Shoes, Trophies, and Bernie Sanders

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Shoes, Trophies, and Bernie Sanders

Senator and presidential candidate Bernie Sanders joined striking Verizon workers in New York City last month. (Photo: Twitter/ @NicholasHoh/CWA)

"And understand this: If American workers are being denied their rights to organize and collectively bargain when I’m in the White House, I’ll put on a comfortable pair of shoes myself. I’ll walk on that picket line with you as President of the United States of America. Because workers deserve to know that somebody is standing in their corner."  —Senator Barack Obama, Spartanburg, SC, November 3, 2007

While November 3, 2007 is a day that will not exactly live in infamy, it should be remembered by American workers and at least one politician who champions their plight: presidential candidate Bernie Sanders. As we mark this anniversary it would be instructive to remind recruits to the Sanders political revolution, as well as prospective Hillary Clinton supporters, of then-candidate Obama’s pledge of solidarity. At the time, organized labor stood squarely behind a proposed Employee Free Choice Act which would have made it easier to conduct union drives at the nation’s workplaces. Once elected, though, Obama’s sentiments faded quickly from his political agenda. And when the call came in March of 2011 for the President to join an historic rally in Madison in opposition to Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker’s plan to end collective bargaining rights for most public employees, the President’s comfortable shoes somehow got lost in his closet. No shoes, no flight to Madison.

"The laws of physics and chemistry are not deeply concerned with who wins our quadrennial presidential electoral spectacle—neither party is willing to challenge corporate and financial interests fundamentally enough, nor quickly enough, to adequately address climate change."

The modern presidency is full of examples of unmet public expectations and promises unfulfilled. The office was built upon a foundation laid by FDR’s long tenure, bolstered by reliable Democratic Party control of Congress, in the teeth of the twin debacles of the Great Depression and WW II. Since the 1930s, regardless of party, personality, management style or partisan control of Capitol Hill, all presidents seek the same deeper structural ends concerning the two central policy goals of the modern state: the pursuit of endless profit-driven economic growth (rising GDP--always more production and consumption tomorrow than today) and national security based on US dominance (always tougher with each iteration of the enemy, be they the former Soviet Union or ISIS). As we argue in our recent book The Unsustainable Presidency: Clinton, Bush, Obama and Beyond, each goal is bipartisan and defined in ways that are not sustainable in light of twenty-first century challenges of climate change and the waning of American empire. The laws of physics and chemistry are not deeply concerned with who wins our quadrennial presidential electoral spectacle—neither party is willing to challenge corporate and financial interests fundamentally enough, nor quickly enough, to adequately address climate change. Likewise, drone attacks on civilians in Pakistan, Afghanistan and Yemen will not make the nation any more secure, whether or not the President confers with the Republican-controlled Congress before ordering their launch.

Normally there is a shared consensus between the two political parties about the ends of US economic and military power, a consensus that dwarfs tactical differences over means, which garner most of the media attention. The ideology and policy priorities of neoliberalism—ushered in by the Reagan Revolution here and the rise of Margaret Thatcher in the UK—have eclipsed most of what passes for party conflict in American. But these are not normal times. Sanders has the opportunity to reignite the critique of neoliberalism that should have taken place after the economic and financial implosion of 2008. He offers an alternative to growing inequality and financialization based on a class analysis of American politics. While his program eschews the kind of public ownership proposals that have been a historic hallmark of the democratic socialist tradition, his social democratic approach places him well to the left of mainstream American political discourse, though not public opinion. Judging from Sanders’ statements, including those at the first Democratic debate, he has not developed a distinctly progressive national security framework to accompany his economic populist rejection of neoliberalism. But is broadening the terms of debate in the primaries a sufficient goal for Sanders and his supporters?

"To be a transformative political leader Sanders needs to engage in full-scale political education about the impossible self-defeating logic of pursuing economic growth and national security in conventional ways."

In late August Pittsburgh Steelers linebacker James Harrison created a controversy when he returned his two sons’ "participation trophies." He explained that he wanted to teach them a life lesson about truly earning awards. Sanders faces his own version of a “"participation trophy" dilemma. A mood has overtaken many liberal Democratic voters and even some Progressives, a feeling that Bernie has "already won" by shifting the Democratic Party primary debate to the left on economic issues, and that "even if he ultimately loses, he has won." This attitude is fraught with danger.

All Democratic presidential candidates tilt to the left in the primary on economic issues, only to come back to the center (or worse) in the general election and beyond. Bill Clinton gave the AFL-CIO its worst nightmares in NAFTA and the WTO, and Obama has been shoeless for labor, most recently as he touts the virtues of free trade in the TTP. No doubt Hillary Clinton will continue to impersonate the rhetoric of Mother Jones in primary debates while shifting into a modified Carly Fiorina mode for the general election. To be a transformative political leader Sanders needs to engage in full-scale political education about the impossible self-defeating logic of pursuing economic growth and national security in conventional ways. He needs to lead a revolution of redefinition; he needs to be the FDR of reformulation. If not, there will be no compelling reason for liberals to pull away from their support for Hillary Clinton. If he comes across as merely a bit more committed to workers than Clinton, if he does not challenge her basic vision of national security, where there was almost zero difference demonstrated between them in the first debate, Bernie will be done on March 1 after Super Tuesday. And he’ll be given the equivalent of a "participation trophy" in the form of a speaking gig at the Democratic National convention in Philadelphia in July—while Hillary searches in vain for her comfortable shoes.

William Grover

William F. Grover is a professor of political science at Saint Michael’s College in Vermont. He is the co-author (with Joseph G. Peschek) of the new book, The Unsustainable Presidency: Clinton, Bush, Obama and Beyond (December 2014, Palgrave Macmillan).

Joseph Peschek

Joseph G. Peschek is a professor of political science at Hamline University in Minnesota. He is the co-author (with William F. Grover) of the new book, The Unsustainable Presidency: Clinton, Bush, Obama and Beyond (December 2014, Palgrave Macmillan).

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