Heads, Hearts, and Inverted Democratic Assumptions


Editor’s Note: Tikkun does not and cannot oppose or endorse any candidate.

Presidential Candidates Bernie Sanders & Hilary Clinton (Source: Youtube, World News Today)

By the time this article sees daylight, I will have cast my ballot in the Massachusetts Democratic presidential primary. I’ll be making my decision in the voting booth, and even then I won’t tell you who got my vote, because I’m so far unconvinced by either candidate. This election cycle, as the Republican Party has gone completely off its rocker, I’ve listened to Democratic friends make impassioned pleas for either Clinton or Sanders. The one common point of agreement has been the framing of the election as a heart-vs.-head issue, with Sanders as the progressive, inspiring heart and Clinton as the cool, compromising head. And that’s just where I see it differently.

I’m not a head-over-heart Democrat. I won’t agree with my old macroeconomics professor Paul Krugman that “transformational rhetoric isn’t how change happens.” Instead, Krugman argues, change is a matter of “accepting half loaves as being better than none.” That’s not an inspiring message at all. I was pleased to see Michael Lerner’s response piece, in which he agrees that “we will always need the legislators and the technocrats to work out the details . . . of a just and sustainable society,” but argues that real change requires “leadership . . . that can project and mobilize people around a vision that they believe to be worth struggling to attain.”

No question Lerner is right that Krugman – along with his many ideological allies within the Clinton camp – “wildly underestimates the importance of maximalist demands for peace, social justice, and environmental sanity.” Lerner points out that the right wing has achieved frightening gains at lightning speed by making and enforcing just such “maximalist demands” at the grassroots level. Progressives have achieved similar successes, too, for example during the New Deal, civil-rights and LGBTQ-rights eras.

Too often liberals today boil the left’s strategy down to pragmatism vs. radicalism, forgetting that our society’s progress has come in fits and starts resulting from the successful prosecution of what Lerner calls “maximalist demands,” from the grassroots on up. Martin Luther King, Jr., for example, who faced criticism from Malcolm X and others for his discomfort with revolutionary rhetoric, nevertheless based his whole career on just such “maximalist demands,” such as ending segregation and forcing the Voting Rights Act of 1965 through. The movement for same-sex marriage may be an even better example, inasmuch as we all remember the fear Washington, D.C., strategists expressed at moving too quickly, although the American people turned out indeed to be ready for just such rapid progress. I can’t think of a single episode when cautious compromise has resulted in progress. Contrary to Krugman’s account of the Obamacare win, I thought Obama gratuitously mortgaged the public option to his disastrous personal ideology of compromise. If he had fought for it, I believe we could have a working public option and could today be well on our way to the kind of single-payer healthcare every other industrialized democracy offers.

So I’m a progressive Democrat. But I’m still not sold on Sanders.

Meanwhile, I’m willing to concede Krugman’s point about the value of “hard-headed realism” when it comes to presidential politics. Courts matter to me as a gay man, and they should matter to everyone in this age of Citizens United and the horrifying return of right-wing attempts to depress minority turnout. As a professional who depends on the Internet, partisan control of the FCC matters to me. It only takes one Republican administration to sell off our public airwaves and license out oligarchic corporate control of the Internet’s access onramps, and we will lose the free Internet forever. I don’t want to have to pay Comcast what amounts to a special private tax to enjoy my right to free expression in the 21st-century public square. As a Jew concerned about Israel, I fear a horrific humanitarian crisis if Sheldon Adelson and his Jewish Republican allies are permitted free rein over America’s Middle East and Israel policy. Party matters. I didn’t design this system, but I do live in it, and I need to see a Democratic victory in November.

So I’m an electability Democrat, too. But I’m still not sold on Clinton.

