During Barack Obama’s meteoric rise to the national stage, his underlying appeal to voters was not any particular policy point, it was a new energy he projected through the rallying cry of “hope and change.” Similarly, in Bernie Sanders’ rapid rise to the national stage, it was his passionate focus on income inequality and an economic system that is “broken” and no longer works for the American middle class. Elizabeth Warren’s success also is rooted in this widespread hopelessness that the people, through their government, may never win the battle for democracy over corporate interests. Here we have three prominent politicians, who somehow managed to rise above the tedious mainstream media narratives that have been so effective at keeping the attention of voters away from the root causes of America’s social problems.
So when I hear that “Bernie has lofty ideas, but it won’t be practical to implement them,” or “You have to consider that Hillary, with all of her experience and political connections, will be more effective at getting her agenda through a possibly Republican-majority Congress,” I am frustrated that a much more important point is being missed. To understand that point, we have to look at WHY Obama, Sanders and Warren have enjoyed such widespread popularity in the first place. These three have gone outside the incessant, media-generated squabbling over abortion, guns and immigration and have identified something Americans know to be true, but have not heard their representatives or the media articulate—that the standard of living and the quality of life of a majority of Americans has slipped to astonishingly low levels and that the power of the electorate to determine its own destiny has been so utterly perverted, that American democracy, itself, is under serious threat.
During Obama’s rise to prominence, Americans knew they were being shafted economically, but hadn’t quite understood how that was happening. Not only did Obama clarify it for them, he made the issue his political platform. Finally, a candidate who was making the disenchanted working class American and their plight his top priority. Weary of endless war in the Middle East, Americans were relieved to hear a candidate dare to contradict the Bush-Cheney meme that these wars (and their insidious side effects of diminished civil liberties and domestic surveillance) were necessary to “protect our freedoms.” Obama, at the time, seemed excitingly heretical to the prevailing pseudo religion of never questioning Bush foreign policy “at a time of war” and the doctrine of troop worship. Even after the Obama rally for “hope and change,” it took YEARS after the 2008 financial crisis and a whole Occupy movement before we heard one utterance about these issues in the mainstream media. Obama brought us the notion that it might be possible for the people to get their government back, so it could do their bidding and not the bidding of corporate interests. Obama kicked off “hope and change” by winning the presidency through small donations from millions of people rather than through huge corporate contributions. It seemed America was on its way to becoming an equitable and peaceful nation once again.
Then came an obstructionist, Republican-majority Congress. Obama, in fruitless attempts to appease the opposing party—in a cooperative spirit inspired by the Lincoln presidency—caused the energy of “hope and change” to gradually diminish. This was a huge disappointment to his Progressive base. Some supporters forgave his acquiescence by developing a face-saving myth: “President Obama is stymied by a Republican majority in Congress.” The end. “Nothing can happen until we get our Democratic majority in Congress back.” And so this is where we are and this negative corollary to “hope and change” has now seeped into the consciousness of Democrats trying to decide between Bernie or Hillary. “Bernie can’t accomplish his big, idealistic agenda because he’ll most likely have a Republican-majority Congress, like Obama has. So vote for Hillary.” Translated: “Let’s settle for Hillary’s half a dream, where she might be able to eek out a tweak here and there—using executive orders or her lifetime of political connections— and Americans will at least get some bits of economic relief.” The presumption has become “Bernie’s dreams are too high falutin and nothing will get accomplished.” The attitude is “Hillary, with barely any big dreams for the nation, will be better because her pragmatism will be effective in accomplishing the small things that are more within reach.” These attitudes miss the point entirely.
