I am a child of the presidency. I came of age politically in the early 1970s when the end game in the Vietnam War still stoked furious debate and the constitutional crisis of Watergate brought down the Nixon presidency. Historians, presidential scholars and politicians fell over themselves to decry the excesses of what Arthur Schlesinger, Jr famously termed “the imperial presidency.” And young minds like mine were entranced with sorting it all out. I have since struggled to convey to students the seismic feeling that the tectonic plates of politics in the US were shifting under our feet.
Today conjures similar tremors. An obstructionist Senate leadership awaits delivery of articles of impeachment against a criminally unhinged chief executive who blithely walks us to the brink of war with Iran, the planet faces the existential crisis of a sixth extinction with the relentless march of climate change, and—OMG!—democratic socialist Bernie Sanders has a serious shot at being elected President. WTF!
In the ‘70s political leaders sought to allay such fears with the comforting conclusion that amidst utter chaos, “the system works.” Bad guys got jail time. Nixon resigned. Elections brought change. And Congress passed legislation to reclaim its budgetary and wars powers. Our political thinking was dominated by the imagery of a constitutional “balance of power,” a metaphorical see-saw rebalanced with a now-chastened presidency on one end and a reenergized Congress on the other. Understandably reassuring back then, the imagery was misleading; we should resist its revival in today’s polarized climate. For beneath partisan differences lies a deeper structure of political and economic power to which both parties are beholden.
“The message is crystal clear: the Democratic Party establishment and corporate media would prefer a Trump reelection to a Sanders presidency.”
The modern presidency was rooted in the long tenure of FDR who confronted the crises of the Great Depression and WW II. His success was rooted, in part, in his willingness to embrace reforms—stealing “the thunder of the left”—that moved the US in a more progressive direction, thus appeasing the populist agitation routinely out in the streets. But the foundation of the office was built upon the twin pillars of endless economic growth (defined as ever-expanding GDP) and promotion of national security (defined as the projection of American power against all “enemies”). These twin goals were bipartisan, a shared consensus wedded to corporate definitions of the ends of US economic and military power, captured succinctly in Eisenhower’s 1961 farewell warning about the dangers of the “military-industrial complex.”
The shared ends are taken as a given, while the media highlight (sometimes strong) tactical differences over means. Yet this consensus on economic growth and national security simply is not sustainable today in the face of accelerating climate change and the decline of American empire. Soaring economic growth is assumed to be the antidote to all problems. Hence media analysts, and especially liberals, didn’t bat an eyelash when President Obama proclaimed his market-based climate policy, reassuring us that being caretakers of the future of the planet involves “no contradiction between a sound environment and strong economic growth,” a proposition with which President Trump readily concurs. As scientists continue to tell us, the US (indeed the world) needs to reduce drastically the production of greenhouse gases by 2030. Promoting soaring economic growth—even in pursuit of the vital goal of expanding the economic pie and distributing it most justly—risks making emission targets even harder to reach. Physics and chemistry are spectacularly indifferent to who chairs the key environmental committees in the House and Senate.
Similarly, our common understanding of “national security” must change. Maintaining more than 800 military bases around the world, along with the environmental hazards inherent in them, will not make us more secure. Neither will the continued sophistication of our weapons and surveillance capabilities, a lesson made ever more poignant by President Trump’s recent drone assassination of Iranian Gen. Suleimani. As much as Democrats insist on the need to be briefed before such an attack, this procedural argument overlooks the deeper substantive agreement that historian Andrew Bacevich terms the American national security “credo,” which “summons the United States—and the United States alone—to lead, save, liberate, and ultimately transform the world.” Both parties are marinated in American exceptionalism.
