I understand why the “Bernie Or Bust” movement has left a lot of people bewildered and resentful. But like so much out there in our political orbit, an ability to momentarily alter perspective is required, in earnest and without caveats, in order to even begin to understand the thinking of others. It’s a difficult thing to do and something we are, as a culture and society, not often propelled to do. Achieving this requires a degree of separating immediate emotional responses and impulses from the “bigger” picture. That’s a hard thing to accomplish under normal circumstances. It’s a seemingly near-impossible one when there are institutions and organizations whose very existence is not only dependent on, but who are wholly dedicated to keeping you in a reactive state of near-constant emotive retaliation.
However, empathy is fostered in many areas of our culture, and it thrives in pockets despite many attempts to deride or discredit it as a form of “weakness.” Artists, art, and artistic communities, for example, are dependent on a measure of empathy for art to exist. By definition. But even within those communities and those cultures, there is the notion that one must become “hardened,” that success is dependent on learning to be cut-throat, a shark. Walk into any art class with an industry bent and you have a 50/50 chance of being taught that those who “make it” are the ones willing to walk over the bodies of their classmates. Ask any actor who has made the rounds of acting classes in Los Angeles.
The first perspective shift I ask from anyone angry at and/or unnerved by the “Berners,” is to try and see that the rise of someone like Donald Trump isn’t just the inevitable response to modern-day Republicanism, but a response to modern-day American politics. In a two-party system, that means Democrats, too. That requires stepping back from one’s “party position’ and allowing oneself to contemplate a much broader scope. Easier said than done when you’re in the middle of it all. As a friend recently put it, “You can’t read the label from inside the bottle.”
For starters, I recommend a short summation of the transformations that have taken place in 20th century American politics and the role of the Democratic Party in those. For me, this is crucial to understanding others’ actions and motivations and requires a willingness to be unflinchingly self-critical, not only of the choices that we have made in the past, but of the choices we make today moving forward.
Take this from Jake Johnson’s write up on Noam Chomsky’s conversation with Chris Hedges from 2010:
For decades, Chomsky has warned of the right turn of the Democratic Party, which has, in an effort to win elections, adopted large swaths of the Republican platform and abandoned the form of liberalism that gave us the New Deal and, later, Lyndon Johnson’s Great Society.
“Trump has been viewed with bewilderment by politicians who have divorced themselves from the needs of the people and who have sold them false goods to get ahead. But Trump, as Chomsky’s prescient interview demonstrates, was inevitable.”
This new approach was canonized by Bill Clinton, who triumphantly declared that the “era of big government is over.”
With this declaration, Clinton ushered in a new era of the Democratic Party (the so-called New Democrats), which left behind the working class and cultivated amiable relationships with corporate executives and Wall Street financiers; many of them would eventually occupy key positions in Clinton’s government, and many of them emerged once more during the presidency of Barack Obama.
The philosophical bent of the New Democrats was best summarized by Charles Peters in “A Neoliberal Manifesto,” in which he defines neoliberalism as an ideology perfect for those who “no longer automatically favor unions and big government or oppose the military and big business.” Democrats, since Peters penned his manifesto, have far exceeded the bounds of this seemingly neutral stance.
Bill Clinton, for his part, destroyed welfare, deregulated Wall Street, worsened the growing mass incarceration crisis, and signed into law the North American Free Trade Agreement, a sweeping deal that harmed millions of workers, in the United States, Mexico, and elsewhere.
Today, President Obama, in partnership with congressional Republicans, is lobbying aggressively for the so-called Trans-Pacific Partnership, which has been deemed by critics “NAFTA on steroids.” The agreement, if made the law of the land, will encompass 40% of global GDP and will grant massive companies unprecedented power.
Despite President Obama’s promises of transparency, the public has been forced to rely on leaked information to glean any specifics about the deal — and, based on the information we have, the agreement is a disaster for workers and the environment and, unsurprisingly, a boon for multinational corporations.
