New Populism’s Fallacy of Progress

[PLEASE NOTE: This is a reposting of Arthur Knott’s article that appeared in The Socialist in July of 2014.]

In 2013, a group of Wall Street regulators shifted nervously in their seats sitting before a Congressional panel. The woman who sat before them asked a series of questions, urging them to explain the lapses of accountability that occurred before and after the 2008 market meltdown. Speaking in a measured tone and with an impeccable gravitas, the female senator from Massachusetts had taken the first steps to putting a face to the economic devastation experienced by many Americans.

For those who were previously unfamiliar with Senator Elizabeth Warren, a new viral video made the rounds revealing a new ally within the Democratic Party, who seemed committed to achieving a measure of restitution for the abuses committed by flagrant Wall Street investors in years prior. In the coming months, she would decry dispensations given to wealthy Wall Street borrowers and sought parity for the college-bound by proposing equitable interest rates on new student loans.

Also at this time, America became increasingly familiar with the Senate floor invectives of Bernie Sanders, who was set to achieve an equal level of notoriety. Sanders shared a newly styled “progressive” mantle with Warren, and together they became household names sounding a clarion call for the comeuppance of the “1 percent.”

From there, a new populism centered around new “progressive” faces began to grow out of a community of left-leaning liberals and post-Occupy adherents. Warren laid claim to being a germinal figure in the Occupy movement whose flourish also depended largely upon social media. Upworthy and similar media relay hubs catering to liberal audiences began to quietly abandon the purport of Obama as a progressive messiah in favor of emergent heroes such as Warren and Sanders. For left-leaning liberals not snared by the “Ready for Hilary” sloganeering, the prospect of Warren (or even the independent Sanders) capturing the DNC nomination for the 2016 presidential candidacy offers some hope, if not a lot, that economic reforms could traction in the era of (fingers crossed) a post-GOP-dominated-House and, more importantly, that the Democratic Party might live up to the unwavering characterization projected onto it by its largely working-class and poverty-enduring constituency.

The cant of liberals such as Warren and Sanders has resonated not only with liberal supporters, but it has also plied the ear of a few (nominal) socialists. In lieu of the scarce possibility that socialists will be able to put forward a fully funded, visible candidate for a presidential election, some socialists have shifted their support towards candidates on the liberal fringe who, in some facets, resemble their socialist counterparts. However, for those committed to growth of democratic socialism, this is a fatal error. Socialists seeking low-hanging fruit as a consolation to their comparatively smaller impact in electoral politics are, in fact, undermining the movement. When socialists support the trendy, progressive faces of liberalism, they not only contravene the principles of socialism itself but also reinvigorate a position that has historically hurt and bifurcated parties like the SPUSA. And let’s make one more thing clear from the start: Despite any claims otherwise, Bernie Sanders is not a democratic socialist.

The Dividing Line

Reagan taught the Democrats an important lesson about class collaborationism and the myth making that makes it work. Dems have picked up his legacy and transformed it in the alchemical retort of liberal rhetoric. It is now the exalted middle class who must be protected, as the burden rests on them to buttress the now faltering economy. Sanders, like Obama, has made overtures towards strengthening the middle class. But aside from chastising Wall Street, improving oversight, and perhaps imposing a progressive tax rate, can supporters trust that Sanders is sincere about strengthening America’s most vigorous consumers?  Who, for example, does Sanders’ model his own economic vision for the long awaited recovery?

Browsing Sanders’ own website, one will encounter a recent article by Nick Hanauer, a venture capitalist and founder who has made himself visible recently by publishing sanctimonious diatribes against the inequalities produced by capitalism. Unabashedly touting his own status as a plutocrat, Hanauer has also garnered attention by bannering a bite-sized, simplistic analysis of capitalism in his own viral TED Talk.

