Identity Berned

Every time I write about a book about Bernie Sanders, somebody sends me a better one. If this keeps up, by the time his campaign is over I should be reading the best book ever written and be completely out of touch with reality. The latest is The Bern Identity by Will Bunch.

These books don’t make me like Bernie Sanders any more or less, or for that matter take seriously any more or less the idea that a likable personality is particularly relevant. But they do inform me about Sanders and about his supporters. Bunch’s is the most substantive, best researched, and most coherent book of the bunch so far.

Bunch admires Bernie for learning the lessons of the 1960s and, for the most part, never selling out. Bunch finds this remarkable, almost unique. And, of course, it is that among U.S. Senators, and among the gang of misfits occupying the two stages at the freak shows we call presidential primary debates. But there are many thousands of people who woke up during the 1960s and never went to sleep. Many of them have worked for peace and justice ever since with hardly a burnout. One could pick any number of them and stack their accomplishments up quite impressively against those of Bernie Sanders.

Yes, I agree that Bernie’s injecting of a little bit of sense into corporate television is important and very hard to measure. Yes, I have no doubt that there’s a bit more integrity and relevance in Bernie’s background than there was in the legend of the African-American community-organizing author come to save us while shrewdly pretending not to. But Bernie holding the biggest political rallies in some big cities since Eugene McCarthy may not be an unmixed blessing.

I’ve written before about Bernie volunteers professing to be motivated by policies that their candidate explicitly opposes. Yet I cannot stay untouched by the excitement Bunch depicts at massive Bernie rallies he’s attended. It’s wonderful for people to suddenly discover that something might be possible, to suddenly give a damn, to suddenly do a tiny something about it. But it’s also miserable to consider that they have been so well trained to do this only as cheerleaders for a candidate.

Surely that’s not the lesson of the 1960s in which the civil rights and antiwar and other movements organized around issues and imposed change on the entire bipartisan political structure — just as major change has usually been brought about. Yes, elections were hugely important in the Sixties, but they were secondary. Now they are Everything. The peace movement shut down in 2007 because there was to be an election in 2008, and it won’t start up again until a Republican moves into the White House. Elections are terrific — I’d love to see a fair and open one in the United States some day — but there is a danger in the new myth that they are all that there is.

Bunch’s book celebrates Bernie Sanders as having stayed true to his Sixties politics all these years, while the public moved away and has finally returned to him. I think there’s something to that, but would offer a few caveats. First, there have always been millions of people wanting progressive policies, and they have been effectively shut out by the media, by the Democratic Party, and by an increasingly corrupted political system. Second, the other candidates have moved so far right that Bernie is closer to where a middle of the roader sits. Third, Bernie is fundamentally rightwing on militarism, and nobody wants to analyze that problem in any depth.

On the first point, I recommend Ted Rall’s book on Bernie, the first half of which is a history of the Democratic Party’s flight to the right.

On the second point, let’s be honest, there are many people who could be doing more or less what Bernie is doing right now in the Democratic Primary. Most potential candidates sat this one out, either because Hillary Clinton claimed such a lock on the nomination or because committing to support her should she win was too revolting a decision to make in order to run as a Democrat. The media completely whites out third-party candidates like Jill Stein, and the public has been convinced they’re useless. And yet, even as the Republicans ape Hitler and Mussolini, Hillary Clinton tries to position herself to their right. Bernie is a brilliant, dedicated, relatively honest candidate who has been given an opening by a combination of circumstances, not least of them perhaps the media’s notion that an undecided primary is better for ratings as long as there’s no risk of someone like Sanders actually winning.

On the third point, Bunch’s history of Sanders’ life suggests that it’s not entirely new for him to give far less interest to peace than to domestic matters. There’s no account of Sanders growing outraged over the war on Vietnam, rather over President John Kennedy’s opposition to the Cuban revolution. Sanders registered as a conscientious objector, but he organized against racial discrimination and against restrictions on having sex on campus. Bunch seems not to notice the elephant that’s not in the room. He says a Sanders speech is a laundry list of liberal issues in which everyone will hear whatever they’re waiting for. Not if you’re waiting to hear about peace.

