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What a Bernie Sanders Presidency Would Really Look Like

As Sanders continues to outperform his rivals in the polls, it’s increasingly possible that the senator from Vermont could actually win the Democratic Primary and even the general election. But what would a Sanders presidency look like? And what challenges and opportunities would it present for the revolutionary Left?

James Dennis Hoff

February 3, 2020
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As Iowans prepare to vote in the first caucuses of the Democratic Primaries, Bernie Sanders, the once long-shot candidate, is looking more and more like a real contender. The latest polls show Sanders leading former Vice President Joseph Biden by more than four points in Iowa, with former Mayor of South Bend, Pete Buttigieg and Senator Elizabeth Warren receiving 16.4 and 15.6 percent respectively. Sanders is also showing an impressive 5 point lead in California, which, with 415 delegates up for grabs, is the most important state in the primary contest. Meanwhile, Sanders has managed to collect significantly more in individual campaign contributions than any other candidate, with the lowest average contribution per donor of just $18

These numbers reveal what many Leftists have known all along: working people are excited about Sanders because they see his campaign as a way of fighting back against the decades of neoliberal austerity and capitalist exploitation that have left most Americans on the verge of poverty. They also show that, even beyond the progressive Left, there are millions of Americans who support and are willing to vote for the many positive reforms that Sanders is promoting, specifically Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, universal free college, and increased taxes on the very wealthy. While many Americans see voting for Sanders as the best, if not the only way of winning such reforms, the fact is that none of those demands would even exist, much less be viable options, were it not for the economic crisis and the mobilizations and organization of working people, often in stark conflict with the Democratic Party that people like Sanders are seeking to reform and revitalize. 

And it is precisely this contradiction between independent working class power and Democratic Party electoral politics that has defined Sanders’ career and would almost certainly define his presidency. A civil rights activist who fought against housing segregation in Chicago, a socialist who opposed the U.S.-led war on Nicaragua, and a staunch critic of billionaires and corporate America, Sanders is also a long-time supporter of the Democratic Party, an advocate for secure borders, military spending and intervention, and a career politician who knows how and when to compromise. Sanders’ program is certainly more progressive than any other candidate, and he seems genuinely willing to fight to improve the living conditions of the working class, but his platform falls short precisely where it matters most: in its failure to address the underlying problem of capitalist exploitation and production for profit. 

For instance, while Sanders promotes corporate responsibility and accountability, he is fine with a system in which the vast majority of the value of labor continues to flow to the owners of capital. Though he supports a much more progressive form of taxation, where the wealthiest Americans are expected to pay a higher percentage of their earnings in income taxes, his program would do little about the massive social inequality produced by the kinds of wealth and privilege that would continue to thrive under such a system of taxation. And while he advocates for much greater public spending on education, medical care, housing, and retirement, most essential needs, including housing and food, would remain a part of the market, which would continue to dictate the rules of production. Importantly, many people — particularly those turned back at the U.S. border — would be left out of such benefits altogether. Meanwhile his Green New Deal would leave in place, and even subsidize the private energy corporations responsible for the vast majority of global warming.

Sanders’ supporters have frequently argued that his presidency would be one long victory lap of progressive successes, but both his approach and his record — not to mention the ideological composition of the Democratic Party — suggest otherwise. As Sanders continues to outperform his rivals in the polls, now is as good a time as any to ask: can Sanders win? What would a Sanders presidency really look like? And how can the Left best position itself to take advantage of that victory if it happens?

Can Sanders Win the Primary?

Despite his steady rise in the polls, many remain skeptical that a candidate like Sanders can even win the Democratic Primary much less the Presidency. And there is good reason for such skepticism. After all, in 2016 the DNC took every opportunity available to sabotage his campaign and promote Hillary Clinton, effectively guaranteeing her victory. It’s logical to assume they might attempt to do this again should Sanders’ momentum in the new year continue. Indeed, the DNC is already stacking the deck against him, and attacks from the bourgeois media are already piling up. Further, as others have noted, Sanders benefited considerably from the small and unremarkable field of candidates in 2016, making it easier for him to sell himself as an alternative to Hillary Clinton’s establishment politics. The large field of comparatively progressive candidates running in 2020, particularly Elizabeth Warren, has made it harder for Sanders to distinguish himself.

