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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Stein, vaccines, and the new, better Green Party

Jill Stein has gotten some negative media attention due to an answer in a Reddit AMA regarding vaccines.

Part of her statement:

“I think there’s no question that vaccines have been absolutely critical in ridding us of the scourge of many diseases — smallpox, polio, etc. So vaccines are an invaluable medication,” Stein said. “Like any medication, they also should be — what shall we say? — approved by a regulatory board that people can trust. And I think right now, that is the problem. That people do not trust a Food and Drug Administration, or even the CDC for that matter, where corporate influence and the pharmaceutical industry has a lot of influence.”

followed up later with this, mentioning controversies with the use of hormone replacement for menopause, and treatments for Alzheimer’s that backfired:

it’s really important that the American public have confidence in our regulatory boards so that all of our medical treatments and medications actually are approved by people who do not have a vested interest in their promotion.

and clarification on Twitter:

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Snopes also lists the claim that Stein is anti-vaccination as unproven.

My mother, a psychiatrist, was concerned about Stein’s take on vaccines, so I did some research to make sure I had all the needed context.

The Washington Post story, which is the norm among large, nonpartisan media outlets, takes a skeptical look at Stein’s claims, assuming that the formal independence of the FDA more or less as true.

The closest Stein gets to anti-vaxx arguments is here:

“There were concerns among physicians about what the vaccination schedule meant, the toxic substances like mercury which used to be rampant in vaccines. There were real questions that needed to be addressed. I think some of them at least have been addressed. I don’t know if all of them have been addressed.”

Pretty different from what her remarks were being portrayed as. At its core, Stein doesn’t believe that vaccines have any of the purported negative effects that are common currency among anti-vaxxers. Nor does she see any existing issues as overriding the massive public health necessity of vaccination. In fact, she specifically says vaccination rates need to go up in light of Jenny McCarthy and others. As she said on Twitter, the issue is that government agencies have a credibility problem. Even if their statements are 100% true, the intensive lobbying by pharmaceutical companies, and a revolving door between the FDA and private industry, invites skepticism. And indeed that is part of why parents may choose to ignore warnings about things like vaccinations. Even if “the FDA is a tool of Big Pharma” is unrelated to “vaccines are essential for public health,” it can muddy the waters.

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The pharmaceutical lobby is incredibly powerful. A 2005 piece by the Center for Public Integrity pointed out over $100 million annually in lobbying. To quote, emphasis mine:

The industry’s multi-faceted influence campaign has also led to a more industry-friendly regulatory policy at the Food and Drug Administration, the agency that approves its products for sale and most directly oversees drug makers.

Most of the industry’s political spending paid for federal lobbying. Medicine makers hired about 3,000 lobbyists, more than a third of them former federal officials, to advance their interests before the House, the Senate, the FDA, the Department of Health and Human Services, and other executive branch offices.

A 2015 story in TIME about the now-current head of the FDA, Robert Califf M.D pointed out that he was making six figures in consulting fees annually from pharmaceutical companies. Pharmaceutical companies were instrumental in the passage of Medicare Part D, which is a cash cow because it has no price controls unlike most government health programs. Pharma is also the only part of the health system that was not impacted by the Affordable Care Act, trading perks in exchange for not blocking the bill.

I’ve been a registered Green from mid-2009 until today, minus the time myself and many others registered independent to vote in the Democratic primary this year. In years past, Green ideology was a complete mess. It was sort of socialist, sort of capitalist, and alternatively enthusiastic about and skeptical of science. Going to a party conference, I was frustrated by the lack of coherence and a tendency towards conspiracy theories and quack medicine.

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This election cycle is different, because the primaries have manufactured a large disenchanted bloc of voters who see Stein as an answer. This has had the effect of making Green ideology more consistent, and pushing out its more kooky aspects. An amendment to the 2016 platform was passed by the National Committee to make the Green Party explicitly anti-capitalist and move towards eco-socialism. This would resolve the ambiguous take on economics in Green politics and give the party something to stand on. The party this year also voted to remove support for practices like homeopathy. I do believe that Jill Stein has been part of the solution rather than the problem- her status as a doctor makes outsiders more likely to listen, and since her run in 2012 there has been pressure to move beyond a niche party.

