I’m currently reading David H. Kamens’ book _New American Creed_ that I assigned in my Sociology of the U.S. class. Well, technically I’m writing this blog post because his book got me all stirred up as today is the Iowa caucus where Bernie Sanders is currently favoured to win and that terrifies me.
Let me start by saying that I believe that Scandinavian-style social democracy would be great! I am totally on board for that personally. However, the majority of the American electorate isn’t which makes a Bernie Sanders Democratic ticket extremely risky.
But MORE importantly, even if we all felt the Bern, he will be entirely hamstrung to actually accomplish what he’s proposing, given the structure of the U.S. government.
Despite general opinion that the U.S. is too bureaucratic, it’s far less bureaucratic than any European state. The US is more strongly influenced by politics than by faith in the government to oversee such a realignment. Part of the “American creed” is that we are all individuals with a right to have a say in how the system operates. Anyone ever notice that politics in the United States always seems so much more exciting than boring old Canada? … that social movements are bigger, stronger, more radical, vocal, and organized than anywhere else? That’s because our system of governance allows, nay, requires it. According to Kamens, Europe is more bureaucratic because the people have a generally higher tolerance for state authority whereas rights of individuals is deeply carved into the American psyche, as shown in our foundational documents, the Declaration of Independence and the U.S. Constitution.
In the United States, we have a large state apparatus but it has far less centralized control than do parliamentary systems, especially non-federalist parliamentary systems, like European countries do. Our Constitution dictates a system of checks and balances in which no one person and no one agency can hold onto ultimate authority. This was a response to the revolutionary war and the injustices the King of England carried out against the colonists. However, there was also a sensed need for some centralized authority against the threat from First Nations people’s who were justifiably pissed off at European colonization and genocide perpetrated against their people, along with a need to protect white elites against possible slave insurrection, cuz, again people don’t like to be bought, sold, enslaved, or murdered. So, the framers created a state structure unique in the world in our Constitution, unlike most European parliamentary systems. It’s got a bicameral legislature, multi-tiers of government at the local, state, and federal levels, and has a complex system of checks and balances (and the electoral college system) that means power is always diffused.
The pro of this system is: no king, and everyday people have more voice. The cons: it’s very slow to get shit done and most of the time it takes a lot of maneuvering and behind the scenes, hidden, or otherwise “opaque” politicking to get anything passed. This is why you see 1,000 page bills get passed without anyone reading what the f is in them.
(This also probably explains, in part, why Bernie Sanders has only been successful at adding amendments to bills but not at introducing his own bills… he’s by most accounts, aside from his most fervent supporters’, a grumpy old fart who doesn’t play well in the sandbox. I suppose his supporters could suggest that this makes him more “authentic” or “pure” but the reality is, it’s not possible to get policy passed in the U.S. without some kind of politicking & compromising on one’s morals and/or dreams.)
In contrast, in a parliamentary system like in Europe or Canada, the leader of the ruling party of the legislature is also the leader of the country (though not necessarily the head of state). In Canada, we don’t vote for Prime Minister like we vote for President in the U.S. Instead, we vote for the person in our riding who is a member of a party. If our candidate wins their seat in parliament but their party doesn’t win the most seats in parliament, a different party will lead the country. The party leader is decided within the parties. This means that when a party is in power, they control both the legislative & executive branches (though in minority governments they have less control and have to do some politicking too).
When one political party in the U.S. has a majority of seats in both houses of Congress AND has a sitting president, shit happens way faster than when we have a mix of parties in power. Even so, when Republicans controlled the House and the Senate in Trump’s first term, he still didn’t accomplish much, though he did manage to get a lot of immigrants put in cages, rip nursing babies from their mothers’ breasts, get a rapist seated to the Supreme Court, and incite white people to engage their darkest racist ideologies, so there’s that. Still, Trump has done little to pass legislation and much of what he’s passed through Congress has been ix-nayed by the federal courts. And, at least for now, the U.S. Constitution and the structure of the system remain in place.
