Bernie Sanders and the Graveyard of Social Movements Part 2: Will it be different?

A bit over three years ago, I published “Bernie Sanders and the Graveyard of Social Movements” on this site, the day of the Iowa caucuses. It represented my evolving view of the Democratic Party, as I went from a 2008 Obama campaign volunteer to a 2011 Occupy activist, to a 2014 member of a Marxist organization most known for electing a socialist as a socialist, outside the two party hegemony. I decided to revisit the post and see how my analysis panned out, given what we know about the 2016 primaries, and the development of a social democratic/democratic socialist presence within the Democratic Party that has never been as loud and disruptive to entrenched party power.

To begin with, here’s a quote I pulled for the article by Lance Selfa, author of The Democrats: A Critical History:

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The 2016 primaries came in a markedly different economic and social period than the 2008 election. Democrats benefitted greatly from the Bush administration’s quagmire in Iraq, the botched response to Hurricane Katrina, and the swift economic collapse that began in earnest about three years before Election Day, and rapidly intensified during the party primaries and the general election campaign.

By 2015, when candidates were announcing for the election the following year, there had been eight years of President Barack Obama. His ultimate legacy is difficult to pin down- it’s too early, and he benefits from being sandwiched between two historically terrible presidents. But while there was at some level an economic recovery- unemployment dropped steadily through his entire presidency- there were still severe and systemic problems.

Job recovery was largely part-time, contract, and freelance work with lower pay and benefits than the jobs that were lost in the Great Recession. Deindustrialization and the loss of blue-collar (and often unionized) jobs continued. Urban areas continued to feel the effects of Clinton-era welfare reform that made people ‘time-out’ of benefits, or never be able to get them in the first place. And while the ACA did improve coverage for some and reduce the overall uninsured rate, it failed to achieve price stability or affordable, usable insurance for those that could only afford the low-level plans. Deportations skyrocketed, despite Bush still being seen as the anti-immigrant president. Obama never withdrew from Afghanistan, leaving the country in the same violent stalemate that defined his predecessor, and indeed the post-9/11 era as a whole. Drone warfare was escalated in several countries, particularly Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia.

The response to the crisis by the Democrats was neoliberalism with a human face- progressive rhetoric masking a policy package marked by cuts and anti-labor practices. Into this void stepped Donald Trump, who made promises that this would all go away- the legacy of Obama would be swept away, the jobs would come back, and everything would return to some vague past encapsulated in “Make America Great Again.”

Returning to the article:

This is a meandering way of getting to the relationship of Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party. As Matt Karp writes today, the inner core of the Party has been nearly unanimous in endorsing Clinton, or at least not endorsing Sanders. Even second and third-tier primary candidates of elections past got at least a small handful of national figures, even if they never polled in the double digits.

Sanders is far from the first major candidate that the leading cadre have despised. The Democrats did have a chance to move leftward (to essentially the social-democratic politics that Sanders triumphs) in the late 60s and early 70s, but conflict with the conservative establishment caused so much chaos that there was little time to, ya know, campaign and win elections. If you’re wondering whether the Party will ever embrace a truly different direction, ask whether the people that control it would benefit from higher corporate taxes, more regulation, and eliminating industries like private health insurance.

This still holds true. The Party leadership remains firmly against the social democratic programs Sanders advocated for, even as more Democratic politicians (and even more so, the party base at large) embraces them, at least in form if not in substance. Sanders in the 2020 race will still have to contend with low levels of prominent party endorsements, and a leadership that aims to stymie his political programs. We can see this in Nancy Pelosi’s attitude to Medicare for All and the Green New Deal. No matter what polling says, Sanders will never be a frontrunner in the classical sense. The party leadership will not rally around him now, and there is a non-zero chance they will never do so. The spectre of a moderate Michael Bloomberg or Howard Schultz torpedoing Sanders in the general election remains real. Finance capital has made it clear what the acceptable spectrum of candidates. Sanders (and possibly Elizabeth Warren and Tulsi Gabbard) are not in that range, and they will face an uphill climb the whole way unless they capitulate.

Bernie Sanders is not a Democrat and has never been one. I’ve run into plenty of people for whom party identification is a core part of their personal identity. They are Democrats. Their parents and grandparents, going back to the New Deal, were Democrats. Partisanship has an ideological component, but it also has the same nationalist substitute you get with sports teams and Kirk v. Picard. The instant Sanders decided to run as a Democrat he entered foreign turf that he doesn’t fit into well.

The 2016 primaries definitely did see that many people were willing to vote for an independent in the Democratic primary. But the establishment in the media and among party loyalists still do not trust him- and they will use this as a cudgel when possible. That the question of party affiliation came up in the CNN town hall (which, given how it was stacked with party officials and lobbyists, represented what will become standard among attacks on Sanders’ program and character) indicates it remains unresolved.

If history is our guide, the Sanders movement is not going to fundamentally change the structure. My stance on the Party has been consistent to the point that friends are surprised when someone else invokes it- “the graveyard of social movements.” The radicalism of groups since the 19th century has been neutered to the point that once the most militant of working class organizations run away from any genuine progressive politics. Clinton, who has never supported a $15/hr minimum wage, won the endorsement of the SEIU. Currently, their signature campaign is Fight for 15. Much of labor has been so institutionalized that its leadership will choose party loyalty, even if it undermines fast food workers who have lost their jobs advocating for $15.