That said, Sanders popularity should not be discounted. He continues to attract large crowds everywhere he goes and it’s likely the size of those crowds will only increase as the big primaries approach. Further, although Warren has managed to paint herself as the other true progressive in the race, it’s clear that she has already begun the process of moving to the right and has been backing away from such popular demands as Medicare For All — a tactic that has clearly backfired. This has left Sanders well-positioned to directly take on Biden, whose establishment platform and bizarre antics and missteps have made him perhaps the least appealing Democratic Primary frontrunner since Al Gore. In fact, Biden seems perpetually one  step  away from a campaign-destroying Howard Dean moment that could potentially hand the whole thing to his closest rival.

And then there is the question of Donald Trump. Since 2016 Sanders has consistently outperformed almost all other democratic candidates in a one-to-one run against Trump, and the Democratic Party may be wary of losing yet another general election to such a widely- reviled incumbent. Therefore, though the DNC may still have the ability to sabotage his primary campaign, they may not — after Clinton’s disastrous loss to Trump in 2016 — have the stomach to do it twice. So, while it’s hardly the most-likely scenario, it is looking increasingly possible that Sanders could take the Democratic Primary if things go his way in the first few contests. Such a victory would pose unique challenges as well as opportunities for the Left. 

First of all, a Sanders primary victory would potentially be an enormous boon to the fledgling progressive wing of the Democratic Party, and would force the more moderate establishment to make a choice: either get behind (at least nominally and temporarily) the reforms that Sanders is supporting, or drag their feet in the hopes that a Sanders defeat could be used to discredit his politics and guarantee a more moderate candidate in 2024. Though there are no doubt some Democrats who really would secretly prefer to take their chances with the current President rather than allow the party to move Left, losing to Trump yet again would be an enormous defeat.  The more likely scenario is that the party will withhold its support until Sanders signals that he is willing to tamp down expectations and move to the right on certain key issues, particularly Medicare for All and increased taxes on the wealthy. Of course, with more than one million volunteers ready to campaign on his behalf Sanders may not immediately need the full support of the Party.

If Sanders wins the primary it will also almost certainly lead to a wave of red-baiting on a scale we have not seen since the end of the Cold War. In a contest between Trump and Sanders, Trump would not hesitate to directly attack Sanders as a socialist or communist, and wild accusations — some of which Sanders may very well confirm — about the Soviet Union, Cuba, or Venezuela would be sure to follow. And it is almost guaranteed that the Senator will be forced to reckon with his prior support for the Sandinistas in Nicaragua and his harsh criticism of the CIA, which he has already retracted. Meanwhile, Sanders would likely play down his socialist identity, arguing that his plans are entirely consistent with the Democratic Party principles of FDR. In such a debate Sanders would be forced to explain, as he has already, that his vision of socialism is really nothing more than New Deal liberalism that would ultimately leave capitalism unharmed.

Despite the likely misrepresentations of socialism that would result from such a debate, it would nonetheless introduce millions of Americans to the idea that there is an alternative to capitalism. This would be an opportunity for the Left to reach a wide audience of working people and youth increasingly interested in such alternatives, but only if we are willing to be critical of the false definition of socialism that Sanders has been selling, and unafraid to offer a clear revolutionary alternative.

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What Happens if Sanders Wins the Presidency?

Like Barack Obama before him, Sanders would enter the White House riding on a wave of incredibly high expectations that, to say the least, would be difficult to meet. Barring some kind of ideological sea-shift, Sanders will be faced with significant opposition from both the Republican Party as well as the more conservative members of the Democratic Party, many of whom are sharply opposed to or, like Elizabeth Warren, want to water down or indefinitely postpone such fundamental reforms as Medicare for All. 

While it is possible that the Senate could flip in 2020, it’s more likely that Sanders will face a split congress, in which the Democrats control the House and the Republicans continue to rule the Senate with a slim majority. This will make passing any major legislation, including Medicare for All, universal free college, and tax increases for the very wealthy impossible without a mass movement behind them. Of course, some of Sanders more modest proposals could be enacted by executive order, specifically a drawdown of immigrant incarceration, and the decriminalization or legalization of marijuana — changes that Sanders has already signaled he is willing to make on day one. However, the big-ticket items, those that will require increased spending and taxation, will have to go through congress. 

