On the Inevitability of Risk
Support the spirit and future of the Bernie generation. That's imperative no matter which candidate you vote for in the primary. His progress has been amazing since the early moment when I welcomed him at a kickoff rally in LA. The Sanders campaign will have a deep lasting impact on social movements, younger progressive Democrats, local elections and presidential politics far into the future. Hopefully it will turn the "progressive wing of the Democratic Party" into a real force ahead.
If Bernie wins in Iowa and New Hampshire, which is very possible, the climb gets tougher and the arguments may become more intense. His movement will overflow with accelerating joy, Like the winter of 1967 when student volunteers tromped through blizzards to get Eugene McCarthy over 40 percent of the vote, and helped force LBJ to resign. Or like Jesse Jackson's primary campaign in 1988 which led to the Rainbow Coalition. The real model for changing the system from within was Senator Barack Obama's win in Iowa in 2008, powered by voters not unlike those about to caucus in a few days.
There is no doubt that the Bernie generation is our political future, joining with groups demanding living wages or $15/hr, Black Lives Matter, the Dreamers, and 350.org. With their roots in the Occupy movement, they are viscerally mad at the rigged economy based on McJobs and the monopoly power of the plutocrats. They want a lifting of student debt and lowering of tuition, the expansion of health care. 80% of millennials demand a transition to clean energy and renewables by 2030. 82% want background checks on all gun purchases. They want Citizens United repealed and secret money unmasked. Bernie has raised an astounding $41 million dollars, 74 percent in small individual contributions.
After Iowa and New Hampshire Bernie will have to rush far and wide in search of Black and Latino voters. Perhaps he is hoping that these voters will come to his side in a tide similar to Obama's after 2008, when black voters supported Hillary until Obama proved he could win votes in all-white Iowa. If they think Bernie is electable, black voters may shift. It's a high-risk gamble, but this election is all about risk. Many are holding off a final endorsement until the African American vote rolls in from South Carolina and the Latino vote from Nevada.
There's nothing more dangerous than losing all branches of government to the cult of right-wing Republicans. That's why many are for the Democratic ticket in November.
If there's not a sudden shift to Bernie, if the primaries grind on, the Bernie-Hillary split will become more rancorous at every level. The work of conflict resolution between the two camps will become complicated. Bernie's present margin over Trump may or may not shrink. Many incumbent Democrats will panic over being on the same ticket with a Democratic Socialist.
Hillary has slipped from a strong 25-point margin to only 13-15 percent among national Democrats. She should do well in coming primary states where there are large black, Latino, and multi-cultural populations. But Bernie's movement will still be everywhere.
If Bernie does slip against Hillary, as the punditry predicts, his movement will remain essential to a Democratic win in November. Hillary can't just make a traditional deal with Bernie in order to win his legions over, but will have to conduct her campaign with great respect for her rival and for the positions he takes on Wall Street and Citizens United. Bernie will have to lead his supporters into an alliance with their nemesis, Hillary and the traditional Democratic Party. Assuming a close November election settled by less than four points, Bernie supporters will be the difference.
We cannot risk another electoral loss, whether stolen or otherwise, but where lies the greater risk? That is exactly what Democrats and Independents are pondering and fretting over these days. It's the finger-biting moment when tempers fray, hyperbole mounts, and passions flare.
Many say the risk is the label "democratic socialist", which means Bernie has a lot of explaining to do. On the other hand, a black candidate named Barack Hussein Obama won the presidency despite all the smears, so anything is possible.
Bernie will be well served by a clear and sober definition of what "winning" means. The presidency is all-important of course, but the Republican Party has a lock on the Congress and Supreme Court. If Bernie is the nominee, the Right will fight back with even greater ferocity, if that is possible. So it's a fantasy to believe Bernie will make legislative progress on his admirable proposals for free tuition and single-payer health insurance. The truth is that he will have to fight off the Republicans in 2017-2018 and hope to gain ground in congressional elections and the 2020 presidential contest. Just building a mass movement or "political revolution" will not work in a deeply divided country. Every past "insurgency" in the Democratic Party is followed by an effort to solidify the movement into a unified organization, but they have always waned in effectiveness.
There are only so many executive orders possible for a President Bernie or President Hillary to issue. It's not clear how many Republican votes Hillary will be able to "reach across the aisle" to. Bernie doesn't hazard a guess. So we need to see that we face at least two or three American electorates at once, with progress mainly possible in Democratic-leaning states and big cities. This strategy has proven to work on climate change, gun safety, $15/hour wage and labor protections. The core of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, and the base of Senators Elizabeth Warren, Sherrod Brown, Dick Durbin, Chris Murphy, Al Franken, Maria Cantwell, Tammy Baldwin, Brian Schatz and Mayor Bill de Blasio are built on the same pillars. In both houses, the Democrats will fight a defensive war with important regional victories.
