Why I'm supporting Sanders over Clinton: This could be the moment to reclaim the Democratic Party and reshape history

The Bernie moment offers huge promise and huge danger -- but it's not really about electing Bernie Sanders

By Andrew O'Hehir

Executive Editor

Published February 1, 2016 3:25PM (EST)

Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton   (Reuters/Craig Lassig/Rick Wilking/Photo montage by Salon)
Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton (Reuters/Craig Lassig/Rick Wilking/Photo montage by Salon)

With the Iowa caucus on Monday, Salon writers Amanda Marcotte and Andrew O'Heir are going head-to-head on their picks for the Democratic nomination; Read Amanda Marcotte's argument for backing Bernie Sanders, and watch them fight it out below in their video debate.
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So here we are: Hillary or Bernie? Hell, I don’t know, and I’m not in the business of telling people how to vote. It’s all a question of how you frame the question, and I know that’s an irritating thing to say. If you think the country is potentially governable and that the poisonous political climate in Washington might work better with a competent administrator in charge, and you’re somewhat willing to swallow the castor oil on the Wall Street banks and the secret overseas wars if it comes along with protecting Roe v. Wade and improving access to healthcare, that points toward one kind of answer. If you think that our constitutional republic has already tipped over from representative democracy into oligarchy, that conventional politics have failed and that both parties represent different fractions of the capitalist elite, then it might seem like the moment for a symbolic insurrection with unknowable consequences.

In a recent conversation with my slightly-Clinton-favoring colleague Amanda Marcotte, I asked her why the Bernie-Hillary race has excited so much emotion, along with considerable vitriol. There’s no question that gender politics have played a role on both sides, and that many feminists feel dismayed and betrayed at the prospect of the First Woman President being swept aside once again by some upstart dude out of left field. But I think the real answer lies in the paragraph above: This conflict is about something more nebulous, but perhaps more fundamental, than policies and positions.

There are some substantive areas of disagreement between Clinton and Sanders, to be sure. But on many issues the two candidates aren’t as far apart as they appear, and Clinton now understands that this campaign sometimes requires her to tack hard to the rhetorical left, and then tack away again. (She has attacked Sanders as a closet NRA supporter on guns and as a closet Communist on healthcare.) It is not an incidental fact, however, that Sanders has never identified himself as a Democrat while serving in the House and Senate, or that to the surprise of absolutely everyone he has reintroduced “socialism” to the American political lexicon, a word used almost entirely as a pejorative (and almost entirely by the right) for approximately the last 70 years.

Clinton and Sanders stand for different and largely incompatible worldviews that have long divided the American left: The worldview of “I can handle this” versus the worldview of “Burning Down the House”; the worldview that advocates making the best of things and accepting the current axioms of political reality versus the one that imagines that a different world is possible and holds that political reality is made rather than given. These views are threats to each other; they are more the views of political enemies than allies. Either Clinton or Sanders will win the nomination, and will be endorsed by the other after some private extortion, but that does not mean peace will be restored between these warring camps.

My guess at this point — and given the craziness of the 2016 campaign to date, it’s only a guess — is that the Sanders campaign represents a historic rupture in the governing political narrative, and offers the American populist left an unexpected opportunity to assert its rebirth and reach toward new possibilities. But that will only be true if electing Bernie Sanders as president is not defined as the be-all and end-all of this campaign, and if its abundant energy can be used as a springboard for all sorts of political action, in or out of the electoral sphere. Political history offers little comfort on that score, I am sorry to say: Americans almost invariably treat presidential elections as a contest to pick Mom, Dad, Jesus and Santa all at the same time, and then wonder why they feel disappointed in the results.

