Ron Berger —
At the time of this writing, political polls indicate that Hillary Clinton is the odds-on favorite to win the Democratic Party nomination for president, Vice President Joe Biden has decided against running, Martin O’Malley can’t seem to get any traction, and Bernie Sanders is the only credible challenger to Clinton’s so-called inevitability.
Clinton supporters, who generally like Sanders, tell me they support the front-runner for several reasons, which include the fact that she is the front-runner. First, they say, she is a woman and it is time for a woman president. They also say that she has more foreign policy experience than Sanders, that Sanders’ advocacy of “socialism” will make him a weak candidate in the general election, and that Sanders is too old (albeit only a few years older than Clinton). They also appreciate Clinton’s life-long commitment to women’s and children’s issues.
Let me say at the outset that I will support and campaign for the Democratic nominee whoever that person will be. But until that nominee is selected, I intend to support Sanders for several reasons. To begin with, the enthusiasm behind Sanders’ campaign, as witnessed by his large rallies, is arguably much deeper than Clinton’s. Sanders offers hope for the dramatic change this country so desperately needs, particularly with regards to the central and interrelated problems of income and wealth inequality, undue corporate influence on both our economy and political process, and loss of U.S. jobs that have resulted from globalization and dubious trade treaties, which Clinton, but not Sanders, has generally supported.
Regarding the enthusiasm, although Clinton is leading in the polls among key Democratic constituencies, most notably among women and African Americans, Sanders is leading among younger voters. As a 65-year-old man myself, I find it inspiring that a 74-year-old man who is telling the truth about our country has been able to excite the young. They are the ones who will most suffer from our failure to right the wrongs of the current system, and they do not think that Clinton is genuinely committed to the change they desire. In this way, Sanders has greater potential than Clinton to engage new voters and increase voter turnout in the general election, much as Barack Obama did in 2008.
In many ways, I think the Sanders campaign has already been a success, even if he does not become the nominee. Does anyone seriously believe that Clinton would have abandoned her previous centrism on so many issues and declared herself to be a “progressive” if it were not for the Sanders campaign? Would she have changed her position on the Keystone pipeline (before Obama announced his opposition) or the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement if it were not for Sanders? I think not. In these ways and more, Sanders is setting the agenda for the Democratic presidential nominee of 2016.
Clinton says she changed her views on Keystone and TPP because she is open to new information. Arguably the new information that most influenced Clinton was that Democratic voters agree with Sanders and the only way for her to undercut his candidacy is to adopt his positions. Back in the 1990s, Bill Clinton and his campaign/administrative team called this triangulation. In the long run, pragmatism may trump (no pun intended) authenticity, but people should not be naïve about what has transpired; nor should they be surprised that a large portion of the electorate does not trust Clinton (beyond the business of her emails).
In touting her pragmatism, Clinton brandishes her corporate insider status, which includes serving on the board of directors of Wal-Mart and ties to the Monsanto chemical corporation. Thus, during the first Democratic candidate debate in October, she told us that she is in a better position than Sanders to tell the bad boys of Wall Street to stop behaving badly, a rather silly notion indeed. But this is precisely the appeal of Sanders; unlike Clinton he is not one of them.
Regarding Wall Street, it is Sanders, as well as O’Malley but not Clinton, who has called for the reinstatement of the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933, the depression-era reform that created a wall of separation between traditional commercial banks, which receive deposits that are insured by the federal government and lend money to borrowers, and investment banks, which raise uninsured capital for risky high-stakes investments, trade in stocks and other financial securities, and manage corporate acquisitions and mergers. In an alliance between President Bill Clinton and a Republican-controlled Congress, Glass-Steagall was repealed in 1999, leaving taxpayers vulnerable to bailing out banks that lost federally-insured monies due to the unregulated financial speculation that culminated in the financial crisis of 2008. Sanders has also called for breaking up banks that are “too big to fail.” As he says, if banks are too big to fail, they are “too big to exist.”
