Bullshit Philosophy

Half-assed political and religious commentary from a cynical left-winger

Posts Tagged ‘Bernie Sanders’

Bernie Sanders: The Most Disappointing Senator

Posted by Kevin on February 15, 2010

Many people on the Left would probably look at me like I’m crazy for saying this, but I think Bernie Sanders is a major disappointment as a Senator. I don’t mean to suggest he’s a bad Senator, on the same level as, say, Joe Lieberman, from whom I doubt many progressives expected good things. I hate Lieberman as much as anyone else, but it’s not exactly shocking when he’s an asshole. Sanders, on the other hand, is someone for whom I had high hopes, and it therefore hurts to watch him fall short, as he did most recently in the healthcare debate.

It’s not an exaggeration to say that Sanders is a hero to much of the Left, well-known even far from Vermont. That’s why Robert Greenwald gave him a web series, for instance. I noticed this most recently on my trip to back home to Illinois over winter break, when I visited my friends in the Peoria Area Peace Network. Every time his name came up, half the room would gush over him. At one point, I would’ve done it too. I agreed with (and still agree with) his positions and thought it was awesome having a socialist in Congress. As a supporter of third-party and independent candidates I liked that Sanders was an Independent and would potentially be less beholden to the Democratic leadership that so successfully corrals other progressives.

And yet I’m increasingly frustrated with Sanders. He seems more concerned with maintaining cordial relations with the Democratic Party than with supporting progressive policies. Like most progressives in Congress, he talks a good game but doesn’t really follow through on it.

This was something I first noticed in 2008 with his vocal support for Obama. I thought it was odd that Sanders was coming out so strongly for one of the primary backers of the Wall Street bailouts, of which Sanders was one of the primary opponents. And in fact I have yet to see any criticism from Sanders directly targeting Obama on that or any other issue. Instead, he frequently goes out of his way to avoid criticizing Democrats, or pulls his punches with them.

For instance, take this article by Sanders in The Nation. I more or less agree with the recommendations in the article, but notice who Sanders blames things on: the Republicans. The problem with the Democrats, he says, is that they “have absurdly continued to stumble along the path of ‘bipartisanship’ at exactly the same time the Republicans have waged the most vigorous partisan and obstructionist strategy in recent history.” In this and other public statements, he isn’t afraid to mount a frontal assault on the GOP, but when it comes to the Dems the problems get blamed on someone else: Wall Street, lobbyists, Republican obstructionism, and so on.

I question how much of Sanders’ support for Obama and the Dems is calculation versus what he really believes. If he were more hostile to the Dems, it would probably cost him a lot of support from the progressive movement; indeed, his coziness with the Dems is probably a necessary component of his hero status with the movement, as opposed to the outcast status of someone like Ralph Nader.

Also, it’s pretty much an open secret that Sanders has an unofficial deal going with the Democratic Party: he doesn’t overtly antagonize them, and they don’t run anyone against him. Nader discussed this issue in Crashing the Party, his memoir of his 2000 campaign. Sanders had agreed to introduce Nader at a campaign stop in Montpelier (although he wouldn’t give an endorsement). However, Nader also invited Anthony Pollina, then the Progressive Party candidate for governor, to speak at the event. Sanders apparently wasn’t happy about this. From the book:

When I arrived at the bustling high school auditorium, with its tables, volunteers, and incoming audience, Bernie Sanders took me aside and in grave tones expressed his concern at my having invited Pollina to speak with us. Clearly he was worried that the Democrats, who had agreed no longer to seriously challenge Bernie (with one exception in 1996), thereby sparing him a three-way race, would see his association with Pollina as a hostile act to their party and their governor.

I expressed surprise. “Bernie,” I said, “Anthony was once your staff member, and there are no positions that I know where you are in disagreement.”

He acknowledged that but repeated his displeasure nonetheless. Going up to the stage with Bernie, I thought to myself that an Independent should not have to worry about such matters. Bernie graciously introduced me and described our work together. But he left the stage and departed in the middle of my speech before I asked Pollina to come up and give his precise, factual stem-winder. […]

[Brief aside: As I’ve written before, Pollina ran for governor again in 2008 (as an Independent, but for all intents and purposes still aligned with the Progressives). Sanders refused to endorse a candidate in that race, saying that he was too busy working to get Obama elected. Pollina came in second, ahead of the Democratic candidate.