This is the meat of the thing. Anecdotally, the Sanders supports I know have made strides in becoming party delegates and influencing (or outright taking over) local and state party committees. However, there are still hard limits that have not been overcome. The DNC core is still much like it was in 2016. There was no Bernie-esque left challenge to Nancy Pelosi, despite her great power and opposition to most social democratic programs. And while more modest ballot referendums on the minimum wage and marijuana legalization have fared well, the ones that Sanders and his supporters invested the most time into, like Proposition 61 in California (2016) and Issue 2 in Ohio (2017) that aimed to control prescription drug prices, and Proposition 10 in California (2018) on rent control, failed. In the latter two, quite badly. If the progressive left of the Democratic Party wants things that can be reconciled with capital (like marijuana legalization), they will find a relatively easy path. If their policy goals directly cut into profits, look only at the $100,000,000+ spent by industry on the two California propositions.

Inertia should always be considered:

The best predictor of the future is the past, and the Democratic Party has been around for about two hundred years now. American party politics has flipped multiple times, but the Democrats were never radicals.

The Sanders insurrection, and the new figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez that continue the spirit, are not trying to take the party back to some sort of mythic progressive past. They lionize the New Deal, but the New Deal was an attempt to stymie further radicalism. It was a compromise with capital that has since been mostly reversed. A true social democratic (or, gasp, democratic socialist) Democratic Party would be a heretofore-unseen force in American politics. It would be by far the biggest shift in American politics since the Civil Right Movement.

It would. But will it?

Can Bernie Sanders end up President, and not in the graveyard of social movements?

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On civic atheism

With the decline of organized religion in western societies, beginning with the Enlightenment and the French Revolution, but continuing into the twenty-first century, many practices and ideologies emerged to take its place as the guiding institution- both entwined with and autonomous of the state. The nineteenth century saw the rise of romantic nationalism, which motivated social action and conflict much like the religious wars of previous eras.

Encompassing nationalism, but more varied, is civic (or civil) religion. The concept, originating with Rousseau, is that a new, unifying and exalted force takes the place of the church, with its own myths and sacred figures and texts that function in a similar fashion.

Civic religion is highly developed in the United States, and instantly recognizable, even to those who were not born here and did not experience American socialization. From the Oxford Encyclopedia of Religion:

Thus, in philosophical terms, civil religion is the appropriation of religion for political ends. The American version of civil religion, though, differs from Rousseau’s idea by incorporating the nation’s Christian heritage more deeply into an understanding and judgment of America.

In the American context, civil religion had to accommodate the country’s variety of faiths and Enlightenment rationalism, but was just as deeply influenced by the power of popular and elite religiosity to order American life. Thus, American civil religion has echoed Protestant values and assumptions, while enshrining the mythic nature of the Puritans, founding fathers, and common people who gave their lives in wars and conquest. Moreover, while Americans do not pray to their nation, they have no trouble praying for their nation; they see presidents and preachers as both serving in capacities that minister to the people in times of crisis, and they invest sacred meaning in events and documents to help them imagine that America is as much an idea as it is a place.

Civic religion saturates the political and social mainstream of American society. Both political parties invoke the Founding Fathers, treat texts like the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence much as prior societies did the Bible. The difference is in interpretation and emphasis- whether the American myths and legacy are compatible with a diverse and multicultural population. Though President Trump’s refrain of ‘America First’ is rightly seen as historically tied to intolerance and fascist ideology, exalting America as above all else, either the material nation or the abstract idea of America, is not particularly controversial. Even those that support multilateralism and international cooperation are often fiercely patriotic, and appeal to the civic canon to justify their decisions.

What is civic atheism?

As far as I can tell, nobody has ever discussed the idea of civic atheism, and given it a definition. Similar ideas exist- it is implicit in socialist internationalism, for instance- but I feel it is best to use the term as a contrast to civic religion. If there is religion, if there is a sacred and holy, there is its opposite, a negation.

Civic atheism is defined asa worldview that rejects the mythology of the state, the primacy of its core figures and texts, and exceptional narratives as irrational or otherwise indefensible.

Why civic atheism? 

  • Civic religion is ahistorical. It creates myths and rearranges history to glorify the nation and the state. Acceptance of, and participation in, civic religion is predicated on overlooking social problems and injustice when it doesn’t ‘fit the narrative’.
  • Principles of American civic religion have problematic ethical and moral implications. The ‘American dream’ (‘a happy way of living that is thought of by many Americans as something that can be achieved by anyone in the U.S. especially by working hard and becoming successful’ [Merriam Webster]) can interfere with empathy, as it assumes that success is the result of hard work, and failure is a shortcoming explained by individual factors. Belief in meritocracy is not fair to the less advantaged. Civic religion has a lack of understanding of both power structures and intersectionality.
  • Civic religion is the foundation of xenophobic nationalism and is used to marshal support for unjust wars. How often was the flag used to rally support for the invasion of Iraq, despite a complete lack of evidence that the country was involved in the 9/11 attacks, or could be occupied without massive consequences?

Civic religion is the true inheritor of the established churches- it also inherits the same fundamental issues from dogmatic religion.

Groups that try to tell a different story of America- the indigenous tribes that lived here long before, and live here today; the black community with its history of slavery and discrimination that predates the founding of the country; the immigrant communities from all over the world who are told to accept civic religion in order to be accepted, no matter its wisdom. It is fine to be a civic atheist, and have a cultural system that does not exist to bolster the state. It may be the healthiest way forward, in the light of profound and systemic social problems.

Two thousand and five

Moments long past
come forth, afresh
as if they arose
incorruptible, from the crypt
oblivious to the passage of time
each year since no more than
a mild nuisance

the bell rings on the dot
clear as dappled dew in the shade
8:30, first period geometry
on top of the hill, seven staircases up
the first day of the rest of my lfie
on an August day, unsure if school
means that summer weather is now
somehow improper

a continent, an ocean, a decade apart
yet no more distant than
the tips of my fingers