In the past two weeks, Bernie Sanders lost two rigged contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, netting fewer delegates than Pete Buttigieg despite surpassing him twice in the popular vote. Although the Democratic National Committee has won its first two battles against the tenacious senator, thereby confirming its political supremacy, it has not convinced itself of its cultural relevance. Ergo, it has instructed its myriad mouthpieces and apologists in the corporate press to batter Sanders morning, noon, and night. They will not unload all of their ammunition, not as long as Sanders continues to walk an improbable path to the Democrats’ presidential nomination, but they will do their part to derail his campaign. Their assignment isn’t simple, but it’s surprisingly easy: they must convince the American electorate that it is in their best interests to maintain the status quo, even though they have an opportunity to change it effortlessly.
As a candidate as well as a progressive icon, Sanders is obscenely, hideously flawed. He may even be unlikable, so shamefully does he propagate the Pentagon’s crude propaganda. Nevertheless, he endures as a symbol of progressive politics, as a promise of something better than the depressively dysfunctional system within which we are slowly wasting away. He encourages us to ask relevant, pertinent questions about our collective subjugation to Wall Street, Big Pharma, and a number of other predatory, cannibalistic institutions. He reminds us that we could do without these malignant forces, and although he suggests we eliminate them through the same framework that brings them to power, his resonant vision of an alternative social structure just might inspire thought people to expect better of their elected officials. Once you’ve realized that universal health care is not merely possible but entirely practical, Joe Biden’s inane references to competitive markets and consumer choice just won’t fit the bill anymore.
The problem isn’t Sanders, whose ability to disassemble the political-economic framework of the American Empire is regrettably slight, even with the powers of the presidency. The problem is his message, which might be summarized as follows: “Think outside the box, the narrow, dilapidated box presented to you by the corrupt establishment.” If you hear this message and come to believe it, then you might still participate in the political charade, even when you know there is no reason to do so, but you can no longer do so enthusiastically. You become a political atheist, and once the establishment has lost your faith, then you become its enemy. For all of his political grotesqueries, Sanders is successfully planting the seeds of progressive ambition in the minds of younger voters, and the establishment literally cannot afford to reap his ideological harvest: it doesn’t fear Sanders, but it fears what will emerge in his wake. Accordingly, its only option is to set fire to the fields, to tarnish this ambitious dissent before it sprouts.
In Latin America, where the nationalization of oil has proven the success of progressive programs, the flames of authoritarianism are fed by the military, usually through the sponsorship of American oligarchs. Three months ago, the United States helped to topple the Bolivian government, thereby warning Venezuela not to persist in refusing to sell off its natural resources. We prefer to do things differently at home, where police brutality can still engender a public panic. Rather than meet the democratic progressives with riot shields and bullets, the government smothers them bloodlessly, drowning them out in the weltering waves of mass media. The polished spokesmen of the centrist intelligentsia emerge to reassure the electorate that their dreams of a more equitable system cannot lead to anything but unspeakable suffering—an accurate prediction, for the same corporatists who sic the dogs on their opponents in the global south will, if need be, tear their domestic foes apart.
If bloody, righteous revolution can be precluded, then it will be thanks to the milquetoasts in the mainstream media, who are working diligently to discredit Sanders and halt his leftist menace. The Washington Post has been beside itself with salient worry ever since Sanders won/lost Iowa and lost/won New Hampshire, and with good reason: it must now face the possibility of the progressive movement it has spent four years pretending to desire. To sidestep this unwelcome contradiction, it has deployed Stephen Stromberg, an elitist alum of Harvard and Oxford who has been writing columns in puerile contempt of progressivism for the better part of a year. Last Tuesday, he wrote a characteristically clumsy piece condemning Iowans and New Hampshirites for their “bad taste in candidates”, complaining that these states “should have put a stop to the Sanders fantasy” but, instead, have given a “boost … to divisive extremists”.