In justifying the death of some 500,000 Iraqi children subjected to a punishing UN embargo, for instance, Secretary of State Madeleine Albright commented to CBS in 1996, “I think this is a very hard choice, but the price, we think the price is worth it.” She elaborated on the hubris underlying this imperial foreign policy mindset two years later, again with reference to Iraq, allowing that while diplomacy can be useful, “if we have to use force it is because we are America; we are the indispensable nation.” Not to be outdone, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton—who campaigned to the right of Trump on foreign policy in 2016—offered a giddy off-air declaration to CBS following the 2011 killing of Muammar Gaddafi in Libya: “We came, we saw, he died.” This cheery sentiment should reverberate in the ears of all who harbor hopes that the Democrats operate on a fundamentally different moral plane than Republicans. To be clear, unilateral presidential action is troubling within our constitutional framework. Ignoring it would be dangerous; accountability matters. But in short, if we have an imperial presidency it is because the US has been, since the end of WW II, an imperial power.
What can be done? In this election season progressives have a viable choice between Elizabeth Warren or Bernie Sanders. Both are impressive in their own right. The question for the progressive left is not the one thrown in our faces every day: which one can beat Trump? Either one can pull that off, although Sanders’s grassroots support and fundraising ability is deeper, the loyalty of his supporters more fervent, his message to the working class more authentic. He can erode Trump’s base. The larger question is, which one is more likely to move the nation in a progressive direction, beyond mere reformism? Like Sanders, Warren did not come from a privileged background. While she was a registered Republican until 1996, her views have evolved, and it is refreshing that her economic populism frightens Wall Street. Her views of foreign policy are less much less bold and overall her political career leans toward accommodation and compromise. At her core she does not appear to question the conventional bipartisan consensus on economic growth and national security. She clearly articulated her brand of reformism in a 2018 interview: “I am a capitalist. Come on. I believe in markets. What I don’t believe in is theft, what I don’t believe in is cheating.” It is sad that in the age of Trump a candidate must come out against theft and cheating, but such is our political life under a narcissist with authoritarian impulses.
“The day after his triumph, President-elect Sanders would be staring in the face of capital strike. The practical result not of some ‘deep state’ conspiracy but of the normal protective reaction of elite interests, capital strike must be given sober forethought among progressives.”
As the longest serving Independent in American history, Bernie Sanders potentially can take the movement further. His presidency would open the door to deeper change, what in the late 1960s used to be called “non-reformist reforms,” reforms that facilitate more fundamental change—call it a “revolution,” or democratic socialism, or call it creating a genuinely just society with an honest chance of thriving. He has a long and consistent record of progressive politics and organizing vitality, working with Democrats and Republicans, particularly on amendments to bills in the Senate. So yes, he does compromise. Criticizing him from the left has become a cottage industry. If you listen closely you can hear The Nationcolumnist Alexander Cockburn screaming from the grave about Bernie’s vote in favor of the 1994 Crime Bill. The bombing of Yugoslavia in 1999 has led some on the left to write him off. In a long legislative career, the votes are there to criticize. And, of course, he supported Clinton over Trump last time around, although she continues to blame him for her defeat. Nonetheless, it cannot be denied that to a significant extent Sanders has profoundly impacted political discourse in the United States. Has any other post-FDR presidential candidate inspired the wrath of economic elites more than Sanders? Has the struggle for universal health care and income and wealth tax equity had a stronger advocate? His voice has had efficacy. And in light of the current Democratic opposition to President Trump’s bombing in Iran, can we imagine any other Democrat or Republican reminding us that US policy in Iran goes back beyond the seizure of hostages at the US embassy in 1979, back at least as far as CIA intervention to overthrow Iran’s elected government in 1953 and the installation of the murderous Shah, the US-funded bipartisan dictator for 26 years? Warts and all, a President Sanders would challenge the status quo and give non-reformist reforms some breathing space.
