On the eve of the New York Democratic Primary, I was asked many times who my family was supporting. “Bernie Sanders” was my answer. Feedback was mainly positive, but in multiple conversations I heard the same question: “Isn’t that a vote for Trump?” I would hold my tongue for fear of being rebuked. Well, Clinton won New York, won the primaries, and on November 8th, lost the general election.
I am not generally prone to hyperbole, nor do I readily dabble in counterfactuals, but sometimes alarmist rhetoric is needed to capture an alarming situation. America has elected an unrepentant narcissist, xenophobe, racist, sexist, Islamophobe, and anti-Semite—someone who has never held elected office or had any government experience, and someone who is dangerously unfit to hold the nuclear codes.
And the Democratic establishment, who rallied overwhelmingly for Clinton in the primaries, played a part in his rise to power. Through convoluted and circuitous logic, as well as unfair misrepresentations of Sanders’ core principles, they convinced average American voters that thirty years in elected office made him “inexperienced,” that policy proposals such as universal healthcare and debt-free college were too “progressive” to speak to the American public, that a democratic socialist could never garner serious support, despite massive crowds and a huge social media presence. Without realizing it, these voters played straight into the hands of a centrist neoliberal Democratic establishment which suffered from extreme hubris and a callous disregard for the average person. These are the people we have to thank for a Trump presidency.
And I am glad that I have worked up the courage to say that. After the Democratic primaries wrapped up, any attempt to criticize Clinton was met with ostracization from the liberal mainstream in the name of party “loyalty” and “unity.” At best, a critic could be laughed off as a left-wing nutjob; at worst, in league with the alt-right.
Now that the election is over, I feel free to criticize the people who selected a candidate so flawed and polarizing that the American public (or at least the Electoral College) picked Donald Trump over her.
Worst of all, there were many valid criticisms to be made of Clinton as a candidate, criticisms unfairly stifled. She had flipped her positions on the Defense of Marriage Act, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and the Iraq War, all measures Sanders vigorously opposed. While in high school, Clinton supported the presidential bid of Republican Barry Goldwater in 1964, a relative extremist who laid the groundwork for the modern conservative movement and set the stage for Trump. At the same time, Sanders was protesting civil rights violations at the University of Chicago. Throughout the campaign, Clinton played favorites with her inner circle, a cabal of seasoned operatives and aides whose arrogance verged on masturbatory. She was a flawed candidate, but no one was “allowed” to admit it.. When we look at the state of the nation today, it’s clear to me who would’ve have defeated Trump in the general election: Bernard Sanders.
First, let’s examine all the criticisms against Sanders leveled by the Clinton campaign over the primary season. They said he lacked party loyalty and wasn’t a “real Democrat,” as he had been an Independent for almost all of his political career. Did anyone seriously think that a country full of Independents, centrists, and pragmatists would reject a candidate on such ludicrous and elitist grounds? Did anyone seriously think that lacking party credentials would matter in an election with a distinctly anti-establishment tone? If being a corporatist, a cronyist, and a warmonger makes someone a “real Democrat,” then I’m glad that Sanders wasn’t.
Another charge against Sanders was that he wasn’t able to compromise, wasn’t able to “get things done.” Did anyone seriously think that Sanders’ stern idealism was comparable to Trump’s unwavering apocalyptism, peddled by a man so stubborn he is unable to apologize or admit wrongdoing? Did anyone seriously think that the average American voter would care whether a candidate was a pragmatic crafter of policy? If compromising one’s values, changing one’s ideology at the tip of a hat to score political points, or giving in to special interests constitutes “getting things done,” I’m glad Sanders never “got things done.”
Finally, there was the idea that a self-branded “democratic-socialist” could never be elected President. Did anyone seriously think that labels really mattered in an election year where the other candidate bragged about sexual assault, called Mexicans “rapists” and advocated for barring Muslims from entering the United States? Did anyone seriously think that two words dirtier than “sexual predator” were “democratic socialist”? If unabashed progressivism precludes someone from being President, then I’m glad that those who follow in Sanders’ footsteps will soon prove that notion incorrect.