Your vote in November is yours alone. Don’t let people bully you into a decision. If you are in a swing state, it’s a tough decision and in some sense I’m glad I don’t have to make it. If you live in a safe state, a vote for the Greens would be huge. A large result would secure millions in public funding, improve ballot access. Minor parties spend more money on litigation to get on the ballot than anything else. And even if Clinton wins, a 5%+ for Stein shows that the Sanders movement against politics as usual has survived.

Enough is enough. Vote Stein.

The lone woman: standing outside the UU liberal consensus

SEVERAL years ago, I attended the “morning forum” at my local UU congregation. It was a current events discussion group that started a half-hour before the first service.

It was the end of the year, and by then a standard topic was a year-end review for President Obama. There were about twenty people in the room. Most of them were Kennedy-era liberals, with some of the older participants having grown up worshipping FDR.

The facilitator had developed a detailed handout, covering each aspect of the presidency. At the end of the session, each person gave a letter grade to the President- they were tallied on an easel.

Almost everyone gave Obama either an A or B on every segment- mostly A’s. Only one woman, along with myself, gave the President a failing grade in anything. We agreed that it was absurd to view the ever-lengthening Afghanistan conflict, or his deportation-heavy immigration policy as anything other than serious, systemic issues. Income inequality was getting worse, and the ‘recovery’ in effect at the time didn’t benefit people outside the top tax bracket.

Afterwards, it felt pretty awkward. Clearly I had intruded on people’s long-held worldviews. And as outspoken as I can be, I never dissent just to be shocking. The woman who joined my mini-protest came over. She was older than me, but a bit younger than the Kennedy-era liberals. Apparently she was often the lone critical voice in the forum, and she thanked me for keeping her company. It was clear that she was uncomfortable with the situation. But a forum is supposed to be a free discussion, and her contributions were both eloquent and well-grounded.

Two things Unitarian Universalism stands for are freedom of expression and against ignorance. But I felt a narrow political consensus gripping the forum that Sunday morning. This part of the congregation was so used to defending the president from conservative attack that they were uncomfortable with a progressive critique. Yet if the critique wasn’t there, the forum would have been fine living in a world where the President could do no wrong.

I never felt this way in a religious context. Atheist, agnostic, polytheistic, Eastern, ancient, contemporary. Congregants were always open to new religious concepts, and had often moved significantly from their previous beliefs. But there wasn’t much dynamism in politics. In many places, UUs come from well-off liberal families, and have held the same basic ideology since they were children. Like I said, the older members of the forum came from Roosevelt families, and still spoke of him in godlike terms.

Unitarian Universalism is a religion. But it wears its politics on its sleeve. I’ve written that UU politics and UU ideals do not link up. The ideals call for liberation. The politics call for institutions of injustice to behave themselves.

IN 2014, a couple of years after the forum, I gave a guest sermon at the same congregation (“And in Society at Large”, the text of which you can read here). My politics here were different, and my point of critique was systemic rather than focused on one man. But the same tension emerged. After the second service, a woman stood up during announcements. She applauded me for my sermon, but then tied it into her work she was doing- opening up the local Democratic Party office ahead of the 2014 midterm elections. At no point did I mention party politics as the solution- nor do they fit in a call for economic democracy. I felt being co-opted right in front of my eyes, in front of a group of people. I personally felt humiliated that my weeks of preparation had been twisted so quickly.

Afterwards, most people gave me pretty brief, nondescript feedback- good sermon, thought-provoking, the normal. A woman came up later, around my age, and thanked me for bringing up so many things- like cooperatives, corporate greed, and the need for workers to control their lives. She also noticed the lack of tact shown by the person advertising the Democratic Party (in a house of worship, additionally).

