Bernie Sanders Tests the Limits Of The US Political System

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Above: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) (L) and former Vice President Joe Biden put their arms around each other during the Democratic Presidential Debate at Otterbein University on October 15, 2019 in Westerville, Ohio. Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images.

The Great Gray Hope has bowed out of the presidential primary race, leaving tottering Joe Biden as the last Democrat standing. What Bernie Sanders accomplished electorally was remarkable, revealing both how far a progressive can venture and the limits proscribing further advancement to the left within the Democratic Party.

Sanders pushes the limits of the system

That Sanders was once the frontrunner and might have swept the Democratic primaries is an indicator of the neoliberal order’s decay. The coronavirus pandemic was both the final blow to the Sanders campaign and the world-historic event that proved unquestionably that his platform of universal health care and fairness to the working class was the medicine needed for an ailing nation.

Shelter-in-place is Biden’s strong suit, while Sanders’ contagious ability to enthuse the youth was sequestered. And, no, Biden’s healthcare public option is not even a baby step towards universal health care. It is a leap in the opposite direction, propping up the private insurance industry by having the taxpayers pick up high-risk cases.

The lie that money was not available to fund single-payer healthcare is now exposed by tsunamis of cash mainlined tax-free to resuscitate parasitic speculative financial markets. With unemployment rampant and Jeff Bezos’ net worth swelling by the billions daily, Sanders had the temerity to say: “If Trump can put a trillion and a half into the banking system, we can protect the wages of everyday workers.”

When in the Democratic debates the ninth richest man in the world claimed he made his billions by hard work, only Sanders was in the position to quip, as he did, that Bloomberg’s workers must have helped. When Bloomberg offered to bankroll the eventual Democratic Party nominee, only the Sanders campaign gave a hard “no.”

Bloomberg was correct, however, when he said of his primary rivals: “I’m doing exactly the same thing they’re doing, except that I am using my own money. They’re using somebody else’s money, and those other people expect something from them.” That Sanders raised three million dollars within hours of announcing his candidacy and garnered over a million small donors shows what constituency Sanders was beholden.

Sanders was not willing to simply mumble hypocritical homilies about the “middle class.” He explicitly defended the “working class” from the ravages of neoliberalism, raising issues that wouldn’t be taken up by the two-party duopoly.

Monday morning quarterbacks have been unkindly critical of Sanders for not going for the jugular against Biden. But despite criticisms, Sanders did what some leftists have been asking politicians to do. He stayed on message, stuck to the issues, and did not get lost in the weeds of ad hominem snipes.

What Sanders didn’t do is politically critique the Obama/Biden record, hamstrung by his determination not to harm the Democratic Party. The courtesy was not returned, to say the least. Unlike Trump in 2016, who savaged the Republican establishment and won, Sanders pulled his punches and lost.

The system pushes the limits of Sanders

Paradoxically, running in the Democratic Party was both the grounds for his success and the source of his failure. Had Sanders not run in the Democratic Party, he would have had no bully pulpit to advance his candidacy and – in the absence of a mass movement – would have been summarily relegated to obscurity. Running as a major party candidate gave him access to a ballot line, to the debates, and other perks of the party apparatus.

Sanders, nominally an independent, was both the greatest gift and the greatest challenge to the Democratic Party. The party had problems: liberalism was dead and with it the New Deal agenda, which was the cement holding the faithful together. With impeachment now history and Russiagate exhausted many times over, had Sanders not appeared the neoliberal Dems would have had to invent someone like him to keep their constituency from bolting.

And along came Sanders, saying, “we must take up the unfinished business of the New Deal and carry it to completion.” The rub was that Sanders genuinely believed in that agenda, so he had to be used and then discarded.

Sanders arguably could have beaten Trump but not the DNC. Or to turn that around, had the DNC not sandbagged him, Sanders surely would have beaten his Democratic rivals and gone on to defeat the incumbent president…if what passes for the “liberal” establishment (e.g., the Pelosi and Schumer) didn’t sabotage him.

Sanders showed true grit, suffering the triple afflictions of a heart attack, the Washington Post, and MSNBC. But the DNC would likely have eventually derailed him in any case. If the DNC could so easily, as it did, change the rules to take Tulsi Gabbard out of the debates and put Michael Bloomberg in, they could have found a way to block a progressive, who was anathema to their class loyalties and donor base.

