No Time to Toe the Party Line

Reading a number of posts about Clinton/Sanders on Facebook recently, I feel it’s worth saying a few things, not just to offer my perspective, but to speak to you all as well-meaning, progressive-leaning folks whom I respect. I do this because these posts largely mischaracterize the issues at hand and quickly become frivolous and petty. So let’s step away from the muck and dust for a moment and consider what’s really at stake.

On a scale tuned to politics globally, i.e. outside the skewed politics of the U.S., Hillary Clinton is middle-right, while Bernie Sanders is sort of mild-left — anywhere but in the U.S. he’d be close to the center for a progressive politician. That he seems so radical to us says more about how bad things have become in the United States, and how pervasive and dominant one way of seeing things — namely, neoliberalism — has become.

Any of my criticisms of Clinton or support for Sanders are based on their stated policy goals as well as their policy records. That’s it. Clinton is a neoliberal, as were Reagan and Thatcher, Bill Clinton and Tony Blair, and to a large extent, Obama. Neoliberalism, which values markets above all and casts nearly everything in market terms, is the modern guise of capitalist ideology, and it’s wreaked havoc all over the world. It is not progressive; in fact, it is an ideology serving the interests of the moneyed elite at the expense of middle classes, workers, the poor, and other groups. It has led to the dismantling and destruction of social services, ecology, national self-direction, labor unions, financial regulation, and the middle class (i.e., relative income balance), among many other things. It’s the great, stomping agenda of finance, elite wealth, capital, and plunder, often with a veneer of social liberalism painted over it to make it more palatable and “modern.” It’s insidious and should be seen for what it is.

My reading is that the groundswell of support for Sanders is not, by and large, mass naiveté, but a sincere recoiling from capitalism and the many problems it has created. It’s a rejection of the status quo, yes, but the status quo in this case means continued overwhelming power for the already moneyed and powerful, and further diminishment and exploitation of pretty much everyone else. The status quo means more slumping away from a just and democratic society. It means greed-based refusal to address climate change. These are huge, acutely important issues, and neoliberalism is not the answer: it’s what got us into this mess in the first place.

Let’s recognize the excitement and support for Sanders for what it is: a growing rejection of neoliberalism, of systemic injustice. This isn’t choosing the dreamer over the pragmatist. This is choosing meaningful progressivism, however limited, however imperfect, over more warmed-over right-wing policies.

Why are some of my progressive-minded friends getting snagged here and supporting Clinton? Is it that the official Democratic candidate seems the right choice? There’s nothing automatically progressive about the Democratic Party. Is it understandable excitement about the first female U.S. president? There’s little automatically progressive about a politician being female per se (I say little, because the fact itself is, indeed, meaningful). Margaret Thatcher was Britain’s equivalent of Ronald Reagan. Her policies were atrocious. Is it the notion of political experience? That alone is an empty value: some of the most regressive politicians had plenty of political experience and acumen.

If what a politician proposes to do, and what that politician has a history of doing, moves us away from justice, stokes the sinister engine of neoliberal capitalism enthusiastically and with a creepily reassuring smile, that’s all I need to know. This should prompt scorn, concern, and not a bit of enthusiasm. Among progressives, that should be the end of the conversation. Grudging support from a cynically pragmatic view (“better Clinton than Trump or Cruz”) I can understand, but that’s a cold position, the pang of a greater illness, not something to rally around.

(I’d also say to those leaning toward or supporting Clinton: it is very instructive to see how the political establishment, including much of the media, has presented her versus Sanders. An entrenched machine rumbles to life. Old rhetorical tricks come out again. “Go back to sleep, little ones, though it’s adorable of you to make a fuss. Stick to what you know; we’ve got this.”)

I’m not concerned with Sanders knowing every minute detail of how he’ll achieve his agenda (though he provides more detail and proves savvier than critics credit him for). I’m not even naive enough to think he’ll be able to accomplish most of it, as stated. I do not believe him to be perfect or “more pure.” But all that is not the point. Electing a president, in itself, is not going to fix the world. But it’s important regardless. The intention, the direction, the redress that happens to be packaged right now under “Bernie Sanders” is important. How far you reach determines what actually gets done when you have to pull back. I want a president reaching not just far, but in the right direction. Electing someone like Sanders would be, much more than particular policies enacted or not, a profound statement, and mandate, about where a majority of the country wants to go. This matters, and it matters a great deal. Even if he doesn’t become president, the amount of support he’s gained has changed the U.S. political landscape.

In the end, my political beliefs are not based on whom to elect president, but on what characterizes a just society, what has kept us from it, and what might get us there. I’ll keep raising my voice from that ground. There are more and more of us here.

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