As the Donald Trump Traveling Faux Populist Political Circus winds its way rightward into a merry, malevolent maelstrom of venom, vitriol and violence, I must tear my gaze from that cable news-abetted car wreck for just a moment to address a caustic and cancerous growth on the left.
I freely admit that I spend way too much time nursing my political jones by surfing Daily Kos, Talking Points Memo and The Huffington Post, among other sites. I find that the website articles and diaries about the 2016 Presidential election provide valuable perspective that can’t be gleaned from the shallow, repetitive and all-too-predictable TV news outlets — obsessed as they are with endless horse race prognostication.
But when I drill down into the comment sections on sites like Kos, TPM and HuffPost, I’m increasingly concerned about the alarming tendency of progressives to snatch defeat from the jaws of potential electoral victory. Even as The Donald is torching the Republican establishment and blasting its electoral hopes to smithereens, many liberal Democrats and progressives seem intent on setting their own house ablaze.
Reading the comments on progressive, left-leaning websites reveals an ongoing, self-destructive flame war between passionate supporters of the leading Democratic candidates, Senator Bernie Sanders and Secretary Hillary Clinton.
It’s a disturbing fraternal fight, as “Bernie-bots” and “Clintonites” make critical mistakes of both an historical and politically practical nature.
I’ll state right now that I support Bernie Sanders and his damn near revolutionary economic and social agenda. I would love to see him win the Democratic Party’s nomination. I can also state without equivocation that, should Bernie fail to win the nomination, I will support Hillary Clinton against whoever emerges from the GOP primary scrum.
That said, I’m no political Pollyanna. I know all too well that after a bruising primary fight it’s not always easy for a party to sing “Kumbaya” and come together. Just imagine how hard that will be for the Republicans this year. As I type this, Marco Rubio and John Kasich are both backing off their pledge to back Trump if he’s nominated.
That’s why I hate to hear Sanders backers say they’ll never vote for Hillary – and vice versa. Standing on principal is one thing: political suicide is another. Progressives should – and must – do better. That’s the practical part of my argument.
When a Hillary supporter sits out the general election because Bernie won the nomination (and vice versa), he or she may as well pull the lever for Trump or Cruz. That’s the reality of our nation’s current two-party system. (Until, of course, Trump fails to become the GOP nominee and launches his own Quixotic third-party bid.)
As I read them, there are two major threads in the Sanders vs. Clinton commentaries. Both are flawed.
Hillary Clinton, her surrogates, and many of her supporters in the blogosphere flame wars make the essential mistake of criticizing Senator Sanders and his supporters for their idealism. Rather than appeal to that beautiful, energized idealism with a message that can inspire young people and encourage frustrated but hopeful older progressives, Clinton and her campaigners too often drone on about being “practical” and “incremental” and chastise Bernie’s enthused base for wanting “pie-in-the-sky”.
Too many Clintonites view the Bernie-bots as callow youth, lacking the world-weary wisdom that Hillary has gained through her decades of experience. All too often, Hillary and her backers trot out the same stale arguments and dismissive language that the GOP has always used to denigrate progressive policy goals for education, health care and social services — saying that Bernie is “giving things away for free” and “buying votes with free stuff.”
It’s sad to hear Democrats using Republican talking points. And it’s especially demoralizing to hear avowed liberals still using “socialist” and “Democratic Socialism” as dirty words. I would have thought that FDR’s New Deal would have ended that kind of talk. Wouldn’t it be better for those of us on the left to take advantage of Bernie’s candidacy to erase the stigma attached to “socialism”? It’s clearly not a dirty word to millions of young progressives – and 57-year old liberals like me.
Bernie Sanders is running an aspirational campaign – much like candidate Obama did during his first run to the White House. Hillary and her base make a mistake when they dump on the dreamers. If we don’t reach beyond our grasp, we’ll never know how far we can go.
Take health care, for instance. Had Democrats aspired to a higher goal and put single payer on the table at the outset of the Senate negotiations – we might have done a lot better. We might have controlled the rapacious health insurance industry even more. We’ll never know because Democratic negotiators (in league with insurance companies) took a “practical” and “incremental” approach. Doubtless, Obamacare is far better than what we had before – but it might have been much better. As Bernie would say, “Just sayin’…”
As for Bernie’s online legions, I’m often disappointed to hear shallow attacks on Hillary that betray a startling lack of historical knowledge. The worst of these is the constant charge that Hillary is a member of “the oligarchy” and therefore she can never truly represent progressive ideals and policies.
However, while it’s entirely appropriate to debate whether Bernie’s small-donor funded campaign makes him less beholden to special interests than Hillary’s financial support from Wall Street and big donors – it’s breathtaking historical naiveté to think that a member of the oligarchy cannot represent progressive, liberal interests.
Get out your history books, Bernie-bots, and look up President Theodore Roosevelt, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and President John Fitzgerald Kennedy.
All three of these guys were members of the American oligarchy: born to very wealthy families, landed, connected, and raised in comfort and privilege. But what did they do?
Teddy Roosevelt took on “the robber barons” of his time and broke up the Gilded Age corporate monopolies that dominated the American economy at the turn-of-the-century. They called this son of the oligarchy “The Trust Buster”.
In an economic situation much like that which led to the Great Recession of 2007, Teddy Roosevelt believed that Wall Street was acting unwisely. While greedy Wall Street financiers were living high off the hog, the working classes were getting the shaft. If cutting wages increased corporate profits — just do it! TR saw that this blatant exploitation of the masses could ignite a violent revolution: the kind that was roiling Europe. So in 1902, he launched an attack on the captains of industry, including JP Morgan, putting teeth into enforcement of the Sherman Antitrust Act.
Teddy’s legendary battle against corporate greed and arrogance makes the 2010 Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act look very pale, indeed.
And then, of course, there was TR’s foundational work in environmental conservation and the growth of our great National Parks. Think he didn’t take on big mining, ranching and timber-cutting interests to preserve those awesome wilderness landscapes for the public?
Franklin Delano Roosevelt was also a member of the oligarchy. Both of his parents were members of wealthy old New York families on the social register – related by blood or marriage to 11 other former presidents: John Adams, James Madison, John Quincy Adams, Martin Van Buren, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, Benjamin Harrison, William H. Taft and, of course, Teddy Roosevelt, FDR’s fifth cousin. Now, that’s oligarchy for you.
But, did FDR’s wealth and connections make him the enemy of progressive values? Do I have to explain how he saved the nation after three successive Republican administrations drove America into the Great Depression? In that Herculean effort, FDR practically invented modern American liberalism with his New Deal – ambitious, progressive programs like the WPA, the Civilian Conservation Corps and that little thing called Social Security.
FDR was a Democratic giant, a champion of American progressive values – and a member of the oligarchy.
JFK was no FDR – but he was a progressive in his time, founding the Peace Corps and helping to advance the cause of civil rights and voting rights. Another son of great wealth and privilege, John F Kennedy may have been an oligarch, but he inspired a generation of young progressives – including Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton.
So, let’s keep everything in perspective, my lefty compatriots. Keep your eyes on the electoral prize.
Douse the flame wars.
Let’s keep the contest for the Democratic nomination honest and respectful — with an informed appreciation for the role of liberal values in American politics, past, present and future.
At some point this summer, we’ll all need to come together.