The woman at the forum, and the woman after the sermon were different. But they had a similarity: they were the only one. The liberal bubble was large, but there were UUs who wanted better political discourse within the church. How many people stopped attending services because of the narrow politics? How many people shut up when their fellow UUs praised an administration that had been at odds with communities of color on many occasions?

If diversity is an issue, and at every congregation I’ve been to oh god it is, politics is a real, tangible issue. I often see a politics that works and makes sense, assuming you’re white and financially stable. The Black Lives Matter resolution passed at General Assembly in Portland was fraught with conflict, essentially because the act called for prison abolition. Abolition is a step too far for mainstream liberals, but for people of color living in an age of mass incarceration, it is a cause for survival. It is great to have radical ministers and congregants offering a different way forward, but I’ve seen what happens if a church doesn’t have those people.

Or if they only have one. Always standing alone.

 

Bernie Sanders and the Graveyard of Social Movements

In the final hours before the Iowa caucuses, it’s productive to take a step back and look at the Democratic presidential primary from a structural perspective.

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Sanders at a rally in Charleston, South Carolina. August 2015.

American presidential campaigns used to be managed exclusively by machine bosses. There were no democratic primary elections- there was a convention, the candidate was often a compromise made in a smoke-filled room. Money and patronage were divvied among those who could mobilize resources. Popular participation did play a role, but party leadership counted for a lot- and much of the mobilization was under political machines controlled by said bosses.

All that has really happened since the 19th century convention-based system is that there are now primary elections. Of course that’s a big addition to the process, but the old forces haven’t been replaced. Party elites still try as much as possible to make the primary elections a coronation process; they also have the advantage that those with the most party loyalty are the main electorate. Thus even in a competitive race like 2008, the party structure was not threatened. A couple people got mad and said they wouldn’t vote for Obama, but otherwise unity was quick and very few people in power changed ideology as a result.

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Lance Selfa on the role of the Democrats since the 19th century (The Democrats: A Critical History, Haymarket Books, 2008)

 

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.

So the institution doesn’t like him because of his politics. A factor that I’ve yet to see someone articulate clearly is an issue for both officials and primary voters. 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.

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.

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From Mike Flugennock: sinkers.org/stage/?p=1707

So as this primary season begins, the question of change needs to be separated. Can Bernie Sanders win despite near-universal Party opposition? Maybe, I don’t know. My concern is that even if he wins, the Party is not the vehicle to achieve progressive change. We have seen how much a President can be handcuffed by Congress- the opposition, yes, but also within the delegation.

I’ve seen people make the argument that Clinton v. Sanders is a battle for the soul of the Democratic Party. I don’t buy that interpretation (Don’t Believe the Hype!), nor any analysis that says the Party is destined to end up at this or that ideology. 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. When the Democrats fought in the 1890s over the Pullman strike, a Democratic president overrode a Democratic governor to crush it. Attempts to form a progressive, radical opposition has never lasted. Odds are that the Democratic Party will continue doing what it’s been doing, with no substantial change.

It is good to see more independent organizations liked National Nurses United bucking the trend of contradicting policy goals and endorsements. In their last post about the Sanders campaign before the caucuses, a nurse going door-to-door said:

We talked about what it means to have someone who is a champion, but also has a movement behind him. You have to have both to achieve change.

She’s right. You need both. But is that movement to come from a Party run by his opponents and funded by many of the same heinous corporations that fund the Republicans? Perhaps these buried organizations need to rise from the dead.

Because despite claims to the contrary, I think people power still has some life left in this country.

I need a dollar: free college and artificial scarcity

So the Million Student March was held in more than a hundred locations last week (UC San Diego had a march that I helped organize). #StudentBlackOut occurred today, as students of color added their own demands about representation in faculty, in the student body, and serious mandatory education on race for students, faculty, and administration. The larger social reaction to these movements and their demands indicates how narrow the debate is about social justice and investment in youth and people of color.

The reaction to the Million Student March- among conservatives and old ‘I paid my way through college working at the soda fountain’ liberals, is that there is no money for free education, and any more money into higher education will come from the pockets of hard-working Americans.

