After Iowa, Does Bernie Have What It Takes?


Photograph Source: Matt Johnson – CC BY 2.0

In his most famous work, The Prince, Machiavelli compared the behavior of a successful new prince to a fox and a lion: “The lion cannot protect himself from traps, and the fox cannot defend himself from wolves. One must therefore be a fox to recognize traps, and a lion to frighten wolves.” Cersei Lannister, whom George RR Martin wrote as a fictional new prince, similarly argued that “in the game of thrones you win or you die.” For Bernie Sanders supporters, the true debacle of the Iowa caucus meltdown was not the failure of the Shadow app, but rather their candidate’s failure to claim victory when he had the chance. Instead he unwisely ceded that role to the corporate candidate extraordinaire, Pete Buttigieg. It stands in stark contrast to Donald Trump, who for all his faults would not have hesitated to declare victory, and who would have energized his supporters with the statement and cowed the party establishment.

As of this writing, a portion of the results have finally been reported by the Iowa Democratic Party, the enormity Sanders’s missed opportunity has become apparent. Bernie won the statewide popular vote in both the first and second rounds of caucusing, yet Buttigieg won thirty more State Delegate Equivalents, and tied Bernie with ten pledged delegates. Why not take the opportunity to claim victory last night, when your campaign should have known it won the popular vote? He could have used it to rally his forces, to excoriate the DNC and embarrass it after four years of loud complaining that Clinton had won the popular vote but lost the presidency, and to deny Buttigieg’s win legitimacy.

Instead, Sanders decided to tell his supporters they’d be pleased with the results. Why? If I were a Bernie supporter, I’d be pissed off, not happy. Instead of channeling that anger, nothing.

To achieve the victory and transformation he and his supporters want, Sanders must be like Machiavelli’s new prince. He must display cunning, strength, and above all else ruthlessness in dispatching his enemies and constructing a new state. Sanders faces a myriad of challenges from a hostile Democratic Party establishment to a Republican Party united behind Donald Trump. In fact his tasks are not dissimilar to that of Trump’s four years ago, who similarly had to smash his internal opponents, create a bond between himself and the masses of his supporters, and defeat his rival, Hillary Clinton.

There are those who would say that Bernie is respecting the process in Iowa, and that he will likely win New Hampshire so it is mostly irrelevant for him to have claimed victory on national television. But consider that his refusal to claim victory has given Mayor Pete momentum in New Hampshire to claim the role of chief opposition to Bernie. It saved Biden’s campaign from the wreckage and allowed him to limp into next week causing trouble for Sanders. The Democratic Party establishment in Iowa and nationally may be embarrassed, but does not face the same wrath as if Sanders had denounced the use of an app, one that happened to be constructed by a company with ties to Buttigieg’s campaign, rather than hand-counting caucus results and phoning them in. It does not have to contend with a candidate and his followers raging over winning the popular vote but not the caucus. And pundits that talked up everyone but Sanders don’t have to give him any airtime; it’s the Mayor Pete show for now. Meanwhile, Mike Bloomberg, who had the DNC rules changed so he can participate in the next debate, waits in the wings. Finally, Donald Trump tweeted about the rigged and faulty process while Bernie sat by silently – a victory for the President as well whose approval rating now sits at 49%.

A new prince must above all else have what Machiavelli termed virtù: a combination of talents including courage, skill, and ruthlessness, and above all the ability to act quickly and decisively in the face of danger and rapidly changing and unpredictable political events. The new prince, in a way, takes material reality and bends it to create one favorable to themselves.

Now imagine what Bernie says he wants to change as president. Single-payer universal healthcare is vehemently opposed by the Democratic establishment and their health insurance donors. Tuition-free college education is opposed by the student-loan industrial complex, and their supporters in both parties. Higher living wages, progressive taxation, and pro-labor policies are opposed by the Democratic and Republican establishments, and their capitalist donors. Everything Sanders wants to do will require a devoted mass of supporters willing to challenge an entrenched political and economic leadership.

Does Sanders have the ruthlessness, the virtù to win against an incumbent president, a hostile party establishment and remake the political order? This is the question his supporters should be asking. As an outsider to the Democratic Party I do not have the same emotional connection to Bernie’s candidacy, but (to paraphrase Machiavelli) there’s an objectivity to outsiders commenting on politics. Perhaps he does, but I wonder if he is too nice, too bound by custom and decorum to win what he wants to win. Leaving the declaration of victory on the table yesterday and the easy attack on his rivals, plus the DNC was not a good sign.

Of course, there’s another way to see the new prince. Antonio Gramsci, the Italian Marxist, wrote a century ago about a radical, independent, socialist party as the Modern Prince. Where a single person could affect politics centuries ago with enough charisma, talent, and luck, today a revolution needs a party with a political leadership, ideology, and committed membership to do so. Perhaps Bernie and his supporters cannot win from the inside, but need to split and help build an independent left electoral force. We in the Green Party have been walking that path for decades. Sanders and his supporters would give an independent left a jolt. Maybe then Bernie would also have shown he has what it takes to defeat a system aligned against him for so long.

The alternative may be another capitulation to a party establishment that rigged the primary process four years ago and seems poised to do so again.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *