Bernie Sanders: Forward to the Past

Thomas FrankI don’t think it’s personal towards Sanders. He’s a hard person to hate. I think it’s ideological, but it’s complicated. The Clinton wing of the Democratic Party are the people who I described in Listen, Liberal. These are professional-class liberals. They regard themselves as being experts — as being extremely pragmatic. They know how everything works in Washington. And they look at a guy like Bernie Sanders and the constant criticism of him, that they still use, is that none of his proposals practical — that they wouldn’t get anywhere in Congress. And on that level they are realistic and he is not. By the way, this is ridiculous in a hundred different ways. But it speaks to who these Democrats are that they see themselves as the people who know how to get things done. You know: the experts.

And then there’s this other sense in which Sanders represents really the past of the Democratic Party. He represents a kind of past that these people have thought was done. They thought that Bill Clinton finished it off back in the early 90s. You remember the Democratic Leadership Council. That was the whole idea. The New Democrats, the Third Way — they were breaking with the New Deal. That kind of liberalism was dead and gone forever. And here comes Sanders, advocating this stuff as if nothing has changed. So it’s still the 1940s. That really bothers this kind of Democrat that we’re describing here.

–Thomas Frank
Interview on The Majority Report 20 April 2017

11 thoughts on “Bernie Sanders: Forward to the Past

  1. I think it’s important to remember what the Reagan years did to the Democratic Party. They were crushing, the sense that the country itself had turned away from the New Deal because of civil rights, that the combination of racism and temporarily-embarassed-millionaireism had made the old Roosevelt programs an albatross…

    AND there should be a special gridiron in Hell reserved for the press, that never missed an opportunity to push the Republican agenda and fluff Reaganism. The Gipper was, for all his issues, a master of PR and worked the press like a top-notch whore works a john for an extra sawbuck. The Democratic Party never could figure out that his smooth and plausible lies were what the rubes wanted to hear, not the painfully earnest truths that the blue flacks tried to explain to them.

    And now, of course, we’re “enjoying” the final destination of that journey, the “post-truth” era.


    • It’s a plausible and in some ways comforting interpretation, but the truth is that the Democrats were going in a neoliberal direction even before Reagan was elected.

      • But it was the triumph of “Reaganism” that kept the New Dealers from gaining any sort of traction to push the party back to the left. Ronnie made it seem like “morning in America” was going to mean having to ditch all the old FDR ideas because LBJ had extended them to the negroes and lost the South…and now the Reaganites made it look like we’d lost the Northern whites, too (and we did, a lot of them).

        It’s NOT a comforting interpretation, really, because it says that the Democrats preferred to try and become Republicans Lite rather than fight for the New Deal. And…well, they did and they didn’t. It took a Lesser Depression to bring a Sanders to national attention – and, I should add, that’s ALL it did. Even Bernie couldn’t get up and roar about “malefactors of great wealth” or say he welcomed their hate. Even Bernie couldn’t come out with a full-throated demand to imprison the banksters.

        If it’s still the Forties for Bernie it’s always the late Seventies and Eighties for a lot of those DLC Democrats.

        • I’ve heard the approved “progressive” party line over and over. That New Deal reforms were rejected when they were extended to minorities — because white Americans are just that fundamentally racist. Well I don’t believe it. Despite the reality of our sad racial history, despite the real political pressure created by the unrest and threat of underclass violence in the sixties, despite black agency in gaining civil rights, and despite real resistance to change — it was still a majority white population and politics that ceded first voting rights and later other civil rights to blacks and other minorities. Minorities never had the numbers to force the issue and even though the above factors mattered, I think the indispensable key was a successful appeal to the general public’s sense of fairness, a sense that is shared even by our animal cousins and one that is enshrined, though often grudgingly, in American culture.

          There was, however, a racial politics that, in combination with increasing overall economic inequality that started around the same time, did help tilt the balance towards reaction. Yes, I mean bussing, affirmative action quotas, deliberate overrepresentation and other policies meant to actively accelerate racial redress and which went well beyond “extending the same idea to the negroes”. I don’t deny the good things achieved by such policies and maybe they were worth the political cost – maybe they were even necessary. I honestly don’t know and have never felt sure one way or the other. But there’s no denying that this type of policy was often perceived as unfair preference, particularly by those nearer the bottom of the economy, and that the political opportunity cost was high. The constant drumbeat of white culpability hasn’t helped matters either.

          For the record, I freely acknowledge my own inbred racism and prejudices, though I reject the notion that such are in any way exclusive to white or western culture.

          Re “Even Bernie” – he could have done the things you mention. Just why he didn’t, why he broke his promise to fight through the convention, and just what backroom deals he decided to make, he has yet to share with his supporters. I believe his heart’s in the right place, but he is what he is.

    • It is one of the reasons that the Republicans were so angry at Clinton-he had that same ability to charm the press during the 1992 campaign.

      • It’s worth remembering that this was sorta the birth of hate radio. They were furious that Bill’s affairs and Hillary’s independence didn’t doom the campaign. Remember Bush II in 2000 campaigning on bringing morality back to the White House? And yet, for some strange reason (!) their tone is different towards Fearless Leader today …

        • Rush Limbaugh was getting big before the Clintons were famous, James. I remember driving around the Florida Panhandle in ’91 to ’92 and being unable to get away from him on AM radio. Pre-Limbaugh, Pat Buchanan was getting a lot of radio airtime, as well as TV blowhards like John McLaughlin and James Kirkpatrick.

          The Right was indeed frustrated that Bill Clinton had the same Teflon coating as Reagan (“Slick Willie”). They took any pretext to use the Clintons as punching bags. However, the response to Hillary was more complicated than just hostility towards uppity women. Her self-proclaimed roles as “co-president” and “independent woman” were seen as unearned.

