What Is Sanders Waiting For?

Sanders entered the Democratic primaries as an outsider presumably with an understanding of the rules.  When they worked for him, he didn’t complain; when they didn’t work for him, he cried foul (the system, he claimed was rigged).  Here is a stark example of when it worked undemocratically for him. He won the caucus in Washington, a less democratic medium than the primary, which Clinton won.  He got all the delegates.  Not a word from him.  He attacked the role of the super delegates as undemocratic, but it hasn’t kept him from trying to win their support.  If he succeeds in converting them, he would be subverting the popular will.  Clinton, after all, is ahead in the popular vote and pledged delegates. If the super delegates were subtracted from the process, Clinton would still command a majority and by Sanders’s putative democratic lights be the legitimate nominee.  Sanders’s bad faith in this respect is particularly galling given the reputation of democratic purity and consistency that he cultivates. He has relentlessly demonized Clinton as beholden to Wall Street, suggesting that she is the lesser of two evils, in effect contributing to her vulnerability in the general election.  Certainly such a characterization hardly invites support of her from his followers.  He has done nothing to address the Bernie or Bust crowd, who say they either won’t vote or they may vote for Trump.  What does that say about his message or how it has been understood?  If I were Sanders, I would be horrified that I have supporters who would switch to Trump, and I would speak directly to them about how inimical Trump is to the causes they have presumably embraced.  He has yet to do this or to indicate that he will do so.

A friend of mine, who agrees with many of my criticisms of Sanders, nevertheless chastises me for not acknowledging the contribution he has made to the progressive cause. My friend writes: “I believe that the major changes [in American history] that have contributed to increasing the freedom and security of ordinary people have come about by shouting and demonstrating, often engaging in civil disobedience in order to get their voices heard…The structures of power do not yield their privileges through reasoned conversations.”  He is not alone in making the argument that Sanders is leading a movement for radical social and economic change and should be given the space and time to allow the movement to take its course.

Of course, social movements and demonstrations play an important role in effecting positive social change.  (They may also play a role in supporting demagogues.)  The fact is that the great progressive transformations in American history have taken place under the presidencies of pragmatists, not ideologues, who responded selectively to pressure from below: Lincoln, Roosevelt, Johnson and, yes, Obama.  Lincoln responded to the abolitionists, Roosevelt to the trade unions, Johnson to the civil rights movement led by Martin Luther King, Obama to the movement for gay rights.  Their mindsets were quite different from Sanders’s rigid, intransigent mindset, which belongs on the street, not in the Oval Office.  The progress made in their administrations was for the most part experimental and incremental, the latter term anathema to the visionary and revolutionary idiom in which Sanders’s political rhetoric revels.  The achievements of Lincoln et al were in direct proportion to their realistic sense of what could be accomplished and the force of will they brought to bear.

The Sanders movement apparently has everything to teach Clinton’s campaign and nothing to learn from it despite the fact that progressive economists and politicians (notably, Paul Krugman and Barney Frank) find the economic policies proposed by Clinton more realistic and achievable than Sanders.  Imagine a Sanders presidency—all principled battle against intransigent opposition for unachievable programs—in contrast to a Clinton presidency that at least attempts to enact progressive policies though negotiation and compromise.

The prevailing view is that Sanders has moved Clinton to the left.  Has he in fact done so, and if so is it a good thing?  First, we need to address the question: what does it mean to move to the left?  When I asked this question of my friend, he spoke of a tone, he might have said, an emphasis on the theme of gross economic inequality. I had in mind what is meant concretely by moving to the left: the $15 minimum wage, single payer health coverage and free public higher education.  He has already moved her on the minimum wage—though not entirely to where he stands.  She still advocates a federally mandated $12, but supports states that decide to raise the figure to $15.  I think that is a good thing.  Should she join Sanders in support of the single payer?  To do so would be to deliver a direct blow to Obamacare, and given political reality, it would open up a Pandora box of new troubles.  How wonderful it would be to have free public higher education and to eat pie in the sky!  The fact is that Clinton’s political disposition is sufficiently to the left to merit Sanders’s support. It should be up to the nominee, who has won fair and square, to decide what to accept and what not to accept—without her feeling threatened that support will be withheld if demands are not met.  Sanders at times seems to suggest that a condition of his support of Clinton is her support of the “political revolution” that he advocates.  Is the winning candidate required to turn into the candidate she has defeated?

Respect for her or any candidate should allow her to hold her views on specific issues from conviction.  She should not be compelled, whether from the right or the left, to trade a conviction for a vote.  If Sanders wants to transform the Democratic Party to represent his views, he must earn the right to do so by achieving a majority in the party and enter fully in the work of building the party and supporting its down ballot candidates for office—as he has not done.  Clinton should be responsive to Sanders’s extraordinary success in the primaries, but she has won the nomination, and it is she who must decide the content and conduct of the campaign for the presidency.

Sanders’s reluctance to endorse Clinton appears to reflect either egotism or obtuseness about what is at stake. The bottom line in this election is that the Trump menace trumps all other considerations.  Certainly Sanders seems to know this when he speaks of the need to combine with Clinton to defeat Trump.  How then does he hope to defeat him without having a candidate in the game who will do the job?  His kindred spirit, Elizabeth Warren, has already expressed support.  What the hell is he waiting for?


Postscript: Sanders has finally said he will vote for Clinton, but he has neither conceded the nomination nor endorsed her.  She has not yet spoken the words that support his priorities.  What does she have to say?  Voting, but not endorsing Trump, has been the strategy of Republican candidates in swing states, who are clearly unhappy with Trump as the nominee of the Republican Party.  Sanders shows no sign of overcoming his reluctance to express strong support for Clinton and bring his supporters along.