Democrats, in short, have left the working class in the dust, often using “the excuse,” as a recent New York Times editorial put it, “that they need big-money backers to succeed.”
If you’re still with me, then you’ve at least made the decision to see where this is going, even if your knee-jerk reaction might have been to reject the above evaluation of history. But ask yourself what you believe is true and untrue. What is your interpretation of the facts? And does it genuinely hold up to historical scrutiny?
Regardless of where you end up, to begin to understand why so many believe Bernie Sanders represents a rare opportunity for American political and social growth, one must also be willing to accept that, for many, Hillary Clinton – while no Donald Trump – represents the schools of thought that dramatically altered the Democratic Party and has played an immense role in our country being in the position it is now. It does not require that you share the same assessment of the current state of American politics, only that you allow yourself to see another perspective. That perspective, it is important to point out, is not held by some “fringe” movement, but by millions of Americans across the nation.
If you do, then the potential to understand why someone like Bernie Sanders – who has not wavered from his convictions throughout both his political and social life – is seen as such an incredibly rare commodity in this political climate. It’s not that we believe Bernie Sanders has all the answers or will guarantee success, but the odds are that no one else will come along who has this kind of history of conviction and insights to match our own. And when one believes that a system that was once functioning and actively restored the economy, liberal social values, and dramatically closed the income gap, is replaced with one that has actively undone most, if not all, of those…
This moment in time, this election, is seen as an incredibly rare window of opportunity. To not put everything one has into this moment is the equivalent of not being deserving of the opportunity itself. Yes, these opportunities have presented themselves before within our own short history, though they are most often separated by several generations.
In studying these “trends” in American politics, these “opportunities,” the theory of Critical Realignment emerged.
From Thomas Ferguson and Joel Rogers’ book RIGHT TURN: THE DECLINE OF THE DEMOCRATS AND THE FUTURE OF AMERICAN POLITICS:
But Ferguson and Rogers don’t stop there. They go on to discuss and point out where that theory has lead us and how other realities can and should be added to the equation if we are to fully understand where we stand today and what is happening all around us:
In order to begin to understand why many Bernie-supporters fight so diligently, so fiercely and without resignation, one must first come to understand – despite any disagreements – that Hillary Clinton as a candidate embodies a huge degree of what many see as these “investor blocs” and the reasons why the American political landscape looks as it does today. And that includes the policies and political attitudes that have taken place over the past few decades that have created the vacuum that has ushered in a candidate like Donald Trump. No, Hillary Clinton is not Donald Trump. But she is and has been a vital part of the same political strategies that not only redefined the Republican Party, but overwhelmingly redefined the Democratic Party.
I have no illusion that I am going to change minds here. You may actively not believe in the direction Roosevelt took the Democratic Party. You may very well believe that Hillary Clinton’s politics – like those of her husband’s and those of Barack Obama’s – are the best and most stable path. But for those of us who view the current state of politics through a different lens, those who are looking toward history itself for guidance, we are more than just a little uncomfortable not being as active and as diligent – and as resilient – as we need to be to affect the changes we believe are crucial to this generation and the ones which will immediately follow.
Those feelings of necessity and conviction most liberals felt when Barack Obama was running against the continuation of Bush Administration policies and what America had become under those, is the same exact feelings many are now experiencing regarding Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. To understand the “Bernie or Bust” viewpoint, one must first acknowledge the grave differences between Hillary and Bernie, their backgrounds, voting records, and visions for change. And their relationship to history itself. Regardless of which you subscribe to. If you still see them as two sides of the same coin, then you may not be able to unravel and potentially empathize with what is happening around you, to your friends and neighbors and your country at large.
We are in the midst of the United States’ ever-changing history. Sometimes it’s difficult to see clearly and with perspective when it is happening all around us, especially without the proper historical and political context, which is far too often not only dismissed in today’s social and political conversations, but actively discouraged or ignored.