“If there was ever a moment where we had to effectively analyze the competing political and social forces which define this historical period, this is that time. If there was ever a moment when we needed to stand up and fight against the forces of oligarchy and authoritarianism, this is that time.
And, if there was ever a moment when we needed a new vision to bring our people together in the fight for justice, decency and human dignity, this is that time.”
So began Bernie Sanders’ speech on democratic socialism on June 12, 2019. He wasted no time in drawing a distinction between himself and the policy-indifferent, blue-no-matter-who, anything-to-stop-Trump wing of the Democratic Party. In doing so, he took the first of many political chances that have defined his career as a public servant, up to and including his 2020 presidential campaign. At a time when most Democratic voters are primarily concerned with defeating Donald Trump, Bernie leaned in on his ambitious political program, and doubled down on the two words that politicos and fellow politicians alike seem to think will spell doom for his electoral prospects: democratic socialism.
Now I admit, I went into this speech with rather low expectations. I knew there would be references to both MLK and FDR, and I knew there’d be contrasts made between Bernie’s brand of democratic socialism and Trump’s “corporate socialism.” I knew we’d hear the usual laundry list of Bernie staples, ie, health care, a $15 minimum wage, tuition free public college, etc. “The hits,” if you will. I expected Bernie to make a conciliatory appeal to modest Democratic primary voters by framing these ideas as mainstream, moderate approaches to the crises that face America in 2019, and that “socialism” is just a scary word that the right will use to smear his benign, common sense agenda.
Instead, we got a speech that was truly, in a word, revolutionary. A full frontal, unapologetic embrace of a redistributive political program, as well as a crystal clear delineation of the struggle ahead, who’s on whose side, and why.
In the speech, Bernie defined his political agenda as completing the unfinished business of FDR’s New Deal. He made sure to remind his audience early on in his remarks of both the successes of those policies, and the oligarchs’ efforts to thwart them, specifically, by branding them as socialism.
“Like today, the quest for transformative change was opposed by big business, Wall Street, the political establishment, by the Republican Party and by the conservative wing of FDR’s own Democratic Party. And he faced the same scare tactics then that we experience today — red baiting, xenophobia, racism and anti-Semitism.”
A bit later on, Bernie went on to specifically call out the oligarchs of today in blunt, uncompromising language:
“They are the profit-taking gatekeepers of our health care, our technology, our finance system, our food supply and almost all of the other basic necessities of life. They are Wall Street, the insurance companies, the drug companies, the fossil fuel industry, the military industrial complex, the prison industrial complex and giant agri-businesses.
They are the entities with unlimited wealth who surround our nation’s capitol with thousands of well-paid lobbyists, who to a significant degree write the laws that we live under.”
And he wasn’t done yet. He went on to compare modern day Trumpism and the rise of global right wing authoritarianism to the reactionary opposition to the New Deal, and, obviously, the fascistic global trends underway during that time.
After that, his central thesis:
“It is my very strong belief that the United States must reject that path of hatred and divisiveness — and instead find the moral conviction to choose a different path, a higher path, a path of compassion, justice and love.
It is the path that I call democratic socialism.”
At that point, the friendly audience at George Washington University stood and cheered, not for the first time, but the second. Oddly enough, the first standing ovation was awarded not to one of Bernie’s own lines, but after he quoted Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s now famous 1936 campaign speech:
“We had to struggle with the old enemies of peace: business and financial monopoly, speculation, reckless banking, class antagonism, sectionalism, war profiteering.”
“Never before in all our history have these forces been so united against one candidate as they stand today. They are unanimous in their hate for me — and I welcome their hatred.”
Bernie himself seemed a bit surprised at just how well that line went over. The crowd erupted in applause and rose to their feet. And had I been in that auditorium, I’d have joined them, because whether Bernie himself knew it or not, that was the most powerful and meaningful moment of his entire address for a couple of reasons.
First, it was a long awaited breath of fresh air to Bernie supporters like myself who, for a few years now, have been frustrated by what seemed to be a naïveté on his part as to just how vicious and ruthless his opposition actually is. Hearing him acknowledge, in what was an obvious comparison to the current campaign, that he is in fact hated by these same “enemies of peace” that loathed FDR, was extremely refreshing, and gave a sense of confidence that his head was truly “in the game,” as they say.
Second, for the young people in that room, this was an entirely new framing of the political landscape, and, finally, one that made sense. In the neoliberal era of Democratic politics, the battle of right vs. left has been sold to us an intramural sport, in which everyone’s ultimately on the same team (in fact, Obama used that exact metaphor the morning after Trump was elected president.) In other words, we’re all patriotic, civic minded, well-intentioned people who want what’s best for each other; we simply differ on how to achieve our common goal of peace and prosperity for all, and with some compromise, we can figure it all out. I’m not sure to what extent significant numbers of people actually believed this, but we were all nonetheless charmed by politicians who spoke of that dynamic as an ideal towards which we should all strive. But to us young folks, this never really made sense. It sure didn’t seem to us that the student loan collectors were on our side. Nor were the credit card companies charging us 20% interest on money we had to borrow in order to make our student loan payments. Nor were the speculators who crashed the economy in 2008, decimating the job market into which we graduated with such high debt to begin with. No, we’re not one big happy family. There are people in this country who are in fact our enemies, who do in fact seek to exploit us, and who do in fact hate the candidate who’s most serious about fighting back against them on our behalf. Finally, a presidential candidate had told them to bring it on.
Not only did Bernie succeed in conjuring up the fighting spirit of the revolutionary leaders who came before him in order to rally his base, but he expressed his prescription for the crises that plague our country with the moral and political clarity of a candidate whose only responsibility is to his own constituency.
