What to take from the debate

October 19, 2015

More than 15 million people tuned in last week for the first debate of candidates for the Democratic Party presidential nomination--the largest-ever audience for a Democratic primary debate. Beyond the usual assessments in the mainstream media, the candidates' debate sparked a discussion on the left because it threw into sharp relief many of the issues in question about Bernie Sanders' campaign for the nomination. Here, SocialistWorker.org contributor Wael Elasady offers his point of view.

I'VE LISTENED to most of the various presidential debates since 2004, and this one was, far and away, the most exciting and the furthest to the left. To have a candidate who, asked about the greatest threat to national security, responds that it's climate change, or who defends being a democratic socialist--while the likely next president, Hillary Clinton, admits on the record that she wants to "save capitalism from itself"--was satisfying to watch, to say the least.

Okay, I have to admit that I got pretty excited at some points. Just the fact that Clinton had to make a defense of the capitalist system on prime-time television is telling about the political moment we're living through. Not to mention that the debate participants at one point tired to outdo each other about how eager they were to throw some bankers in jail for their role in causing the financial crisis.

That said, however, it's also clear that this debate went exactly the way the Democratic National Committee (DNC) wanted it to, and Bernie Sanders is playing exactly the role that the party machine wants him to play: Get the base excited. Don't attack Hillary. Go after the Republicans.

Candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination at their first debate
Candidates for the Democratic presidential nomination at their first debate

As many people have pointed out, the moment of the debate that will be remembered most is when Sanders came to Clinton's defense and accomplished something her campaign hasn't been able to do on its own: smash the e-mail controversy which has simmered for months now.

Now to be fair, the mainstream political debate, where Clinton's e-mails are a Republican obsession out of all proportion to their actual importance, is probably better off after Bernie's intervention, and if that was the only point when he played softball with Clinton, it would have been okay.

But that clearly wasn't the case. Sanders took on Clinton directly only very rarely--even with her horrible militarism, like the smug pride she exuded in her comment about having "Iranians" (all 78 million of them, apparently) as her enemy.

This, of course, is both because Sanders is trying to stay in the good graces of the DNC by not going beyond the role allowed to a Democratic Party presidential nominee, but also because, as he proved in the debate, he shares Clinton's support for militarism and U.S. imperialism.

Ultimately, Bernie's failure to take Hillary Clinton to task on her record as a shill for the 1 Percent and as a war criminal allowed her to use the same line--"Of course, I agree with you, Bernie, but I can actually get this done"--over and over, at the same time that she and the Democratic Party could bask in Sanders' populist glow.

At the end of the day, the base of the Democratic Party was reignited after eight demoralizing years waiting for the hope and change that Barack Obama promised, but never delivered. Naturally, the media declared Clinton the winner, even as poll after poll showed Sanders on top. Even more importantly, the debate came across as a Kumbaya moment for a united and--in clear contrast to the Republicans--rational and serious Democratic Party. The DNC couldn't have hoped for a better outcome.

RETURNING TO the initial point about Sanders' participation moving the political conversation to the left in the U.S., it's worth making a few further observations.

First, there is a tendency to flip causality on its head. We're told that Bernie Sanders has made the word "socialism" popular, that he is bringing class politics back, and that he is shifting the debate leftward. This is the reason why some voices are urging the left to work for Sanders, despite their criticisms of some of his political stands.

But Sanders' role in all this needs to be placed in context. The success of his campaign is itself an expression of eight years of an economy where there has been a recovery for the 1 Percent and misery for the rest of us. It's an expression of the Occupy movement, which popularized the language that he uses about the 1 Percent versus the 99 Percent.

Likewise, the straightforward acknowledgement of racism in the criminal justice system and the progressive positions on questions of race voiced in the debate, above all, show the impact of the Black Lives Matter movement on mainstream politics, starting with the uprisings in Ferguson and Baltimore.