The debate is defined by artificial scarcity. Making higher education free is possibly the cheapest thing the United States could do to increase long-term GDP growth. The actual figure- somewhere between 62 and 40 billion a year – is a minuscule fraction of defense spending and could be met by canceling dumb ideas like the F-35 (1.45 trillion total projected cost), stop making equipment like tanks the military doesn’t even want, and not approving new dumb ideas.

Within the University of California system, senior administrative bloat, the product of a corporatized hierarchy where education went from the focus to a way to mine students for money to pay big salaries, is $1.1 billion a year total. The whole student population pays $3 billion, so over a third of their tuition is spent on excess administration!

Higher education is one of many programs put into a zero-sum bucket. More money is not coming from a financial transactions tax or cracking down on overseas stashes of corporate earnings (if Apple brought its cash hoard back into the US they would owe almost 60 billion in taxes– one year of free higher education by itself). Money comes from Medicaid, veteran’s benefits, food stamps, subsidized housing, and all the other non-university levels of education. As long as the scarcity is believed, then poor and vulnerable people fight with each other.

Immense wealth and immense poverty exists- both within and between countries. The political and economic elite has constructed an adversarial system where the only visible enemies are others just trying to survive. A 40 hour job is divided so that no one qualifies for benefits, and there are no stable hours and schedules. The conflict is kept at the individual level, so corporate profits and shareholder values are preserved.

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With the Million Student March and the Mizzou movements converging, the question of economics versus identity has come to the forefront. When I went to a town hall meeting about campus racism and lack of diversity, I heard a lot of cutting personal stories. I heard about bigoted TAs, professors, and administrators. Racist publications and campus police. I did not hear about the system that benefits from racism and utilizes it- capitalism. The intersectionality of oppression is vital in any analysis of society, but ultimately the ruling class is that- a class. And it is its own mixture of race, nationality, sexual orientation, and religion. Oppression is itself not a zero-sum game- poor whites can be oppressed, albeit to different degrees and ways than people of color.

I’ll put it this way: when you leave an event, class, or debate, ask if the elite that control the police, military, and economy are glad that you didn’t mention them.

The pride parade: a new part of the corporate agenda

Corporate takeover of Pride illustrates a new victory of capital, that in the process excludes everyone who doesn’t fit a narrow definition of acceptability.

From Project Queer: http://projectqueer.org/post/122957180303/to-view-enlarged-chart-click-here-what-are
From Project Queer: http://projectqueer.org/post/122957180303/to-view-enlarged-chart-click-here-what-are

This pie chart of the groups listed on the website of Chicago Pride, which was held last month. The actual portion of a modern major-city pride parade that is specifically about LGBT+ communities and their struggle is tiny. As was seen with the legalization of same-sex marriage, a portion of the least radical sections, whose demands avoid issues of class and race, are now a market for the same regular capitalist crap as everyone else. This pie-chart shows an event about the queer community, but dominated by corporations, politicians, and institutions that are still in the hands of white, heterosexual men. Being “gay-friendly” and marching in the parade has gone from being a political and moral statement to something to put in the annual report brochure.

Never mind that millions of queer individuals, who don’t fit into the gender binary or the heterosexual institutions like marriage that form the narrow bounds of acceptability. The renaissance of alternative pride events attests to the contradictions of the mainstream ones. Simply put, the forces of capital cannot share a stage with radical, anti-oppression, anti-capitalist groups. Any event with fancy multinational conglomerate sponsors has to be swept clean of ideas and ideologies that challenge the basis of racism, homophobia and transphobia. To the newly gay-friendly corporation, things are also best done without a serious conversation about intersectionality, an issue that is often ignored even in non-corporate settings (for instance, a long-running conflict in the feminist movement about who sets the tone, and how oppression is not uniform among all female-identified people). The new capitalist LGBT+ construction is simple (not really interested in most gender identities and sexual orientations), uniform, and commoditized.

But this is the battle that all civil rights movements have to eventually deal with. Martin Luther King is often used in commercials these days, after all.