Also, I couldn’t think of a way to work it into this post, but I stumbled on this 2008 video featuring some sharp criticism of Sanders from Nader. It also features a defense of Sanders from Vermont Senate President Pro Tem Peter Shumlin, who inadvertently did a great job of convincing me not to vote for a Democratic Party hack like him if he gets the Dem nomination for governor this year.]

I tend to prefer courageous politicians, and my frustration with Sanders stems from the fact that he isn’t one. Many progressives would disagree with me; they admire “practical” politicians like Sanders and accuse people like me of being naive dreamers. They are adamantly opposed to drawing lines in the sand and instead say things like “We have to take what we can get,” or “We can’t let the perfect be the enemy of the good.” They frame the conflict as one of pragmatism versus idealism. Often, though, I think it’s better framed as a conflict of courage versus cowardice, with all too many progressives ending up on the latter side because they won’t stand up for their beliefs. I would argue that all of their “practicality” hasn’t accomplished very much, instead empowering the proponents of fake reform (who, unlike progressives, aren’t afraid to play hardball).

In the healthcare debate, such “practicality” might have sanded a few rough edges off of a terrible bill, but nothing more. A few dials will be fiddled with, but the same system will stay in place; the insurance industry gets a massive subsidy, the pharmaceutical industry gets a sweetheart deal, and we’re no closer to single-payer than we ever were. (Oh, and preserving the Hyde Amendment became the official position of the Democratic Party. That’s one of the less-noticed but most-important parts of the healthcare debate: how the Dems basically dropped all pretense of being a party that supports reproductive justice.) “Practical” progressives shrug and say that it’s the best we can do. My response would be that this is a self-fulfilling prophesy; as Cenk Uygur put it, progressives “got rolled on healthcare because they had no intention of putting their foot down – and everyone knew it.”

Regarding courage, Dennis Kucinich’s conduct in the healthcare debate contrasts starkly with that of Sanders. Kucinich was one of only a couple progressive Dems to vote against the House bill because he thought it was a giveaway to the insurance industry disguised as reform. For the grievous crime of voting his principles instead of his party, he took a lot of shit from progressives. I remember seeing comments on his Facebook page actually accusing him of being right-wing and in league with the GOP. However, he can’t be accused of not trying to improve the bill. If the Kucinich amendment had been part of it (which would have made it easier for states to enact single-payer), I might have been willing to grudgingly support it. But Nancy Pelosi decreed that the amendment be taken out, and “practical” progressives didn’t protest at all.

Another interesting comparison can be drawn with Howard Dean. I was never a huge fan of Dean; I didn’t think he was as liberal as advertised. I did respect how he opposed the war in Iraq before it was fashionable to do so, but didn’t support his campaign. And my from what I’ve heard of his time as governor of Vermont, he was virtually indistinguishable from a moderate Republican. Oddly enough, one of the best descriptions of Dean comes from Bernie Sanders, quoted in David Sirota’s book The Uprising: “If there’s a lesson of the Howard Dean campaign, it is that the younger generation’s definition of ‘progressive’ is anyone who rips apart the other side. Dean was a moderate, yet he became the progressive candidate for president because people get off on stridency.”

So imagine my surprise to find Dean to the left of Sanders on healthcare. Dean, of course, was probably the most prominant member of the “Kill the Senate Bill” movement. And, like Kucinich, he took a lot of shit from progressives and from the Democratic Party.

Sanders, on the other hand, seemed unwilling to take a serious stand on much of anything. One positive thing I’ll say about Sanders is that he was one of the only progressives in Congress that actually extracted something tangible in return for his support, in the form of increased funding for community health centers. And according to that article, he was pushing a version of the Kucinich amendment, although I don’t know what ever became of it. Still, he voted for a bill that forces people to buy private insurance with virtually no cost control mechanism. No amount of money for community health centers will change that fact. It doesn’t change the fact that he backed down from a threat to vote against a bill without a public option. And it definitely doesn’t change the fact that Sanders cowardly withdrew his single-payer amendment in the face of Republican obstructionism (because heaven forbid he inconvenience the Democratic leadership by delaying passage of the bill).

People like Sanders are progressive in their beliefs, but not in their actions. It doesn’t matter very much how progressive a politician’s beliefs are if he or she won’t stand up for them. This is what makes Bernie Sanders no different from most of the other progressive Democrats in Congress who promise great things and then predictably cave in the end. That doesn’t mean I think progressives should never compromise, but the reason no one in Washington takes progressives seriously is because everyone knows that they will accept a bad deal rather than stand and fight for something better. Sometimes it’s better in the long run to fight for what’s right and lose than to cave and pat ourselves on the back for our “pragmatism.”