And there is little reason to believe that the congress in its current form will in any way be amenable to such changes. Indeed, while mainstream media have made much of the wave of new progressive democratic victories and “The Squad,” ultimately there is more fire than heat there. Most of the Democratic Party remains, as it has for decades, dedicated to an ideology of “fiscal responsibility,” which is code for continued neoliberal austerity, and remains what it has always been: the second party of capital. Although Democrats have a 35-seat majority in the house, the New Democratic Coalition (NDC) — a moderate, pro-growth caucus that supports a balanced budget and free-market healthcare — has 103 members, most of whom will be quick to vote with their Republican colleagues to defeat any proposals that require significant tax increases, especially Medicare for All. And while the progressive wing of the Democratic Party has been growing, so has the Party’s right wing. In fact, the NDC has more members in congress now than at any time since its creation in 1997.  

This means that the possibility of winning any of the major reforms that Sanders is currently promoting will, to paraphrase Howard Zinn, depend more upon who is in the streets than who is sitting in office. And Sanders has said the same thing on many occasions, claiming that he would use the bully pulpit to help lead a movement to win the reforms he has promised. However, to be successful, those in the streets have to be self-organized and independent of the Democratic Party and bourgeois politics. While Sanders’ supporters have claimed that he would be an “organizer-in-chief,” a Sanders presidency would likely undermine, at least in the short term, the growth and formation of true social movements and reinforce the false notion that the state can be a fair arbiter of class conflict or that the Democratic Party can be a vehicle for social change. Although Sanders says he will rally his base to build movements across the country, what would such movements really look like, and in what ways would they actually contribute to the power of the working class? 

First of all, any such movement will almost assuredly be led by the same people and the same political action committees that have already spent years working for a Sanders presidential victory. Whether it’s Our Revolution, Brand New Congress, Justice Democrats, or just eager rank and file campaign volunteers, the leadership of any such post-election “movement” would remain grounded in the logic of electoralism. And unfortunately, this is precisely what Sanders has in mind. In an interview with MSNBC back in August, Sanders made it clear what he means by “organizer-in-chief.” 

 I’m gonna run the presidency different than anyone else. I am not only going to be commander-in-chief, I am going to be organizer-in-chief. We’re gonna go out to Kentucky, a very very poor state where people are earning low wages, can’t afford health care, can’t afford insurance…or pharmaceuticals, and we’re gonna rally the people there to tell their senators to stand with ordinary Americans and not with wealthy campaign contributors.

On the surface this sounds pretty radical, and Sanders passion and charm, like that of Barack Obama before him, is compelling. But if you look closely at what he’s really saying here, it’s clear that Sanders’ plan is actually quite modest. Like any president, Sanders is promising to focus on winning congressional support for his agenda through political pressure. This is pretty standard fare! While such rallying — which might very well turn out to be little more than strongly-worded letter-writing campaigns — may very well draw in large numbers of disaffected voters, they will do little to build the actual power of working people. Instead, just as many Leftists have predicted since 2016, they will send those potential activists right into the Democratic Party where social movements go to die.

And this is not mere speculation; it is in fact consistent with Sanders’ vision of reformism more broadly. After all, Sanders has dedicated his life to the idea of slow-motion justice: pushing a progressive agenda, but always supporting the lesser evil (such as Hillary Clinton in 2016) and compromising when needed in order to live to fight another day. Although Sanders has certainly been critical of the right wing of the Democratic Party, he ultimately believes that the only way forward is through changing that very same party. “There may be some exceptions to the rule in this or that community around the country,” Sanders said in a 2018 Jacobin interview, “but the action has got to be within the Democratic Party.” This statement could not be any clearer: Sanders believes the primary method of winning demands has to involve taking over or transforming the Democratic Party — a strategy that has failed time and again. 

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Because Sanders will be up against an incredibly hostile congress, the reformist approach, the one that Sanders will most likely take, will be to try to win back both houses in 2022 and strengthen the progressive wing of the party. This means that any movement still behind Sanders on Inauguration Day will be channeled right back into electoral politics. Defending supportive incumbents such as AOC and Ilhan Omar — who are going to face strong challenges in 2022 — and helping elect a new crop of progressive Democratic Party candidates will be prioritized, while discussion of independent organizing efforts and real on the ground working class mobilization and disruption, such as we are seeing in France, for instance, will be left for what Leon Trotsky called “holiday speechifying.” 

