PART 1: THE MIRACLE
Bernie’s rise in the polls feels like a holiday miracle.
Bernie Sanders heads into New Hampshire more than 25 points ahead and into Iowa up, despite the array of forces aligned against a candidate who highlights the cost of our concentrated wealth. Sanders personally was virtually blacked out of the media and Democratic debates were severely limited. Sanders doesn’t even have the foundational work of the “liberal class” to build on: many “liberal” institutions have shied from effectively advancing progressive ideals, which conflict with donor interests.
In a functional democracy, there might not be a Bern to feel. Bernie would be an ordinary politician whose consistent positions have been guided by the public interest. “One of 565,” we’d yawn, “And not even blessed with out-of-this-world looks or charisma.” The freshness and resonance of Bernie’s candidacy speaks powerfully to major failures of our democracy.
Hillary feels this widespread frustration in our country. She has tried to frame herself as a breakthrough candidate, highlighting herself as potentially the first female president. It’s evident it is a far longer shot for someone looking to broadcast critical truths to advance progressive policies. One willing to dismantle boundaries set up by the establishment is a potentially transformational figure and a far greater underdog.
Bernie’s honesty and commitment to “America” (great ad!) has brought results in the form of record-breaking crowds and donations.
Of course Hillary has given Bernie the gift of her establishment past. Surely she knew the fight to be elected president would be particularly challenging for a woman due, in part, to discrimination. Her calculated career moves – from First Lady to Senate to global philanthropist to US Secretary of State –should have made her an unassailable candidate, she must have thought. Yet today these positions represent greater liabilities than assets. The system has profoundly failed the American people. And her failure to be an outspoken critic of key associates, like Walmart and banks executives, hurts her even more.
Perhaps her error was one of philosophy: “Your right is to work only, but never to the fruit thereof,” says the Bhagavad Gita about goal orientation. The excellent unauthorized autobiography, “Why Bernie Matters” by Harry Jaffe, shows Sanders has mostly taken the opposite approach – doing good work, regardless of the political priorities of the power elite, or where it will lead.
Northeastern University Professor Suzanna Walters was on Democracy Now! this week. “Most of our major leaders, people who reach this level of political life, make all kinds of compromises, are deeply compromised people in their politics,” said the Clinton supporter. Bernie is not.
This article examines the forces aligned against Bernie and his agenda: the “establishment” under so much debate recently, institutional obstacles to Bernie’s visibility and the policies he champions, and Hillary’s strategic failures.
PART 2: THE “ESTABLISHMENT”
Late January brings another compelling call to clarify basics (this time of “establishment”) to the Clintons and their allies. (January first brought the need to inform them that either candidate could earn the President’s endorsement given their position on guns per Vice President Biden, then a clarification as to why single payer, universal healthcare wouldn’t leave people without healthcare.)
The “Establishment” is largely a case of “you know it when you see it,” I maintain. But should the Clintons, who may have a better grasp on power structures nationally than anyone else, need more guidance, here’s some.
First, as they know, a British (and common) definition includes financiers, industrialists, government leaders, etc. who hold power and exercise authority. British journalist Henry Fairlie in 1955 famously wrote: “By the Establishment, I do not only mean the centres of official power—though they are certainly part of it—but rather the whole matrix of official and social relations within which power is exercised.” If one is truly puzzled, one can read “In the Light of What We Know,” a compelling novel that spans Oxford University to London bankers to Afghanistan reconstruction which examines power and elitism, although more telling would be a Hillary Clinton biography.
For fun, here’s a Cosmo-like quiz:
1. When a friend sees a picture of the leader of your organization with a prominent politician, what is her response? “Oh, I was at that gala also.” Or “OMG, OMG, when did that happen?”
2. What do the parents and children of your founder do? (As a reference point, Planned Parenthood President’s President Cecile Richards mother Ann Richards was one of the most famous governors. Her daughter Lily Adams worked for Senator Tim Kaine, considered a possible vice president, in at least two capacities and now works for Hillary for Iowa.)
