“It was also a shock to the system that a candidate universally known in Iowa, with deep pockets and long experience, could come close to losing to a relative unknown who was initially considered little more than a protest candidate.”
Just think of it! The tiny, tightly controlled consciousness that calls itself The World’s Greatest Democracy got all rattled and discombobulated by the behavior of Iowa caucus participants this week, because a large number of them — virtually half of the participating Democrats — cast their vote for an old socialist, well outside the zone of official approval.
The above quote, from the Washington Post, lays painfully bare the scope of awareness considered allowable in the American electoral process. Oh Bernie, with his unrealistic ideas, his idealism, his anger! He was supposed to be fringe — the candidate of the unserious (non-voting) American — but instead his campaign has cut into the mainstream vein, bleeding money from it and now, OMG, actual votes. What’s going on here?
The way I see it, he’s threatening the consensus of ignorance that has congealed over the last four decades around the American political process, especially at the highest levels. Indeed, the consensus is coming apart on its own this election season, even for those who have traditionally embraced it, e.g., the “white middle class,” as conservative writer R.R. Reno notes in a recent New York Times op-ed:
“Our political history since the end of World War II has turned on the willingness of white middle-class voters to rally behind great causes in league with the wealthy and political elite: Resist Communism! Send a man to the moon! Overcome racism! Protect the environment! Today, white middle-class voters want to be reassured that they can play an active role in politics. They want someone to appeal to their sense of political self-worth, not just their interests.
“This is precisely what Mr. Trump and Mr. Sanders offer.”
I think it’s bigger than that. The American public is hearing the distant rumble of civilization’s collapse — hearing it beyond the chatter of the boob-tube pundits, beyond our trivialized identity as “consumers.” With the term “sense of political self-worth,” Reno is trying to say that democracy has a deep, spiritual dimension, that politics is about life and death, that our so-called leaders have to pledge a different sort of allegiance than the one they’ve gotten used to. . . that maybe, as a society, we need to start over at some basic level.
This is what a movement is: collective momentum for change, focused around a resonating principle. All people are equal. Violence solves nothing. We must cherish, not exploit, the planet that sustains us. These, at any rate, are some of the core principles that Bernie Sanders is tapping into and animating with his campaign.
A movement is bigger than any given leader, certainly bigger than any politician, but without leadership — and, especially, without some sort of access to the political process — movements can quickly lose momentum and deflate.
This is what happened to the global antiwar movement that preceded George W. Bush’s 2003 invasion of Iraq. No matter that the invasion was an utter disaster from (almost) every point of view — indeed, that it set loose, you might say, one of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse — it has been coddled politically for over a decade now and perpetuated by both a Republican and Democratic presidency. Something is deeply problematic about the democracy both Sanders and Trump are now rocking. Issues of real significance are not up for discussion, and haven’t been for a long time.
Meanwhile, the contemporary Four Horsemen are running loose: War, Poverty, Racism and Climate Change. They may have other names, but these are how they appear to me in my political nightmares. And the riders are human. They’re the ones leading us right now, behind the façade of democracy.
Confronting them — stopping them — will take a movement independent of politics as usual, but not independent of the political process itself. This, I believe and hope, is what Bernie Sanders is bringing to the 2016 presidential race: a public opening into the process now owned by the acolytes and fiscal beneficiaries of the Four Horsemen.
Consider War, a.k.a. militarism: While Sanders is roundly condemned for the cost of his “socialist” ideas, such as universal healthcare and free college tuition, the cost of perpetual war and military readiness — the cost of nukes and surveillance and global domination — never comes up in presidential debates or official political discussions of any sort. This cost manages to be both enormous and almost invisible.
Nicolas J.S. Davies, writing last fall at Huffington Post, points out that the military budget during the Obama administration has averaged $663.4 billion annually. He adds: “These figures do not include additional military-related spending by the VA, CIA, Homeland Security, Energy, Justice or State Departments, nor interest payments on past military spending, which combine to raise the true cost of U.S. militarism to about $1.3 trillion per year, or one thirteenth of the U.S. economy.”
U.S. military spending, as has often been noted, equals or surpasses the annual budgets of the next ten largest military spenders combined. Davies also makes this fascinating point in his essay:
“If we compare U.S. military spending with global military spending, we can see that, as the U.S. cut its military budget by a third between 1985 and 1998, the rest of the world followed suit and global military budgets also fell by a third between 1988 and 1998. But as the U.S. spent trillions of dollars on weapons and war after 2000 . . . both allies and potential enemies again responded in kind. The 92 percent rise in the U.S. military budget by 2008 led to a 65 percent rise in global military spending by 2011.”
U.S. military spending leads the way! A U.S. decision to disarm would also lead the way, but none of this is up for public discussion. Our military spending is silently necessary for the continuation of business as usual. Not only that, it’s never in danger, as, let us say, Social Security is, or any effort to relieve the hell of poverty. The money is always available, no matter the condition of the economy.
This enormous wrong requires direct confrontation by an informed and politically empowered public. Let us make sure that the 2016 presidential race is no less than this.