Caroling for Justice

"The 1%" has served Bernie Sanders well.

By Daniel Riccuito

He's managed to avoid the presumptive toxicity of "socialist," while spitting venom borrowed from Occupy. His lingo has a strict provenance and therefore popular bona-fides conferred by a movement, which in turn finds its concrete political expression in Sanders. Now, if this sounds an awful lot like solipsism, let's remember the Vermont Senator's upstart campaign has just begun. There was, after all, no conventional yardstick for measuring broad public rage a few years ago, manifested in Occupy's episodic and somewhat miscellaneous take-over of public spaces. 

Perhaps that rage will always remain inchoate. Or downright impractical where popular will meets inevitably corrupt "representative democracy."  But Occupiers -- soccer moms, skateboarders, teachers, Korean War veterans, retired cops -- turned their ragtag coalition into something like consensus, the harmony of discord. It was more than the usual rearguard leftist whine, closer to some startling, idiosyncratic nexus of lifestyles and political worldviews caroling for justice. Were they -- as countless media tongues chanted -- "naïve," "lazy," "spoiled"? It was actually a sign of strength, from the Occupiers' perspective, that no list of demands or centralized agenda could impose conventional parameters on them. They quite consciously eschewed the clichés that might otherwise have defined their struggle. Whether these short-lived uprisings were "formless," "capricious" or whatever other dismissive label one might choose, it's important to recognize that they spanned 44 countries and 1,000 cities around the planet.

Bernie Sanders concretizes the discontent of millions. It would be a willful act of cynicism to claim otherwise. And yet, it's anything but cynical to suggest that the presidential hopeful has neutralized his own agenda by joining a political party committed to its opposite. After all, the Democrats dissolved Glass-Steagall, put the kibosh on single-payer healthcare, foisted NAFTA and then TPP on a constituency that found itself bamboozled by the soapy palaver of Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. Are we to put our faith in yet another, latter-day Dem because of his feisty rhetoric?

Sanders' record as a United States Senator encompasses one war appropriations bill after another, and passive support for sending $11M per day to Israel. Setting aside the ethics of his too-little-discussed foreign policy, which includes a vote to bomb Yugoslavia under President Clinton, the question arises: Where will Bernie find the money in the national budget to fund domestic reforms? His fans aren't asking this question.

They're too busy "feeling the Bern" -- which forces another question to the fore. Do we expect that movements like Occupy could ever engender a profound shift in government when we see such unreasoning brand-loyalty in the electorate, no matter how much our politicians may lie to us? In other words, Bernie may exemplify the New Deal vision of FDR, but the American public isn't, by any reasonable measure, as spirited as it was in the 1930s, when pitched battles were fought in the streets.

Perhaps Occupy never had revolutionary potential. It passively accepted police violence under a rubric of deeply misunderstood Gandhian logic (the Mahatma did not unequivocally oppose violence, just cowardice). And in backing Bernie, factions of Occupy seem willing to become "PEP" ("Progressive Except on Palestine"), which means going along to get along with the practical ethic of our broken system. The impulse driving Bernie's populism is questionable, and monikers like "Bernie-bots" have their place. If candidate Sanders wins, will his supporters answer FDR's eternal cry? 

"I agree with you, I want to do it, now make me do it!"

Published February 22nd, 2016

Daniel Riccuito is an artist who runs The Chiseler, an online publication dedicated to obscurity—forgotten authors, lost languages, and neglected stars. Riccuito has written a book on Great Depression slang, The Depression Alphabet Primer, and contributed to Cineaste. He lives in New York City.