Sanders is far more progressive than Clinton, although I give Clinton progressive credit for her 2008 health-care plan. She favored the public option, and I think she’d have fought for it when Obama caved in. I’ve never thought Hillary Clinton has a particular ideology of compromise. She has always struck me as a fighter for what she believes in, more than her husband. It’s just that she believes in things that, aside from health care, tend to be significantly to the right of my own views. For example, I don’t think she panders to Wall Street; I think her love of Wall Street bankers and their labor-killing trade pacts is completely genuine. For me, supporting Clinton would be less a matter of strategy than issues. I’m just not where she is on a lot of issues. I don’t think Clinton would argue my case and take a half loaf or nothing; I rather think she doesn’t really support my case all that much, especially when it comes to Wall Street’s disastrous excesses. I’d certainly vote for her if she were the Democratic nominee, but not too excitedly.

I’d be a little more excited about Sanders if he were the nominee, but I can’t escape thinking the many reasons he’s unlikely to get there are solid. Sanders is a small-state senator who represents a population smaller than the City of Seattle, and much less diverse. He is untested, and I’m not surprised his one-issue focus or his endearing crotchety mannerisms don’t play as well in Nevada as they do in New Hampshire. I am alarmed on his behalf that African American voters have rejected him so thoroughly, and I consider it unacceptably elitist to claim I know better than they how to prosecute the struggle for racial justice. I like Bernie on economic justice, and I think he would, if elected, probably be one of our best presidents. But I can’t get behind him yet because I don’t know. He would not be the first crotchety, regional small-state politician to flame out or fizzle out under the national glare. Despite the many racially diverse leaders supporting him, he has not impressed me with his readiness to tackle race in America in 2016. I’m much closer to Bernie than Hillary on most of our pressing issues. But I need to see that he can handle the big spotlight of the national campaign, in order to believe he can handle the White House without being outmaneuvered by more experienced Republican operatives.

Meanwhile, as a political data professional (once and always) I am not quick to assume the electability analysis favors Clinton. The truth is that I voted for Obama in 2008 because I was afraid Clinton would squander the election. She has a tendency to deploy the world’s worst national strategists, who through unforced error after unforced error have established a clear pattern of squandering enormous leads. Remember when the main complaint against Hillary was that she paid insufficient attention to common people on her way to her coronation? In the cold light of January and February 2016, this has not been much of a coronation for her, has it? Sanders, at least, has proven he is able to smash expectations to smithereens and deliver enormous wins; his 21-point spread over Clinton in New Hampshire was not close, does not admit of being easily explained away, and should have sounded alarm bells for Clinton’s political operation.

My biggest electability fear with Clinton is that it didn’t. I know a few of Clintion’s mid-level management operatives, and they’re consummate, capable professionals who, had they been permitted to run the campaign, could probably have delivered much better results for Clinton. Maybe with competent leadership at Clinton Central, we’d still be talking about coronation. But we’re not. My confidence in Clinton’s top-level inner circle is so low that I find myself worrying the general election could go the way of this primary: much closer than indicators indicated it should be, and a possible loss. Sanders, on the other hand, for all his quirks, faults, untested question marks and bona fide drawbacks, certainly knows how to run a grassroots movement of the kind Lerner was talking about, including his emergence as a grassroots fundraising powerhouse. Clinton doesn’t. And it’s extraordinarily dangerous to go into the 2016 general election without that kind of a grassroots movement.

So I’m an electability Democrat who worries about Clinton’s electability. And I’m a progressive Democrat who isn’t sure Sanders will be able to hold the line, and who isn’t quite sure where he is on issues other than economic justice. (Guns, for example, at press time are notably absent from the Sanders campaign’s Issues page, which makes it difficult for me to evaluate him on this life-and-death issue.)

Much has been made of low turnout in the Democratic races so far. My take is that low turnout reflects Democrats’ lack of enthusiasm about either candidate. Both have hard questions they must answer soon; neither will be able to rest on the laurels of the conventional, carefully cultivated assumptions about them. Sanders will find his progressive commitment scrutinized on issues afield from his comfortable home in economic justice. And if Clinton doesn’t start interacting with voters in ways less scripted and cautious, she will find the underlying assumption of her electability eroding. The Clinton buzz has already slid from inevitability to electability, and one would think or hope that Clinton’s inner circle would want to make a major course correction so it doesn’t slide further into a repeat of 2008. But I suspect they’d have pulled Hillary out of this familiar slump long ago, if not eight years ago then surely eight months ago, if they knew how. I can’t get over the idea that Clinton would make a fine president but has consistently been a very poor candidate.

