By Jim Miller
Whatever happens in today’s Iowa caucuses, one thing is abundantly clear—when confronted with a credible challenge from the left in the form of the Bernie Sanders, the response of much of the leadership of the Democratic Party and their allies in the corporate media has been to defend the status quo with great zeal even if it meant borrowing tropes from the right.
Whether it was red-baiting from Thomas Freidman or condescension mixed with an appeal to “realism” from Paul Krugman, the drumbeat was loud and consistent: Sanders’ agenda, with it’s direct ties to the legacies of Martin Luther King Jr. and FDR was simply an unrealistic option in the neoliberal era.
It doesn’t matter if it’s Clinton proxies stirring fears about taxes, terrorism, and government health care or commentators on CNN and MSNBC bloviating about how Sanders’ views are the progressive past to Clinton’s pragmatic future, the fix is in. After the last few months of the Democratic presidential campaign, it has never been more clear that Noam Chomsky’s critique of America’s political system being dominated by the “two wings of the business party” working in concert with a corporate propaganda machine is spot on.
More important than any of the specific issues involved, however, is the underlying ideological foundation of the anti-Sanders theme coming from the heart of the Democratic Party and the “liberal” media. By arguing that Sanders agenda is impossible in the current political landscape dominated by the political right, Sanders critics conceal their embrace of the current hegemony under the veil of pragmatism; they confuse naturalized ideology with reality and fence off the future, killing hope in the process.
In essence, what many anti-Sanders Democrats and corporate media pundits are saying is that any politics that fundamentally challenges the system that has created our historic level of inequality is not just impractical but also somehow dangerous. The same might be said of their rejection of Sanders’ bold stance with regard to climate change, healthcare, and education. From Nancy Pelosi to the Washington Post editorial page to Clinton herself, the response to Sanders’ ambitious proposals for profound climate action, single payer healthcare, and free college education for all has been a resounding, “no we can’t!”.
At base, the doublethink maneuver here is to suggest that it is not the current system’s inability to solve these catastrophic problems that is the looming threat but rather those who suggest that these problems might be solved by changing the system.
By serving as ideological policemen, these “critics” in what stands in for the opposition to the American right surrender the field to the right before the battle even begins—they decry Sanders “democratic socialism” as beyond the pale when, in fact, it is simply a rebirth of ideas that were quite mainstream during the New Deal era when, for example, tax rates on the rich were far higher and the notion that government might be able to achieve something big and bold was an acceptable proposition.
So, when put in historical perspective, there is nothing particularly radical about Sanders’ agenda. What IS historically noteworthy, however, is the extreme failure of the political imagination that his critics reveal.
In the Age of Acquiescence: The Life and Death of American Resistance to Organized Wealth and Power, David Fraser identifies the historical roots of this closing off of political possibility in the 1950s when the ideological seeds of the hard right where planted and any grand ideas about collective action became suspect.
Fraser chronicles what he calls “the long 19th century” of populist resistance to oligarchical forces in America and goes on to argue that what distinguishes this period from our own time is that from the era of the robber barons through the New Deal, the memory of a time before capitalism as we know it was alive in the culture whereas today most Americans no longer have any sense that there was or ever could be something other than our present system.
Key to this transition, Fraser argues, was the enshrinement of anti-communism at the heart of American politics during the McCarthy period: “A systematic ideological cleansing accelerated the tidal shift in the direction of the corporate commonwealth.”
And make no mistake it is the “corporate commonwealth” that the anti-Sanders chorus is defending against his call for a rebirth of thoroughgoing democracy that belongs to all of us.
The goal of the ideological assault on Sanders is to have us believe that the only acceptable terrain for political discourse is the neoliberal landscape that limits possibilities to what “the market” will allow. Thus, our unchecked oligarchy, ever-worsening climate crisis, and never-ending terror war need to be accepted as inevitable and unchangeable.
The humane folks on “our side” may only offer lip service and ineffective half measures but the barbarians on the right will surely put the pedal to the metal and drive us straight to hell faster than we can say Donald Trump!
So stop dreaming and be afraid America, be very afraid.