The Miseducation of the US Left: Bernie Sanders, Social Democracy, and Left Chauvinism

Originally published in Hampton Institute by Joshua Briond

I first learned about socialism in 2015. To this day I remember exactly how it happened: I was tweeting about the prospects of the presidential election and a mutual asked me, “have you heard about Bernie Sanders?” At the time, I hadn’t. Shocked when she heard this, she told me that “his principles remind me a lot of yours, I think you’d like him.” Then, another mutual of mine cut in on our conversation and said the exact words: “ew, he’s a socialist.” At the time I didn’t know what the word “socialism” meant, so I decided to do some research in order not to respond ignorantly. What I found in my quick Google search was the following definition: “A political and economic theory of social organization which advocates that the means of production, distribution, and exchange should be owned or regulated by the community as a whole.” Alongside that basic premise is, from each according to his ability, to each according to his needs.” This sort of language resonated with me immediately. I couldn’t understand how anyone could possibly be against an ideological framework that empowers and centers working-class people. 

From a five-minute Google search, Bernie Sanders had earned my vote. Everything I read about him just made me like him more. He was everything. Consistent. Progressive. Genuine. He even marched with the late great Martin Luther King Jr. Inspiring! At that time, Bernie seemed to represent an alternative to the bourgeois (wealthy, privileged) establishment politics that I had always resented, even when I lacked the language to sufficiently articulate my distaste for it. After this point, I became fascinated with the tendencies and ideology of socialism, but also angered by the fact I had only just learned of it. Why did we not learn this in school? I continued reading and studying—specifically from Black and brown revolutionaries and theorists—and as a result, became more radicalized. My reading pushed me to the point where I found myself imagining a world and movement beyond the coercive nature of Western electoral politics and the stifling ideology of the ‘lesser of two evils.’ Such an ideology, that is so historically prevalent in the United States, in which we’ve seen in the past century or two have not achieved many if any, gains for marginalized people. It was during this intensive period of reading and study that I began to connect the dots to what we’re seeing happening in our modern socio-political moment to historical events of the past.

History doesn’t repeat itself, but rather individuals and classes repeat history. Especially when subjects (disguised as “citizens”) of historical violence are ignorant of historical precedents, wilfully or unknowingly, which take the form of tactics cyclically used by our subjectors. I believe we’re in one of those moments where everything we’re seeing has quite literally happened before, and if we’re not careful—if we’re not meticulous and militant in our approach to addressing our material actualities, we will be bamboozled into accepting less than not only what we deserve, but less than what we NEED for survival; and all in the name of short term “progress.”

The socio-political moment we find ourselves in reminds me a lot of what I have studied about the Great Depression of the 1930s and its aftermath in which the rejection of capitalism had become increasingly common, socially acceptable, and a threat to the American social, political, and economic order. Much like the 1930s, capitalism’s contradictions and racialized violence have once again become too blatant to disguise. During that era, membership in socialist and communist parties in the US soared; however, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s (commonly known as FDR) appeals to the left barred attempts at achieving a sustainable third party or revolutionary left-wing ideological movement. FDR was incredibly skilled at (mis)appropriating radical language in order to deliberately co-opt the rhetoric and demands of radical left-wing oppositional organizations, parties, and individuals who fought for greater freedom and self-determination of working peoples.

Similar to what occurred with FDR and the New Deal coalition during the 1930s, the likes of Bernie Sanders, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez are attempting to inaugurate a renewed movement of “progressive” Democrats. While this is championed by many as something worthy of celebration—as “progress,” what we are seeing in real-time is the liberalization and hollowing out of terms like “abolition,” “resistance,” and “revolution,” amongst others. What this amounts to is a deliberate means of (mis)appropriating and ultimately watering down radical language and movements. Sanders et al, have mastered this sleight of hand in a way not seen in decades. Lamentably, this has successfully fooled many Americans into thinking he, and others, are in fact, radicals and/or socialists.

“Progressive” politicians wield words, slogans, and even ideologies, widely associated with the radical tradition—especially the Black radical tradition, when in actuality all they want is what has already been achieved by most wealthy “developed” countries; a gentleman’s reformation of the inherently oppressive institutions that they claim to be against. Given that, exactly how radical can what they are proposing to be?

Millions of Americans prefer social democracy, but of course, this really just means welfare state policies to improve material conditions, such as universal healthcare, cheap and/or free education, etc—without much of an understanding of where the money will come from to fund these domestic advances, beyond simply through “taxes.” Sanders often draws comparisons between the type of political economy he and many of his supporters want with Nordic countries. But rarely is it mentioned that Bernie’s beloved Nordic countries, that he seeks to mimic, not only have a wide-ranging Nazi movements on the rise, eerily similar to the US, but their ostensibly nice mix of capitalism and socialism, as its commonly and erroneously described, is becoming increasingly more traditionally capitalist, by the hour; as well as the fact that this welfare state model is sustained through colonial legacies and imperialist endeavors of oppressing, destabilizing, pillaging, and bombing people in oppressed, third-world, and global-south countries. Why are all the nations that Bernie Sanders seeks to imitate in the US majority white and imperialist when there are nations, such as Cuba and China, who’ve statistically achieved equal, and even greater material gains—especially for their most marginalized populations—without the pillaging of non-white countries?