You might have heard it here first: I predict this campaign will be remembered for turning the conventional head-vs.-heart assumptions about Clinton and Sanders upside-down. Sanders is a far better campaign professional than Clinton, who, in thoroughly underestimating her opponent’s competence on the trail, has highlighted her deficiencies as a strategist. Clinton would be well advised to learn from Sanders instead of remaining in denial about his appeal. And I hope very much that she realizes what a serious mistake it would be to come out with a hard negative message against her opponent, the clear choice of young voters. I wouldn’t put it past her campaign’s tone-deafness to panic and add that unforced error to her already heavy baggage; I pray she doesn’t. Sanders, for his part, cannot afford to deny his poor showing among racial-minority voters. He cannot and should not be nominated for the presidency without broadening his message. It may be the economy, stupid – how ironic for the Clintons – but Sanders cannot afford to be seen as a one-trick pony, and he hasn’t done enough to anticipate his opponents boxing him into that corner.

So I’ll make my decision in the voting booth. I’ll vote for the Democrat in November. And I’ll make an endorsement for the Democratic nomination when, and only when, either Clinton or Sanders earns my full confidence. I’m eagerly waiting to hear more from them.

Jeremy D. Sheris a rabbinical student expecting ordination April 3 on the Harvard Divinity School campus, where he is Ministry Fellow and Harry Austryn Wolfson Fellow in Jewish Studies. Former Director of Technology for the Washington State Democratic Party, former CEO of what is now ActBlue.com Technology Services and a dual Israeli and American citizen, he practices voluntary simplicity and is an avid all-weather cyclist.

2 thoughts on “Heads, Hearts, and Inverted Democratic Assumptions

  1. Jeremy Sher’s analysis of the democratic candidates is comprehensive and interesting, and viewed in the aftermath of Super Tuesday, not definitive. We still don’t know for sure who the democratic presidential candidate will be, although that seems to be getting defined, and we can only express our preferences dealing with what is and what we think ought to be.
    I agree that grassroots mobilization is the key to this election and the future of the election process. The process is contaminated by suppression of individual voting voices because of corrupt financial and power manipulation and gerrymandering, truly a rigged process. The slow process of producing an individual voice that counts needs leadership and organization and time. Meanwhile, we can only hope that our government will be forced to move us forward despite its reluctance to do so.

  2. This is one of the best thought through analyses I’ve yet seen; food for much thought.
    I wholeheartedly endorse Rabbi Lerner’s view that “maximalist demands” are vitally necessary, and I strongly disagree with Paul Krugman (who I otherwise hold in high regard) with respect to his “half a loaf” theory. What we’re talking about here is the common and regrettable controversy between idealism and so-called realism, and there should be no such controversy.
    The way I see it, and please repeat me on this, is that “Idealism is the highest form of realism”. Our ideals are our goals; which should be the very best we can imagine in every case (“maximalist”). They represent what we want “ideally”; they are Step One in the planning process. Once we have formed a given ideal we go to Step Two: we ask ourselves whether or not it is possible to achieve this goal. If we decide that it is not, we do not forget the ideal but we do compromise; we accept (for the moment) a lesser form of it. Then, and in any case when we feel that the ideal is achievable, we go to Step Three: how to make it happen; and we get to work.
    Almost always we seem to eliminate Step One; we start with the compromised ideal in Step Two because we are conditioned to automatically assume that nothing really wonderful is possible in this world. And we thus ensure that for the moment at least, it isn’t. So we never seem to try to really fix anything. But hey; you don’t set out to bake half a loaf of bread! And I would point out, for those who hold that Jesus of Nazareth knew what he was talking about, that he said we should shoot for perfection (“Be ye perfect…”). Maximalism if ever me eyes beheld it.

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