Primary Lesson

In its February 8 issue, The Nation endorsed Bernie Sanders for president, trading the cool impartiality of the sidelines for the chance to engage, directly and with vigor, in one of the most consequential Democratic nominating contests in recent memory. Hailing the senator’s “audacious agenda,” we embraced his “clarion call for fundamental reform” and the transformative integrity of his people-powered campaign. The Vermont senator, we wrote, “has summoned the people to a ‘political revolution’”—and transformed the 2016 election in the process. “Bernie Sanders and his supporters are bending the arc of history toward justice,” we concluded. “Theirs is an insurgency, a possibility, and a dream that we proudly endorse.” (The endorsement first appeared on The Nation’s website on January 14.)

The Nation’s decision followed months of debate within its offices and in its pages, printed and virtual. As early as last June, Katha Pollitt penned the first of several forceful columns laying out the feminist case for backing Hillary Clinton. Then, just last month, socialist feminists Liza Featherstone and Suzanna Danuta Walters engaged in a crackling exchange over which candidate—­Clinton or Sanders—­deserves the progressive vote. Meanwhile, articles by Joan Walsh and D.D. Guttenplan tracked the progress of the two Democratic contenders’ respective teams from New Hampshire to Nevada. And John Nichols, who published one of the earliest interviews with Sanders about his presidential aspirations, provided a running commentary on the senator’s progressive populism.

Throughout, The Nation worked to kindle the kind of robust, high-octane dialogue that this rare pri­mary of ideas so desperately deserves.

In the weeks since the endorsement was announced, we’ve been gratified to see that the conversation hasn’t slackened. If anything, the rapid-fire exchange of ideas has intensified as The Nation’s writers have countered and complicated the magazine’s declared position with their own sharp opinions.

“After 40 years of voting for male presidents, I’m supporting Hillary with excitement, even joy,” wrote The Nation’s national-affairs correspondent Joan Walsh in an article published online on January 27 (“Why I’m Supporting Hillary Clinton, With Joy and Without Apologies”). Saluting Clinton as “the right and even radical choice,” Walsh rejected “the larger message to Clinton supporters…that our demand for equal representation at the highest level of government at last, by a supremely qualified woman who is thoroughly progressive if not a socialist, must sadly wait. Again.”

Writer and public-policy analyst Kathleen Geier also weighed in. Although a Sanders supporter, Geier didn’t hesitate to sound a friendly but clear-eyed critique of his approach to women’s rights and racial justice, shading the candidate’s “rare strengths” with necessary nuance. The sentiment was echoed by Ian Haney López and Heather McGhee, both of Demos, in a January 29 web article that found great potential in Sanders’s economic-populist message while urging him to push his analysis of racism further.

Most valued of all, however, have been the responses—ecstatic appreciation, stung disappointment, and everything in between—from the magazine’s readers.

Overwhelming numbers have written to express gratitude for the endorsement, applauding what John Andrechak described as “a vote for hope!” in a fulsome online comment. “Let the river run, let the dreamers wake the nation! In this case, The Nation will help wake the nation!” he enthused.

For these readers, the magazine’s decision to support Sanders represented a victory for a progressive vision—for single-payer healthcare, international diplomacy, a $15 minimum wage, and more. “Thank you for your endorsement of Senator Sanders, the only candidate running on either side willing to take the bold steps needed to put our government back in the hands of We The People,” wrote Jolen Quillen McCully in a Facebook post. Subhash Reddy thanked The Nation for displaying “the courage to live up to its avowed principles.”

Others, however, lamented the magazine’s choice. Michael L. Counts wrote to say that he could “no longer abide” the magazine’s “hypocrisy regarding women. Article after article about the double standard, equal pay for equal work, the glass ceiling, etc. Article after article extolling women leaders in many other nations.” And yet, he said, the magazine had decided to back the male candidate, bumping him “ahead of the woman even though she is more qualified.”

For many of The Nation’s disappointed readers, the problem boiled down to practicality: They welcomed Sanders’s vision but feared a reprise of George McGovern’s epic 1972 defeat. “Do you have a presidential-election death wish?” a reader named Jeff Price wanted to know.