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Statement from Bernie Sanders on Gaza

Posted by Kevin on February 7, 2009

Last week I finally heard something back from the office of Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) on Israel’s attack on Gaza:

Thank you very much for contacting me about the recent Israeli incursion into Gaza that resulted in the loss of hundreds of Palestinian lives. I appreciate the opportunity to respond to you on this important issue.

As you know, the Israeli-Palestinian conflict has been of the world’s most difficult disputes over the last half century. The hatred, violence and loss of life that define this conflict make living an ordinary life a constant struggle for both peoples. This crisis not only endangers the Middle East but also creates enormous instability throughout the region and ultimately, the world.

Recently, this decades-old conflict spilled over once more as Israel launched a major military campaign against Hamas in the Gaza Strip in order to counter Palestinian rocket fire into its cities and, more broadly, to significantly weaken Hamas rule in Gaza. Tragically, the operation resulted in more than 1,200 Palestinian deaths, the majority of whom were civilians. Thirteen Israelis also lost their lives in the battle before both sides declared temporary cease-fires.

While I fully support Israel’s right to defend itself from the constant barrage of rockets Hamas fires into its homes and urban centers, I have strongly condemned the use of violence by either side as a means for achieving its goals. Leaders on both sides must recognize that the only solution to this conflict is thorough a political process that recognizes the Palestinian right to self-determination and the right of Jews to a safe and secure homeland in Israel.

Unfortunately, the approach of the Bush administration over the last eight years has been one of disengagement from the conflict and complacency with the status quo. This approach has been shown to be not just ineffective, but detrimental to achieving the long-term goals each side seeks. Worse yet, the United States’ inaction on this issue has consistently been out of sync with our allies and has weakened the international coalition’s efforts to resolve this conflict.

That is why I wholeheartedly support the new Obama administration is its commitment to expand our diplomatic presence in the region and to take a more active role in facilitating negotiations between Israel and the Palestinian leadership. To that end, President Obama recently appointed Senator George Mitchell as a Special Envoy to the Middle East. I believe Senator Mitchell is uniquely qualified for this role due to his ability to listen to both sides in conflicts, his non-confrontational manner and his years of experience in negotiating peace agreements.

Moving forward, the United States must again be a leader in helping bring both sides together to negotiate a final status agreement. We must work with those Israeli and Palestinian leaders who are truly committed to peace, security and statehood rather than empty rhetoric and violence. We must also enlist the help of the United Nations and the international community to lend support for a two-track process that provides the Palestinians with a state of their own while ensuring the security of the Israeli people.

A two-state solution must include compromises from both sides to achieve a fair and lasting peace in the region. The Palestinians must fulfill their responsibilities to arrest terrorists, confiscate terrorists’ weapons, dismantle terrorist organizations, halt all anti-Jewish and anti-Israel incitement, and recognize Israel’s right to exist. In return, the Israelis must end their policy of targeted killings, prevent further Israeli settlements on Palestinian land, and prevent the destruction of Palestinian homes, businesses and infrastructure.

Further, instead of being used as a political football, the Palestinians should be given the financial support of wealthy Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, as well as the rest of the international community. Frankly, I have little respect for the leaders of wealthy Arab countries who express great concern about the plight of the Palestinians, while they put billions in Swiss bank accounts. Economic assistance is desperately needed to help create jobs and improve the desperately low standard of living that afflicts so many Palestinians.

I have long believed that one of the best antidotes to war and international tension are citizen exchange programs. In many instances, when people of different backgrounds get to know each other on a personal and human level, differences of opinion can be worked out or, at least, a mutual understanding can be established.

To that end, I was proud to sign a letter last year calling for $20 million in funding for the Israeli-Palestinian Peace, Reconciliation and Democracy Fund, which helps support “through Palestinian and Israeli organizations, the promotion of democracy, human rights, freedom of the press, and non-violence among Palestinians, and peaceful coexistence and reconciliation between Israelis and Palestinians.” Included is $10 million for the People-to-People Exchange Program, which among other things, trains hundreds of Israeli and Palestinian teachers in peace education.

While I was in the U.S. House of Representatives, I was also very pleased to introduce and pass legislation that established the Arab-Israeli Peace Partners Program in Vermont. This program allocated $1.5 million over a two-year period to enable Arabs and Israelis to come to the United States to work together in our local communities, and develop ways to expand democracy and the peace process.

