My Heart is with Bernie but my Head and Vote are with Hillary:
Let’s not do McGovern all over again.
This missive is addressed primarily to veteran Leftists, sixty-and seventy-somethings like me who came of age politically during the 1960’s and 1970’s. It may also be interesting to younger folks. It is a warning against letting our hearts overrule our heads, so that we fall prey to a politics of ideological self-indulgence.
In 1972, I was a young adult who enthusiastically worked long and hard on the McGovern campaign. Some of you probably did the same. McGovern was not a socialist but he was the next best thing at the time. And so I was part of what was dubbed McGovern’s “Kiddie Crusade.” As an older kid, I was put in charge of younger members of our crusade. It was one of the best experiences of my life. The enthusiasm and comradeship were great.
Little did I and my comrades realize that the Republicans were secretly supporting McGovern in the primaries with money and publicity, and with attacks on Democrats who would have been more formidable opponents. They were working to get the Democratic opponent that they wanted and that they knew they could defeat, despite running an unpopular incumbent President who was waging an unpopular war. The Republicans succeeded, Nixon slaughtered McGovern, and the war went on. The Republicans are doing the same sort of thing with Bernie Sanders.
The fact that a socialist is seriously vying for the Democratic nomination should be red meat to the Republicans. But they are stonily silent about Sanders, except for the occasional words of praise for his honesty, which is another backhanded slap at Clinton. It is no coincidence that the mainstream and conservative media are silent about him, giving him a completely free ride, while continually taking potshots at Clinton. The goal is to bring her down and bring him up, until he gets the nomination. Then they will come down on him – a New York Jewish atheist socialist from hippie Vermont who supported Fidel Castro and the Black Panthers – like a ton of bricks as they did with McGovern.
Almost anyone who has been part of the American Left during the last one hundred twenty-five years or so has harbored the fantasy that the People are really on our side if only they realized it. As the saying from Emma Goldman on my coffee cup goes: “Sooner or later the American people are going to wake up.” If only someone would come along or something would happen to spark them, the People would come rushing to our side and the world would be transformed. I know about this fantasy not only from history and from observing my family and friends, but also because I harbor the same fantasy. It is a necessary fantasy that sustains us on the Left. But it is one thing to entertain such thoughts as long-term wishes and another to act on them as short-term reality. That is what Sanders and his supporters among veteran Leftists seem to be doing.
There are at least two aspects of this fantasy as it is being played out by Sanders and his supporters that are problematical. The first is the idea that Sanders is the spark that is going to ignite the fire in the masses. This seems to be his mantra, and I think it is wishful thinking without a basis in reality. It is true that people ought to agree with us on the Left, but for all sorts of social and historical reasons, they don’t. And they won’t in a flash just because someone like Sanders is generating some enthusiasm among young people and among older people who should know better.
The second is that if only we can get Sanders elected as President, everything will change. Toward that end, he is, for example, trashing Obamacare and talking about replacing it whole cloth with a single-payer system. That is also wishful thinking without a basis in reality. Does he and do you really think that if he is elected President, Congress is going to be taken over by liberal Democrats who are going to do something like that?
This kind of talk is also destructive. As bad as Obamacare is, as much as it caves in to special interests, it does considerable good, and it still faces adamant opposition from the majority in Congress who want to repeal it or at least make it even worse. Sanders is only feeding that opposition with his talk about immediately replacing Obamacare. Virtually everyone on the Left agrees that we should be pushing toward some sort of single-payer system, but it is not going to happen the way Sanders is talking about it in one fell swoop.
This next presidential election is particularly important for a number of reasons. One of them is that the next President will likely appoint several new Supreme Court Justices, and they will decide the scope of social reforms that will be permitted over the next several decades. The current Court has been decisively limiting that scope. An even more right wing Court could make things almost impossible for us. A second reason this election is particularly important is that as the effects of global climate change become more drastic in the coming years, it is more likely than not that the response in this country, as well as elsewhere, will be authoritarian, inegalitarian and oppressive. It is important the we do not add to the likelihood of this sort of development by facilitating a right-wing Republican victory in the coming election.
I am glad that Sanders is running, and it is great that he has been generating enthusiasm among young people. Based on my teaching experiences over the last twenty years, I have felt all along that the Left was going to be rejuvenated by the generations coming up in the 2000’s. But youthful enthusiasm can go awry, as was the case in 1972 when we swept McGovern to the nomination and then got swept away in the election. And I think it is up to us to be the adults in the room.
Yours in solidarity.