On the Bernie Train – Notes on the movement to elect Bernie Sanders President of the United States

December 2019    How Bernie Is Our Only Chance – Really!

The year James Hanson delivered his message to congress to tell us that global warming was happening, a politician named Bernie Sanders made his first run for congress. Few outside of Vermont knew who Sanders was and few members of congress listened to what Hanson had to say. But the convergence of the two events run along parallel lines that have led to the fact that Sander’s political path since that year is likely the one possible thing that just might save the human species from extinction. If you think this is too dramatic or extreme, consider the facts. This year a young girl named Greta Thunberg traveled the globe in a solar powered vessel to bring her message to the United States Congress and elsewhere. The astounding thing about Thunberg is that she has been an unlikely inspiration to millions of people to take climate change seriously. She has simultaneously succeeded and failed. On the one hand she has in a big way helped forge a consensus among the people of our country and people around the world that we must do something about the amount of carbon being spewed into the atmosphere or we face the certainty of an uninhabitable planet. On the other hand, she seems to have not changed one mind of anyone in power to do anything approaching meaningful action and I would include in that number the entire field of Democratic candidates. Why?

I have heard the phrase repeated often over the past couple of months that it is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism. The statement recognizes two important realities that don’t seem to be recognized by anyone in American government. Capitalism has caused climate change and capitalism cannot solve climate change. We now know that the big oil companies knew decades ago that fossil fuels were contributing to global warming and that if we continued to use them the planet would be in serious trouble. What did the corporations do? They did the only thing that capitalism knows how to do. They kept their own research secret and continued drilling, refining and making petrochemicals in order to maximize their profits. You’ve heard the story of the turtle and scorpion, haven’t you? The scorpion asks the turtle to carry him across the river. The turtles asks the scorpion why on earth would he do that. Surely the scorpion will bite and kill him. The scorpion promises not to bite the turtle because it would result in both of them dying. Half way across the raging river, the scorpion stings the turtle and as they are sinking in the rapids, the turtle asks, why did you do that? Now we are both going to die. The scorpion replies, I can’t help it, its my nature. And so it is that the capitalists keep stinging the world with its deadly carbon because that is its nature. Even given the rude awaking report from the United Nations that we have about 8 years to drastically reduce our carbon use.

Now eight years is not a very long time. I can make the case here that capitalism cannot solve the climate crisis no matter how long it would take, but the fact is that even if capitalism found a way to make solving the climate profitable, it would take a lot longer than eight years. Capitalism could have found a way to make fighting Hitler profitable too, perhaps, but the US government wasn’t about to wait how ever long it would take capitalism to figure out it was a necessary task. So the government jumped in and directed the auto companies to start building tanks and jeeps. That’s what needs to happen now in face of of the climate crisis. Is it going to happen? Not by a government that has a much easier time contemplating the end of the world than hurting the system that keeps its minions in power. Thunberg looked into the faces of those who held the fate of the world in its hands and what did she see? She saw blank faces and faced questions like “why do you think the issue of climate is so important?” I’m glad that Thunberg exists, but though she may be convincing millions, she is not convincing anyone who makes a difference. Government is the only entity that holds the power to do something about the problem. And they haven’t moved an inch.

To face this problem of turning things around in 8 years it will take putting the breaks on burning fossil fuels, making petrochemicals and using so much carbon to keep agribusiness running at current levels. To do that it will take a government that is as least as bold as the government that ordered industry to make the tools and to put in place rationing necessary for the war we fought 80 years ago. And this all has to begin happening within the next couple of years. If it doesn’t we are literally cooked. Even the Green New Deal is adequate, though it goes a long way toward making us start thinking with the correct mindset.