Bunch doesn’t hide the shortcomings. He notes that the Sanders campaign staff forced the removal of a banner advocating rights for Palestinians, that in 1983 peace activists protested a GE weapons plant in Burlington demanding conversion to peaceful manufacturing and Mayor Sanders had them arrested in the name of preserving 3,000 weapons-making jobs, and that in recent years Sanders has supported the production of the F-35 also in the name of jobs for Vermonters.

In 1972 Sanders wrote, as Bunch quotes him, that the daily U.S. military budget was greater than the annual state budget of Vermont. At $4 billion today, the state of Vermont is slightly over one day’s military spending (taking annual military spending to be $1.2 trillion) but it has been a long time since Sanders has demanded conversion to peaceful spending. Instead, he has accepted the truly sociopathic notion that jobs (and jobs of a particular sort, as if a good socialist doesn’t know that the same dollars could produce more jobs if spent on peace) justify militarism. Imagine how that sounds to the 96% of humanity never mentioned by Sanders, except when citing the successes of European nations whose radically lower military spending he seems not to have noticed.

Dear parent of dead children in Yemen just blown up by U.S. weapons, let me assure you that the money Saudi Arabia paid for those weapons — if not the “contributions” to the Clinton family — produced a lot of jobs. And while we could have had even more jobs by investing in something useful like green energy that would keep you from baking to death in the years to come, the fact is that I don’t really give a damn.

Militarism is at least half of what Congress spends money on each year. It’s not my personal quirky interest. Is it OK that Bernie excuses Israel’s crimes because he’s Jewish? Should we overlook his support for guns because he’s from Vermont? These are debatable, because he’s so wonderful on so many other things. But continuing down the path of sociopathic militarism is not an option if we are to maintain a livable planet. Bernie voted against the 2003 attack on Iraq, but then worked against those in Congess trying to block funding for it. Was that the right compromise? Was that authenticity?

Of course, the military spending debate is usually about the wars that add 10% or so to the standard military spending. When it comes to those, Sanders wants Saudi Arabia to start paying for them. But there are problems with that scheme. First, Saudi Arabia gets its money by selling the world the poisonous fossil fuels that will destroy it. Second, Saudi Arabia buys the biggest pile of its weapons from the United States, which thereby contributes to the mass slaughter — and everyone knows it. Third, Saudi Arabia is one of the largest sources of funding and support for the people that Bernie imagines it funding a war against. Fourth, continuing these insane wars in the Middle East will continue to spread violence around and outside of that region, including to the United States, regardless of what share of the bill the United States is asking Saudi Arabia to pick up. That cycle of violence will only end by taking a different approach, not by continuing down the same road with a different billing scheme.

The great hope that comes to the smarter people at rallies for good candidates under corrupt electoral systems is that they are building a movement that will outlast the campaign. But when has that actually happened? And how can such a candidate-focused movement not bow before the candidate’s own compromises?

The election book we really need is the one that explains the minor role elections play in social change. The next-best election book that we need, the one I keep looking for, is the one that outlines what each candidate proposes to do if elected. What would their proposed budgets look like? Which nations would they bomb first? Does Bernie think military spending is too high or too low? Who knows! I expect the question not to come up in the next dozen Bernie books, but I’ll keep looking.

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  • Good topic and article Mr. Swanson, and this exposes the evils of a two party system, ‘Partisanship’!

    “Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” James Madison

    Dec 30, 2015 Nullification in One Lesson

    “When the federal government violates our rights, we’re not just supposed to sit idly by and wait for the federal government to stop itself.”

  • paul

    Have you read Paul Street on Bernie? He points out that Bernie’s career seems to be founded on his playing a very destructive role for Democrats as the pet socialist, the chosen leftie, blocking the path for other lefties. The man is, in my view, a snake in the grass. His views on Israel and foreign wars show the real man, I think. Talk to Paul Street about this.

  • billylove

    In the end, Bernie will tell his supporters to vote for Clinton. He will endorse her and destroy any remaining credibility.

