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Opinion

Still feeling the Bern

As the weeks go by, "foolhardy" faith in a Bernie Sanders victory continues to look less and less foolish.

in Civics

Last week, a friend warned me about the risks of working toward Senator Bernie Sander’s nomination as the Democratic candidate for President of the United States. “Remember McGovern,” he told me.

My response? “Remember Obama.”

We live in overlapping networks of people, and I have to guard against the assumption that the people willing to share their thoughts with me are a representative sampling of the broader community.

Hillary was mocked, mostly from the Right, when she mentioned the “vast rightwing conspiracy” that was out to destroy she and her husband. But I thought it was one of the most accurate things she has said.

Bernie Sanders had been getting a pass from both the Hillary camp and from the (further) Right. Hillary’s people underestimated the power of the frustration, even anger, being felt by many—if not most—Americans (both “voters” and non-voters) at the deep corruption of our political and economic system. And her people thought Sanders was fatally flawed because he is willing to say he is a democratic socialist. They thought it was smarter to leave him alone rather than attack him.

But, as his strength grew, so did their trepidations, and they decided that they did, in fact, need to go after him. Claire McCaskill was sent out to demean him in the national press, to no avail. They then had Barney Frank try to use some of his political capital with liberals to lecture progressives, insisting that Sanders is not electable and, “frankly,” that there is not much difference between Clinton’s policies and those of Sanders.

Trans-Pacific Partnership? Keystone XL Pipeline? Minimum wage? Fracking? War in the greater Middle-east? Regulating Wall Street?

What will you choose to believe: the evidence in front of your own eyes and ears, or the credibility of an old liberal warhorse like Barney Frank?

And, as if that wasn’t enough, the dogmatic Left, which has invested so much time and energy in their choir-like recitation that the Democratic Party has nothing to offer except deception and betrayal (so vote for Ralph Nader, or go Green), came out to attack Sanders for not being radical enough.

Meanwhile, the professional Right is caught in a dilemma: they despise Sanders’ politics, and they understand that his class-based message of economic justice (the main theme of his campaign) is the most effective approach to winning back socially conservative, white, working and middle class voters from the Republican electoral alliance.

But at this point in the election, they want to direct their main fire against Hillary. Attacking Sanders can wait.

I think the Right, too, is “misunderestimating” the potential support for Sanders that’s out there. Yes, supporters of candidates are often (perhaps even generally) myopically optimistic about their candidate’s prospects. So how do we guard against that?

The polls have, thus far, supported my own optimism. I don’t expect you to have been a close reader of every nuance of my writings on the subject. In brief, I started off (prudently) assuming Sanders did not have a chance of winning the nomination, but still feeling as though his campaign would provide a good “vehicle” project for engaging people in an overdue discussion of progressive ideas that might further the acceptability of those ideas among voters. Sanders is, perhaps, the most effective spokesman in the country for policies which are both progressive and pragmatic. So, even though I was “smart enough” to know he didn’t have a chance, I decided it was worth supporting his campaign.

But my thinking has changed as I have watched the enthusiasm of the volunteers stepping forward, and heard from soft-spoken friends, too busy with their family or professional lives to even dabble in politics, tell me they are thinking of voting for Sanders.

Hillary Clinton has built her career out of playing it safe; building alliances with the powerful (both financially and politically) and helping to steer the Democratic Party along a more consciously centrist and corporatist path.

The presidential race is not a horse race (he said, right before engaging in a horse race metaphor). The safe bet is to bet on the sure thing, but the return on such a bet is very low. If a bettor sees things, perhaps knows things, other gamblers do not, which lead him or her to break from the crowd and place a bet on a horse the others think is a long shot, the payoff is much, much greater.

The corporatist domination of the Democratic Party is both the result of the disillusionment of ordinary Americans and a cause of it. They are counting upon us “accepting the inevitable” and “lowering our expectations,” suppressing our optimism and surrendering our aspirations for a better future.

Hillary is the embodiment of that surrender. I don’t buy into it and I do not think my optimism is delusional.

And I think this chart supports my optimism, as I see exactly what I should see if Sanders’ strategy is going to have any chance of succeeding.

Sanders Poll_New Hampshire

But not everyone active in Democratic circles shares my belief that the main battle lines in our society are between the large corporations and the public interests. Once they start identifying as “Democrats,” many people start allowing the partisan divide to define the world for them and the Republicans become the bad guys.

