Michael P. King/Wisconsin State Journal/AP
I have been troubled by my own lack of enthusiasm for the Bernie Sanders presidential candidacy. In the past, I’ve always been an energetic supporter; Bernie for Mayor, Bernie for House, Bernie for Senate – count me in! When Benrnie was elected to the US Senate, I loved how the media couldn’t mention his name without prefacing it with “The self-avowed socialist….” I made a lapel button that said “Self-Avowed” and set it to him.
So why now, with the conspicuous lack of a progressive presidential candidate in the mix, do I find myself so “meh” about Bernie? In fact, on some deep level that I have had trouble understanding, I’ve even felt a bit disappointed that he’s running for president.
Why? Why would an on and off again nonviolence and social justice activist such as myself not be jumping for joy, wearing my Bernie gear, donating large sums of money I don’t have, canvassing specially selected households of potential liberal voters?
The answer just came to me moments ago. I was scanning through Internet Land and saw yet another picture of Elizabeth Warren with an entreaty to support her selfless efforts to save our world, and I thought, much to my surprise, “I am so tired of political saviors.”
Sure, Presidents have pushed through historic legislation – the Voting Rights Act, Social Security… but all progress has been made by popular movements, not by benevolent savior-rulers.
I’m totally into electing the least repugnant of candidates to the presidency. I happen to think Barack Obama has done a relatively fantastic job in the face of incredible institutional resistance. But Obama didn’t enact marriage equality – it was the result of an amazing people’s campaign. Regardless of what his reactionary opponents blather on about, President Obama isn’t exactly a progressive, he certainly isn’t a peace activist, and he isn’t out on the forefront of major social justice issues. Barack Obama is just a smart, talented and practical politician. That’s really all you need to get good things done if you have a popular movement pushing from below.
Now, along comes Bernie Sanders, filling the progressive gap left by Elizabeth Warren’s absence from the race. The old me would have jumped in, non-lethal guns ablazin’. In 2008, that’s what a lot lot of liberals did for Obama, myself included. During the campaign of 2008, you could see bumper stickers that equated Obama with an end to war, an end to poverty and an end to greed, suffering, global warming and gluten.
But unlike some of my friends, I actually listened to what Obama consistently said, and he never really took on the progressive political mantel. We got exactly what he promised. Under Obama’s leadership, we managed to teeter back from a world-wide depression, wind down a couple of catastrophic Bush-Cheney wars, enact modest health care reform, end Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, establish the legal basis for marriage equality… an impressive list. Next up: stop transgender discrimination in the military, reform the immigration system and close Guantanamo. It’s all possible with smart leadership and sufficient pressure from activists on the street.
Besides the fact that Bernie Sanders has as much chance of getting elected as, well, as a self-avowed Socialist from Vermont, my enthusiasm for a political savior is also dampened by the understanding that any smart, reasonably mainstream politician can accomplish impressive things when pressured by a strong social movement. Even Hillary Clinton. And, without such a movement, someone like Bernie Sanders could never even get the things done that Barack Obama accomplished. Although I’ll say upfront that I’d vote for Bernie over Hillary any day, at least Hillary doesn’t pretend to be anything other than a politician who wants her turn at being President. And, yes, she’ll be the first female President, whose politics are half-way between Elizabeth Warren’s and Margaret Thatcher’s. Good enough to get things done, if we are relentless.
I prefer my savior personalities outside of political office. Martin Luther King, Jr., though asked, refused to run for President. He wanted to help the people make sure that politicians actually got things done. The System has too much institutional inertia for a savior-type to have any effect on her or his own. We just have to make sure we elect someone who, under the right circumstances, will at least allow change to occur.
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