Friday, February 20, 2009

Progressive Paradox: Pragmatic Populism

On March 3, 2009 voters in Burlington chose a mayor. Incumbent Bob Kiss, the third progressive to hold office over the previous 28 years, defeated Democratic, Republican, Green and Independent challengers. To put the race into perspective, this series looks at the movement that began with the election of Bernie Sanders on March 3, 1981 and subsequently changed the face of Vermont politics.

Chapter Six

If a psychic had predicted in the 1970s that Bernie Sanders would someday stand on the White House lawn in support of an embattled US President, or enthusiastically back another Democrat for the presidency in 2008, most people who knew him would have considered it a bizarre joke. Bernie himself probably would have been insulted.

At the time he was a perennial “third party” candidate who, in four statewide races, had dedicated himself to broadside attacks on capitalism and its henchmen – the two major political parties. Nevertheless, on December 19, 1998, just hours after the US House voted to impeach a President for only the second time in the nation’s history, there he was, lined up with Democratic notables behind Bill Clinton. Ten years later he was backing Barack Obama from a seat in the US Senate.

This has to be one of the most remarkable metamorphoses in US political history. An irascible outsider became a seasoned player in the national political establishment. As the longest-serving Independent, and the only open socialist in Congress, he has entered the record books. Considered an effective coalition-builder, he can sometimes get GOP conservatives to play ball with Democratic liberals. He also founded the Progressive Caucus, a congressional alliance that has fought for tax reform, single payer health care, military spending cuts, and control of international financial institutions. Along the way, he has proven virtually invulnerable to electoral attack.

Yet, as Bernie sees it, “My views about what I believe is right and what I want to see in this country have changed very little.” And that may be the secret of his success. Bernie is nothing if not consistent, managing to stick with essentially the same rap no matter what the political climate. The surface image has certainly evolved – from aggressive, fast-talking radical in jeans and sandals, struggling angrily to be heard, to self-assured, well-dressed statesman who couches his criticisms with frequent acknowledgments of respect for opponents and practical realities. But the message, however updated with new evidence and references, is virtually identical.

As he put it during a one-on-one interview about ten years ago, “You have two political parties that are controlled by monied interests…You have a corporate media. When you talk about consolidation, you are talking about oil and gas, banking, and perhaps most importantly, the media – where there are very few voices of dissent regarding our current position on the global economy.

“That gets to even the more fundamental issue – the health of American democracy. Do people know what’s going on? And how can they fight what’s going on? I fear that they don’t.”

We were talking at the start of a mind-boggling week. Bill Clinton was only two days from launching a new round of Iraq bombings – on the eve of his own impeachment. Bernie had already made up his mind on Clinton: yes to censure, no to removal or resignation. But he was more equivocal on the subject of intervention. A critic of high defense spending who voted against the Gulf war, he nevertheless believes that military action is sometimes appropriate, for example in Yugoslavia or to get rid of a dictator like Saddam Hussein. “I do not want to see a man like this develop biological or chemical weapons,” he explained. “So, it’s not an easy situation.”

The real trouble, he argued in early 1999, is that unlike the broad public opposition that emerged to the Vietnam War, about 80 percent of the people will support just about any decision to use force. “That makes it difficult for people in Congress to oppose it,” he said, even though “the tactic often backfires.” He didn’t expect the situation to change “until tens of millions of people say no,” and didn’t think most peace activists were on the right track. Winning credibility is the first step to building a broad-based movement,” he explained, and the way to do that is to take on bread and butter issues. “I don’t think you can just look at the issue of war and peace,” he said. “People have got to know you are on their side.”

Now on a roll, he added, “I have long been concerned that some ‘progressive activists’ do not stand up and fight effectively or pay enough attention to the needs of ordinary Americans. Right now, one of the issues I am terribly concerned about is what is being proposed for social security, which I think would be a disaster. It affects senior citizens today. It affects future generations. How much discussion is there of that issue among activists and intellectuals, who should understand it? I’ve heard very little in Vermont.”

Bernie had little idea of how Congress operated before he arrived, he admitted. Like his early days as Burlington mayor, dealing with an unsympathetic legislature and entrenched local bureaucracy, it was a rude awakening. Years later, although he now knew how the game was played, it still galled him that “what we read in the textbooks about how a bill becomes a law just ain’t the case.”