Enter Bernie Sanders. By fluke, this contrary Senator who has been in Congress since 1991 chipping away at the edges and earning his long arc reputation as the unique sort of elected statesman that has integrity and consistency decides to run for president as the climate crisis closes in. In 2016 Bernie entered the Democratic primary because no one else seemed willing to take on the heir apparent of the neo-liberal Democratic Party standard bearer ala Obama, Kerry, Gore, Clinton I. His mission was to garner as much support as possible, perhaps getting 5 to 10% of the primary vote in order to have a small chance of pushing Clinton II slightly to the left. The self acclaimed socialist who doesn’t advocate socialism is going to be the sacrificial lamb to put forward a social democratic agenda that might get a little traction. Lo and behold though, a generation of young voters who have not grown up in red-baiting America catch wind of this clumsily groomed politician and finds they have their new hero. All of a sudden, what we have been looking for since modern politics began has materialized: a leftist who has a real shot of winning the nomination and quite possibly the presidency.

January 21, 2020 How Bernie will be able to Govern and pass his agenda

A friend of mine, after reading about an interview with Hillary Clinton in which she is quoted as saying that no one likes Bernie and that he has accomplished little in his 30 years in congress, says that Bernie needs to answer the question as to how he will be able to govern if he was such a terrible legislator. My friend is leaning toward supporting Bernie’s candidacy but is subject to the same establishment press articles and opinions that we all are, which tend toward a bias against Sanders as a presidential candidate. But let’s start there. We live in a country where the consensus among the establishment (and I include the Democratic Party leadership and the liberal press as part of the establishment) has held steady for decades over certain presumptions. Those presumptions include that we must almost always support America’s imperialist and military hegemony in the world, in the current epoch specifically the Mideast and Latin America. It also includes the view that the New Deal thrust of social programs is long over and it is too radical, too socialist, too left to advocate the continuation of the long gone FDR efforts of legislating programs that fulfill those ideals elucidated in the United Nations 1948 Universal Declaration of Human Rights, rights of economic fairness and guarantees like health care, jobs and an education. These efforts have largely been abandoned by the Democratic Party since the election of Bill Clinton in 1992. Political scientists and popular economists refer to this consensus as neo-liberalism. So to the extent that Senator Sanders or Congressman Sanders may not have had a long record of success has more to do with his opposition to the neoliberalist consensus in congress than it does his abilities as a legislator. Sanders has been known as the amendment king, because his strategy for countering this consensus has been through the legislative process of adding progressive amendments to not so progressive bills. I will not detail his record as “amendment king” here. The record is there for anyone who cares to take a few minutes to look it up. But here is a link to a very unbiased report of that record:


But I think the more important distinction is how a legislator who labels himself an independent socialist manages to have any successes in a long career where he keeps getting re-elected by large margins over and over again. It also should be noted that a very significant piece of legislation, the veteran’s health bill of 2014, passed because of Sanders’ efforts. He got John McCain to co-sponsor the bill in order to get it passed in spite of Republican opposition and filibuster. Sanders more recently has co-sponsored ant-war legislation with a Republican co-sponsor, which really puts the lie to those who claim he can’t get anything done in congress. Remember, this is the Trump era where hardly any Democrat can get anything on the floor of the Senate. It is only by pure partisan bias that anyone can dismiss such laudable and skillful efforts by Sanders as a legislator. And it must be said, no one in the Democratic establishment is criticizing Buttigieg because he has no legislative record at all. And I don’t hear anyone talking about Elizabeth Warren’s skimpy legislative record.