What, then, are the biggest remaining obstacles to Sanders’s candidacy? How does the deeper power structure threaten real change? Two major barriers are most pressing, both in the form of strikes. Think of them as capitol strike and capital strike. The first, capitol strike, refers primarily to the political, economic and media establishment that engulfs Washington, DC. The politics of Capitol Hill mitigate against ideas that seriously threaten business as usual. Under the leadership of Rep. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the DNC loaded the dice against Sanders in 2016. The process is somewhat more open this time around, although the confounding power of superdelegates still exists at the Convention if no one wins the first round of balloting. And President Obama’s private admission in late November that he would speak up to stop Bernie from becoming the Democratic nominee should the race appear headed in that direction is instructive. MSNBC—America’s alleged “left-liberal” network—renders Sanders essentially invisible, bludgeoning its listeners with the vacuous concept of “electability” among Democratic contenders. Led by the “steady hand” of Biden, the “fresh new face” of Buttigieg, or the “sensible midwestern centrism” of Klobuchar, we are assaulted by the professed wisdom of the political middle. And if all goes to hell, there are two billionaires waiting in the wings. Of course, capitol strike could follow a newly elected President Sanders into the White House, even if the Democrats were to take control of both chambers of Congress. The message is crystal clear: the Democratic Party establishment and corporate media would prefer a Trump reelection to a Sanders presidency. Sanders is, in effect, the target of capitol strike, a presidential “pre-impeachment” of sorts, being tried daily for the high crime and misdemeanor of opening the door to fundamentally challenging the “givens” of the American political economy.
“One of Sanders’ campaign slogans is ‘Not me. Us.’ That thought literally needs to become reality if Sanders is to address the challenges that await him.”
A thought experiment will clarify the even more troubling obstacle of capital strike. Assume that despite the odds, Bernie Sanders wins the nomination and defeats Donald Trump. After all, voters still have their say, and right now Sanders continues to poll well in primary states. Beyond the emolument of a lifetime supply of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream, what awaits President-elect Sanders the day after the general election? Financial panic would immediately ensue. Global financial markets would plummet in reaction to the rash decision of US voters. The swift negative response would be amplified in corporate boardrooms as the specter of severe market instability and declining business confidence shook the capitalist world. Mainstream media outlets will crackle with pundits citing the “irony” that the champion of the working class is tanking their already bleak economic prospects. The day after his triumph, President-elect Sanders would be staring in the face of capital strike. The practical result not of some “deep state” conspiracy but of the normal protective reaction of elite interests, capital strike must be given sober forethought among progressives.
Again, that is Day 1 of the end of Trump. The economic tumult would not ebb. Sanders would face enormous pressure to use his 11-week transition period to calm market fears by announcing the appointment of “sensible” moderate voices to his Cabinet—non-confrontational “level heads” acceptable to corporate power holders. Ben as Secretary of Commerce and Jerry leading the Small Business Administration? Bill McKibben at the Interior Department? Amy Goodman as Press Secretary? Rage Against the Machine playing the inaugural ball? Possible, but not likely. The pressure to put forward the name of nice, “safe” department heads would be intense, personnel decisions that would undermine the very progressive agenda his electoral coalition had worked so hard to create. Briefly put, the economics of capital strike would threaten to reverse the verdict of democracy.
These are not idle considerations. It is not an exercise in negativism to anticipate systemic responses to perceived threats. Both types of strikes likely would confront a Warren nomination as well, but with a greater likelihood of capitulation to the realities of systemic pushback. One of Sanders’ campaign slogans is “Not me. Us.” That thought literally needs to become reality if Sanders is to address the challenges that await him. Howard Zinn once observed, “What matters most is not who is sitting in the White House, but who is ‘sitting in’—and who is marching outside the White House, pushing for change.” Zinn’s words were never more relevant. A president is, among other things, the nation’s educator-in-chief. With the backing of social movements, Sanders will need to educate the public about how to redefine our basic notions of “progress” and “growth.” Only a sustained social movement—for climate justice, racial justice, economic justice—can help him achieve that goal. It must be more than an electoral coalition; amassing the requisite 270 electoral votes is only the beginning. Agitation and demonstrations need to guide him into power having survived the initial strategic dilemmas of capitol strike and the even more intense pressure of capital strike. Unlike FDR, Sanders is not about stealing “the thunder of the left.” He needs to mobilize it and ride it beyond mere reformism. Emboldened and legitimized by “street heat,” Sanders and the nation’s progressive hopes have a chance to prevail. Otherwise, the titans of capitalism and faux democracy will be out on strike.
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