At this very moment, Bernie Sanders has joined Tom Perez in an ongoing series of unity rallies. Can we unite? It’s hard to know. If uniting means putting Bernie in charge? Many of us will have a problem with that.
Back in 2014 and long before that, Bernie Sanders was one of the strongest opponents of the growing gap between the rich and the poor, and Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruling that handed America’s oligarchy an explosive opportunity to influence our country’s elections. Sanders was the kind of leader worth following because his primary fight against income inequality and Wall Street corruption was strong and irrefutable.
While that message remains more urgent than ever, Bernie did permanent damage to our chances in 2016 by turning Hillary Clinton and the Democrats into the enemy of his movement — not only do many of his followers still believe she had to cheat to beat Bernie (as if) but they still believe she was just as bad or worse than Trump. And that, ironically, was good business for the billionaire class who wanted Scalia’s supreme court seat so that they could prevent overturning Citizens United for decades to come. Too bad about the big picture, huh?
The billionaires pulling the strings mostly hid in the shadows, the likes of the Mercers and the Kochs, but they’ve been preparing for this moment for over 40 years. They’ve been meticulously building their movement to roll back government to give them free reign to do whatever they want with negligible consequences. That meant destroying the EPA, eliminating the “welfare state” and dramatically lowering their own taxes. This would have been Bernie’s biggest nightmare back when Bernie railed against those things instead of the democrats.
Bernie’s emphasis shifted because of festering resentments buried deep in American history that laid out the American dream for the white man’s taking. They took what they wanted, when they wanted and how they wanted. Enjoying that spot at the top of the food chain means unchecked power in almost all respects, and it means opportunity that is all too often blocked for women and other minorities in this country. No wonder he and his supporters thought the election was rigged. The system is always rigged in favor of the white man so if the woman wins it must be rigged, right?
Nevermind that she’d already run one almost successful presidential campaign, nevermind that she had deep roots in the black community — nevermind all of that because Bernie showed up, stumbled into the room and demanded he be the chosen one. None of his supporters could believe it because, after all, the white guy is supposed to win, right? Isn’t that how it always works in America? One wonders how Obama would have fared if he’d run against any white man, or even Bernie. Would they still claim the primary was rigged? What if Bernie ran against another white man, same thing?
Obama showed us a different way. He gave us a glimpse of a different America, one where black could be president, where women could run for president. He placed women, people of color, and candidates representing the gamut of diversity in high-ranking positions. It would eventually lead to festering anger on the right, among the white working class, and perhaps even on the left. After all, now all we hear is how the democrats left them behind while they focused on everyone else. How dare they.
In fact, during the primary it became a source of shame to even want the first woman president to be elected. The disgust for women bled into all aspects of the election and would eventually lead Bernie down the road towards “identity politics.” Why would that be? Why would he want so badly to rip away the foundation of the party and the Obama legacy? Because he lost, and if he lost then the only explanation that made sense to him was that something must be inherently wrong with the system.
Sanders is, after all, only human and vulnerable to the spell cast on many powerful people whose honor is overwhelmed by ego. Few people will ever experience the snare of so much media attention and the lure of so many adoring fans — many of them young women crying out like they haven’t for anyone since the Beatles came to America. How could anyone preserve a clear perspective after that? For years Bernie had been mostly ignored and even derided in the Senate, with his homespun videos being passed around among acolytes, at best name-checked by Noam Chomsky and Amy Goodman. But if we had been paying closer attention we could have seen that a religion of sorts was starting to coalesce, and that religion had found a god-like leader.
Much of Bernie’s rise was facilitated by the GOP and Putin, both holding back on the reams of oppo attacks they have collected on him, and working instead to elevate him, helping him gain traction, paying trolls to pretend to be his supporters. Suddenly it must have seemed like he really could walk on water. Indeed, it took a village to take down Hillary Clinton but it didn’t take much to create a god in Bernie Sanders.
Like a dripping, bliss-soaked sponge, Bernie soon had an artificial sense of his own power and reach — and still does. Every rally, every march, every time anyone shows up anywhere “it’s because of Bernie!” His insistence that Democrats dump “identity politics” and focus on the white working class (namely his own former supporters who flipped to Trump) is going to alienate millions of women and people of color whose specific needs are at the forefront of the Obama coalition and constituent the core of the Democratic Party. But for some reason democrats think it more than appropriate they chase after the needs of those tens of thousands who flipped to Trump. Whatever Bernie’s movement is, it’s not what the Democrats have been about or can succeed without: Democrats must never forget to protect and retain our core voting blocs if we ever expect to win anything, as we’ve seen in recent elections where establishment Democrats are handily beating Bernie-backed candidates.
