If you’ve ever had the misfortune of watching a televised presidential debate on one of the major US networks, you know it’s a soul-sucking affair. They open with an epic soundtrack roaring over computer-generated graphics and footage of the candidates, as though the debate were a battle between good and evil or a sporting event. Candidates are then allotted a few seconds to emote on a topic before being told the conversation must move on to the next topic. Worst of all, the whole thing is constantly interrupted by ads and flanked by wealthy pundits bloviating about who “performed well.”
This same focus on theatrics bleeds into national political discourse. We talk about who won the last debate, who’s ahead in the race, which candidates despise each other, and so on. Despite my best efforts, I talk about this stuff all the time. Against my better judgment, too often I follow the script.
What gets lost in all of this sensationalism is that the point of politics isn’t the race itself. The point of politics is to alleviate suffering.
Whether we’re talking about healthcare, war, wages, pollution, immigration, prison, or something else entirely, the lives of real people are affected daily by the decisions and indecisions of our politicians. And for many people — particularly the least fortunate among us — political change is at times the only hope they have to overcome deep suffering.
Once we view politics through this lens, it becomes clearer which type of candidates we should vote into office. Namely, we should disregard candidates who don’t focus on alleviating suffering.
But this is getting a bit abstract. To make it real, think of what your candidate would do about the following scenarios:
1. A Healthcare Tragedy
In 2010, her husband and one-year-old son were hit by a car in a crosswalk and were both rushed to the hospital. As she sat next to her son, she stressed about insurance details. “Before we knew the outcome, I sat at his bedside, his tiny stitched-together body hooked to a million incessantly beeping machines, straining to recall what our deductibles were,” she writes.
Tragically, her son didn’t survive. But before she could process her overwhelming pain, she had to deal with her primary care doctor refusing to treat her husband over an insurance dispute.
For months afterward, she unraveled a Gordian knot of insurance claims and settlements. “Through all this, my husband and I both were suffering from PTSD,” she writes. “We had jobs, a mortgage. All of it hung in the balance.”
2. An Attack on Civilians
A few hundred laborers were hired to pick pine nuts in Afghanistan’s eastern Nangarhar province last fall.
One night after a day’s work, they settled around their tents for the evening. Then, out of nowhere, an US drone attacked them.
“We had huddled together around small bonfires and we were discussing the security situation in our villages, but suddenly everything changed. There was destruction everywhere,” said one of the survivors, who ran with some of the children into a nearby forest during the attack.
“My son and his friends were killed by the Americans,” said another survivor. “How could they do this to us?”
Altogether, 30 civilians were killed and 40 were injured.
“My son and his friends were killed by the Americans,” said another survivor. “How could they do this to us?”
3. The Thought of Ending It All
Kevin Lowney, a 56-year-old former salesman in Montana, is fighting chronic pain and medical debt with no prospect of retirement.
Early in his career he worked in a copper mine, but when it shut down he got a business degree and became a food delivery salesman. Then around 2002, with his prospect dwindling, he worked as a Walmart cashier. Now he struggles to get by due to a range of stress-related health problems.
“I’ve worked hard all my life, put myself through college, raised three kids, been a single parent at different times in my life,” he says. “Now I’m bankrupt. Not only bankrupt but with a remaining huge debt.” And his wages show no sign of increasing.
“I am in such pain every night, suicide has on a regular basis crossed my mind just simply to ease the pain,” he adds.
Unfortunately these stories of deep suffering are all too common:
- Half a million Americans go bankrupt each year because of medical bills.
- More than 200,000 civilians have died in the recent Middle East wars, at the cost of more than $2 trillion.
- Most US workers haven’t seen real wages increase for decades.
Political institutions have a unique role in alleviating this pain, which too often is driven by businesses that value stockholders above all else: health insurance companies that care about the bottom line more than helping people avoid bankruptcy, weapons manufacturers that have to keep wars alive to keep turning a profit, business leaders who refuse their workers a living wage.