The whole point of “hope and change,” the whole point of an Obama, or a Sanders or a Warren isn’t that one specific policy—hypothesized and outlined on a chaotic campaign trail— will or won’t get through a Republican-majority Congress, or the policy isn’t economically feasible (thank you Paul Krugman) or the policy isn’t practical in myriad other ways. The whole point is the ABILITY OF THESE CANDIDATES TO EFFECT CHANGE. It is their energy, their personality, their honed articulation on what plagues Americans, it is WHO THEY ARE that is the point. The tidal wave of support for these politicians is not due to specific policy positions, it is due to their ability to effect change. Nobody knows what any candidate will actually be able to accomplish in office. Last year, there was nary a pundit who thought Donald Trump would make it through the primaries. Last year, Hillary was the heir apparent to the presidency and her initially weak campaign underscored this widespread presumption. What the people want, given the popularity of Obama, Sanders and Warren is a candidate who demonstrates that they can effect change. It doesn’t matter how improbable it might be to implement universal health coverage. It doesn’t matter how impossible it might seem to break up the big banks. It doesn’t matter how the page-by-page technical manual reads for implementing free tuition. None of these details matter. What matters is who is more likely to effect change once they get into office—is it Hillary or Bernie? Who most possesses the quality of being able to turn paradigms upside down? Because if you possess the innate nature to effect change, then YES, some of Bernie’s high falutin dreams are doable. We already have health insurance exchanges in every state, thanks to the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare). Is it that much of a stretch for a Bernie administration to divide each exchange into two departments—one that offers private insurance with the federal subsidy and one that offers Medicare for all? Could it be that it’s really not that hard to convert “Obamacare” into universal health coverage? It is possible to provide free education for everyone, being that we’re practically the only country who doesn’t. But to listen to Hillary at a recent town hall meeting, she’s still talking up her half a dream, where she thinks student loans shouldn’t go over 20 years and the rich should pay for college, but not the poor. These are merely tweaks, people. These are not the accomplishments progressives had in mind when they came out in droves and lifted Obama, Sanders and Warren to nationwide prominence. Are Democrats going to be happy with four or eight more years of minor tweaks? Systemic change means ALL of us—rich and poor—pay for college and health care through our taxes, not out of pocket and it mandates that the taxes each of us pay are FAIR for our life circumstances.
So, what about the Republican-majority Congress?
Why have Democrats given up so easily? Why has it become a foregone conclusion that a Democratic president with a Republican-majority Congress cannot accomplish anything big? This is not true. It may seem true because President Obama stopped campaigning his ideas after he was elected, but that doesn’t make it true. Hillary Clinton’s campaign has already internalized this myth into its rhetoric. The Clintons have been spinning this depressing inevitability as a counter to Bernie’s “high falutin dreams” since she launched her candidacy and Democrats have completely bought into it. But remember, her turn for the Oval Office was also an inevitability, now it’s a contest and Bernie has been doing better than any of the punditry ever allowed us to believe he would. Barack Obama did the same thing when he ran for president. Elizabeth Warren did the same thing when she ran for the Senate. Political surprises like these occur because we are dealing with candidates who possess the ability to effect change. Why wouldn’t this ability then be effective once they win office? Is it so impossible to believe that a boisterous and energetic guy like Bernie Sanders won’t take his “high falutin” dreams to cities across America, educating people on what is possible, until constituents of the obstructionist Republican majority force the Republican Congressmen in their district to bend to their wishes? Can’t a president possessing the ability and willingness to effect change use their wave of support to confront an obstructionist Congress? Bernie commands enormous crowds everywhere he goes. Is it so pie-in-the-sky that given his nature, he might continue these rallies until enough people get out and manage to vote in a Democratic majority again? Do you really see Hillary Clinton doing that? This is a candidate who was criticized for not even getting out of her limousine to engage supporters. Do you really see her standing up to a Republican majority by challenging them town by town, in their own districts? This is the point, Dems. Bernie has not accepted, as a foregone conclusion, that nothing big can be accomplished with a Republican-majority Congress. And what if his “high falutin” dreams can’t get through Congress? Does this mean he’ll accomplish NOTHING at all? “Big Bernie dreams won’t go through, so vote for Hillary, so something, anything will get through.” That’s what Hillary supporters believe? How absurd. Do people think a guy who wants to reinvent our financial institutions, provide free education for everyone, free health care for everyone and institute fair pay and fair taxation can’t also accomplish small things—like the ones Hillary aspires to?
So stop with the “Bernie’s dreams are too big,” and stop with the defeated refrain that “If we hope to get anything done at all, given the Congress the next president will have, we’re just going to have to elect Hillary, the pragmatist.” And please, for the love of God, stop with the inner-party squabbling. Both Democratic candidates bring qualities to the race that will be good for the country and good for the party. It’s just that Bernie possesses the WILL to effect change and Hillary is prone to accept the status quo, with minor tweaks. This is why Bernie supporters like Bernie and are worried that a Clinton presidency will only churn out mediocre results.