With a lifetime experience pretending to be things he isn’t, Trump knows how play whatever role will work for him. Once he saw that Bernie’s message was catching on, Trump was quick to mimic it, with Steve Bannon, who had been speaking at Tea Party rallies since 2013, whispering in his ear. Bannon’s and Bernie’s anger and talking points were similar but their solutions were radically different. The Occupy Wall Street and Tea Party movements addressed the same hot-button issue: the 700 billion bailout. Their solutions were polar opposites. Big government vs. no government. Tight regulation vs. no regulation. Bannon and the Mercers would help build Trump in Bernie’s image, only without the messy Socialism. That meant no matter whether Bernie or Hillary won, the Trump team could play the populist card and they could play the lower taxes card. It was a smart strategy that caught the populist wave sweeping throughout the world. The Tea Party used Trump as a Trojan horse of sorts. Get him through the gates and the unseen interlopers can take over. They needed Bernie then and they still need him now — to keep the Democrats weak and divided.
It wasn’t a card Hillary COULD play. She could not morph into an anti-Wall Street populist. She was carrying on the Obama presidency. That is the only way for the party in power to win a third term. You have to go all the way back to 1856 to find a year when another democrat was elected after a different democrat left office. The only play is to say “we’ve done great by you for eight years, let’s have four more.” The last thing you do, the stupidest thing to do, is to launch a campaign against a president with that high of an approval rating. Yet that is exactly what Bernie did and then they all blamed Hillary because she couldn’t be a populist.
Hillary was and is incredibly popular. She won more votes because she fought hard to win them. She was experienced, learned hard lessons along the way and was never someone who stumbled into the room and started making demands. Obama stood behind her because of her loyalty, of course. But he also believed Hillary would continue to hold open the doors that he had already unlocked. Now Sanders is asking us Democrats to give all of that up. Maybe that is what sits at the crux of the populist bookends: the deeply ingrained belief that nobody but white men can save us.
“But Bernie supported Hillary! 80% of his supporters voted for her!” And that’s true. But it didn’t matter. Heading into the convention Bernie refused to concede, giving Fox News and Infowars anti-Clinton news for days. It took a stern talking to by President Obama, Joe Biden and Harry Reid to shake some sense into Sanders and he eventually conceded. By then, it was way way too late. Cambridge Analytica, Putin trolls — without Bernie, there would be no Wikileaks.
Many of us will never be the same after the shameful spectacle we witnessed last year. Now, of course, Bernie and Trump and people like Andrew Sullivan and many on the hard left will say that Hillary didn’t try hard enough to woo the white working class and that’s the reason we lost. Well, that task would have been a lot easier for Hillary to achieve if such a noisy faction of her own party had not constantly been protesting her very presence, chanting “she’s a liar” at rallies, booing her while Bernie egged them on, insinuating she was a whore for her speaking fees and fundraising skills. Bernie was essentially a campaign assist for Trump.
Leave it to our culture’s artists to cast our fate in a better light. Buried in Lin-Manuel Miranda’s Hamilton is the essence of the true revolution that Obama brought to fruition. While we know the American Revolution was largely about rich colonial landowners keeping their own profits and getting richer than god, rather giving a cut to King George, the magnificent twist to that revolution revealed through Miranda’s prism was about an uprising of a different kind, specifically the quality of America’s inherent character that Bernie Sanders has disdainfully and shamefully labeled “Identity Politics.” By casting each historical character as a person of color — George Washington, Alexander Hamilton and Thomas Jefferson all as black men — Miranda asks us to re-imagine the story of America from a different angle — one that offers up the American dream as one available to all, not just some, of its people.
Ideally we would cooperate to find a middle ground, but as long as Bernie Sanders is out there shitting all over Hillary and Obama’s legacy and the DNC, his minions are all too happy to follow suit. The only option they’re giving us is to shut up and sit down or leave the party that they think exclusively belongs to them.
This is a dangerous path for the Democrats to take, and not just because it means erasing the America that Obama was starting to build, the America that is the future. It also means that we risk squandering our collective power. A power that is now being seen in town halls and on the streets and at airports. We’re coming together in a way we haven’t since 1972, but hopefully we won’t leave this year as discouraged as many did then. They didn’t elect McGovern but their protests helped end the Vietnam War anyway. Everything has come full circle.
So far, too many Bernie supporters aren’t showing up to vote (Bernie backed candidates, for all the hype, aren’t winning elections) and they aren’t accepting responsibility for the defeats of their failed candidates. They’re now talking about getting rid of legendary Dianne Feinstein as a target of their misguided progress. Or any woman. Just the name “Nancy Pelosi” causes them to arch their back and start speaking in tongues. Who are they working for? Why would they want to thrust their scattershot revolution in that direction? Have you ever heard of anything more absurd?
Liberals cannot afford to keep fighting among ourselves but how can we ever unite under these circumstances? We Democrats need to see that our party will wither in decline if we allow it to be led only by white men chasing the votes of other white men. Our enduring strength resides with those of us who watched mothers of shooting victims take the stage at the DNC, we who take seriously the threats against women who demand rightful control of their own bodies, a party that stands up to bigotry and ethnic cleansing — Hillary worked hard to show she cared about that — and by the end, she was criticized for it. We who know that full equality for thriving numbers of people of color is essential for the future success of this country. We can work alongside the new movement that claims to look forward, as long as they don’t keep us mired in the past. But we cannot and will not be erased by them. Not now and never again.
This originally appeared on Medium, and has been reprinted with permission.
Illustration: DonkeyHotey/Creative Commons