Though this civics lesson may seem boring or irrelevant, it’s is important for understanding why I’m #neverBernie. Bernie & AOC, Susan Sarandon, & the rest of the gang talk a lot about the need to change narratives and that reason why we don’t have nationalized healthcare or a higher minimum wage in the U.S. is not for a lack of money, but for a lack of political will. Sure. But they fail to see an even bigger obstacle to their goals: the structure of our political system and the entrenched individualism that results from this system.
Any kind of people’s revolution that will provide for the needs of the poor and vulnerable is going to require a large state apparatus to oversee this. I’m not sure how one would create a strong welfare state with a “lean” or “efficient” government. That what the so-called neoliberals have been trying to do since the 1970’s and Berners use “neoliberal” as a slur, so I don’t think that’s what they’re pulling for.
So assuming that Bernie wants or at least expects a strong state, this is going to be tricky to put in place given what’s written in the U.S. Constitution. Not impossible, but tricky.
Remember that our state apparatus is less powerful than the Scandinavian systems that Bernie (and I) so admire. Ours is big and bulky and slow, but theirs is actually more efficient and more effective. Kamens cites research showing that in 2005 (the G.W. Bush years!) a higher percentage of GDP went to public spending in the US (27.2%) than in Denmark (25.7%), Finland (24.4%), and the Netherlands (25.8%). This despite the fact that the European systems offer more benefits that are more likely to be universal. Sounds like a sweet deal!
Here’s the rub, there are a lot of reasons why those countries have “better,” more efficient welfare states beyond the issue of political will. One imports factor is the more centralized state authority of European states. European countries have fewer levels of government than does the U.S. and, more importantly, ruling parties maintain concurrent control of both the legislative & executive bodies. Canada has a similar federalist structure to the US with provincial governments, but the legislatures at both federal and provincial levels are still parliamentary systems.
Europe (and to a lesser degree Canada) also has stronger unions than the US, and in some places, unions play a role in the national legislature. And, given a more centralized state apparatus, and a shorter history of populism in Europe, according to Kamens, Europeans have greater trust in state bureaucracies to administer the will of the government.
In the U.S. part of our rugged individualism means that we Americans have a greater sense of entitlement to be a part of governing. We have more political organizations, more civil protests, more riots, even more school board involvement than most European states. We want to have a say, because our Constitution guarantees that no one can deny us our right to have a say and our government iS structured in such a way to allow our say to influence the government. This last part is something both those on the left and the right agree on in the U.S. We disagree about what we’re saying, but we’ll be god damned if someone is going to suggest we just shut up and do as we’re told.
However, this individualism also can work against collective organizing and collective struggle. If we all want to be heard and we all want a voice, if we’re gonna sit quiet, we’re going to need to really trust the person speaking on our behalf. This is indoctrinated in us starting at a very young age, starting with the first time we learn about the Pilgrims quest for religious freedom. All of our hero’s are those who are seen to have spoken truth to power, whether we’re on the left or the right: George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King on the left and Center… and Sarah Palin (?) on the right? I dunno, whatever. Anyway, to be an American hero is to fight against a perceived injustice be it a tyrannical monarch, a threat to national unity, racism, or pointy-headed bureaucratic elites in New England. Americans want to be #1; we’re raised to lead, not to follow. I once saw a principal at a school in Somewhereville, U.S.A., tweet out their school’s new inspirational campaign: Always be above average. Hmmmm… I’m not sure he understood how averages are calculated. Regardless, this notion is so engrained in the American consciousness that to speak against it is more likely to be met with confusion than opposition. What do you mean, it’s okay to just be average if everyone has their needs met? I don’t get it, so who wins? There’s always a winner and a loser. Or, in the words of Ricky Bobby’s dad: if you ain’t first, you’re last.
So, to bring the U.S. closer to a European system for welfare provision requires not only convincing the masses that social democracy is in their individual best interests (which lots of Americans actually already believe in), but it also requires (1) centralizing state authority (so lobbyists and moneyed interests have less power); (2) strengthening organized labour and/or collective action in general; which then also requires (3) shifting popular narratives from individualist to collective values. But to do this, also requires that people trust the state not to misuse their money. People, especially Americans, don’t like throwing their money to a corrupt oligarch where they get no piece of the pie.