With the help of the United Nations and the international community, we must intensify our diplomatic efforts to bring peace to this embattled region. Rest assured, I will continue to support the Palestinian right to national sovereignty while at the same time ensuring the security of Israel. In addition, it is essential that we work toward improving human rights in the region and provide economic support if we are to achieve our political goals.

There’s some good and some bad in here. Overall, I’m happier with Sanders’ statement than with Welch’s, or with what I heard on the visit to Leahy’s office (or the visit to Sanders’ office, for that matter). But I do have some problems.

I’ll deal with the good news first. He makes note of the civilian nature of most of the Palestinian casualties, something not many in his position have been willing to do. And he shows a slight willingness to criticize Israeli actions and point out how their actions are counterproductive. I basically agree with his point about Arab governments that only pretend to care about the Palestinians, as well as his remarks on Bush’s policies. He doesn’t go nearly as far as I’d prefer on any of the above – he doesn’t seem to be willing to stick his neck out very far – but it’s something. At least he’s a lot more detailed and specific on the matter than Welch.

Probably my biggest gripe is Sanders’ apparent embrace of a key piece of Israeli framing of the conflict: Hamas started it! The attack was primarily “to counter Palestinian rocket fire into its cities,” he says (leaving out the fact that it was planned months ago, ready to be executed when an appropriate excuse could be found). And then there’s this egregious piece of hyperbole, referring to “Israel’s right to defend itself from the constant barrage of rockets Hamas fires into its homes and urban centers”. I’ve already written about the tendency of him and others to massively overstate the effect and importance, and to ignore the causes, of Hamas’ rocket attacks in the process of decrying what “both sides” are doing. Sanders here comes pretty close to saying – whether he realizes it or not – that Gazans brought it on themselves, that they have no right to resist occupation.

[To make myself clear, I’m not saying I think the rocket attacks are justified, just that it’s pretty minor compared to what Israeli forces regularly do. It’s incredibly frustrating to see bottomless emphasis placed on Hamas “terrorism” which poses no existential threat to Israel, while much greater Israeli crimes are barely mentioned and often rationalized.]

Regarding the necessary compromises Sanders outlines toward the end, I don’t have a major beef with it (although I might come back to it in a later post). My only quibble is with the idea that the Israelis should “prevent further Israeli settlements on Palestinian land”. Well, not with the idea itself, but with the implicit notion that the settlements already there are fine. And with the concept that even just not building more of them is a concession of any sort on the part of Israel. I don’t remember where I read it, but someone once suggested that dismantling the settlements, every last one of which is on stolen land, isn’t a concession any more than it would be for a thief to return stolen jewels. It’s just the bare minimum they should be expected to do.

I don’t really have an opinion one way or the other on the citizen exchange programs Sanders talks about. My gut response is that it’s not a bad idea, but I wonder about its long-term effectiveness. Does anyone else have an opinion?

Also important is what Sanders doesn’t say. Not a word about the ongoing blockade. Not a word about Israeli attacks on civilian infrastructure during the conflict, like police and schools. Not a word about white phosphorus. Not a word about the role of US military aid in conflict. And not a word about why he supported (or at least wouldn’t publicly oppose) the noxious Senate resolution granting 100% support to Israel.

I want to be clear at this point that while I’m certainly nitpicking, I’m not being a perfectionist about this issue; I recognize that any politician that fully embraces my position is going to be a virtual pariah to the DC establishment (sure there’s Kucinich, who I still admire, but no one really takes him seriously), and there’s not exactly a lot of people to support someone willing to stick their neck out, so I realize that the muddled positions like the ones I’ve been critiquing are probably the best we’re going to get absent some large public outcry that doesn’t appear to be forthcoming. But I still think it’s important for those against Israel’s occupation to voice criticisms even when a given position, like Bernie’s, is better than those of the sociopaths running both the Democratic and Republican parties (and we should of course praise them when they do give us something better, as I’d like to think I’m doing here). If no one is at least talking about justice for the Palestinians, that guarantees it will never happen.

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Report on Gaza protest

Posted by Kevin on January 1, 2009

So on Tuesday I attended a protest in Burlington against Israeli brutality in Gaza organized by Vermonters for a Just Peace in Palestine/Israel. In the process we visited the offices of our Congressional delegation (Rep. Peter Welch, Sen. Patrick Leahy, and Sen. Bernie Sanders) inquiring about their positions and demanding they condemn the attack. [This is probably the best news story I’ve been able to find on it.] As a recent transplant to Vermont, I wasn’t really familiar with any of their positions on the issue beforehand, so this was a learning experience for me.

