A final plea to Iowa voters before the Caucus
Dear Iowa Voters,
You have an opportunity to make a huge difference this time around, taking advantage of your first-in-the-nation voting status, to give the country the kind of honest ideological debate it desperately needs.
That conversation, at least 30 years overdue, depends on the progressive/left wing of the party having it out during the course of the primaries over the next few months with the corporate/neoliberal wing (it is inaccurate to call it the “center,” since the Democratic party has moved so far to the right that what used to be the center is now occupied by what’s erroneously labeled the “far left”). If you let yourself be stampeded into what appears to be the “safe” choice to beat Trump (but is actually not), then we will be deprived of that ideological lucidity, and the opposite of what you thought you wanted to accomplish will actually happen.
I’m speaking, of course, about the need for Bernie Sanders to come out well ahead of Joe Biden in the caucuses, in order for a second expected win in New Hampshire to set the stage for a prolonged one-on-one debate between the two.
If Biden, the candidate overwhelmingly supported by party, corporate and media elites (when Elizabeth Warren hasn’t been their favorite), wins Iowa, then it will erode Sanders’s chances in New Hampshire, and with possible wins in Nevada and South Carolina, the establishment wing of the Democratic party will pull out all the stops to quickly and preemptively end the nomination process.
Keeping this in mind, please think of Sanders as the underdog candidate (despite what some state and national polls say), who needs a boost from Iowa voters just to make it to the next round, whereas Biden, with all the advantages accruing to the establishment candidate, needs to have the field equalized against him, so that he feels it necessary to engage in real debate about the substance of his ideas—a debate he has mostly been able to avoid so far, because of the large number of candidates in the field, and because Sanders has been struggling all along just to keep his head above water.
Many of you must have noted, perhaps with amusement, the undisguised panic of the Democratic establishment in the last month or so, as the very real possibility of Sanders as the party’s nominee has emerged. Since the manufactured controversies of a month ago, the New York Times alone has been publishing several well-coordinated, angst-ridden pieces each day about what a disaster a Sanders nomination would be, comparing him to both George McGovern and Donald Trump at the same time, painting him as an untrustworthy, disloyal, mendacious interloper who is not even a member of the Democratic Party, and instead is some sort of a Trojan horse to fool the masses into voting for a Venezuelan-style (if not Stalinist) makeover of the American system. Heed his calls for political revolution seriously, we are warned day after day, even as we are chastised that the American people have no appetite now, as they never did, for any kind of political revamping.
I have not seen this degree of panic among liberal opinion-makers in my experience, not even in 2016, when they thought they could control the outcome to their taste. The entire liberal elite at the moment is pleading with you to rush toward the candidate(s) of incrementalism, cautious reformism, capitalist saviorism and benevolent Americanism, as opposed to whatever standard of unpalatable extremism Sanders represents.
In fact, Sanders is little more than a New Deal Democrat of the kind that dominated the party—very successfully, in both the electoral and ideological senses—for several decades, overseeing unparalleled prosperity and the kind of economic justice and equality that now seem no more than a dream.
Most of his calls, to me—as a person of color who has spent the last three decades, the sum of my adult life, dreading the barrage of oppressive neoliberal policies that keep coming down the pike and making life miserable for most Americans outside the protected elite—sound entirely within the realm of accepted, and in fact quite conventional, American political discourse. Within my own lifespan, college used to be more or less free, a normal wage actually got you almost to the subsistence level rather than being a tokenist slap in the face, health care was not so expensive or out of reach for most people that it was an existential threat, and there was a much greater sense of environmental stewardship than the free-for-all capitalist destructiveness that later took over.
I’m talking about within my own brief life, not some pie-in-the-sky socialist paradise that never existed in America. The kinds of proposals Sanders is talking about used to be the foundation of the social contract that protected basic security for most Americans, serving as the ultimate guarantee against the rise of demagoguery and assorted neofascist and authoritarian tendencies. So when political prognosticators, who in recent years have had a terrible record predicting the American people’s choices, try to terrify you that Sanders wants to remake the American economy into some socialist fantasy that will make America unrecognizable, take it with more than a grain of salt.
And as for the Green New Deal, it is the kind of visionary idea to put us on a different economic footing for the rest of the century and thereafter that has, unfortunately, not received the kind of airing that it deserves—mainly because of the overcrowdedness of the field, and because Sanders and Biden have not had a chance to go at it one-on-one. It is not the mythical Bernie Bros—Sanders’s coalition is demonstrably the youngest, most diverse and most economically vulnerable among all the Democratic candidates—who admire the breadth of vision of the Green New Deal, but every person who has been marginalized and sidelined in an economy that for the last few decades has become rededicated to the exclusive interest of the so-called “meritocratic” elites—which is one of the great myths of the early 21st century, and part of the ideological demolition so efficiently being undertaken by Sanders’s passionate followers.