  • Bev

    Bernie Sanders site:
    Issues: War and Peace

    As President, Sen. Sanders will:

    Move away from a policy of unilateral military action, and toward a policy of emphasizing diplomacy, and ensuring the decision to go to war is a last resort.

    Ensure that any military action we do engage in has clear goals, is limited in scope, and whenever possible provides support to our allies in the region.

    Close Guantanamo Bay, rein in the National Security Agency, abolish the use of torture, and remember what truly makes America exceptional: our values.

    Expand our global influence by promoting fair trade, addressing global climate change, providing humanitarian relief and economic assistance, defending the rule of law, and promoting human rights.

    “We live in a difficult and dangerous world, and there are no easy or magical solutions. As President and Commander-in-Chief, Iwill defend this nation, its people, and America’s vital strategic interests, but I will do it responsibly. America must defend freedom at home and abroad, but we must seek diplomatic solutions before resorting to military action. While force must always be an option, war must be a
    last resort, not the first option.

    As a member of Congress, I have supported the use of force only when it was a last resort and America’s vital interests were at stake. I opposed the first Gulf War, as did many other Members of Congress,
    because I believed that there was a way to achieve our goals without bloodshed, through sanctions and concerted diplomatic action. I supported the use of force to stop the ethnic cleansing in the Balkans.
    And, in the wake of the attacks on September 11, 2001, I supported the use of force in Afghanistan to hunt down the terrorists who attacked us. I regret that President Bush did not use that authority properly, and that American combat troops remained there too long. I voted against the war in Iraq, and knew it was the right vote then, and most people recognize it was the right vote today. The only mission President Bush and his neo-conservative friends accomplished was to destabilize an entire region, and create the environment for al-Qaeda and ISIS to flourish.

    While we must be relentless in combating terrorists who would do us harm, we cannot and should not be policeman of the world, nor bear the burden of fighting terrorism alone. The United States should be part of an international coalition, led and sustained by nations in the region that have the means to protect themselves. That is the only way to defeat ISIS and to begin the process of creating the conditions for a
    lasting peace in the region.”
    – Sen. Bernie Sanders

    Foreign Policy: Strength through Diplomacy

    Senator Sanders believes that the test of a great and powerful nationis not how many wars it can engage in, but how it can resolve international conflicts in a peaceful manner. From the Middle East, to
    Ukraine, to North Korea, to the South China Sea, to civil war in the world’s newest nation – South Sudan, we face a multitude of serious foreign policy challenges.

    Senator Sanders will protect America, defend our interests and values, embrace our commitments to defend freedom and support human rights, and be relentless in combating terrorists who would do us harm. However, after nearly fourteen years of ill-conceived and disastrous military engagements in the Middle East, it is time for a new approach. We must move away from policies that favor unilateral military action and preemptive war, and that make the United States the de facto policeman of the world.

    Senator Sanders believes that foreign policy is not just deciding how to react to conflict around the world, but also includes redefining America’s role in the increasingly global economy. Along with our allies
    throughout the world, we should be vigorous in attempting to prevent international conflict, not just responding to problems. For example, the international trade agreements we enter into, and our energy and climate change policies not only have enormous consequences for Americans here at home, but greatly affect our relations with countries around the world. Senator Sanders has the experience, the record and the vision not just to lead on these critically important issues, but to take our country in a very different direction.

    Iraq and Afghanistan

    Sen. Sanders considers his vote against the Iraq War to be one of the most important he has cast, and believes that the invasion in Iraq was one of the worst foreign policy blunders in modern U.S. history. As a
    leader in the opposition to the war in Iraq, much of what then Congressman Sanders feared would happen has, in fact, occurred. Not only did the United States invade Iraq based on false information, but the
    war has radically destabilized the entire region and has been completely counterproductive in terms of fighting international terrorism.

    As the former Chairman of the Senate Committee on Veterans’ Affairs, Senator Sanders knows what the cost of war is. He knows that 6,700 brave men and women lost their lives in those wars, that too many came home without legs, arms or eyesight. He also knows that some 500,000 servicemen and women returned home with PTSD and Traumatic Brain Injury, and that the war disrupted the lives of tens of thousands of families.

