The Biggest Problem with the Bernie Sanders Campaign for President

August 17, 2015 | Revolution Newspaper |


The mainstream media amplify every one of Donald Trump’s fascist rants. But it is Bernie Sanders who is attracting 10,000+ people at his campaign stops. Sanders rails at what he calls the “billionaire class.” He pledges to raise the minimum wage, mandate family leave, and push other policies that improve the lot of the working class. He promises to defend and extend Medicare and make college tuition-free. Very recently he added a “Racial Justice” section to his website.

In future articles, we will make the case that the kinds of domestic economic reforms Bernie Sanders is promising cannot actually be delivered in the context of this system, and the challenges it faces in a tightly wound and inherently dog-eat-dog global marketplace. And we will address whether the Bernie Sanders campaign is moving the agenda “to the left” or whether it is serving to rally progressive people behind an agenda set by the system.

But first we want to speak to something much more defining of the nature and role of the Bernie Sanders campaign for president: The Bernie Sanders campaign—like those of every candidate who the ruling class allows to be taken seriously—essentially takes as its starting point stabilizing, strengthening, and ultimately enforcing the whole structure of a world dominated, exploited, and oppressed by the U.S. empire. And telling people that those interests are their interests.

And nothing good can come from that.

A World of Sweatshops and Slums Enforced with Drones and Torture

Let’s pull back the lens and look at where programs like Medicare and Social Security come from. And beyond that, what accounts for the great gap between the relative economic security and stability people in the United States have experienced over the past several generations, and the conditions of billions of people around the world living on $2 a day.

Is this gap due to some unique and outstanding work ethic on the part of U.S. workers? Look, if economic security was the product of hard work, just to be blunt, most people living in the U.S. would have lifestyles exponentially more sparse than Bangladeshi garment workers, millions of whom work 14-16 hours a day, seven days a week, in grueling, dangerous conditions.

But workers slaving in the death-trap sweatshops of Bangladesh are among the lowest paid in the world. They live in flimsy shacks without sanitation, access to clean running water, and in constant hunger while most people living in the U.S., even the poor, generally have access to a roof over their heads, plumbing, and drinkable tap water.1

So no—concessions like Social Security and Medicare are not the product of some uniquely U.S. “American can-do spirit” or “work ethic.” Social Security was granted in 1935 during the Great Depression in the U.S., when there was an unemployment rate of 20 percent, in the midst of a tremendous economic and social crisis and a tremendous struggle and sacrifice against the hardships produced by U.S. capitalism. And this took place at a time when the socialist Soviet Union—where unemployment had been eliminated—was looked to as an inspiration by people around the world. Medicare was one product of the 1960s, a time of radical and revolutionary upsurge in the U.S. and around the world, when the U.S. ruling class assessed it had a need, but also the freedom, to make some concessions (even as those concessions, particularly in relation to the struggle against the oppression of Black people, have been under assault from the moment they were granted).

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But the ability to make these concessions was a product of the position of U.S. imperialism. People in Bangladesh, to return to that country as an example, have waged tremendous struggles and gone up against more severe repression than people face in the U.S. The fact that they don’t have the same social safety net that people in the U.S. do is because Bangladesh is in a whole other position in the global “food chain” than the United States or the more prosperous countries of Western Europe.

In short, the enormous profits wrung out of the sweat and blood of people around the world by the operation of U.S. capitalism-imperialism have been foundational to the “American way of life” and the relative economic security many North Americans have had access to for decades.

What enforces this world order of sweatshops and slums? More than anything, it is the vast military apparatus of the U.S. empire. It is not that the U.S. military (mainly) occupies mines, plantations, and factories. But U.S. military power enforces a global division of the world where the rulers of the U.S. are in a position to appropriate vast wealth. And the U.S. enforces this setup with drones that assassinate wedding parties, creating generalized terror in large parts of the Middle East and Central Asia. It backs up what it declares to be its turf with torture chambers, run directly by the USA (like Guantánamo) or secretly outsourced to local enforcers. The U.S. has an arsenal of thousands of nuclear weapons that threaten all humanity with extinction. It carries out invasions and coups and deploys and glorifies assassins and spies on pretty much everyone on the planet who uses a cell phone.

