There is an argument raging across Bernieworld between those who want to vote for Biden and those who want to vote third party. Both sides claim to have Bernie’s blessing on their decision – and both sides have reason to.
NOTE: This article is just a reality check for my fellow Berners and it is not meant to be a critique of Senator Sanders himself.
In order to understand Bernie’s seemingly contradictory statements on voting – both in 2016 and 2020 – you need to understand Bernie’s personal history and his unique position in the Democratic Party – and how it is that Bernie’s “independence” actually makes him MORE dependent on the good graces of the Democratic Establishment.
It all started in Vermont
Most people know that Bernie Sanders is an “Independent”. When he appears on TV he usually has an “(I)” after his name. But why is he an independent, and why does he continue to be an independent?
The answer has a lot to do with the particulars of Vermont politics.
When Bernie first entered politics, he ran for Mayor of Burlington in 1981 against an entrenched centrist/corporatist Democratic Machine and won by 10 votes. He thereafter served successfully until 1988 when he set his sights on the House of Representatives.
He ran as an Independent and lost.
In 1990 he ran as a Democrat, but without the blessing of the DNC and had to run as a “write-in” candidate in the Democratic Primary – and lost.
It was then that Bernie made a deal with the Democratic Party: if they would support him in the General Election running as an Independent, then he would give them his loyalty and his vote in the House. The Democrats agreed, and Bernie won his first House election as an Independent, beating the woman who had won the Democratic Primary. As an article in Counterpunch explains:
“The unauthorized Democratic candidate in 1990, Delores Sandoval, an African American faculty member at the University of Vermont, was amazed that the official party treated her as a nonperson and Bernie kept outflanking her to her right. She opposed the Gulf build-up, Bernie supported it. She supported decriminalization of drug use and Bernie defended the war on drugs, and so on…”
Bernie Sanders had indeed championed third parties when he was a Socialist Mayor of Burlington. He railed against Democrats and Republicans alike. But when it came time to run for national office, Bernie learned quickly from his bitter failure in 1988 and decided to “play ball.”
Will Miller, one of Bernie’s colleagues in the Liberty Union Party, makes clear the symbiotic relationship between Bernie and the Democrats:
Bernie–out of office for the first time in eight years–
then went to the Kennedy School at Harvard for six months and came back with a new relationship with the state’s Democrats. The Vermont Democratic Party leadership has allowed no authorized candidate to run against Bernie in 1990 (or since) and in return, Bernie has repeatedly blocked third party building.
So you see, Bernie has been helping Democrats to stifle third parties for over 30 years – first in Vermont, and now on a national level.
The Hard Truth of the House
Once Bernie arrived in DC, he immediately sought to join the Democratic Caucus, which he saw as the only way he could make any impact and “bring home the bacon” for his constituents. Remember, as an Independent he did not have a party to caucus with, which meant he could get no plum committee assignments, no high profile speaking opportunities, no support from colleagues during a floor debate. To get those things, he had to bargain with the Democratic elites.
“Since 1991 the Democrats have given Bernie membership in their Congressional Caucus. Reciprocally, Bernie has become an ardent imperialist. Sanders endorsed Clinton in 1992 and 1996. In 1992 he described Clinton as the “lesser of evils,” (a justification he used to denounce when he was what the local press called an “avowed socialist”). By 1996 he gave Clinton an unqualified endorsement. He has been a consistent “Friend of Bill’s” since 1992.”
Bernie burns a bridge with Ralph Nader
Indeed, it was Bernie’s enthusiastic support for Bill Clinton that caused him to have a massive falling out with his erstwhile friend, Ralph Nader. As Kevin Kelley explains in his 1999 article, “Left Out: Bernie Sanders and Ralph Nader Part Company,” Sanders opposed Nader’s campaign in 1996 because, despite NAFTA, despite ending Welfare, despite the horrible 1994 Crime Bill, Bernie still believed Clinton was the “lesser evil”.
Also, there was apparently an upside for his loyalty:
Nader theorizes that “Clinton’s people told Bernie he had to support Clinton or else they would help the Democrat [Jack Long] in the congressional race.” The Democrats’ promise to bestow a subcommittee chairmanship on Sanders if they captured control of the House may also have encouraged him to cuddle up with Clinton, Nader suggests.
Bernie has not spoken to Ralph Nader since that race, and even refuses to answer Ralph’s emails and calls. As Nader explained to Kelley: “Given how long I’ve supported Bernie Sanders, even before he became a congressman, I think he owes me a phone call.”
This is not surprising – I am sure every Bernie supporter knows just how deep and hot the hatred for Ralph Nader runs within the Democratic Party. Consequently, Bernie has had to avoid Ralph Nader like the Plague, lest any whiff of the “spoiler” contagion transmit to Bernie himself.
Bernie’s greatest personal fear
Of course we all know how Bernie was blamed for Hillary’s loss in 2016, and how he has been condemned as “another Nader” – despite his refusal to have any contact with Ralph whatsoever. These attacks have hurt Bernie deeply, and close friends and aides relate how Bernie is still deathly afraid of being labelled a spoiler. Perhaps that is why he campaigned so hard for Hillary in 2016, going to all the places she would not or could not visit, criss-crossing the country in a mad dash, holding more pro-Clinton rallies than did the candidate herself.