    Sen. Sanders voted to authorize military strikes against Afghanistan, after it became clear that the Taliban regime harbored and gave support to Osama bin Laden and the al-Qaeda terrorists who attacked America on 9/11. (My note, Sanders should see: ) However, while we entered that war with significant clarity of purpose and moral authority, President Bush soon lost sight about what our goals were in Afghanistan. Instead of fighting those who attacked our country, he embroiled our troops in a quagmire in a far-away land.

    Sen. Sanders called on both Presidents Bush and Obama to withdraw U.S. troops as soon as possible and for the people of Afghanistan to take full responsibility for their own security. After visiting Afghanistan, Sen. Sanders spoke-out against the rampant corruption he saw, particularly in regards to elections, security and the banking system.

    Preventing a Nuclear Iran

    The U.S. must do everything it can to make certain that Iran does not get a nuclear weapon, that a nuclear Iran does not threaten Israel, and to prevent a nuclear arms race in the region. Sen. Sanders supports
    the agreement between the U.S., Iran, Britain, China, France, Germany and Russia regarding Iran’s nuclear weapons program, because it has the best chance of limiting Iran’s ability to produce a nuclear weapon,
    while avoiding yet another war in the region.

    While the agreement is not perfect, it is far better than the path we were on – with Iran developing nuclear weapons and the potential for military intervention by the U.S. and Israel growing greater by the day.
    If Iran does not live up to the agreement, sanctions can be reestablished and all other options remain on the table. It is incumbent upon us, however, to give the negotiated agreement a chance to succeed,
    and Sen. Sanders applauds President Obama and Secretary Kerry for their efforts.

    Israel and Palestine

    The Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been one of the world’s most difficult and intractable disputes for more than sixty years. Moreover, the failure to resolve that crisis has helped fuel other conflicts in the region. Senator Sanders has long supported a two-state solution that recognizes Israel’s right to exist in peace and security, and the Palestinians right to a homeland in which they control their political and economic future.

    The most recent violence in Gaza represented a particularly ugly and violent time in the dispute. Senator Sanders strongly condemned indiscriminate rocket fire by Hamas into Israeli territory, and Hamas’
    use of civilian neighborhoods to launch those attacks. However, while recognizing that Israel has the right to defend itself, he also strongly condemned Israeli attacks on Gaza as disproportionate and the widespread killing of civilians as completely unacceptable.

    The U.S. must play a leading role in creating a two-state solution, which will require significant compromises from both sides. The Palestinians must unequivocally recognize Israel’s right to exist, and
    hold accountable those who have committed terrorist acts. The Israelis must end the blockade of Gaza, and cease developing settlements on Palestinian land. Both sides must negotiate in good faith regarding all other outstanding issues that stand in the way of a durable and lasting peace in the region. In the meantime, strict adherence, by all sides, to the tenets of international humanitarian law is necessary in order to avoid escalating the conflict yet again.

    Combating Terrorism

    We live in a dangerous world full of serious threats, perhaps none more so than the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria (ISIS) and al-Qaeda. Senator Sanders is committed to keeping America safe, and pursuing those
    who would do Americans harm.

    But we cannot combat international terrorism alone. We must work with our allies to root out terrorist funding networks, provide logistical support in the region, disrupt online radicalization, provide
    humanitarian relief, and support and defend religious freedom. Moreover, we must begin to address the root causes of radicalization, instead of focusing solely on military responses to those who have already become radicalized.

    And while there is no question our military must be fully prepared and have the resources it needs to fight international terrorism, it is imperative that we take a hard look at the Pentagon’s budget and the priorities it has established. The U.S. military must be equipped to fight today’s battles, not those of the last war, much less the Cold War. Our defense budget must represent our national security interests and the needs of our military, not the reelection of members of Congressor the profits of defense contractors. The warning that President Dwight David Eisenhower gave us about the influence of the Military-Industrial Complex in 1961 is truer today than it was then.