And the enforcement of this whole setup takes place through diplomacy—bullying, and in other ways enlisting as allies the rulers of reactionary regimes to serve as small-time enforcers and thugs for the U.S. empire.

All these forms of enforcing U.S. domination of the globe have, at their foundation, violence and terror. And they all enforce a world of horrors.

In light of all this, what does it mean that Bernie Sanders’ campaign seems silent on these crimes?

Bernie Sanders on the U.S.-Iran Nuclear Deal

Let’s return to where Bernie Sanders’ paradigm fits into this picture by examining his position on the U.S.-Iran nuclear deal. Bernie Sanders was an early and vocal proponent of the U.S.-Iran nuclear treaty. He endorses Barack Obama’s argument that opponents of the treaty are making the same “mistake” the U.S. made in invading Iraq. Now listen to how Sanders characterizes that “mistake”: “The war in Iraq, which I opposed, destabilized the entire region, helped create the Islamic State, cost the lives of 6,700 brave men and women and resulted in hundreds of thousands of others in our armed forces returning home with post-traumatic-stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries.”

Notice anybody missing in this picture? What about over one million Iraqis killed as a result of the U.S. war, directly (about a half a million) or indirectly (due to destruction and disruption of war, including to water and power systems, health care, and food production)?! Or the 4.2 million injured? Millions were forced to leave the country and now live in dire conditions in neighboring countries. Or the escalating conflict between reactionary Islamic jihadist forces like ISIS and U.S.-backed regimes—a hellish spiraling conflict driven in the largest part by U.S. invasions?

The U.S. invasion of Iraq may have turned out to have been a “mistake” from the perspective of those who rule this country. But this invasion was a crime against humanity of epic proportions.

Bernie Sanders ends his stated position on the Iran nuclear treaty: “If Iran moves toward a nuclear weapon, all available options remain on the table.” This “all options on the table” threat comes from a superpower with the largest military machine in the world. And from the one country in the world that has already murdered hundreds of thousands of people with the atomic bomb at the end of World War 2. (See A World to Win News Service: “Hiroshima and Nagasaki: The world’s worst war crime and the countries willing to do it again.”

This U.S.-Iran nuclear deal, as we have analyzed in the pages of Revolution and at, is a move by the U.S. to try to incorporate, on some level, the reactionary Islamic Republic of Iran into the U.S. orbit, enforcing its interests in the Middle East (the Iranian rulers have their own agenda for stabilizing their rule and expanding their influence as a regional power as well). It is not a good thing, and the bullying and threats the U.S. has mustered (along with economic sanctions that have brought hardship and suffering to millions of ordinary Iranians) are not just “militarism” or “war-mongering,” they are part and parcel of what the U.S. is all about.

In Bernie Sanders’ position on the U.S.-Iran nuclear agreement, you can see how his campaign is starting from upholding the U.S. projecting its interests all over the world. And training people whose interests do not lie with that, to look at the world through that skewed lens.

Is Bernie Sanders “Too Silent on Foreign Policy”?

Many of Bernie Sanders’ supporters express disappointment that, as they see it, he speaks out on domestic issues but is—again as they see it—silent on foreign policy, military spending, and war.

But Bernie Sanders’ relative silence on “foreign policy” flows from the fact that his positions on “foreign policy” are completely in line with and in the framework of everything we’ve been addressing here—maintaining and enforcing a tightly knit global system of exploitation and oppression.

When Bernie Sanders proclaims “the time is long overdue to end the waste and financial mismanagement that have plagued the Pentagon for years,” he does so in the context of declaring, “I support a strong defense system for our country and a robust National Guard and Reserve that can meet our domestic and foreign challenges.”

While he criticizes some of the most egregious specific incidents of Israeli massacres, he equates that with the exponentially smaller impact of attacks on Israel by various forces in Gaza, and upholds the essential nature and role of Israel by calling it a bulwark against terrorism and oppression. (For a full response to the argument that Israel, whatever its faults, is a bastion of enlightenment against terrorism and obscurantism in the Middle East, see the special issue of Revolution on Israel.)

And on the Environment...