Good news first: I was glad that all three offices actually sent people out to meet with us, and that except for Welch they had statements prepared. That in itself was a big change from some parts of Illinois I’ve lived in. I went to undergrad in Dennis Hastert’s district while he was still House Speaker, and his office frequently refused to meet with opponents, at one point refusing to even accept a petition from antiwar activists. So I have a lot of respect for politicians whose staffers will meet with people they might not necessarily agree with.

I haven’t been able to find Leahy or Sanders’ statements on their websites [which unfortunately indicates that this issue isn’t a very big priority for them, especially in Welch’s case], so I’m going off of memory when I refer to them – and therefore I don’t have much in the line of direct quotes.

In their defense, I will say that the statements were a lot better than the “near-unanimous support for Israel” by other prominent Democrats like Nancy Pelosi and Harry Reid [or for that matter my former senators from Illinois, Dick Durbin and Barack Obama, both hardcore pro-Occupation partisans]: that Israel’s massive aerial assault is totally justified by Hamas’ primitive rocket fire, and the resulting loss of innocent life is entirely the fault of Hamas. So, I’m not saying Leahy and Sanders are sociopathic douchebags like Reid and Pelosi.

Still, I found myself pretty dissatisfied with Leahy and Sanders’ positions. I’m realistic enough not to expect that they’ll embrace Dennis Kucinich’s position (outlined in the above article), but I still hoped for a little better. Not only did they not go far enough, but they also embraced some lousy framing of the conflict. They both bent over backwards trying to please all sides, to not criticize Israel too much.

For instance, even while calling for a ceasefire, they both felt the need to preface their statements with something along the lines of, “Israel has the right to defend itself, but…” Both included statements like, “Oh, it’s horrible what both sides are doing.” Several of the protesters criticized them for trying to create a false equivalency between the two sides, as if one side doesn’t have an almost complete monopoly on the use of force, and as if the other side isn’t resisting an illegal and horrific occupation. That may not justify Hamas rocket attacks on Israeli civilians, but the context does pretty much destroy any claim of equality between the two sides, as well as any Israeli pretext of “self-defense.”

Here’s a good quote on the matter from Titus North at Electronic Intifada:

I know that it is customary for many to equally condemn both sides whenever violence flares up in the conflict, but there is nothing equal between the two sides. The Palestinians have for decades been subjected to occupation, disappropriation, assassination and siege, always with massive suffering to civilians, and are expected to accept it without lifting a finger. Should the Palestinians put up any resistance, Israel feels free to launch any scale of attack, secure in the knowledge that at most it will be subject to calls for “restraint” and condemnation of violence on “both sides.” While I do not like the rockets that get fired from Gaza, as long as we as Americans provide the military, financial and diplomatic support that makes the Israeli occupation and siege possible I feel that we as Americans are in no position to condemn the Palestinian resistance.

And another good one from Robert Fisk:
…we demand security for Israel — rightly — but overlook this massive and utterly disproportionate slaughter by Israel. It was Madeleine Albright who once said that Israel was “under siege” — as if Palestinian tanks were in the streets of Tel Aviv.

Leahy’s statement in particular criticized Israel’s “disproportionate” attack, which sounded good at first glance until I noticed that he’s still saying an attack was on some level justified, if only it had been more “proportionate,” whatever that means.


Sanders’ statement argued for the need to deal with the humanitarian crisis in Gaza, but neither senator made any mention whatsoever of the cause of that crisis: Israel’s blockade. There’s not going to be a lasting resolution to the crisis without an end to the blockade, but apparently that would involve too much criticism of Israel for their tastes.

We also urged them to vote to end military aid to Israel. None of the staffers had anything to say one way or the other on the matter. I’m not optimistic.

American policy isn’t going to change unless we demand it. I strongly urge everyone reading this to write to and/or call your representatives and senators (as well as the Obama transition team) demanding that they publicly come out against Israel’s brutality in Gaza. Also consider signing this open letter to Obama from the US Campaign to End the Israeli Occupation urging a change in Israel/Palestine policy. Write letters to the editor, and see if there’s any actions near you (or consider organizing one if there isn’t). Most importantly, educate the people around you on the conflict, and call them out if they spread misinformation or use bad framing.

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