Why I am feeling the Bern

I’m feelin’ the Bern! If Australia were the 51st state in the Union, I’d vote for Bernie Sanders in the primaries and for president.

But wait! As a recent comment piece at US website SocialistWorker.org aptly put it, the Democratic Party is “one of the most criminal enterprises the modern world has ever known”. Truman dropped the bomb on Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Kennedy and LBJ dragged the USA into the Vietnam War. Bill Clinton presided over the destruction of social welfare. Obama continued Bush’s bail-out of the banks and much of his brutal foreign policy.

For all these reasons and more, socialists have traditionally criticised left wing minority candidates who divert dissent harmlessly into the Democrats.

Socialism is not Scotland. If it were, we would be there already. In the real world, the high road of principle doesn’t travel so well.

Is this what Bernie Sanders is doing? If so, he is going about it in a strange way. He supports the break-up of the big banks, a dramatic rise in the minimum wage, a reinvigoration of the welfare state and the abolition of student debt.

Addressing the epidemic of racist police violence, he has called for mandatory reporting of all police-related deaths. These policies, presented with genuine anger and honesty, have badly undermined Hillary Clinton’s carefully focus-grouped, Teflon veneer. The Democratic Party establishment hates Sanders, and despite its vast spending and control of the majority of unelected “super delegates”, he has come within reach of capturing the nomination. In fact, the most recent national poll (at the time of writing) put him six points ahead of Clinton.

Sanders receives no funding from vested interests; his supporters are overwhelmingly poor, young and new to politics. He has tapped into a deep sense of economic injustice that hasn’t been given expression in living memory. He has punctured the “void” of politics, showing that there is an alternative to the deadening neoliberal consensus.

Most importantly, Sanders has shown that class-based politics can be a real force in a nation so politically stunted that “liberal” is usually synonymous with “left”. The USA is possibly the most anti-communist Western country, but Sanders has almost single-handedly resuscitated “socialism”.

In other words, we aren’t dealing with a harmless sideshow candidate who exists to give Clinton left cover.

This isn’t to say that criticism of Sanders is misplaced. As has been noted in the socialist press, his foreign policy positions are poor. He voted for the congressional act that allowed George W. Bush to invade Afghanistan. He has supported Israel’s right to “self-defence”, including during its 2014 assault on the Gaza Strip. In that conflict, up to 2,310 Palestinians, the majority civilians, were killed.

Other criticisms of Sanders’ domestic policy can and have been made. From a principled socialist point of view, it can’t be disputed that Sanders falls far short of what is needed.

But then, socialism is not Scotland. If it were, we would be there already. Unfortunately, in the real world, the high road of principle doesn’t travel so well.

So, while many left wing criticisms of Sanders are true, they can miss the point. In politics, it is possible to say something true and still get it wrong. Fascinatingly, desperate Clinton supporters have highlighted this for us by attacking Sanders from the left, accusing him of neglecting women, LGBTI people and African Americans.

It is also easy to forecast the limits of Bernie’s campaign. His chances of being nominated, while startlingly real, are still slim. Assuming he is, it would be a savage battle to be elected president. And if elected president, it would be truly naive to think that he would be allowed to make good on even a third of his promises.

But aren’t challenges like this the point? Aren’t these future crises and fights the very issues which allow radical perspectives to rise from the abstract to the concrete?

Inveterate sectarians aside, most socialists have understood this, arguing that Sanders opens an important space for the left. Most have continued to call for a new party to be formed. That remains important. While Sanders has shown that it is possible to mount a political challenge within and through the Democrats, the huge limitations that the Democratic establishment are placing on him make the need for a genuinely working class party very apparent.

But these answers, while true and important, also seem to dodge an important question: would you vote for Bernie? Although it breaks with tradition, my answer is yes. I would prefer to be working alongside Sanders supporters, no matter what challenges that presents, than to be on the sidelines preaching.