Thursday, July 28, 2016

An Open Letter to Bernie or Bust

In this post, I am not going to try to talk you out of it. I have presented elsewhere evidence that Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders competed for the Democratic nomination under the same messed up rules, that the voter suppression that occurred was perpetrated by local Republican officials, and made possible by the gutting of the Voting Rights Act by the Republican majority on the Supreme Court. But you don’t want to hear that. In the end, the greatest crime committed by Hillary Clinton is that she fails your test of ideological purity. And she does, I won’t deny it. So you have grandly declared that you will never vote for “that woman”. You will vote for Jill Stein, or Gary Johnson, or you will stay home. I have seen some people say that they would vote for Donald Trump, as an act of revenge on the Democrats; if this is you, I can only say that you never knew what you were doing in supporting Bernie Sanders. Donald Trump represents everything Bernie Sanders opposes, so you could only vote for Trump now if you never really supported Sanders’ policy goals in the first place. This post is for the rest of you, the ones who genuinely care about what Sanders wanted to do.

Tonight, Hillary Clinton will give her acceptance speech. In so doing, she will set the tone for the fall campaign. She will reveal what approach she will take to trying to defeat Donald Trump, and we will understand which potential voters she feels are most important to her chances of victory. That is where you come in. Clinton had to decide which was her priority: reunifying the party by appealing to the supporters of Bernie Sanders, or appealing to the much more conservative swing voters who decide normal elections. This election is not normal in part because of the strength Bernie Sanders showed in bringing so many people together in the cause of economic justice. If we stayed together, there might be enough of us to risk alienating swing voters in order to address our concerns. This would also have a bearing on how Hillary Clinton would govern, because she would want a second term, and in a second term she would want to leave a legacy that the next Democrat could run on. But you have let Hillary Clinton know that these elections will be decided without you. Your vote will not count, or you will not vote at all.

By now, you know that Bernie Sanders does not agree with you. He endorsed Hillary Clinton after gaining as much ground as possible in the negotiations over the Party platform. He demonstrated that he was not attempting some weird trickery to snatch the nomination at the convention, instead calling for Clinton to receive the nomination by acclamation. He made it clear during the primaries that he believes there are important differences between himself and Clinton, but he has made it clear now that he believes supporting Clinton is the path that allows him to do the greatest good.

You have a perfect right to disagree. But remember, you came together in the first place because you believed in Bernie Sanders. If you feel betrayed now, what is your rationale for existing as any kind of movement? My answer is to continue to work for change within the Democratic Party. That does not have to be your answer. But I hope you will learn everything you can about how successful movements for social change have won their victories. I hope you will study the history of how viable third parties have come to be in the history of the United States. And most of all, I hope you will translate everything you learn into concrete, meaningful actions. If you do that, you and I will always be allies, and I will welcome your help. You may not believe that now, but I hope there will a time when victories have been won on both of our paths, and we can get together and thank each other. Until then, go in peace.

Thursday, July 21, 2016

Torches and Pitchforks

Since this is a political blog, I should probably say something about the Republican National Convention. To me, the most interesting question is, why did Ted Cruz make his speech? Pundits have given all kinds of reasons why Cruz did it. The more interesting question, however, is why did Donald Trump allow the Cruz speech to be made at his convention. By all accounts, Trump had seen the text of the speech well in advance, and could have refused to allow Cruz to speak at all. The pundits say that his failure to do so weakened his campaign by exposing party disunity. If this was a typical campaign, I would agree. But it is not.

The standard narrative has it that Cruz made the speech to position himself for the 2020 campaign. Cruz is reportedly deeply unpopular with his Republican colleagues in the Senate. He has an abrasive manner and a fondness for grandstanding. Despite this, he imagined that the Republican establishment would rally around his flag in the name of stopping Trump in the primaries. When that didn’t happen, he thought he would become the leader of a coup at the convention to steal the nomination from Trump for the good of the Party. What Ted Cruz found out, however, is that most establishment Republicans hate him almost as much as they hate Trump. So, in this context, the important thing in the speech was the appeal for votes for down ticket candidates. To position himself for a run in 2020, Cruz needs to back this up by actively campaigning for Senate and House candidates other than himself. This will require him to become a team player, which will in turn require him to learn humility. According to this narrative, Cruz has learned that he can’t become president by himself.

