Cult of Personality

Bernie Sanders is right on most issues. The United States has become an oligarchy. The levers of power are in the hands of the rich and a permanent establishment that has narrowed the range of debate to exclude truly innovative and radical alternatives.

Sanders has won the broader argument, as well, putting these issues on the table and forcing those in power, at the very least, to acknowledge them.

But Sanders has lost the nomination. Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee and Sanders’ supporters have a difficult decision to make. Do they: a) continue to press for Sanders, going so far as to mount a write-in campaign in November; b) vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein; c) stay home; d) vote for Republican Donald Trump; or e) vote for Clinton?

Most, if the polling is accurate, will come around to Clinton. But there remains about a quarter of Sanders’ backers who remain in “Bernie or Bust” mode – and they pose a serious dilemma for the left.

I’m not talking about the rift within the Democratic Party. Most of the “Bernie or Bust” crowd are not traditional Democrats and likely would not have participated in the Democratic primaries without Sanders. My concern is with the movement Sanders has claimed to represent. My fear is that the devotion to Sanders has grown to exceed efforts to create a viable anti-corporate movement that can exist independently of his campaign – that it has become a cult of personality similar to the one surrounding Trump.

This is not a critique of Sanders – he and Trump could not be more different. Sanders has a real platform, a real philosophy of government, while Trump is about brand and nothing more. But Sanders’ support seems to have become less and less about his philosophy and more about who he is.

If this is the case – a big if, to be sure – then the left will be no better off in the end than it was before Sanders started his admirable if Quixotic run.

Consider what happened in 2008. Clinton was expected to be the Democratic nominee, but she was challenged by several candidates to her left and a freshman Illinois Senator who shared much with her philosophically, but had opposed the Iraq war. Barack Obama built a massive base of support based on a few positive buzz words and a dynamic personality that made those buzz words seem possible.

Obama, riding a wave of new voters, wins election. Pundits mistake his supporter base for a movement, assuming an ascendant Democratic Party and a massive shift in political ideology. That was a mirage – Obama was never an ideologue and the movement materialized. The Democrats suffered at the polls in 2010 and 2014, when Obama was not on the ballot, and many of the debates that pundits thought had been decided continue to be fought.

Support for Obama was real, but it was about Obama and while his supporters may have been quite liberal, they left the stage after November 2008, assuming that Obama would fix everything and that their jobs were done.

Trump support, I think, follows the same pattern – as does support for Sanders. If that is true, then the shift from Sanders as movement to Sanders as brand could have disastrous consequences long-term. If Sanders has become a brand, then what chance does his program have of outlasting his candidacy?

That is my chief criticism of the “Bernie or Bust” mantra. Yes, there are immediate pragmatic issues – if Sanders supporters do not coalesce behind Clinton will it mean a Trump presidency? – but there also are long-term issues, as well.

Turning Sanders into a brand, making the movement his movement and not the people’s movement, is self-defeating. Personality-driven politics is a dead end.

I will not tell Sanders supporters how to vote. That is not my job. I plan to vote for Clinton in November while working through my writing to make broader change in our system, to push her to the left as much as possible. I view that as both immediately pragmatic and logical as a long-term strategy.

Sanders will not be president, but there is still a lot he and his supporters can accomplish if they remember it is not about him but about building a movement.

Hank Kalet is a poet and journalist in New Jersey. Email; blog; Twitter @newspoet41 and @kaletjournalism;; Instagram kaletwrites.

From The Progressive Populist, July 1-15, 2016

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