Bernie Sanders’ historic 2016 presidential campaign touched a nerve with the American public. Citizens who had grown so disgusted with the deeply corrupted American political system finally saw a ray of hope in someone truly unusual – a national politician who was honest to a fault, unafraid to speak the truth and who genuinely cared for those struggling to survive in America’s increasingly cruel system that treats working people like a disposable commodity. Some would say Donald Trump represented the same on the other end of the political spectrum, but it’s become quite apparent that in his case, it was all a massive con job. While Trump stuffs his cabinet with Goldman Sachs alums, Bernie fights tooth and nail to reign in their excesses and calls out their scam without hesitation. That’s exactly why the establishment elites who pull all the strings from behind the scenes knew they had to do everything they could to keep him from winning the Democratic nomination. Bernie Sanders represents a real threat to their oligarchical power structure.
For many decades, especially starting in the Reagan era, the wealthy corporate class has been working to systematically strip away wealth and power from the working class while funneling it all to themselves. As a result, they have amassed wealth on a scale not seen since the gilded age while the middle class has eroded, pushing more and more people into an expanding underclass. This massive transfer of wealth was perpetrated in a gradual way that was masked by mitigating factors, such as easily available credit, the switch from one to two income families and cheap imported goods made in slave wage countries like China. The corporate overlords know that if people lost too much too quickly, they would have a full scale revolt on their hands. So, they have supported the artful ruse performed by politicians, who cloak their nefarious policies in Orwellian language that makes it sound like a great benefit to Americans, while the actual result is the unshackling of corporations to exploit people and the environment in any way they please so that they can loot the American public with impunity.
If you were to blame the Republicans for this, it would be understandable, but you’d be mistaken. It is true that the Republicans are certainly much more brazen in their advocacy of the interests of corporate profit over the well-being of the people, but the Democrats are guilty as well and do so in a much more underhanded way. While claiming to stand up for the rights of the poor and middle class, the Democrats feed off of the same trough of corporate campaign money that makes them beholden to the corporate class and prevents them from advancing the types of policies that the vast majority of Americans actually need. Instead, they offer diluted corporate friendly legislation (like the ACA), which may do a bit of good, but ultimately falls far short of what is needed and is always designed to make sure that the rich keep getting much richer. Meanwhile, the Republicans scream bloody murder whenever the Democrats offer up such crumbs, thus creating the illusion of a vigorous debate in our political system.
Bernie Sanders stood apart from this charade. He rejected the wealthy donors and dedicated himself to actually fighting for real main street Americans. This gave him the moral clarity to call out the corruption in the system and propose “radical” steps to correct the rot in Washington. Of course, the powers that be were not going to take this lying down. They schemed behind the scenes and utilized their formidable levers of power to undermine Bernie’s campaign at every turn. Initially, by ignoring him in the mainstream media, then, when that was no longer possible, running various stories designed to smear him and painting his ideas as some kind of unrealistic fantasy, even though they are based on proven successful programs that exist in virtually every industrialized country aside from the United States. Within the mechanisms of the electoral process, they used every trick in the book to disadvantage him and systematically steal the political power he was rapidly gaining. There is even evidence that in some cases, actual electoral fraud may have occurred, although the mainstream media would never allow such a story to gain traction, so this was left to independent investigative journalists struggling to uncover the truth.
After the stinging defeat the Democrats suffered in November, one would think that they would now awaken to Bernie’s rallying cry, discard the failed direction of their past and adopt an alignment to the real needs of the American people. But this would be a naive understanding of the party, which is really just an instrument of the monied elite, in the same way the Republican party is. They have no interest in allowing Bernie’s authentic political revolution to get anywhere, although they will happily co-opt his message and use it as a facade over the same old scam. Now, with the bogeyman Trump in the Whitehouse unleashing crass Republican policies in their raw form without their typical candy-coated veneer, the Democrats will demand “unity” behind the same corrupt insider’s club, warning true progressives that their demands for real change will only splinter the left and leave Republicans in power. Perhaps they will succeed in luring some progressives over with this scare tactic, but the people are catching on and their path is not sustainable.
It’s not clear how this situation will be resolved. Bernie has chosen to try to reform the party from within rather than trying to break away, knowing full well the nearly insurmountable barriers the duopoly has erected to any competition from third parties. However, so far, it appears he has had only limited success. The selection of Tom Perez over Keith Ellison for DNC chair has sent the clear signal that the establishment will not cede power willingly. Progressives who have had enough might say now is the time to jump ship and start something new, but those aforementioned barriers will not come down anytime soon. Not only are there procedural barriers that have been erected in most states, but also the media will not cover third parties with any degree of seriousness. Bernie understood this full well and that is why he has soldiered on within the Democratic party structure, despite the numerous insults they have dealt him.
Some may point to the success of the Tea Party as an indication that a major party can be changed by its base, but it’s important to realize that the policy prescriptions of the Tea Party align perfectly with the corporate elite, who love the idea of eliminating all government interference in their money making schemes. Therefore, the Tea Party enjoyed huge support, often in the form of dark money, from wealthy benefactors. True progressive reforms will enjoy no such support, so whatever they will be able to do will have to be done from a truly grassroots level. On the plus side, there is massive popular support for the progressive ideas espoused by Bernie Sanders and at some point, when a critical tipping point is reached, the entrenched institutions will have to start bending. Witness the rise of local minimum wage laws as an example. Also, Bernie has proven that a campaign built on many small donations can be competitive with those bankrolled by billionaires, so this is a very important lesson for political activists.
In the Trump era, progressives should keep their eyes wide open and be careful not to fall for the narratives coming out of the Washington establishment, which will create false choices based on either being for or against Trump. Instead, we must remember the real story happening behind the scenes and keep on fighting to wrest control of the nation back from a ruling elite that are ushering in a new feudalism. We may not have won the 2016 presidential battle, but because of Bernie’s campaign, many people have awakened to the reality of the class war that has been waged against us and are ready to fight back, being more engaged than ever before. Bernie showed us the power that we the people hold – it is up to us to use that power to force the changes that we demand. The stakes are no less than the survival of American democracy.