3. Has the head of your organization spent several years (or decades) working for a presidential candidate who served in Congress, the cabinet, and big philanthropy, closely coordinating with companies?
4. When was the last time you angered prominent members of what would be considered your own party?
5. Do you challenge corporate power, as it relates to wealth distribution, financial reform (which probably has the greatest effect on those you serve), technology, entertainment, and/or other areas? How publicly and strongly?
6. Is your mission broad or narrow? Do you directly advocate on broad issues affecting your constituencies throughout their lives including physical violence and economic well-being? How often are you at odds with corporate and wealthy interests?
7. Is your organization perceived as primarily white and upper-middle class in its priorities and leadership?
8. How do you decide who to endorse? Was it or will it be through a democratic vote of membership? (Bernie always wins membership votes; Clinton often wins when leaders decide.)
9. Who sits on your board? How many former cabinet members, Congressmen, investment bankers, corporate representatives, and hedge fund and private equity managers are there?
If your answer to many of these questions is “that’s unfair,” you are probably part of the establishment. This isn’t necessarily bad. But when power structures fail to highlight the issues and effectively serve the American people, their record becomes more relevant.
The well-connected and narrowly focused Human Rights Campaign is (very successful) part of the establishment and the decision was made undemocratically. Bernie is arguably stronger on LGBT issues, as he’s said.
The leadership of Planned Parenthood can also be considered establishment. Yes, Planned Parenthood may serve a poor trans person in Detroit, but Cecile Richards is far from that poor trans person. There’s no contradiction. Sure the organization has been unfairly attacked by Republicans and does much good work. But that doesn’t negate the fact that many leaders of this and other such organizations have access to powerful people within our society. And that those connections often influence decisions by both. To argue this, you’d have to assert that the Democratic (and some Republican) politicians – who weakened transparency of campaign financing and allowed for the export of crude oil – hold very little power. Politicians influencing billions or trillions of spending decisions are not ordinary Americans.
Planned Parenthood’s decision to endorse Hillary Clinton underlines this classification, as it is at odds with the voting preferences of a constituency of young women who strongly prefer Bernie’s platform that helps them through a higher minimum wage, affordable health care, and investment in schools.
PART 3: OBSTACLES TO BERNIE SANDERS’ VISIBILITY
Bernie’s miraculous rise has been in the context of an institutional blackout, which posed serious problems for his candidacy. Many of these institutions rely on funding by companies and the wealthy who want to keep the gravy train rolling despite its staggering cost to humanity and to the Earth. So he’s been kept out of the public eye.
The Mainstream Media — Bernie got 10 minutes of coverage on the networks during January to November of last year. In total, he received about 1 percent of all presidential candidate airtime. This is despite his candidacy being arguably the most important and interesting political story of 2015. Hillary’s coverage, including Benghazi, totaled 230 minutes. Even now, with Sanders ahead in both early states, much of the coverage is devoted to where Hillary went wrong and how she can win, while downplaying the very real messaging that has led to Bernie’s unprecedented campaign success. Ninety percent of the media is owned by six corporations.
Debates and the Democratic National Committee – Maybe that would be okay with 26 debates during the primary season, like in 2008. Unfortunately the Democratic National Committee, arbitrarily under Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, limited the debates to six with several held during football games, holiday weekends, or other inconvenient times. The one streamed by ABC left internet viewers with repeated frozen screens during a significant portion of the event.
Funding – Another obstacle was self-imposed: no funding from SuperPACs or corporations. It was absolutely viewed as virtually impossible to raise sufficient money through this mechanism, yet Sanders has managed to come close time and again, even surpassing Obama donations in 2012.
Politicians and institutions – Politicians have overwhelmingly endorsed Clinton for a variety of reasons, I’d argue, including to curry favor or in fear of retaliation. This despite major weaknesses in her past policies on wealth inequality, foreign policy, financial reforms, climate change and health care.
PART 4: THE LIBERAL VACUUM OR WHY DON’T WE KNOW “THE TOP 1/10TH OF 1 PERCENT HAS AS MUCH WEALTH AS THE BOTTOM 90 PERCENT?”