I am sorely tempted to say that I’ve seen this show before, and I know how it ends. Except that I don’t: As the 2016 campaign has repeatedly demonstrated, nobody knows anything and all such confident assertions about the way things work in the real world are worthless. My personal history with left-wing dissident movements within the Democratic Party goes all the way back to Jesse Jackson’s “Rainbow Coalition” campaign in 1984. There was a brief moment, right around this point in the year, when it seemed possible that Jackson could put together a winning coalition that wasn’t just African-Americans and Latinos and big-city liberals but also included low-income rural whites in the South and Midwest.

Jackson was a flawed candidate in many respects, but he genuinely believed in that possibility and devoted considerable effort to what we would today identify as the Donald Trump demographic. That didn’t work out as well as he hoped, and the Democratic electorate gradually worked its way back to the supposedly moderate and electable Walter Mondale, who proceeded to lose 49 states to Ronald Reagan. Consider that Mondale was perceived as the stodgy right-winger in that primary campaign — and that he was almost certainly the last old-school “liberal” to become the Democratic nominee between George McGovern and the heat death of the universe.

So was Jesse Jackson actually less electable than the least electable candidate ever? I suppose that’s academic, as is the fact that Fritz Mondale, with the demeanor and haircut (and accent) of a Minneapolis union shop steward circa 1959, would barely recognize the Democratic Party today. But if we start beating our breasts over the abundant historical ironies of the last three decades we’ll never get back to the exciting 2016 showdown between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders, which is about to hit its first major climax in Iowa and New Hampshire, with many plot twists still to come.

There was another side of the coin in 1984, which was that a bunch of people in my social set in San Francisco — the punks and the anarchists and the sectarian Marxists and the AIDS activists and the LGBT radicals who didn’t yet call themselves “queer” — tried to disrupt the Democratic convention that nominated Mondale, while Mayor Dianne Feinstein and the national media looked on with a mixture of bewilderment and disgust. “Wait, aren’t these young people liberals? Don’t they support the Democrats?” We weren’t and we didn’t; we thought the political duopoly was broken and sucked, and whomever the people inside Moscone Center represented, we knew it wasn’t us. If the spectacle struck people at the time as a ‘60s throwback (complete with riot cops busting the heads of kids in weird clothes), today it looks a lot more like a precursor of things to come, or a recurring pattern.

If you want to argue that those all-but-forgotten 1984 protests and the occasional waves of resurgent activism ever since — up to and including Black Lives Matter, the campus protests of last fall and the Sanders campaign — were politically immature and didn’t accomplish anything, go ahead. That might be true, but it isn’t the point. Political change involves a constant process of negotiation between the impossible and the unacceptable, between dream and compromise. If no one in society makes unrealistic demands or envisions revolutionary change or otherwise makes powerful people deeply uncomfortable, then the universe of possible or imaginable change shrinks accordingly. And nothing changes.

Or rather, things change in perplexing and unpredictable ways, and often for the worse. Hillary Clinton’s current dilemma, in which she has once again been blindsided from the left by an opponent she first perceived as a ludicrous longshot, is a direct consequence of the institutional timidity and ideological spinelessness of the Democratic Party since 1984. Considered as a politician, Clinton is both a creature of that institutional caution, that middle-road path of triangulation and compromise and neoliberal reformism, and one of its creators. Her husband, who used to be a political liability and then became an asset and is now a big old liability again, was its prime exponent. We can only conclude that Hillary Clinton believes that tortuous pathway leads to electoral victory and effective government, although from this vantage point it looks like the highway to hell, paved with delusion and cognitive dissonance.

On one hand, her party’s long-promised demographic edge has slowly and creakily edged into reality, and the Democratic nominee has captured a plurality of the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections. (The lone exception was George W. Bush’s narrow reelection in 2004, a campaign conducted as a referendum on 9/11.) On the other, the Democrats have been eviscerated and filleted on the state and local levels, and repeatedly humiliated in the midterms: The GOP now holds 31 of the 50 governorships, and full legislative control in all but one of those states. (Democrats have lost 16 state legislatures during the Obama years, and now control just 11.) Republicans have their largest congressional majority since Herbert Hoover was in the White House, and will not plausibly lose control of the House until the next census takes effect in 2022.

