In early April of 2008, amid all the backroom posturing and media apoplexy of the U.S. presidential race, ABC reported that Hillary Clinton had taken a tense meeting with the former governor of New Mexico, Bill Richardson, an erstwhile competitor for the Democratic presidential nomination. Clinton heard Richardson would soon endorse the upstart Illinois senator Barack Obama to be the party’s candidate. It portended yet another brick falling away from what the media’s “political experts” had long assured the nation was an impregnable foundation of delegates, cash and well-heeled allies upon which would be built the Clinton presidency. In a “heated” confrontation with Richardson, Clinton said of Obama, “He cannot win, Bill. He cannot win.”
Clinton’s intimation touched on a hard “reality” of U.S. politics, that an African-American man whose name was Barack Hussein Obama could simply not draw a majority of the country’s votes. The Democrats’ “safe bet” would be to look past the dazzle and energy of the charismatic noob and his lofty rhetoric and go with a battle-tested (white) candidate with all the right connections in circles of power, public and private. That argument was wrong then, so one might understand how the “safe bet” argument carries even less weight seven years into Obama’s presidency.
The most insidious, and boring, form of cynicism is clinging to a willful delusion that everything is okay as it is. What is is. What might be is silly moonshine. Just trust the keepers of what-is, for they know “the game,” with all its rich veins of cash, multiple-choice sloganeering and where to jab the acupuncture needles for proper reaction in the body politick — it’s the HBO series Veep come to life in all its moral and dialectical atrocities, only real instead of a hilarious cautionary tale. That cynicism pervades the ongoing conversation in the U.S. around the Democratic Party primaries. Again, thoughtful and well-meaning people are having an eerily similar debate to that of 2008, guided by a chorus of august pro-Clinton media voices attempting to rally people around the inspirational mantra of “Maybe Don’t Get Your Hopes Up.”
Those voices, many of them coming from wags with whom we generally align politically, now direct their cynicism at Bernie Sanders, a longtime mayor of Burlington, Vermont, later congressman and now senator from the state and Clinton’s only opponent for the nomination. We won’t venture too far into the weeds on the hard wonkery of electorals and polling numbers — the latter largely favor Sanders to defeat any of the posturing self-avowed wannabe war criminals vying for the Republican presidential nomination — because they’re updated exhaustively elsewhere and because it is sufficient, in our endorsing Sanders’ bid, to only point out that he is a rare voice of what-can-be. And, in being that, he is the lone voice to reach this level of politics in living memory by honestly calling out business-as-usual for the vile, breezily corrupt monumental clusterfuck it is.
That is important, simply because no one in history has ever solved problems they refuse to recognize.
This, we believe, is the crux of any conversation about where the U.S. goes from here, the money, who is spending it, on whom, and for what. Sanders, an independent left-progressive firebrand from the get-go, understands that. Throughout his career, Sanders has eschewed corporate campaign cash. In this race for the presidency, he is running without the support of any Super PAC affiliations, the gaily corrupt means by which America’s corporations and gated-community elites sluice vast sums of payola into politicians’ accounts. Sanders’ vision of a new New Deal — a massive public works program, including an accelerated conversion to renewable energy sourcing, a national single-payer healthcare service, an overhaul of the criminal justice system to address persistent institutional racism, free tuition at public universities and community colleges, expansions of Social Security and the U.S. Postal Service to offer basic banking services, a breakup of predatory financial conglomerates — is predicated on serving the interests of the actual people of the United States as opposed to their conceptual corporate counterparts. It is an agenda that forwards progressive fixes and writ-large Keynesianism intended to put money in the pockets of, and reduce fiscal stress upon, normal humans who actually buy things.
That’s solid economics and, to her credit, Secretary Clinton has mildly adopted any number of soundalike planks into her platform, largely read as a leftward shift in response to the Sanders insurgency — but that’s the problem for us. Clinton had to shift in response to the welling popularity of progressive notions of governance in order to stake out politically marketable positions, ones that she has long been loathe to tie herself to because, as a smart operator, she understands that the bevy of immense corporations and industry trade associations that back her oppose the progressive agenda roundly.