These “divisive extremists” are Sanders, Ted Cruz, and Donald Trump, all of whom won the Iowa caucus or New Hampshire primary within the last four years. Conspicuously, there is no mention of Hillary Clinton’s victory in the 2016 caucus, or Barack Obama’s victory in the same contest in 2008, or New Hampshire going for Clinton in the 2008 primary, or New Hampshire voting for the Democratic nominee in six of the last seven general elections (and Iowa in five of the last seven), or any of the evidence contradicting his dishonest argument. More than dishonest, it is incoherent: what makes Sanders one of these “divisive extremists”? Because he “pledges to drastically reshape the federal government, doubling its size, and uses cocktail-napkin math to claim to pay for it”? I understand why a principled fiscal conservative would balk at Sanders’s domestic proposals, but in the same article, Stromberg scolds Cruz for “single-handedly [shutting] down the government trying to defund Obamacare”. For the record, the Affordable Care Act was an unambiguous failure, hence the popular support for a universal health plan similar to Sanders’s, even though it lacks any political viability. Perhaps Stromberg’s definition of “divisive extremists” is people who diverge from the Democratic Party establishment.
Fortunately, Stromberg does not attempt to defend this establishment. Instead, he scolds Sanders for arguing implicitly that the establishment cannot be redeemed. He quotes Michael Moore, but not Sanders himself, for “implying that other candidates were less committed to ending medical bankruptcy”. While I am loath to defend Moore on any point, I’m afraid that, with the exceptions of Tulsi Gabbard and Elizabeth Warren, none of Sanders’s competitors have exhibited any serious interest in bringing universal health care to the United States, and unless you are willing to reduce the insurance companies to a cultural oddity, you do not have an answer for the millions of people who hold insurmountable medical debt. There is an incontestable difference between Obamacare, which did nothing but initiate a conversation about socialized medicine, and universal health care, for which we are long overdue in this dysfunctional country.
As an establishment Democrat with unambiguous hostilities to progressive reform, Stromberg sees no irony in his description of Sanders as a man of “ideological inflexibility and incuriosity”. This is one of the most tired and familiar aspersions cast by the elite, who exercise their omnipresence to demand uniformity while accusing their underfunded opponents of creative intolerance. It seems we just haven’t given these poor oligarchs sufficient breathing room, you see, and they are gasping for air amidst our boorish obstinance! Because such an argument is patently absurd, Stromberg is careful to gussy it up within the smoky layers of identity politics. “Why do Democrats across the country tolerate the power voters in Iowa and New Hampshire, two idiosyncratic, overwhelmingly white states, exercise over the presidential nominating contest?” So asks this privileged white man who instructed bankrupted by chemotherapy to disregard proposals for universal health care and, instead, “take half a loaf when it’s offered”.
None of which is to say that Stromberg wants for company. At the very moment he was unleashing his dyspeptic commentary, Ron Brownstein of CNN was putting the finishing touches on his own toxic piece, and while it lacked Stromberg’s noxious indignation, it piled on the boorish moralizing that represents the worst of neoliberal self-congratulation. Brownstein the Caucasian concurs with Stromberg, who is even whiter than his name would suggest, that a dearth of racial diversity led to the lamentable outcomes of the caucuses and primary: “The distorting effects of providing such power to two virtually all-white states in an increasingly diversifying party have grown impossible to ignore.” Note that he begins by referencing the same “power” that Stromberg bemoaned in the introduction to his own article. The goal is to repeat the message as often as possible, as loudly as possible, until we the voters accept this rhetorical language as our own. In particular, we are meant to recognize Sanders’s victory as a sign of white power and white supremacy, a proposition which Stromberg absurdly sustains throughout the body of his column.
In the autumn of 2018, when the Democrats prepared to field a challenger to Trump, the corporate media was overwhelmed with a vision of a primary season in Technicolor, with a cascade of racial, ethnic, and cultural minorities finally finding “representation” on the campaign trail. Politico went as far as to declare that Iowa and New Hampshire were plainly irrelevant, and the winner of South Carolina’s primary would be the true frontrunner. This was when Kamala Harris was still believed to be a heavyweight, before we learned of her bloodthirsty reign as Attorney General of California. This was when Cory Booker was still considered to be a credible candidate, before we learned how he made himself wealthy by helping Big Pharma kill the sick and the poor. This was when we still might have held out some hope that the Democrats differed from the Republicans substantively.
