You say you want a revolution.
Well, you know,
We all want to change the world. — John Lennon
“REVOLUTION” is a Bernie Sanders buzzword. Two of his three recent books—the royalties from which sales financed his half-million-dollar lakeside dacha, which he’s pleased to call a “cottage”—contain the word in their title: Our Revolution (2017) and Bernie Sanders Guide to Political Revolution (2018). It’s provocative, that word, and I’m sure it tests well in focus groups. “Revolution,” after all, implies some sort of destruction: toppling the old to make way for the new. Small wonder the notion appeals to young people.
Sanders is not the only aging fringe candidate to make good use of that buzzword. Ron Paul, too, promised revolution. That’s what his bumper stickers said: RON PAUL REVOLUTION, with “EVOL” backwards and in a different color, because LOVE. Like Bernie, Ron Paul was popular with young people. Like Bernie, Ron Paul was not a party joiner. Like Bernie, Ron Paul generated a lot of revenue from his schtick. And like Bernie, Ron Paul was popular with the Russians.
In Russia, of course, they had a revolution—a real one, not a marketing campaign to sell lousy books. In 1917, the Bolsheviks, led by Vladimir Lenin (how similar his name is to Russia’s current despot!), overthrew the government, abruptly ending the Romanov Dynasty that had ruled the country since the Time of Troubles ended in 1613. One of the Bolsheviks’ first initiatives was to release all the diplomatic cables in the royal archives (Julian Assange would have approved). This dick move was intended to sow global chaos, even as the Great War raged, but also to announce, in no uncertain terms, a complete break from the past. From history.
Any doubts about Lenin’s ideological purity were dispelled forever in July of 1918, when, at his command, Tsar Nicholas II, his wife, his son, and his four daughters were executed. Father and son died in the initial hail of gunfire. But the diamonds and jewelry sewn into the clothes of the tsarina and the princesses acted as bullet-proof vests, and they survived; bayonets were used to finish the gruesome job. Thus was the Soviet Union baptized in the blood of innocent children.
Nineteen-eighteen was a long time ago, of course. We have mostly forgotten the trauma revolutions can bring—and ignored the reality that revolutions make things worse just as often as they make them better. Che Guevara merch moves units. Marxism remains popular, despite the fact that every society that has attempted to impose that system on its people has failed miserably.
And yet Bernie Sanders, the self-styled democratic socialist, continues to run on “revolution,” informed by his poor understanding of Soviet-style communism. For decades, he’s been an apologist for the USSR, Fidel Castro’s Cuba, and other leftist dictatorships. He has swallowed and regurgitated the pinko propaganda. This is his bag.
His policy proposals, such as they are, reflect the radical politics of his youth. “Break up the banks,” one of Bernie’s favorite refrains, derives from his juvenile desire to nationalize the banks. He is correct that the United States needs some form of universal healthcare, but the radical solution he pitches on the stump—to immediately kill the entire health insurance industry dead—would destroy the economy. He is right about income inequality being a problem, and yes, of course, the mega-rich and the corporations should pay their fair share, as he never tires of pointing out, but declaring a “war on Wall Street” is just a fancy way of saying “let’s destroy the capitalist system.”
Stirring rhetoric that might be, but it’s not progressive. It’s radical. It’s revolutionary. And it’s highly stupid.
A pejorative that the Bernie zealots are fond of hurling around is “corporatist.” (In my case, it’s usually an adjective, modifying the noun “hack.”) But, like, corporations are not inherently evil. To the contrary, most of the products I enjoy are produced by corporations. Why shouldn’t companies that make good stuff profit? Too, the system of capitalism incentivizes countries to not go to war with each other—a state of peace we more or less take for granted.
We don’t need to destroy capitalism. We just need to regulate it better. And since the presidency of Ronald Reagan, we have stopping doing that well enough. As the historian Heather Cox Richardson writes in “Letters from an American,”
historically, we have swung between two extremes. When our lack of government oversight of the economy leads to the rise of extremely wealthy people who take over our political system and use it to promote their own interests, a crisis lays bare the misuse of the government for the rich. Americans then rise up and insist on an active government that protects the equality of opportunity on which our democracy depends. Three times before now, we have played out this pattern.
She describes the three previous crises, two of which—the Civil War and the Great Depression—are the gravest the nation has faced, and then continues:
Their New Deal government was so popular most Americans assumed it was here to stay, and simply stopped thinking about it. And, once again, a backlash spearheaded by those who wanted the government simply to protect property erased much of the newly active government, and set out to erase more. When Republican Ronald Reagan took office in 1981, they began the process of dismantling the active post-WWII government. And, once again, wealth moved upward. As the wealthy gained more and more power, the legislation they backed endangered the equality on which democracy depends.
Now, we are in the midst of another cycle. The rise of multi-national billionaires and international mobsters who are seeking to control western democracies by cyberwarfare illustrates that we are in yet another profound crisis. But our stripped-down government cannot handle this modern world. Trump’s response to the novel coronavirus shows just how unable our government is to answer the great problems of the day.