And right here is my problem with Bernie Sanders & his movement. His campaign is predicated on a left populist position that sees an inherent distrust in “the system.”
Their hatred of Hillary Clinton for what she did as Secretary of State under Obama or as Senator or as First Lady to Bill Clinton takes aim at only the parts of her work that failed to live up to their moral standards. And is used to drum up support for Bernie’s candidacy before anyone else’s candidacy. The DNC was rigged! There’s a conspiracy of capitalist elites rigging this whole planet, don’t trust anyone but us! Academics who aren’t on our side have drunk the Kool-Aide and are neoliberal corporatist shills. Everyone is duped or dumb or a self-interested millionaire or billionaire not fit for public office. And would Hillary Clinton just “shut the fuck up” if she’s not going to support Bernie? so said one of the women on the lefty podcast The Daily Beans. Susan Sarandon opined in 2016 that Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump are two sides of the same coin because the share U. S. Imperialist goals and they both support capitalism. Thus, to her, Trump winning would be a victory in inciting the class warfare that will bring about “our revolution.” In other words, trust us, not them.
My biggest problem with Bernie (aside from his rape fantasy fiction writing, support of the NRA, and general ineffectiveness as a Senator), is that this rhetoric admonishing us to distrust elected officials and “the establishment” reinforces the American myth that a charismatic individual is going to save us from ourselves and, no matter what, don’t trust anyone. This is fundamentally an individualist narrative that does little to challenge the system in any meaningful way. This means that Bernie’s campaign has an irreconcilably fatal flaw in it: how are they going to create the “will” for a new big state if they are concurrently tearing down the current big state on the grounds that it can’t be trusted. This is like if you told everyone: Don’t trust that guy, he’ll steal your money & not care about you; and then you can’t understand why everyone’s confused and annoyed when you decide to marry the guy. I thought you said he was a jerk? Yeah, well, he’s my jerk now.
As Kamens points out, a mistrust of authority can be found across the ideological spectrum and beyond politics. It’s the similar mistrust of science that has led to a resurgence of measles where anti-vaxxers have gained ground. Anti-depressants are the tool of Big Pharma and those who pause to ask for evidence to such claims are told to “do your research,” as though the truth is to be uncovered in secret chat rooms found online.
Not only is Bernie shooting himself in the foot by instilling mistrust in the government in order to gain control of the government and make it bigger, but even if he managed to pull that off, he’s then faced with the political structure of the U.S. government. All those checks, all those balances mean he’d have to sweep every government office at the federal and state levels and install like minded judges in all federal courts and get a majority of Supreme Court justices on side. Given the Republican success at actually doing just this over the past 30 years (in many ways thanks to their pillorying of Hillary in the 1990s), there are A LOT of lifetime appointed judges to get out of office.
The other option is to do what Sarandon was advocating for: just blow the whole system up. I’m not sure exactly what she means but let’s assume it throws out the U.S. Constitution and replaces it with some other kind of government. People on the left don’t much like the two party system we have, so let’s assume they’ll replace our representative, liberal federalist, winner-takes-all democratic system with a centralized parliamentary system with proportional representation, like our friends in Europe. To be like Scandinavia, we’ll also want to add in seats at the table for labour leaders, so we’ll need to overcome the capitalist interests to keep labour out (which I personally think would be great, and I guess b/c we’ve swept every local, state, and federal election, and put in like-minded judges who will always vote in our favour when the losers of the new system cry foul, we can just make whatever laws we want? Cool!)
Now, we have a centralized bureaucratic state that administers these programs, so take a number and wait till you’re served. We promise, you will be served. Though… if we don’t serve you… well, what are you going to do about it? We’re in charge now, so no need to make a fuss. The government won’t really need to pay as much attention to the protestors outside since there is no longer competition between federal and state interests, elections are held less frequently, and the ruling party can do what it wants until they’re so terrible that people finally get their shit together to vote them out with a vote of non-confidence. But it’s still a democracy, so great!
