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By the time you read this, the nominating process may be essentially over and the presumptive Democratic candidate for president in 2020 will be Joe Biden. Bernie Sanders, demonized, Sovietized, and radicalized, will have moved into the annals of American political history. As a requiem, I offer an argument as to why many of us supported him, and why I think this moment may come back to haunt us all in the proximate future.
Bernie Sanders has become one of the most polarizing political figures in living memory and I believe he will prove to be one of the most influential. Using the language of “revolution” which largely amounted to a 21st century re-calibration of the vision of Lyndon Johnson’s “Great Society” policies of the 1960s, Sanders introduced new layers to the contemporary American political discourse, including a discussion of democratic socialism. The language of socialism, long a part of this country, has obscured why many of us support him. It is both good and healthy for our society to have a real informed and nuanced discussion about democratic socialism, but the moniker “socialist” has sadly eclipsed a much more significant contribution, and opportunity, Sanders proffered.
What is distinctive in this election-cycle is that for Democrats, this is all being framed in existential terms. The desire, even obsession, to remove Trump from office and the anxiety around that which haunts many moderates, makes the battle between Biden and Sanders (really between Biden/Buttigeg/Klobuchar and Sanders/Warren) unconventional. In normal times, it would be a battle between moderate Democrats and the progressive wing of the party. But the existential fear, coupled with a growing and increasingly angry generational divide between some Boomers who seem reluctant to cede power as they enter their Golden Years, and everyone below them, is creating a race that may threaten to divide Democrats for at least a generation. I write as a progressive Boomer, and there are many of us, but in general progressives are much younger and thus in the end, they will win, if only by default. Among those under 45, Sanders still tops Biden by 27 points in the latest CNN poll. But many Boomers, especially those who were once progressives and have become moderates in part because they were beneficiaries of the very system they once denounced, are digging in. The clarion call of the Boomer generation is that “we will always be relevant,” even as now there are three voting generations behind us. Relevant, perhaps, but no longer dominant.
I think Occupy Wall Street will be viewed retrospectively as the event where this control began to weaken. The Third Wayism, or neoliberalism, introduced by Clinton as a kind of reconstruction of the Democratic Party after Reagan/Bush, has become the Democratic status quo. Occupy began as a popular front to challenge that hegemony. It was built by mostly young people (ironically inspired by radicalized Boomers of the past), many of whom are starting their lives deep in debt and with far fewer prospects to improve their lot than their Boomer parents. Occupy had its moment and then faded. But the anxiety that produced it, and the passion that fed it, did not. Among other things, it gave us Bernie Sanders.
As presidential races progress, especially in our age of communication and social media, the focus invariably moves to the persona of the candidate and away from his or her platform. Perhaps this began with JFK-Nixon, the first televised presidential race. The Never-Sanders camp moved from the “radical” nature of his policies to his personhood; his comments about Cuba, his honeymoon in the USSR, his gruff demeanor, his unruly constituency, his child-support history, his ostensible “unelectability.” The Never-Biden camp views Biden as bumbling, unfocused and sometimes incoherent, easily knocked off-center, a candidate who looks to the past rather than the future, a noble servant whose time has come and gone. What are Biden’s policy positions? Very few even among his supporters could answer that question in any detail. Biden is running on a single platform, which, of course, can never be verified, “I can beat Donald Trump.” And so Bernie Bros and Joe Bros face off and see who can draw more blood from the other candidate.
But there is much more at stake here than who is more fit to be president. Both are, in many ways, seriously flawed candidates. And yet both are, in my view, fit to be president. But much more important, this is a moment where neoliberalism and progressivism once again face off on the front lines of a presidential election. The last time was perhaps 1968 or 1972. But in those years the war and race relations dominated the discourse. And as one of the then young Boomers, I readily admit we were passionate but largely undisciplined, we were right on the issues but frightened the Silent Majority by our in-your-face, don’t trust anyone over thirty, free-form methods of protest. Today we face serious economic and environmental challenges beyond stopping an unjust war. Neoliberalism threatens the future of a generation and we may be heading for an acute planetary crisis. And the young today are much more disciplined, savvy, and well-informed. Given these larger stakes, I think it is best to look beyond the personal flaws and foibles of the candidates, and set aside speculative claptrap about “electability,” and look at the serious issues we face.
We can go down the list from a living wage to climate control (including environmental issues like fracking), to college tuition, student debt, social programs, nationalized health care, prison reform, and more. These are progressive policies, not radical ones, and very soon most will be obvious for the Democratic party. We should remember that a “public option” in health care was very recently a “radical” option, and now it is the conservative and “rational” option. People my age (61) used to be mocked for our support of environmentalism in the 1970s (“tree huggers”) and laughed at for re-cycling, and now the environment is a central issue and re-cycling is the law. Same with same-sex marriage, racial and gender inequality, marijuana laws, and police brutality and profiling. Moderates often like to adopt polices that they steal from radicals a decade before and claim that they invented them.
In 2020 there was another option the way there was with the anti-war candidates in the late 1960s. The anti-war candidates then were pushed aside as unrealistic, and radical, but only a few years later, most of the country realized they were right; Vietnam was an immoral and unwinnable war and the red scare that justified its continuation was an illusion. How many corpuses were flown home between the1968 anti-war student protests and the war’s end in 1973? How many paid the price of the moderates’ call of “not yet”?
Today things are a bit different. Gen X’ers, Millennials, and Gen Z’ers make up a sizable portion of the electorate, larger than the Boomers. Many begin their adult lives deep in debt, without health care, unable to secure decent housing, and a job market glutted with over-qualified candidates. Many have to work for free at unpaid internships for a year to even be competitive in the job market. The “red scare” means nothing to them. For many, the real concrete fear of neoliberalism is far more relevant to their lives than fears of democratic socialism. Telling them, as many moderates do, “this is not the time, wait a little longer, we need to confront this existential crisis called Trump,” is little solace for many. Therein lies much of the Sanders support base. And denying this, or claiming incremental change can resolve these fears, is part of the moderate fallacy.