Political conventions are a form of theater. The goal is usually to present a united front, and tell a feel good story about the candidate. Everything is carefully scripted and choreographed, and the audience at home sees only what the Party wants them to see. But Donald Trump will not be elected on the basis of any feel good story. He needs to feed anger and fear to be successful. So a finely sculpted convention does not serve his purpose. Accidents need to happen, because Trump is supposedly not faking anything. Melania Trump’s supposedly inadvertent plagiarism on the opening night makes Trump just one of us. It was a mistake that could have happened to anyone, but there is supposedly no fakery that might have caught it. During the campaign, Trump used the fear of minorities, immigrants, and terrorists as his monster. Trump took on the role of the brave first peasant to pick up a torch and a pitchfork to nobly drive the monster out. The purpose of his convention is to make Hillary Clinton the personification of this monster. In this context, Chris Christie’s call and response mock trial was perfect theater. But Trump needed to give the mob a small victory to keep their zeal going. In the general election, Hillary Clinton represents the establishment, in the form of intrusive big government. But in the primary, Ted Cruz became the last hope for the Republican Party establishment that wanted to stop Trump. So he was not only allowed to make his speech; it was part of the plan. Cruz took one for the team by playing the bad guy. His speech was an odd one for him, seeming as it did to acknowledge gay marriage and the importance of civil rights. But it was exactly the kind of speech the establishment monster would make. Cruz withheld his endorsement and played the establishment figure to give the mob a small prize to boo off the stage.

If I am right about this, Donald Trump is far more dangerous than most people think. His seeming gaffes are actually coldly calculated, and we are all being expertly played. But there is also a key here to defeating Trump. Hillary Clinton must show that she is not the monster after all. She must demonstrate caring and personal warmth. These are qualities that those who know her privately say she possesses in abundance, but she has trouble showing them on the campaign trail. If she can, she will be able to get people to look around and see that the monster is actually Donald Trump.

Friday, July 15, 2016

Endings and Beginnings

Bernie Sanders, with his endorsement of Hillary Clinton this week, admitted that he will not be the Democratic nominee for president this year. By pledging to work for Hillary Clinton’s victory, he also signaled to his supporters that he does not want to run as a write in or third party candidate. This is a message that some of his most vocal supporters are finding hard to accept. I have been expecting and bracing for this moment for a while now, but I am not going to gloat or say I told you so. I have been where these “Berners” are now, and I feel your pain. It’s just that I went through this a long time ago.

My parents grew up in the Great Depression, when capitalism had failed, and great changes were possible for the liberal cause. Eugene V Debs was a Communist Party candidate who received one million votes in the 1932 election, at a time when that was a much higher percentage of the electorate than it is now. Following that, Communists could and did visit the Roosevelt White House and had a chance to influence the shaping of the New Deal. My parents met because of their activism in the years following World War II, and they were ready to change the world. By the time I came along, the great cause was the protests against the Vietnam War. We were a politically aware family, and the first presidential election I remember was in 1968. I was eight years old, and I understood the election as a simple fight between good and evil, with Eugene McCarthy being the agent of good. Four years later, I could have described in much more detail why George McGovern was the good guy, and Richard Nixon the villain. I also felt McGovern’s landslide defeat much more strongly than I had McCarthy’s loss. By 1984, I was the avid follower of politics that I remain today, and I could tell you in great detail why it would be a disaster if the nation had to endure another four years of Ronald Reagan, but I watched Walter Mondale suffer another landslide defeat. Somewhere in the ashes of these three losses especially, I learned that most American voters do not think like me. By extension, I also learned that a liberal candidate could not become president unless another disaster on the scale of the Great Depression occurred. Barring that, the best outcome would be that we could show enough strength to influence policy.

Bernie Sanders is roughly a generation older than me, and he learned these same lessons. His candidacy this year was that show of strength that I mentioned, and it won him major concessions in the Democratic platform. Despite the noise about her, Hillary Clinton is exactly the kind of candidate who is most likely to be influenced by all of this. She practices the politics of the possible, and Sanders has shown her that more is possible now than she thought. Her incrementalism is a reflection of the fact that American voters fear changes that come too quickly, and that is the simplest explanation of how she beat Sanders for the nomination. But the American people were ready when gay marriage arrived, and Sanders showed that they are ready to build a new set of paradigms regarding the economy.

The most encouraging thing I have seen from Sanders supporters since the endorsement is a discussion of how to use the momentum this campaign has generated. People who were brought together in support of Sanders are talking about staying in touch, and using their numbers to influence elections at state and local levels. They have had their first taste of activism, and at least some want to do more. Bernie Sanders knew when he started this that even the election in November was not the end of the fight. To maintain pressure, the followers he gathered would have to gird themselves for a long siege, and learn to celebrate a series of small victories instead of one large one. There will be those who feel betrayed right now, and will fade away after the election, never to be this involved again. But there are also signs that some will stay around and continue to work for change. They are the ones who will have a chance to show present and future Hillary Clintons what is possible.