This political tactic is not new. It is called triangulation, and it has characterized the operating system of the institutional players in the Democratic Party since 1992, when William Jefferson Clinton won the White House. It is a stratagem of competing with the Republicans’ traditional coziness with America’s predatory class by plying corporate institutions for money while giving lip service to the concerns of their prey, working people, with the self-assurance that, as friend-to-all, you will carve a Third Way that serves everyone efficiently. The Clintons may think this genuinely works, and that their bridgebuilding between “stakeholders” can tame the predators just enough to eke out increments of common good — but it doesn’t and it can’t.
We know it doesn’t work, as Senator Sanders has pointed out, because we have an empirical record: of the jobs the country began hemorrhaging during Bill Clinton’s presidency as the result of trade deals (notably NAFTA) written by his corporate sponsors; of President Clinton’s repeal of the signature New Deal banking regulation, Glass-Steagall, in 1999; and of the ensuing ten-year Big Finance laissez-faire crime-spree that only catalyzed the enrichment of the already obscenely wealthy at the expense of normal people and, insult to injury, yielded the 2008 mortgage meltdown.
In chilling coordination, the nation’s economic Best and Brightest have dismantled the bulwark of its industrial workforce to offshore production and Third World sweatshops, re-engineered the economy to function disproportionately on credit and debt, siphoned money out of middle-class households, bundled up and bet on the fiscal failures of their erstwhile owners, took bets on how their bets would do, won both ways, hollowed out the economic core of the country and even rewrote laws to stunt any redress sought by those it defrauded.
And the people who did that contribute to Clinton’s Super PAC by the millions. Yes, we believe that is a problem.
We understand that Hillary Clinton may reason that she is not serving two masters but, rather, playing a game she did not create to “get things done,” and, as so many others, must simply go to where the money is, rich or poor — it just turns out the rich have more. But there is a disconnect here, the seemingly rote but functionally impossible notion that one can find a common good between voters and those working tirelessly, as consortia of American businesses are, to roll back voting rights, bust unions, and eliminate regulations that protect people as both workers and consumers.
This dissociation extends beyond purely economic matters. Sanders has made much of Clinton’s vote for the Iraq war and he should. If triangulation effects a moral vacuum, there could be no greater evidence than her decision to give a blank check to an overtly ravenous pack of imperialist Republicans deeply embedded in the fossil fuel and defense industries to invade an oil-rich country that didn’t do anything. Clinton announced her decision as a difficult one but made with “conviction” — and yet her conviction helped start a fire that effectively burned half a continent and is even now spilling over into another one. For someone flogging their “foreign policy” bona fides, you couldn’t conceivably have done a worse thing, but anyone who understands the Clintonian stratagem can suss why she did: She would run for president someday and this or that focus group suggested in 2002-2003ish that she probably shouldn’t look soft on countries-that-didn’t-do-anything, much less reticent to back major windfalls for the well-heeled defense industry — a number of whose lobbyists and consultants recently endorsed Clinton under the guise of “foreign policy experts.”
As an aside, one of those experts, then U.S. ambassador to NATO, shilled the Bush administration’s case for war to European allies, most of whom received it with the incredulity it deserved.
In a larger context, it’s difficult to escape the conclusion that Clinton has altered her convictions with eerie frequency for them to qualify as such. In the 1990s she supported draconian, and functionally racist, mandatory sentencing laws that she now opposes. Until 2013 she opposed same-sex marriage. She has long supported financial deregulation, with some caveats, until it cratered the world economy. She engineered much of the neoliberal wet-dream Trans-Pacific Partnership in her State Department until, juxtaposed to Sanders’ position, it polled badly enough that she came out against it last year. Over her political career she has taken considerable sums from for-profit prisons until, similarly called out on it, she re-gifted the donations to charities this past fall. And yet lobbyists for the industry still work for the Clinton campaign, just not on for-profit prison matters, they will tell you.
This is not to validate the years of GOP Hillary-hate. It is not an attempt to smear Clintonistas or to frame her fitness for office with some fabricated political construct called Benghazi! This is cause-and-effect. These are things that happened, that Clinton is on the record doing, which all compare badly to Sanders’ stubbornly consistent record of being on the right side of history.