Okay, so let’s play this tape forward a little further: Bernie is president, AOC is VP, the one that boo’d Hillary the other day is Secretary of Housing and Urban Development with stables to be provided for everyone’s free ponies, and Cornell West is Secretary of Education (even though when my sister took a class from him at Harvard, he was almost never in class but left the teaching to his TA, but never mind that, he’s a very important person). We cool. The anti-establishment is established. Phew! We can all exhale in relief that now that these folks have thrown out the U.S. Constitution, installed their visionaries into office, and we’ve gathered the political will to make sure the new system runs smooth as a baby’s bum. And, lookie-lookie, this new good-for-all welfare state has free college, free healthcare, and no more wars (yay!) Added bonus, this system is going to be so amazing, that no one will ever want to vote against it… well, at least the majority won’t, we don’t care about the rich since they are a numerical minority. Power to the people, we say! Still, the owners of the means of production will probably just suck it up and not try to influence anyone, right? I mean, cuz Bernie! The only reason why working people don’t like him is because of DNC rigging and vaginas. Right?
So, the owners are now kept in check by having labour leaders as part of the government apparatus, which we managed to pull off despite the 90 year ideological assault on organizing since the 1930’s, the outsourcing of factories overseas, and the rise in the service sector and a gig economy. C’mon, people felt the Bern, and boy did it burn.
And anyway, since we’re a gig economy now, everyone’s an entrepreneur developing apps on their iPhones & and starting side-hustling Podcasts to tear down the man, funded via Patreon and Caspar mattresses. It’s okay that their interests aren’t represented at any bargaining tables since they’d rather not work in a factory getting exploited for a living wage anyway. Or wait, no! We can organize to demand higher advertising rates for our blogs from corporations.. wait… no… hmmm… okay, we’ll fix that later. But wait… Shit… what if Bernie gets rich on all these speaking tours, $27 donations, and book deals. I mean we aren’t to trust millionaires and billionaires. Ok, scratch that. Don’t trust billionaires, just billionaires. Y’all can keep working on monetizing your YouTube channels with conspiracy theories about the Clintons. We’re just gonna have to tax you at 100% once you earn a billion dollars, you cool with that? I am b/c I’m never going to make a billion dollars, so yay!
And, don’t forget, we’ve all been so effectively re-indoctrinated as Americans to throw out the Constitution and the values of individualism, no one wants to make money anyway. Everyone is content to just be a part of this big happy family. And, if they’re not, they can get the hell out, I guess? Given Bernie’s defense of individual gun rights, I guess the plan is that organized militias will protect this newfound Eden? Just no external wars, I guess? Or guns are just for hunting in the mountains of Vermont? But we’ll be so happy and content and racism and sexism doesn’t exist anymore, so it’s all cool. Maybe I missed a piece of the platform, not sure… carrying on…
Okay, so here’s the problem as I see it: How can we possibly get to this utopian vision of a better America that demands an anti-individualist ethos by running a campaign based on the individual vision of Bernie Sanders in which we are to maintain skepticism about the “establishment,” liberals, and elites (often synonymous with educated peoples). How are we to convince the electorate to go against decades of indoctrination that individualism is the only legitimate moral compass when the movement is based on ensuring the success of Bernie Sanders? If only Bernie can lead the charge and all threats to his candidacy are tarnished as establishment sell-outs, does this not reinforce a kind of rugged individualism anathema to the cause? Is it not a call to charismatic authority that valorizes the individual over the collective?
And if so, does it not then follow that Bernie’s candidacy poses actually little threat to the current social and moral order, while reinforcing the values that got Trump into office?
Does this not indicate that Bernie’s “revolution” is actually founded on a faulty premise of what is possible within our current system, while reinforcing the narrative of individualism that ensures the maintenance of this system. How can we possibly achieve a more just vision for America’s future with a stronger welfare state, if we are not to trust the institutions that would oversee it?
I do not know the right way to greater justice for Americans or for the world. I cannot give you the better alternative that will fix it all, to hang your hat on and give you hope. And yeah, there’s a lot of stuff to be mad about. There’s lots to change and lots wrong with the U.S. But I can tell you, given the realities of the U.S. political structure, Bernie offers little more than false hope and righteous anger. At best he’ll win an election and accomplish little, at worst, he’ll lose to Trump. And given Americans’ pre-existing attitudes toward social-democracy, odds are on the latter.