The party itself will need a renovation too, never a comfortable task. The Democratic National Committee has upset much of the media and its own rank-and-file by limiting the number of presidential debates and choosing times of limited television viewership. [Fortunately, they've just added an additional debate.] The 50-state strategy inaugurated by Howard Dean has withered, leaving fewer resources for organizing the party to become more competitive. The guiding assumption seems to be incumbent protection rather than a democracy movement. The party apparatus is frequently criticized by the grassroots for making short visits to collect big checks from wealthy donors before flying on to other donor-centric events. While the growing pressure on the party to raise money is understandable, the grassroots activists often turn out to be entry-level staffers to recruit for low-ticket events. Bernie's campaign is built on the passion of independent non-traditional voters like those who turned out for Obama, McCarthy, and Bobby Kennedy long ago. Again, the future depends on Bernie and his followers one-way or the other. If he happens to lose the primary, his base still makes the difference in a close general election. I have many admirable friends in their sixties and seventies who still work the phone lines and volunteer for candidate events, but their numbers and energy are not enough for November.
So Hillary's dilemma is whether she can attack Bernie and his supporters through the primaries while winning the respect and support she ultimately needs before November. And Bernie's dilemma is how to expand his movement into a growing force through November and post-November.
Though new events always happen, my own history haunts me here:
1. In 1968, I supported Bobby Kennedy until his death, and then switched back to anti-war work hoping that Humphrey would change his loyalty to LBJ and Vietnam. As it turned out, Humphrey in October called for a bombing halt and peace talks, rose in the polls, and lost by only one percent in November [let's not forget the George Wallace vote was 13 percent, assuring a pro-war majority in opinion polls.] No one has an exact idea of the voting, but surely many Democrats and anti-war people could not bring themselves to vote for a Humphrey they wanted to "dump". We got Nixon.
2. In 1976, I campaigned for the US Senate in the California Democratic primary. The chief issue was national health care, which I supported against incumbent Sen. John Tunney's more conservative bill. Tunney was far ahead for eight months until I rocketed into an equal, or slightly stronger position in the May Field poll. Then the party's liberal establishment flooded mailboxes and television screens with the message that I was a liar, a radical, unfit and inexperienced, whowould raise everyone's taxes. It was too much for a newcomer from the Sixties to sustain, and Tunney was the winner. Having received 1.3 million primary votes in a single state, I moved on to build the grassroots Campaign for Economic Democracy to seek local electoral victories. But Tunney, tarnished in the primary, was defeated in November by a hero of the New Right, S. I. Hayakawa, whose fame rested on throwing students off campuses. Since I believe in accepting any role I may have in causing a negative outcomes, I have to acknowledge that my campaign helped bring Tunney down.
3. In 2000, having learned from my experiences, I strongly supported Vice President Al Gore over friend Ralph Nader who ran as a third-party candidate. Towards the end, I remember being hooked up in many conference calls trying to lobby Nader to urge his followers in blue states to switch to Gore. If Gore won, I reasoned, we would have our first environmental president and Ralph would be the top public interest lobbyist just down the street from the White House. I listened to many acrimonious debates between Nader backers like Michael Moore and Gore's top environmental staff. In the end, a rational consensus turned out to be impossible. The election was stolen and a collaborative Supreme Court launched the George W. Bush presidency. That's why Bernie's decision to run as a Democrat was so important.
I could go on to 2004, when John Kerry himself acknowledged vote tampering in Ohio but yielded to Bush on the grounds of national unity. But I don't want to go on. I want to prevent another of these terrible tragic cycles to repeat.
So what's the right answer this time? That's up to all of us. All I would emphasize is that everyone acknowledges that they are taking a big personal risk in voting for our future. Make sure you have heard the other side from the other side's experience. Sort out differences carefully. Include respect for your opponents and the undecided. Depending on your approach, for example, you can take Bernie's recent shift towards Hillary on gun-manufacturers' immunity as a "flip flop" or a step forward for the party and all of us. Also you can welcome Hillary's shift on the TPP trade agreement as a welcome development rather than gloat, "Bernie pushed her into it." Think of what can unite and mend, not who gains in tactical warfare. I've never been a True Believer in anything, but taken my strongest stands in the midst of doubt at the same time.
This is such an important election, the riskiest of my lifetime; I am devoted to healing this divide and winning in November. If we win, then we can resume our quarrels and patient work for peace and justice.
N.B. See The Nation's Endorsement of Bernie Sanders from January 14, 2016. Tom Hayden is a longtime member of The Nation's Editorial Board.