Social democracy and western conception(s) of democratic socialism, like all forms of liberalism, seek to preserve capitalism under the guise of “lessening” or “reforming” its structural violence, are truly just materializations of anti-communism, with a perpetuation of cold-war tactics in which the task is to further prevent radical upheaval from subjects of colonial, imperialist, and capitalist rule. 

Even the new wing of Democratic Party progressives’ advocation of the Green New Deal legislation that aims to “address climate change” was stolen from the Green Party and stripped of its anti-imperialist and anti-militarization elements. It also still seeks to prioritize profit and markets—despite the ecological demand for radical change pending human-induced climate extinction—in typical white supremacist, capitalist, and imperialist Democrat Party fashion—which more than anything should tell us all we need to know about the modern green movements in the West, those of which do not prioritize the eradication of capitalism, neo-colonialism, and imperialism. All western economies are sustained through immense financial and technological surplus amassed through serial racialized exploitation, as evidenced by the most recent military coup d’état in socialist Bolivia, ousting the socialist administration, disguised as being “pro-democracy”—which is really just a materialization of modern colonialism and further indigenous genocide. It’s no secret that Bolivia’s lithium reserves, a chemical element that’ll be used to propel the United States’  “green capitalism” pipe dreams and idealizations, and President Evo Morales’ intention to industrialize and nationalize this valuable commodity, led to his unjust militaristic political demise at the hands of the US—which Bernie, amongst other “progressive” democrats only rhetorically and seemingly reluctantly condemned. 

Though he was violently anti-Semitic and ideologically fascistic in multiple ways, FDR is almost universally recognized as the United States’ most left-wing president; which says more of the inherently right-wing nature of the American political stratosphere, historically and presently, than any political ideology FDR aligned himself with. Bernie Sanders, to me, is the modern Franklin D. Roosevelt, or at least they represent the same thing, historically, in the face of capitalist contradictions being on full display. Though far better on race than FDR, Bernie’s continued failures on the issues of race and foreign policy/imperialism cannot be denied or ignored. Whether if it’s in regard to addressing Black people and the question of reparations, being an unapologetic liberal Zionist, or calling democratically-elected indigenous socialist leader(s) and governments, such as Venezuela’s Hugo Chavez and Nicolás Maduro, “dictator(ships)” and “authoritarian,” both of which are heavily racialized terms with imperialist connotations and are only ever used to describe non-white countries and leaders who do not subscribe to Western notions of “democracy” or bow down to the demands of the West. It’s no secret that Bernie Sanders, or any “liberal” or “progressive” politician, wouldn’t dare call the United States of America a “dictator(ship)” and/or “authoritarian,” despite it being one. So how does the US manage to maintain its legitimacy as a “democracy” and “beacon of hope and freedom,” when it terrorizes, imprisons, and kills its political dissidents—both domestically and abroad—incarcerates more people than entire countries combined, and is by far the greatest violator of human rights the world has ever seen?

It’s very easy to be ‘liberal’ and ‘progressive’ on most domestic social issues, as the modern progressive movement has shown. Where a person starts exposing themselves and their true ideologies is when they express how they truly feel about non-western and non-white leaders and countries who’ve been deemed ‘enemy’ states by the US ruling class, as a means of warmongering. This has been demonstrated clearly by Bernie Sanders, Ilhan Omar, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who’ve directly contributed to the demonization of non-white and non-western countries under imperialist attack, as a means of separating themselves from the Other, as well as these countries’ conceptions and materializations of socialism (authentic economic democracy)—as well as pledging their loyalty to the American hegemony. The level of western chauvinism that has remained unchecked, as a result of Sanders’ rise and role in the miseducation of the left, clearly displays the reality in which democratic socialism—which is largely misunderstood in the west as an extension of social democracy and “welfare statism.” The miseducation of the left has, by no mistake, led to a “left-wing” movement that is motivated and intrigued by the prospects of maintaining the settler-colonial and imperialist project that is the United States and its colonies, while granting its citizens healthcare, education, and greenifying consumption, with its blood dollars that are attained off the backs of colonized and oppressed people in the global South. 

One of the more common materializations of left-wing chauvinism is when it comes to issues of war and imperialism. Bernie Sanders and his supporters, as a result of his mass influence, take the form of their reinforcing imperialist narratives regarding oppressed countries and leaders, under the guise of “nuance.” However, this materializes as inaction and complacency from those in the imperial core in the face of imperialist, settler-colonial, and capitalist violence—which ultimately leads to an acceptance of western intervention in oppressed countries. And then, for the sake of maintaining legitimacy as self-proclaimed “radicals” and/or “leftists,” left-wing chauvinists argue, contradictorily, that in spite of their ideological alignment to these imperialist narratives—used to justify the racialized terrorizing and destabilization of these countries—intervention should somehow still be opposed. We’ve witnessed this in regard to the dominant rhetoric surrounding the DPRK and Kim Jong Un, China and the CPC/Xi Jinping, Syria and Bashar al-Assad, Venezuela and Presidents Chavez and Maduro, or more recently, Bolivia and President Morales, etc. 