Let’s examine one more example of how Bernie Sanders’ positions (even when they take the form of silence) on key issues are also sharply framed by keeping the U.S. at the top of the heap of global predatory powers.

The Climate Change & Environment section of his campaign website has no mention of opposing either fracking or Arctic drilling. Yes, he—and others in the ruling class—are on record, for now at least, that the XL extension to the Keystone Pipeline is not needed. But you will find no mention of opposition to fracking or Arctic oil drilling.

Fracking and Arctic drilling are environmental catastrophes in their own right, and major contributors to deepening the world’s addiction to environmentally devastating fossil fuels. And we have analyzed and exposed through coverage at Revolution/ how both fracking and Arctic drilling are critical not just as a source of profit for U.S. energy companies, but in U.S. contention with rival powers. As we wrote recently:

“The U.S. has already vastly expanded oil and gas production to become the world’s leader. And it is using these resources, as well as its lead in fracking technology, as a weapon in rivalry with other capitalist countries, for instance battling Russia over Ukraine. Control over Arctic resources means strategic power and domination. None of the great powers or big oil companies can afford to stand aside from the race to grab for this or else they will risk losing out, being driven down, and even under by competitors.

“And this is not just about economic competition. The projection of military power—while not yet to the point of endangering a direct conflict, is a growing aspect of competition between the U.S., Canada, Norway, Russia, Denmark, and others like China, who are trying to find a way in.” (“Why Is the U.S. Opening the Arctic to Drilling?”)

The U.S. Empire: Built on Slavery and Genocide, Feeding on Humanity

To this point, we’ve identified how on the most fundamental questions facing humanity, Bernie Sanders’ positions (or apparent silence) serve to endorse and enforce the global U.S. empire.

That global U.S. empire came into being on a foundation of violent genocide of the Native Americans, and the violent kidnapping of millions of African people to create a critical part of the wealth appropriated—again violently—by the rulers of this country. U.S. capitalism-imperialism grew with the theft of much of Mexico. By the end of the 1800s, the U.S. ruling class, drawing on the great wealth created by these crimes and others, emerged as a global power, violently seizing Puerto Rico, Hawai’i, the Philippines, and other colonies.

After World War 2, the U.S. emerged as the dominant capitalist-imperialist power in the world, and in a position to feed off the vicious exploitation of people around the world. And, to go back to where we began, it was on that basis that they were able to—in the face of crisis and struggles of the oppressed—make concessions like Social Security and Medicare.

But today the rulers of this country face fierce and intensifying competition and conflict, with threats to their setup around the world—from rival powers like Russia and China, and from relatively small-time reactionary forces like Al Qaeda and ISIS. And moves by the U.S. and its allies that they expected would serve their interests, like the bombing assault that drove out the Qaddafi regime (which was a thorn in their side for decades) and left Libya in misery and chaos, have created large regions of North Africa and the Middle East that are highly destabilized and threaten to unravel the world order, albeit in ways that do not lead anywhere positive for the masses of people.

And, particularly back in the 1960s, but in scenarios that could develop again, the ferocious destructive power of the U.S. military has been, and is prepared today, to attack genuine revolutionary movements.

So, again, it is on this basis—an empire of exploitation, oppression and death—that the rulers of the U.S. have been able to maintain a level of economic security and stability for large sections of people in the U.S.

American Lives Are Not More Important Than Other People’s Lives

The “American Way of Life” is being torn apart by huge changes in the world, and in U.S. society. And this is leading to all kinds of intense social conflicts. But if social conflict is to lead anywhere good, it will be on the basis of opposing, not lining up behind, the U.S. empire.

It is possible to create a society that provides for the basic needs of people in this country—not just food and shelter but culture, sports, education, and more—without that all being based on the plunder and enslavement of the people of the world. The methods and means for that are broken down in detail and in depth in the Constitution for the New Socialist Republic in North America (Draft Proposal).

But that wrenching transformation of the economy, the culture, and society as a whole requires a revolution. And an orientation that American lives are not more important than other people’s lives.


1. There are also, within the United States, super-exploited workers whose conditions of life, hours, wages and working conditions are extreme and severe—like undocumented immigrants working in agriculture. And this vicious super-exploitation is also part of the basis on which the U.S. is the richest country in the world. [back]


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