This is the 21st century. We know who’s been fucking up the country, and the world, and, however well-meant Hillary Clinton might be, those people — Goldman Sachs, Citigroup, the pharmaceutical industry, the insurance industry — are in her corner. Are they in the prospective Republican candidate’s corner as well? Yes, and the parity should be unnerving. If she wins, executives from those companies, industries and lobbies will wind up in her cabinet or in the State, Defense, Treasury and Commerce departments, the FDA, the SEC, the FCC, and all their former bosses will have, at very least, “access” to her that normal human beings will never know. Her braintrust, lobbyists, consultants, bundlers, people who lobbied against Obamacare and Dodd-Frank, people like Mark Penn and Lanny Davis, are some of the most morally de-ruddered scumbags in the private/public power nexus, daily representing the interests of a rogues’ gallery of megacorporations and overseas despots. With Clinton, they all get a seat at the table.
This is just what-is, everyone plays “the game” so best to play it better than Republicans, “realism” says. We have many friends who love and support Hillary Clinton, we hope their best estimates of her are true, and we will be their allies soon enough, one way or the other. Still, an odd dissociation recurs when we examine the phenomenon wherein, removed from election-year conversation, we — liberal, progressive or centrist — know vast pools of corporate money dumped into Republican coffers yield a thoroughly corrupted agenda that favors those donors over voters, yet disbelief goes suspended when it points to Candidate X on the left half of the chart.
“Everybody plays the game” is the mantra of those who would defend that willful blindness, but 2016 is providing us with an identifiable caveat that, “no, everyone doesn’t.”
This is what makes Sanders a dangerous man. In not taking the money, by remaining unindentured, he can point out the cause-and-effect, its intrinsic corruption, and that it needs to be fixed before anything else can be. The Holy Grail on the progressive wish list — and that of what remains of rational conservatives — is the centerpiece of Sanders’ campaign: a multipronged strike on the arterial system of corruption. That would include a shift to public funding of elections; a constitutional amendment to redefine personhood that eliminates corporations’ elastically interpreted First Amendment rights, which will require mass mobilizations at the state level; and the appointment of 3-4 justices on the Supreme Court on the litmus test that prospective replacements reverse that preposterous interpretation of the law.
The most worn argument against Sanders — as hammered in the course of one week in January by the official voices of the Washington Post, the Boston Globe, The Chicago Tribune and, in a veritable AP Stylebook of inveigling, Jonathan Chait in New York Magazine — is that, owing to gerrymandered congressional districts, the Republican legislative majority is an intractable reality that Clinton would somehow navigate better than Sanders, in spite of the opposition’s aforementioned nigh-universal, if irrational, loathing of her. Implicit in this argument is something even more insulting to the party’s rank-and-file, a complete and abject cession of the field. The political galvanization required to make big ideas happen is super-hard, it says, so we should just imagine smaller things and elect a meh-inspiring caretaker threatening to galvanize nothing.
This is “realism” to the point of self-infliction. It’s like saying, “Well, sure, Martin Luther King, Jr. has a dream, but you know, while I agree with it, it’s not really going to play well with the racists” — and then expressing shock when someone gets in your face and says, “The. Racists. Are. The. Fucking. Problem.”
Sanders has said from the beginning that his vision is only achievable if this candidacy is the start of a continuum of actions that smashes the stasis. This is movement politics, and it requires a nationwide retail organization — now being built — to be put to use on behalf of a new generation of down-ticket legislators buying into the vision. But it also requires that first big fire from which all may light their torches, someone to talk straight enough to actually do the galvanizing on a state-by-state basis, turning out numbers to overcome the stacked deck. The mantra that it is undoable, and that his opponent is more realistically electable, begs pointing out the 800-pound gorilla in the room:
Sanders’ vision was every bit as unsellable and unachievable, by realist measures, mere months ago, when Clinton was polling 68% to Sanders’ 7% in Iowa. He was a wacky, radical grampa who might give the race some pepper but could never win in a Democratic primary. Then he hit the stump, built a coalition of working people’s advocates and labor, of influential African-American and Latino voices, and tirelessly retailed his message to people being screwed relentlessly every day of their lives by faceless suits who bankroll political campaigns, and something happened to the presumably unchangeable stasis. Clinton “gets things done” and is “resilient,” goes the realist-narrative, except it seems her resilience didn’t apply to a sixty-one-point lead on a seventy-four-year-old Jewish “socialist” whose ideas will never fly — except for the fifty percent of Iowa, and sixty-percent of New Hampshire, Democrats who said they should.