Then there is the matter of the environment. Sanders, along with Senator Jeff Merkley of Oregon, has called for a ban on new fossil-fuel development on federal land and in most U.S. waters. “If we are serious about climate change,” he says, “we can’t just talk the talk. We’ve got to walk the walk.”
As for Clinton’s purported foreign policy expertise, it remains relevant to remind voters that she was not one of the 23 Senators, which included Wisconsin Senator Russ Feingold and longtime Virginia Senator Robert Byrd, who voted against the resolution to authorize the disastrous Iraq War that was launched in 2003. Sanders, who was a member of the House of Representatives at the time, voted against the resolution. So who had the better judgment on the central foreign policy issue of our time?
As for Sanders commitment to democratic socialism, at the very least he has started a public conversation about what socialism and capitalism are about. No other candidate in my lifetime has pushed this issue to the fore without being dismissed as out of hand. In defending her commitment to capitalism during the October debate, it is noteworthy that Clinton equated capitalism with small business. I was struck by the fact that she made no effort to defend the corporate variety of capitalism to which she is also committed. Sanders, on the other hand, points to other western democracies that have been much more successful than the United States in providing its citizens with affordable (if not free) healthcare and college education, generous family leave policies, and workers’ rights.
To be sure, Sanders is far from a perfect candidate (but neither is Clinton). Quite frankly, his self-described socialism makes him vulnerable to red-baiting; and there is no doubt that Republicans would play this card to the hilt in a general election. Nor is Sanders the perfect educator. I wish he would talk more about the fact that the United States is already a mixed economy, that is, a country composed of both capitalist and socialist elements. Regarding the latter, some of our nation’s most cherished institutions are in fact socialist in nature—public schools, public libraries, public parks, Social Security, Medicare, and federal depository insurance are among the examples that first come to my mind.
Liberal political analysts ranging from Madison Cap Times editor Paul Fanlund to Yale professor of sociology and public affairs Paul Starr (writing in The American Prospect) caution us against political purity: the consequences of a Republican president elected in 2016 would indeed be dire. They believe that Sanders is only a protest candidate and that we should be prepared to align ourselves behind Clinton. I am prepared to do this, but my support of Sanders is not just about electoral politics per se; it is about building a long-term grassroots movement capable of sustaining itself beyond the 2016 campaign. In this regard, Sanders is the candidate of the grassroots, and he has been quite clear about this:
“And now let me tell you something that no other candidate for president will tell you. And that is, no matter who is elected to be president, that person will not be able to address the enormous problems facing the working families of our country. They will not be able to succeed because the power of corporate America, the power of Wall Street, the power of campaign donors is so great, that no president alone can stand up to them. That is the truth! People may be uncomfortable about hearing it, but that is the reality. And that is why what this campaign is about is saying loudly and clearly that it is not just about electing Bernie Sanders for President, it is about creating a grassroots political movement in this country.”
Since 2008, I have witnessed and been a part of three political “triggering” events that brought previously sidelined citizens, myself included, into political activism. The first was the 2008 Obama campaign, the second was the protest/recall movement against Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, and the third was, or rather is, the Bernie Sanders campaign.
To my fellow Sanders supporters, especially those who are new to caring about (to say nothing about participating in) politics, I hope you will continue to remain engaged beyond the 2016 presidential election. To my allies who are Clinton supporters, I hope you will take this message to heart, too—because if Clinton is elected president, she will require a citizenry that is continuously mobilized to push her and give her a Congress to help her make the changes we need. This, I regret to say, did not happen during the Obama presidency, when the Democratic electorate went to sleep in the non-presidential election years of 2010 and 2014, giving us Republican majorities in both the U.S. Congress and 70 percent of state legislatures. In Wisconsin, this sleeping electorate also gave us Governor Walker, who is but one among 60 percent of governors who are Republicans.
For progress to be made, we need to realize that electoral politics is not a substitute for building ongoing community organizations that consist of members and leaders who are involved in a network of interpersonal relationships committed to the belief, as is Active McFarland, that “grassroots democracy is essential, possible, and within our power to activate.”
I originally posted this piece on the website of my local grassroots political group Active McFarland (www.activemcfarland.org).