The real reason why Bernie Sanders’ ‘utopianism’ is a problem

In the primary contest between “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders who “sought to establish himself as the true liberal in the race, casting his opponents’ ideas as incremental change”[1] and the pragmatic establishment Hillary Clinton who claims she’s “a progressive who likes to get things done,”[2] there’s little doubt whose rhetoric I prefer.

“Incremental change” covers an appallingly low labor force participation rate (figure 1) and an appallingly low employment to population ratio (figure 2) with a make-believe U-3 unemployment rate that, with that very low labor force participation rate, excludes way too many people who probably really need jobs.

Annual labor force participation rate, from Bureau of Labor Statistics data
Fig. 1. Annual labor force participation rate, from Bureau of Labor Statistics data
Annual employment to population ratio, from Bureau of Labor Statistics data
Fig. 2. Annual employment to population ratio, from Bureau of Labor Statistics data

“Incremental change” also seems to include the TransPacific Partnership, which with its neoliberal fetish for so-called “free trade” (“free” for whom?) will almost certainly make things worse by expanding corporate power at the expense of labor, the environment, and ultimately even of national sovereignty.[3]

“Incremental change” has not prosecuted the Bush administration for war crimes, but rather embraced and extended neoconservative policy.

Their secret wars, war crimes, and domestic spying programs have expanded on Bush administration policy. Their persecution of whistleblowers is unprecedented and the U.S. has been declared an “enemy of the Internet” and dropped to 46th place on the World Press Freedom Index. Finally, they have refused to prosecute the Bush administration for the programs, including torture, they inherited.[4][5]

“Incremental change” is, in fact, grossly negligent with respect to climate change.[6] Climate scientist James Hansen has labeled even the latest, much ballyhooed agreement as a “fraud” in part because it is non-binding and in part because the agreed actions can accomplish far less than the promised results.[7]

But the argument for pragmatism, otherwise known as the hippie-punching argument, asserts that progressives who demand more are unrealistic, that they should accept compromise in the name of “governing.”[8] I should immediately point out that this is a functionalist conservative argument; it is the very same argument deployed last year against the House Freedom Caucus as it deposed John Boehner[9] and I think I can reasonably insist that treating progressives as equivalent to authoritarian populists (most recently known as the “Tea Party”) is a false equivalence.

But also, since Hillary Clinton was Barack Obama’s secretary of state, we would also have to note that “incremental change” means we’re still in Afghanistan, we’re back in Iraq, and we’re now in Syria. What, given her strong support for the Iraq war,[10] will be the next increment?

Some are saying that Bernie Sanders’ promises are unrealistic, that he cannot deliver on them. This is probably true. His call for a “political revolution” strikes at what may be the most important function of a two-party system, which is to limit change to a pace that won’t upset the elites.[11] Even the U.S. Constitution is meant to protect the property rights of wealthy white males against redistributionary or confiscatory impulses.[12] And, to my knowledge, there is no model for a social change movement that can peacefully push elites respond quickly.[13] They simply have too great an investment in the status quo to respond even to existential threats to humanity, such as climate change, and the functionalist conservative imperative is to preserve not only their privileges but a distinction between themselves and ordinary people. They will never be enthusiastic about ameliorating social inequality[14] and, as capitalists, they benefit from the existence of a large pool of desperate potential workers, who can be used to discourage workers from demanding higher pay or better conditions.[15]

That the United States is an oligarchy rather than a “democracy”[16] should be no surprise. It is, at best, a republic in which it was expected that the wealthy would be best suited for political power.[17] This is a major reason for regarding the electoral system as a fraud: It perpetuates the illusion of popular power when in fact it matters little who is elected, since politicians nearly all come from the same class, a class also consisting of high-level bureaucrats, corporate management, and the military brass, and that will act in what it perceives to be its own best interests.[18] And this, ultimately, is my complaint against Sanders, that he serves as a figurehead for popular resentment while participating in and thus legitimizing an intrinsically corrupt system.

Note: I omitted a needed reference to my essay, “‘We have found the enemy, and he is us’ — and our system of social organization,” when I first published this blog entry. It has been added.

  1. [1]Colleen McCain Nelson, Laura Meckler, and Peter Nicholas, “Hillary Clinton Confronts Critics at First Democratic Debate,” Wall Street Journal, October 14, 2015,
  2. [2]Hillary Clinton, quoted in Colleen McCain Nelson, Laura Meckler, and Peter Nicholas, “Hillary Clinton Confronts Critics at First Democratic Debate,” Wall Street Journal, October 14, 2015,
  3. [3]Jeronim Capaldo and Alex Izurieta with Jomo Kwame Sundaram, “Unemployment, Inequality and Other Risks of the Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement,” Global Development and Environment Institute, January, 2016,; Democracy Now! “‘A Corporate Trojan Horse’: Obama Pushes Secretive TPP Trade Pact, Would Rewrite Swath of U.S. Laws,” October 4, 2013,; Democracy Now! “Full Text of TPP Trade Deal Revealed — and Critics Say It’s Even Worse Than They Thought,” November 6, 2015,; Democracy Now! “‘A Very Big Mistake’: Joseph Stiglitz Slams Obama for Pushing the TPP,” November 12, 2015,; Cory Doctorow, “Independent economists: TPP will kill 450,000 US jobs; 75,000 Japanese jobs, 58,000 Canadian jobs,” Boing Boing, January 20, 2016,; Elaine Magliaro, “President Obama Trying to ‘Fast Track’ the Trans Pacific Partnership—a Trade Pact That Could Be Worse Than NAFTA,”Jonathan Turley, September 28, 2013,; Lori Wallach, “NAFTA on Steroids,” Nation, June 27, 2012,
  4. [4]Amnesty International, “‘Will I be Next?’ US Drone Strikes in Pakistan,” October 22, 2013,; David Benfell, “N.S.A. scandal timeline,” December 17, 2013,; Jon Boone, “US drone strikes could be classed as war crimes, says Amnesty International,” Guardian, October 21, 2013,; Glenn Greenwald, “Obama’s justice department grants final immunity to Bush’s CIA torturers,” Guardian, August 31, 2012,; Elizabeth Holtzman, “Statutes of Limitations Are Expiring on Some Bush Crimes,” Nation, March 20, 2013,; Human Rights Watch, “‘Between a Drone and Al-Qaeda’: The Civilian Cost of US Targeted Killings in Yemen,” October 2013,; David Johnston and Charlie Savage, “Obama signals his reluctance to investigate Bush programs,” New York Times, January 2, 2009,; Jason Leopold, “Former Guantanamo Chief Prosecutor: ‘A Pair of Testicles Fell Off the President After Election Day’,” Truthout, November 13, 2011,; Chase Madar, “How Dystopian Secrecy Contributes to Clueless Wars: Bradley Manning Has Done More for U.S. Security than SEAL Team 6,” TomDispatch, June 11, 2013,; Andrew O’Hehir, “Obama’s ‘Dirty Wars’ — and a soiled presidency,” Salon, June 9, 2013,; Reporters Without Borders, “Biggest rises and falls in the 2014 World Press Freedom Index,” 2014,; Jonathan Turley, “United States Drops To 46th in Press Freedoms Under Barack Obama,” February 14, 2014,; Jeremy Scahill, “Obama’s Expanding Covert Wars,” Nation, June 4, 2010,; Scott Shane, Mark Mazzetti and Robert F. Worth, “Secret Assault on Terrorism Widens on Two Continents,” New York Times, August 14, 2010,; Jonathan Turley, “Yes We Can: United States Declared ‘Enemy of the Internet’ With Iran, North Korea, and Other Bad Actors,” March 24, 2014,; Jonathan Turley, “United Nation’s Report Condemns The United States For Human Rights Violations, Including Blocking Prosecution Of Those Responsible For Torture,” March 28, 2014,; Nick Turse, “A Secret War in 120 Countries: The Pentagon’s New Power Elite,” TomDispatch, August 3, 2011,; Nick Turse, “America’s Black-Ops Blackout: Unraveling the Secrets of the Military’s Secret Military,” TomDispatch, January 7, 2014,; Nick Turse, “The Special Ops Surge: America’s Secret War in 134 Countries,” TomDispatch, January 16, 2014,; David Vine, “The Lily-Pad Strategy: How the Pentagon Is Quietly Transforming Its Overseas Base Empire and Creating a Dangerous New Way of War,” TomDispatch, July 15, 2012,; Declan Walsh and Ihsanullah Tipu Mehsud, “Civilian Deaths in Drone Strikes Cited in Report,” New York Times, October 22, 2013,; Matthew Weaver, “US human rights record chastised in UN report,” Guardian, March 27, 2014,; Sarah Wolfe, “8 biggest ‘enemies of the Internet’,” Salon, March 22, 2014,
