I’ve been ruminating a lot lately on Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential candidacy. I am decidedly undecided at this point and I’m perfectly fine with that. It took me until April 2008 to decide I was an Obama supporter. The Democratic Convention isn’t until late July and the Michigan primary isn’t until March 8th, five months from now. I have time.
But lots of people have already made up their minds. With Hillary Clinton we have the most qualified person – Democrat or Republican – on the ticket, but one with an enormous amount of baggage. With Bernie Sanders we have self-declared socialist who is drawing crowds not seen since Barack Obama toured the country in pursuit of the nomination. It’s nothing short of astonishing.
Sanders supporters aren’t just showing up at rallies. They are making financial contributions and, in case you haven’t been on the internet in the past several months, they are out to sell their candidate to anyone who will listen as well as to anyone they characterize as “not listening”. They’re so passionate, frankly, that they’re starting to get on the nerves of a lot of people who don’t feel the Bern.
As someone who was relatively new to political involvement and political campaigns in 2008, I “get” the Sanders fervor. I was one of those “Obamabots” that drove people crazy. In general, I think the energy Sanders is bringing to the Democratic campaign is exciting and good for our party. And there is precedence for it. In 2004, Howard Dean created what can only be described as a movement. Huge numbers of people who had never been involved in politics before came out to organize in support of his presidential bid. This paved the way for Obama’s successful organizing in 2008 and beyond and his campaign continued the movement building.
The common thread here are exciting candidates with a vision who brought new people into the political process. But with this surge of new people into the campaigns come a host of problems. People who have been politically active often have a hard time adapting to new ways of doing things. And the newbies on the scene often don’t see the political realities at play and can be uncompromising in their approach. If you don’t agree with them, they see it as “not listening” because, for them, their issue or their candidate is not something on which reasonable people can disagree.
And THAT is a problem.
Whenever I take one of those online quizzes that matches me with the best candidate, Bernie Sanders is invariably the first choice with Hillary Clinton a close second. That’s not particularly surprising. I’m a hardcore leftist at heart who was disgusted at Clinton’s 2008 primary campaign and is squicked out by her close ties to the corporate world. On the other hand, it’s not like she’s not progressive. Don’t forget that “Obamacare” wasn’t always called “Obamacare”. We used to call it “Hillarycare”. And she’s been a progressive activist since forever.
But being closely aligned with a candidate doesn’t mean that is the only factor involved in my decision. I want someone who shares my progressive values and can WIN. So, I have a problem with Bernie Sanders, too. I remain unconvinced that the independent American voter, that centrist 20-30 percent of voters who actually decide elections, will vote for a socialist. Sanders supporters tell me, “People just need to get over the fact that he’s a socialist”. I’m here to tell you they won’t. These are not people that spend much time pondering the nuances of socialism, democratic socialism, capitalism, communism, or any other “ism” you can name.
I also have a problem with Sanders’ temperament. “Grouchy old man” might play well to his supporters who are equally grouchy with the state of politics in America but it has no place in the White House or, more importantly, the Situation Room where life and death decisions are made. I’m not the only one to have commented on this.
All of this said, I am thrilled that Sanders is in the race and is pushing Clinton to be more outspokenly progressive. Just like the Netroots Nation protest by #BlackLivesMatter activists has pushed Sanders to address their issues more forcefully, Sanders himself is pushing Clinton to the left on issues like the TPP “free trade” agreement and on income inequality in America. It’s this sort of push and pull that is an essential part of our primary process. It distills the debates around important issues and sharpens our candidates in preparation for the general election.
But I have some unsolicited advice for those who #FeelTheBern and for those who are “Ready for Hillary”.
Sanders supporters, gosh darn it, I just love you but you are making me crazy. I have actually lost a friend who essentially accused me publicly of taking money from the Clinton campaign to post an unflattering review of Sanders’ behavior at Netroots Nation last summer. It’s an absolutely absurd notion by any measure and particularly insulting coming from someone who should have known better. When I called them out for their BS on my personal Facebook page, they unfriended me and that was the end of that.
If you’re losing friends over your chosen candidate, you’re doing it wrong. Despite your passion and fervor, reasonable people CAN disagree on political candidates, particularly among the truly good candidates running for the Democratic nomination. Stop making this personal. While Sanders claims his supporters are ‘Not Anti-Hillary Clinton’, the evidence in too many cases suggests otherwise.