Make no mistake, Clinton ran an admirable campaign, conducting herself calmly, bravely, and with the poise and toughness that comes with being a trailblazing senator and Secretary of State. The blatant and swirling sexism that surrounded her campaign was absolutely unacceptable and contributed to an unfair perception of her as “shrill” and “cold.” I have the utmost respect for her life in public service, including eight years of representing me and my family in Washington as a senator. However, Clinton did not do enough to dispel the notion that the she was a tool of the establishment, picking a centrist VP nominee who was previously chair of the DNC, relying heavily on the Obamas as surrogates, and toeing the neoliberal party line with almost admirable devotion. Clinton made the fatal mistake of lunging unconvincingly for voters in the center with Tim Kaine as a running mate, misunderstanding the fact that a majority of America’s independents aren’t necessarily ideologically centrist, but pragmatic voters who back a candidate based on a few choice issues. The result of this election is that the old Democratic establishment is dead. They had their chance to prove to us that they were capable of winning the most important election of our time, and they totally and unequivocally blew it. Centrism doesn’t work anymore. Corporatism doesn’t work anymore. Clintonism doesn’t work any more. Sanders’ campaign shows us where the new Democratic Party needs to head. Grassroots work. Progressivism works. Courage works. Populism works. Revolution works. Passion works. All of these things Sanders brought to the table, but was silenced by party elites who sought a coronation, not a contest.
When we look at Bernie’s fundamental message, we understand that he could have connected to the working and lower-middle class voters that Trump energized. Like Trump, he recognized their feelings of dissatisfaction with the political elite, the idea that globalization had rendered them disposable. Trump took this anger and directed it at the innocent: undocumented immigrants, religious minorities, and people of color. Bernie took this anger and directed it at the greedy and corrupt: unregulated financial institutions, the military-industrial complex, pharmaceutical companies who hike prices. And whereas Trump’s campaign was fueled by hatred and bigotry, Sanders was fueled by love and unity, the quintessentially American idea that the voices of many overpower the money of a few. When you look at the states that flipped this year: Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio, Pennsylvania, you can see a pattern emerge. These are Rust Belt states, states with large working class populations, spawned by the industry that once thrived there. These are voters with whom Sanders’ message of economic fairness and equity would’ve resonated most. Instead, these important issues were neglected by the Clinton campaign, and they’ve paid dearly for it.
This is not to say that there is no hope for the Democratic Party in the future. True progressives such as Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, and Tammy Baldwin stand intact amidst the ruins of the Clinton campaign. They have endorsed Keith Ellison, co-chair of the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the first Muslim congressman, to be the new head of the DNC. In a surprising and heartening act of unity, old establishment stalwarts such as Harry Reid and Chuck Schumer have also lended their support to Ellison. Ellison has made it clear that he wants to move the party back to its roots and push a truly progressive agenda that advocates social justice and economic fairness. If the Democrats can successfully harness the populist passion that propelled Sanders’ campaign, there is no stopping them in 2020, no matter who they nominate. Ellison recognizes that now is the time for a rebirth of the Democratic Party. It’s time for a unabashedly progressive agenda, for the grassroots of the American left to rise once again, for the working class to return home to the party of labor leaders and collective bargaining, one that was hijacked by corporate interests for too long. Michelle Obama was correct in saying that Trump’s campaign was as low as they come, but the right move wasn’t to go high; it was to go left. And now in the ashes of the old establishment, it’s time for a truly progressive Democratic Party.
After Trump was elected, the hashtag #notmypresident erupted on Twitter, and so did protests across the country, a forceful show of unity in the aftermath of disaster. Trump is not my president, but Clinton was not my candidate. Where was the protesting when the DNC showed favoritism towards Clinton? Where was the passion on Election Day? Where were these people when we had a true progressive gunning for the Democratic nomination, someone who Trump admitted that he didn’t want to run against? Some of them were backing the wrong candidate, but voters should never take the blame for the shortcomings of their nominee. In the end, Trump’s victory was the Democratic establishment’s fault. They did this. Their echo chamber and liberal bubble, their disconnect and their obliviousness, their arrogance, their smugness, and their elitism did this. So, to everyone who told me a vote for Sanders was a vote for Trump, I can only now say this: In the end, Clinton was the weaker candidate. Clinton couldn’t turn out the Democratic base in the numbers Obama did. Clinton couldn’t harness a built-in advantage in the Electoral College. Clinton just couldn’t win. I didn’t get Trump elected. The emails didn’t get Trump elected. James Comey didn’t get Trump elected. And Bernie Sanders certainly didn’t get Trump elected. It was the Democratic establishment. And we cannot let them do it again.