But the greatest barrier to Sanders may be that of the framing of issues. Many of the truths Bernie speaks of have been advanced by fringe progressive groups and activists, but largely ignored through more established institutional structures. There has been a blackout of truths relating to liberal, progressive, humanist ideals among many institutions which would describe themselves in those terms. Pulitzer Prize-winning author Chris Hedges’ 2010 book “Death of the Liberal Class” highlights the phenomenon.
Democratic Socialism – Sanders uses the term to separate himself from rapacious capitalism and (imaginary) incremental progressivism of today. He has come under fire by the media and population for such branding. But the word “capitalism” has been appropriated to emphasis the free market with little regulation or attempts to redistribute wealth, except upwards. Bernie better relates to MLK’s definition: “Call it democracy or call it democratic socialism there must be a better distribution of its wealth for all God’s children.”
Ironically, the overuse of “socialist” with reference to Obama and the identification of a large part of the Iowa electorate as socialist may well help his candidacy.
Colleges – Colleges often seem to shy away from research and investments to address top challenges. So too do they fail to properly educate our future leaders about gender equity, the environment, wealth inequality, climate change, and the failures of globalization. They throw roadblocks to divesting billions of dollars to promote sustainability and justice, even while university boards are populated by corporate and financial heavyweights. Over 250 colleges and universities now have Koch money. We’re told by alum and college leadership the Kochs just want to cure cancer (even while they are a top national polluter and spend like a third, highly conservative political party). All this amounts to situations where many colleges seem participate on margins of finding solutions to the great challenges of our time. Although an era of new student activism, including Bernie’s strong support, may herald change …
Think tanks – Think tanks in America often provide narrow framing of issues. They often receive significant funding from members of corporate and government, with 40 percent of Brookings donations over $50,000 from corporations or foreign governments. Thus when you look through their events they seem almost written to quell your excitement and passion. If it puts fire in your belly, commitment in your heart, or inspires you with its list of speakers, you probably aren’t at a popular DC think tank. They have rarely held the wealthy or corporations accountable, even as our oligarchic system of government stymied progress after about 400 people planned to obstruct Obama’s presidency. Call it censorship or something else, but it has been hard to find programs that seriously challenge America’s military industrial complex, war policy, Glass-Steagall repeal, wealth inequality and climate change goals vs. a 2 degree-limit, even given their paramount importance.
Nothing Bernie says about our top challenges and solutions should be new. Thanks to a timid left-wing intelligentsia that has failed to discuss major policies in a way that resonates, it is.
“Establishment” Nonprofits – Certainly many of these organizations do good work. Yet they too accept money from corporations and hedge fund and private equity managers, and often have accepted growth as the byword it is in the private sector. They seek to measure “impact” (not inherently a bad thing) and thus “narrow their focus” (often not good). They shy from policy advocacy on issues obviously related to their mission (“not enough resources”) or actually change their mission or constituency to create “shared value.”
Peter Buffett has described some philanthropists as “searching for answers with their right hand to problems that others in the room have created with their left,” rather than focusing on systemic change. Precisely what Bernie is advocating should be reflected in think tank and nonprofit advocacy, as issues of social justice and sustainability are the largest levers on planetary success and happiness.
Arts – So too have progressive ideals been drummed out of the major arts institutions and museums, which have also become increasingly corporatized. It’s rare to see plays and exhibits featuring questions about morality and humanity like those common in past decades, something acknowledged by theaters that ask where the politically-themed work has gone.
Obama – At his last State of the Union, President Obama said were he a more skilled orator – in the manner of a Lincoln or a Roosevelt – perhaps could have brought the parties together. But he dodged an important truth: he largely abandoned the bully pulpit for much of his two terms. We stopped hearing of the bankruptcies and problems with health care post-Obamacare, his measured advocacy on climate failed to be scientifically framed or close to what is needed, and he has avoided addressing the military-industrial complex, as just three examples. Pope Francis speech to Capitol Hill reminded us how a speech grounded in moral authority can inspire. It also highlights Obama’s very real failure to diligently advance the progressive movement for much of his presidency. Yes, it would have involved alienating those corporations and the wealthy who don’t prioritize the public interest. But they gave up on him and this country first.
