Saturday, April 16, 2016

Feeling the Nader

It may be temporary, since the big primaries are coming up that may decide the Democratic presidential nomination, but at the moment things look to be veering towards disaster because of conflict between the two candidates and their campaigns.

By all accounts the most recent debate was loud and acrimonious, with Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders shouting at each other simultaneously.  Can you even imagine Barack Obama shouting at someone in a debate?

As embarrassing as that behavior was, the sharpness of attacks and the stories coming out of the Sanders campaign in particular are alarming some observers with the possibility of a split party going into a fateful election, where pretty much the only possibility of losing it would be Democratic voters staying home.

In particular the Sanders campaign is making the argument that Hillary's delegate lead is based on primary wins that don't reflect the will of the party because they were in the red states South.  Or as Ed Kilgore ended his review of the debate:

Sanders seems to be trying out an argument that Clinton's nomination-contest victories are irrelevant because they happened at the wrong time (early in the process), the wrong place (the South), or with the wrong supporters (old Democrats rather than young independents).

If he goes over the brink into a claim that a pledged-delegate victory by Clinton is illegitimate, the Democratic convention could be nearly as divisive as the Republican confab looks sure to become. After tonight, the superior unity of Democrats is at least partially in question for the first time.

(Kilgore followed up with a piece dissecting this argument, finding the argument strange in that Hillary didn't win white southerners so much as African Americans, and one of her biggest wins was in Florida, a swing state.  The argument seemed to be saying that the young white voters Sanders was winning counted more than older and non-white voters Hillary was winning.)

Beyond this argument there were charges that Sanders supporters were getting a little too enthusiastic, making unfortunate metaphors about "corporate whores" and at least making noises about harassing delegates.

Paul Krugman for one saw Sanders righteousness turning into self-righteousness.   After evaluating Sanders' statements on the Big Banks as lacking realistic solutions, he wondered if this increasingly angry tone and Trumpish behavior was moving towards a schism in the party:

Is Mr. Sanders positioning himself to join the “Bernie or bust” crowd, walking away if he can’t pull off an extraordinary upset, and possibly helping put Donald Trump or Ted Cruz in the White House? If not, what does he think he’s doing?

The Sanders campaign has brought out a lot of idealism and energy that the progressive movement needs. It has also, however, brought out a streak of petulant self-righteousness among some supporters. Has it brought out that streak in the candidate, too?

The real problem then would be the feedback effect of Sanders encouraging the rigidity of his supporters, so that if he loses the nomination they won't vote for the Democratic nominee.

In other words, a number of observers are starting to feel the Nader.

Ralph Nader ran for President several times, but most notoriously in the year 2000 as the Green Party candidate.  Nader was a well-known public figure, an effective speaker who began his career as an heroic advocate.

 Meanwhile, the Green Party was growing, nowhere more conspicuously than here in far northern California.  Shortly after our arrival in Arcata, the Green Party actually took majority control of the city council.

So we heard a lot of the Green arguments for Nader, and against the Democratic candidate, Al Gore.  Apart from their ecological and economic issues (with which I had no major disagreements), they argued that there was no essential difference between Gore and Bush.  Or, as their bumper stickers declared, Gush and Bore.

I remember literally being in a fever sweat the night before election day, feeling helpless to effectively warn people about the mistake they were making in believing this.  I knew George W. Bush was dangerous, I could see it.  And I knew from experience that failing to elect the lesser of two evils meant that the greater evil took power.  (In that case it was Nixon.)  But I didn't see Gore as an evil--I saw past the media stereotypes--though I did see Bush that way.

And sure enough, the debacle of the first President dictated by a partisan Supreme Court could likely have been avoided if Nader voters in Florida had voted for Gore.

Later I attended a local meeting of Democrats and Greens who were attempting to reconcile.  I don't remember exactly when it was, but it was far enough long that everyone understood what a catastrophe Bush was.  The Greens were defensive and the Democrats were angry.  Eventually the meeting agreed to pursue common goals etc.

But after the 2000 election, the Green Party hereabouts and in California began a slow but precipitous decline.  As far as I know, there are no Greens on the Arcata city council now (their official biographies don't mention political affiliation) as the council has moved to the right.  In 2015, only five candidates endorsed by the Greens (though not all party members) were elected to any offices in Humboldt, and they were minor offices.  In the rest of California, the number was six.  The Green Party's influence was always greatest on the local and sometimes the state levels.  Not so much anymore.

Today, Bernie is very popular here.  At the last North County Fair I noted a buzz around the Sanders booth, and dead quiet at the Clinton table.  I see Bernie bumper stickers and signs, and none for Hillary.  But just what does that mean?