With the exception of Tulsi Gabbard, whose campaign the corporate media abandoned some time ago, each of the colored candidates bowed out of the race before the Iowa caucus. Not a single one of them won the support of registered Democrats, and now the crux of the primary season will be monochromatic. Voters “will be choosing only among the candidates who still appear viable after the first two, predominantly white, states render their verdicts,” Brownstein notes, suggesting that Iowa and New Hampshire shut down those colored candidates even though, as noted above, they dropped out before anybody voted. Even if the “minority” candidates did face an insurmountable white wall in the first two states (a charge of racism delivered upon those states’ residents without any proof of their alleged bigotry), why didn’t they skip the first two contests and focus instead on South Carolina, as the Politico column predicted they would?
Brownstein pursues his incoherent claim, and dodges every obvious counterargument, in order to avoid the inevitable truth: the Democrats have only themselves to blame for the remaining field of white candidates. Unlike the general election, when their nominee’s failure can be blamed on the pale-skinned bullies wearing red caps, the primary season is reserved for Democrat voters, and it is the Democrats who choose who halts and who advances. If Harris, Booker, and the others would blame their disappointing finish on a racist electorate, then the Democratic Party is crowded with racists. This is the only logical conclusion to Brownstein’s train of thought, which is precisely why he never reaches it.
Instead, he blames Sanders for denying black voters the opportunity to have their voices heard. In his view, the sinister “dynamic” that empowered Sanders in Iowa and New Hampshire also appears to be “threatening the white candidate most dependent on minority voters: former Vice President Joe Biden”. We have entertained some preposterous propositions, but perhaps none so outlandish as the claim that Biden is a victim of racist hatred. At least it lacks the condescension of the view that black voters were enamored with Harris and Booker, only to be outnumbered and silenced by the white supremacists . . . however, it also perpetuates the slanderous lie that Sanders enjoys only slight support among minorities. Sanders’s policies—universal health care, legal reform, tuition-free college and the cancellation of student debt—are infinitely more appealing to minority voters, especially those who struggle economically, than the superficial benefits and programs mentioned by an establishment figure like Biden.
Yet, this ideological contrast, which Stromberg considered so repulsive, Brownstein doesn’t even mention. He can’t, because doing so would confirm that there is no substantive difference between any of Sanders’s remaining competitors, which would, in turn, raise uncomfortable questions about the integrity of the democratic process. Does Brownstein fear these questions, or is he ignorant of them? Halfway through the article, he links to another article he wrote for the Atlantic in 2016, in which he mocked Sanders’s supporters for claiming “that the primaries had been somehow titled or ‘rigged’ against him”. Isn’t he ashamed of that statement, one which he made just a few months before WikiLeaks proved Sanders’s supporters right? Or does he expect his readers not to notice, so accepting are they of what the Democratic National Committee tells them to think and believe, and what not to think and believe?
Neither of these writers make any reference whatsoever to the DNC’s campaign to cheat Sanders out of the party’s nomination. Any difficulty Sanders may encounter on the campaign trail exists in a vacuum, a vacuum of his own hapless design. These writers share a goal, which is to terminate Sanders’s campaign as soon as possible, lest their corporate masters take displeasure with the state of American political culture. They can’t stop Sanders from running, but they can tell the electorate not to support him. They can’t issue their instructions explicitly, of course, but they can warn their readers of the nebulous dangers of supporting Sanders—and, if Brownstein’s pseudointellectual defense of the establishment fails to convince, then perhaps Stromberg’s temper tantrum will, I’m not exactly sure . . . make people regret having incurred such elitist wrath?
If there remains any doubt about these writers’ intent, then note how Stromberg finishes his piece, one which reads more like an adolescent’s reactionary blog than a work of thoughtful analysis. He predicts a gloomy November in which we have “an unsavory general-election choice between Sanders and Trump”, which is singular: he isn’t predicting an unsavory outcome in which Sanders loses to Trump, but an unsavory election in which we must choose between legitimate economic reform or four more years of neoconservative destruction. Should this scenario come to fruition, he expects his readers to be “placing the blame on the supposedly sage voters of Iowa and New Hampshire”. We are to be blamed, it seems, for giving progressivism a chance. What, may I ask, does the establishment believe to be a fitting punishment?