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Cult of Personality

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WASHINGTON, DC – MARCH 28: Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) addresses a rally in support of Social Security in the Dirksen Senate Office Building on Capitol Hill March 28, 2011 in Washington, DC. Sanders and four other Democratic senators, including Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV), said the Republicans’ entitlement reform plan will “dismantle Social Security, delay distribution of benefits to seniors.” (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images) *** Local Caption *** Bernie Sanders

I hate to write about Bernie Sanders at LGM because so many LGM commenters turn themselves into idiots whenever he comes up, stereotypes of how the left sees this blog as a bunch of centrist hacks. But ignoring that, Bernie has been a great leader for a long time on a lot of issues. But as we saw in 2016, he struggles on certain issues. Nearly inevitably, those issues involve race. A big part of the reason he could not beat Hillary–other than the fact that he got in the race too late to put together the campaign that could do so–is that he simply cannot speak to black voters, the actual base of the Democratic Party, despite what the white online left thinks about itself. He was simply crushed in the South. And as the Democratic Party has moved sharply to the left in the last year, Bernie hasn’t necessarily kept up. He’s embraced a protectionism on trade that isn’t helpful is moving us forward on global trade. Worse, he’s struggled on immigration. His refusal to take the Abolish ICE movement seriously, which is going to be necessary to win the nomination in 2020, is a sign that he has work to do, if he can be adept enough to do that work. In any case, like any politician who disappoints us, Bernie needs to be called out when he screws up. That is what Sarah Jones has properly done in this essay.

Sanders could be a source of consistent, left-wing pressure on party leadership, whether or not he runs in 2020. If he intends to build a lasting political movement out of the remnants of his last presidential campaign, he’ll need to become an effective counterweight to the mainstream Democratic Party. But based on his ICE comments and the uneven results of his campaign efforts, Sanders no longer seems like such a sure figurehead for disgruntled Democratic voters.

In fact, despite his sudden popularity in 2015, Sanders has never been a figurehead to everyone in the American left. His primary bid did draw the support of many leftists, but leftist voters in the United States aren’t spoiled for options—or at least they weren’t when Sanders launched his long-shot bid for president. That’s changing now, and it’s putting Sanders’s politics in perspective. He does not occupy the left-most band of the spectrum.

It’s certainly true that Sanders is to the left of most Democrats. But contrary to how he’s often portrayed in the media, he is not a doctrinaire leftist. His principal benefit to the left has been to mainstream certain beliefs—namely, that access to health care, education, and living wages are rights, not luxuries. But Sanders is not a revolutionary. His views aren’t even entirely consistent with democratic socialism, the political tradition he claims. It’s one thing to call for breaking up the big banks, and quite another to call for the nationalization of private industries.

Sanders isn’t just to the right of the average American socialist; he’s to the right of Jeremy Corbyn, the leader of the U.K.’s Labour Party. While nationalization is a key pillar of the party’s platform, it is ground politicians in the United States still fear to tread. In similar fashion, Sanders has yet to put forward a coherent leftist vision for foreign policy, a needless failure considering socialism’s historical commitment to the prosperity of working people around the world.

Sanders is mostly an accurate diagnostician of American problems, and his prescriptions are simple ones: Tax the rich, expand health care, and pay people enough to feed their families. But these are radical positions only because the right wing has so successfully embedded hostility to welfare and government services in American political life. In previous eras, Sanders would have been a relatively mainstream politician.

These are great points. Bernie is simply not himself the left in this nation. He is a member of the left, but really, not a particularly radical one. It’s entirely possible to be significantly to the left of Bernie. For that matter, the same is true of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who is great, but her lefty program is honestly basically that of a mainstream 1970s liberal, updated for modern racial and gender politics. We can–and must–go much farther to the left.

I don’t really write this essay though just to highlight Bernie’s problems. Because I thought this tweeted response from Jacobin head Bhaskar Sunkara was really awful.

This is just cult of personality creation. Bernie can’t be criticized? Really? Even when he is to the right of other politicians on issues? Plus, Bernie is “the viable 2020 choice”? No he’s not. He’s a viable 2020 choice. But there are lots of those choices and by 2020, many may be to the left of Bernie on a number of issues–abolishing ICE, packing the Supreme Court, other issues to come. This is nothing but trying to clear the field for St. Bernie, calling out a very leftist writer for not showing enough fealty to the chosen leader.

That’s a huge problem and really bad. I also ask again how a cult of personality around a man in his 70s turns out. There are parts of the online left–Max Sawicky and his terrible day of LGM control is a prime example–who are true believers in the Cult of Bernie. This is not good for the left at all. For smart people who claim to believe in the “power of the people,” leftists are all too often really excited to get behind the Great Leader. But there is no indispensable man, and that very much includes Bernie Sanders.

Now, let’s please avoid idiotic “Bernie’s not a real Democrat and fuck him because he was mean to Hillary” comments.

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