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Yesterday, the New York Times ran a story titled: “Seeing Chris Christie With Donald Trump, New Jersey and Internet Cringe.” The whole story is fascinating, but here’s the line that got me: “He could travel the country aboard Mr. Trump’s private plane [giving] rousing speeches about making America great again,” or he could be “a thoroughly failed presidential candidate returning home as a lame-duck governor to a $10 billion budget deficit and a recalcitrant legislature.” Everyone likes approval and a roaring crowd. It will always provide more immediate gratification to tell people what they want to hear. But leadership isn’t about what you tell people to get them to like you/support you/vote for you. Leadership is how you dig in and do the work of delivering on those promises.
So what does that have to do with Bernie Sanders? Sanders is talking substantively about issues of socioeconomic class in a way that we’ve never seen addressed by a potential democratic party candidate. He’s hitting hard on income inequality and campaign financing in a way that is inspiring and unprecedented. But I’m not just interested in electing someone with those political goals. I’m interested in achieving those political goals. And here’s where the Bern is falling short for me. I have a number of serious concerns.
First off, as a woman, the Bernie Bros and their sexism is a problem. For my extended thoughts on that, see my previous post. My current issue with Bernie is this: for many of us as progressive people of color, Bernie seems like too much of a single issue candidate, focusing only on issues of class, and consistently making issues of race secondary. He seems to think that if issues of income inequality were solved, that many issues of racism would be solved. In some ways, he’s right. Closing income gaps and restoring safety nets would significantly help people of color. However, he doesn’t seem to see that in order to build the grassroots support for the kinds of economic changes he’s proposing and in order to consolidate the power of the 99% to go up against the billionaire class and their allies, we will need to be a very strong, united, and mutually committed group. He’s bold enough to have the anti-classist policies, but doesn’t seem bold enough to use his campaign to build the type of movement that will be necessary to enact those policies. He has the strategies of a man trying to get elected, as opposed to the strategies of a man trying to make sure he’ll be able to move his agenda forward if he gets elected.
One of his strategic mistakes, I think, has been to make criticism of Obama’s presidency a central talking point. Recently, Sanders was quoted as saying, ‘There’s a huge gap right now between Congress and the American people. What presidential leadership is about closing that gap,’ he told MSNBC’s Kasie Hunt. Hunt asked Sanders if Obama had done that and the senator said, ‘No, I don’t.’ ‘I think he has made the effort,’ Sanders, added. ‘But I think what we need, when I talk about a political revolution, is bringing millions and millions of people into the political process in a way that does not exist right now.’
‘Why will you succeed in getting rid of gridlock where he can’t?’ Lauer asked. Sanders replied, ‘Great question. Because what we will do is rally the American people, Matt, around issues that they support. People want to see the minimum wage go up, 15 bucks an hour. They want to create millions of jobs, they want to make public colleges and universities.’ Lauer cut him off and said, ‘But the President has tried to rally the American people.’ ‘Well, I will do it differently,’ Sanders declared, ;because at the end of the day, what people are really upset about is that big money controls what goes on in Congress, and the only way we change that is when millions of people come forward and demand the government represents all of us and not just the billionaire class.’
Bernie Sanders tosses out political criticism of classism that many people believe in, as if it is an actual strategy that will enact those policies. Those criticisms of Obama end up pissing off Obama supporters, who would be his most immediate and crucial supporters to make Bernie’s visions a reality. A much more savvy response would be something like:
Yes! Obama has been fighting for progressive reforms. And he’s gotten an unprecedented amount of backlash, in part because he’s black. But that old racist order is phasing out. Eight years later, we have the demographics to support a more progressive majority [cue clip of Black Is the New White]. My campaign can mobilize the electorate in ways that will get young and progressive people and people of color engaged in the voting process. Republicans in congress will be hard-pressed to hold onto those seats in midterm elections. We’re gonna tip the balance in our favor. So I think an Obama presidency followed by a Sanders presidency would be a one-two punch, moving the country to the Left. Obama was the black man that many said couldn’t be elected. I will be the democratic socialist that many said couldn’t get elected.”
That would be the candidate I could support. Given what Sanders did say, he hasn’t won me over. To be honest, I haven’t made up my mind which Democratic candidate I’ll vote for in the primary.
Clinton, on the other hand, said in one of the debates, “I’m a progressive, but I’m a progressive who likes to get things done.” Also as Jamil Smith pointed out in The New Republic “Clinton has two selling points that are key to marginalized electorates in particular: She can perform the job she’s applying for, and she will protect the progress achieved during the Obama era.” While I’m less impressed with the substance of Clinton’s overall agenda, I see her as part of a long-term strategy of slowly nudging the country to the left. To be sure, this strategy is fatally slow and painful to watch. The casualties to human life, various nations, and the environment are astronomical. But I’m not convinced that the type of change Sanders is touting is actually possible and sustainable under these conditions and in the way he’s proposing.
Let me be clear. I agree with Sanders’ anti-classist policies. I agree with Sanders that we need to take back our government from representing the interests of the billionaire class. But the wealthy are not going to give up their position without a fight. Sanders hasn’t built that movement yet. And he doesn’t seem to be savvy about building coalition with many of the movements that have already been built. So his assertion that electing him can shift our government from representing the billionaire class to representing the people is as absurd as Trump saying we’ll build a wall at the border and get Mexico to pay for it. They both play well to their respective choirs, but they fail to show a principled, reality-based plan. Now, there are significant differences between Trump and Sanders in their grasp on reality. Trump’s slogan “Make America great again,” basically panders to white people and men who liked the “good old days” when women and people of color were subservient, and the US was the unquestioned world power. For the majority of people in the world, this is not our definition of “great,” and we don’t want it happen “again.”
Sanders, on the other hand, is proposing a change to a more egalitarian society. While there have been several failed attempts at this in recent history (most notably the Soviet Union), humans lived cooperatively for hundreds of thousands of years in our early history, particularly when conditions required that people cooperate and share in order to survive. However, different technologies have allowed for accumulation of wealth. In these conditions, male domination, class societies, racism and war have flourished. But there’s no reason that we can’t have a peaceful society that combines advanced technology with a more egalitarian distribution of wealth. Still, it’s going to take a lot of work and movement building. My biggest worry about a Sanders presidency would be that he would be completely ineffective, leaving a generation of young voters disillusioned about the ideas he espoused. I have plenty of concerns about a Clinton presidency, as well. And a Trump presidency? Well, that’s the stuff of nightmares. However, I’m pleased to see that Christie’s support of Trump is doing less to advance the Donald, and more to disgrace Christie. Christie’s choices just remind us all about the challenges of leadership. It’s one thing to talk a good game, but another thing to do the work.