Then there were those who argued that the magazine hadn’t been bold enough. “The Nation should have endorsed the truly revolutionary candidate with a legitimate peace platform, Dr. Jill Stein of the Green Party,” Chip Masters wrote in a Facebook comment.

The Nation welcomes this conversation. While we have given our official blessing to Bernie Sanders, we continue to believe that animated debate can only be good for the Democratic Party, and for democracy, and we encourage readers to keep talking—to us and to each other. As inspiration, we offer the following incisive letters to the editor.

The Conversation Continues


Progressives offer a strong critique of American foreign policy: what the United States does in the world, for whose benefit we do it, and how to assess the economic, human, and moral costs. Its influence can be felt when American policy shifts for the better—choosing the lives of HIV/AIDS patients over drug-company profits; repealing the “global gag rule” that denies women in developing countries access to reproductive healthcare; pushing for negotiations instead of war with Iran; ending a war in Iraq that the Iraqis did not want us to fight.

But Bernie San- ders isn’t offering a progressive critique of mainstream Democratic foreign policy. Neither his record nor his pronouncements suggest that it is a priority for him—or that he has given much thought to how he would lead American security and foreign-policy institutions.

Sanders is conspicuously missing from the group of senators who lead on progressive foreign policy—often at high cost. Illinois’s Dick Durbin whipped votes for the Iran nuclear deal and supported relocating Guantánamo detainees to Illinois. Mark Udall of Colorado was a steadfast voice for civil liberties—and he lost his seat. Connecticut’s Chris Murphy has worked to build a progressive foreign-policy caucus, yet Sanders neither participated in it nor signed the group’s manifesto.

Nor does he vote like a leftist foreign-policy critic. Sanders opposes the most egregious defense-industry boondoggles—unless they are deployed in his state. When the Arab American Institute scored senators on “pro-Arab/pro-Palestinian” voting, Sanders got the same rating as Kirsten Gillibrand and Harry Reid—and scored lower than John Kerry and Pat Leahy.

His past press releases and TV appearances feature standard-issue internationalist talking points that might surprise The Nation’s editorial board: “The entire world has got to stand up to Putin.” “I have supported US airstrikes against ISIS and believe they are authorized under current law.”

Yes, there are differences, but once you get past the 2002 Iraq vote, they’re surprisingly vague. He opposes the addition of new members to NATO but doesn’t say what he thinks of the alliance itself. He opposes NATO’s intervention in Libya now, but acknowledges that he didn’t at the time.

What ought to have given The Nation pause is candidate Sanders’s apparent indifference. Rather than forward thinking on how to handle Libya, Sanders’s website offers a long disquisition on Kosovo. His very welcome message of inclusion for immigrants and refugees hasn’t been matched with any indication of how his administration would deal with the pleas for help of secular Syrian liberals—or besieged Central American governments. The left-liberal bench on foreign policy runs from retired diplomats and intelligence officers to eager millennials coming off experience abroad. Yet his campaign hasn’t named a single adviser or even conducted listening sessions, much less given a speech or laid out detailed policies. There’s just no evidence to support The Nation’s claim that Sanders’s approach to world affairs is “different, and better.” And given that the next president will face a Congress full of members who have endorsed the GOP candidates’ proposals for carpet-bombing, immigration bans, and torture, that’s a judgment that should matter to progressives a great deal.

Heather Hurlburt
washington, d.c.


For a discussion of the candidates’ foreign-policy platforms, listen to Hurlburt and Nation editor in chief Katrina vanden Heuvel on WNYC’s The Brian Lehrer Show on January 29.


You’ve described Bernie Sanders perfectly, concisely, and eloquently. He has packed more activism and accomplishments into his life than most of us could aspire to. I started underlining critical passages in your editorial but stopped when I realized I was underlining nearly everything. One quote, however, struck a special chord: “We must turn to each other, not on each other…and unite to change the corrupted politics that robs us all.” This editorial helped put me over the top in deciding to support Bernie Sanders for president.

