Copyright © 2016 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
If nothing else, the fooforaw about the recently concluded Iowa caucuses underscored the sheer preposterousness of the process by which the U.S. elects its President. The 2016 Presidential campaign had been in full swing for at least six months by the time the Iowa caucuses happened February 1 and for the first time actual voters had a chance to weigh in on who their next leader should be. Until then, the airwaves had been full of statements by the candidates themselves, their supporters, their detractors and the so-called “pundits” on radio and TV who declaim endlessly about the political realm. Almost every time I hear one of those people I can’t help but think of Oscar Wilde’s wisecrack in one of his plays about the woman who “could state the obvious with a sense of real discovery.”
Iowans who turned out for the February 1 caucus didn’t actually cast a vote for the presidency. Instead, in the sort of multi-step indirect process our Founding Fathers loved (if you read the Constitution you’ll find they intended that no common people would be allowed to vote directly for any office higher than member of the House of Representatives, and when the Constitution was ratified even that vote was restricted almost entirely to white male landowners), they were actually voting for delegates to a county party convention, which will elect delegates to a state party convention, which will in turn elect delegates to the Democratic and Republican national party conventions, which will at least in theory select the presidential nominee. I said “in theory” because it’s been a long time (1972 for the Democrats and 1976 for the Republicans) since the outcome of a Presidential nomination process hasn’t already been decided well before the convention occurred.
What’s more, though it pains me to say this — aside from a couple of brief flirtations with the Peace and Freedom Party, I’ve been a registered Democrat ever since I was old enough to vote — is that the Republicans in Iowa run their caucuses far more rationally and, well, democratically than the Democrats. The Republicans at least take votes by secret ballot, count them in plain view of the caucus-goers, and release the actual numbers of people who voted for each candidate. The Democrats run their caucuses like a race for class president in a grade school. If you want to vote for a candidate, you actually have to walk to the corner of the room where their supporters are holding forth and make your choice visibly before the rest of the caucus-goers. What’s more, the Democrats don’t announce how many caucus-goers voted for each candidate — only the number of delegates to the state convention, which will elect delegates to the national convention that will theoretically pick the nominee, each candidate won.
As anyone with access to a newspaper, a radio, a TV, a computer or a smartphone probably already knows by now, Texas Senator Ted Cruz finished first on the Republican side with 28 percent of the vote, to 24 percent for billionaire real-estate developer and TV reality star Donald Trump and 23 percent for Florida Senator Marco Rubio. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson got 9 percent and the rest of the field — including former Florida Governor Jeb Bush, son of one President and brother of another — were mired in the low single digits. Indeed, former Arkansas Governor Mike Huckabee — who won Iowa in his 2008 Presidential bid — announced on the eve of the caucuses he was “suspending his campaign,” a bit of legal legerdemain that — unlike an actual withdrawal — allows him to keep raising funds to pay off his campaign debt.
On the Democratic side, the race was tied. Repeat: the race was tied. With 99 percent of the precincts reporting on caucus night, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton had 49.8 percent and Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders 49.6 percent. Even within an actual vote count, two-tenths of one percent is definitely within the margin of error. Most of the mainstream media have been “spinning” this tissue paper-thin margin as a “victory” for Clinton, but don’t you believe it. Six months ago, the polls in Iowa had her with 65 percent to just 6 percent for Sanders. With hard work, dedication, an inspiring message and a special outreach to young people — many of whom were born during the presidency of Clinton’s husband and don’t have the warm, fuzzy feeling about it a lot of us older people do — Sanders closed that gap and turned the race into a tie.
With a few exceptions, the reporting on Sanders’ campaign in the mainstream media has been biased, sometimes contemptibly so. Sanders has experienced the first three of the four cycles Mahatma Gandhi was famously talking about when he said, “First they ignore us. Then they ridicule us. Then they insult us. Then we win.” It’s clear from much of the commentary about the Clinton-Sanders race (and with the third Democratic challenger, Martin O’Malley, having “suspended his campaign” after a dismal showing in Iowa, that’s just what it is) that the mainstream media and their corporate owners have already decided Hillary Clinton is to be the Democratic nominee, and woe betide any restive Democrats who have any other ideas.
