The Best Reason for Bernie Sanders to Fight On: Hawkish, Neoliberal Clintons Need a Watchful Eye From Progressives

Because Bernie Sanders didn't do nearly as well in three of the five "Acela primaries" -- so named because Maryland, Delaware, Pennsylvania, Connecticut and Rhode Island are all on the route of Amtrak's high-speed Washington-to-Boston Acela route—as he did in heartland primaries and caucuses last month, the wise and the mighty of the Democratic Party and the press who regularly travel that route will now call more loudly than they already have for him to stand down as a candidate and to focus his and his supporters’ energies instead on helping Hillary Clinton to discredit Donald Trump or any Republican opponent.

But it's worth noting that Rhode Island, which Sanders won handily, was founded by the extraordinary dissident Roger Williams, who fled the Massachusetts Bay Colony's established Puritan orthodoxy, power, and apparent legitimacy in 1636 to establish a refuge for religious tolerance and friendliness toward Indians, among whom he lived and whose languages he actually learned. Some of the founders of Connecticut had fled Puritan orthodoxy, too and were even more democratically inclined. 

Hillary Clinton's victory language last night showed that she has picked up some of Sanders' language, and her effort to fold Sanders' vision into her party's sounded compelling. But let me mention and rebut some of the Clinton camp's most convincing points before coming to … ah, elephant in the argument that could end up embarrassing Democrats and actually worsening conditions in the United States even (perhaps especially!) if Clinton wins the White House.

The first argument for Bernie to pack it in as a candidate and go all out for Hillary is that we can’t afford to underestimate the dangers of Trump’s slippery demagoguery and many voters’ susceptibility to it. To defeat him or any other Republican nominee, Clinton will have to move rightward, not leftward, as she had to do to head off Bernie in the primaries.

This argument doesn’t reckon well enough with the reality that, in heading off Trump, Democrats would be uniting behind a corporatist, neoliberal grand strategy that Clinton has always supported but whose successes and credibility are nearly exhausted. She has shown neither the inclination or capacity to change an American regime that is becoming illegitimate and unsustainable. Her vows to break glass ceilings and curb racist and xenophobic policies are absolutely necessary preconditions for our society's renewal, but they’re also absolutely insufficient. Nothing in Clinton's record proves that she can or will work to curb the national-security mania, the militarist juggernaut and the predatory marketing and lending that have trapped us like flies in a spider’s web of 800-numbered, sticky-fingered pick-pocketing machines that are pumping not only inequality but heartsickness and violence into our daily lives.

The second reason given to Sanders enthusiasts for folding themselves into the Clinton campaign rests on cautionary history lessons: In 1968, Richard Nixon narrowly defeated Hubert Humphrey, a capable, committed liberal Democrat, because anti-war leftists refused to vote for a man who, as Lyndon Johnson’s vice president, hadn’t opposed the war. In 2000, Ralph Nader “purists” handed Florida and, thanks to the Supreme Court, the presidency, to George W. Bush, who wreaked havoc upon a republic that Al Gore might at least have preserved. Now, Bernie’s supporters are cautioned to imagine a Supreme Court with one or even two more Republican nominees, not to mention the havoc that either Trump or more Republican “voodoo economics” would wreak.  Dissent magazine co-editor Michael Kazin reminds us that the problem with this argument was well-expressed by the early 20th-Cenutry American socialist presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs: "Better to vote for what you want and not get it than to vote for what you don't want and get it." You may really, really not want about 80 percent of what Clinton would design and deliver.

The third “Bye, Bye, Bernie” argument comes, ironically, from penitent veterans of the old and new lefts of the 1930s and ’60s who experience Bernie as a re-tread, an embarrassing reminder of their youthful anti-capitalist, anti-institutional ranting. The irony here is that Sanders' support comes not only from people in the heartland untainted by the left’s blunders and cautionary lessons but also from lots of other people who may have resented the excesses of The Movement but are a lot more horrified by what Clintonite/Reaganite triangulation has wrought in the society they see decaying around them.

(An even bigger irony for Jewish leftists and neoconservatives is that the glowing enthusiasm on the faces of Bernie’s overwhelmingly non-Jewish enthusiasts at his rallies is an unexpected relief—it's “good for the Jews”—after the long, sorry parade of Robert Rubins, Lloyd Blankfeins, Sheldon Adelsons, Paul Wolfowitzes, Richard Perles, Elliott Abramses, William Kristols, Joe Liebermans and all the rest.)

But the elephant in the room is Hillary Clinton herself, super-credentialed, super-experienced, and super-competent though she is. Compared to her, we’ve been told, Sanders simply recites old leftist jeremiads without knowing what he’s talking about. But the truth, never mentioned by Clinton’s supporters, is that voting for Sanders has been the only way to help Clinton and other establishment Democrats know what they are talking about. Her 2008 campaign insisted that Barack Obama didn’t know what he was talking about and wouldn’t know what to do with a national-security phone call at 3 a.m. Clinton, of course, didn’t know what she was talking about when she voted for the Iraq War, and, irony of ironies, she learned a lot as Obama’s secretary of state, even though they don't always agree.

This isn’t the first time that the supposedly simple and narrow have enlightened the supposedly worldly and wise. If anything, it’s a recurring irony in American politics: From Herbert Hoover to Alan Greenspan, from Woodrow Wilson and his negotiators at Versailles in 1919 to the architects and apologists of our wars in Vietnam and Iraq, the supposedly most qualified and most “in the know” didn’t know what they were talking about.

So pardon me if Clinton’s long record as a Washington insider makes me doubt that she can “take on the big money," as Sanders put it, citing his “small money” campaign, whose 7 million donations have averaged $27 each and have left him indebted to no powerful interests. Pardon me if I suspect that Sanders, after a decade as a hands-on municipal manager who got things done and 26 years in Congress as an Independent who won many colleagues’ respect without becoming a Washington “insider,” does know what he’s talking about—at least as much as Obama knew in 2008. 

So, what should Sanders do now? The best answers I’ve seen are in Jedediah Purdy’s essay, “A World to Make: Eleven Theses for the Bernie Sanders Generation,” in Dissent magazine. Purdy explains why the economy is about power, not “free markets,” and that changing it requires organizing and fighting, not leaving it to experts, whose expertise is not legitimate; why citizens need to be more than just consumers and human capital; why providing economic security is anything but debilitating and dependency-inducing, and more.

Clintonites pay lip service to some of what Purdy summarizes, but they haven’t put it into practice by rousing people and helping them to organize to fight illegitimate concentrations of power. Instead, they have finessed and triangulated us toward destruction. Neither they nor corporate neoliberalism will strengthen American society without enabling and encouraging the kind of movement that Sanders, unlike them (and unlike Barack Obama), has seeded and that he and his supporters can now demonstrate that they truly want to sustain. Whether that involves his staying in the race, and on what terms, will become clearer as these primary results are assessed and the electorate responds to events at home, abroad, and on both sides of the proverbial aisle. But it would be a strategic and moral mistake to collapse into the arms of the Clintons this long before the nominating conventions—if ever.


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