas, like Debs, ran on the Socialist Party line not only against Republicans, but against the the left’s favored candidate, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and finally against Harry S. Truman. He received an infinitesimally small amount of the popular vote, as even leftist American voters deserted him in droves. But Thomas’s goal in running was to popularize the socialist program, and to accomplish that he thought an independent socialist campaign would be necessary.

The only left-wing, third-party candidate of any significance in 1948 was Henry A. Wallace, who ran on the Communist-dominated Progressive Party label. He took a scant 2.4 percent of the popular vote, with close to one million Americans casting their ballot for him. However, Wallace claimed to be what he called a “progressive capitalist,” and never espoused a socialist program.

The last significant leader of American socialism, the late Michael Harrington, never ran for any political office. I was a member of both groups Harrington founded: the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee, and then the Democratic Socialists of America, which was formed in 1982. Harrington then took the position I termed at the time “Browderism without Browder.” Earl Browder, the leader of the American Communist Party during World War II, developed the strategy (demanded at the time by Stalin) of supporting FDR and the Democrats. Rather than staging any independent political campaigns, he believed in working within the Democratic Party with the goal of pushing Roosevelt as far left domestically as he and the Communists could while supporting the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union.

Harrington believed that socialists should adopt that strategy. When the leader of the British Labor Party’s far left, Tony Benn, came to speak at a DSA event, he argued fiercely for a break with the Democrats. He urged Harrington to run as an independent against any candidate the Democrats chose. Harrington strenuously disagreed.

Undoubtedly, Harrington would today have dismissed any personal qualms he might have had about Sanders’ views of the old Soviet Union (the candidate honeymooned there) and would have endorsed and worked for him. The organization he created now publicly backs Sanders, arguing:

[Sanders’] candidacy could help expand both the progressive movement and the democratic socialist voice within that movement.

Sanders is so far left, as the WSJ editors noted, that he supports the position of the Syriza Party in Greece and its rejection of the eurozone nations’ bailout terms. In an interview with Nation magazine writer John Nichols, Sanders said:

I applaud the people of Greece for saying “no” to more austerity for the poor, the children, the sick and the elderly. In a world of massive wealth and income inequality Europe must support Greece’s efforts to build an economy which creates more jobs and income, not more unemployment and suffering.

Sanders does not comprehend that the Greek left has succeeded in leading its country to a state of almost total collapse by following the kind of program Sanders advocates for the United States.

Sanders’ so-called solution is a non-starter. He favors much higher taxes, a huge increase in the minimum wage, lifting the income cap on the payroll tax, and imposing a death-tax surcharge. At a moment when entitlements have to be reined in to prevent America going the route of Greece, Sanders wants them to grow as large as they can, with full universal health care through a single-payer system, the equivalent of the suffering British health system.

He also favors overturning the Citizens United decision, and says that as president he would only appoint Supreme Court nominees who would pledge to do so. While he attacks the Koch brothers for vowing to spend $900 million on candidates they support in 2016, he says not a word about those like George Soros, who will spend an equal amount on Democrats he favors. (You can find Sanders’ program, vague as it is in terms of concrete proposals, here.)

Sanders parts from the rest of the Left by choosing to not address the kind of identity-based politics so favorable these days. He has said not a word about abortion, gay rights, affirmative action, or immigration reform. “What’s missing,” Forward editor J.J. Goldberg writes, “is the laundry list of gender and identity issues that have dominated Democratic and liberal politics since the late 1960s.” He most likely favors the Left’s take on all these, but he is an old-style socialist. Sanders concentrates on one issue alone: economic inequality.

The only real question is this: will Hillary do something to make her candidacy vulnerable, at which point Elizabeth Warren might decide to enter the race herself, forcing Sanders to withdraw and throw his support to her? Or could Joe Biden, for the moment standing in the wings, enter the race and take away from Hillary the moderate voters among Democrats she now has supporting her?

No one can predict the political future. One month in politics is like a few years in the real calendar. We are certainly in for a quite interesting campaign season.