Of course, there is plenty of pain elsewhere, from environmental destruction, injustice in prison systems, a callous disregard for immigrants seeking asylum, and so on. The point of politics, again, is to alleviate suffering like this.
So, how does your candidate fair when it comes to alleviating suffering?
When it comes to healthcare, most politicians claim to more or less want the status quo. They do little to nothing to help someone in Michelle DuBarry’s shoes.
When it comes to war, there’s near unanimous support for pumping money into war manufacturers so we can keep dropping bombs on the Middle East. It hardly matters whether the politician is Republican or Democrat, whether a candidate is a man or a woman. Our politicians vote for war. Last year they increased the annual war budget by $145 billion—almost twice of what all students spent on public college—and it barely made the news. We don’t ask how we’ll pay for war. We should.
When it comes to education and wages, politicians across the aisle are almost uniformly apathetic. That’s why student debt is ballooning and real wages haven’t budged in decades.
Look at the range of other topics: healthcare, climate change, prisons, immigration, gun deaths, etc. How does your candidate fair when it comes to alleviating suffering?
Consider Trump by this standard. He boasts about economic growth (which would help alleviate suffering), but the economy grew slower in his first three years in office than it grew in the prior three years. He keeps putting off healthcare reform, even as healthcare premiums rise and the number of uninsured increases by millions. When it comes to war, Trump has steeply increased the military budget, kept the troops in the Middle East, dropped the most bombs on Afghanistan since 2013, and greatly amped up drone strikes with callous disregard for civilian deaths. When it comes to income, the stock market has risen (as Trump is fond tweeting about), but real-wages haven’t. In the three years prior to Trump, the unemployment rate dropped 2%. In the three years since Trump the decline slowed, dropping only 1.2%.
Trump’s genius is that he knows how to spin a story and keep himself in the news. He’s managed to persuade his supporters of things that aren’t supported by the data. In short, like so many of our politicians, he has failed to alleviate the suffering of the least among us.
So, which of our current presidential candidates would best alleviate the suffering of the least among us?
I tend to think it will be the candidates who say that alleviating suffering is what they want to do.
To get specific, we might look at healthcare and college.
What if we could cover everyone and do it while spending far less than we do today? It’s possible, as evidenced by many other countries around the world:
These other countries enjoy far less spending because they restrict insurance costs, pharmaceutical costs, and hospital costs. This approach also frees up entrepreneurs from having to worry about losing healthcare when leaving a job to start a business. And these countries are doing it while keeping pace with the US economically.
Most importantly, universal healthcare is an enormous boon for low wage earners. Think of it this way: If you make more than $100k and are inflicted with a medical bill of $5,000, it might pinch. But if you make less than $30k, a bill like that might knock you off your feet.
In the past, a high school diploma was enough to get a job with a livable wage. Now it’s not. Since the recession, 95% of the economic growth in the United States went to people with “education beyond high school.” Those with only a high school education saw almost no gains (and many saw their wages drop).
And yet there’s a strange unwritten rule in America that public education should be forever limited to K-12, even though people now need training beyond high school to get a job and grow their wages.
If graduating from high school is no longer sufficient for finding a job, we need to change our approach. The public needs public support.
This isn’t a radical idea. Just as public K-12 was once controversial but now has almost universal support, expanding to some form of public K-14 or public K-16 will one day be widely viewed as an essential step toward increasing economic growth for all citizens. And it’s not beyond our reach. For context, remember that Trump raised the annual military budget by $145 billion since taking office and no one blinked. Covering tuition for everyone attending public colleges right now would cost $80 billion — a little more than half of Trump’s military increase. So the money exists. We just need to prioritize the education of our future workforce.
We Are All in This Together: What I’m Voting For
At its core, what I’m driving at here is bigger than politics. It gets at the heart of life’s purpose.
On this note, I frequently think about an answer Bernie Sanders gave to a question in a town hall about his personal religious feelings.
