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.


30 thoughts on “Reflections on a Phone Call from a “Bernie Bro”

  1. Thanks Jeff for sharing your view. Although I am an outsider and I feel i do not understand enough of the American politics, I am also very much concerned with the hero syndrome, which I see everywhere, both left and right, with alarming similarities.

    1. Chiara, yes, the problem of the hero syndrome is both on the left and the right. It is leading to unwise tactics and strategy on the left now (my immediate concern in this post), but it also is runs counter to the principles of the left, as I embrace them as a radical democratic, my deeper concern.

      1. right! and I am for instance puzzled that nobody is saying that if Sanders can now use the word socialism is not because he is an hero, but because OWS and other social movements have been struggling on the ground for years to show the absurdity of global economic inequality.

        1. We agree completely on this. OWS has changed the political common sense that is now open to a socialist as a candidate for President. And the feminist movement has opened the way for a woman as candidate. But advance will still require continued social mobilization, which should include critical responses to the socialist or woman president.

          1. Well, he can use the word “socialist” only because it has been emptied of all (threatening) meaning. Does he propose to socialize the means of production? Not that I’ve heard. So what exactly makes him a socialist, as opposed to, say, a European-style social democrat?

          2. Sanders is a European style social democrat (who often call themselves socialists). I identify with this, socialism as a political project to control the injustices of the modern (capitalist) economy. On the other hand, socialism as a systemic alternative to capitalism has been a failure, and its future, in my judgment, is not very promising, though I know that many on the academic left including many friends and colleagues disagree with me on this.

  2. HI Jeff, I’m curious as to whether you think this is something particular to Sanders campaign, or whether perhaps there is an element that people who are motivated enough to sign up for a campaign to do phone banking often fall into such a position of being really enthused about the campaign – and thus lacking some nuance on it?

    1. Yes, Stevphen, I think you are right about those who are enthused, as you put it. Now, I am concerned that such enthusiasm, from both the Hillary and Bernie campaign may get in the way of uniting against the fanaticism of Cruz or the madness of Trump.

      1. The corporatism of Hillary is not an issue? The fact that she voted yes for the iraq war is not a issue, that fact that it was under her we invaded libya is not an issue? the fact she accepts monies from saudis, the saudis who treat women as chattel is not an issue? The fact she calls african americans super predators is not in issue? The fact that she receives monies from the prison industrial complex that petitions for laws such as mandatory minimums that directly impact minorities is not and issue? The fact that she was openly against gay marriage until it became politically inexpedient is not an issue? I can go on and on and on. I am a bernie supporter but there is NO WAY i can with a clear conscious get myself to vote for Hillary. I am not for the party I’m for the cause. We are uniting against corruption, a rigged economy a rigged political system. Will voting for hillary fix this?

        1. I guess the issues of voting access, abortion rights, the environment, healthcare are not an issue for you Andrew. I understand your criticism, but think that the issues you raise will be addressed with social movement pressure, whether Hillary or Bernie is president.

  3. Good article. I am a Bernie booster, and plan to vote for him on 4/19. I am not a fan of Hillary Clinton, whose foreign policy views I oppose, and whom I do not trust on economic matters at all. But I think that both “Bernie Bros” and “Hillarybots” are missing two main points. First, it is imperative that not only should the Republican nominee be denied the presidency, but that Democrats, imperfect as they are (and I am of the opinion that they are VERY imperfect indeed) win down-ticket spots and take back the Senate, if not the House. Trump and Cruz will dismantle everything decent that is left in this broken country. Second, it is important to hear what Bernie Sanders is actually saying: this is a call to a movement, not just a vote in November. And unlike Occupy, I suspect it is a movement with legs and staying power, and the ability to persuade others of its nobility. If, as I expect but do not like, Hillary Clinton is elected, this movement must hold her feet to the fire and be prepared to challenge her in 2020. As you put it, the key to political reform is less a matter of who is President than with “the presence of a politically mobilized Left.” Senator Sanders couldn’t have said it better himself.

    1. I agree Michael. While I have a hard time deciding between Hillary and Bernie as the Democratic nominee, I am 100% behind the revolution Sanders invokes, and hope you are right that this mobilization will be sustained and think that it is crucial.

      1. If it is crucial that the mobilization be sustained — and I agree that it is — there has to be sustained thinking, strategizing and acting right now, while people are investing their attention, in just how it is going to continue whether Bernie gets the nomination, gets elected, or not. There have to be (much as I hate the word) some kind of institutions, on-going entities, call them what you will, that emerge from this period of ferment already organized and ready to to act.

  4. “He is a true believer in Bernie”… how do we know this?

