Author: Thomas Gallagher

The significance of Bernie Sanders’s opposition to Donald Trump’s Syria bombing

In years past, it has often been difficult to find anti-militarist beacons in Congress – Democrats included.  Particularly since Dennis Kucinich’s 2013 departure from the House, it’s sometimes seemed that the only prominent national political figure willing to oppose the latest White House military venture was the somewhat-libertarian Senator Rand Paul.  And today, with a Democratic Party left struggling to emerge and define itself in the midst of the Trump opposition, the imperative to create a sane foreign policy – distinct from that of politicians whose domestic policies often verge on the insane – has never been greater.  A Democratic left cannot claim to offer a thorough-going alternative to business-as-usual Washington politics until and unless we break with the conventional bipartisan wisdom on foreign policy.   All of which lends particular significance to Bernie Sanders’s prominent opposition to Donald Trump’s Syria bombing.

Much of the mainstream response to the Syria raid was, of course, familiarly tragicomic – sometimes almost to the point of laughable – with one network newscaster sufficiently moved by the “beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments” so as to quote “the great Leonard Cohen: ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.’”  Another opined that by launching the attack, “Donald Trump became president of the United States.”  More significantly, Congressional leaders previously vowing to fight the man’s administration tooth and nail hastened to back him as he violated American law by usurping their exclusive right to declare war and violated international law by attacking a country that has not attacked us.

The really tragic aspect of the overall reaction, however, lies in the presumption that with this latest act of war, we have actually “done something” in response to the horrific circumstances of the Syrian war – “done something,” that is, in the sense of doing something positive.  And it is precisely on this point, that the Sanders response is most important, as he called on the Trump administration to “explain to the American people exactly what this military escalation in Syria is intended to achieve, and how it fits into the broader goal of a political solution, which is the only way Syria’s devastating civil war ends.”  Now this in itself hardly qualifies as a radical statement.  And the fact that it stands out as in any way unusual is itself an indictment of the current environment in which “doing something” meaningful for the Syrian people is presumed to require dropping bombs and/or sending troops somewhere – and little else.   But given our country’s history of liberal leaders who talk tough about taking on the powers that be, only to rush to join the parade to salute to the commander-in-chief when he plays the war card, the Sanders statement stands out as an all too rare example of a leader on domestic issues proving equal to a foreign policy challenge.

To be fair – and frank – about the current situation, lets not ignore the fact that when Sanders says, “we should’ve learned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan … that it’s easier to get into a war than get out of one,” and that if “the last 15 years have shown anything, it’s that such engagements are disastrous for American security, for the American economy and for the American people,” it was Barack Obama who was in the White House for most of those years.  To put it bluntly, the Obama presidency largely anesthetized the American antiwar movement.  Again, to be fair, they weren’t the only ones lulled into complacency – let’s not forget that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee gave him the world’s most prestigious prize early on in an administration that went on to bomb seven countries.  But if it takes a figure like Donald Trump to restore the American left’s mojo, well so be it.

A couple of short years ago, it was a fair question whether there really was such a thing as an American left – outside of college lecture halls and counter cultural institutions.  No more. Post-Sanders campaign, we now find millions seeking a government not dominated by Goldman Sachs and their Wall Street peers.  Millions viewing the richest nation on earth being unwilling to guarantee health care to all of its people as an absurd situation.  Millions considering the pursuit of corporate profit an inadequate governing principle for meeting twenty-first century global environmental challenges.  Millions looking for leaders who will reverse the growing divide of wealth and power – across the nation and world wide.   And, likewise, there are millions who recognize that the nation – and the planet itself – cannot indefinitely sustain our current delusionary policy of achieving world peace through ever-increasing armament and intervention.

No one in recent politics has been more insistent on the point that “It’s not me, it’s us,” than Bernie Sanders.  But at the same time, there is no getting around the fact that individual politicians are sometimes required to rise to the occasion.  And Sanders has done so at a particularly important juncture.  Frankness does also require that we recognize that he has not always shone in this area throughout his entire political career: After starting out as a mayor with a foreign policy – meeting with Ronald Reagan-nemesis Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista President of Nicaragua, when he held the top job in Burlington, Vermont – his focus shifted to domestic economic issues when he went to Congress and on occasion he seemingly fell into orthodox foreign policy voting.

He did, however, unquestionably break new ground in the history of presidential debates when he called climate change the greatest threat to our national security, excoriated the policy of overthrowing legitimately elected governments dating back to Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, and took Hillary Clinton to task for her association with Henry Kissinger.  And now, in standing up against the tradition of critical American political thinking ceasing once the president gets violent, he nurtures our chances to really develop an alternative to the bipartisan endless war consensus.  And yes, in the long run that is a job for us, not just him.

The Democratic Party Left After the Ellison DNC Campaign: Unite or Fight?

