The revolution will not be organized, and it turns out I’m a bit angry about that.
This post is about why I’m voting against Bernie Sanders for Democratic nominee. I’m afraid that to be taken seriously doing that these days, particularly as a woman, requires a political autobiography. Credentials required lest someone think I am merely voting genitalia.* So here they are.
The first presidential election I recall having any feelings about, much less strong feelings, was the Carter-Reagan-Anderson race of 1980. I was for Anderson, mostly because I found the Carter administration weak and too easily mired in scandal. I was wrong, because I didn’t understand how major third-party candidates worked against the candidates they were closest to politically in our system, and because I didn’t understand how the press manufactures the image of an administration, but it didn’t much matter. I couldn’t vote. I was barely ten when the election happened.
I grew up political. I also grew up Gen X, particularly that little slice of Gen X who knew that nothing we did was going to matter because Reagan was going to get us all killed with his macho, anti-communist, bullshit posturing before we got to see any significant slice of adulthood. It turns out we were wrong about that too, though not because of Reagan. An awful lot of people worked to keep us all from dying.
It took a long time to grow out of this idea that nothing we did mattered. In the meantime, we watched our parents’ generation plunder our political heritage.* We were badly outnumbered, but we could have done more if we’d only known how. Somehow, though, the generation that wasn’t interested in making sure we had schools, jobs, bridges, or retirement funding also wasn’t interested in making sure we had a way to plug into the political process and make our voices heard.
That never kept me from being interested in (or moderately obsessed by) politics. It did keep me from being as effective as I could be.* I educated friends on candidates, issues, and process when I had the opportunity. I plugged into a few protests, but they were…well, they weren’t designed to be invisible, but they might as well have been.
It took the internet to get me to a place where I felt like I could call myself an activist. I grew up pathologically shy, so face-to-face conflict wasn’t something I could manage. And let’s not talk about the phone. Since no one ever mentioned the administrative needs of campaigns to me, that kept me from doing much for my candidates. The internet made it possible to advocate for them where my skills were stronger.
Ironically, internet activism also made me more comfortable dealing with conflict in real time, so by 2008, I was ready to campaign for a candidate. That candidate was Al Franken. When you live in Minnesota, you get used to not having very much input on presidential nominees, but every vote for Franken made a huge difference in national politics.
It took me a while to decide which Democratic candidate to support, at least after John Edwards pulled out. I liked his ambition and trusted his skills. He wasn’t part of the choice I was given. Instead, I was offered two more conservative candidates with different but overlapping competencies.
I chose Obama. I chose him despite a deep sympathy for Clinton being bombarded with sexist bullshit*, not because of the issues or because he was being similarly bombarded with racist bullshit*, but because of what his campaign was doing. He was more conservative than Clinton, but both were far to the right of me on most issues. For that matter, so was Edwards.
What Obama’s campaign was doing, however, gave me hope, far more hope than his slogans or his policies. In a year when both having a black candidate and having a female candidate were exciting new voters, Obama was the candidate taking advantage of that excitement to organize and train the people who had finally found a reason to participate in a process that wasn’t made for them. Politically neglected, Gen X me wanted to cry. Instead, I voted for him.
I don’t think Obama handled this perfectly. There have been too many times over the past seven years that I’ve been asked to put my name to a position without having any idea how it would be used for leverage, and I have a better than average grasp of how these things get used. That way lies apathy.
Still, he organized people in 2008 and again in 2012, and he’s still doing it now. He’s building a political machine more progressive than the Democratic Party. I don’t know exactly what he plans to do with it, but I’m intrigued. I’m kind of big on activist training and organization. A candidate who seized the opportunity to offer it had the potential to upset the balance of power and was worth supporting, even when we disagreed on policy.
Thank you for your patience; we have now reached 2015 and Bernie Sanders vs. Hillary Clinton.
Once again, I’m faced with a choice of candidates who are significantly to the right of me on most issues, but this time the candidates are more differentiated. That doesn’t make an easy decision for me, because I’m kind of an odd duck politically. After decades of trying on and discarding labels, I’m currently calling myself a “wonky radical”.
