Feelin' the Bern

I have decided to vote for Bernie Sanders in the 2016 Democratic Primary. This was not an easy decision; I like Hillary. I find her more than likeable enough. So much of my family—both of the biological and chosen variety—is supporting Hillary, however, that I feel obligated to give some explanation of why I am feeling the Bern. This essay will have three sections. The first is a summary of my current political beliefs, more or less a meditation on the Obama years. The second is my positive case for Bernie, and the third is a response to possible counterarguments. It is not designed to persuade but, if you share my political views, you may be persuaded. Read at your own peril!

I volunteered for Barack Obama in 2008. I worked on his reelection campaign. I count his two election night’s among the best nights of my life.  I think he’s done a heckuva job. Healthcare was huge. Saving the economy was big. Knowing how to be a leader on marriage was smart—especially realizing that sometimes being a leader means not leading, but broadcasting that you’ll allow yourself to be pulled. Think about the DREAM Act. I think he’s done good stuff on banks, that his foreign policy has been better than average, that the Iran deal has the potential to be world historical.

He’s not perfect—he royally fucked up the surveillance state stuff, and I think that in retrospect inaction on climate change may mar his legacy. But for the most part, and in the face of bitter, nativist, racist opposition that has at times put the personal destruction of a fundamentally decent man not just above the good of the country but against all of its traditions of governance, Obama has done well. Fifty years from now he will be considered one of our greatest presidents.

But while Barack Obama has done a lot of good things for the nation, the nation itself is not well. It faces threats from three types of enemies. The first are foreign. The second are domestic. And the third are structural.

Foreign enemies have often threatened the United States, and today is no different. We, and the rest of the civilized world, face a fundamentally barbaric threat in ISIS. It is my personal belief that sooner rather than later the world will fall into a clash of civilizations, not the one drawn on facile religious lines by Huntington et al. but one based on the interreligious lines of fundamentalist intolerance against the liberal post-Westphalian tradition, and in that fight as many Evangelical Christians and Orthodox Jews as ISIS members will be massed in the host arrayed against us. But, between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton, I don’t see too much difference on foreign policy. They are both technocrats who lean away from war—Hillary less so than Bernie—and will defer to the security apparatus and the military industrial complex.

As for domestic threats, those come from the Republican Party, which over the last eight years has responded to its absolute failure of governance during the younger Bush’s administration by shedding any pretense of legitimate political aims and abdicating all responsibility toward the nation. I will not here repeat the litany of obstructions, parliamentary tricks, idiotic policy proposals and suicidal political strategies that the GOP has repeatedly put forward over the last few years. I will just note that John Boehner just quit. The Republican candidates live in a fantasy world, and God help us all if any of them should become President.

So a Democrat must win. Really, any of our candidates would be better than any of theirs, and so by compromising our ability to win we would not only disservice the Democratic party but abdicate our duty as citizens. Why, then, vote for Bernie? Why not vote for Hillary, who must—must!—have a better chance than Bernie to win a national election. He is, after all, a 74-year-old Jewish socialist from Vermont. If voting for him were to make a Republican more likely to win, voting for him would be a dereliction of duty.

But here’s the thing: in a world where Hillary Clinton loses the nomination to Bernie Sanders, things have gone so wrong with her campaign that she would get smoked by Marco Rubio. Hillary Clinton is an awful campaigner. She was bad in 2008; she’s been bad so far in 2016. This isn’t to say she’s a bad politician—there’s a lot more to politics than slapping backs and kissing babies, and she’s good at raising money and building alliances. Everything suggests she’d be great at the actual process of governing. Her head is in the right place, her policies are good, and she would probably get a lot done. But she is bad at campaigning, and if the slow trickle of scandals and the dull drone of flagging enthusiasm mean that she loses to Bernie, well, she wasn’t going to win the general anyway.

But that’s not the reason I’m voting for Bernie. That’s just how I can sleep at night knowing I’m not helping Ted Cruz. The reason I’m voting for Bernie Sanders is because of the third threat. The third threat is a structural enemy. We live in the age of Piketty. We are witnessing the growth of an international capitalist class whose power comes not from promoting policies that help people but from wielding huge sums of money to subvert democracy. I won’t go into the statistics: just watch a Bernie Sanders speech. The world is becoming less equal. While spiraling inequality might not be bad in and of itself (I think it’s fine, as long as everyone is doing better, but they’re not), it points to a greater problem we face: the fates of the elite are, in the short run, becoming less and less tied to the fate of the rest of the nation. 

This again, isn’t bad in itself—nationalism is pretty awful—but I happen to really like America. And if you look back, the untethering of the fate of elites from the fate of a state precedes the end of that state, and it’s never pretty, for the elites or the rest of us. The problem we will face in the future is a disjunction between the fate of the United States and the fortunes of the powerful within her. Like Rome in the waning days of the Republic (speaking of facile analyses) we have a system that is losing the trust of those in it. And we need to make a statement.

I am voting for Bernie Sanders not because I think that anything that he will do in office will be meaningfully different from what Hillary would do. Government will still be divided—gerrymandering has seen to that. State governments will be in the hands of Republicans and the next President will, whatever his or her views (and I still think we should assume it’s a her), have to compromise. In fact, given her ability to be flexible, I think Hillary could get a more done than Bernie. She would probably be a better President. But the next president has only one main job: to keep everything that Obama has done (but mainly healthcare) in place until it becomes permanent, in the face of Republican opposition that refuses to see reason and facts. Both Hillary and Bernie are going to do this and do a good job at it. Anything else is icing on the cake or, hopefully, the arctic.

What a Bernie Sanders Presidency would be is a symbolic victory against the forces of crony capitalism and the dominance of American life by a so-called meritocracy that adopts progressive positions out of a sense of charity towards the less fortunate and a paternalistic discomfort with its own privilege that, in a different age, we might call noblesse oblige. The world that we live in is a hyper-liberal (in the bad sense of the term) world in which money has devalued all other values and the market has become enshrined as a new god. That is awful. We need to resist that.

But we need to resist it in a smart way. Those of my radical friends out there are reading this and thinking that I have developed a false consciousness, that I have bought hook line and sinker the illusion of free choice while remaining constricted within the two party system of the US. I accept those criticisms, and say, ‘so what?’ Politics is the art of the possible. Over the last eight years the slow and steady politicking of my second favorite President has brought more good to the American people than the posturing of radicals has in decades. We need to defend that, and the way to do that is through politics. The way to do that is through a combination of hard legislative work and overarching symbolic victories. Bernie Sanders gives us both.

My friends in the establishment of the Democratic Party will accuse me—have accused me—of two things. The first is making the party weaker by dividing it. The second is equating Hillary with the Republicans. I reject both of those statements. If Hillary cannot defeat Bernie Sanders, she would lose the general. And, as I think every Democrat knows—as I have certainly made clear—Hillary is far better than the best Republican. But I’m not voting based on who I think will be a good President.

I am voting for Bernie Sanders because I am a Democrat who believes in the progressive movement. I am voting for Bernie Sanders because I believe that we stand at a crossroads, where we can either register our complaint with the way that the country is going within a progressive and populist and productive movement, or we can sit back and watch the financial elites of this country carry us to victory on a platform of identity politics and liberal guilt that, although it gives us good policies, does not bring with it the fundamental drive for large scale reform. And even if that reform doesn’t happen—I’m a realist, after all—I am voting for Bernie Sanders because I want to make it clear that those reforms are necessary. And, if and when he loses, I will proudly cast my vote for Hillary.




© Henry Gruber 2013