Open Letter from a Bernlary Supporter
I made my first political phone call for, knocked my first door for, and voted in the 2016 Democratic primary for Bernie Sanders. Then, I wound up driving halfway across the country and working my ass off to get Hillary Clinton elected president in November. I’d like to say a few words to members of both camps and never talk about any of this shit ever again.
To my Bernie people:
Never forget the day that America made Hillary Clinton bake cookies. In 1992, when Bill was on the campaign trail, she asserted that she “could have stayed home, baked cookies and had teas” and dared to suggest that women could do things other than that. America raked her over the coals for it, and her only way out of the PR sinkhole was to bake some cookies. So she baked some damn cookies. For a magazine competition against Barbara Bush. And won.
I was born in 1992. I can’t fathom anyone I hang out with harboring the sentiments that hit her mailbox daily then (or having much use for a physical mailbox): that she was smug, bitchy, butch, unladylike. But as young people, we can’t say that sexism didn’t play a role in her unpopularity with the American electorate just because those aren’t the words that popped into our heads, and just because those aren’t the words that popped into our heads doesn’t mean we don’t carry some of those sexist attitudes with us on a less than conscious level. Plus, those were the words that some of us used. That stuff is in the air, and it didn’t help Hillary.
Yes, most of the folks in the DNC probably favored Hillary over Bernie — we have e-mail evidence that at least a few key players did. But it doesn’t establish that they in fact conspired in conduct intended to take the nomination from him using the apparatus of the DNC. What it does reveal is a fundamental difference in how we conceive of the function of a political party versus how political parties conceive of the function of political parties.
For all the principled indignation about the two-party system I’ve heard, we seem to be pretty much fine with a longtime Independent filing as a Democratic candidate for president and availing himself of the party’s resources in an attempt to win its nomination. Yes, Bernie said himself that he wouldn’t have had a chance at winning without adopting the party’s banner, and we say to ourselves that the Democratic party was a necessary evil.
But it was necessary. Meaning there was some value behind the infrastructure and resources the party had amassed over the course of its existence. Meaning that in spite of real issues with party leadership, they had something we wanted. Meaning that accumulating the kinds of resources it takes to win elections at multiple levels across the United States involves building a big, boring, bureaucratic tent of compromise where not everyone digs everything you dig, but you are united in digging a few key things (and decidedly not digging a few key other things).
Our Sanders tent may have been a little too big, or at least oddly shaped. We corralled folks into that tent that we knew were coming from a very different place than we were, but we welcomed them because that’s what progressives do, right? and because this ragtag campaign needed numbers to have a snowball’s chance in hell at succeeding. Tons of people got into politics because of Bernie Sanders, tons of people got into Bernie Sanders because of politics, and we ended up with a bit of a mixed bag.
Many of us, political novices and longtime political junkies alike, rallied firmly behind progressive values, and simply believed that Bernie would better represent and effectuate those values as President of the United States than Hillary would. For others, the goal was never to pick the best progressive or Democratic or even liberal candidate for the presidency, it was about throwing a wrench in the gears of the status quo; Bernie was simply a more preferable wrench than Donald Trump. Sometimes it was both. Sometimes it was hard to tell.
The difference is in the follow through. We unearthed several genuine issues with the Democratic primary process. If we have admitted, as above, that the party is at least a necessary evil, then we ought to be trying to work to fix those issues. But post-election efforts at county or state Democratic party meetings to re-examine superdelegates (full disclosure: I didn’t know what a superdelegate was until late 2015) or to elect progressives to school and water boards, for example, come nowhere near matching the Bernie fever of spring 2016. There are amazing people out there doing exactly that, several of whom I consider myself honored to know personally, but their jobs would be a hell of a lot easier with the groundswell of Bernie’s revolution at their backs.
To my Hillary people:
Not all of the disdain for Hillary was about Hillary. The criticism that she was the champion of the establishment, while Sanders was the disruptor in shining armor America needed, would have been equally valid or invalid of any other beltway veteran that might have found themselves behind Hillary’s podium instead. Sexism and decades of right-wing smears amplified and shaped the impact of that line of attack, perhaps by orders of magnitude, but Hillary was largely the unfortunate receptacle of many Sanders supporters’ contempt for politics itself.