Such a turn would be a disaster for working people, since any top-down movement will also be beholden to, rather than antagonistic to, the compromises with capital that are a natural part of any bourgeois democracy. While it is possible, depending on the growth of the economy, that the ruling class may be willing to give some concessions in order to placate the growing numbers of discontented voters, what capital gives with one hand it takes away with the other. And considering the mediocre performance of the post-recession economy and the long-term crisis of profitability since the 1960s, it is unlikely that capital will be inclined to concede very much, and in the case of a recession, the bourgeoisie will not only be disinclined to give back, but will be directly demanding concessions and aid, much like they did in 2008, when Obama bailed out banks to the tune of $700 billion. That was about the same time that he started walking back the “public option,” leaving the country saddled with the disastrous Affordable Care Act, which squashed the idea of universal health care, leaving millions without insurance to this day. To expect a fundamentally different outcome simply because there is a different man in the White House ignores the fact that the power of the state never lies with this or that politician, but is always held captive by the dictatorship of capital.

Without massive movements ready to directly confront the state (and that includes Sanders), without radical unions willing to strike and shut down production, without a real threat to the stability of the market and the ability of capital to continue to profit off of the sweat of working people, it is near impossible to think that any of the more radical demands Sanders is asking for can be won without compromise and givebacks. Even if such radical movements were to gain traction in the U.S., and even if they were able to force concessions and win reforms such as Medicare for All or universal free college, there is no way to protect such gains without a continuing struggle that eventually culminates in the appropriation, without compensation, of at least some significant portion of corporate holdings. Unfortunately Sanders has shown no inclination to directly interfere with the ability of capital to continue to make a profit, much less nationalize any portion of it. 

Sanders as Commander-in Chief

While Sanders will likely have a hard time passing any legislation during his first term, he will have much more control and authority over the military than he does over congress. Whether or not this would be a good thing is hard to say. If elected, Sanders would, on day one, be handed power over the entirety of the U.S. military and its dozens of large and small interventions across the globe. As commander-in chief of the armed forces, Sanders could theoretically reshape the map of global conflict overnight by shuttering U.S. bases and bringing home the more than 450,000 troops deployed overseas. Unfortunately, there is nothing in Sanders’ platform or his voting record to indicate that he would do this. In fact his record suggests just the opposite, and  it is in the realm of foreign policy that a Sanders presidency will most likely resemble those of his predecessors, and where he is likely to receive the least amount of pushback from the Democratic establishment. 

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The idea that Sanders is somehow opposed to the military or to foreign intervention, or that his foreign policy would be a radical departure from previous presidents is a story that has become canon among Sanders supporters. The evidence most often provided for that fairytale is that Sanders voted against the disastrous 2003 Invasion of Iraq. While it goes without saying that Sanders made the correct vote in that case, he was hardly alone. In addition to Sanders, 126 Democrats voted against the resolution, including such Democratic establishment figures as Nancy Pelosi, Dick Durbin, and James Clyburn. In other words, the vote against the Iraq War was hardly an act of great courage or conviction. However, the reasons he provided for voting no are enlightening, and  Sanders’ speech on the House floor opposing the war, shows where his foreign policy priorities really are. According to that speech, Sanders’ main concerns were that the war was a unilateral action, that it would hurt U.S. interests and be a waste of U.S. treasure, that it could hinder the ongoing “war on terror,” and that it would be a distraction from the failing economy. Sanders ended his speech — even though his time was up — with an emphatic assertion that if Iraq were to refuse the inspections regime, the U.S. should “stand ready to assist the UN in enforcing compliance.” In other words, the bulk of Sanders’ opposition to the war was that it would be bad for the United States; conflict with Iraq was still an option so long as it was with the approval and cooperation of the United Nations. Such an approach is hardly inconsistent with U.S. imperialism, but it is consistent with Sanders’ previous votes on foreign intervention as well as his economic nationalism.  

The fact is that Sanders has voted in favor of several military interventions since he was elected to Congress in 1991. For instance, he voted in favor of the war in Afghanistan; he supported the war on terror; and he notoriously voted in favor of Bill Clinton’s 1999 bombing campaign in Serbia. He also voted twice for the Iraqi Liberation Act, which effectively laid the groundwork for the 2003 Iraq invasion and the brutal sanctions regime that preceded it. Meanwhile his 2001 vote in favor of the Authorization for Use of Military Force (AUMF) was used to legitimize President Obama’s hundreds of drone strikes during his presidency, and was the legal basis for Trump’s assassination of Iranian General Qasem Suleimani early last month. 