Some Boomers claim the young today are spoiled. I disagree. It is we Boomers who were spoiled then, and are spoiled now. We were spoiled then when we began our adult lives with an open job market, affordable state colleges and housing, and what amounted to a kind of living wage. Poverty was brutal, especially for people of color, but upward mobility, especially for Middle Class white people, was realistic. Remember “Europe on five dollars a day”? And we are spoiled now because we do not want to risk our wealth with a Democratic Socialist, or even a progressive capitalist (Elizabeth Warren), who will raise our taxes and take away our privileged heath care even as millions go without even basic health coverage and the means to afford necessary medications. We whine about them being “unrealistic,” when we were the generation of “unrealistic.”
My support for Sanders is not because I think he is a great man. He is a flawed, albeit courageous, messenger in many ways. It is because he represents a societal program that I deeply believe in, policies that I think are necessary now, not a few decades from now when moderates finally come around to them. That these policies are “unrealizable” may or may not be true, but politics are often about creating conditions for the possible rather than bemoaning the impossible. Scare tactics about down ballot races in the House and Senate seats may or may not be true. But they are professed by moderates as if they are verifiable fact. Remember, the Obama administration, the time Biden wants to take us back to, lost 63 House seats in its first mid-terms. Down ballot seats and electability are largely moderate excuses for turning away from a progressive agenda, not because they think it can’t win, but because in some way, they do not want it to win.
I have no problem with Joe Biden. He is a fine man and a noble public servant. I simply think he represents the past, another iteration of Clinton’s neoliberalism that has not well-served a new generation. If Biden is the candidate and wins, and I will support him, he will at best be a placeholder president. None of the deep structural problems in our country will change, which in some way is what many moderates want. Honest moderates might say, “Yes, I agree with you, but let’s put real change off for another day, today let’s beat Trump.” But I am not convinced. If Sanders was really the problem, the Democratic establishment could have thrown their support behind Elizabeth Warren, a self-styled capitalist with a robust agenda, a passionate communicator, and a woman. And according to almost every criterion, a much better candidate than Joe Biden. But they didn’t, and not only because they did not believe in her electability. If they had supported her wholeheartedly, she would have been duly electable. They didn’t because in many ways she scares them as much as Sanders does. Biden doesn’t scare the Democratic establishment because he largely believes in the status quo. Biden will take office, a decent man, save us from Trump, and continue the neoliberal program with small changes that benefit many at the top and leaves behind many at the bottom. And for too many moderates, in these “existential” times, that’s just okay. But for many of us, it’s not okay.
So here is my prediction if Biden is the nominee and wins, and I certainly hope he does. When the next cycle comes around, in four or eight years, another younger Bernie-like candidate will emerge. That is almost inevitable. And equally inevitable, many moderates will say, “No, not yet, this is still not the time.” We have to seriously consider that it is not about the right time. Many moderates don’t want a real progressive agenda not because Sanders is a socialist or Trump is evil, but because they have the most to lose from it. For many moderates, it will never be the right time for a progressive agenda. They will steal progressive ideas, modify and defang them, and then claim they invented them. Moderates say “we gave the country civil rights.” But how about the hundreds of “radicals,” Freedom Riders and protestors, troublemakers who marched in Selma, who fought and lost their lives for decades before the so-called moderates said, okay, now is the time. How many died needlessly while the moderates said “not yet”? “Not yet,” has been the moderate program of the Democratic Party for decades.
So to my moderate Democratic colleagues and friends, I say this. You told us that we need to support Biden because Sanders and his agenda are too alienating and cannot maximize the chances of beating Trump. Okay, if Biden wins the nomination, we will join you in helping him get elected. But when the next election cycle comes and another progressive candidate emerges—and she will—and you make more excuses why the neoliberal state must continue, why she is too “radical,” we will remind you of 2020 and call out your duplicitousness. Don’t make Trump your excuse for rejecting progressivism. It may work this time but in the near future, let there be a fair fight between neoliberalism and progressivism in the Democratic Party without the dark cloud of an existential threat. And let the best ideas win the day.
- This is dedicated to two dear and close friends, who will remain anonymous, both Boomers like myself, with whom I have discussed these issues ad nauseam. I thank them for their input.
There are those of us who were around long before the Boomers and are still around with all the knowledge of our long lives. In my book, and I was a child in the Franklin Roosevelt years, Biden is the only person who can and will beat Trump. His speech, short and to the point, after his recent win over Sanders, gave me a glimpse of the best man for the moment. Did you ever hear of those who “rise to the occasion?” You are about to see a perfect example.
Thank you for this clear eyed and thoughtful piece. I am not a Sanders fan, not because I am moderate (very progressive Gen X who’d had enough of the Boomers BEFORE it was popular) but because I find him to be barely competent and dangerously full of himself. Not that Biden is terribly different, I just think he’s cunning enough to surround himself with people who will do a good job for him.
Mostly I am just angry that my choices have been whittled down to three versions of the same candidate.
Thanks for this thoughtful piece. I worry that you lump all “boomers” into one category. I voted for Elizabeth Warren in the NC primary. Once the existential threat of Dpnald Trump is gone, I hope there will be more excellent progressive candidates who will run. Some of this will be dependent upon the vice-presidential pick. If it is one of the moderate women who ran this time, there will be a temptation to think we must vote for them as next in line. I believe the solution to Biden is not in 2024, but in January 2021, when we must push a Biden administration to work toward the policies of Sanders and Warren. Why wait 4 years?