He pointed to conference committees that are supposed to iron out legislative differences. “How many people know that when you have the House and Senate agreeing on a position, the ten people in that room can junk it completely – even when there is agreement?” It was the kind of rhetorical question that peppered his speech, this one conveying his core belief that the public is kept in the dark about routine abuses of power and corruption of democratic processes. “I get outraged at both the television and newspapers about their refusal to educate people about how the process works,” he said.

One aspect, he noted, is that winning congressional battles often involves working with people whose stands on other issues you abhor. In fact, much of Bernie’s early legislative success came through forging deals with ideological opposites. An amendment to bar spending in support of defense contractor mergers, for example, was pushed through with the aid of Chris Smith, a prominent opponent on abortion. John Kasich, whose views of welfare, the minimum wage and foreign policy could hardly have been more divergent from Bernie’s, helped him phase out risk insurance for foreign investments. And his “left-right coalition” helped to derail “fast track” legislation on international agreements pushed by Bill Clinton.

Having arch-conservatives as allies felt strange, he acknowledged. But the job was to pass legislation rather than “moralize and be virtuous and not talk to anybody…. If you are a good politician – and I use that in a positive sense – you seize the opportunity to make things happen."

Another role, one perhaps closer to his heart, was provocateur. “I respect people who are in the political process,” he explained, but he also enjoyed flushing them out. “Issues affecting billions of people with the world not knowing what’s going on. I think, as a result of the role I and other have played, there may be more transparency. But obviously the issue goes beyond that.”

We were getting to the core of Bernie’s analysis: international financial groups protecting the interests of speculators and banks at the expense of the poor and working people – not to mention the environment – behind a veil of secrecy. Governments reduced to the status of figureheads under international capitalist management. Both political parties kowtowing to big money flaks. And media myopia fueling public ignorance. His task, he argued, was to raise consciousness and, when possible, expose the real agendas of the powerful.

He laughed when I asked whether he would ever consider running for president. It would be fun, he admitted, and “we’d get a good response.” Yet, basically he felt that remaining in Congress would give him more influence than running what would likely be an “educational” campaign.

What about supporting a Democrat? Although noncommittal at the time, he had good things to say about the late US Senator Paul Wellstone, as well as Jesse Jackson. But Al Gore, he argued, although decent and honest, was more conservative than Clinton.

“I think it’s imperative that people keep working on what is a very difficult task; that is, creating a third party in America,” he said. Despite that view, however, he had no plans to help develop one in Vermont. “I am very much preoccupied and work very hard being Vermont’s congressman,” he explained. “I am not going to play an active role in building a third party.”

On the surface, he seemed to be contradicting himself. Yet, Bernie had maintained an arms-length relationship with party politics since turning Independent in the late 1970s. He hoped that the Progressive base could significantly expand beyond Burlington, and sometimes lent support to local candidates. But active involvement in party-building would inevitably mean supporting other statewide candidates against people like Howard Dean, then Vermont Governor, and could strain his personal d├ętente with Vermont Democrats.

Rhetoric aside, Bernie had made his peace with pragmatism, and wasn’t embarrassed about playing to win. Forced to choose between being “virtuous” and effective, he opted for success – as long as it didn’t violate long-held beliefs.

On the other hand, “There are not very many members of congress who hold my views,” he said. “The President does not hold my views. The corporate media does not hold my views. That is the reality I have to deal with every single day.” His job, as he had defined it over the years, was to understand the constraints and “do the best you can with the powers you have. You don’t just stand on a street corner giving a speech.”

That was a bit ironic, I thought, since giving a speech – in fact, the same basic speech – was probably what Bernie did best. Over the years it nevertheless had taken him from third party obscurity to the Rose Garden and the Senate. Meanwhile, as time passed, more and more people came to see things his way. It was only a matter of time until his kind of pragmatic populism, ultimately embodied in the campaign of Barack Obama, hit prime time.

Next: Mixed Messages

Chapter One: The Sanders Revoluton

Chapter Two: Rhetoric & Reality

Chapter Three: Identity Crisis 

Chapter Four: Beyond Bernie 

Chapter Five: Quality Control

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