Media – A heavily war and violence oriented media, coupled with falsehoods of conservative stations, don’t fill in these gaps of knowledge. Do people know wealth concentration that provides the cornerstone of Bernie’s speech “the top 1/10th of 1 percent has as much wealth as the bottom 90 percent” or dozens of other related facts (like the richest 62 individuals own as much as the bottom 3.5 billion globally)? Do they understand the 2-degree limit recognized in 2009 in Copenhagen, recently at the G7 and reaffirmed (with focus on 1.5 degrees in Paris) versus a disastrous 4-degree pathwell within the realm of possibility? That all 50 states could rely solely on renewable energy by 2050? Do they know the number of health-care related bankruptcies here, and medical costs in other nations? Surely they should understand the risk to the planet and people posed by the TPP, including energy and food lawsuits that have resulted from such trade agreements. Bernie has had to educate people about key issues and solutions.
Sure, some organizations have been consistently strong advocates. Some nonprofits industries have sharpened their message and focus. And growing grassroots movements like Occupy and #blacklivesmatter have advanced progress causes. But in many ways we’re living through an era of largely dismantled institutions that poses enormous obstacles to a humanist candidate, and to humanity.
PART 6: HILLARY’S FAILED STRATEGY
When America is ignorant about Bernie and his/our issues, Hillary look progressive. When one becomes familiar with Bernie, who seeks systemic change based on global realities relating to human dignity, he seems larger-than-life.
Hillary’s strategy has been poor but understandable, as she tries to deflect attacks on her positions and record. She’s been mostly running against herself.
1. Be herself – This is what she was hoping to do the entire election undoubtedly, run as a corporatist Democrat who was better than the Republicans. Yet against someone who is speaking Martin Luther King’s “unarmed truths” from “unconditional love,” her tepid platform has left Democratic voters uninspired.
2. Adopt Bernie’s positions – She’s often seized on Bernie’s positions and wording to deflect criticism, even changing her positions on TPP and Keystone a month before the first debate. Ultimately, this doesn’t pay off because it is at odds with decades of her past experience, and her wealthy and corporate donor interests.
3. Side with the President – Hillary pulls out her tight working relationship and false narratives with the president when she’s in trouble. She cited what sounded like a landmark climate deal in Copenhagen after a joint adventure (first debate), stood up for Obama whose Wall Street ties Sanders was supposedly really criticizing when he described Clinton’s links to Wall Street (sixth debate), and advertised “I’m with him” after the president gave successful anti-gun violence speech. Her record in the administration is too hawkish and unsuccessful to draw on heavily and honestly.
4. Go on the Attack – Many attacks misrepresent the truth, and have been unsuccessful. Daughter Chelsea launched an irrational attack on Sanders on health care, and Hillary’s gun attacks often are non-sequitur statements with weak ties to reality. At times she makes misleading statements, implying she is more electable against Republicans (contradicted by polls) or has greater support from independents. Worst of all, these hugely anger Sanders supporters who could provide key support in November.
Ultimately it would be nice to see a woman, committed to equal pay and other priorities, in the White House. But for women – who have to struggle with financial insecurity, corporate predation, and recovering from the economic crash – (and for others), it would be far better to have someone who can take on the central truths and challenges of their lives.
It will be “tough sledding” for Bernie to win South Carolina, said Vice President Joe Biden. Fortunately, it’s snowing there.
Supporters understand the overwhelming forces aligned against Sanders and celebrate his improbable success. Generation X sings David Bowie’s “Under Pressure” to celebrate his recent great debate performance and his rebuttals. Millennials (among whom he leads by 11 points) presumably are changing to Tinder taglines like, “Let’s break up the big banks!”
Or, as Bowie said, which is reflective of a nation that has stood up for Sanders’ progressive movement. “We can be heroes, just for one day.” Millennials and all believers in a better life for all, including Bernie, must be our heroes every day as we create a world of justice and sustainability.