"We can elect the best person in the world to be president, but that person will get swallowed up unless there is an unprecedented level of activism at the grassroots level." —Sen. Bernie Sanders
Presidential hopeful Sen Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is on a roll. Following his historic late-May campaign kick-off rally on the waterfront in Burlington, he was greeted by overflow crowds in New Hampshire, Iowa and Minnesota. Moreover, he did very well in a recent Wisconsin straw poll. He has generated a level of enthusiasm not often seen this early in a campaign. Although his candidacy is sometimes dismissed, or at best deemed quixotic by mainstream media pundits certain that his criticisms of corporate American and rising levels of inequality can’t fly, he continues to attract a large following wherever he speaks.
Sanders is the longest-serving Independent in U.S. history. He is well aware that he is no Lone Ranger coming to save the American people, a point to which the above quote, and his entire political life, attests. Despite Hillary Clinton’s near-universal name recognition and limitless campaign funds, it would be foolish to write off the possibility of a Sanders presidency. Yet a winning electoral coalition—however far-fetched that idea may appear—is not the same thing as a grass roots mass movement. In other words, were Bernie Sanders elected President, how he wins would make an extraordinary difference.
As British political economist and Labor Party leader Harold Laski observed in 1940, “[T]he day of a successful election is the day on which the president ceases to be a free man.” Laski was alluding to the pressures from political and economic elites that imprison a newly-elected chief executive. Conventional political science mostly ignores such pressures, choosing instead to focus on the party of the president, personality characteristics, or management style. The balance of power between Congress and the President is given great attention. Washington “gridlock” is condemned; bipartisan cooperation is celebrated and eagerly anticipated. But beneath those personal and institutional factors lies a deeper structure of power.
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The modern presidency emerged from the long tenure of FDR and the challenges of the Great Depression and WWII. Its foundation was set in the twin pillars of endless economic growth (defined as rising GDP – producing more today than yesterday, more tomorrow than today) and the promotion of national security (expanding security via the projection of American power against all “enemies,” whether the former Soviet Union or ISIS). These twin goals were bipartisan, a product of a shared consensus that is simply not sustainable in an era of climate change and the decline of American empire. This now-unsustainable consensus was beholden to corporate definitions of the ends of U.S. military and economic power.
How does this power structure imprison the president? As a thought experiment, imagine the morning after he is elected President in 2016. What would greet President-elect Bernie Sanders after the victory parties die down and residents of Burlington, VT awaken to their first cup of coffee? The most immediate impact would be a steep decline in global financial markets, as investors registered their panic at the “reckless” decision reached by U.S. voters. The swift negative response would be amplified by fears in corporate boardrooms, as the specter of severe market instability and declining business confidence wracked the capitalist world. With a financial meltdown looming, president-elect Sanders would be facing a business reaction known as “capital strike.” And that’s just day one after the election. With little prospect of the economic tumult subsiding during his 11 week transition period, Sanders would face enormous pressure to calm the fears of the market by announcing the appointment of moderates to hold Cabinet positions—non-confrontational, non-ideological people who would be “acceptable” to political and economic power holders. No radicals for the Treasury Department, no thoughts of Ben and Jerry as Co-Secretaries of Commerce, no union firebrand to head the Labor Department, no Bill McKibben leading the Interior Department. Only nice, “safe” choices would suffice—personnel decisions that would undermine the progressive vision of his campaign. In short, the economics of “capital strike” would threaten to trump the verdict of democracy.
One of Bernie Sanders’s heroes is legendary labor leader Eugene Debs, no stranger to the world of strikes. Debs was Socialist Party candidate for President five times, the final time in 1920 while he was in the federal penitentiary in Atlanta for opposing WWI. He received almost a million votes. Bernie Sanders’s prison would, of course, be more metaphorical, though hardly less restrictive. For politicians like Democrat Hillary Clinton, such restrictions would not be so onerous. She would be a voluntary captive, willfully caught up in the same definitions of economic growth and national security that framed the modern presidency for both political parties. To be sure, in front of progressive and labor audiences, candidate Hillary Clinton undoubtedly will do her best to sound like Eugene Debs in a pant suit. More often than not, though, she will play the “sensible center” card, with Bernie’s “unrealistic” excesses on her left side and irresponsible scorched earth Republicans on her right—classic Clintonian triangulation—and lead in a direction palatable to corporate, financial, and banking interests—classic Clintonian neoliberalism.
For Bernie Sanders, though, such confinement would be unbearable, almost taunting him to become just another moderate-to-liberal Democrat. To really challenge the status quo, he would need to do more than argue that working people deserve a bigger slice of the pie. For instance, reduction of income and wealth inequality itself, while crucial, would not help address global climate change, if the goal is merely to rev up economic growth in order to grow a bigger pie and give a proportionally larger slice to the bottom 99%. The U.S. and the world need to reduce production of greenhouse gasses, particularly carbon dioxide and methane, and do so rapidly. We need to rethink how “growth” and “progress” are defined. Simply raising GDP would actually make things worse. Similarly, national security needs to be defined as something quite different than having some 900 military bases around the world and a growing weapons and surveillance capability. We will not blast our way to a more secure world via a bloated, energy-depleting Pentagon budget, arming Middle East “moderate rebels” and firing more drones, strategies that create more “terrorist” enemies than they destroy.
In short, the U.S. today does not need a Gene Debs so much as it needs a Green Debs. The irony is that in some fundamental ways, the latter would have to be even more radical than the former. As Naomi Klein has powerfully argued, “global climate change is not just another issue to add to your list of things to worry about. It’s a civilizational wake-up call.” Delivering such a wake-up call will require the kind of political revolution that Bernie Sanders has long advocated, a revolution with the courage to confront the interlocked corporate, financial, fossil fuel and military interests that benefit from our current version of capitalism and militarism.
If president-elect Sanders is to avoid becoming “prisoner-elect,” he will need to call for a fundamental redefinition of economic growth and national security. He will need to bring together an electoral movement, with a movement for economic justice, with a movement for climate justice. He will need people in the streets, along Pennsylvania Avenue as well as Main Streets everywhere—continually, not just at victory parties or inaugural balls. Absent sustained public pressure that coalesces with the campaign itself, he indeed would be swallowed up, prisoner of a system he sought to challenge.
For many reasons, then, the campaign and the ensuing transition period would be a wild ride. But the wildest aspect would not be a Sanders victory. Rather it would be the tension between the populist, working class vision of Sanders and the powerful economic and military forces trying to tame any potential Bernie beast. And the deciding factor—his only insulation from “capital strike”—would be democracy itself. This means not just 270 electoral votes but the legitimacy that would accompany post-election demonstrations demanding space for his progressive vision, despite the hostile reaction of those who benefit from inequality. So can Bernie Sanders actually cobble together an electoral coalition strong enough to elect him president? He probably can, but that’s the easy part.