Their most recent strategy has been to bring up George McGovern’s landslide defeat in 1972 and tell the Democrats, their fingers wagging in disapproval the way a grade-school teacher might lecture an unruly class, “Don’t do that to yourselves again.” The fact that McGovern was running against a popular incumbent who had just released world tensions by reopening relations between the U.S. and China and pursuing détente with the Soviet Union isn’t mentioned. Nor is the fact that the popular President, Richard Nixon, was systematically rigging the election in ways that only became public knowledge months after the Watergate burglars were caught. They also don’t mention that the next time the Democrats had to take on a popular Republican incumbent — Ronald Reagan in 1984 — they nominated a centrist, Walter Mondale, and still got creamed.
For us Sanders supporters, the relevant comparison isn’t 1972 but 2008. Indeed, if I were Hillary Clinton I’d be having dèja vu nightmares — “Oh, shit! It’s happening again!” In 2008 Clinton was considered the prohibitive favorite for the Democratic nomination, and her status as the first female nominee of either major U.S. political party was all but assured — but progressives in the Democratic party had other ideas. They rallied behind an obscure Senator from Illinois named Barack Obama, who had been right on the paramount foreign policy issue of the 2000’s — whether the U.S. should respond to the 9/11 attacks by invading and conquering Iraq, a country that had had nothing to do with 9/11 and didn’t pose a threat to the U.S. at all — where Clinton had been spectacularly wrong. That’s why this year Clinton is still trying to make it to the Presidency instead of preparing to leave it.
Indeed, in a real way Bernie Sanders has already won, whether he gets the nomination or not. Before he entered the field, Clinton was planning to offer herself in 2016 as a classic “triangulation” candidate. In late 2015 she gave an interview on foreign affairs to the Atlantic in which she rather snippily said, “‘Don’t do stupid stuff’ is not a foreign policy.” Since “Don’t do stupid stuff” was already known as a catch-phrase President Obama used to describe his foreign policy, and that as Obama’s Secretary of State Clinton had advocated more hawkish strategies than Obama had been willing to do (like direct U.S. bombing attacks on the government of Syria), the anti-Obama message behind her comments was obvious.
Before Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton evidently planned to present herself as what’s been called a “Third Way Democrat,” criticizing both Obama and his Republican predecessor George W. Bush and saying we needed to vote for her to protect ourselves against crazies on both the Left and the Right. She was signaling with that Atlantic interview that she felt her husband was the last decent President the U.S. had had and her election would be a return to the economic good times and relative peace of Bill Clinton’s years. Now she’s singing a different tune, trying to claim for herself most of the same progressive goals as Sanders but saying she’s the pragmatist who can actually achieve them. She got caught in an embarrassing moment when she attacked Sanders as someone who thought he could just “wave a magic wand” and make fundamental changes happen — and some New York Times reporters got hold of a video clip from 2008 in which she’d used the same “magic wand” phrase to attack Obama.
Of course, once he actually took office Obama abandoned his campaign promises to be a progressive leader and mobilize his supporters to overcome Congressional opposition. He campaigned as a transformational leader but governed as a transactional one, sucking up to the big corporate interests that really run the country. His vaunted health-care reform was based on a plan originally concocted in the 1990’s by the Right-wing Heritage Foundation and first signed into law on a state level by Obama’s 2012 opponent, former Massachusetts Governor Mitt Romney. Ironically, the folks at Heritage had put together the basics of what became the Affordable Care Act in case Hillary Clinton got too far with the health plan she was putting together for her husband’s administration in 1993 — but with the Republicans and conservative Democrats were able to stop without having to propose an alternative.