You have been told again and again that defeating Trump is the highest order of the day, and therefore you must choose the most electable candidate. Then the argument is made that the most electable candidate is the one located closest to the “center,” the most moderate one, who scares off the fewest number of voters in the general election. Exactly this syllogism, with proven false premises at its core, created the kind of stampede toward “electability” that gave us, for example, John Kerry as the Democratic party standard-bearer in 2004, with predictable results against an unrepentant George W. Bush who was easily reelected.
The candidate who is actually the most “electable” is the one who can put together the winning electoral coalition, based not on the anxieties of liberal pundits, but based on who can be compelled to turn out to vote. Was Ronald Reagan an “electable” candidate in 1980, when he gave us the last American political revolution? On the other hand, what did the “electability” arguments of a Barack Obama gain average Americans in terms of favorable policies, since the inoffensive clamor to stay in the middle of the road and offend no “independent” or potentially convertible Republican voters led to eight years of policy stasis, whose incremental victories have more or less been canceled by Trumpian diktat anyway?
I hope you, the voters in Iowa, will remember that in American presidential politics passion wins the day. Trump won because, agree with his policies or not, he stirred genuine passion, as does Sanders. Trump is the wrong kind of populist, authoritarian and racist, whereas Sanders is the right kind of populist, tolerant and humanist. We are blessed as a country to have a potential repeat of the head-on collision between authoritarian populism and democratic populism that we were deprived of in the 2016 election, but this can happen only if Iowa puts Sanders well on top, and gives him a fair chance to go forward on a more equalized footing against the party’s establishment wing.
Once Biden is the nominee, his entire past, which so far has eluded scrutiny in this election cycle, will come up for justified attack, and it will take the oxygen out of the air as far as liberal support is concerned. There is simply no way, in today’s political environment, for a one-time ferocious opponent of desegregation and school busing, a passionate drug warrior (who helped differentiate between crack and powder cocaine, leading to great disparities in sentencing), a harbinger of Patriot Act-like violations of civil liberties all throughout the 1980s and 1990s, a law-and-order rhetorician proudly at the center of the establishment of the modern American carceral state, and someone who, at the behest of MBNA and other financial donors in Delaware, made the burden of debt much more onerous for borrowers (making it nearly impossible to discharge student debt through bankruptcy, for example), to be a viable candidate this fall.
This is not to mention Biden’s enthusiastic support for the Iraq War (by itself a disabling part of his record), when he was, contrary to his current explanation, not just manipulated into support by Bush’s wily lieutenants, but an eager proponent of pursuing imaginary weapons of destruction possessed by an imaginary Hitler-like tyrant bent on regional domination.
Along with his support for the Iraq War, Trump is likely to go after Biden’s lifelong advocacy of trade agreements that have enriched very few Americans at the cost of general prosperity. On women’s issues, Trump himself is weak, so he may not aim for Biden’s failure at the Anita Hill testimony, but that will certainly dampen enthusiasm toward him in an environment when young people are passionately drawn toward the kind of true feminism enveloped in a movement for economic justice.
How will we ever have clarity on Biden’s record, if he is crowned the nominee too early in the process?
For this transparency to happen, primary and caucus voters need to fall behind one progressive candidate and one establishment candidate, and think seriously about the main issue that really ought to be at the center of this election: Is Trump an aberration, an anomaly we can quickly get past (as nearly the entirety of those who are currently attacking Sanders in the liberal media presume), or did Trump come about because of existing injustices that became so intolerable (mainly because of the persistence of neoliberal policies of inequality under the Clinton/Obama/Biden regime) that the electorate chose to smash the system rather than continue under that form of duplicity?
Do we really want to make the next election about small-bore items (adding the public option to Obamacare) or about a new vision for the American political and economic system? Do we want to look back to the past (of an imagined comity and consensus that is Biden’s political raison d’etre) or do we dare to boldly enter the future that awaits a fully globalized world?
Why is it that so many young people are drawn to one candidate and not the other? What do young people around the country know that older people don’t, but might learn from?
For the first time in my adult life, after a three-decade-long season of undisguised neoliberalism (meaning the politics of inequality), along came a candidate who compelled me to rethink the possibilities for America. I had all but given up on America, as is true of so many of my generation, and even more so of the generation that came after me, because I saw us locked into policies that refused to take reality into account.
The candidate of reality, Iowans, deserves to be sent into the remainder of the primary season with a strong boost, so that people like me—poor people, people of color, people in debt, people in prison or on parole, people who have migrated or are refugees, people deprived of the basics of human decency and comfort—may at last have an opportunity to present to America, in a prolonged and healthy discussion, what it is that hurts us and what it is that can heal us.
Please, Iowans, don’t disappoint us, those who don’t live in your state and can’t vote there, and give us a clear shot at making our case in a way that we haven’t had a chance to do so far. That’s all we ask for on Feb. 3.
A Much-Maligned Bernie Bro
Anis Shivani’s recent political books include Why Did Trump Win?, A Radical Human Rights Solution to the Immigration Problem, and Confronting American Fascism. His novel A History of the Cat in Nine Chapters or Less was released in January.