He said, “Everybody practices religion in a different way. … I would not be running for president of the United States if I did not have very strong religious and spiritual feelings. …
If we have children who are hungry in America, if we have elderly people who can’t afford prescription drugs — you know what, that impacts you and that impacts me. And I worry very much about a society where some people say, “It doesn’t matter to me. I got it. I don’t care about other people.”
So my spirituality is that we are all in this together. And that when children go hungry, when veterans sleep out on the street, it impacts me. That’s my very strong spiritual feeling.”
I share the same very strong spiritual feelings that Bernie Sanders articulates above. I deeply believe that we are all in this together. I believe that when someone else suffers, I suffer too. I can’t be entirely happy while we’re killing thousands of innocent civilians in the Middle East. I can’t be entirely happy while people suffer through cruel insurance practices. My happiness is yours, and yours is mine.
Given that I resonate so strongly with his spiritual feelings, I’m inclined to side with Bernie, acknowledging all the while that I’m a flawed human being who could be wrong in my beliefs and is open to changing my mind in light of new evidence. Despite all this, I’m voting for Bernie.
What About Democratic Socialism?
Bernie’s critics may write him off as a socialist, saying that he’ll turn the US economy into Venezuela’s economy. If that were to happen, it would be terrible. I wouldn’t wish the brutality and economic collapse of Venezuela on anyone. It’s the opposite of alleviating suffering.
However, the truth is that socialism is a word that can mean 100 things, each of which depends on the context. As Charlotte Alter, author of The Ones We’ve Been Waiting For, writes, “Socialism is a generational Rorschach test: Boomers think of Soviet gulags and bad shoes, millennials think of Swedish healthcare and free education.”
If voting for Bernie means gulags, he’d be a terrible choice. If it means universal healthcare and public K-16, he’d be terrific, depending on the details of the bills that get implemented after making their way through Congress.
Given that every speech Bernie gives is about healthcare and public K-16, it’s clear what he means by “democratic socialism.” He wants an American version of expanded social programs—an extension of FDR’s New Deal.
What’s more, given that we are in an era of corporate excess and rampant inequality in the vein of the 1920s, a return to the politics of FDR makes sense. (It also helps that the decades following FDR, from 1934 to 1964, brought tremendous economic growth along higher taxes for the most wealthy.)
In other words, Bernie’s democratic socialism has American roots. It means a return to the policies of FDR, not instituting the brutality of Chavez. It means, above all, universal healthcare and expanding education.
What About BernieBros?
It’s true and disappointing that some of Bernie’s supporters can be horribly malicious, wrapped up in self-righteous indignation. Some of them are in need of a heavy does of humility. The idea that his followers are mostly white men, though, is a myth — a myth that erases the voices of women (who make up the majority of his supporters), especially women of color.
How many mean tweets equate to one bomb dropped on a child in the Middle East? If you’re fixated on mean tweets, you’ve lost sight of the point of politics.
To his credit, Bernie has repeatedly declared, “Anybody making personal attacks against anybody else in my name is not part of our movement.” And if you follow Bernie, you’ll note that he doesn’t engage in these cheap, personal shots himself. When Hillary Clinton said no one likes him, he didn’t lash back out at her. He just joked that on good days his wife likes him. If only his followers would follow his example here.
That said, consider this: How many mean tweets equate to one bomb dropped on a child in the Middle East? If you’re fixated on mean tweets, you’ve lost sight of the point of politics.
What About Warren?
I’ve advocated for Warren since the 2008 financial crisis. For my job at the time, I tracked everything she said against Wall Street and promoted it on as many digital channels as I could. It wasn’t just that she was right about corruption in investment banks. It was that she was articulate and compelling. She spoke with conviction about it.