Today Hillary Clinton is running as the defender of so-called “Obamacare.” The Republicans in Congress have done over 60, count ’em, 60 votes to get rid of it, saying they want to “repeal and replace” Obamacare when it’s clear they want to repeal it and not replace it with anything. To the extent the Republicans — who as an extreme Libertarian party ultimately want to junk the entire social safety net, including Social Security, Medicare, unemployment insurance and every other program to help non-rich people with government money — have a health-care alternative, it’s even more giveaways to the health insurance and pharmaceutical industries. The only major-party Presidential candidate who’s actually proposing to repeal and replace Obamacare is Bernie Sanders, who wants to get rid of private health insurance altogether and introduce a Canadian-style single-payer health insurance system by expanding Medicare access to the whole population.
Of course, it’s hard to overestimate the difficulties either Clinton or Sanders will have in actually getting anything they’re proposing enacted by Congress. Between the huge contributions to super-PAC’s authorized by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2012 Citizens United decision and the Republicans’ skill at capturing state governments and gerrymandering Congressional as well as state legislative districts (redistricting has become the fulfillment of Bertolt Brecht’s bitter joke about “the government dissolving the people and electing another”), the next President, Republican or Democrat, will likely face a Republican Senate and almost certainly a Republican House. One commentator whose name escapes me wrote recently that the Democrats are facing a choice between Hillary Clinton, who will propose a program slightly more radical than Obama’s that Congress will ignore; and Bernie Sanders, who will propose a program much more radical than Obama’s that Congress will ignore.
Republican Revolution on Hold
Meanwhile, the Republicans have quietly — and sometimes not so quietly — been building momentum over decades for a Right-wing political revolution that, under the guise of returning to a vision of an “American ideal” that supposedly once existed, will massively roll back all government programs that benefit the non-rich, including public education; as well as end all regulation of business and all laws protecting workers’ rights, including their health and safety, and the environment. Their model is the 1880’s, the age of the super-capitalists who used to be called “robber barons” before Right-wing historians started rehabilitating them in the image of Ayn Rand’s capitalist superheroes, in which workers (including children) labored for 18 hours a day in utterly atrocious conditions, their employers had so much control over their lives they were virtual slaves, government was more or less openly bribed by the wealthy individuals and corporations that ran the economy, workers who tried to organize labor unions were jailed or just killed, and quite frequently — in 1873, 1893 and 1897 — the economy was utterly devastated by so-called “Panics” (19th-century speak for “depressions”) in which working people literally starved to death without jobs and without help.
If you want to see what the nation will look like once the Republicans grab the one part of the federal government they don’t already control — the Presidency — you need look no farther than Flint, Michigan. First Republican Governor Rick Snyder fired the elected local officials and installed a state-appointed manager to take over the city government of Flint and save money wherever possible. Then the manager decided to stop buying water from Detroit and instead feed the city water from the polluted Flint River through lead-lined pipes which only made the stuff even more toxic. Then, when the revelation came out that not only were people getting sick from the lead-soaked water but all that lead was going to stunt the mental growth of Flint’s children for their entire lives, Snyder first blamed the “experts” and civil servants around him, then hired a new set of “experts” to report to him about ways to clean up the problem. Meanwhile, the citizens of Flint are not only dealing with toxic water coming out of their taps, they still have to pay for it.
The Republican ambition to undo the progressive reforms achieved under Theodore Roosevelt (a Republican President who was read out of the party in 1912 and would be even less welcome in it today), Woodrow Wilson and Franklin Roosevelt began while FDR was still in office, in the late 1930’s, when many of the forerunners to today’s radical Right were not only anti-New Deal but anti-Semitic and openly sympathetic to Nazi Germany and fascist Italy. The radical Right survived World War II and thought they had achieved national power in 1946, when voters elected a Republican Congress — but it lasted only two years before Democratic President Harry Truman rallied voters not only to re-elect him but put the Democrats back in the majority of both houses.
