How does one go from offering powerful and trenchant criticisms of Hillary Clinton to presenting her as the best thing since sliced bread, all within the space of a few weeks? It’s a good question and one that Bernie Sanders has failed to answer. The Trump, Trump, Trump, be very afraid, argument, only takes us so far. It doesn’t take us nearly as far as Sanders has gone.
Bernie Sanders, once again, made his support for Clinton perfectly clear in an Op-Ed piece in yesterday’s LA Times, “Bernie Sanders: I support Hillary Clinton. So should everyone who voted for me.” In the first paragraph he tells us:
Hillary Clinton is the Democratic nominee and I will vigorously support her.
And then after offering a litany of all of the wonderful positions that she supports, closes the piece with the following:
I understand that many of my supporters are disappointed by the final results of the nominating process, but being despondent and inactive is not going to improve anything. Going forward and continuing the struggle is what matters. And, in that struggle, the most immediate task we face is to defeat Donald Trump.
As a strong Sanders supporter, I was dismayed by his words. They present a simplistic and false dichotomy: you must be all in for Clinton or face Trumpageddon. While he tells us that the struggle should continue, he does so in the context of an editorial in which he has done nothing but praise Clinton’s policies and attack Trump. But for the vast majority of Bernie supporters it is obvious that most of Clinton’s currently stated positions, as opposed to what she will actually do in office, are superior to Trump’s. What Sanders is careful to avoid are all of the disagreements his supporters would have with Clinton—including her hawkish approach to foreign affairs—and their worry about her character flaws. All of this is now gone, and we are being treated as children who don’t understand the dangers of Donald Trump.
Bernie needs to show more respect for his supporters. The #NotMeUs crowd. They can chew gum and walk at the same time. They can work to defeat Trump, and also remain critical of Clinton and the Democrats, as they seek to transform the system. And there is no mystery about how this can be done. In addition to local organizing and voting for progressive candidates, people can choose to vote for third party candidates for president. In doing so, we would be following Bernie’s own advice, from years ago, about how the two party system distorts and corrupts politics, how we need a third party. As Bernie should be saying, Enough is Enough! (See the video of Sanders below.)
But Bernie never mentions this as an option, although he must know that voting third party in blue or red states will not help elect Trump. Whether you vote third party or not, California will go for Clinton and Alabama will go for Trump. The vast majority of states are not swing states, and you can safely choose other candidates.* (Further, if you are really terrified about assisting Trump, you can wait until a week or so before the election to see how things are shaking out in your state.) It’s one thing to endorse Clinton and say, please, if you are in a swing state, make sure you vote for her! It’s quite another to keep repeating in statements on TV and in the press that this is a do or die situation in which the only alternatives are a vote for Clinton or one for Trump.
Again, of course Sanders must know all of this. So the question is: why is he supporting Clinton in this fashion? The fact that he knows voting for a third party is not an issue in non-swing states is evidence for the most likely hypothesis: Bernie really believes that the Democratic Party is the vehicle for change in the coming years. His hyperventilating about Trump and pressing the vote for Clinton isn’t only about Clinton winning. It’s about making the Democratic Party stronger. This commitment to the Democrats is not new. As a matter of fact, it seems that Bernie’s career has depended on the deals he has cut with the Democrats.** If one considers: 1) the seemingly strange turns of events in the election (for example, the campaign not aggressively challenging primary results), 2) Sanders’ advocacy for a 50 state strategy for the Democrats (a Howard Dean initiative), 3) his willingness to push back against his supporters at the Democratic Convention to help unify the party, and 4) his backsliding on the promise of a contested convention, it’s increasingly clear that what we’ve seen is an internal party struggle, with Sanders seeking to broaden the Democrats’ base. As a matter of fact, this is how Jesse Jackson, a Clinton supporter, interprets Sanders’ efforts.
I disagree with Sanders about the Democratic Party. After participating in and watching the party for forty odd years, I don’t think it’s salvageable. But Bernie’s position certainly has its defenders. The problem is that by using the language of political revolution, he avoided making his commitment to the Democratic Party explicit. Further, it is deeply disturbing that Sanders, who knows he has brought a lot of younger people into the political process, is now misleading them about their options. By climbing aboard the anti-Trump/pro-Clinton bus in the manner he has, Sanders is in fact sheepdogging these younger voters. He seduced them through his revolutionary rhetoric, but is now leading them to believe that the only course of action in the presidential election is to get on board the Clinton express and back the Democrats.***
On the one hand, if some of Sanders’ supporters have become “despondent and inactive,” Sanders needs to consider how much of a role his sudden public pivot toward the Establishment is responsible. He should think long and hard about what he has done. On the other hand, although there are some Bernie supporters who are too depressed by the recent turn of events to act, this is to a large extent a manufactured concern coming from Sanders. For him, the real issue isn’t Bernie supporters giving up. The issue is that many of them are turning their energies to other parties or simply dropping away from the Democratic Party. Bernie worries about this because he is much closer to the Democratic Party than his campaign rhetoric of a revolution suggested. One can only assume that after all of those years in Washington, when push came to shove, Bernie didn’t require much shoving to get behind Hillary (and her damn emails). He is not only a man of his word. He is also currently a loyal Democrat, even though he carries the title of Independent.
* You can see the relative risk on Nate Silver’s site, FiveThirtyEight; see his Tipping-point Index and Voter Power Index. In most states the possibility of your vote affecting the outcome between Trump and Clinton is negligible to virtually nil.
**There are stories floating around the web that Sanders and his family have been threatened to get them to cooperate. I don’t buy it. Neither he nor Jane have behaved like they have been threatened. But more importantly, Sanders’ statements and actions are consistent with the hypothesis that he sees the Democratic Party as the best vehicle for transforming American politics, as well as the fact that he has worked closely with Democrats for many years. Here is an excerpt from Paul Street’s 2015 article in Counter Punch, “Bernie Out of the Closet: Sanders’ Longstanding Deal with the Democrats,” in which he quotes the University of Vermont philosopher, Will Miller.
“Bernie – out of office for the first time in eight years – went to the Kennedy School at Harvard for six months and came back with a new relationship with the state’s Democrats. The Vermont Democratic Party leadership has allowed no authorized candidate to run against Bernie in 1990 (or since) and in return, Bernie has repeatedly blocked third party building. His closet party, the Democrats, are very worried about a left 3rd party forming in Vermont. In the last two elections, Sanders has prevented Progressives in his machine from running against Howard Dean, our conservative Democratic Governor who was ahead of Gingrich in the attack on welfare.”
*** Perhaps his followers should be informed that he supported Bill Clinton in 1992, and again in 1996, against Bob Dole, certainly no Trump, with emphatic language about how we must not let a Republican in the White House.
In an August interview, Sanders explained his endorsement of Clinton on grounds that his top priority was to prevent a Republican takeover of the White House. The incumbent president is “clearly preferable” to Bob Dole on a host of issues, the congressman argued then. “Left Out: Bernie Sanders and Ralph Nader Part Company,” in Vermont’s Seven Days.
In other words, we need to be suspicious when Sanders’ rhetoric turns to the uniqueness of the Trump threat. The point is not whether the Trump threat is unique. The point is that even when the threat is not unique, Bernie still sides with the Democrats, as opposed to third parties.