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  • Bernie Sanders

    Bernie Sanders | Photo: Reuters

Published 3 December 2015
How do we wisely evaluate left campaigns - and what about Sanders?

Many on the left in the U.S. are spending considerable time criticizing Bernie Sanders' campaign. Are they right? Beyond that, does their effort make sense?

Some project, campaign, event, or action is underway. On what grounds should we determine our attitude to it? Once our attitude is clear, what should we then do about it?

I suggest that any progressive endeavor has three main axes on which we can reasonably assess it. Does it, or may it, 1) gain near term benefits for a deserving constituency, 2) enlarge intellectual, emotional, or organizational means for that constituency to win additional gains beyond the near term ones, and 3) do the same for other constituencies, and other gains, thereby broadening focus?

And while we can ask those questions as they are, the key for real world evaluation whether an endeavor accomplishes these aims as well or better than any plausible alternative approach the same actors might undertake.

Suppose we reach an evaluation. New questions arise. How confident are we of our assessment? IF we are critical, do we have any better alternative path to propose? Will our pursuing our assessment contribute on the same three axes - winning short term benefits, preparing to win mid or long term benefits, and broadening the scope of benefits?

In the U.S., the Sanders campaign is certainly capable of winning gains, and is arguably already doing so - on a scale, it seems to me, well beyond gains that have been won or are likely soon to be won by any other progressive or left endeavors I am currently aware of.

Even more so, the campaign is certainly generating intellectual, emotional, and even organizational possibilities, for winning more gains. People are talking, getting angry, meeting, and even forming local organizations. The campaign has program addressing most current social issues. It makes links. It calls forth participation on a grand scale. No doubt it can do better, I can even think of various ways it might, but most left critics seem to want it to agree with them in the abstract, rather than achieve very serious gains in context. 

People say the campaign bolsters corrupt electoral process. But Sanders himself says electoral process is not only corrupt but echoes, ratifies, and pursues policies by, for, and of the elites of society. He repeatedly says that even if he is elected he can't do anything unless there is also a massive surge of political activism by millions of people demanding change. Is some other progressive endeavor saying this more clearly, much less with a capacity to deliver?

If I was dead sure the campaign could not deliver under any eventualities - and it is hard to see how I could be - still, what would be gained by saying so even once, much less over and over - as compared to indicating ways I thought the prospects might climb or indicating some other path with greater prospects? And what could possibly be gained by taking a tone that suggests that those who hope for Sanders to win, or who donate to the effort, or who work for it, are fools?

People say the campaign is weak and even a net negative on international affairs. But how does one know if that is a function of trying to simply avoid having to forgo talking about economy, polity, race, gender, and climate, due to being able to do nothing but answer endless idiot assaults on being a coward or traitor or whatever - or if, instead, Sanders and his constituencies literally prefer imperial options? Maybe we should ask whether in the huge constituencies he is addressing the trend resulting from his proposals, words, and activities is toward a more military mindset or toward greater dissent and peace thinking? Could he do better? Maybe, but that suggests we ought to offer constructive proposals, not aggressive dismissals.

Perhaps one doesn't like that while his public rhetoric about socialism has made the word acceptable, it has not furthered the specific conception one favors. Could the latter have been achieved by him and his campaign, now? I don't see how.

Perhaps one doesn't like that his positions on the Mideast are insufficiently anti imperialist. Could such a position be broached now, by him and his campaign, successfully, without derailing his ability to reach out widely, even on that issue itself? Maybe - so we might propose doing it. I happen to think that is possibly the case. But also maybe not, so we might go a bit gentle on saying that not raising an anti imperialist banner means he is part of the problem and should be dismissed with a frown, or even actively reviled.

On the national stage we may wish there was something better, bigger, more militant, more clearly anti capitalist and pro - something - than the Sanders campaign, but who is doing it? Which critic of injustice offers some semblance of a proposal for making progress on a similar scale? 

It seems to me the criticisms always imply, ultimately, just don't run for office. Okay, that is a position. But even thinking one knows that in every possible case running for office will be coopted, will fizzle, will derail into business as usual, what does one gain by denigrating those who are pursuing the effort in lieu of seeing anything else they can do that is remotely as promising.

I am 68. I have never voted for a presidential candidate. Not McGovern, not Obama, none. Yet, I would vote for Sanders, if he gets that far. In a heartbeat. Might I later get less than I hoped? Of course, almost certainly. Might I even get something very close to business as usual. Sure, maybe. Look at Greece, sad as that is. But might I also get more than I expected? Yes, not too probably, but certainly possibly. If I was Venezuelan and I voted for Chavez when he first won office, against the advice of the many highly sophisticated leftists who poked holes because he didn't address the entire Venezuelan population in the terms they wanted to hear as if he was addressing them in a pub, but instead he ran a campaign barely more left than the one Sanders is running, but, like Sanders, appealing to the important constituencies, beholden to no power brokers, and so on - then, in that case, yes, I would have gotten more than I had hoped for, better than I had hoped for. It can happen. 

Imagine a President Sanders. Hard to do, but not impossible. Confronted by corporate movers and shakers shortly after elected and told, okay, now let's get real and serve profit, would he say, okay, sure, I am on board - or, like Chavez, would he say I ran to serve the poor and weak, and that is what I intend to do, and can please close the door on the way out? The biggest variable is the number of people ready to actively engage in the streets, of course, just as he says.

What about working for Sanders? Well, if I was much younger, not involved in various things that I am in fact responsible for - so I had the energy and time, say, like I did when McCarthy ran - who I did not work for as I thought many other types of activism were far more efficacious and so I did those actions instead but also spent no time writing in ways that would be taken as disparaging by all those who did work for him - yes, I would work for Sanders. Does it mean I think his views are perfect? Of course not. It means I think his effort, in context, can yield actual valuable gains over the next year. More, it means I think the dynamics associated with the process have the potential (and it is a potential that leftist should be trying to advance, not dismiss) to arouse huge numbers of citizens into new levels of understanding and desire and even into connections with others, all suitable for continued participation and victories, in a way that, sadly, greatly outstrips anything else I see in place or on the horizon.

When I look at the Sanders Campaign site and his program and compare it to what the bulk of the left, virtually all of it, honestly, has to offer that is compellingly communicated to a large audience, I find myself embarrassed at our lacks, not outraged at his lack of perfection.

I am certain I would prefer, say, the Green Party platform to that of the Sanders campaign. But that doesn't cause me to think that the Sanders Campaign is worthless, a distraction, etc., but, rather, that it is one part of a multi part process - and a rather big part, at that.

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