The radical Right thought it had a chance to take power in 1952, but their preferred candidate for the Republican nomination, Robert A. Taft, lost to Dwight Eisenhower, who made it clear in office he was interested in preserving and tweaking the New Deal, not eliminating it. (He was also the only post-World War II President who left office with the defense budget smaller than it had been when he took over; having formerly run the U.S. military, he knew how wasteful and unnecessary most so-called “defense” spending really was.) They thought they had a chance to take power in 1964, when Barry Goldwater became the first “movement conservative” to win the Republican Presidential nomination — and while Goldwater’s ideas, including privatizing Social Security and selling FDR’s big public-power project, the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), were then too far out of the mainstream to elect him, the Republicans doubled down on his ideology and found other, more persuasive spokespeople to push it.
In 1968 Richard Nixon won the Presidency and established the Right-wing ideological realignment that, despite some reverses, has dominated American politics ever since. By reaching out to Senator Strom Thurmond and working out the so-called “Southern strategy” — basically exploiting white racism and prejudice against the 1960’s counter-culture — they permanently pulled not only the white South but the white working class in the North out of the Democratic coalition and into the Republican one. In 1972 Nixon thought that by winning a sweeping landslide re-election victory he could finally put the Right-wing ideology into practice, even though Congress remained in Democratic hands. But the political meltdown from the Watergate scandal, Nixon’s forced resignation and the inability of his appointed successor, Gerald Ford, to win election in 1976 once again put the Right-wing revolution on hold.
The Right thought they had their next chance for absolute power in 1980, when Ronald Reagan squeaked through with barely over 50 percent of the vote in a Presidential race with at least three major candidates. (An interesting illustration of how the victors rewrite history is the frequent description of Reagan’s 1980 win as a “landslide.” It wasn’t, though his 1984 re-election certainly was.) But Reagan, though he campaigned as a “movement conservative,” governed as a conservative pragmatist, advancing the Right’s agenda on some issues but doing things — like signing a bill granting amnesty to undocumented immigrants in 1986 and reversing some of his early tax cuts when they tanked the economy — that would get him read out of the Republican party today.
The next opportunity the Right had for total control — “full-spectrum dominance,” as George W. Bush’s advisor Karl Rove put it — was after the hotly contested 2000 election and after the 9/11 attacks made it seem like any criticism of the second President Bush was unpatriotic and virtually treasonous. The Bushes and Rove mapped out a strategy not only to keep the Congress in Republican hands indefinitely but to keep the Bush family in the White House. But the unpopularity of the war in Iraq, the display of governmental incompetence in the response to Hurricane Katrina, and the sudden meltdown of the U.S. economy in 2008 (largely as a result of the deregulatory policies the Republicans favor), led to the Republicans losing Congress in 2006 and the Presidency two years later.
Now they’re feeling their oats again. The so-called “Obama coalition” has proven able to elect only one person — Obama himself. Otherwise Obama’s years in office have been one political disaster for the Democratic party after another. In 2010 the Democrats not only lost the House of Representatives but, even more importantly, lost big in governorships and state legislatures. The reason that’s significant is that any year ending in “0” is a census year, and the party that’s in power in a state after an election in a census year is the one that will have the ability to remake the state’s legislative and Congressional districts to favor themselves. The Republicans came into the Obama years with a 5-4 majority on the U.S. Supreme Court, which they’ve used to eviscerate the Voting Rights Act, eliminate virtually all restrictions on the ability of rich people to buy elections, and in rulings expected this year will probably decimate the ability of organized labor to be politically active and radically curtail women’s rights to reproductive choice. And in 2014 they won control of the U.S. Senate, which means that now the bills to repeal Obamacare, defund Planned Parenthood or attack (to mix my French metaphors) whatever the right’s bête noire de jour is get through both houses of Congress — and only Obama’s veto pen stands in the way of their becoming law.