Further, while Sanders has been better than many presidents — certainly better than Biden — on the question of foreign intervention (that is, actually putting boots on the ground), he nonetheless regularly supported harsh sanctions that have led to the deaths of thousands. There are plenty of stories about Sanders’ “lonely battle” against the sanctions on Iran, but the truth is that he supported sanctions against both Iran and Iraq long before he didn’t, and his justification for voting against sanctions on Iran in 2017 was simply that they might interfere with the ongoing nuclear deal. As Sanders put it then: 

I have voted for sanctions on Iran in the past, and I believe sanctions were an important tool for bringing Iran to the negotiating table. But I believe that these new sanctions could endanger the very important nuclear agreement that was signed between the United States, its partners and Iran in 2015.

In other words, Sanders is, for the time being, opposed to further sanctions, but only if Iran remains complicit with U.S. demands to monitor and contain its domestic nuclear program. This is consistent with the kind of “soft power” approach that Sanders will likely take in his foreign policy, an approach that would mean fewer American deaths — but leave U.S. imperialism and its global military power intact.

But there is another side of Sanders’ foreign policy that has not received nearly enough critical attention, and that is his foreign economic policy. In addition to his previous support for foreign intervention and sanctions, Sanders has shown himself to be a strong supporter of America first economic policies that pit American workers against exploited workers in other countries. As FeeltheBern.org put it: “Bernie Sanders believes that the top priority of any trade deal should be to help American workers.” And indeed, Sanders has opposed several trade deals (including the North American Free Trade Agreement and the Trans-Pacific Partnership) precisely because he believed they were not good for American workers. But he has had little to say about the often devastating effects of tariffs on foreign labor and foreign economies. Instead, Sanders has opposed normal trade relations with China, has regularly made claims that China is responsible for the loss of U.S. manufacturing jobs, and has said he would use tariffs to directly negotiate better trade deals for U.S. workers. 

While there is almost nothing redeeming about the many trade deals that Sanders has voted against, his concerns about outsourcing to China not only shows that Sanders lacks an international working class perspective, but are largely overstated. As Kim Moody has shown, most lost jobs in the U.S. have been caused by outsourcing within the country and by leaner production methods, not by outsourcing to foreign countries. In other words, the problem is not bad trade deals, it’s capitalism; and Sanders’ trade policy will do nothing to alleviate the suffering of American workers, much less workers worldwide.

Opportunities for the Left

It’s likely that a lot of nefarious things are going to happen between Iowa and the end of the primary process. Even if Sanders manages to win the nomination, he will be up against a strong incumbent and a ruling class that will be dead set on destroying him or bending him to their purposes. If he survives such an ordeal to become President, he is not going to come out unscathed or unchanged. Sanders would potentially have the support of millions of voters, but without independent movements and a combative working class ready to take on the entire establishment, including Sanders as POTUS and commander-in-chief, there is no hope for any kind of substantive change. 

While Sanders will face an uphill battle to win any of even the most basic demands he is running on, his presidency would — in the short term at least — likely raise both the expectations and the morale of large sectors of students and working people. Drawing those workers and students into struggle and fighting alongside them to build independent organizations and movements would have to be the first task of the Left after Inauguration Day. For instance, an independent struggle to win universal free college and debt relief led in part by student and faculty unions could help jump-start a student movement. A renewed movement of Black struggle around questions of police violence, housing, and gentrification could challenge the criminalization and hyper-exploitation  of people of color. Meanwhile, linking the fight for Universal Health Care and a real Green New Deal to a broader labor struggle could lay the groundwork for the kinds of militant strikes currently happening in France. 

Regardless of whether Sanders manages to pass some or none of his program in the first 100 days, it will not take long before the contradictions of fighting for working-class  demands within an imperialist party become sharper, and it would be imperative that the Left be able in that moment to offer a better alternative than Sanders’ soft imperialism and New-Deal reformism. Without such an alternative the most determined fighters will likely grow disillusioned and recede from politics into private life, while others would continue to struggle fruitlessly to make the Democrats a party of the working people. Only a revolutionary party grounded in the working class and social movements is capable of overcoming such apathy and delusion. We postpone the building of such a party at our own peril.

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James Dennis Hoff

James Dennis Hoff is a writer, educator, labor activist, and member of the Left Voice editorial board. He teaches at The City University of New York.


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