Fatherhood & Bernie Sanders’ Humanism

“Are you willing to fight for that person who you don’t even know as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself?” – B. Sanders

I’ve spent a lot of time over this prolonged presidential primary thinking about the concept of hope and why, despite the exterior appearances of a cantankerous New Yorker, I find so much hope in Bernie Sanders and his presidential campaign. 

I believe it stems from becoming a father and experiencing politics with a sense of real consequences far beyond myself. It’s not an original thought to realize that having a child changed how I see the world. It wasn’t until my son was born a little over two years ago that I started to feel the things I believed in emotionally, as opposed to simply believing them intellectually. 

Having a child has shown me the lived value of another human life beyond my own. The persistent fear a parent has for the basic health and welfare of a child that starts helpless and who in time grows to have more and more ability (and at two, still no judgement).  I see this shift in basic stuff – a stronger emotional pull upon hearing of tragedy or a sense of grief at seeing someone experiencing hardship. Other times it’s big picture – a deeper sense of fear as to what looming global problems (climate change, rising right wing nationalism and anti-Semitism) could mean for my son. Through the experience of parenthood, I’ve grounded my politics in a way that is so much stronger, deeper, and more affirming than ever before. 

Life in this country is hard. Economic inequality and insecurity makes it hard. Racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia all make it hard. In the face of these things, not everyone responds to the experience of parenthood by looking outward. People have a tendency to start to build up little walls to protect this new thing that they feel is tenuous or delicate. Parochialism, territorialism and fear set in. Perhaps it’s why we’ve ended up a country so defined by who we fear and what we lack. 

We need hope in the face of these systemic hardships and self-imposed walls. And the thing that is so special about Bernie Sanders’ campaign for President is the way in which he has quietly staked out the most hopeful campaign in my adult lifetime. 

Bernie asks us to look at our neighbors not as others, but as people with the same material, emotional, and familial needs as ourselves. When we do this, we can see our respective hardships. We can see the value and importance of providing care, regardless of cost. Of having good paying jobs with dignity and rights. Of freeing people from the hopelessness of student debt. Of ending military adventurism and investing in solutions to the climate emergency that is already devastating communities across our country. 

“I look around and see so many other people barely holding on,” Ms. Yanos said, choking back tears as her kids did their homework at the kitchen table. “It’s not that I think it will be all rainbows and sunshine if he’s elected, things won’t change overnight. But people younger than me, they are going to demand change in their lifetime.” (NYT)

Politics is fundamentally about how we share our brief time together on this planet. It is about how we care for each other when we are sick and how we protect each other when we are vulnerable. It is about the extent to which we choose as a society to either honor the dignity of our neighbors and other people around the world, or how we distance ourselves from them and deny their humanity through, at best, indifference and, at worst, state sanctioned violence. Through parenthood I’ve felt the difference between these choices like a gut punch. How could we ever choose to not affirm each others’ worth?

Bernie’s platform is one that uniquely puts forward the value of every individual human life. His call to fight for someone you do not know just as hard as you’ll fight for yourself is a bold act of faith in each of us to see the world in the same way. To see that each of us has our own struggles, our own complexity, our own unique value as human beings, worthy of not just protection but societal action on our behalf. From this act of faith comes solidarity and from solidarity comes the power to affect change together.

I don’t particularly care what you call Sanders’ platform – whether it’s democratic socialism or a mere modernization of FDR-style Democratic Party liberalism. What inspires me is Bernie Sanders’ humanism. The belief that the problems any one of us faces merit a president who will fight for them, not because they are big demographic problems that have economic impact, but because, god damn it, it is our friends and neighbors who are dying without care or rationing insulin or having to work three or four gigs to live paycheck to paycheck. That a better world is possible. That this better world can be achieved if we work together in solidarity and with an embrace of our shared humanity.

Sanders has described the effort as a kind of support network for people left out of mainstream politics — an effort to help millions of people, in his words, “feel less alone.” (Buzzfeed)

Bernie is at his best when he gives us not his litany of villains (though knowing the enemies who stand in the way against a better world is important), but when he gives us the space to find hope together. Hope is so important, especially when the economy works for almost no one, when we face a rising global pandemic and a climate catastrophe, when we have been failed by our leaders and it feels as if things are just slipping past the point of salvation. 

We need to have the discipline to find hope, both in each other and in a political movement. I want to be a part of a politics that values each individual life and fights for solutions to the problems we face that are grounded in the goodness of each of us. I want for the audacious hopefulness of Bernie Sanders’ campaign to inspire millions upon millions of people here in America to participate in the political process, demand a better world and build it alongside people they do not know. The urgency of this moment demands it.