In other words, the DNC's welcoming of the Sanders campaign and the Democratic Party's shift of its rhetoric to the left is a reaction to the fact that millions of Americans are moving left--some faster than others, and not on every issue, but generally--as a result of their own experiences and struggles of the past eight years.

This, of course, doesn't mean that Sanders isn't projecting that sentiment further or helping to "mainstream" it. Of course he is. The ruling class isn't omnipotent. The fact that one wing of its political system is talking more left in an attempt to bolster its left flank creates certain contradictions. But the point is to recognize that a leftward shift in the mainstream political conversation isn't simply the result of the words of a single politician, but the ideas and actions of much larger numbers of people.

It's also important to point out that at the same time Sanders is opening up space for a discussion of socialism and legitimizing left-wing positions on things like education and taxation, this also comes with several challenges.

First and most crucially, socialism is being identified with a political party that stands for exactly the opposite of what socialism does.

Second, while Bernie's words about the need for a "political revolution" are welcome, and while he makes a point of saying that change can't come without millions of Americans being politically activated, the conception of political mobilization is still centered on his campaign, and not on working class organization or social movements marching in the streets. Essentially, socialism is being associated with a purely electoral path.

Finally, socialism is being identified with someone who has an imperialist outlook on the role of the U.S. in the world, which helps provide a left-wing cover for the crimes of empire.

It's a particular travesty for someone who calls himself a socialist to proclaim his support for U.S. imperialism, including its chief Middle East ally Israel, as we watch that apartheid state wreck the lives of long-suffering Palestinian people, and as images reach our screens of millions of desperate refugees forced from their homes as a result of the imperial rivalries of the U.S. and Russia that are tearing Syria apart.

Socialists should be opposed to militarism and war on principle. After all, our goal is to unite the U.S. working class with workers internationally in a struggle against our common capitalist enemies. But it's also the case that confronting the chasm of inequality and the great danger of climate change, if Sanders is serious about this, would require mounting a serious challenge to the U.S. Department of Defense, the number one consumer of both fossil fuels and U.S. tax dollars.

To top it off, taking a principled anti-imperialist stand in the debate would have made for good politics. For example, Sanders' support for U.S. militarism left him unable to answer the question around gun violence in any convincing way--because he wasn't willing to put the broader violence of U.S. imperialism on trial. Imagine how he could have turned that portion of the debate in his favor if he had. Instead, this back and forth was one where Clinton and the other minor candidates for the nomination came off well by directly attacking Sanders.

Which goes to show that a left-wing position on this question wouldn't have been a problem for Sanders, but would have strengthened his overall critique. The reason Sanders has the support he does is his radical economic positions and his willingness to put the system on trial--whereas when he tacks right, he sounds the weakest and opens himself up to attack.

THE QUESTION isn't whether it's a good thing or a bad thing that Sanders is running. For the left, his campaign presents opportunities that should be taken advantage of, a set of challenges that must not be sidestepped and some lessons for the future that we should take note of.

Whatever the challenges, there is a real opening for socialist politics today, and Sanders' campaign is fueling this dynamic. Since I've been a socialist, this is by far the most friendly political atmosphere I've ever encountered in talking to people.

But what should those people who identify as socialists do right now? This leads me to two quotes.

The first is from labor and civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph:

At the banquet table of nature there are no reserved seats. You get what you can take, and you keep what you can hold. If you can't take anything, you won't get anything; and if you can't hold anything, you won't keep anything. And you can't take anything without organization.

The second is from the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky:

Without a guiding organization, the energy of the masses would dissipate like steam not enclosed in a piston-box.

Our side should aim to "take what we can" in this moment by engaging with people excited by Sanders' campaign, and aiming to convince them of what we mean by socialism and of becoming lifelong socialist organizers. But to "take anything," let alone "keep it," we need our own socialist organization. Because Bernie Sanders, rhetoric aside, is not building a socialist piston-box. He is tuning up one of the historic vehicles of the 1 Percent.

So let's continue to build independent socialist organization--and with it, the social power and the movements needed to win the best of what was discussed in the debates, and much more besides.

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