Sanders as a socialist

Sanders is receiving rancorous left disparagement for his early departure from the primary race and quick endorsement of Biden, failure to criticize the Obama/Biden record, and voting for the CARES bailout among other transgressions. It should be crystal clear, now, that what you saw is what you got: a sincere New Deal liberal wedded to the Democratic Party, not a leftist superhero. He shouldn’t be blamed for being someone he was not.

Sanders helped mainstream the word “socialism;” a welcome accomplishment. When red-baited, Sanders didn’t back down: “We must recognize that in the 21st century, in the wealthiest country in the history of the world, economic rights are human rights. That is what I mean by democratic socialism.”

To be precise, Sanders is a “social democrat;” one who supports the rule of the owners of capital with workers as junior partners. He is not a “socialist,” who would replace the rule of the capitalists with that of the workers. Sanders has made clear, “I don’t believe government should own the means of production.” What he wants is a nice capitalism that shares its crumbs with those who create the wealth.

Nor is he an anti-imperialist, despite his statement that “it might be a good idea to be honest about American foreign policy and that includes the fact that America has overthrown governments all over the world.” Sanders endorses the bipartisan consensus to overthrow the “vicious dictator” (his own words) in Venezuela, where social democratic reforms there are similar to ones that Sanders is championing for the US. Sanders yearns for a nice imperialism, which somehow avoids messy excesses while not challenging US hegemony.

Exit the Great Gray Hope – don’t mourn, organize

Sanders proved on one hand that a sizable potential constituency would support and fund a progressive agenda. On the other hand, the Democrats – who would rather risk four more years of Trump than back someone with a mild New Deal agenda – are the graveyard for such a movement. The Democratic Party is an instrument of class rule and not a democratic institution.

For all his remarkable accomplishments, Sanders’ legacy in 2020 will likely be that of 2016, which was to be the sheepdog that herded progressives into the Democratic Party and got nothing in return.

If your obsession in life is to defeat Trump, by all means hold your nose and vote for what you perceive as the lesser evil. But if your interest is broader – to pull the US political spectrum to the left and buck the neoliberal tide of imperial plunder and austerity for the working class, instead of encouraging the Democrats to be more reactionary than the Republicans – then vote for a left party such as Peace and Freedom or Green.

And, taking a lesson from Bernie, help build the mass movement. Significantly Sanders understood the limits of electoral politics and the corresponding necessity of building a mass movement: “When I talk about a political revolution, it means being an administration unprecedented, certainly in the modern history of this country…It is rallying the American people…I will be organizer in chief.”

Sanders’ parting remark on April 8 was “we have won the ideological battle.” Of course, ideas don’t have agency on their own. The battle is to organize a progressive constituency and not self-defeat by tethering to the Democratic Party.

Roger D. Harris is on the state central committee of the Peace and Freedom Party (, the only ballot-qualified socialist party in California.

  • jim james

    Bernie Sanders is a joke and so are those defending him.

  • OmniaQuaerite

    I guess that we can all – finally – agree that the Demorats will never be the agents of the sort of change this country needs?

  • didactic1

    I agree with the excellent analysis of the Senator’s strengths and weaknesses. I do think Sanders was moving this run at least to a clearer rejection of foreign military interventions and the draining from domestic needs of funds now spent for military bloat.

  • Big Brother Sam Other

    I will never vote for biden. There’s no lesser evil. Two heads on the same monster. A vote for evil is consent. If voting at all, voting third party is the only way they start getting bigger numbers. With bigger numbers their voice grows and it’s harder for both halves of the 1% party to exclude them from debates.

  • Richard

    You are not going to get it with the republicans either, third party is the only chance, but to many people are stuck on their party of choice and they don’t learn from their repeated mistakes.

  • Richard

    But you really never know for sure with politicians, about as trustworthy as a riled up hornet. They would rather climb a tree and tell you lies rather than stand on the ground and tell the truth.

  • Bassy Kims of Yesteryear

    So disheartening to see Harris – to see anyone – praising Senator Sheepdog (D/I/LMT) VT at this stage of the game.

    Having that sellout stab you in the heart twice isn’t enough?

    The lesson to learn from Sanders is that there is no salvation to be had, from the Democratic wing of the Party of Wall Street and War.

  • Western exceptionalism

    And thats all he wrote

  • voza0db

    A small number of people (that still votes on certified scoundrels) knew that right after the 1st year of Obama…

    DNC&GOP LLC is the same stuff.

    If you want to keep trying and wasting time and energy with this sub-system, well try the Green Part. Problem is that just one or two elected can’t do anything.

    So good luck with voting and with representative democracy!

