Copyright © 2020 by Mark Gabrish Conlan for Zenger’s Newsmagazine • All rights reserved
California’s Presidential primary election is officially scheduled for March 3, 2020, but I’ve already voted. And it won’t particularly surprise anyone who knows my husband Charles and I that we both voted for Bernie Sanders.
I turned in mail-in ballots for both of us on the early evening of February 26, 2020 at the Mission Valley Public Library on my way to a grocery run at Costco. But Charles and I had filled them out the night before at home, after watching that train-wreck of a Democratic Presidential candidates’ debate in Charleston, South Carolina. As I joked to one of my home-care clients, a retired schoolteacher, if his students had behaved the way the Democratic candidates behaved in that debate, he’d have rapped them across the knuckles with a ruler and sent them to their corners for a time-out.
Needing a respite from politics, Charles and I spent the next hour and 45 minutes watching The Lego Batman Movie — which turned out to be a highly engaging and entertaining spoof of the whole superhero genre — before returning to the political wars to mark our ballots. Charles had been for Bernie Sanders from the get-go; I had been on the fence between Sanders and Elizabeth Warren until her mean-spirited, scurrilous and desperate attack on Sanders as a sexist for a private conversation in which he supposedly questioned whether a woman can be elected President of the U.S. in 2020.
I’m voting for Bernie Sanders knowing full well that electing an open socialist — albeit a “democratic socialist,” two words many Americans, especially those 40 or over with direct experience of the Cold War, believe are contradictory — as President is going to be an uphill battle. I’m voting for Sanders despite my ongoing frustration that he could keep exactly the same positions on every issue he cares about and do better if he just wouldn’t saddle himself with the S-word.
I was amused when Sanders said that Franklin Roosevelt was a democratic socialist — which he wasn’t. Though FDR advocated many of the same programs Bernie Sanders supports now, his position on capitalism was more like Elizabeth Warren’s. He believed in capitalism, but felt it needed strong government regulation to save it from itself. Actually, Sanders isn’t the sort of “socialist” that believes in abolishing the private sector, either; when I had the chance to do a phone interview with him in 1998 I asked him if he’d eliminate private businesses altogether, he said, “Of course not. That would be ridiculous.”
I voted for Bernie Sanders knowing full well that he suffers from “electability” problems. All the Democratic Presidential candidates suffer from “electability” problems. The seven candidates on the February 25 debate stage all are running ahead of President Trump in head-to-head match-up polls, but this is February and the election is eight and one-half months of Republican propaganda and disinformation away. All the Democratic candidates have serious vulnerabilities the super-funded Republican campaign will seek to exploit.
We know about Sanders’: the “socialist” label, the calls for “Medicare for All” single-payer health care and free college tuition at public universities, the price tag on his programs (yes, single-payer health care and free college will more than pay for themselves over time, but the transition costs are pretty steep), and his stump speaking style which makes him come off more like an Old Testament prophet than a figure of decency and stability.
Elizabeth Warren doesn’t saddle herself with the S-word, but her programs are almost as radical — and almost as expensive — as Sanders’. What’s more, if he comes off like an Old Testament prophet, she comes off like a professor (which she used to be before she entered politics) getting exasperated lecturing a particularly thick set of students. Though she’s considerably more Left than Hillary Clinton, she has something of the same image problem: she comes off as a know-it-all, loudly proclaiming that she has a “plan” for everything — and she’s a woman in a still deeply sexist society that regards assertiveness and decisiveness as “masculine” qualities, to be embraced when a man shows them but shunned when a woman does.
In other years and other political environments, Amy Klobuchar or Pete Buttigieg might have been able to pull off the balancing act that helped elect the last three Democratic Presidents: Jimmy Carter, Bill Clinton and Barack Obama. They could have seemed young, fresh and progressive enough to appeal to young voter without turning off the giant corporations and wealthy donors that fund the Democratic Party as much as they do the Republican Party. But in this year, and this political environment, they’ve responded to the double-pronged progressive challenge of Sanders and Warren by tacking so far to the Right they’ve given away virtually any chance of winning the young Left-leaning voters the Democrats are going to need not only as a voter base but a volunteer base as well.
Then there’s Joe Biden, a rotting corpse of a politician who on more than one issue is living in the past. There’s his bizarre penchant for public gaffes, including his announcement in South Carolina that he’s running for U.S. Senate; his odd claim that he’s part of the African-American community (sorry, Joe, but working for a Black guy for eight years does not make you Black yourself); and his and his son’s involvement in the Ukraine political scandal over which President Trump was impeached by the House and acquitted by the Senate on almost totally party-line votes.