All the Republicans need to do in 2016 is elect a President, and if they keep control of both houses of Congress they will run the entire federal government. What they’ll do with that power is amply illustrated in states like Wisconsin, Michigan, North Carolina, Oklahoma and Ohio, where they’ve eliminated the right of public workers to bargain collectively, attacked what’s left of private-sector unionism via so-called “right to work” laws, turned over public services (including public schools) to private for-profit companies, made slashing cuts in state services and enacted such crippling tax cuts — mostly benefiting the rich — that the states they govern are quickly going broke.
But the drive for complete Republican control of the federal government hit a bit of a speed bump in late 2015. Its name was Donald J. Trump. Yes, he’s running for President as a Republican and he’s so far disclaimed any interest in mounting an independent campaign if he doesn’t get the Republican nomination. (Actually he first said he might, then he wouldn’t, then he might again, then he wouldn’t again.) And it’s true that on a lot of issues he represents the Republican id in its full glory — in his bashing of Mexican immigrants as “murderers and rapists,” his attack on Fox News anchor Megyn Kelly (when she asked him a tough question about his attacks on women, he answered with an attack on her as a woman, saying she had “blood coming out of her eyes, or wherever”), and his call for an outright ban on Muslims entering the U.S., as well as his new-found hatred of abortion and his absolutist position on individuals having a Second Amendment right to own as many guns, of whatever type, as they want. He’s also screamed for a more aggressive U.S. military response to terrorism in general and ISIS in particular; indeed, talking about ISIS Trump sometimes sounds as if he thinks he can bully them into submission as easily as he can a rival developer he’s trying to best in a property deal.
However, there are dangerous bits of heterodoxy in Trump’s brand of Republicanism. For one, he’s pledged to preserve Social Security and Medicare instead of cutting, privatizing or eliminating them. He’s less like an American Right-winger than a European one, appealing directly to working-class voters who were the New Deal’s biggest supporters as long as they were its biggest beneficiaries — but turned against it in the 1960’s when the Kennedy and (especially) Johnson administrations tried to extend it to people of color. In an article in the February 1 New Yorker (http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2016/02/01/the-duel-faceoff-ryan-lizza?mbid=social_twitter), Ryan Lizza interviewed Henry Olsen, co-author of a new book called The Four Faces of the Republican Party. Olsen argued that most of the recent Republican Presidential nominating races have been about just how “conservative” the party can be. Trump “is not trying to answer this question at all,” Olsen told Lizza. “Instead, he is posing a new question: to what extent should the G.O.P. be the advocates for those struggling in the modern economy?”
The radical-Right activists who run the Republican party couldn’t care less about being the advocates for those struggling in the modern economy. Oh, they know they have to make at least a pretense of caring about them, but they really see the non-rich as “moochers” and “takers.” The radical Right doesn’t have anything to say about the growing inequality of wealth and income in the U.S. because they think that’s a good thing. Drunk on the arguments of Ayn Rand and the “Vienna school” of economists she got her libertarian ideology from (notably Ludwig von Mises and Friedrich A. Hayek), they believe employers, not workers, create wealth — and therefore the rich should have as much of the nation’s wealth and income as they can take. To a modern-day Republican, attempts to buy the working class’s acquiescence in capitalism by making a few gestures in their favor — a minimum wage, unemployment insurance, health insurance subsidies, whatever — are not only wrong but literally immoral, since they amount to government stealing from the successful (and, therefore, deserving) to help the unsuccessful (and therefore undeserving.)