  • voza0db

    A moron that supports Russia Gate hoax, Syria attacks and Ukraine Gate hoax, clearly is not rejecting that!

  • Leprechaun

    Sorry for the US citizens, but we in the EU need an other 4 year of Trumpnism, being the evidence that continued neoliberalism will surely kill us all on the whole world.

  • didactic1

    Ah, action over words. Which way wind blows.

  • ThisOldMan

    The problem, I fear, is that if Trump wins the next election (assuming it happens), that’s the end of any meaningful pretense at democracy in this country, probably forever. So even if a third party somehow acquired the constituency, there’d be nothing it could do (short of violent revolution, and good luck with that in the age of mass surveillance). Biden, for all his faults, will at least leave the shell intact, for a few more years, during which there will be furthers crises, leading to perhaps better opportunities to push for meaningful change through democratic processes. I remind you that Bernie got further in 2016 than he did this year, with Trump running as the incumbent.

  • Nylene13

    Also a Progressive 3rd Party is a good way to organize locally, such as
    Organic Community Gardens and Farmers Markets.

  • voza0db

    It seems that the SARS-CoV-2 RECOVERY is already happening…


  • Nylene13

    That would just be rewarding the Democratic Party for what they did.
    We the People should be able to do more than reward bad behavior.

  • Dimitris K

    Sanders, by endorsing Corporatist/Wall Street puppet Biden, he has betrayed his followers for the second and final time. Good Riddance!!!!

  • iowapinko

    We need to shift away from Bernie. He made his contribution, our survival now is contingent on the movement carrying the ball forward. The people must engage.

    The Biden campaign represents Wall Street, the military-industrial complex and imperialist hegemony, the prison-industrial complex, the for-profit medical industry, agri-business and the fossil fuel industry. All of these interests represent an unsustainable and life-destroying social order. If we do not replace these powerful capital interests with an agenda representing the people and the planet we will not endure.

    The defeat of the Sanders campaign has both clarified the limitations of electoral politics as well as highlighted potential. We came breathtakingly close to power; but not quite close enough. We would benefit from a multi-perspective analysis of this experience.

    I believe we need to build a united front left party that involves representatives of all components of the U$ left. An amalgamation of all left 3rd parties combined with the populist elements that are rapidly coalescing as a result of the current crisis.

    Sectarianism is a luxury we cannot afford. Group skills and application of authentic listening and respect for diversity are some of the skills that are gong to be required for our success.

    The times they are a changin’, lord give us the wisdom, resilience and courage to build this movement for peace and freedom and the survival of life on earth.

    We have WORK to do.

  • floyd gardner

    “meaningful pretense at democracy in this country” ended long ago.

  • SamandClaire

    “perhaps better opportunities to push for meaningful change through democratic processes”
    That is what Bernie did and it did not work TWICE. Bernie supporters helped him change through democratic processes TWICE. We are not naturally rebellious ones, just sensible ones. Knowing who sits at the DNC leadership positions (previous lobbyists) one wakes to think that a change is not possible within the Democratic party. Yes, it would had been nice if there were progresses within the Democratic party. I am making my own decision based on what I have experienced. I will just work with others who think the same way.

  • floyd gardner

    DNC&GOP = Demonicrat & Reptilican

  • Mensch59

    … we need to build a united front left party that involves representatives of all components of the U$ left. An amalgamation of all left 3rd parties combined with the populist elements that are rapidly coalescing as a result of the current crisis.

    Sectarianism is a luxury we cannot afford. Group skills and application of authentic listening and respect for diversity are some of the skills that are gong to be required for our success.

    I couldn’t agree more. It’s possible that we are reduced to sectarianism/in-fighting because of how severely weakened we’ve become. I’ve read, but haven’t found a direct quote, that Marx realized how the dominance of/the aggressive coercion by industrially advanced nations over underdeveloped nations blocks revolutionary tendencies amongst working classes of dominating nations. This is corroborated by Vivek Chibber, who argues that ‘resignation’ is the driving force behind worker’s lack of militancy during periods of capitalist dominance. If what we’re truly dominated/aggressively coerced by is usury & debt slavery — along with manufactured consent — it’s no wonder that so many of us slaves are resigned to these hellish conditions only intensifying.

    Maybe there are impersonal historical and natural forces at work — quite independent of human movements based on human reason, human desires, human rage against social injustices, human willpower — bringing about revolutionary change. Maybe revolutionary change is all dependant upon a vanguard of leftists and Marxists.

