The Sanders Voter: Protesting American Privilege at Home and Abroad

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The Sanders Voter: Protesting American Privilege at Home and Abroad

Democratic Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders supporters cheer as they listen to Sanders speak during his Caucus 2016 party at the Holiday Inn Des Moines-Airport Conference Center in Des Moines, Iowa, on Monday, Feb. 1, 2016. (Photo: Jim Slosiarek/The Gazette)

Even as Sanders "path to victory" increasingly narrows, the passion for his candidacy grows in intensity. Recent victories in Indiana and Oregon reflect the continuing desire for a progressive alternative to Clinton and Centrist Democrats. It also reveals a hardening divide in the Party and beyond between those who want real "revolution" and those who are content with "reform."

These divisions have increasingly spilled over from campaign rhetoric to more forceful protest and agitation. The recent upheaval at the Nevada caucus highlights the extreme frustrations and actions of Sanders supporters who feel disenfranchised by a supposedly "rigged" system. Reports include vandalism and now verbal threats to those considered to be Clinton allies.

"What does too often go unsaid is how the rightful condemnation of popular violence masks the larger violence perpetuated by those with power."

As Sanders declared Tuesday, "Our campaign of course believes in non-violent change and it goes without saying that I condemn any and all forms of violence, including the personal harassment of individuals."

What does too often go unsaid though is how the rightful condemnation of popular violence masks the larger violence perpetuated by those with power. In this case, the legitimate critique of the actions of a few Sanders delegates is hiding the just as real present and future threat posed by the Democratic establishment to many within America and many more around the world.

A Growing Revolution

From the very beginning, Sanders has called his campaign a "political revolution." It is a phrase that traditionally evokes images of violent barricades and radical confrontations with authority. For Sanders and his supporters it has meant less guerrilla warfare or the protests of the square, and more a populist electoral movement against the "billionaire class" and for social democracy.

The events in Nevada have raised questions over just how peaceful and democratic this "revolution" actually is. Democratic leaders and many mainstream party members have charged Sanders’ campaign of having a "violent streak." This follows months of accusations that so-called "Bernie Bros" have aggressively attacked Clinton supporters online using misogynistic language traditionally disavowed by progressives (and vehemently by the candidate himself).

Even worse, these actions are perceived to be connected to protestors who interrupted a Trump Rally in March and yelled expletives at those leaving a Clinton rally in Los Angeles earlier this month. In the face of such actions Democratic leaders have "put pressure" on Sanders to more forcefully condemn such violence.

If anything though this anger only seems to be growing. "The Dems new fear," according to CNN, is that the "Sanders revolt could upend the [national] Democratic convention" in July. It appears that what was once a peaceful "revolution" could blossom into a full blown rebellion.

Protecting the Establishment

There is clearly a need to reject unacceptable violence, death threats, harassment and misogyny. To simply ignore them would be to dismiss the experiences of many who have questioned Sanders or the tactics of his supporters. It is also significant to recognize that as Sanders mentions, the majority of his movement has been incredibly non-violent.

"Within the last few days there have been a number of criticisms made against my campaign organization," said Sanders. "Party leaders in Nevada, for example, claim that the Sanders campaign has a ‘penchant for violence.’ That is nonsense. Our campaign has held giant rallies all across this country, including in high-crime areas, and there have been zero reports of violence."

Still to merely condemn without context is to perpetuate a different type of violence. It is to be willfully blind to the institutional ways Democratic elites are alienating outside voices demanding genuine as opposed to surface level change to the Party and nation.

The unrest in Nevada, for instance, was spurred by underhanded activities by the local DNC to ensure that Clinton was awarded a majority of the delegates. This echoes a primary filled with credible charges of voter suppression and perhaps even fraud from Arizona to New York to Illinois. The irritated screams are in response to the deeply felt "silencing" of their voices by Party elites and the mainstream media.

Yet this justified critique also hides another more imminent danger. It is that these citizens are trying desperately to resist a status quo that has and will do dramatic violence to them and those they care about. The protest against Clinton in East LA exemplifies this clear and present threat. Underneath the hyperbolic claims of elderly women and children being verbally assaulted was a more frightening reality.

It was that many of the protestors inside and outside the rally were there to condemn Clinton’s active role in legitimizing a military coup in Honduras producing an oligarchic government responsible for the death of indigenous protestors and the repression of women and LGTB rights. It was a direct shaming of the Party by “Latinos” against Clinton’s own previous brutal anti-immigration policies and Obama’s continued use of deportations.

Protesting American Privilege at Home and Abroad

There is a risk that in calling out the most extreme aspects of Sanders supporters, the extremism of Clinton’s brand of Centrism will be dangerously covered up. What does it say if the localized violence in a Nevada caucus room trumps the global violence of a candidate who has advocated disastrous military interventions from Iraq to Libya? Should there be more worry for a protest at a rally than for the millions of lives ruined by an economic crisis by a financial sector that Clinton did little to resist and that continues to support her?

It is too once again draw a clear line of whose safety and wellbeing is important and whose is not. That the murder of Honduran activist Berta Cáceres matters little, while the "booing" of Senator Barbara Boxer is a serious incident that must be strongly decried.

The reversion to violence and threat by progressives backing Sanders is inappropriate and counter-productive. Yet it is different than the reactionary assaults of a Trump rally in its desire to breakdown rather than reinforce existing racial and economic privilege.  

However, it is also stands in stark contrast to the less overtly violent but ultimately potentially more destructive rallies of Clinton. It is to vocally support a candidate who admirably promises to "break down" the very social and economic barriers that she and her allies have helped to build and preserve.

In his statement against the violence in Nevada, Sanders proclaimed: "The Democratic Party has a choice. It can open its doors and welcome into the party people who are prepared to fight for real economic and social change – people who are willing to take on Wall Street, corporate greed and a fossil fuel industry which is destroying this planet. Or the party can choose to maintain its status quo structure, remain dependent on big-money campaign contributions and be a party with limited participation and limited energy."

Right now those committed to real economic and social justice are too often confronted with an even more difficult choice. It is too engage in sporadic violent acts or to accept the "hidden violence" of the status quo. And all to commonly the progressive ends of these tactics are betrayed by their deplorable means.

The political revolution called for by Sanders and activists across the country offers a different way. It is to create a democratic and inclusive system of governance that upholds the rights and dignities of all – not just elites and their supporters. It is also an opening to go beyond the borders of America to join and show solidarity with a growing international movement of citizens and activists on every continent fighting for real economic, social and environmental progress.

What is needed is a radical condemnation of the worst excesses of this rebellion for a committed democratic revolution that will challenge the global destruction aided and abetted by the establishments of both major parties. It is a firm protest against American privilege at home and abroad.


Peter Bloom

Peter Bloom is a lecturer in the Department of People and Organisations at the Open University. He has published widely on issues of 21st century democracy, politics and economics in both scholarly journals and in publications including the Washington Post, The New Statesman, Roar, Open Democracy, The Conversation and Common Dreams. His books include Authoritarian Capitalism in the Age of Globalizationand Beyond Power and Resistance: Politics at the Radical Limits which will be released in November, 2016.


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