Late last month, Susan Sarandon sparked a heated debate among Bernie Sanders supporters about whether, in the event of their candidate’s loss in the contest for the Democratic nomination, it would be better to vote for Hillary Clinton in the November general election or to allow a Republican to succeed Barack Obama.
Would there really be enough of a difference between the former secretary of state, a confessed moderate and centrist, and the current GOP front-runner, whose last wedding she attended (“I happened to be in Florida,” Clinton has said), to justify empowering yet again a party establishment that seems constitutionally allergic to challenging an unjust status quo?
Or, on the other hand, is it not self-evident that a reinstatement of the Clintons to the White House ought to be preferred over a Republican Party divided only over the extent to which it should be forthright about its racism, xenophobia, sexism, militarism and servility to corporate power? In the interest of a full hearing for each argument, we asked four supporters of Bernie Sanders to comment on the “Bernie or Bust” phenomenon. —Richard Kreitner
As a millennial still struggling under the weight of student debt and an Arab-American with loved ones scattered across the Middle East, I’ve got plenty of “skin in the game” this election season. That’s why I cannot in good conscience vote for Hillary Clinton if she wins the Democratic nomination, even if it means the Republican front-runner, Donald Trump, becomes the next president of the United States.
It has become accepted orthodoxy in establishment circles to view Trump as an authoritarian race-baiter who poses a uniquely grave danger to the United States and the world. While he is all of those things, this characterization obscures the fact that Clinton is also a threat to world stability, and that, unlike Trump, she already has the blood on her hands to prove it.
Sure, Trump has demonized Mexicans, Muslims, and women. But Clinton called black children “superpredators” and referred to welfare recipients as “deadbeats.” She routinely accuses Palestinians of teaching their children to hate while closely aligning herself with Israel’s right-wing, Holocaust-revising Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu, a man whose demagoguery rivals Trump’s. She also likened Russian president Vladimir Putin to Hitler and expressed pride in making an enemy of “the Iranians” whose country she once threatened to “obliterate.”
The problem with Clinton goes beyond semantics. On issues relating to trade and foreign policy, Clinton is clearly to the right of Trump.
Trump wants to ban Muslims from the United States, which is atrocious. But Clinton has a record of supporting the bombing of them to achieve hazily defined geopolitical goals. Who can say which is the more repulsive? Trump has called for reducing America’s military presence abroad and has repeatedly stated his opposition to regime change, blasting the Iraq War that Clinton voted for as a “big fat mistake” that “destabilized the Middle East.” He even suggested a policy of neutrality in peace negotiations between Israel and the Palestinians, a proposal Clinton attacked from the right.
Despite reinventing herself as a social-justice warrior in recent months, Clinton more closely resembles a neoconservative hawk. Her fingerprints are all over the regime-change disasters that fueled the rise of ISIS in Libya and state-sanctioned death squads in Honduras. Yet she remains confident in the righteousness of foreign intervention. During her tenure as secretary of state, she acted as a weapons dealer to her tyrant donors, thereby strengthening the military prowess of despots with abysmal human-rights records.
Clinton’s nefarious dealings aren’t limited to foreign policy. She played an active role in dismantling welfare, expanding mass incarceration, and selling out American workers to the disastrous corporate trade deals that Trump rails against, not to mention her ongoing pattern of trashing Arabs and Muslims to woo pro-Israel voters and donors.
Fortunately, Clinton’s coronation isn’t inevitable. Bernie Sanders is still in the race and has a record of consistently opposing regime change, military belligerence, and austerity. And he’s mainstreaming socialist ideas that are vital to combating the fascism coalescing around Trump. The stakes couldn’t be higher. Another four or even eight years of Clintonian economics and military adventurism will lead to the rise of an even more bellicose demagogue than Trump. For me, the choice is clear: It’s Bernie or bust.
Democrats or Bust
In the heat of this primary campaign, some Bernie Sanders supporters say they could never support Hillary Clinton—a candidate, they believe, who does not represent their interests or their values. But I’m confident they’ll come to judge their interests differently over the course of a months-long general election campaign against Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.