Alas, all that effort was for nought. Despite his herculean campaign effort, despite the fact that more Bernie supporters voted for Hillary than did Clinton supporters who voted for Obama in 2008, despite his repeated and incessant expressions of loyalty, fealty and support, Bernie is still saddled with the blame (along with Russia, Comey and sexism in general). And as an Independent who serves with the Democrats entirely at their pleasure, this puts Bernie in a VERY BAD PLACE.
The Irony of Independence
It is truly ironic that Bernie’s iconic brand as the “Independent Senator from Vermont” makes him in fact LESS independent and MORE reliant on the good graces of Democratic Leadership than any actual rank and file Democrat. Bernie is not able to build up equity, or “points” under the arcane Democratic seniority system. He needs to rely on the crumbs (or plums) that are gifted him by the Democratic Caucus Leadership – whether in the House or the Senate. As Counterpunch explains:
When Sanders decided to make a bid for an open U.S. Senate seat in 2005, his longstanding service to the corporate Democrats won him the critical endorsement of Senator Chuck Schumer (D-NY), Chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. Schumer’s backing meant that no Democrat running against Sanders could receive financial help from the party. Sanders was also supported by Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nevada) and Democratic National Committee Chair and Chairman and former Vermont Governor Howard Dean, who described Sanders as an “ally who votes with the Democrats ninety eight percent of the time.”
So you see, despite his boasts that he was “taking on the Democratic Party Establishment” Bernie Sanders – much more than any actual Democrat in office – could ill afford to cross the Party elders, lest he be banished summarily to the back benches.
I have no doubt that this fact weighs heavily on Bernie’s mind as he goes about desperately doing everything he can to help elect the candidate which those Party elites have chosen. And the fact that they deliberately chose Biden as a way to “stop Bernie” makes the irony of his independence and his “company man” support for Biden all the more bitter.
“But he’s not even a Democrat!”
If you are a Berner, I am sure that you have had to argue with Hillbots and Khive monsters, not to mention all other manner of “Team D” Democrats about the fact that Bernie is, technically, an Independent. This is all part of the Great Irony of Bernie’s independence – that despite his having to prostrate himself before the Democratic Leadership more so than any “normal” Democrat in order to get some consideration in committee assignments, etc. he still must face this tired old argument when he runs in the Democratic Primary.
What’s in it for Bernie?
Nonetheless, we should remember that the relationship that Bernie has with the Democratic Party is a symbiotic one. If the Democratic base shows up and the Dems take back the Senate, as most polls predict, then Bernie is in line to become the all powerful Chairman of the Senate Budget Committee. This is due to his current minority position as “Ranking Member” on that committee. But he will have this coveted job only if Chuck Schumer and the other Party elites allow it.
The famous author and journalist Chris Hedges explained Bernie’s precarious position thusly:
“Bernie has cut a Faustian deal with the Democrats…I asked Sanders why he wanted to run as a Democrat. And he said — because I don’t want to end up like Nader.”
“He didn’t want to end up pushed out of the establishment,” Hedges said. “He wanted to keep his committee chairmanships, he wanted to keep his Senate seat. And he knew the forms of retribution, punishment that would be visited upon him if he applied his critique to the Democratic establishment. So he won’t.”
“The Man Who Gave Trump Two Terms”
We need to go back to the Ralph Nader incident to fully understand Bernie’s motivation in urging his followers to vote Biden. Ralph has appeared on several shows saying that Bernie Sanders has been refusing to talk to him for 22 years. That is one hell of a long time to be on the outs with a guy who once helped get you elected. But for Bernie, it is supremely important that he steer clear of any shred of spoilerism. Because Bernie is at that age where, despite what he may say in public, he worries about his legacy.
He had hoped to be remembered and revered as the 46th President of the United States. Now he fears being loathed in perpetuity as “The Man Who Gave Trump Two Terms.”
Why you should not listen to Bernie
Bernie is telling us every chance he gets that Trump is uniquely dangerous, the “most dangerous President in American history” and so on and so forth. Such hyperbolic claims are, of course, easily disproved by any objective review of the records and misdeeds of Clinton, Bush and even Obama – all of whom were demonstrably worse than Trump in at least some regards. I have written an article addressing this false claim by Bernie, in which I have debunked the sense behind it. But why is he making that argument anyway?
The answer lies in what I have laid out above.
As an Independent who relies on the good graces and friendly regard of the Democratic Establishment in order to both serve his constituents and further his own ambitions, Bernie Sanders must toe the Democratic Party line – more so than anyone else. He must be seen to be doing everything he possibly can to drag his supporters out to vote for Biden. He is still facing criticism that he “didn’t do enough” in 2016, and the narrative that Sanders supporters didn’t show up for Hillary is now part of mainstream media and Democratic dogma. Bernie needs to make sure that doesn’t happen again.
But that’s Bernie. You are you.
It is perfectly reasonable that Bernie would ask his supporters to vote for the Democratic nominee. But this time it’s different. This time he is condemning as “irresponsible” anyone who fails to come out and vote Biden.
And he is actively gaslighting his supporters by claiming that Joe Biden will be “the most progressive President since FDR.”
The gaslighting is perhaps the most transparently phony thing I have ever heard Bernie say, but I actually think all three of these themes are to be condemned and rejected.
And that is why I wrote this article.
NOTE: I am an avid Bernie supporter who donated the maximum amount to his campaign in 2016 and would have done the same in 2020 if he had stayed in. This article is just a reality check for my fellow Berners and it is not meant to be a critique of Senator Sanders.
EuroYankee is a dual citizen, US-EU. He travels around Europe, writing on politics, culture and such. He pays his US taxes so he gets to weigh in on what is happening in the States.