I can’t recommend the pathway of having a child to find humanism in your politics. We don’t have time for that. But what I can do is encourage you to listen to what Bernie Sanders is asking of us with an open mind and an open heart, free from cynicism and with a belief that a better world is possible. 

The primary is not over. Biden has not yet won. There is time for us to look around, to look at our country and the need for hope, solidarity and a politics grounded in the value of each and every one of us and still elect Bernie Sanders as President. 

Volunteer. Talk to your friends and neighbors. Donate. Vote.

Arriving In Power & the Establishment

Michelle Alexander’s much-discussed piece in The Nation on Clinton, Sanders and African-Americans is worth reading. I want to pull out one line from it, though, that isn’t about race but instead about power and change.

Yes, Sanders has raised millions from small donors, but should he become president, he would also become part of what he has otherwise derided as “the establishment.”

I think this is a significant misreading of what the Establishment is. It is not about power alone, but a certain type of power. If Sanders is elected President, he will have a massive amount of power. Based on what he is saying now, it is highly unlikely that he would suddenly appoint a bunch of Rubinite Wall Streeters to cabinet positions and Deep State hawks to run our foreign and military policies. Of course he would have to live the values he is preaching now.

But the mere act of occupying the office wouldn’t mean a conversion of Sanders to the Establishment mean. It would mean fundamentally dislodging the Establishment from the power it currently holds over our government, which is to say, it is exactly what people are supporting Sanders to do.

Self-Identification & Primary Hostilities

In case you haven’t been paying close attention, the Democratic presidential primary has dramatically heated up in recent weeks. Bernie Sanders has closed the gap in polling in Iowa and nationally, while building up a lead in New Hampshire. As polls have tightened, the Clinton campaign, their surrogates and many online supporters have gone into attack mode.

What is disheartening to me is that this could be a primary where big ideas are debated and we have a serious discussion of what direction the Democratic Party wants to take the country in coming decades. To be sure, we are having this debate, however it is being played out in increasingly uncivil tones. I’m no shirking violet and I do not think there’s anything wrong with heated political debate. But it is frustrating to see friends and organizations I respect wade into vicious attacks on each other over the candidates and who people support.

I have a sense as to what is causing the rising acrimony. Policy ideas are, generally, fact oriented things. Many different ideas can be easily arranged on a spectrum, with the political philosophies of left and right representative of different polls, and policy solutions conforming towards different points on the spectrum. Arguably there is no normative value associated with different spots on the spectrum. The concept of single payer healthcare is inarguably to the left of Obamacare, which is inarguably to the left of a system where there is no public subsidy for private health insurance.

Where this becomes fraught in today’s political environment is that people have very different, values laden senses of political identifiers. For people who use them to describe themselves, words like “progressive,” “centrist,” or “conservative” tend to mean “a good person.” Thus someone may proudly claim to be a “bold progressive,” a “staunch conservative,” or a “realistic centrist” as if those adjectives increase the person’s worth. And in the tribal realm of politics, individuals apply their assignation of self-worth not just to how they view themselves, but by supporting candidates like them, who fit these same billings and amplify their own worth.

The problems emerge, as we are seeing in the Democratic primary, when someone views themselves as a “bold progressive” and supports a candidate like Hillary Clinton in a race that also includes Bernie Sanders, an inarguably more left (and thus “progressive” in today’s parlance) politician. To say that Sanders is to Clinton’s left is a statement of fact – it has no moral value, nor does it impart any assessment on the worth of the candidates nor their supporters. It just is.

But for people who explicitly or implicitly take “progressive” to normatively mean “a good person,” then someone being more progressive means that they can lay claim to being “a better person” than our Clinton supporter. No one likes to feel like they are worth less than they see themselves, so they fight back against this idea (even though it is purely implicit and premised on the normative application of “progressive” as a designation of self-worth). They defend themselves from this perceived attack. They look for the tiniest of holes in the ideological spectrum, searching for issues to find spots or moments where their preferred candidate is to the left, and thus the True Progressive. We see this in the primary fight where the Clinton campaign has sought to turn Sanders’ lifetime “D-” NRA rating into a liability based on a handful of bad gun votes. The triumphant Clintonite response to this, “A-ha! Bernie is in the pocket of the NRA! He is no True Progressive!”

This also speaks to why we are seeing a real hatred of Sanders emerge in the Democratic establishment, which is almost exclusively backing Clinton and increasingly public in their disdain for Sanders. Democratic “elites” are flocking to Iowa, driven in part by fear and part out of a hatred of Sanders.