In practice, this means I think very few options are off the table politically, but I want to make sure we know what we’re doing before we make big changes to even a compromised system. I’ve found Obama’s pre-2014 caution to be the most frustrating part of his domestic agenda. I don’t believe in compromising before you have to compromise. It only means you compromise twice.
So, yes, Clinton’s unwillingness to consider so many possibilities hurts me. It hurts me all the more that in the last eight years since I last had to consider her as a candidate, I’ve had experiences that make me identify with her*. It hurts in no small part because there are few politicians these days whose wonkiness and competence give me as much pleasure. (Thank you, Al Franken, even though I’ve written you very frustrated letters on some issues.)
Benghazi hearings? Oh, such joy. Her autism plan? Wonky and progressive. This is her at her best. But it comes with her worst. That Clinton at her worst is not the demon harpy people keep trying to tell me she is* does not mean we don’t have substantial disagreements in areas I care a lot about. Those areas affect lives. They affect who lives.
If we’re talking about the issues, I should lean Sanders. Like most progressives, I agree far more with him than with any other candidate, if only because the issues where we have the most disagreements tend to be left off those kinds of questionnaires because they’re complex (foreign policy) or considered special interests (gender and racial equality). Clinton and I have disagreements on some of those issues as well, but surveys that don’t dig into them exaggerate the gap between the two candidates.
Still, economic inequality is a huge issue that interacts with those other issues, and there are real differences there. I was willing to be won by Sanders under certain conditions.
Those conditions have nothing to do with “electability”. Who gets elected is determined by who votes, and we don’t know enough about who is ready to vote these days. Young voters made a huge difference for Obama. They have real reasons to vote based on the economy, and they have far more access to training in politics than I did at their age. Plus, they’re already an activist generation. I’m not willing to guess what Millennials can’t accomplish politically. They’ve got too much of a head start on me.
Those conditions also have nothing to do with his ability to govern in the midst of gridlock. He faces the same obstacles Clinton would face–though perhaps a bit less personal animosity from members of Congress–and the same obstacles Obama has been pushing through for the last year or so. Progress can be made under these conditions, even if it requires compromise. And I believe in asking big to start.
No, the conditions under which I was willing to be won by Sanders had to do with his understanding of the power of the administrative branch and his willingness and skill at exploiting those powers to push his agenda. Did he understand the job, and would he do what it takes? This is a perennial question when legislators want to move into executive roles and one of the reasons governors are often safer choices for president, even without foreign policy experience.
So the questions were:
- Would Sanders put together an effective cabinet?
- Did he understand the uses and limitations of executive power?
- Would he use and could he command the small amount of leverage left to his party to resolve gridlock?
- Could he make effective appeals for voters to urge their congressional representatives for change?
There were other questions I should have been asking as well, but I’ll get to those.
Early indications were mixed. Sanders had some history of pragmatism as mayor and accomplishments using that approach. On the other hand, his reputation for choosing close advisers based on loyalty and ideological purity was bolstered by his choice of a campaign manager who’s never run a national campaign but has run his previous campaigns, as well as other major advisers who have worked for him but not on anything of this scale. (Clinton’s choices, by contrast, have much more experience.)
It was early, though, and Sanders didn’t have much money. He was busy stirring up dissatisfaction, because that’s his best political strategy. I’d have to wait to judge his competence. No matter how tired I got of someone telling me there were problems as though I hadn’t been saying that longer than he’d been in Congress, I would wait. I waited. Then I waited some more.
Did you know there are big problems with income inequality? I’m so glad someone finally told me.
Then the data breach happened. As bad as it was, the reaction from the Sanders campaign was worse. They either didn’t find out how many people were involved before communicating or communicated bad information. They pointed fingers and made insinuations rather than taking responsibility. They sued to force the Democrats to do something they were about to do anyway. It was a disorganized mess that told me they didn’t have anything going beyond “Look at the problems over there!”
That was not what I’d been waiting for. It was what I’d been waiting through. I was done.