  • didactic1

    Solidarity. Let’s do it.

  • didactic1

    Yes, Dems are impaired. If it means more Trump Dumb, so be it. Pentagon will flourish and climate collapse no matter which demented old fool elected. And healthcare will also be hit n miss under Joe.

    Help the system die faster.

  • didactic1

    I figured that out in 1976.

  • didactic1

    Bill Clinton was a great way to see what neolibs are.

  • didactic1

    Climate change will collapse food and power grids. Politics won’t be about parties. God bless 2 Am.

  • GypsyFreyja

    Very well said iowa. I’m all in.

    I hope you were not caught up in the recent snow storms.

  • voza0db

    Yes he was/is…

  • GypsyFreyja

    It has been more than 25 years. Carter had solar panels installed on the White House in 1979, which Ronnie had torn off around 1981. It was symbolic on Carter’s part but the Climate Change alarm has been going off from scientists since the 50’s or 60’s. It has just become so obvious that it is harder for those who have not been paying attention, or those who have not cared enough to see, to deny it anymore.

  • Thom Rip

    Jesse Ventura’s thinking of jumping in as a Green…some fun there

  • Richard

    He would be a lot better than the other two crooks.

  • Richard

    Never trusted the guy in the first place.

  • Richard

    Hopefully, but he is kinda like Hellary and just wont go away.

  • Sanders is a “Democratic” Party sheepdog, PERIOD.

  • Thom Rip

    Totally agree

  • chetdude

    “That Sanders was once the frontrunner and might have swept the
    Democratic primaries is an indicator of the neoliberal order’s decay”

    Another important player in the March Surprise was Warren. If she hadn’t purloined Sanders’ Moderate New Deal Agenda in order to siphon off Progressive support, Bernie would have led by a wide margin wire to wire and Covid-19 would have force Biden to give up. But alas, as those I often early on defended her said, Warren is obviously a craven, 100% capitalist opportunist who merely played a “progressive” on TV and when the chips were down on Black Monday – 3/2/20, she folded like a cheap suit.

    ““we have won the ideological battle.” Of course, ideas don’t have agency on their own. The battle is to organize a progressive constituency and not self-defeat by tethering to the Democratic Party.”


  • chetdude

    Ironically, the massive decrease in burning of fossil-fuels caused by the pandemic might give us another year.

    Yipee! We have ELEVEN years to get to carbon neutral!

  • chetdude

    Point of clarification:

    Carter installed some solar hot water units on the WH roof – which “was seen largely as symbolic, though they did heat some water for the White House laundry and cafeteria.”

    Reagan had them removed in 1986.

    gwBush installed “the first system to provide the grounds with some solar-generated electricity, on the roof of the grounds maintenance building. It was a 9-kilowatt system. He installed two solar (hot water) systems, one to heat the pool and spa water and one for other hot water.”

    “President Barack Obama, who made environmental issues a focus of his
    presidency, planned to install solar panels on the White House by spring
    2011, though the project wasn’t begun until 2013 and completed in 2014.” Gee, too little too late…

  • chetdude

    And even here in USAmerica, having Trump in the WH has energized and grown our (non-democrat) popular Movements much faster than H. Clinton in the office would have allowed…

  • chetdude

    Please, my friend. Massive streams of hyperbole really doesn’t help the millions of people who are active in organizing their local communities…

    The only pretense of “democracy” in this country are in a few relatively enlightened local communities. Most state governments and the Federal government haven’t even gotten close.

  • zonmoy

    assuming that its more than fearmongering.

  • zonmoy

    a riled up hornet is far more trustworthy than any politician.

  • zonmoy

    I still hope he does, or at least picks someone to run for him outside of the gangs that run our government.

  • Leprechaun

    That is very good news and must be a Bernie effect, because the Trumpians and Hiltlaries are too conditioned to be able to think of alternatives.

  • didactic1

    Temp measurements on land and sea going up on abnormal time spans.

  • Thom Rip

    Yes, and if he/they could get air time (and not be killed) they could catch on big

  • GypsyFreyja

    All true. Didn’t want to get into the other “symbolic” nods to green energy. But yes, Gee Dub and Obama gave their worthless nods as well. My point was Climate Change warning have been out for longer than 25 years. Our government has not been listening.

    Agree, too little too late.

  • chetdude

    I remember the 1st Earth Day…in 1970 — Then Nixon suggested the EPA a couple months later.

    Different time…

  • zonmoy

    meaning something on a planet where climate fluctuates quite a lot naturally?