Movement politics seeks to undo stasis because stasis — unjust, untenable, oppressive, immune to reform — is what got them off their asses. Movement politics recognizes time as the continuum it is. It starts with the work of blowing up simple premises that compose “reality.” That reality has been challenged first by Iowa, then New Hampshire, and when the grumpy old Jewish guy refuses to conform to the narrative, it builds into South Carolina, Nevada, Super Tuesday . . . Of course it’s not about the reality of the situation, it’s about a vital alteration of the timeline to create a new continuum where it is possible that the Earth does not wind up a cratered waste because shareholder value trumped sense. A week prior to the state’s primary, Sanders told a gathering of New Hampshire college students, “It is so important that we do not accept today’s reality as the way it has to be.”
And, yes, the continuum takes us beyond an unlikely, improbable win of the Democratic nomination to a likely win in a general election, because the next component of how Sanders enacts his vision is where it becomes an insurgency and hits the “realists” where they live: If he wins as a Democrat, the president of the U.S. becomes the de facto head of the party. This would almost assuredly portend the clanging, crashing end of the corporate-friendly Clintonista control of party infrastructure.
To Obama’s detriment, he stuck with a Democratic National Committee from the party’s right wing. The DNC, along with the legislative-specific campaign committees, the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, tabs potential candidates and funds them in primaries and maps out electoral strategies. Its current regime under Debbie Wasserman Schultz, a Clinton 2008 campaign co-chair and member of the pro-business caucus known as the New Democrat Coalition, has been an unmitigated disaster by any metric. Wasserman Schultz scrapped the short-lived fifty-state strategy that had energized Obama’s win and captured both legislative houses. Instead, Wasserman Schultz focused on core “blue states” while selecting like-minded “centrist” candidates, often backing them against progressives in primaries because their “realism” made them more “electable,” e.g. more predisposed to corporate fundraising. Most of the handful of Democratic legislators Wasserman Schultz managed to help get elected were out of Congress in the next two-to-four years because they failed to distinguish themselves enough as champions of substantive policy prescriptions. The party lost the House of Representatives in 2010 and the Senate in 2014.
Sanders has already made it clear he would realign the party on a fifty-state strategy, but the real tectonic shift would come in restaffing it for a truly progressive agenda. That starts with a wholesale recasting at the DNC, reversing down-ticket candidate-selection criteria and choosing candidates unabashedly allied with the reforms he proposes, the ones that have proven so tractive and activated phenomenal voter turnout in this cycle. Democrats have been blitzed in midterm elections by abysmal voter-turnout, and if they’re looking for the clarion call to spur voters out to act in their economic interests, the Sanders movement, and Sanders’ own avowed, persistent, active involvement in it, creates the ongoing narrative to marshal a legislative army and make it a reality. This would not happen in a Clinton administration, and we believe it is a long-game worth fighting for.
Sanders has already fundamentally altered the conversation in the U.S. toward actual problem-solving. Do his policies and prospects remain daffy progressive moonshine? Maybe. But that only becomes categorically true when people convince you that a better world is impossible, that the stasis is impenetrable and that the game must be played for incremental, or simply illusory, victories. Yet, once that conceptual barrier has been surmounted, once the machination of money in a corrupt political system has been shown for what it is, terrible but mortal, it is not reasonable to expect voters to unsee the man behind the curtain.
Bernie Sanders is not a savior. He is a start. He is an honest, decent spark of possibility, not just of a new New Deal, but of a wholesale reorientation of government toward what was supposed to be the promise of America: that our social contract is comprised of and enables the will of the people, and that that will is not subject to nullification by someone just because they’re wealthy. His candidacy addresses the bleak, bitter reality of our times — that the only way we will meaningfully address our problems starts by terminating the symbiosis between oligarchy and government, not just the relationship but the legal graft that currently makes every decent, commonsensical fix impossible. As important, it engenders a working experiment that may, in fact, disprove the notion that one must play “the game” to govern.
Of course there would be wrinkles, hitches, adjustments and failures in realizing his agenda, as their would be with anyone’s. But this is science, not dogma; it is a process of problem-solving, not a permanent fix, because there will always be new problems. Fixing them just becomes profoundly easier when we materially break with the blithe notion that the people who wrecked up the world, and continue to, deserve a seat on the committee tasked with saving it.