Some of it is obvious.  Like the campaign sign in the video store on H Street: Free College Tuition, Vote Bernie.  But in political terms it can be more complicated than support for a candidate based on whatever positions, or on attraction to a personality or belief in an individual.

Ed Kilgore has yet another pertinent post. He quotes a liberal journalist who posted on Talking Point Memo to say he backed Bernie, but wasn't sure he would continue to do so if Bernie looked like he actually could win the nomination.

Kilgore suggests this liberal isn't alone.  I've been hearing this for at least a couple of years: "Back Elizabeth Warren in the primary, vote for Hillary in the general."  Except Warren didn't run and Bernie did.

There are three reasons people take this approach.  First, the assumption that a farther left candidate wasn't going to win the nomination, but it was important to send a message, to influence Hillary and prep for the future.  Second (and not everyone who holds the first reason would agree with this) is that Bernie is great for representing these issues, but he hasn't shown he's ready for the Presidency.  The third reason is that if he were the Democratic nominee, he would lose.

The Sanders campaign is touting poll numbers that show that this last reason is not valid--that indeed, Bernie polls stronger than Hillary against the likely Republican candidates.  But there are strong reasons for not believing those numbers will hold up.  First, Sanders is still a kind of symbol, and otherwise an unknown quantity.  Which means that, second, the Republicans have not yet tried to define him, to run against him.

Their quiet is ominous.  Bernie Sanders calls himself a democratic socialist.  It's pretty remarkable that someone calling himself a socialist has gotten this far, and while that might be a good reflection on the times, it is probably also because the Republicans haven't said a word about it.  If he actually won the nomination, their currently whispered prayers would be answered.

The sludge they are preparing to throw at Hillary is nothing compared with what they would attempt to do to Bernie.  It used to be that Socialist meant Communist, and people felt about Communists about the way they feel about ISIS terrorists today.

After the success of McCarthyism in eradicating socialism from legitimate public dialogue in America, the rabid right has been so successful in moving that dialogue farther and farther to the right that since the Reagan 80s, the word "liberal" has taken on much of the sinister taint of the word Communist or at least socialist in the 50s.

Also consider that some Republicans continued to call Barack Obama a socialist, a radical, and unAmerican.  (That indeed was the establishment candidate Marco Rubio's claim.)  Consider then what they would do with a candidate who actually is--or at least who actually calls himself--a socialist.

There is no doubt that capitalism is coming up against its fatal flaws, which are its addiction to growth and its need to push costs off on the helpless in order to make a profit.  They do it with "cheap" or slave labor (just as they used to with actual slaves), and by benefiting from government spending on the infrastructure and the regulations that keep them in business, and by forcing costs onto future generations while depleting the ability of the planet to sustain life, through profligate use of natural resources, and the damage they cause to the planet's natural systems, to water, soil, air and climate.  Some of which others have to pay to clean up (usually in the future) while much of it everyone pays for with their health, their planet's bounty and its character, and with the depleted lives of their descendants.

Capitalism as it is now constituted is unlikely to be up to the challenges of the future, the climate crisis in particular.  Our economics will have to change.  Whether that is a large change to something like socialism (and of course, we already have many of the features that socialists have advocated for more than a century, and some other countries have even more) remains to be seen.

Though Sanders talks about a "revolution," his proposals are not quite worthy of the name.  Still, there is obviously a hunger for addressing the issues of economic inequality and economic injustice that Sanders has focused, and that's good.  Somebody has to be talking about these things, and somebody should keep alive such notions as a carbon tax.

So if Bernie Sanders can convince a majority of Democratic voters in New York, Pennsylvania, etc. to California sufficient to a plurality of delegates that he should be the nominee, then perhaps the "revolution" he speaks about is real. (Though it falls far short of what a revolution might be.)  But these attempts to delegitimize the outcome of prior primaries, to intimidate superdelegates and to demonize the opponent won't prove it.  Quite the opposite.

Susan Surandon, supporting Nader in 2000, supports
Sanders now--and refuses to say she'd vote for another
Democratic nominee.
And with the confrontational nature of this campaign--between, it must be said, two candidates who seem to lack a sense of humor--threatening to damage the eventual nominee's chances in November, it's getting into Naderite territory.  The result of which could again be the election of a disastrous President--and we may not be able to afford another one--as well as a serious setback for the very issues and politics that Sanders and his supporters advocate.

Hillary Clinton is hardly the ideal candidate, in any number of ways.  But at least her campaign is locked into supporting and continuing the policies and approach of President Obama.  Up until recently, Sanders was effectively focusing her attention on his issues as well.  Lately, as he attacked her, she has become defensive on these issues in a way that is the opposite of the desired effect.

Maybe this phase will be over by Tuesday night.  But the longer it continues and the more extreme it gets, the more dangerous it becomes, and the more likely to spiral out of control.

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