While some of the things that were said about Hillary did and still should sting, we have to figure out what to do about the crisis of political engagement that fueled those barbs and made them so potent. The election was a wake-up call for many people but there is still a great deal of work to be done. Yes, people came out for the women’s march, and have come out for various rallies for various causes, but considerably fewer are engaged in the often thankless and generally unglamorous work of building a sustainable, scalable, winning progressive movement. We should also avoid the pitfall of assuming people lack the capacity to understand the value and necessity of phonebanking, knocking on doors, registering voters, and engaging in local politics, and acknowledge the possibility that they may simply feel that a movement that does not faithfully represent their key values is not worth the investment of their time.
Having worked alongside some young badasses of color on the Hillary campaign, I must say nonetheless that as a party we cannot afford to ignore the burgeoning engagement and increasingly radical politics of many young people of color. We like to say that communities of color got Hillary the nomination, but the apples are falling further and further from the tree.
Children of immigrants like myself, the descendants of slaves and colonized natives, and other young folks of color alike are coming of age during a time of unprecedented educational attainment, informational velocity, and disillusionment with the political process (alongside other institutional mainstays like the labor and housing markets). Our newfound access to the world beyond the curtain of systematic racial inequality, facilitated by college diplomas, social media, and body cams, serves to stoke a resentment for that curtain and its beneficiaries in a raw, visceral, and intersectional way. As a voting bloc, young people of color went for Bernie; we planted our flag not with our parents but with our peers, and the party cannot underestimate the ramifications of that departure.
Yes, Hillary had much more concrete policy proposals, could point to more legislative accomplishments during the course of her extensive political career, and had experience in a greater variety of key roles at the federal level. But in the upside-down world that was the 2016 Presidential Election cycle, these were all bad things; if she had succeeded in a bad government, then she must be bad (again, as anyone else who had succeeded in that bad government must have been). And the reasons that Bernie was able to inflict “lasting damage” on her campaign were basically the same things that made her especially vulnerable against Donald Trump: voters were rejecting what they understood to be the status quo.
Not even the Republican party was prepared for Trump. If they were, maybe there wouldn’t have been 15 of them onstage vying for the same non-Trump slice of the primary pie, ultimately scuttling their chances of nominating anyone else. If Hillary had faced a normal Republican presidential candidate, we might have had a normal presidential election where we could reasonably except the things that would normally matter to matter in the way that they normally would. But instead of relying on Trump to crash and burn and becoming complacent in our assumption that Hillary would cruise through the ashes, I think we ought to have braced for a fundamentally different kind of fight. These conditions didn’t evaporate after the election; people still despise career politicians, corporatists, and the establishment, even when their definitions of those terms are fuzzy and nebulous. We’ve got to figure out what our answer to that is.
Ivanka Trump is right: “Perception is more important than reality.” Let me back that up for a second. What I mean is that people behave (i.e. vote and engage in politics) based on their perception of reality rather than what reality actually is. This isn’t a dig on people’s intelligence or aptitude, but rather a simple truth of being human. We’re not all-seeing gods, so we’re going to arrive at our understanding of the world based on certain aspects of who we are and where we come from. This means we have to explain our positions as they relate to others’ values and priorities, rather than simply asserting that they have the wrong values and priorities. It means we have to start using the media as a tool, like conservative operatives do, rather than acting surprised every time their viewership-driven coverage differs from what we presume would be in the public’s best interest to see and hear.
Not everything I’ve said applies to every member of their respective camps. I have personally witnessed many Hillary people stepping back to give young leaders of color space to lead, and Bernie people making a sincere and ongoing effort to make change within the Democratic Party at the local level, for example. In fact, most of you, regardless of which of the two sides you were on, can probably say “But I wasn’t like that!” for at least one bullet point. Awesome. I’m just pointing out trends I’ve observed.
Yeah, I left some things out. I didn’t get to everything. I probably got some things wrong. I never said this was a comprehensive post-mortem of the 2016 Democratic primary, and if it ever seems like I want to write one, slap me real good a couple times.
When I said earlier that I hoped never to talk about any of this shit ever again, I knew that was never going to happen. We are going to have to talk about these issues to move forward. I implore you to look past the acrimony, to look past your antipathy for the members of the other camp and their antipathy for you, and to start panning for the nuggets of truth and understanding amidst the silt of disagreement and resentment. We all stand to learn from each other if we can swallow our pride for long enough to pull up a chair, crack open a cold one, and talk.