The other day, someone from the Sanders campaign called my home for my son Sam. I told the caller that Sam no longer lives with us (in fact, not for over ten years), trying to get off the phone quickly and politely. I hate the flood of unsolicited political calls we get just because we have supported campaigns and causes in the past. Yet, the caller persisted and pitched me. When I indicated that I had a complicated view of Bernie, his response was disturbing.
I told him what I have told the readers of Public Seminar. I support both Bernie and Hillary, though I understand that neither is perfect. The differences between them are not my central concern. Rather, it is the difference between the Democrats and the Republicans that haunts me. I think the fate of the republic hangs in the balance: Sanders or Clinton versus Trump, Cruz or anyone else the Republicans may come up with.
The caller chose to press me, focusing on what he called the Middle East, meaning not only Israel-Palestine, but the rest of the Middle East, North Africa and Afghanistan as well. “Hillary would get us into a war in the region. Bernie wouldn’t,” he asserted.
It just so happens that I am concerned about Clinton’s militarism and, thus, appreciated his point. But I am also concerned that Sanders’s primary way of distinguishing his foreign policy alternative is sharp, but also thin and old: he voted against the War in Iraq, while she voted for it. It is not clear to me that either of them would have a foreign policy much different than Obama’s. Perhaps I am missing something. On the other hand, the Republicans all present frightening alternatives, from the completely unpredictable hyper nationalism of Trump to the extremely predictable hyper militarism of Cruz et al.
But when I told the Bernie bro’ (please accept this light note) that I thought Clinton and Sanders were very much alike when it came to so-called social issues, on matters of race, gender and sexual orientation, guns, and even on economic policy, he became aggressive. “They are opposites,” he insisted.
I asked whether this means that he wouldn’t vote for Clinton in November if Sanders loses the nomination. He abruptly hung up when I told him that if that were so it was highly unlikely that he could get me off my fence.
I’m disturbed because he didn’t try to convince me. He didn’t want to have a discussion or debate beyond his war and peace assertions. He is a true believer in Bernie and his revolution, bound to be disappointed, in my judgment, even if Sanders should win. And at this moment in the campaign, his is not an idiosyncratic attitude. It is all becoming too black and white, without any appreciation of the gray, too focused on the presidency, too focused on a perceived political hero, not sufficiently considering the social and political power of ordinary people, not focused sufficiently on what I call “the politics of small things,” and, indeed, not focused on the accomplishments of the Sanders campaign. The caller and many of the more radical supporters of Sanders (among them my friends, colleagues and students) do not take into account that the revolution to which Sanders often refers is necessary whether he or she wins the nomination.
If Sanders wins the nomination, he will have to find seasoned policy experts to give more substance to the positions he has mapped out, and he will also have to have the support of “Clinton Democrats” in Congress to turn his ideas into a changed political and legal framework. How else to make public higher education free? How else to move to a more thorough and adequate medical insurance, “Medicare for All”? And as we would move in the direction of these excellent policy goals, is it not likely that the ideal will be compromised for the better? If you think this is not what Bernie would do, keep in mind his past positions on guns.
If Clinton wins, she will require broad public support for her pragmatic proposals to control Wall Street, improve Obamacare, address the problems of voting rights, etc. She will need the support of my caller and other like-minded people, or to put it another way, she will have to work with the push of the opposition from her left. Without such a push, she will not achieve much of significance. How else will she manage to accomplish the progressive goals that have been blocked in recent years by the Tea Party mobilization? She will need to be pushed and supported to move forward. She, as much as Bernie, will require his political revolution.
To my mind, it is almost mathematical yielding the potential of a similar hopeful result. If Bernie is the candidate, he will require the support of Hillary’s primary voters to win the election, and he will also need to support of the mainstream of the Democratic Party to have any possibility to enact his progressive reforms, which will only be insured if his supporters put pressure on Congressional Democrats. If Hillary is the candidate, she will require the support of Bernie’s primary voters to win the election, and she will also need the support of the more radical grassroots to push the mainstream Democrats in Congress to enact progressive reforms (as did not happen in the struggle for Obamacare).
Note: as I see it, the key to progressive reform has less to do with the occupant of the White House, more to do with the presence of a politically mobilized left.
I didn’t get to talk to the Sanders caller about this, but such talk will be politically necessary in the coming weeks, especially after the fateful primary in my home state, New York. And the symbolic dimension of the election should be also noted, some real progress is occurring in American political culture. It has become likely that either a progressive woman of considerable experience, skill and intelligence, or a self avowed socialist, with remarkable idealism and constancy, will be the next President of the United States. Either outcome would be historic, highly significant in and of itself, just as the election of the first African American President of the United States has been. I will vote for Sanders or Clinton in the primaries a week from Tuesday, and I will do so realizing the symbolic significance of both candidates and the practical importance of continued social mobilization, hoping this is more broadly understood, even by my Bernie brother.
PS: I think sometimes my colleagues and students suspect that I am liberal, moderately always looking for compromise, but I think of myself as a radical democrat, with less invested in the powers that be, more invested in “the power of the powerless.” With this in mind, I now commit myself to not write again about this election, except as it is shaped by, affects or reveals something important about the power of the powerless.