But all of this misses the point of Sanders’ campaign. Sanders and his organization are trying to create a movement and a campaign at the same time, something that hasn’t happened since Jesse Jackson ran for president in 1988. What Sanders has said is that he will be the “organizer in chief” if elected. Now I worked 20 years in the labor movement and have been an union activist for 50 years and this kind of idea resonates for those of us who look at building power through organizing and developing coalitions. The perfect example of power building can be examined by studying the civil rights movement and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s genius for organizing around profound moral principles. It took the pressure of the movement on LBJ’s administration to accomplish great things in congress. And it took pressure by LBJ to help bring the accomplishments through the obstacle course of congress. What Sanders is proposing is to build both a social movement and the campaign to win the presidency simultaneously, so that the movement and the presidency can work together to put pressure on congress to pass legislation that is wildly popular with Americans. He has said he would go to states like Kentucky to lead voter movements to force their representatives to support the Sanders agenda. In a way, it doesn’t matter what Sanders was able to do as a senator. The presidency gives him the power to call for legislation and the power of the bully pulpit to inspire voters to put pressure to bear in order to get congress to work with the president. FDR did this. He didn’t have to build a movement because the labor movement was in full swing and gave FDR’s agenda the steam it needed to be successful. Sanders has to make organizing the movement as part of his campaign, which is no easy task, but his slogan “Not Me, Us” goes right to the heart of what he is trying to accomplish. One of Sanders’ chief advisers is Larry Cohen, past president of the the biggest unions, the Communication Workers of America. Cohen knows a little bit about organizing. Likewise, many in the movement to fight the climate crisis have joined the Sanders movement, most recently, the Sunrise Movement and the exceedingly popular spokesperson against climate disaster, Naomi Klein.

And think about this for a minute. The largest strikes in decades have taken place in the past few years, the biggest being the teachers strikes. As notable as these strikes were in Chicago and Los Angeles, the most remarkable strikes happened in the red states of West Virginia, Arizona and Oklahoma. The teachers won most of their demands by forcing the state legislators to act. We’re talking Republican legislators. Does that remind you of someone else’s idea? And the strikes were illegal. Did the teachers get thrown in jail? No, because the unions wielded too much power. But here is the point. Of those millions of individual donations made to the Sanders campaign, among the top contributing professions, if not the very top, are the teachers. Bernie, I would argue, already has a good start at having his army ready when he enters the White House.

Those who are sowing doubt about the relevance of Bernie’s organizing skills are ignoring the fact that he has surged ahead as the front runner in the polls of this primary race despite a full bore attack on him from the establishment, which first ignored his campaign, hardly mentioning his name when he was second or third in most polls, and more recently openly attacking him through surrogates like Hillary Clinton and CNN. And yet his popularity seems to be very much on the rise and the endorsements continue almost daily. He is like a fire feeding on the oxygen of those trying to blow his flame out. These organizing skills are not unlike the skills needed to accomplish legislation. And among the candidates there is no one who knows the terrain like Bernie Sanders, with the possible exception of the politically clumsy Joe Biden.

The fact that Bernie’s campaign is unconventional and yet has every sign of being a winner is an indication that he can do the same as an administrator. He showed this when he governed in the small city of Burlington. He won the campaign against all odds and when the skeptics said he wouldn’t be able to govern, he showed he had the skills and the moxy to do so and got re-elected with a huge margin of the vote, bringing in a city legislature on his tails to help him finish his agenda. Sure, it’s Burlington, not the federal government. But he has had 30 years in the federal government to be training to this on a national scale. His brilliant campaign shows that he is succeeding.

The Sanders campaign, though, is much more than an indication of Bernie’s skills. His popularity comes from his record and his personality, yes, but we must remember it also comes from the fact that the electorate and the citizenry as a whole has changed drastically in the past 20 years. Sanders was as surprised as anyone, I believe, at how he caught fire in 2016. His crowds matched the crowds that Trump was getting in spite of the fact the media only focused on Trumps crowds and ignored Bernie’s (thereby assisting Trump’s victory.) Clinton was the heir apparent of the Democrats. But she did not see the winds of change in this country, where a majority in poll after poll were agreeing with Bernie’s planks. Every candidate running today has adapted much of Bernie’s “too radical” ideas to some degree or another. People who try to dismiss this accomplishment are either lying or politically blind. Most politicians go where they think the political winds are blowing. When you think of Sanders, by contrast, those winds over the past decade seem to be have been following him.

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