In November, we’ll vote for more than just a president. We’ll decide which party fills over 2,000 policy-making positions in the Executive Branch; which party will name the heads of the government’s regulatory, enforcement, and social-services agencies; and which party will nominate at least one—and perhaps as many as three—justices to the Supreme Court.
Both parties are too beholden to the donor class for the tastes of most progressives. Neither will advance a foreign-policy agenda sufficiently like Norway’s to win our applause. But when we go to the polls, we’ll face a choice between a party that believes in expanding the social safety net, albeit incrementally, and one that thinks poor people are moochers and that any effort to help them creates a form of dependency worse than poverty. We’ll choose between a party that believes a woman should have the right to control her own body, and one that believes that abortion amounts to infanticide. We’ll decide whether a party that accepts the overwhelming scientific consensus on global warming should set environmental policy, or we’ll leave that task to one that largely believes it’s all a big hoax.
If the Republicans win the White House, they would almost certainly retain control of the House and Senate, and Mitch McConnell would likely eliminate the filibuster, producing a federal government entirely under unified the control of the ultra-right. States like Kansas and North Carolina, where that is currently the case, show us what this would be like.
There should be no doubt what this would mean for the progressive project.
The counter-arguments are, frankly, incoherent. If droves of Sanders supporters were to stay home and deliver the White House to the GOP, the political establishment would view that as further proof that parties rarely win three terms in a row. The story would be that Clinton had too much baggage, or that Trump had brilliantly appealed to “Reagan Democrats.” Whatever message the “Bernie or Bust” crowd might think they’d be sending to the establishment would undoubtedly fall on deaf ears.
None of this is news to Bernie Sanders. Primaries highlight divisions within a party—and we’re at a particularly nasty stage of the campaign right now—but those divisions tend to disappear once a nominee emerges. Consider Howard Dean’s rousing endorsement in 2004 of John Kerry, a former rival for the nomination whom he had previously assailed as a supporter of the Iraq war and as a “handmaiden of special interests.” Sanders, who co-sponsored 19 bills that Clinton introduced during the two years they overlapped in the Senate, will extract some policy concessions and then do the same for Clinton.
It’s not my place to tell Sanders’s supporters whom to vote for in November. That task will fall to the candidate himself. I have no doubt he’ll do what’s right for this country.
Kicking the Habit
I’ve spent much of the last year and a half as a professional anti-Hillaryite for the left. My days are filled with predictable attacks from Clinton supporters, most of whom don’t seem to have read a word I’ve written on the contender from Chappaqua. The attacks broadly fall into two categories. The first involve charges of anti-feminism and misogyny. The mere act of criticizing Hillary Clinton’s political history, her duplicity and penchant for secrecy, and her habit of creating scandals (the inevitable consequence of her duplicity and penchant for secrecy), is an affront to the aspirations of women. I admire and support the aspirations of women; I just don’t think that Hillary Clinton is the most appealing vehicle for their advancement. The second kind of attack asks, as one unfriendly critic put it, “Who do you want, Ted Cruz?” To some people, he is the only imaginable non-Trumpian alternative to the putative Democratic nominee.
Another way of phrasing the Ted Cruz question generally goes like this: “Okay, if you think Hillary is so horrible, whom are you going to vote for?” You can answer by listing all the annoying historical and structural constraints that got us here: our constitutionally mandated form of divided and unrepresentative government, consciously designed to frustrate popular power; the semi-official status of the two-party system; the ever-more-dominant role of money in politics; the gatekeeping function of the media, etc. But that will never satisfy the questioner, who wants a firm answer. The exchange often has the feeling (to paraphrase Theodor Adorno) of a cop asking for your papers. So, officer, here’s my answer: I can, in fact, imagine myself voting for Hillary Clinton—but only if David Brock, her nemesis turned promoter, were holding a gun to my head. I’ve spent too much time reading about her hawkishness and her loyalty to corporate power to bring myself to pencil in the oval next to her name. It’s likely she’d rip up the nuclear deal with Iran—more elegantly than Donald Trump, perhaps, but no less thoroughly—and try to change a disobedient regime or two. And her apologists who want to know what specific quid pro quos she’s granted in exchange for campaign contributions from banks and other powerful corporations are missing the point: They shouldn’t be read as transactional but as votes of confidence from people who don’t part with money lightly.