The solution is not to raze the house, as the “revolution” shills would have it. The solution is for the federal government, bolstered by the will of the people, to do its job. Some of that job will be accomplished by revamping the healthcare system and reforming the tax code—but not in the radical, burn-it-down ways Bernie is pushing. There is a difference, a radical difference, between progressivism and revolution.
In this thread, which I encourage you to read in its entirety, Michael Harriot offers suggestions that are both creative and doable. All we have to do, he says, is return to the model that has worked for us before:
“The point of all these programs,” Harriot writes, “was the same: To create a middle class that earned a living wage.” A strong middle class makes America great. We don’t require a revolution, just a return to best practices. Which means taxing the fuck out of the rich:
How is this different from what Bernie preaches, you ask? Sanders seldom offers up granular detail. He speaks in generalities, and bristles when questioned, because he hasn’t thought through the answers—despite a presidential campaign that has lasted longer than one of Stalin’s hapless Five Year Plans. As his Congressional record makes clear, he is all talk, no action.
Another pet Bernie Bro insult is “warmonger.” This is a favorite of professional provocateurs like Ralph Nader and Michael Moore. Hillary Clinton was a warmonger, because of her position on Syria. Nancy Pelosi is a warmonger. Joe Biden voted for the Iraq War, so he must be a warmonger, too. Why do we spend so much money on Defense? Why do we act as the policeman of the world? And so on. As the band Megadeath noted, peace sells.
As usual, the “warmonger” namecallers are incapable of understanding nuance—and world history. With the possible exception of John Bolton, no one actually wants war. The problem is, there is no such thing as absolute peace. Such a condition has never existed, ever, in the long annals of recorded history. And historically, even keeping the non-absolute peace requires a strong central government with a powerful military.
The Pax Romana was a two-century period of relative peace and prosperity within the borders of the Roman Empire, beginning with the reign of Caesar Augustus in 27 CE and ending with the death of Marcus Aurelius in 180 CE. It was arguably the best time in history to have been alive, until quite recently. Rome defended its borders, expanded its territory, and, for the most part, prevented wars within its confines. This was possible because the Empire had a kick-ass military, the very existence of which dissuaded most would-be usurpers and invaders.
We are now living in the Pax Americana, which began at the end of the Second World War. The structures put in place at that time—the treaties with Germany and Japan; NATO; the Marshall Plan; the post-war programs established by Truman and Eisenhower—have led to 75 years of relative peace and prosperity. Has it been perfect? Of course not. There have been plenty of regional wars fought in the meantime, proxy wars in Korea and Vietnam, nasty civil wars, and several tense occasions where the United States and the Soviet Union were on the brink of nuclear engagement—not to mention the rise of terrorism.
But for the most part, the structures have done their job. The nations of Western and Central Europe have not gone to war with each other in 75 years. Even the fall of the Soviet Union, the collapse of the Iron Curtain, and the overthrow of the communist occupiers in Eastern Europe—cataclysmic events—were accomplished with little bloodshed. We have to go back to the days of Trajan and Marcus Aurelius to find that much of Europe not fighting wars against each other for that length of time. The Pax Romana is the only historical precedent for the Pax Americana in the Western world—and it was two thousand fucking years ago.
Along comes Donald John Trump, doing his best to scuttle NATO, to encourage Japan to re-arm itself, to bungle the anxious peace in Korea. He is a bull in the proverbial china closet, a threat to break everything he touches. The man has no knowledge of history, but his overlord, Vladimir Putin, certainly does. From the left, meanwhile, the ideological purists write off realists as warmongers. Any deviation from absolute peace, in their view, is warmongering. Is that why these people have roses in their avatars? Because they are hippy-dippy, make-love-not-war flower children, incapable of understanding nuance?
John Lennon’s “Revolution” is often played by neo-hippies who don’t realize the lyrics are ironic—much like “Born in the USA” is routinely blasted at GOP events. The entire song could be an indictment of the Bernie Bros:
You say you got a real solution?
Well, you know,
We’d all love to see the plan.
You ask me for a contribution?
Well, you know,
We’re doing what we can.
Seriously, read the lyrics. The only change you have to make is to swap out “brother” for “Berner.”
Bernie Sanders has no hope of winning the nomination, but has vowed to continue his unwinnable campaign until New York, over a month from now. Is he motivated by ego (all those worshipful young people)? Russian kompromat (the Mueller Report makes clear that Moscow helps him)? Greed (those three houses won’t pay for themselves)? Whatever the reasons, he is playing on the sympathies of well-meaning people, making fancy promises he knows he can’t keep—and dividing the country in the process, all while forcing millions of us to have to go to the polls during a pandemic. This is what he calls “revolution.”
Start the “revolution” without me. Or, as Lennon (not Lenin!) put it: Count me out.