Politically, this is hugely effective for him. It always has been. Conservative Republicans have always respected Bernie for his straight forward, no nonsense approach to pitching his political program. What makes this doubling down on the phrase “democratic socialism” especially beneficial at this moment is that it comes at a time when his Democratic rivals are trotting out contrived and transparently empty phrases to describe their economic agendas. These phrases consist of one qualifying adjective, followed by the word – you guessed it – “capitalism.” Beto O’Rourke calls it “conscientious capitalism,” Pete Buttigieg calls it, funnily enough, “democratic capitalism,” and Elizabeth Warren calls it “accountable capitalism.” There’s a phrase I’d use to describe all of those labels*.* It’s called *total bullshit.*Because truly“accountable, conscientious, or democratic” capitalism is actually democratic socialism. These nonsensical terms are borne of the elite liberal media institutions who constantly disavow socialism while conceding that capitalism is in constant need of reform, ignoring of course that these reforms they speak of are socialist in nature.
So not only are these other candidates gaslighting their own voters, but the embrace of these alternative forms of capitalism by the Democratic establishment and their entrenched donor network reveals an obvious hypocrisy on their part, which is that they never lent any legitimacy to the difference between socialism and democratic socialism. To this crowd, socialism is socialism, and, of course, Bernie’s a socialist, and a socialist can’t win, because socialism is bad. Capitalism, on the other hand, can be modified and disguised to conceal its brutalities and its failures with words like “accountable,” “smart,” “conscientious,” and, of course, “democratic.”
Warren’s embrace of accountable capitalism is particularly sleazy, because Elizabeth Warren is more or less herself a democratic socialist. I know, I know, I know, she was a Republican until the 90’s, and she’s a regulator whereas Sanders is a “redistributor,” and she’s friendlier to the military industrial complex than he is, I get all of that. But these plans of hers that she keeps touting are almost all redistributive plans that can, and will, by the way, in a general election, be branded as socialism, by the right wing opposition.
So then what’s with this “accountable capitalism” bullshit? Taxing ultra-millionaires 2% on every dollar past $50 million in net worth in order to finance things like free child care, free college tuition, and student debt forgiveness, isn’t “accountable capitalism.” It’s democratic socialism. Warren’s reluctance to make this distinction reveals at least one of two things is true about her. Number one, she doesn’t trust the voters enough to have a real discussion about the issues in front of us, and therefore is unwilling, as I’ve mentioned before, to actually build the mass movements necessary to address them (Just think: “What do we want?! *Accountable capitalism!*When do we want it? Now!”). Instead, she, like many Democrats before her, have employed a sort of ‘smuggle-through-customs’ approach to implementing redistributive policies by shying away from language that could get her in trouble with the political establishment. The second possible reason for her waffling on this, and both could be true, is that there’s some winking and nodding going on behind the scenes to the Democratic establishment. Maybe this is all just talk, and the reason there’s no mention of a political revolution on her part is because she has no real “plan” to bring one about, despite the fact that she’s touted her plans as “systemic reforms.” The thing that makes her a viable candidate is her ability to draw support from both the establishment Democrats and the progressive grassroots. Barack Obama was able to do the same thing, as was Bill Clinton. And we now know on which side of that divide their true loyalties were. This same penchant for intra-party triangulation, however, makes her unable to deliver the kind of speech that Bernie Sanders delivered yesterday, and unable to lead the non-violent revolution that is required to counter the 21st century oligarchs, whose power has grown by leaps and bounds since FDR first “welcomed their hatred.”
Warren’s palatability to the political class despite her progressive policy platform brings into focus what has always been true since day one of Bernie’s 2016 campaign, which is that the most important difference between Bernie and the rest of the Democrats is that, unlike Bernie, the rest of the Democrats are Democrats. And I think for the first time, perhaps because of Warren’s recent surge and the positive press that has come with it, Bernie himself has come to recognize just how significant that difference is, which is perhaps why he gave this speech; to remind us that progressives once, long ago, in dire times, carved out a home for themselves within the Democratic Party, and banished its conservative members to the ash bin of history, where they remain to this day. Our task is to do the same right now, because just as in the 1930’s, the moment calls for it. And whereas the rest of the Democratic field is stuck straddling the line between what’s agreeable to the establishment and what truly meets the needs of the American people, Bernie has clearly defined the sides of this battle, and has chosen one: Ours.
His address yesterday was the opening salvo of what is not just a campaign, but a movement that is sure to outlive and transcend his campaign, win or lose, which brings me to my final point. Because that speech was so damn good, it’s easy to adopt an all-or-nothing attitude towards the 2020 campaign, which has come to be known as “Bernie or Bust.” As much as I understand that temptation, I implore you not to give in to it. Because in fact, to do so would be to miss the point of this speech, and to miss the point of the 2020 Bernie Sanders campaign, which is, as his slogan suggests, that regardless of who the president is, our future is up to *us.*This speech is the thing that revolutions are made of. And no revolution can pin its hopes on the fate of one man. Would we love to see him win? Of course. Is he, especially after this speech, the clear best choice of all available options? *Of course.*But movements like the one he has helped create are not built for best case scenarios. They exist for precisely the opposite reasons, so that positive momentum can be sustained even through setbacks and short term defeats. Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, or, even in the nightmare of all nightmares, Joe Biden, could, if we stay strong, be the LBJ to our MLK. It didn’t take a great president to pass the Civil Rights Act. It took a mass mobilization of great citizens, united by a common purpose, to get a bill to his desk, which he then had to sign. Such mass mobilization is the heart and soul of the Bernie Sanders campaign, is the lifeblood of the democratic socialist movement, and will be the vehicle that moves this country into a better future, regardless of the Democratic primary outcome, if we, the people, remain in the drivers’ seat.