  5. [5]David Benfell, “Oy Vey: Paleoconservatives, Neoconservatives, and Alleged Anti-Semitism,” April 1, 2014,
  6. [6]Mark McDonald, “U.N. Report from Rio on Environment a ‘Suicide Note’,” New York Times, June 24, 2012,; Arthur Neslen and Karl Mathiesen, “Paris climate pledges ‘will only delay dangerous warming by two years’,” Guardian, June 3, 2015,; Eugene Robinson, “Our politicians are flunking the vision test,” Washington Post, November 3, 2014,; Roberto Savio, “The Future of the Planet and the Irresponsibility of Governments,” InterPress Service, November 21, 2014,; Roberto Savio, “The Sad Future of Our Planet,” InterPress Service, December 15, 2014,
  7. [7]Kasia Anderson, “Pre-eminent Climate Scientist James Hansen Calls Paris Deal a ‘Fraud’; John Kerry Begs to Differ,” Truthdig, December 13, 2015,;Alissa J. Rubin and Elian Peltier, “Protesters Are in Agreement as Well: Pact Is Too Weak,” New York Times, December 12, 2015,
  8. [8]Blue Texan [pseud.], “Ed Rendell Tells Democratic Base to “Get Over It” on Rachel Maddow,” Firedoglake, September 23, 2010,; Blue Texan [pseud.], “Stop Whining, Liberals!” Firedoglake, September 27, 2010,; Michael Falcone, “Opposite Day On The Campaign Trail?” ABC News, September 21, 2010,; Glenn Greenwald, “Obama’s view of liberal criticisms,” Salon, September 17, 2010,; David Neiwert, “President Obama lashes out at his liberal critics: Choice is to ‘get things done’ or feel ‘sanctimonious,’” Crooks and Liars, December 7, 2010,; Heather Digby Parton, “‘It’s always the hippies’ fault’: Why the left treats its idealists all wrong,”Salon, February 5, 2015,; Greg Sargent, “Liberal blogger directly confronts David Axelrod, accuses White House of ‘hippie punching,’” Washington Post, September 23, 2010,; Sam Youngman, “White House unloads anger over criticism from ‘professional left,’” Hill, August 10, 2010,
  9. [9]Dan Balz, “For Republicans, questions of who can lead them and can they govern?” Washington Post, September 25, 2015,; Laurie Kellman, “Boehner slams some GOP hard liners as ‘false prophets’,” SFGate, September 27, 2015,; Allegra Kirkland, “Rep. Pete King: Boehner’s Resignation Is ‘A Victory For The Crazies’,” Talking Points Memo, September 25, 2015,; Cristina Marcos, “Furious Boehner allies lash out,” Hill, September 26, 2015,; Todd S. Purdum, “The Cannibal Party: Being a GOP House speaker might be the worst job in Washington,” Politico, September 25, 2015,; Tierney Sneed, “Republicans Openly Wonder: Will Kicking Boehner To The Curb Change Anything?” Talking Points Memo, September 25, 2015,
  10. [10]Stephen Zunes, “The Five Lamest Excuses for Hillary Clinton’s Vote to Invade Iraq,” Foreign Policy In Focus, January 26, 2016,
  11. [11]Howard Zinn, A People’s History of the United States: 1492-Present (New York: HarperPerennial, 2005).
  12. [12]James Madison, “Federalist No. 10,” in The Federalist Papers, ed. Garry Wills (1982; repr., New York: Bantam, 2003).
  13. [13]Bill Moyer, with JoAnn McAllister, Mary Lou Finley, and Steven Soifer, Doing Democracy: The MAP Model for Organizing Social Movements (Gabriola Island, British Columbia, Canada: New Society, 2001).
  14. [14]David Benfell, “We ‘need to know how it works,'” March 15, 2012,; David Benfell, “‘We have found the enemy, and he is us’ — and our system of social organization,” March 6, 2013,
  15. [15]George Kent, Ending Hunger Worldwide (Boulder, CO: Paradigm, 2011).
  16. [16]Noam Chomsky, “The U.S. behaves nothing like a democracy,” Salon, August 17, 2013,; Martin Gilens and Benjamin I. Page, “Testing Theories of American Politics: Elites, Interest Groups, and Average Citizens,” Princeton University, April 9, 2014,
  17. [17]James Madison, “Federalist No. 10,” in The Federalist Papers, ed. Garry Wills (1982; repr., New York: Bantam, 2003).
  18. [18]C. Wright Mills, The Power Elite (1956; repr., New York: Oxford University, 2000).

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