Open letter to my political peeps: Why we need Bernie, and why Bernie needs the “establishment.”
I’ve got a potentially heretical message for my fellow Bernie supporters: the “establishment” you’re railing against ain’t all bad, and if you’re lucky, you’ll need a bunch of them someday.
I’ve also got one for my dear friends and former colleagues from Obama-land who are supporting and/or working for Hillary Clinton: ignore the shift in the Democratic electorate that Bernie’s movement represents at your own peril.
My experience working on Barack Obama’s historic 2008 campaign was life-altering in every way. America got a profoundly good President out of the deal, IMHO, and that is most important. But I really made out like a bandit too — I got a great President, a major career boost, a vast and diverse network of fellow “alumni” doing great things all over the world, tons of lifelong friendships, and even a brilliant and beautiful wife. I mean, WOW. I couldn’t possibly have imagined what I was signing up for in 2007, and I couldn’t be more grateful to President Obama for creating the empowering, inclusive campaign that made it all possible. And thanks for the sweet wife too, Mr. President. You really outdid yourself.
The people I worked with in 2008 are some of the smartest, hardest-working, most big-hearted people I’ve ever known. They are empathetic and compassionate, and have worked tirelessly to address the problems that impact the most disadvantaged and vulnerable people in this country, often at the expense of great personal and financial sacrifice. Many went on to pursue social change in the private sector, or in other parts of the world. But some of the very best ones dove headfirst into government or continued to work in electoral politics. And, as it happens, the vast majority of them support or work for Hillary Clinton right now.
Lately, my social media feeds have been a bipolar parade of Bernie supporters railing against the Clinton Industrial Complex, and Clinton supporters dismissing Bernie’s agenda as fantasy, his supporters as naive at best, and sometimes going so far as to equate Bernie’s occasional tone-deafness on issues of equity and race to outright bigotry. I get it, it’s a heated primary — we’ve been here before.
As someone who supports Bernie Sanders and has tons of love and respect for many of the people closely involved in the Clinton campaign, this is my appeal to both sides to tone down the name-calling and identity politics. There are some big ideas at the heart of this race, and more than enough substantive differences in these two candidates to keep the debate out of the gutter. Plus, whatever happens in this Primary, we’re going to need each other in November and beyond.
Sanders supporters would do well to remember that the office Bernie is seeking has some major limitations, and getting things done there requires a mastery of leadership and management far beyond what Bernie’s past and present jobs have demanded. Our guy has some growing to do. And if he wins, he’s going to need help — lots of it — and not just in the form of $27 donations, phonebanking, and Facebook posts. He’s going to need his political revolution, for sure, but he’s also going to need some experienced hands to help move his agenda forward within the constraints of the massive bureaucracies, political shit storms, and power dynamics he will inherit.
And Obama-Hillary friends, here’s the thing: I hear your concerns about Bernie’s proposals being impractical and impossible to achieve in today’s political environment, but I think this is where working inside the government and/or politics for the last 8 years has changed you. For those of us outside of that bubble, elections are not about what’s possible today, they are about what we want the future to look like. We want a vision, not just an agenda. When I reflect on how much has changed in the last 8 years, I am wildly bullish on the possibilities for the next 8. I want a leader who can build a coalition around a shared vision for a better future, even if that future takes decades to fully realize. I know that come next January, it will be time to start building that future brick-by-brick, but now is the time to vet the finished product each candidate is pitching, not just the first few bricks.
Bernie is the candidate pitching the future I want to see and the one building a coalition that could eventually give him the political power to achieve it. I’m not saying he’s perfect, but since I have had the privilege of running a campaign against Hillary Clinton with you all, I’m pretty confident you don’t think she’s perfect either.
About that coalition. From NAFTA to Barack Obama, one of the core challenges and critical failures of the modern progressive movement has been building coalitions that bridge the gap between the well-educated, mostly white people who have the requisite privilege to dedicate their lives to doing something about big social problems, and the much larger, less affluent populations that are often most directly affected by them. I can’t count the number of times I’ve heard progressives proclaim that if only people would vote in their own economic interests, we’d win every time. And yet, few large-scale national organizing efforts have been successful at bringing together politically engaged, affluent progressives with economically disadvantaged populations around the country. And no, I don’t think the Clinton campaign is doing that —despite strong support from Hispanic and African American voters.
I still believe in real organizing. I believe in building power through relationships based on shared values. I believe this country’s ills require movements, not just policies, to be addressed and ultimately healed. And while my friends and colleagues on the Clinton campaign are most assuredly building the best, tightest field organization this country has ever seen, I don’t see a movement there. We were all part of a movement in 2008, and I think if you’re honest with yourselves you’ll admit that Hillary’s movement just hasn’t shown up yet.
We’re all becoming painfully familiar with the demographic breakdowns of voters in Primary states, but what about volunteers and donors? Hillary has been winning large majorities of black voters, for example, but Bernie has pulled even (or in some cases ahead) among black voters under 35, and has the support of numerous prominent young (and not so young) black social justice activists and leaders. And he’s crushing her in small donors. In my view, Bernie is the candidate building a movement that will show up not just to vote, but in the years ahead when the real fights take place. He hasn’t succeeded yet, but he is showing signs of finally building the kind of coalition that has eluded progressives to date.