    Protecting America and American Values

    Senator Sanders believes our country must remain vigilant to protect us from terrorist attacks at home, whether from organized international terrorist networks, or from “lone wolf” extremists. The threat is real, and he will aggressively pursue those who would do us harm. However, Sen. Sanders strongly believes that we must pursue policies that uphold the core values that make us proud to be Americans.

    That is why Sen. Sanders voted against the Patriot Act when it was first passed, why he voted against the Patriot Act when it was renewed, and why he opposed the so-called USA Freedom Act this past spring. We must not trade away our constitutional rights and civil liberties for the illusion of security.

    Instead, we must rein in the National Security Agency and end the bulk collection of phone records, internet history, and email data of virtually all Americans.Our intelligence and law enforcement agencies
    must have the tools they need to protect the American people, but there must be legal oversight and they must go about their work in a way that does not sacrifice our basic freedoms.

    The same goes for our actions abroad. The U.S. must never again embrace torture as a matter of official policy. In an increasingly brutal world, the wanton use of torture by the Bush administration simply meant we lost our moral standing to condemn others who engage in merciless behavior. That is why Sen. Sanders has consistently spoken out against waterboarding and other forms of extreme “enhanced

    We must also, finally, close the Guantanamo Bay detention center. The mere existence of this camp, and the misguided policies that led to its creation, continues to damage the United States’ moral standing in the world, undermines our foreign policy, and fans the flames of terrorism rather than deters it.



    Bernie Gets It Done: Sanders’ Record of Pushing Through Major Reforms Will Surprise You
    What kind of experience does Bernie Sanders have? Let’s take a look.
    By Zaid Jilani / AlterNet

    Not only has Sanders gotten a lot more things done than Clinton did in her own short legislative career, he’s actually one of the most effective members of Congress, passing bills, both big and small, that
    have reshaped American policy on key issues like poverty, the environment and health care.

    The Amendment King

    Using the Power of a Senator

    While Sanders was an amendment king who was able to bring bipartisan coalitions together to make serious changes to laws, he also knew how to be a thorn in the side of the establishment until it offered up
    something in return. Sanders was able to get the first-ever audit of funds given out by the Federal Reserve, which made transparent over $2 trillion of funds handed out by the secretive organization. This was a cause that Republican congressman Ron Paul (TX) had been pursuing for decades, but Sanders was able to get the votes to do it by forging a compromise that required an audit for the bailout period alone.


    • Bev

      as to another point:

      His Theory of Change, From Burlington to the White House

      The big question is, can Sanders translate his time as an effective senator into an effective president? After all, a legislative job is different than an executive job.

      But Sanders has a theory of change, in order to be an executive who can pass progressive policy even in the face of a recalcitrant Congress. He frequently talks about a “political revolution” that means vastly increasing voter turnout and participation in political activities so conservative lawmakers and Big Money are unable to overwhelm public opinion.


      Sanders is probably not so unsure of himself. After all, he’s done it before. When Sanders was mayor of Burlington, Vermont, one of his big accomplishments was to increase civic life in the city. During the course of his terms, voter turnout doubled. In his eight years as mayor, he rejuvenated a city that was considered by many to be dying, laying out progressive policies that cities around the country later adopted, and he did all this without particularly alienating Republicans.

      • jadan

        Thanks, Bev. I wanted to rhetorically kick Swanson’s butt, but you do it better….

    • jadan

      Hearken David Swanson: Sander’s call for an audit of the DoD will do more to stop militarism in this society than your finest antiwar screed. We are far gone, though, down the road of fascist oligarchy. It won’t be the task of one president to downsize and eventually eliminate this military juggernaut of world domination. But we will stand in amazement like Solzhenitsyn before the spectacle of the collapsing USSR when our own deeply corrupt and evil national security state collapses.

  • MCB

    Bernie Sanders is a politician and therefore is an inherent thief. Furthermore, he’s a collectivist which makes his thieving ways even all the more egregiously apparent. Any system of government that’s not based on voluntaryism is immoral and unsustainable. Earth is a prison planet for thieves.