The campaign and its allies had planned all along to escalate their efforts at this point, as the caucuses near. However, Democratic governors, senators and other party leaders said they are increasingly alarmed at the prospect of Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, surfing a wave of populist frustration to the nomination. And they were quick in interviews this week to dispense advice to Clinton.

Within the Democratic elite, where Clinton enjoys near-universal support, the antipathy toward Sanders has grown steadily as he has emerged as a potential Clinton slayer. All week, McCaskill has been loudly predicting an electoral catastrophe if her party nominates Sanders.

As much as there will be a massive rending of garments in Washington if Hillary Clinton fails to win from the position of presumptive nominee, the Clinton supporters are not wearing desperation well. They’re taking it personally and it is showing.

At least, this is what I am seeing. It could explain the anger and hatred at the increasing success of Sanders’ campaign. If everyone feels like he exists as a finger in their eye, a statement that they are not as good people as they thought they were, then anger is an understandable reaction. Whether it is justified is a different question, but at least this could explain it on an individual, emotional level.

On Krugman’s Critique of Sanders’ Single Payer Plan

I’m not going to attempt an exhaustive look at the critiques of Bernie Sanders’ single player health care plan. There are a lot out there, which is not surprising given how big an idea Sanders has put into play. For weeks the drumbeat from the Clinton campaign, surrogates and some in the press has been to ask, “Where is Bernie’s single payer plan?” Now that he has produced one, the immediate pivot has been to tear it down with an argument that amounts to, “Bernie’s single payer plan is unrealistic because it is a single payer plan.”

There’s a lot that gets packed into these criticisms, but I wanted to take a look at one from a very respected source: Paul Krugman. Paul Krugman’s takedown of Bernie Sanders single payer health care plan contain three main fallacious arguments in my view.

The first is his lede & description of Obamacare: “It more or less achieves a goal — access to health insurance for all Americans — that progressives have been trying to reach for three generations.” That is a re-writing of history. The long standing goal, as Senator Sanders repeatedly pointed out last night in the debate, was universal health care, not access to health insurance. To wit, if the goal had always been the sort of insurance access kludge we got in Obamacare, Obamacare would have been arriving as the clear demand, not the bartered, lobbied, crafted, kludged end-product that we ended up with. Obamacare might be an effective delivery vehicle for “access to health insurance for all Americans” – and its expansion of Medicare are even more effective – but it certainly did not deliver health care as a right. To that end, as much as it was a generational accomplishment for the Democratic Party, it did not leave the health care box permanently checked on the list of goals for the the Party.

The second issue I take with Krugman is that his first two objections to Sanders’ plan are attempts to be pragmatic, yet ignore what Sanders is actually saying. They are, effectively (1) incumbent players have lots of power and (2) it will be hard to convince the public that the tax costs to them are worth it (as rich people will spend lots of money opposing the bigger hit to their wallets).

I don’t doubt that these are accurate descriptions of reality and why passing single payer would be hard. But I think it is incredibly disingenuous to raise these points as reasons that Sanders’ plan is bad, while ignoring that they are fundamentally connected to Sanders’ argument that we need a “political revolution” in America that gets money out of politics and ends the influence of major lobbies like the health insurance, pharmaceutical and financial industries so that we can do the things we need to do like pass single payer healthcare.

Sanders has throughout the campaign presented a coherent argument about how fighting income inequality, passing single payer healthcare, achieving criminal justice reform, and fighting climate change (among many other issues) are all intrinsically linked to the need to reduce the influence of mega corporations, millionaires and billionaires in the political process. Not only is it not news to Sanders that there are major forces aligned against him, it is fundamental to his whole campaign’s argument.

It is dishonest to look at Sanders’ single player healthcare play in the absence of the political analysis that it exists in, then try to discredit the Sanders’ plan as unfeasible on the basis of this exclusion. This is what Krugman’s first two points about Sanders plan being likely to face opposition from powerful lobbies and rich people does. It ignores the fact that Sanders is saying the exact same thing.

Krugman’s third point is that voters wouldn’t stand for this sort of disruption to their insurance plans. Well, today, maybe that could be true. But if we envision a future where we have had our “political revolution,” where money is being forced out of politics, the rich are being made to pay their fair share to help healthcare exist as a human right, then perhaps Americans will be not only willing, but anxiously awaiting the minor disruptions which may come in the process of switching from the kludge of health care and insurance programs we now have to a more unified one that offers them richer benefits.

Sanders’ whole campaign has told the story of how he wants to create a different America, one that is more equitable, that is less corrupt and is built to work for the people, not billionaires. It is no doubt an aspirational story. There are no doubt many pragmatic arguments to be made against such a vision being achieved in the next year or two or four. But focusing into one part of the Sanders vision and trying to discredit it for lacking the very terms found in the rest of that vision is fundamentally dishonest.