Hanauer embodies a heroic archetype of the liberal pantheon: A paragon of both with-it-ness and wealth, he is ready to boldly disavow the more insensitive of the fat cats to save the system from itself. In his recent infamous “pitchfork” piece, Hanauer warns his brethren among American plutonomy of the possibility of revolutionary uprising in the lower classes and the necessity to preempt their challenge to capitalism. Interestingly, he calls for backing $15 minimum wage hikes, in effect appropriating a tactic employed by the radical left — a group he disparages as “crazies.” Hanauer’s cantata of self-exaltation concludes with a grace note about perhaps implementing New Deal style reforms, as they might quell the menace of revolution.

Platforms of both socialists and liberals may overlap at the tactic level, but socialists would do well to immunize themselves from the kinds of solidarity that could enervate a movement towards an economic democracy. Socialists must make a commitment to stand apart from liberals and routinely defend the principles that serve as the foundation for their tactics. We must remember that Democrats will never challenge capitalism at its core. Even those Dems who may have grown weary of extolling its threadbare virtues might, at best, simply laugh off the onerous, if not impossible, task of dismantling it. They will, however, readily appropriate the language of the radical left when the going gets tough.

The face of The Real Left in America thus remains perennially threatened with eclipse by the Democratic Party. Even as Dems move further to the right, their characterization in the eye of the public remains nonetheless “progressive.” They have also been successful in repackaging their promises in the agendas of trendy, one- and two-issue candidates, gathering up voters who might otherwise fight for a radical economic democracy. Thus, a suspicious eye should be cast upon any likenesses between liberal reforms and socialist platforms, especially as proposals put forward by Democrats and the Obama Administration continue to court capitalists, hasten their entrée into the public trust, and generally flout the need for social programs untethered to for-profit entities.

Neocolonial Villians

Both Warren’s and Sanders’ active enlistment with the pro-Zionist lobby AIPAC remains scarcely criticized by so-called “progressives” who celebrate their challenges to Wall Street.

From a socialist viewpoint, the most contentious item on Warren’s platform is a possible war with Iran, about which she has not equivocated. She has openly supported strengthening a framework for the Middle East that endorses an expansion of the US-Israeli power block to stem Iran’s potential flourish. In the run-up to her 2012 election to the US Senate, Warren indicated that “all options were on the table” with respect to how the United States should handle the speculation that Tehran had been inching closer to finalizing the development of a nuclear weapon. Warren was subsequently unable to validate those speculations with hard data, inadvertently indicating her preference for parroting reactionary rhetoric over a principled, or even evidence-based, foreign policy.

Sanders appears no better. Also reciting similar talking points on Israel, he attached his name to a July 2014 Senate resolution condemning the alleged provocations of Hamas, which served as the impetus for the recent Israeli incursions into Gaza. The resolution was subsequently debunked by evidence purportedly known prior to its passage but overlooked by Sanders. The evidence in question stood allegations regarding new Hamas violence on their head, and the report claimed that Hamas was in fact policing locals in an attempt to prevent the firing of rockets into Israel. Sanders continued to offer his unflinching support to Israel in spite of these revelations. With a voting record that has expanded the power of the US military, Sanders’ espousals on foreign policy are not dissimilar to many Democrats and Republicans.

Neither Warren nor Sanders would ever deign to truly pose the question of the Palestinians’ right to self-determination and their resistance to neocolonial oppression. They are unable to rewind the tape of history and ask the fundamental questions that undermine certain presuppositions upon which the state of Israel itself is founded. Warren, for example, proposes a two-state solution, but remains reticent amidst Israel’s piecemeal demolition of Palestinian homes and expropriation of their land. Sanders, Warren and their cadre of AIPAC-backed politicos countenance the unchecked slaughter of innocent Palestinians in refusing to solicit even the slightest condemnation of Israel’s aggression.

Perhaps we could excuse Warren from her characterization as a progressive politician as she remains expressly liberal in her political views. Sanders, on the other hand, should be urged by real socialists to recant his own self-described “socialism.” Being a socialist means a disavowal of capitalism and rebuking its various manifestations — war and class collaboration rating among its most unjust.

Make no mistake, socialists: These are garden variety liberals, not progressives.


Arthur Knott

is not Arthur, King of Camelot. He urges readers to keep close watch on those who claim to have pulled their swords from stones. He resides in California.

Leave a Reply

Sharing is Caring