Evelyn Fasanella
new york city

Speaking as a Nation Builder, I was dismayed by your endorsement of Bernie Sanders. Yes, the progressive agenda will benefit from the national attention, but at the same time his nomination will take away from the ultimate prize: a Democrat winning the election. And that Democrat is Hillary Clinton, who can actually win and has the experience to do the job. This country is definitely not ready to elect a nice Jewish boy from Brooklyn who is also a socialist. This endorsement brings back painful memories of Ralph Nader, who also ran for president as a way of advancing his agenda to the national stage. And what did we get? George W. Bush. And Nader still asserts that it was Al Gore’s fault for losing the election, exonerating himself of blame.

When we get Trump, or Cruz, or Rubio, who are you going to blame?

Laura Gold
naples, fla.

I just read your endorsement of Bernie Sanders and feel obliged to comment. I am a seventy-one-year-old retired person who is part of the 50 percent who still pay taxes. I was brought up in a union household of the 1950s. Living in Massachusetts, my first contact with politics was with John F. Kennedy and Camelot. I became independent during the Reagan administration. Since then I have favored the conservative side.

I have been following the current election process quite closely because I believe it will determine the country’s direction for a long time. I am currently in the process of reading the book Bull by the Horns by Sheila Bair. Having been part of the financial sector for my career I like reading these types of books. The financial crisis of 2007-2009 is a watershed moment, revealing how Wall Street and the government are intertwined. It is a clear indication of who President Obama surrounded himself with. Tim Geithner at the Treasury Department was recommended by a Clinton holdover, Robert Rubin.  Geithner brought in Lawrence Summers. As the banking crisis unfolded, these men sold out the main street mortgage holder in favor of salvaging big banks and protecting shareholders and bondholders. What I have read so far makes my head want to explode.

Hillary still has many ties to these people. I do not see her making real change to the banking system to protect the people of Main Street. What I’m hearing from Bernie makes me feel that someone is really trying to do something about the banking industry. I do trust he will genuinely try to reform the big banks. I also trust he will surround himself with the right people to make other policy decisions.

In 60 years I guess I’ve gone full circle. I’M FEELING THE BERN.

John Cygielnik
shrewsbury, mass.

The schism between Sanders and Clinton reflects not simply divisions over policy and trustworthiness, but differences in strategies for change. A nonjudgmental foundation for fruitful discourse has been laid out by the metaphorical title of Isaiah Berlin’s best-known essay, “The Hedgehog and the Fox.”

Applied with some license, Sanders comes closest to being the Hedgehog: His vision is based upon an all-encompassing principle, from which springs virtually all of the progressive change needed to return this country from moneyed oligarchy to citizen democracy.

Clinton more resembles the Fox: She avoids casting the country as fundamentally divided between the establishment and the grassroots. While Clinton echoes many of the progressive policy objectives that Sanders advocates, she doesn’t disown the economic and political establishments. Instead, she promises ways to negotiate and deliver progressive objectives without replacing them. Her methodology implies the necessity for negotiation and compromise. One drawback of this approach is that she will only be able to achieve incremental improvements. On the other hand, given the powers of the establishment, Clinton argues, only incremental change is possible.

The Nation is absolutely right in endorsing what Sanders stands for and the reforms he proposes: They represent everything the magazine has stood for. If Sanders and Clinton had equal chances of achieving their respective goals, there would be no argument. But there are two issues, both of which are problematic. First, which candidate is most likely to be elected after winning the primaries? And second, which one is most likely to achieve his or her goals as president? Both have great strengths and great vulnerabilities.

When the competition began last year, Clinton’s nomination seemed inevitable. Today, that seems problematic. Sanders has shown strength in organizing and attaining grassroots support. Hillary’s known but unanticipated weaknesses have increased her vulnerability. As the nominating process now becomes real, the most likely result is an extended battle between the two.

This will be a critical time for dialogue among both The Nation’s writers and readers.

Michael Pertschuk
santa fe, n.m.