You also really need to quit demonizing Clinton because, if she wins the nomination – a very likely scenario – we will all need to pull together to support her, just like if Sanders wins. You may have noticed that Bernie Sanders himself very rarely talks about Hillary Clinton and when he does, he’s not an asshole about it. You need to do the same. She’s not your enemy and, given the clowns Republicans have running, our country’s future depends on electing a Democrat, even if that person wasn’t your first choice. If someone supports Clinton, it’s not because they aren’t listening, it’s because they disagree with you.
Sanders supporters regularly tell us that his campaign is bringing in scores of new, young voters, young people otherwise alienated from politics. I wish that were true but, frankly, I’m not seeing it. Sanders rallies, by and large, are populated mostly by upper middle class white people over the age of 40. Not exclusively, of course, but mostly. And it’s not like Clinton isn’t drawing young people, as well. It’s important that you recognize that, if we truly want to engage more young people, we should set a good example in terms of how we treat our candidates, even those who aren’t our choice before the primary. Being critical is one thing. Demonizing is entirely another and if you convince new voters that Hillary Clinton is a corrupt corporate stooge who will sell us out the day she’s elected, don’t expect those young people to stay engaged past the primary if Sanders isn’t victorious. It won’t happen.
This leads me to my final bit of unsolicited advice for Sanders supporters and that’s that we all need to stay engaged past the primary, whether our chosen candidate wins or not. While I personally never stopped working to elect Democrats after 2008 – I got involved in the local Democratic Party and am now its chair – that’s the exception. A large percentage of 2008 Obama supporters became disillusioned when he wasn’t able to instantly transform the country and dropped out of the movement. If you really want to promote all of what Bernie Sanders represents and espouses, understand that dramatic change like that happens over time and, in some cases, may not happen at all. Just as some fear Clinton is shifting to the left to gain voters and won’t stay there as president, Sanders is promising much that may never see the light of day considering the political makeup of Congress and the Senate. We all need to stay engaged and to elect Democrats up and down the ticket so that whoever ends up as president has the support he or she needs to do things we want them to do. And, don’t forget: many of our state legislatures are made up largely of off-the-rails tea partiers who need to be replaced. That has got to be an important element of all of our activism.
Clinton supporters, I get you. I really do. For the first time ever, America has the chance to have a woman as our president. Most other major nations have done this but somehow, it’s never happened in the USA and, frankly, it’s time. And Hillary Clinton has the chops and the experience to do this. She’s been in the White House and took an active leadership role. She’s been in the Senate. She was an outstanding Secretary of State. And, despite how her naysayers may characterize her, she’s as progressive as any of our recent presidents.
That said, she’s got flaws. She voted for war in Iraq. She has close ties to the corporate world and Wall Street that are troubling. She has flip-flopped on some of the biggest progressive issues of our time. In short, like any politician (Google “Bernie Sanders gun control“, e.g.), she’s imperfect. So, she needs to earn our vote, not take it for granted. Writing off Sanders and his supporters will not help us as Democrats in the long term and we should be welcoming everyone under the Democratic Umbrella. Many of their concerns with your candidate are valid and we should all be listening to each other as Democrats, not tuning each other out or shutting each other down.
Also, pleasepleaseplease do not go all “PUMA” if Sanders pulls out a victory. After Obama won the nomination in 2008, a not-insignificant number of voters declared “party unity, my ass” and refused to work to ensure a Democratic victory. Our country is polarized enough without there being damaging polarization inside our own party. You never completely lose in politics but neither do you ever completely win and there will always be another issue, another candidate, another election on the horizon that needs our engagement.
Here’s the good news: While Democrats have just a handful of viable candidates running, every one of them is better than the more than a dozen unqualified extremists the Republicans are arguing over. Even Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb, and Lincoln Chaffee who trail Sanders and Clinton significantly in recent polling are more qualified and would make a better president than the likes of racist Donald Trump, tea party fanatic Ted Cruz, or surprisingly inept Jeb! Bush. If our national media was doing their job, THAT would be the story of the campaign so far.
So, let’s duke it out here during the primary where we SHOULD be critical of our candidates and then pull together to support the nominee once the primary is over. And once we win again in 2016, let’s pledge to continue pushing our candidate to follow through on their promises and doing whatever we can to help them do that. Meanwhile, welcome newcomers to politics. Soak up their passion and energy and use it to fuel your own activism.
On some level, we should ALL #FeelTheBern.
If Democrats can somehow manage to figure that out, we can regain control of Congress, the Senate, and our state governments in time, something that should be the long-term objective for all of us.