Bernie Sanders opened his Presidential campaign yesterday on the campus of Brooklyn College with a speech that, as Katie Halper of Jacobin Magazine argues, drew upon his Eastern European Jewish identity to frame the coming battle against Donald Trump as class war.
When Bernie Sanders tweeted that he was holding his first 2020 rally in Brooklyn, he said it was to “show Trump and the powerful special interests what they’re up against” in the place where he was “born and bred.”
Sanders has one undeniably great quality. He pisses off the right people. The insurance industry lobbyists and for-profit-college and charter school hacks of the neoliberal Democratic establishment hate his guts. Sanders is very difficult to knock off his message. As hard as the corporate media pundits and Clinton loyalists try to bury his message of economic justice in a Byzantine labyrinth of identity politics and economic minutia, he just keeps banging away on the idea that the American people have the same right to healthcare as Canadians do, and the same right to a free college education as the Danes or Finns.
I often remark that Franklin Roosevelt is by far the greatest President the United States has ever produced. I always add “and that is the problem.” Unlike Sanders’s millennial supporters, I’m old enough to remember the last few years of New Deal America, the economic justice that allowed my Polish and German American working class grandparents to go from the agony of the Great Depression to middle-class prosperity in only a few decades. It was a much better America than the one we live in now. Believe me, I never would have graduated from college had I been born in 1985 instead of 1965. Yet it was fatally flawed. New Deal America was social democracy poisoned by white supremacy and founded on American imperial hegemony. Without Germany and Japan flat on their backs, without an endless supply of cheap oil, and above all without a never ending arms race with the Soviet Union, the wealth that the American ruling class shared ever so grudgingly with the “white working class” from 1945 until 1994 — when the Clintons snuffed New Deal America out for good — simply isn’t there.
Sanders’s ultimate vision, to bring back New Deal America is a commendable one. Contrary to the absurd claims of Hillary Clinton’s cultish supporters — who think black Americans actually want welfare reform, charter schools, overpriced for-profit health-care, and mass incarceration — Bernie Sanders sincerely wants to rebuild the New Deal along multiracial lines. City College in New York City was free when its student body was made up mostly of Eastern European Jews. When blacks and Hispanic immigrants arrived on the scene, they suddenly started charging tuition. Sanders would reverse that. Free college for all, regardless of race, color, or immigration status. Working class black and Hispanic people die earlier than upper-middle-class white people, mainly because they can’t afford the same health care. Sanders would reverse that too. Healthcare is a right, not a privilege. Raise the minimum wage, jail the corrupt bankers on Wall Street, invest a Green New Deal, there’s a lot to like about the idea of a Jewish Franklin Roosevelt from Brooklyn and a Congress made up of people like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez and Ilhan Omar.
It’s not enough. In his early days, Martin Luther King had the same vision as Bernie Sanders. New Deal America would fulfill its promise. The prosperity the “white working class” enjoyed in the first few decades after the Second World War could be extended from white to non-white Americans, from men to women. But after watching the liberal Democratic Johnson Administration wage a unjust war against the people of Vietnam, he realized it wouldn’t be that simple. King realized that you couldn’t build American social democracy on a foundation of imperialism and white supremacy, that unless you dismantled America’s genocidal war machine, not only black Americans but white, working class Americans were doomed.
A few years ago there was a shining moment in that struggle. It seemed as if there was a real promise of hope for the poor — both black and white — through the poverty program. There were experiments, hopes, new beginnings. Then came the buildup in Vietnam, and I watched this program broken and eviscerated, as if it were some idle political plaything of a society gone mad on war, and I knew that America would never invest the necessary funds or energies in rehabilitation of its poor so long as adventures like Vietnam continued to draw men and skills and money like some demonic destructive suction tube. So, I was increasingly compelled to see the war as an enemy of the poor and to attack it as such.
A year after King denounced the Vietnam War he was dead. Bernie Sanders is smart enough to realize that if he denounces the sanctions against Venezuela, the Israeli apartheid state, or the American military industrial complex as a whole, his political career is at great risk. There’s a reason he shamefully referred to Hugo Chavez as a “dead communist dictator.” The subtitle of King’s great speech on Vietnam is “a time to break the silence.” Bernie Sanders needs to break the same silence. If he wants economic justice — if he wants to go down in history as a Jewish Franklin Roosevelt — he has to confront the deep contradictions of Roosevelt’s legacy. He has to risk his Presidential ambitions the way Martin Luther King risked, and ultimately lost, his life, and denounce the violence the American empire inflicts upon the people of the Global South. So far he hasn’t.