In 2015, I longed for her to run because I wanted her to be president. Whereas Hillary Clinton was raking in big fees for speaking on Wall Street, Elizabeth Warren had been speaking out against Wall Street excess. (It also helped that Warren didn’t have the baggage the Clintons did.) When Warren didn’t run, I was disappointed. I was especially disappointed later on when she didn’t endorse Sanders in the primary since I believe that had she done that, Sanders would have had the momentum to beat Clinton and Trump, and we would much farther along in getting universal healthcare coverage, expanding education, and reducing war.
Still, when Warren announced her candidacy for president in 2018, I was excited. I donated to her campaign. I wanted to see her fight Wall Street and corporate excess using the bully pulpit of the presidency.
As her campaign has gone on, however, I’ve lost some respect for her. More than anything, I’ve learned that she has a terrible record when it comes to war. (I should have known this years ago, but didn’t.) She has constantly voted for ballooning the war budget, pushing even harder for increases than Trump did in 2017. Given the more than 200,000 civilian casualties in the Middle East, including the 30 pine nut harvesters I mentioned above, these votes inflict immense suffering.
Warren has also disappointed me in being against Super PACs before being for them, as well as lying about weird things such as that her dad was a janitor when her brother insists he wasn’t, that she was an American Indian, and that her kids went to public, not private schools.
Having said all of that, there are still many reasons I’d like to see a Warren presidency. If she were the nominee, I would enthusiastically support her against Trump, all things considered.
What About Biden?
Biden is easier for me to dismiss. The most persuasive case against him, in my opinion, comes from Nathan Robinson, editor of Current Affairs, in his article “Stop Saying Biden Is the Most Electable. Trump Will Run Rings Around Him.”
Robinson writes, “Joe Biden will face many of the same problems [Hillary Clinton faced in 2016]. He has been in Washington since the age of 30, representing Delaware, the “capital of corporate America”. He is infamous for his connections to the credit card industry, and he has lied about his degree of support for the Iraq war. Even Matthew Yglesias of Vox calls Biden the “Hillary Clinton of 2020” for his corporate ties and war support. It is worth remembering what being the “Hillary Clinton” of anything means in an election against Trump”
Robinson then writes about Hunter Biden’s connections to Ukraine, which, despite protestations from Democrats that there was “nothing wrong,” still scream of nepotism and backdoor corruption—similar to the Clintons.
And anyone who has watched Biden over the past years knows he has sadly become incoherent, a fact Trump won’t treat with any kindness.
What About Bloomberg?
Bloomberg is a multi-billionaire who has spent a career speaking out against the least fortunate. He’s not going to change as president.
And all the theatrics about disliking Trump are just that: theatrics.
What About Effectiveness?
Finally, some critics say that Bernie may have lofty ideals, but he hasn’t accomplished much in Congress and therefore won’t accomplish much in the presidency. This is a critique worth taking seriously because if Bernie can’t change things as president he won’t actually eliminate suffering.
That said, I think the critique is ultimately misguided. The fact that Bernie didn’t stop the Iraq War doesn’t speak poorly of him. He was protesting it. It was Joe Biden and other corporate-loving politicians who got in Bernie’s way. It’s the same with a range of other topics, including universal healthcare, gay rights, and expanded education—all of which Bernie has supported largely in isolation for decades. The fact that these things didn’t get passed speaks poorly of the other candidates in his party who continue to block him. Not Bernie.
In addition, since the president has military power, voting in someone who won’t take us to war is pragmatic. He will be effective on this front, as well as the other areas the president holds sway.
We’re All in This Together
In the end, no matter who we vote for, we must remember that we’re all in this together. If a mother has to deal with insurance companies right after her son’s death while her husband is in the hospital, we all suffer. If we bomb innocent civilians, we all suffer. If a worker can’t make enough in wages to survive and becomes suicidal as a result, we all suffer. If we destroy the planet through terrible environmental policies, we all suffer.
We are all in this together. As much as televised debates and the sensational national discourse try to distract us, we have to remember that the point of politics is to alleviate suffering.