American socialism is not for the impatient. From the early 19th century on, a parade of reformers, unionists, utopians, anarchists, syndicalists, socialists, communists, pranksters and malcontents have sought to pick the lock of American capitalism and free the oppressed.
Wall Street, the Vatican of capital, was a source of grievance, and a bloody target of terrorists, at least as far back as 1920. Mass deprivation in the 1930s and youthful radicalism in the 1960s each took their best shot at revolution. In between, beatniks and professors scoffed at the herd instincts of mass consumers and the false consciousness of the perpetually striving.
Bernie Sanders, 74, has waited a long time for his moment. In this, he is representative of his creed. He has applied his socialism to a begrudging soil and tilled away, determined to get back to the garden. He has never given up. And his side has never won.
It’s understandable that he is reluctant to cede the Democratic nomination to Hillary Clinton. Whether his presidential campaign began with a prescient insight or a lucky roll of the dice, his success has been extraordinary. In a 2015 Gallup poll, more Americans said they would vote for a Muslim or an atheist for president than for a socialist. Sanders has done remarkably well swimming against the tide, all the while claiming he’s rolling with it.
Clinton has collected 2.9 million more votes than Sanders. When the last primaries end on June 7, she will almost certainly be headed to the Democratic National Convention with a bigger lead over Sanders than Obama had over Clinton when Democrats nominated him in 2008.
Do you remember how Clinton dominated the 2008 convention? How she reorganized the party in her image? I don’t either. It was Obama’s show. Because the way the system works is that if you win more votes, and more delegates, as Clinton has on both counts in 2016, you win the nomination. And if you win the nomination, you get to lead the party and its convention.
Ah, the system.
The trouble, from Sanders’s perspective, is that the system is corrupt, and so is the party that operates within it. In late April, Sanders posed the big question that has animated his campaign:
“The Democratic Party has to reach a fundamental conclusion: Are we on the side of working people or big-money interests?” Mr. Sanders asked the crowd. “Do we stand with the elderly, the children, the sick and the poor? Or do we stand with Wall Street speculators and the drug companies and the insurance companies?”
Over the course of 2016, Democratic voters answered Sanders. In voting for Clinton, they opted to stand with those in need of health care and education and opportunity, but to do so in a way that doesn’t destroy Wall Street or drug companies or insurance companies.
Sanders doesn’t like the answer. He wants revolution, not gradual progress; purity, not a compromise that straddles and mediates opposing interests. He and his supporters have attacked the results of the Democratic primaries as rigged, resorting to the kind of logic — and, in Nevada, conduct — that recalls some of socialism’s less gentle antecedents.
As Jaime Fuller wrote:
Sanders voters have also been selectively frustrated about the many confusing primary rules. They have not railed against caucuses, which tend to feature extremely low turnout and are so long that many people with inflexible work hours or busy lives are unable to take part. Of course, Sanders has done exceedingly well in caucuses. Using “rigged” is a political act as much as the politics the phrase seeks to call out.
Of course, when the system is corrupt, you are not obligated to honor its rules. And when your opponent is morally compromised and doctrinally wrong, you have a duty to prevent her from gaining power at the expense of your more perfect, far-reaching vision. Or you do if you value socialism more than you trust democracy.
Sanders has taken pains to stress that he is a Democratic Socialist, distinguishing himself from the unsavory henchmen of Moscow and Beijing. His primary campaign has been unhindered by the kind of red-baiting that would envelop, and overwhelm, him in a general election, when his youthful associations with less democratic strains of socialism would become a staple of Republican advertising.
It’s likely that in a general election, the agents of capitalism would indeed join forces to crush Sanders. His campaign, which has sparked a fire but not a revolution, would be exposed as just the latest socialist mirage on the American landscape.
In the Democratic primary, Sanders has been spared all that. He hasn’t won. But he hasn’t completely lost, either. He’s just been required, once again, to wait. It’s not capitalism, however, that has deferred his dream of socialism with American characteristics. It’s democracy.