Scandal has been one of the major tools of the U.S. right wing as long as I’ve been paying attention to politics.* A weakness for scandal was one of the big things that made the Carter administration less effective than it could be. If Sanders’ campaign reacted this badly to a scandal that no one was even pressing, there was no way they could handle–oh, just for example–something like the Benghazi mess.
You can’t pay attention to presidential politics for any length of time without knowing this. You have to know you have to be prepared. You should anyway, because it’s basic political effectiveness not to get sidetracked by making a small problem worse, but you have to know that this is part of being a Democratic president.
I was no longer willing to wait for Sanders to prove to me that he knew how to govern this country and was willing to do what it takes. For what it’s worth, I’m still paying attention, and I haven’t had any reason to change my mind. This doesn’t help, though I don’t agree with it 100%. This certainly doesn’t help.
Competence also affects lives. It also affects who lives. Good intentions make great paving stones, and this is why I’m a wonky radical.
Nothing I see tells me Sanders is doing the minimal work to prepare to govern this country. This would be far more obvious if the press wasn’t gung-ho about having a horse race to report on and had done nearly as much work to vet Sanders as a candidate as they have Clinton.* As far as I can tell, this is his plan for us:
- Discover our economy has problems
- Vote for me
It’s worse than that, though. I can understand some procrastination when you’re the long-shot candidate, even as it raises my hackles because getting prepared is something you should do before you ask for people’s votes. Some people always assume they can catch up at the last minute, no matter how much work it’s taken other people to get there. It’s more likely to happen, and more likely to be overlooked, when it’s a man underestimating what a woman has accomplished.*
However, Sanders is currently not even bothering to put the energy of his supporters to good use, and I find that unconscionable. Whether Sanders wins the nomination or not, he has the attention, the energy, and the goodwill of a mass of people who are prepared to take over U.S. politics if given a chance–or even an unrealistic promise.
What is he doing with this? Not much, really.
He’s refused to raise funds for the Democratic Party to spend on state and congressional races after having promised to do so. Nor is he campaigning for those candidates as he speaks around the country. No matter who the Democratic nominee for president is, those races matter. They matter in terms of what the president can accomplish, and they matter on their own.
When gridlock is the norm, state races determine how people live. When funds are allocated at the national level, states determine how and even whether to spend that money. Those are the kinds of decisions Sanders is refusing to affect “on principle”.*
Then there are all the people who are pouring their hearts and their dreams and their voices and their energy into supporting Sanders. I know it isn’t reasonable to ask Sanders to have had grassroots organizers and trainers in place here in Minnesota since April of last year, as Clinton has, but they’re hiring field organizers right now, less than a month away from the caucus.
If your campaign depends on the grassroots, you have to do more for your supporters than ask them to show up at rallies sometimes and talk about how much they like you with their Facebook friends. Getting Millennials and people of color into the political system–not just to the voting booth–is the revolution we’re actually going to get. Its impact shouldn’t be underestimated, but it won’t just happen.
Obama knew this eight years ago. Sanders could and should have anticipated the need to organize his supporters, to get them connected locally, to get them practicing his message on each other, to get them comfortable dealing with objections and confrontation. He hasn’t done that. He’s done very little, here and across the nation, to take his support and convert it from a bunch of individual votes to a coordinated campaign that wields the real political power the people in it deserve.*
That’s what has to happen in order to deliver anything like the revolution Sanders is promising (which isn’t a revolution, but it wouldn’t have to be to make real change). The political machine Sanders looks askance at is doing this. He’s not. He’s just telling people to be angry, then giving them nothing effective to do with that anger. That’s not good.
Bernie Sanders is neither prepared to win the nomination and become an effective president nor lose on principle in a way that does anything but squander the support of the people he’s making promises to. There’s nothing revolutionary about that. That’s what people think of when they say, “politics as usual”. That it comes dressed in revolutionary garb just makes me angrier.
And that is why I’m voting against Sanders for the Democratic nomination.
* Yes, I am angry about this.