by Kevin Nugent/Love and Rage
Since announcing last spring, the Sanders campaign has sparked a fierce debate on the left regarding Sanders’ viability as a candidate, his left-wing credibility, and the distance between himself and the establishment party machinery. Quasi-enthusiastic Clinton supporters aside, the left is split between traditional liberals whose favorite president is FDR and would like to see the return of post-Depression politics, and the Greens and others who feel that any and all interaction with the Democratic party is a exercise in futility.
Well, to both sides of this debate, allow me to say this; it is irrelevant. Sanders as a candidate, as well as his platform, is somewhat unimportant, at least from a practical perspective. What does matter is his perceived ideological affiliation or label, and whether or not he can succeed in a national election. His sole contribution to the American political process will be to win the nomination of the Democratic party for president, and perhaps even the presidency itself. But no more.
Allow me to explain. This may come as a surprise, especially given my position as a Sanders supporter, but as a political leader and executive, Sanders is destined for inefficacy. Given the monumental influence of special interests and the current neo-liberal and conservative control of Congress, passing anything in his platform, at least in a way that represent significant change, would be close to, if not impossible. That is not to say, however, that Sanders cannot bring change to the system.
The only real and tangible contribution that Sanders can offer the political system is to win. In the political mainstream, Sanders is regarded as a “socialist.” In real terms, he is barely a social democrat, and is more in line with Roosevelt and Johnson than Marx and Lenin. However, if a perceived (and sometimes self-avowed) socialist can win the nomination of one of the major political parties, it will shake the foundations of the American political system to its core. Whether or not he is actually a socialist is less important than if he is perceived as a socialist, and even less so if he actually wins. He would not be able to implement Medicare-for-all in 2017 or 2018 or 2019, but he may open the door to an end of both neo-liberalism and the rightward shift of the American political spectrum, and help to bring about the return of American politics in the liberal tradition of the mid-twentieth century.
Most of the debate on the left regarding Sanders centers on just how different, or not so different, he is from the modern Democratic party. While he supports single-payer healthcare, free tuition at public universities and the re-installation of Depression-era financial regulations, he subscribes to status-quo politics when it comes to capitalism as the dominant economic ideology and hawkish-ness as the default foreign policy strategy. This gives adequate intellectual cover for both Sanders supporters attempting to demonstrate his deviation from the norm, as well as those further to the left who hope to prove the opposite. In practice, however, the real-world differences between Sanders and the Democratic establishment will almost certainly never see their way into law, making them more or less moot.
However, because Sanders will not be able to significantly impact legislation does not mean that his candidacy lacks value. Sanders best chance for bringing change to the system is to change the political conversation. He will not do this by proposing or passing laws, but rather by being a viable candidate that is significantly to the left of any other candidate within the mainstream.
Sanders is, as they say, standing on the shoulders of giants, namely on the backs of activist groups like Occupy Wall Street, who have already begun the long and arduous task of destigmatizing and reinvigorating words like “socialism,” “social justice,” and “economic fairness.” Sander is also in a sense benefiting from the politics of the post-Great Recession period. Thousands of young people feel burned by the system and are abandoning or reinventing traditional political and economic institutions and philosophies.
With the “Reagan Revolution” in the 1980s came a decades-long rightward shift of the American political spectrum. Today, millenials have inherited a bizarro political landscape in which the “liberal” party is about as conservative as the conservative party was twenty years ago, while the conservative party is so radical as to be labeled by some as having successfully waged a full-blown political revolution. While Sanders is seen as a radical in the current political climate, he would have been well within the mainstream 60 or 70 years ago. And while he may not be able to change laws, he will be able to change how we talk about the viability of laws, and more importantly, the viability of ideas.
A Sanders win will either force or persuade the Democratic establishment that it mustn’t be Republican Lite™ in order to win elections. If Sanders can win the primary, this and this alone will be the lasting contribution that he will make to American politics, and it will be remembered far more favorably than any neo-liberal “accomplishment” by his centrist Democratic forebears.
So, to my Sanders supporting friends, let me say this; let’s bring it down a notch. Yes, his policies sound good, and yes, he is a return to form for traditional American liberalism (for better or worse). However, we need to come to terms with the fact that he can only do so much, and that with gerrymandering, corporate control of government, and general opposition to “big government” within the American political consciousness, he is by no means a silver bullet and should not be treated as such. He is but a small part in building a movement that can push the entire country in the right direction. If we hope that he can bring change beyond a mild alteration to the American political alignment, we are in for a disappointment of Barack Obama proportions.
And to my friends opposing Sanders; I get it. You are right to be wary, and there is a very real threat of establishment co-option of the movement or apathy from the left once they have “succeeded” in getting their guy into office. That being said, if your goal is to move the country to the left and ultimately render economic exploitation obsolete, I would argue that baby steps are necessary, particularly in the short term. Deep-seated and long-established institutions are not just abandoned overnight, especially in our slow-moving body politic. We need to build a bridge that mainstream America can use to become comfortable with the politics of the left once again. While Sanders is in some ways is an affront to our values, like in his support for drones and Israel, he could potentially be a powerful tool that the left can use to regain the support of working class America.
It seems there is no end in sight to the debate about how “real” Sanders really is. Unfortunately, the answer is that it doesn’t much matter. What does matter is whether a “socialist” can gather the support needed to win such a coveted nomination in a country which fetishizes bootstraps and demonizes redistribution of wealth. If he can, I think we will find our work a bit easier in 2020 and beyond, and not just in regards to election cycles and voting habits.
Sanders could potentially open the door to a more thoughtful dialogue about the political left, and one that does not immediately shut down when the “s” word is mentioned. That, and that alone, will be Bernie Sanders’ legacy, and it’s a damned good one.
Kevin Nugent is an Oriskany, NY native who is currently teaching English with his wife in South Korea. Kevin previously sat on the Board of Directors for Central New York Citizens in Action, Inc. and taught as an adjunct lecturer of Government and Politics at Utica College.