I find this cycle’s Democratic primary very confusing. I recently read a post on Facebook from a close friend, who complained about seeing comments from people decrying Bernie Sanders as an unviable candidate and a Democratic equivalent of Donald Trump. I found myself shocked by this, because what I’ve seen via my Facebook and Twitter feeds is a full-throated cry for Bernie and no one but Bernie. Among my cadre of friends and followers, a vote for Hillary Clinton is seen as tantamount to sedition to the liberal cause. It apparently matters not that Hillary has been a leading liberal figure, by any measure of the term other than the unrealistically idealized, for more than a generation. I’m not sure what kind of company the particular friend I mentioned keeps, but it must not overlap with quite the same subset of the population as mine. Based on my social media feeds, I’d have gotten the opposite reaction than she did if I said that I supported Bernie.
But I don’t support Bernie, and I didn’t find this a very difficult decision to come to. I don’t even really wish I could support him, in that ideal world that some reluctant Hillary supporters cite. Frankly, I don’t think he’s a very good candidate, and I like him less than I did before he started his run for the White House. There are two elements involved in my dissent to the tenor of the self-proclaimed “real” liberal-progressive demographic. First, and somewhat less important to the average American, is the foreign policy front. Hillary is a towering figure in foreign policy. I didn’t always think that Hillary had much interest in the rest of the world. I voted for Obama in the 2008 primary in part because of this. I saw her appointment as Secretary of State as a Lincoln-Seward kind of thing, but less apt for success. However, Obama, like Lincoln, was right: Hillary, like Seward, turned out to be an amazing Secretary of State. I don’t want to argue why this is, because it’s been made clear by many other people and is essentially self-evident.
The role of Secretary of State is America’s foreign minister, and yet appointments to the position often result, like in the case of Seward and Hillary, from domestic political dynamics. Realpolitik types would see this tendency in a negative light. However, the thing that the realists miss is that foreign policy ability isn’t as hard to acquire as the wonks would have everyone believe. Foreign policy nuts, myself included, love to protect their corner on knowledge of foreign matters most people don’t give a hoot about. In fact, reasonably intelligent and committed politicians learn the ropes quickly and benefit from good analyst teams. Hillary showed immediately that she could learn quickly, she had a great team, and she had a good relationship with the President. Most importantly, though, she proved that she cared a hell of a lot about foreign policy.
Bernie doesn’t care much about foreign policy. He and his campaign regularly comment on this, often using quasi-isolationist misdirections to bring the conversation back to the domestic issues that are Bernie’s core competency. You know, the whole let’s-talk-about-us-not-those-other-guys thing. Bernie’s a master at that, and he’s shown very little ability to talk with any kind of sustained interest and seriousness about the world beyond his borders. His record in Congress is pretty minimalist on foreign policy. His only real standout accomplishment he cites is his vote, as a Representative, against authorization of the Iraq War in 2002. This is considered to be an indication of some kind of special foresight or, worse, moral vision. I guess we liberals have a short memory: a third of the House and a quarter of the Senate voted against the measure.
The other element that worries me about Bernie is that his policy proposals lack shape, and Hillary’s criticism of this fact appears to Sanders supporters as defeatism at best and treason to progressivism at worst. First, I don’t think it’s appropriate to consider Bernie as the only choice for America’s vast and complex progressive class. Progressivism is not a contest in radicalism, especially given that what is considered radical today is pretty watered-down. Progressivism encompasses a great number of perspectives and goals. America’s progressive community thrives when it embraces a range of priorities and doesn’t kick out those who balk at overturning the system. I don’t think that Bernie’s vision accommodates a lot of progressives, as a matter of fact. We’re told that progressives who vote for Hillary are betraying the cause or being cynical. I heard the same thing in 2008 and 2012 with Obama; it’s a tiresome canard peddled by lefties who have the inherited or acquired privilege to insist on vanguardism over incrementalism.
Most people represented by a broader understanding of progressivism do not have the luxury of reveling in vanguardist fantasies. They have critical needs that require government protection of the slender lifelines that remain from the progressive accomplishments of the twentieth century. They have needs not yet addressed that require a practical (and, yes, pragmatic) voice in government to act as an advocate. Bernie is not ill-equipped to serve this role, as a matter of fact. But his campaign has not emphasized this part of his character, because to talk about it too much would risk attracting attention to the stubborn fact that Bernie’s 25-year experience in national politics makes him as much an establishment figure as he is an anti-establishment one. And that’s fine with me, but it wouldn’t be fine with a lot of his current supporters.
Finally, and really the most depressing of all to me, Bernie and his supporters are apparently so committed to the goal of breaking the power of America’s super-wealthy that they don’t even seem to believe in mutual responsibility for progressive goals and projects. In his discussions over health care, for example, Bernie has been very quiet about the tax burden on the middle class that his proposals would require. He prefers to talk about it as being largely funded through taxes on the rich, on corporations, and on finance. The middle class, he says, won’t have to contribute much to the universal health care system they will derive a benefit from. This is not only unreasonable, but it’s not morally right. I want my taxes raised to support a great expansion of what America’s government provides for its citizens. As a Europeanist and someone married to an EU citizen, I thus find it offensive that Bernie cites European health care systems as the model for his own. In Europe, there is a high tax burden on the middle class to fund such programs precisely because the middle class derives the greatest benefit from those programs.
Denmark’s Prime Minister recently said that he wished that Bernie would stop using Denmark as an avatar of Bernie’s vision for America, saying that “Denmark is far from a socialist planned economy. Denmark is a market economy.” To be fair to Bernie, he’s never said that he’s for a planned economy or against a market one, but I don’t think a lot of his supporters really grasp the distinctions here. I haven’t been generally impressed with the nuance of Bernie’s supporters’ understanding of the issues and of the terms used to talk about them, and this includes even their understanding of what their candidate actually says and thinks. The fact that Bernie wants a grassroots revolution and yet he doesn’t emphasize the need for his supporters to get involved in local and state politics tells me that Bernie’s real appeal is that he offers a lot to his supporters while requiring very little of them. His might as well just say “If you can manage to get to the polls twice, that’s enough. I’ll take care of the rest.” That’s not how to build a revolution, that’s how to arrange a takeout pizza. But I guess that’s the state of liberalism today.