    Maybe he is attempting to reach as many people as possible, followed by convincing as many of those people as possible to vote for Bernie right now, and thus follows an explicit or implicit protocol for making judgments about how much time to spend on calls. A trigger that you are a Clinton supporter is turning the tables on him, asking if he would vote for Clinton in the general election, which is an unproductive conversation in getting people to turn out for Bernie, so he moves on to the next call. We cannot know what this Berniebro will do in the general election, but one thing seems rather sure, if someone wants to know if he will vote for Clinton, that person is less likely to vote for Bernie than someone who wouldn’t ask the question. Because the momentum based on enthusiastic turnout needs to be maintained every second for Bernie to actually challenge Clinton, he moves on to a more ‘productive’ conversation per unit of time spent. Whether political campaigns should be based on instrumental and strategic rationality over adherence to normative principles of extended communicative action, even at the micro-level, is of course implicit in the debate – but comparing Bernie to Clinton in this regard, particularly funding sources, is hardly favorable for Clinton.

    1. Yes you are right, Doug, about what might have motivated the caller, though it didn’t seem to me to be so at the time. On the other hand, I am open to being convinced and he didn’t take the opportunity to do so. But perhaps you are right, it may have been inefficient to spend time on me. On the other hand, I need such conversations, not only to make up my mind, but also to promote my major position, pro-Bernie and pro-Clinton.

      1. I tend to think that in the end, if Clinton wins, only the most petulant of those enthusiastically engaged in Bernie’s movement wouldn’t vote for Clinton once the reality of the Republican nominee dawns on them. What is more interesting to contemplate (as someone rather well versed in alternative party systems and someone who voted for Nader) is if Clinton achieves victory only through superdelegates, and the Republican establishment lines up behind someone other than the plurality winner in a hung convention on their side. This could result in both Trump and Bernie running against, say, Kasich and Clinton, as it would be fair for them to launch independent campaigns. If there were four campaigns for the presidency splitting both the right and left, we could finally, finally, finally see a crack in the two-party system and, at least at the state level, some shift towards multiparty systems (in places like my own Minnesota, I can see this happening). That is something to be excited about.

  5. I am a New School University alumni and I have to say that as a progressive my agenda is to dismantle the establishment corporation in the name of the DNC that is acting as it is liberal and progressive. I am a Bernie Sanders supporter, not a democrat, I am a liberal progressive and will vote for a candidate who believes in the same values. The problem with our system is that the two parties have hijacked our political system and this HAS to change! Salvaging the democratic nomination by voting for Hillary in the case Bernie loses will only assuage us mentally with the false comfort that we voted for “the lesser of two evils” That is selfish in it self. If we continue on this path then we will never have true change. My vote is sacrosanct and I will ONLY vote for the person I truly believe in and that is Bernie Sanders. The value of my vote means much more then to salvage the interests of Goldman Sachs.

    1. I will vote for a Democratic Party candidate against the Republican Party candidate with no sense that it is a vote for the lesser of two evils, but with a sense that one would keep the door to progress open, whether it be Clinton or Sanders, while the other would work hard to close the door.

      1. I see your point but that would be a fatal signal to young people and to the generations to come. It will basically send the message that honesty does not prevail, and that if you deceive you can win. While it’s true if a republican comes into office it will be bad for the next 4, 8 or more years but if we vote for hillary out of fear it will solidify the fact that if one deceives or cheats he/she will win and that honesty does not pay. In my opinion that will have a bigger moral impact on society then the short term inconvience of having a GOP in office. Do you really want your grandkids to believe one should forgo their morals in trying times? think about that. I don’t want to tell my future kids and grandkids that I compromised my integrity out of fear! Typing from my iphone please excuse typos or grammar.

        1. I think the notion that Clinton is a decidedly dishonest politician has more to do with the way she has been depicted by her opponents, and these depictions often include significant sexism, than with her own character. I should be clear. I never was a fan of hers (or of her husband). I dislike their way of doing politics, both in form and content. But I don’t think that she is uniquely immoral or dishonest, and along with Arendt, I know that there is a connection between lying and politics.

          1. “I think the notion that Clinton is a decidedly dishonest politician has more to do with the way she has been depicted by her opponents” Jeffery please give us more credit that! I would hope you have more faith in your NSU students, we can decipher information for ourselves. The notion of Clintons dishonesty is not perpetuated by rhetoric from her opponents, it’s her own actions. If you heard the last debate in brooklyn she clearly was evading questions about her transcripts. Lack of transparency equals to lack of honesty. What was so incrimminating that she won’t release the speeches. The stakes are so high and she has been asked repeatedly yet she refuses, from this we can only surmise that her speeches must be extremely contrary to the image she is portraying. So the idea or her reputation of being dishonest does not come from propanganda but from her directly. Her answer to Sanders to the speeches was “well I will release mine when others release theirs” Well Mrs Clintion YOU want our vote, if you want our vote then be open with us regardless of what the “others” do. Thats like telling my girlfriend, well I’m not going to tell on you if I cheated on you unless all the guys tell their girlfriends what they did! Does that fly? . Actually that made it much worse.To be quite honest a lot of us, (I can only speak for the people I know and myself) had she said she would release her speeches then we might have considered to hold our noses and vote, She thinks we are idiots, really how narcissistic! She can enjoy expensive dinners at George Clooneys house. That whole fundrasing charade was spitting on the working classes face! It just shows how disconnected she is from mainstreet, she does not even realize this is the sad part.