It is interesting that Sanders supporters are capable of recognizing mainstream media’s biases and contemptuousness toward Bernie Sanders, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and Ilhan Omar, and other new “left-wing” and “progressive” Democrats—which is fueled by Cold War and McCarthyist tactics and hysteria—even though, ideologically, they are not actual socialists. But will look to and reference these same mainstream media outlets for their information on non-white, non-western leaders and countries—countries who actually have socialist leaders, governments, and economies and/or are subject to US imperialist aggression. The connection and contradiction that should easily be recognized is this: if the US media is going this far to delegitimize politicians, who are at best liberal reformists and/or social democrats and basically of the same fundamental political alignment as the US ruling class, imagine how far it will go to demonize and delegitimize actual socialist leaders and countries who represent a legitimate threat to global capitalism, western imperialism, and hegemony.

What has become increasingly evident to me over the last few years, specifically, is how much Bernie Sanders’ rise and the modern popularity of social democracy masking itself as [democratic] socialism—though effective in moving millions of people away from centrism and establishment politics and rule—has created a moment of opportunism, careerism, and political punditry masking itself as radical organizing and activism. A moment whose primary role is not just funneling people back into the arms of the Democratic Party; but also miseducating the masses regarding what socialism actually entails, beyond welfare-state policies and electoralism. There’s been so much talk about the “mainstreaming of socialism” while the whitewashing and watering down of the ideals inherent within a socialist politic remains deliberate as a means of delegitimizing and co-opting the actualities of what building socialism would actually entail. Socialism is not something that can be implemented through policy or mixed in with capitalism. Bernie knows this—especially in countries where every four to eight years another regressive and backward Republican or Democrat will arise and strip away all the “gains” and reforms, as per usual. That route will always fail because the two theoretical frameworks and ideologies of socialism + capitalism/imperialism are in direct and intrinsic contradiction with one another, as we are seeing within Northern Europe. 

I have pondered on the question—especially considering the outcome of the 2016 election, in which Clinton’s emails were leaked and it was proven the DNC and Hillary Clinton collaborated on the rigging of the election against him—“why won’t Sanders just run as an independent?” But I’ve come to the realization that it’s because he’s not an independent. He’s a Democrat, and he’s very much interested in maintaining the interests of the imperialist and capitalist Democratic Party—regardless of how violent they continue to be—but also, maintaining the Democratic Party’s (and the two-party system’s) illegitimate and unjust rule. FDR, too, wanted to transfer the Democratic Party into an ideologically progressive party and sought the help of socialist and communist parties—much like Sanders has done with organizations like DSA. They recognized that radical organizations and individuals needed to feel a part of his political entourage in order to preserve the interests of American capitalism through the Democratic Party. 

FDR succeeded in his role of delegitimizing and co-opting the revolutionary left-wing movement of his time, during arguably the most quintessential and crucial socio-political moment since World War I.  The result of this co-optation: Communist Parties saw a drastic decline in support during the 1940 elections. And after getting elected, FDR explicitly ignored the struggles and concerns from the groups and constituencies that were instrumental in getting him [re]elected, and instead collaborated with the conservative wing of the capitalist ruling class. Consequently, the US emerged from the Great Depression as the most anti-socialist and criminally capitalist country in the world.

Undeniably, Bernie Sanders has been targeted with red-scare tactics by elements of the US ruling class and its media. In 2019, we’re still seeing these same tactics being used against him—with the liberal, ruling-class media as the culprit—that were used in the 2016 election. Democrats are going to do everything in their power to prevent even the slightest glimpse of “progressivism” in their party, even if it means sliding further into fascism—which is an indictment of the mediocrity and ineptitude of their party leadership, as the self-proclaimed party of the people. FDR noticed in the 1930s the best route to preserving capitalism is providing citizens in the imperialist core (US) with crumbs of loot gained through colonial and capitalist exploitation and rule throughout the world, as a means of keeping them complicit in their subjugation—making their material conditions comfortable enough to prevent social upheaval, or in other words: revolution.

Regardless of who you’re voting for in the 2020 presidential election, your vote will inevitably be casted for the next global terrorist-in-chief. The next president—whether domestically “progressive” or not—like all presidents, both past and present, is going to cast racialized terror on oppressed and colonized people everywhere. But my goal here isn’t to discourage individuals from voting. I’m simply uninterested in that. My job is to provide the facts and highlight the historical precedence as it relates to the critical socio-political moment we find ourselves in. The progressives, often white, who peddle harmfully held sentiments such as “we just need to elect Bernie, because he’s the best we’ve got and revolution isn’t possible right now” are no different than the white moderates who told us to “wait our turn” in the 1960s – those who Martin Luther King, Jr. and James Baldwin warned us about. 

Much like FDR, whether deliberately or not, Bernie Sanders’ movement, or “political revolution,” as he describes it, is here to preserve capitalism and imperialism, by any means necessary.