One thing to keep in mind about the recent Thomas Perez–Keith Ellison race for Democratic National Committee chair is that it was pretty much an only-in-America sort of thing. Were we in any kind of parliamentary system – like most countries have – the two sides would probably be in different parties – the Bernie Sanders core of the Ellison

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In It For the Long Run

The most interesting idea I encountered during the recent American primary season actually appeared in the British magazine, The Economist, where a writer mused over what US politics might look like if we had a parliamentary system. Using polling data of various presidential candidates at that moment, instead of considering them Republicans or Democrats he assigned them separate parties based upon their various points of view – as might be the case if we had a structure allowing for coalition governments, rather than our winner-take- all presidential system. An accompanying graphic depicted the parties arrayed in a legislative chamber. On the left sat a Social Democratic Party, the second largest overall, with numbers based upon Bernie Sanders’s polling numbers. Next over was the largest grouping, a Liberal Party representing Hillary Clinton partisans. On the right hand side was the third largest, Donald Trump’s People’s Party. And filling out the chamber in between were the substantially smaller Christian Coalition, the Ted Cruz vote; and the Conservative Party of John Kasich voters. No party had a majority, but together the Liberals and Social Democrats would constitute one and seemed the likely partners in imagined coalition government, with the Liberals as the senior factor.

This fantasy parliament came to mind several months later during a conference call as Bernie Sanders explained to his convention delegates that while he obviously still had his differences with Hillary Clinton, his support for her in the general election represented a coalition, adding that this sort of thing was quite common in European politics. Seemingly simple enough, yet I wondered how it was being interpreted. American coalition politics, after all, tend toward combining people with generally similar overall views but differing primary interests – such as environmentalists and labor unions, or civil rights activists and feminists. The sort of European inter-party alliances Sanders referred to are not really that, though. They represent agreements between parties with differences that are obvious and well delineated in national campaign debate. A coalition government depends not upon any illusion that the two or more parties don’t have significant differences but on the understanding that they are lesser than those with the other parties in the field.

The final outcome of our primaries and caucuses turned out to be reasonably like what The Economist article described, the key difference, of course, being that the actual vote was confined to the really existing Democratic and Republican Parties rather than the imagined five. I leave it to others better versed to comment on events in the Republican Party, but the funneling of two ideologically distinct groups into the Democratic Party is precisely what Sanders was addressing on the call. We now have a coalition of two tendencies – whose differences might warrant their being separate parties under other political structures – that due to the particulars of the American system, find themselves within a single party, whose control each will vie for over the long run.

As the longest serving independent in U.S. congress history, Sanders obviously did not choose the option of entering the Democratic presidential primaries lightly. But once actively considering the race, he understood that taking his case to a national audience required entering the Democratic Party, knowing full well that it was dominated by people who didn’t welcome him or his point of view. Certainly little changed on that front: One tally on the eve of the convention showed him trailing Hillary Clinton by 570 to 44 among the party’s unelected superdelegates. And the WikiLeaks email scandal merely resulted in Debbie Wasserman Schultz shifting from a supposed position of neutrality as the head of Democratic National Committee to openly running the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton.

And yet, as we know, this move into hostile territory payed off handsomely, to a degree exceeding all expectations, with Sanders taking roughly forty-five percent of all elected delegates. The Economist’s musing was well taken. The Sanders campaign has brought forth on this nation a new-to- us democratic socialist point of view to challenge the corporate liberals who have historically dominated the Democratic Party. This is uncharted territory. Instead of taking the race all the way to election day and perhaps forming part of a coalition government at the end, as is the way in other countries, Sanders described an intra-party coalition based, in part, upon the party platform adopting causes such as the $15 dollar-an- hour minimum wage and tuition-free higher education, but mostly upon the belief that our still substantial differences with Clinton do not warrant running the risk of electing a candidate we love even less – the maniacal Donald Trump.

Some Sanders supporters understandably bridle at this approach. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a Clinton presidency improving our current destructive and ultimately self-destructive foreign policy. Yet ultimately a majority will likely agree with Sanders’s judgement that Trump – who we can’t assume wouldn’t ultimately conduct a foreign policy even worse than Clinton’s – is obviously the worse option domestically. But why would we stay in a party whose leaders don’t want us? Precisely because they want us to leave. They now have what we want – or should want – control of a political party with the potential for real power to change the way things really work in this country. Certainly we could all join another party – the Greens or some other – whose principles were much closer to ours than those of the dominant Democratic faction and we’d probably feel “happier” about it. But most likely the best we could aspire to would be an interesting historical footnote, since the last third party presidential candidate of the left to draw so much as three percent of the vote was Robert La Follette – in 1924! We don’t want to control our perfect little party. We want to control the messy Democratic Party.

There has been no significant candidacy in recent memory to state so clearly that it wasn’t just about the person at the top of the ticket – it was about empowering the working men and women increasingly marginalized by the people at the top of the economy. A post-campaign organization, Our Revolution, has already been announced, with a first national electronic hook-up later this month. We’ve never done this before and our path may well be full of wrong turns. But after out-fundraising the establishment with a base of $27 dollar contributions we know we can do it – and we’re not going to give it up because we didn’t win it all the first time out.

Feeling the Bern: An Analysis of the Sanders Phenomenon

When Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy for president, his assertion that he was in this to win seemed like maybe the kind of statement a candidate feels he has to make. If you followed this sort of thing, a more modest and reasonable hope seemed to be that he’d at least fare better than Dennis Kucinich, the last candidate of the left to attempt a significant candidacy, in 2004 and 2008. As a U.S. Senator, self-identified socialist, and the longest serving independent member of Congress, Sanders hopefully could...

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