          2. I agree with you about the transcripts. Clinton should release them and her response to the question is ridiculous. But this doesn’t indicate that Clinton is DECIDEDLY dishonest. It is what politicians do, to some degree or another. Arendt in her classic essay “Truth and Politics” illuminates this. Sanders is not an exception. But it is a matter of degree and substance. For you, apparently, this is decisive in judging Clinton. I respect that. For others Sanders slippery explanation of his votes on guns is decisive or the thinness in his interview with the Daily News is, I think it is good to have such different judgments. I don’t doubt that yours are well grounded as indicated by your responses. I do think that the idea that Clinton is exceptionally dishonest has been influenced by decades of attacks she has sustained, often with sexist undertones. And in my judgement, it is important to recognize that she is much more desirable, as the candidate of the Democratic Party, than either Cruz or Trump are, as the candidates of the Republican Party, to be President of the United States. That is the judgement I am trying to emphasize in my posts and responses here.

  6. Very good post. I am voting for Sanders in the NY primary for two reasons. First, it is foreign policy where he is obviously preferable. His mild deviation from the party line on Israel/Palestine took real courage. Second, i welcome his helping to change the discourse of the democratic party on domestic policy. My reservations however are real: I am disturbed by the kind of team that seems to be advising him on specific domestic issues. While probably not like Jeff’s caller, and some of the commentators here, they are obviously very narrow and unsophisticated. Thus their position on trade is as crude as Krugman tells us. But worse, as my son explains to me, there would be much more interesting and viable left positions one could take on the subject. Same on health care. A universal single payer governmentally administered produces shortages. A French type competitive universal system does not, and keeps prices down just as well. OK, all this could be sorted out later of course, a later that will probably never come, since he will lose.

    What is most disturbing is the statement of some that they will not in the end vote for HRC, and the infantile justifications for that position. Sanders himself will of course support Clinton in the end. The stakes of this election are incredibly high, and the main difference is not between Clinton and Sanders, but rather the two parties.

  7. Professor Goldfarb. I have great respect for you – both as a person and especially as an academic – and I admire your efforts to promote a vital discussion in this virtual platform. Yet I can’t help myself when I imagine the guy writing behind the keyboard as an aging white male baby boomer trying to persuade US voters about the 50 shades of gray in the Democratic Party. Please don’t take it personally. But when you say things like that “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 don’t know who the hell you’re trying to mislead. It really sounds like someone who’s been around books more than people lately. Maybe it is just me, but “Bernie Bro” sounds demeaning, too. Take this with a grain of salt, please. English is not my first language and I come from a place where democracy doesn’t match with the color gray.

    1. It’s hard given your characterization of me to not take it personally, “an aging white baby boomer” indeed, with a nod to 50 Shades of gray no less, but I have thick skin and a sense of humor.

      As far my statement about the importance of a politically mobilized left, on the other hand, I stand by what I wrote, and it has to do with things I have observed first hand, as an activist in the U.S. and in Central Europe and as a close observer of the workings of Congress. But please don’t misunderstand: I believe I it doesn’t matter that much, as I argued and didn’t only assert, whether Sanders or Clinton is President, but of course it matters a great deal if Trump or Cruz became President. Then all hope would be lost.

      1. All hope is lost with Clinton herself. If she wins, we can go on being a war-mongering country full of impoverished people and unspeakably powerful elites. The reason that there is now a populist face-off between Sanders and Trump is very simple: the failure of everything that Clinton represents. This is a political, not a personal issue. Of course I wil vote for Clinton if I have to, and I will encourage everyone to do so. But the idea that the only significant difference is between mainstream Democrats and Republicans of whatever stripe is false. The big difference is between egalitarianism and elitist capitalism. Mainstream Democratic politicians come down on the side of the latter, as Obama himself has done despite his merits, which are more numerous than those of Clinton. I understand your disappointment when the Sanders supporter did not try to convince you. But until we can name and debate the democratic deficit in the Democratic Party, that higher, more reasoned level of political engagement that you expect will be lacking in the United States. What’s missing in the “Bernie Bro” (an offensive term, btw) is a recognition from the middle classes and indeed, the liberals, that we have major problems in this country, and that they are in part due to the ruling consensus represented by the Democratic Party. Not only the Republicans are to blame for the sad state of affairs today.

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