Of course, they’re smart enough to know that — even given how far Right they’ve already moved the discourse in this country (to the extent that the ideas that got Goldwater savaged as a dangerous radical in 1964, like getting rid of unions and privatizing Social Security, are now mainstream) — actually saying that in public is going to hurt them electorally. But that is what they believe. So when Trump promises to bring manufacturing jobs back to the U.S., he’s getting in the way of what other Republicans regard as the inexorable march of market-driven fate. And until February 1, the Republican Right had every reason to fear the nomination of Donald Trump. Even some of his most Right-wing positions, like his assault on immigrants, he’d framed not in the usual Republican terms that we have to be “a nation of laws” and therefore can’t just let anyone into the country, but in the populist terms of building up the incomes and opportunities of America’s white working people by protecting them from the cheap competition of the foreign-born.
So a lot of Right-wing Republican hearts are breathing easier tonight now that Cruz has beaten Trump in the first showcase in which people actually had a chance to vote for President. Not that Trump suffered a Howard Dean-style blowout — Dean’s campaign in 2004 imploded so quickly it reminded me of the old exchange in Peanuts in which, after one of their failed baseball games, Charlie Brown said, “For one brief moment, victory was in our grasp,” and Linus replied, “Yeah, and then the game started” — but the media pundits who regard Trump’s brand of populism with almost as much scorn as Bernie Sanders’ brand of socialism seized on it and essentially tried to build a consensus view that Trump’s second-place showing in Iowa showed him up as a paper tiger.
With Cruz in the lead, Right-wing Republicans can breathe easier. They’ve got a standard-bearer with no heterodox opinions, no embarrassing gaffes like once inviting Hillary Clinton to his wedding, no hard-to-explain (to the Republican base, anyway) shifts like Trump’s statement in 1999 that even though he was appalled by the idea of abortion, he was nonetheless pro-choice. (Cruz’s exposure of that quote from Trump’s past probably hurt him more in Iowa than anything else, including skipping the final debate there.)
And as much as I and my fellow Leftists have been afraid of a Trump Presidency, a Cruz Presidency would be even worse. Trump at least has built a multi-billion dollar business; Cruz has done nothing except try to tear down the achievements of others. Trump has located himself in the most cosmopolitan city in the U.S.; Cruz has attacked him for “New York values,” which seems to mean mostly having a friendly, or at least not openly hateful and condemnatory, attitude towards Queers. About the only thing Cruz has done in the Senate is shut down the government in 2013 over his temper tantrum that he couldn’t get Obamacare defunded — and threaten a similar temper-driven showdown in 2015 over Planned Parenthood. Cruz has the thug-like mentality of a schoolyard bully who, if he doesn’t get his way, will take the football and go home.
The Parties Are NOT Alike!!!
If the Presidential campaign so far has proved anything, it’s that the belief of all too many American Leftists that there are no fundamental differences between the Democratic and Republican parties is flat-out wrong. No, the Democratic party is hardly as progressive as it could or should be. Yes, it’s entirely too beholden towards corporations and wealthy individuals to fund its campaigns. No, it’s not a socialist party, not a working people’s party (though in terms of the way working-class Americans — white ones, anyway — actually vote, it’s the Republicans who are the working-class party today!), not even a liberal party. But on issue after issue, the Democrats are superior to the Republicans — and superior in ways that are important for anyone concerned about the fate of America’s 99 percent.
When proposals to increase the minimum wage come before state and local governments, Democrats generally vote for them; Republicans don’t. Democrats generally support Social Security; Republicans want to cut, privatize or eliminate it. It is Democrats who are pushing the efforts at least to narrow, if not to eliminate altogether, the gap between men’s and women’s earnings for work of comparable worth. Democrats generally support a woman’s right to reproductive choice; Republicans don’t. Democrats generally support equal rights for Queer people, including marriage equality; Republicans don’t. Democrats generally support laws protecting workers’ health and safety; Republicans don’t.
And — most importantly for the future of the human species — Democrats at least acknowledge the reality of human-based climate change and its potential effects on the earth’s ability to support us. Democrats may not be willing politically to do as much as needs to be done to stop climate change from jeopardizing the future of life on earth, but at least they recognize it as a problem. Republicans generally deny that humans are causing climate change. Democrats at least recognize the necessity of a transition from fossil fuels to renewable energy sources, even if they don’t always act as strongly as they should. The Republicans’ energy policy is “drill, baby, drill; mine, baby, mine; pollute, baby, pollute.”