Though no one has shown credible evidence that the Bidens had any corrupt intent or got underhanded financial gain, can you really believe that of all the people in the world, the shareholders of Ukraine’s Burisma company thought Hunter Biden was the greatest and most helpful businessperson they could tap for their board in 2014? They wanted access and influence to his dad, then the vice-president of the United States, and they got it. It’s a perfect example of the so-called “swamp” Trump promised to “drain” in his 2016 campaign (only to fill his own government with its dregs), and if Biden is the nominee (which, barring a huge comeback win in South Carolina, is almost certainly not going to happen, thank goodness) Trump will endlessly remind voters that Biden pressured the Ukrainian government to fire a prosecutor who was going to investigate his son’s company.
Finally, there are the three mega-rich guys who this year tried to buy the Democratic Presidential nomination the way Trump effectively bought and bullied his way into the Republican nomination in 2016. One, Andrew Yang, has already given it up as a bad investment, folded his tent and gone home. One, Tom Steyer, probably could have claimed pre-emptive front-runner status if he’d declared two years earlier, at a time when so many Democrats were shell-shocked by Trump’s win they may well have decided the only way to beat a billionaire (so-called) with no political experience was with another billionaire with no political experience.
But Steyer waited too long and played too much by the rules — instead of self-financing his campaign he staged money-losing online “fundraisers” to get enough individual donors to qualify for the debates — and in the meantime someone far richer, less rule-bound and more unscrupulous, Michael Bloomberg, decided to outbid him. Bloomberg is a truly weird candidate, a sort of less flamboyant version of Donald Trump: he really is a billionaire (there’s quite a lot of room for doubt as to whether Trump is), he can lay at least a credible claim to having made it on his own (Trump got a $63 million gift from his dad), and he’s already held political office as Mayor of New York for 12 years.
But Bloomberg has his liabilities. As Mayor of New York he signed on to a blatantly unconstitutional “stop and frisk” policy that targeted young Black and Latino men on the streets for random searches without any regard to that pesky Constitutional requirement of “probable cause.” He’s since issued a lame so-called “apology” that ran something like, “I didn’t realize the effects ‘stop and frisk’ would have on the Black and Brown communities” — which is sort of like Adolf Hitler saying, “I didn’t realize the effects the Holocaust would have on the Jewish community.” Elizabeth Warren also dredged up published comments by Bloomberg denigrating certain women as, among other things, “fat Lesbians” — sounding an awful lot like Trump — and Bloomberg’s defense was that those remarks were “Borscht Belt humor.” (That probably had Harvey Weinstein’s lawyers saying to themselves, “Damn! Why didn’t we think of that?”)
Bloomberg has a deeper problem than what he’s said or done specifically to Blacks or women. He’s a multibillionaire who made his money in Wall Street speculation and built a media empire that promotes and advocates the concerns of the business community. As both Sanders and Warren have pointed out in the two debates Bloomberg has been on, he’s a living contradiction of virtually everything the modern-day Democratic party, and particularly its young base voters and volunteers, claims to stand for. Bloomberg’s is a Libertarian success story, and his whole appeal is to voters disgusted by the socially Right-wing agenda of the Republican party — particularly their attacks on women’s reproductive choice and Queer rights — but quite O.K. with an economy and a society in which the rich continually get richer at everybody else’s expense.
I don’t think Donald Trump is guaranteed re-election, but I do think the task of unseating him is going to be a lot harder than most Democrats believe (or fantasize). Trump goes into 2020 with a lot more advantages than he had in 2016. He has the full powers of the Presidency to reward his friends, punish his enemies and make life as difficult as possible for anyone who dares to oppose his re-election. He has an economy that overall is doing reasonably well. More importantly, he has a carefully cultivated Right-wing voter base of between 40 and 45 percent of the American electorate that will turn out for any Republican Presidential candidate that appeals to their sense of grievance, their racism, sexism and hatred of Queer people, and their reverence for the rich.