Moreover, the highly pragmatic and conveniently disingenuous critique of Sanders is no accidental artifact induced by Sanders’ specific proposals. The likelihood is that there is no single payer plan that could be constructed and presented in such a way so that the political pundit class, establishment Democrats and the entire Republican Party would look at it and say, “Gee, that is a highly pragmatic and achievable plan that we can all see passing within the first four years of a Sanders administration.” None. The response we are seeing now is always the response that we would see from Clinton and centrist self-described wonks.

That is what it is. It does not mean Sanders should not be campaigning for single payer nor that he made a mistake by articulate a plan. Presenting a vision, grounded in a wider analysis of the political process, for how we can deliver health care as a right in America is a critically important step that Sanders has taken. It pushes the envelope on what has been presented by American presidential candidates. We are having a debate about single payer health care in America – that is a good thing! This is a necessary step for us ever actually getting single payer. It isn’t going to happen absent a politician running on it, building a movement of support for it, and having that movement force it forward over loud, monied opposition.

Bernie Sanders knows this would be a dogfight. He’s told us so for a long time. And as of January 2016, he’s the only candidate pushing forward into the fray.

Charles Pierce on Sanders, Clinton & Trump

Charles Pierce is on point here about the why and the how Sanders has made the primary race with Clinton a close fight:

The simple fact is that, if HRC has lost her lead at the moment, she has lost it to a superior campaign.

And it’s not as simple as the “populist anger” narrative would have you believe. Sanders has been running a 50-state campaign since before he formally declared his candidacy. He went to South Carolina. He went to Mississippi. He drew large and approving crowds in both places. He has stayed doggedly on message, directly refusing to help the elite political class in its pursuit of shiny objects. He repeatedly has emphasized that the pursuit of his policy goals, which all have to do with breaking the power of impending oligarchy and its threat to self-government, cannot be limited simply to electing him. And that’s where the easy narrative falls apart.

Pierce goes on to explain how Sanders’ populism is distinct from Trump, a meaningful difference in a media environment seeking easy answers for what the Beltway press finds to be two inexplicable campaigns:

Sanders punches up at the elites that, frankly, have more power in our politics than he does, or than you do, or than any politician does. He tells his audiences that he can’t do it alone, that the money power has grown too great for any one person to combat. He needs them more than they need him. He is not Napoleon, he is a democratic politician. And that makes all the difference and that’s why the “populist anger” narrative is a shuck. Anyone who says they could vote for either Bernie Sanders or He, Trump has been living for the last nine months with their head in a laundry bag.

The respective appeals of the two men are similar only on the simplest and least consequential levels. On the most profound levels, the two campaigns couldn’t be more different. Bernie Sanders is where he is because the positions and the policies he has been championing all his career have come back somewhat into favor ever since some grifters broke the world economy and then made off with the rubble. That is why he’s different from Donald Trump and that is why Hillary Rodham Clinton is noticing that things in the rear-view window are closer than they appear.

Bernie Sanders & the intersectionality of movements

At Ecowatch, Ted Glick has a strong piece on the need for urgent action in the face of the climate crisis and Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Glick connects the grassroots, people-powered movement that is fueling Sanders’ campaign with the Vermont senator’s strong positioning on climate action. Presidential campaigns provide rare moments of political engagement, popular attention, and a space for big ideas to be brought to the forefront. Glick also notes, rightly, that Sanders’ outspoken belief in the need to excise corporate money from the political process is almost certainly a fundamental precursor to actually achieving the sorts of executive, legislative and regulatory actions needed to confront climate change on a national and global scale. Quite simply, as long as dirty energy companies and multinational corporations can make their voices louder than the public, it is highly unlikely that meaningful action will happen on climate change and energy policy.

Lastly, Glick highlights how Sanders’ campaign is living proof of Naomi Klein’s theory that economic inequality and climate change are issues and movements that must be treated as intersectional if there is a chance for success in confronting them. More recently, Sanders has begun talking forcefully about another major, intersectional issue in America – racism and white supremacy, especially vis a vis the criminal justice system. Sanders has both spoke out and introduced legislation that would create pathways for education and employment, instead of the prison industrial complex, for young black Americans.

Taken together, it’s becoming clear that the Sanders presidential campaign is becoming a locus for grassroots movement building that recognizes the intersectionality of the major issues of our time and is seeking to build power by speaking to them and organizing around them. I don’t think we’ve seen a presidential campaign like this in many decades, so it’s hard to predict how far this formula can take an outsider like Sanders. But as of yesterday, he is surging within striking distance of Hillary Clinton in New Hampshire, so I wouldn’t write it off.