But back to the vast DNC conspiracy theory-peddling crowd on the Bernie side for a moment. My friends, I love your enthusiasm, but allow me to respectfully call bullshit on some of your rhetoric. Yes, there are plenty of wretched people in power who are either elected Democrats or work for Democratic-aligned institutions. But there are also scores of amazing people in that world, and it would serve you well to recognize that, and to have some empathy for them. Take a moment to understand where they come from, how they got where they are today, and you might back off your narrow, absolutist arguments about the tyranny of Democratic party elites.
And I can only offer the anecdotal evidence of my Facebook feed, but by and large, the most vocal Sanders supporters in my circles are not people who have “put their shovel where their mouth is” in any real way. That’s understandable, as they seem pretty disaffected. But if you’ve grown so disaffected that you’re finally ready to do something about it and join the Sanders revolution, remember that there are folks who stood up long before you and have been struggling to change our system from within for years or decades now. And trust me, it suuuuucks.
The progress made under Obama, to say nothing of the enormous task of nominating and electing the first black President in the first place, was not inevitable. It didn’t come without a fight, and many of the people working to get Hillary elected now were a big part of winning that fight. Take, for example, my friend Buffy Wicks. Looking at her profile, it would be easy for many Sanders supporters to write her off as another career political hack, part of the DNC “establishment” hell bent on preserving its own power and influence. Buffy is an ardent Hillary supporter who recently penned this editorial in Time magazine, and I couldn’t disagree more with her argument there. But, as they say on the evening news, what you don’t know about Buffy might kill you(r political revolution).
Buffy was a major driving force behind the massive anti-Iraq war protests in 2003. She led a nationwide effort to secure basic workers’ rights for Walmart employees before it was cool. Long before Barack Obama was a viable Presidential candidate, Buffy was stalking around the country on his behalf, setting young activists on fire and empowering thousands of people with the training and resources to bring about real change in their communities. I casually committed to volunteering one weekend for the Obama campaign in 2007, and by the end of the weekend Buffy had convinced me to leave my whole life behind to become an organizer. Then she brought her organizing superpowers to the White House to help rally support behind some of Obama’s greatest achievements. Buffy’s list of accomplishments has grown too long to mention, or even recall, and short of voting for Hillary in this Primary, there are few things I wouldn’t do for her.
The point I’d like to make to Bernie supporters about Buffy Wicks should ring a bell: I will match her record of fighting for workers, fighting for the poorest people in this country, against yours any day. Buffy has her reasons for supporting Hillary Clinton, and I’m sure they are good ones. But based on her long track record, it’s obvious she shares a lot of your values, and much of Bernie’s vision for the future — even if she doesn’t believe Bernie is the right candidate to get us there. It’s going to be tough for Bernie to win the nomination, but if he does, believe me, you want Buffy Wicks on your team. If the goal of universal health coverage is within reach, you will need people like Buffy to help seal the deal. If you need to win a few more Senate seats to pass that free tuition bill someday, you want Buffy advising the campaign staff.
There’s a whole heap of Buffy’s in the Clinton camp right now. Try to be less of a dick towards them.
And to all my Buffy’s, know that you will always have my undying support and admiration, even if I don’t support your candidate. Unlike a growing majority of the electorate, I believe we still have a functioning democracy and that government can be a force for good, and it’s largely because of you. Together we saw that a progressive candidate without the support of the Democratic establishment can win the Presidency. And from my comfy seat in the Bay Area, I watched for the last 7 years while you showed again and again that even in the face of unimaginably extreme opposition, real progress can be made from within the government. But, I also ask that you recognize that you are now, in fact, insiders. You are insiders for good, but insiders nonetheless.
I have seen firsthand how the last 8 years have changed you. Not in a bad way, but in a real way. You may look back and see your former self as young and naive, but I ask you, would we have won Iowa if we had all been so thoroughly versed in the art of the possible? Would we have even joined the Obama campaign at all?
I worry sometimes that the professional organizers and campaign leaders among us have forgotten that movements require more than just a great strategy and the money and staff to execute it. You can win elections that way, but you can’t change the world. A critical element of the Obama success story was what I call “the moment” — the broader political climate and mood of the Democratic base in the years leading up to 2008. While Hillary Clinton may have all the right policy proposals and many of the best staff and most powerful surrogates on her team, I just don’t think she has grasped the moment.
Bernie is certainly still a long-shot to win the nomination at best, I understand that. But to me, Hillary is even more of a long-shot to successfully bring about the kind of change we need. Even if she wins the General Election (which is anything but certain), I don’t see her supporters continuing to show up for the fight. I would love to be proven wrong, but I just don’t see it. No amount of money or influence can buy an organization large enough to tackle our biggest problems. We need a real movement, and I think Bernie’s our best chance at that. If, in the end, Bernie’s revolution is only able to achieve modest gains, so be it. But I just don’t see the logic behind aiming for only modest gains from the start. That’s certainly not the approach the GOP is taking.
So, to my friends in the Clinton camp, I say this: I have a hunch you may win this election, but right now you are absolutely getting your asses kicked on the movement-building front. If you do win, you’re going to need the giant and growing swath of the Democratic base that is currently deeply committed to the vision Bernie Sanders has laid out. You’re going to need them in November, sure, but you’re really going to need them to tackle big challenges in the years ahead. So try to be less of a dick to them.
Basically, can everyone just please stop being such dicks?