          Without Bill’s coattails to ride, Hillary would never have become such a prominent public figure, although she might have become influential as an apparatchik. I recall watching her speaking during the Clintoncare rollout — her palpable arrogance and shrill affect were hard to ignore. Unlike some women, Hillary was never appealing as an authority figure, aside from her image as a feminist banner carrier — which again, was the result of being Bill’s wife. And of course being an avowed feminist was not a recommendation to those on the Right, although they don’t necessarily have a problem with women holding positions of authority, as a little thought should tell you.

          • I didn’t first hear Rush until later than you did. Man, did he shock me. I was used to Republicans calling liberals bleeding heart fools. I hadn’t heard one calling all liberals deliberate traitors emasculating America to help our enemies before. It wasn’t new stuff (McCarthy did it) yet it was sure new to me. Terrified the shit outta me — not Rush himself, he’s a wuss, but the anger he was channeling. It still does terrify the shit outta me.

  2. Both FDChief and paintedjaguar have good points. Carter did kinda kickstart neoliberalism (as much as I love his work as ex-president), and the media’s fawning over Reagan’s image was pretty potent stuff.

    In a way, did Kennedy set the standard for both of these? A war hawk, and a president little interested in policy details (nowhere near the degree LBJ was), Kennedy was almost the first master of the sound bite; of presentation over substance. Which was Reagan’s MO, as well. And now the Molester-In-Chief.

    • While Kennedy was quite overrated, I think we have to acknowledge that he was no neoliberal. Neither he nor his electoral opponent embraced the rhetoric – since adopted by almost all mainline elephants and a plurality of donkeys – that government is some sort of alien force that ruins everything it touches. Whatever Kennedy’s and Nixon’s flaws, they did not express the reflexively anti-government rhetoric that paints every feature of contemporary politics in the English-speaking democracies, including Canada and the U.K.

      In 1979, the Democrats backed down, and were defeated by conservatives for a generation. In the U.K., Labour backed down; they were defeated by conservatives for a generation. In Canada, left-leaning federal and provincial governments backed down; they were defeated by conservatives for a generation. All of these parties came back, newly-neoliberal; after a few years in government, all appear to be fated to lose to (even nuttier) conservatives for a generation.

      I don’t really understand the expressed animus towards Sander’s endorsement of Clinton. He couldn’t win the nomination; endorsing Clinton was the best move. Nor do I see much need for expressing individual dislike of Hillary Clinton. I dislike her because she is a right-winger, but don’t much care about her as an individual. Similarly, if it is revealed that Jeremy Corbyn is a grade-‘A’ asshole in private, it would make no difference to my political opinion.

      • Agreed on all fronts. Kennedy today would qualify as a raging lefty. I just was referring to his skill at keeping the press (mostly) focused on his personality instead of his policies. That strikes me as groundbreaking in a way.

        I also don’t see the big deal with Sanders supporting Clinton. Noam Chomsky, no neoliberal, always begs voters to support the Democrat unless they’re in a rock-solid Democratic state. If it had been Bill friggin’ Gates versus the GOP nominee, I still would have voted Democratic and dragged people to the polls. (Then bought a teacher’s union bumper sticker, ’cause teachers under President Gates would need all the support they could get!)

        On personalities Carter is a good example for me, because he strikes me as a sincerely moral man. Yet he made some decisions as President I deeply disagree with. Backing off from labor and the war in Afghanistan have consequences to this day. It’s too bad he didn’t just stay governor of Georgia and Ted Kennedy won the election (a pile of leaves would have beaten Ford). Whether or not Kennedy was a moral man, I do not know. But he probably would have gotten us universal health care. And that would have saved tens, maybe hundreds of thousands of lives. You do that, and I don’t care if you’re a jerk to Sunday breakfast waitresses.

        (Note: I consider being a jerk to Sunday breakfast waitresses the lowest form of human rudeness. We had a GOP convention here in 2008, and a universal complaint I heard from bartenders & wait staff? The conventioneers weren’t just arrogant a-holes, they also tipped poorly.)

        Last thought on neoliberalism. Supporters claim it is the only pragmatic policy platform which can get elected and pass meaningful legislation. Which may be true. Yet after 25-odd years of neoliberalism being the dominant strain in leftist politics worldwide, we’re seeing semi-fascist leaders arise everywhere. This isn’t an accident.

        Neoliberal policies helped elevate the professional class (essentially, office workers … what David Graeber calls “bullshit jobs”) at the expense of “unskilled” labor. (Less credentialed labor, in truth. Caring for the sick takes far more skill than sitting in a cubicle and futzing around on Slack all day.)

        Neoliberals had no answer for this, aside from the weak social safety nets they kept deployed to maintain a level of support among their traditional voters in the poorest communities. Because these weak poverty programs did almost nothing to help disadvantaged communities escape poverty (although they did prevent plenty of starvation, which is hugely important), these programs became seen as disproportionately benefitting minority groups. Even as more majority groups were using them.

        So while neoliberalism was reducing the economic standing of white workers, they became more easily convinced that leftist parties did not care about them (true) and antipoverty programs were a waste of their tax dollars being sucked up by minorities (untrue).

        It’s hard for me to see the way out for neoliberalism on this. The presumption that antipoverty programs only benefit minority groups makes those programs virtually impossible to increase (as they need to be increased). The other options, such as vast increases in the minimum wage and “unskilled” worker benefits, would be unprofitable (in the short term) for the companies which support neoliberal politicians.

        They’re clever people, so maybe neoliberalis can find a new way to keep their system afloat while defusing the rise of fascism. I currently don’t see it.

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