It’s all very well to point fingers and say that the Republicans are super-mean and super-racist and that the Koch brothers gave them huge sacks of money stolen from the rest of us, and that they won all those elections, in state after state and district after district, by stirring up resentment among the downtrodden white folks of the heartland who flirted with Jesse Jackson in ’84 and are now all in for Donald Trump. That’s all true, but it doesn’t actually explain anything.

Democrats of the Clinton stamp argue, at least by implication, that they did the best they could and that their remarkable recent history of disintegration and defeat, not to mention their near-total inability to govern when they held a large majority in Congress, was something that just happened, like a hurricane or the mysterious and terrible comeback of the beard. That outcome had absolutely no connection to the fact that they had decoupled themselves from the labor unions and any semblance of a working-class economic agenda, had renounced the welfare state and deregulated the financial markets with a zealotry unmatched by Ronald Reagan, and had allowed the Republicans to drag mainstream political discourse ever further toward the laughing-gas rightward fringe.

Those Democrats are shocked and offended that you would bring that up, in fact! They had to do all the stuff on that second list in order to compete and win elections, and the fact that the results have been disastrous both as policy and as politics is somehow not relevant or is someone else’s fault. Blaming the voters for the debacle of 2014, when Democratic candidates largely pretended that they had never heard of Barack Obama or his healthcare law, and claimed to love their guns more than they loved their spouses or children or the baby-back ribs at Chili’s — and then were surprised that the so-called base didn’t show up — was the ultimate expression of the party’s self-debasement.

You may have noticed that I have not made a clear pronouncement here. There are several reasons I’m not going to, one of them being that despite the sturm und drang of the moment I’m still inclined to believe Nate Silver’s thesis that the Democratic outcome is virtually foreordained. Another reason is that Amanda’s argument that Hillary Clinton represents a pragmatic option for governing the country in the near term and restoring some semblance of political order and sanity, while progressives build better options for the future, should be taken seriously by Sanders supporters. Because you are likely to hear some version of it coming out of Bernie Sanders’ mouth, sometime between April and July.

Given the bipartisan, zero-sum character of American electoral politics (which in itself is a big problem), there is always a coherent argument for supporting the less bad party or the less bad candidate, and for setting modest goals that are potentially achievable within the current boundaries of political reality. I have been on both sides of this question in the years since Jesse Jackson came out of Moscone Center to talk to the ’84 protesters. (He had lost his voice, but he joked that he knew we were with the Rainbow Coalition because of all the outlandish hair colors he could see.) I wrote a newspaper editorial endorsing Bill Clinton over Jerry Brown in 1992, and wrote an infamous article for Salon in 2000 in support of Ralph Nader. Yes, I personally elected George W. Bush. You’re welcome.

Is this a moment for realpolitik, as Amanda suggests? Is it a moment to stand outside the tides of populist fervor that threaten to give us Trump vs. Sanders, which would definitely be fun but would also be the weirdest and scariest general-election matchup since at least the middle of the 19th century? Is it a moment to soberly weigh the good with the bad, to embrace the long-delayed promise of a female president and to stand with competence and experience and the withered husk of the party of FDR and JFK?

Or is this, in the words of French philosopher Alain Badiou, a moment that demands a “politics of emancipation,” a politics that imagines a world founded on social justice and an equality that goes beyond consumerism, “a world that has been freed from the law of profit and private interest”? Because “if we accept the inevitability of the unbridled capitalist economy and the parliamentary politics that supports it” — and that is precisely the position of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party — and if we do not put an end to the “linguistic terrorism” of the neoliberal age, which has forbidden words and ideas like “socialism,” we cannot imagine such a world, let alone create it. But I don’t know whether this is that moment. I don’t think anyone could possibly know that.

By Andrew O'Hehir

Andrew O'Hehir is executive editor of Salon.

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