Yes, I live in New York, where my vote probably doesn’t matter. That is a luxury of sorts. I won’t argue with anyone who wants to vote for Clinton because the alternative is so horrible—though we’ve been hearing this for decades, without the least recognition that this lesser-evil habit lubricates the endless rightward shift of our politics. What’s different about this election cycle is that the Bernie Sanders campaign is offering the first serious challenge to orthodoxy’s dominance in a long time—and not only to conservatism nationally, but to status quo–friendly politics in the Democratic Party itself. I’d rather think about what that means for the long term than about what I’m going to spend a few minutes doing on November 8.
Vote for the Sinner, Hate the Sin
Hillary Clinton is uninspiring, untrustworthy, and politically tone-deaf. As a candidate, she offers an incrementalist agenda of tinkering around the edges of our nation’s problems, rather than the far-reaching reforms they so urgently require. The product of a corrupt and broken system, she is the most cynical Democratic presidential nominee of my lifetime.
But if Clinton prevails in the primaries, I will vote for her in November, and I strongly recommend that my fellow Bernie Sanders supporters do likewise. Post-Bernie, supporting Hillary in the general election would be the most rational choice progressives can make. She would be the one candidate (with any shot at winning) who comes closest to representing our interests.
Though Clinton is guilty of a multitude of political sins, she possesses one overwhelmingly positive attribute: she is a Democrat. In the political context of 2016, any Democrat is preferable to any Republican. With the Republicans firmly in control of Congress, the only force that can prevent them from enacting their most destructive policies is a Democratic president.
Sanders supporters like myself, for whom economic inequality is a paramount concern, are particularly alarmed about the Republicans’ economic agenda. The Kochs and other oligarchs who control the GOP have made it clear that slashing the federal budget is the party’s top political priority. If the Republicans take control of all three branches of government, be prepared for the most radical austerity measures the federal government has ever experienced.
A Republican president would also be sure to stack every level of the federal government with terrible appointments. Appointments are among the president’s most potent tools, as we were reminded recently when public-sector unions were saved only because Antonin Scalia dropped dead at just the right moment. But it’s not only extremists like Scalia we have to worry about. Because of Republicans’ hatred of government, they actively seek to undermine it by appointing manifestly unqualified people—think of “Brownie” and Hurricane Katrina.
Beyond preventing the worst GOP excesses, a Democratic president would surely achieve at least some meaningful good. Clinton, like any Democrat, would be far more friendly toward policies that produce material gains for working people. Even Andrew Cuomo, as soulless a corporate Dem as anyone, recently enacted paid family leave and a $15 minimum wage in New York State.
I understand the feelings of frustration and disappointment that are driving the “Bernie or Bust” phenomenon, because I share them. But it’s peculiar for leftists, of all people, to be so fixated on individual candidates. After all, leftist thinking has always downplayed personalities and stressed the importance of systems and structures. We know that movements are ultimately what makes change, and that change begins at the grassroots. The presidency is the last place where we’re likely to see a revolution.
Over the long term, the left’s most promising path to victory lies in radically remaking Democratic Party. Bernie Sanders clearly understands this—why else would he be running as a Democrat? Towards that end, activist energies should take two basic forms: pressuring the party from the outside through movements like Fight for 15 and Black Lives Matter, and reforming it from within by electing progressive Democrats at all levels of government. But while it’s essential to fight for a better future, it’s also vital to advance our interests in the here and now. In the short term, that means electing Hillary Clinton as president in November.