That base has been carefully built up over decades by talk radio, Fox News, Right-wing churches and an overall propaganda infrastructure the Left can’t even begin to compete with on an equal level. The Republican party also has a huge base of wealthy donors, and there’s a basic problem the Democrats have that the Republicans don’t. The priorities of Republican mega-donors and Republican voters are basically the same: a Libertarian economic agenda of “small government,” an end to the welfare state and an end to government protection of workers, consumers and the environment, co-existing surprisingly comfortably with a radical-Right “Christian” social agenda calling for a Big Government that micro-manages people’s personal lives, especially their sex lives.
The Democrats face a deep and profound split between what their big donors want and what their base voters want. Their base voters want a huge expansion of government and major new taxes on the rich to pay for more social welfare programs, a guarantee of access to health care as a right, free college education for all who can benefit from it, and strong regulation of the private sector to protect workers, consumers and the environment. The big Democratic donors want none of those things; they may be appalled by the Republican Right’s demand for a government that micro-manages how people use their bodies and deal with the consequences, good and bad, therefrom, but they’re perfectly happy maintaining an economic system in which the rich continually get richer and everyone else gets poorer.
I suspect (and hereby predict) that after the South Carolina primary on February 29 and the so-called “Super Tuesday” on March 3, the Democratic Presidential race will devolve into a one-on-one battle between Michael Bloomberg and Bernie Sanders. The parts of America’s ruling elite who support the Democratic Party, who regard the nomination of Sanders as an existential threat to the Democratic Party as well as to their own privileges, will see Biden fall, Klobuchar and Buttigieg stay in also-ran status, and will therefore unite around Bloomberg as the only pro-corporate Democrat who can keep Sanders from getting the nomination.
I understand the concerns about what might happen to Democrats across-the-board if Bernie Sanders is the nominee. The very first Presidential election in which I was old enough to vote was 1972, when the presumptive front-runner the Democratic Establishment had anointed (Ed Muskie) faded early — helped go down by a letter written by one of Richard Nixon’s dirty-tricks operatives that attacked Muskie’s wife and led him to cry in public — and George McGovern, who was progressive but far less radical than Bernie Sanders, mounted a grass-roots campaign and grabbed the Democratic nomination … only to be swamped by a divisive, unscrupulous Republican opponent, Richard Nixon, who won a 49-state landslide.
That’s one possible scenario if Bernie Sanders is the Democratic nominee. It’s not necessarily the only scenario — one can also imagine Sanders turning on working-class voters who went for him over Hillary Clinton in the 2016 primaries in Michigan and Wisconsin (both key states for Trump in the general election). One can imagine Trump beating Sanders in a landslide, or Trump becoming the first person in U.S. history to win the Presidency in the Electoral College while losing the popular vote twice. Certainly nominating Sanders is a risk if you think that voters are looking for is an end to Mr. Trump/’s Wild Ride and a return to what Republican Warren G. Harding famously called a “return to normalcy” in 1920. (The word he meant was “normality.”)
But I voted for Bernie Sanders in the 2020 California Democratic primary for the same reason I voted for him in the 2016 primary: I agree with him on the issues. Like Sanders, I call myself a “democratic socialist.” Like him, I think the U.S. government should guarantee all its citizens — indeed, all its residents, whatever their immigration status — equal access to health care. The worldwide coronavirus crisis is just underscoring the crucial importance of taking care of all people’s health; bacteria and viruses don’t care about people’s race, gender, sexual orientation or immigration status. As alternative cancer and AIDS researcher Peter Duesberg said, “To a virus, we are just 73 kilograms of meat.”
I also agree with Sanders that public college should be available to all Americans free of charge. (This isn’t a radical idea, nor is it particularly new; the University of California was tuition-free until Ronald Reagan got elected governor in 1966.) And I agree with an idea that got touched on in the February 25 debate: we need a law to require large corporations to have workers’ and consumers’ representatives on their boards of directors. Sanders was attacked for that proposal and told it would destroy the very basis of capitalism, which it wouldn’t; it’s already the law in Germany, and the German economy still has a robust and successful private sector.
I voted for Bernie Sanders for President because, in the immortal words of America’s first democratic socialist candidate for President, Eugene V. Debs, “I would rather vote for what I want and not get it than vote for what I don’t want and get it.” Besides, this is a primary, and in a primary you’re supposed to be able to be idealistic. After the Democratic National Convention nominates a candidate, I will vote for whoever that person is, even if it’s Michael Bloomberg — just as I, albeit reluctantly, cast a lesser-of-two-evils vote for Hillary Clinton in November 2016. But this time around, I voted for a person I’ve long admired, whose issue positions I agree with, and who would be the sort of President I want the U.S. to have.