In the run-up to this year’s Presidential campaign, we’ve seen mass insurgent movements break out in both parties around atypical candidates. As Lizza noted in his New Yorker piece, Donald Trump’s support comes mainly from working-class people whose families worked industrial jobs for decades and who have seen America stop virtually all manufacturing. It’s left them in a state where, for reasons they can’t understand but which mainstream politicians tell them are “inevitable,” the relatively high-paying industrial jobs that once sustained their families are gone — and more and more of the jobs that can be done without a college education are going to immigrants who will work cheaper and won’t risk their presence in the U.S. by daring to complain.
Bernie Sanders’ revolution is also driven by economics — not abstractly but directly. If the typical Trump voter is a middle-aged workingman displaced by globalization, immigration and the civil rights advances of people of color, the typical Sanders voter is a college student who was promised that college would assure them higher-than-average earnings. Instead they’re finding themselves racking up more and more student loan debt, and they’ve heard enough stories about people with Ph.D.’s working at McDonald’s to worry whether they’ll ever have jobs that pay enough to justify the huge investment they made in their educations. The typical Trump voter is someone who was promised the American dream and then had it yanked away from them; the typical Sanders voter is someone who’s been told all their life that they’re going to be part of the first generation in American history that isn’t going to have it as good, economically, as their parents did — and there’s nothing they can do about it.
I remember reading an article during the Reagan presidency that said that as long as the Republicans can persuade people that their economic problems are the fault of the people below them, they will win. As long as the Democrats can persuade people that their economic problems are the fault of people above them, they will win. The outcome of Iowa indicates not only that America is deeply split politically, but that the Republicans are still able to put up people like Ted Cruz, Donald Trump and Marco Rubio who can win votes by tapping working people’s anxieties over race and culture — a strategy that’s been working for Republicans since 1968.
The Democrats are as divided within themselves as the nation as a whole is between them and the Republicans. It’s fascinating that, though Bernie Sanders is a few years older than Hillary Clinton — and much older in his style of presentation (impassioned rather than collected) — early polls in Iowa indicated young voters breaking for Sanders by 85 to 15 percent. Hillary Clinton represents the past of the Democratic Party: one that pays lip service to progressive ideals and occasionally expends political capital on them when they can balance that with the needs of their big-money donors and sponsors. Bernie Sanders, at least I can hope, represents its future.
As the Republicans get more hard-line in their determination to return us to the age of the robber barons and their “Panics,” the Democrats need to become, in deeds as well as in words, the party of the underdog, of the 99 percent, of the idea that there are certain obligations a just society has to all its members. The Democrats need to be the party that proudly proclaims that your access to employment shouldn’t depend on the color of your skin, the plumbing of your body, or whether you have papers. It should be the party that proclaims your access to health care should not be a crapshoot depending on your job or your marital status, but should be a right you are guaranteed by birth and which we as a people pay for jointly through our taxes.
It should be a party that proclaims the survival of our species is its paramount concern. It should say that greenhouse gases, rising sea levels and the other impacts of human-caused climate change are far more serious threats to our national security than ISIS and other terrorists. It will not, of course, become any of those things until we have the kind of “political revolution” Bernie Sanders is talking about — the hundreds of thousands of people in the streets the U.S. Left was able to muster in the 1890’s, the 1930’s and the 1960’s to achieve the political gains now threatened by the ascendancy of the Republican party and the radical Right that controls it.
As I’ve written before in these pages, achieving social change does not come about exclusively through electoral politics; nor does it come about exclusively through street action. It takes both. And whether he wins or loses the Democratic nomination or the Presidency itself, I hope that’s the lesson Bernie Sanders teaches the American Left.