Skip to main content

Jacobin - January 16, 2020

"Bernie’s promise to encourage mass mobilizations is heartening: it means he understands the obstacles to reform he’ll face if he wins. If he does win, expect him to take every opportunity to impress upon ordinary people that they’ve been cast in the leading role. The question, then, will be whether people are ready and willing to take the stage, and to fundamentally transform the balance of power in society."

Earlier this week, the New York Times editorial board published the transcript of its questioning of Bernie Sanders, conducted in advance of its official endorsement. Nobody expects the famously establishment-friendly New York Times editorial board to endorse Bernie Sanders, so naturally the ride was a bit bumpy.

One of the first questions the board asked Bernie was how he planned to get his ambitious agenda past a Mitch McConnell–led Senate. Bernie gave his standard answer to this line of inquiry:

What my administration is about is not sitting with Mitch in the Oval Office or wherever it is, negotiating something. It is rallying the American people around an agenda that they already support. All right? This is, I think, what makes me a little bit different than other candidates, and that is not only will I be commander in chief, I will be organizer in chief.

He added that “one of my first stops, by the way, will be in Kentucky,” meaning that, as president, he would hold rallies in the backyards of recalcitrant Republican politicians like McConnell, raising hell in their districts and exerting pressure on them from their own constituents.

A little while later, this exchange occurred:

Nick Fox: Can I just follow up on that one question? Given what we’ve gone through over the last three years when Democrats hear about the president flying around the country holding rallies, they might cringe. And I’m wondering how you flying around the country in 2021 rallying the people would be different than what Donald Trump has been doing?
Bernie Sanders: Well, I don’t know if I should be insulted by that question. I’ve spent my life fighting against everything that Donald Trump stands for.

In this era of resurgent left electoral activity, the conflation of left and right populism is one of the preferred tactics of the elite political center. As Luke Savage observed in Jacobin in 2016, the ultimate function of the shallow comparison is to “neutralize the Sanders insurgency and others like it. In affixing the same [populist] label to both the far right and the Left, liberals and centrists are able, in a single maneuver, to inoculate themselves against challenges from the latter.” This tactic was on full display in the editorial board’s line of questioning.

In the end, Bernie acquitted himself well. But if his professed intention to use the presidency to inspire popular mobilizations leaves him open to this kind of disingenuous criticism, why is Bernie so insistent upon it?

None of the other Democratic presidential candidates are. In one way or another, they all reliably communicate the message, “Elect me and I’ll take it from there.” Bernie is alone in candidly saying that he will rely on the active participation of the masses to govern. ...
Read full commentary at Jacobin