The End of Bernie
In his recent State of the Union Address, President Joe Biden, despite his best efforts, put me in such a drowsy state that I was about to change the channel. The moment I decided to push the button on my remote, the camera cut away from Biden—smiling and looking lively behind his lectern—and moved to Senator Bernie Sanders, sitting in the audience appearing so crushed I was astonished. The great Bernie, former scourge of Democratic Party bigwigs, was wearing a mask, apparently to protect himself against COVID-19 but looking more like a muzzled hostage. His expression wasn’t visible, but his frustration and anguish, at once furious and pathetic, were still palpable.
Since arriving at the White House, Joe Biden has done nothing but marginalize his main rival in the Democratic Party, the one who almost thwarted Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign in 2016, and Biden’s in 2020, both of which were designated by the leaders of a political party that is sometimes as hierarchical and vengeful as the Soviet Union’s Communist Party. In Washington, as in Moscow in the 1920s, insurgents are not forgiven, especially those who sail under an independent social-democratic flag. Ironically, Sanders’s anti-establishment success in the 2016 primaries was the consequence of the same anger that propelled billionaire heir Donald Trump to his unexpected victory. Plenty of votes for Sanders might have gone to Trump, or from Trump to Sanders, during this remarkable and brief foray into a typically closed political system. Although their plans and personalities were very different, Sanders and Trump both profited from the widespread feeling that American politics is managed by a political-financial-media oligarchy that keeps making the rich richer and ignoring ordinary people. The symbols of this oligarchy boast two famous euphemisms: “North American Free Trade Agreement” and “Permanent Normal Trade Relations with China.” Other symbols speak of the “liberation” of financial markets, along with the “liberation” of the Iraqi and Afghan people. And yet, at the start of the 2015 electoral season, even the most alienated citizens knew that the Clinton and Bush families, far from being enemies, were allies in their agendas: the large-scale dismantling of well-paid industrial jobs as well as of the protections against a predatory and greedy Wall Street, and the disregarding of the life and health of tens of thousands of young men and women lured by promises of military glory in defense of their country against foreign “terrorism.”
And here is Bernie Sanders, a victim of his own success. The “populist” spirit embodied by Sanders and Trump rejected Clinton/Bush politics wholesale, but the only real electoral winner was Trump. It’s not Sanders’s fault that Trump is a con man and a crook, or that he himself wasn’t able to stay on top of the reformist, rebel pack. There was no way he was going to become a Trump ally—in the Senate, the threat of the ogre of Mar-a-Lago being reelected caused Sanders to join forces with Democratic bigwigs. At the start of the 2020 race, these same bigwigs, backed by the New York Times and the Washington Post, found a way to stop Sanders in his second crusade. Yet despite suffering a heart attack in October 2019, Sanders almost knocked Biden out of the race by securing the majority vote in the first three primary elections before folding in South Carolina, where the state’s party leader, James Clyburn, put an end to Sanders’s dream of a Democratic Party revival and saved Biden’s campaign. Biden won most of the primaries on Super Tuesday with the tacit support of the treacherous Elizabeth Warren, another left-wing candidate who attracted enough potentially pro-Sanders votes to help Biden win. Out of principle, Sanders campaigned for Biden against Trump, but he didn’t gain anything from it.
With a miniscule Democratic majority in Congress, Sanders ended up once again a hostage to the leadership against which he’d fought for decades. It’s easy and convenient to blame West Virginia Senator Joe Manchin for the failure to pass Sanders’s progressive agenda, but in fact it all suited Biden (and Senate Majority Leader Charles Schumer) just fine. Biden claimed to be the new Franklin D. Roosevelt when all he wanted was to be the president and leader of his party. The key picture of Sanders’s legislative defeat shows him, in August 2022, sitting alone on the steps of the Capitol, exhausted, his head bowed, as the Biden/Manchin/Schumer cadre passed the Inflation Reduction Act: no universal health insurance, no increase in the minimum wage, not even a restoration of the Child Tax Credit. And; of course, no surtax on billionaires.
Sanders, now 81 years old, has already promised not to run again in 2024 if Biden, himself 80, decides to stand for a second term. In case Sanders changes his mind, Clyburn and Biden have moved trusty South Carolina to first of the Democratic primaries to forestall Iowa and New Hampshire’s insubordinate tendencies. That way, there’s also less of a risk of another version of Bernie Sanders breaking through