I believe we have to struggle against the corporate domination of larger society as well as within the Democratic Party itself. At some point, because of unavoidable structural realities in the U.S. voting and governing system, we will be stuck with the pragmatic choice of “lesser evils” (if not already). And, at the presidential level as well as in most other races, the Democratic candidate is invariably “less worse” for the public interest than the Republican. Any Republican.

The U.S. election system is barely “democratic.” Money has far too much power in limiting our choice of “viable” candidates, and has the effect of elevating the careers of corporate compliant politicians in almost every case. If you don’t “play ball” with Big Money, you don’t advance.

Sanders has, to a much greater extent than any other U.S. Senator, been able to get elected to office after office despite his openly anti-corporate policies. And circumstances have now emerged which may provide the exceptional conditions to make him a “credible” (by reasonable standards) candidate for president with a genuine shot at winning. My friend’s McGovern comparison implies that even he believes it’s possible for Sanders to win the nomination. But if the conditions align themselves to allow him a shot at winning the nomination, why should we balk at imagining that the, admittedly exceptional, conditions may exist that could make possible his winning the General Election as well?

My perception of American social dynamics is that we may be nearing a “tipping point” in politics. We are facing multiple crises: environmental, economic, social and, dare I say it, spiritual. From the growing threat of climate change to the growth of extreme economic and political inequality; from the semi-fascist, repressive tactics being unleashed by police departments across the country (including the Department of Justice coordination of brutality against the Occupy encampments) to the global crisis of general instability, largely generated by heavy-handed violence and occupation by the U.S. military to the outrage of people around the world, as they watch the resources of their countries being strip-mined by Western corporations. These simultaneous crises are creating a call for a break from the business-as-usual political “prudence” that might cause voters to surrender to the inevitability of a Clinton nomination and election.

The people know this at some level of their being. And it contributes to the very low voter turnout of the social groups the Democrats pretend to represent: lower income and working people. As working and middle class people succumb to propaganda designed to use their fears and prejudices to get them to set aside their class interests, they instead align with the most rapacious wing of U.S. capital to elect Republican politicians who further the semi-fascist Right, both to Congress (where they work to obstruct any Democratic president) and to the White House (where their policies continue to exacerbate the problems described above).

I will “surrender” if Hillary wins the nomination. But I will spend the intervening months working to try to prevent that from happening. But my message, to the extent any people are influenced by it, acknowledges the strong possibility she may end up the nominee and that, while we should fight like hell to nominate Sanders, we should not succumb to third party illusions, nor promote the idea that “there is no significant difference” between Hillary and the Republicans. There is less of a difference than I would like, but a Hillary Clinton administration, on a broad range of issues, would still be better than the administration of any of the Republican candidates.

But I will argue against, and am outraged by the “monarchist,” fear-based and anti-democratic arguments that we should give up our right to have a primary election contest and should fall in line behind Hillary because “she deserves it” or because she is the inevitable nominee or because she is the “more electable” Democrat. That last assertion, foolishly, relies upon unproven and, frankly, unexamined assumptions. She is not well-liked, nor is she trusted by a broad swath of the public, something her supporters are often in deep, angry denial over. It is silly, sloppy-headed and, well, very conservative, to think electability corresponds to where someone falls upon the classic Left-Right spectrum. The more centrist candidate is not always the most electable, though that is the calculus the Clintons have employed throughout their careers.

McGovern lost to Nixon very badly. So what lessons should we draw from that? I was a strong McGovern supporter. That campaign drew me to my first Democratic state convention in 1972. Would a Hubert Humphrey or an Ed Muskie have beaten Nixon? The burden falls on you for making a credible case for that alternative outcome.

George McGovern was a bonafide WWII army air corps hero. But I don’t remember him running on that. Nixon spent his wartime years playing poker.

But then, John Kerry was both a genuine Vietnam Era war hero, and a hero of the anti-war movement that followed, standing up for the many GIs who turned against that war, and he still lost to the candidate who was an alcoholic, cocaine-snorting, rich kid that used his daddy’s connections to get assigned to a unit in the Texas Air Guard which was guaranteed never to see actual combat.

The “Vast Righwing Conspiracy” is all geared up to attack Hillary Clinton, and we ain’t seen nothing yet. If we reject Bernie Sanders based upon a weak supposition that the American people are going to see Hillary Clinton as a stronger champion of their interests (and prejudices) than Bernie Sanders, we would be fools. And defeatists. Maybe even “surrender monkeys.”

Not me. Not yet.

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