Thursday, August 4, 2016

talking politics in the family...

The other night I had a long, tender, wonderfully insightful albeit wine-infused
conversation with my oldest daughter about the state of American politics. We share similar values yet often differ on tactics and goals. At 64, and for most of my adult life, I have been an incrementalist when it comes to social change that lasts. Not that there aren't times for bold and revolutionary calls to action: clearly ending American apartheid was one such time. Dr. King got it so right writing from a Birmingham jail: any call to "go slow" on racial integration was an invitation to let human suffering fester and social injustice seep deeper into the American character. 

Still, my hunch is that moments filled with radical potential are more fleeting than ordinary. Over time, carefully organized acts of agitation alongside rigorously disciplined campaigns for well-researched social change accomplish more than periodic appeals to emotional upheaval or serendipitous surprises. Not that these realities are void of possibilities for meaningful new directions; it is just that their spontaneity rarely yields anything satisfying or significant
over the long haul. In this I am a confirmed community organizer rather than "movement" type of activist.

And that distinction, I suggested in our discussion, was why I often appeared angry in some of my written responses to Bernie: not because I was a closet supporter, but because I sensed the Senator's words sold too many young supporters down the river of disillusionment. For a politician, preacher, teacher or any one else who cares about the common good, such promises are acts of irresponsibility. To speak of revolutionary change to truly wounded people without the ability (or plans) to deliver - let alone no meaningful track record of knowing how to translate significant and valuable ideas into bread and butter policies that work - hit me as deceptive and even naively mean-spirited. Please know I am not claiming that BS wanted to hurt the people he spoke to on a regular basis. Not at all. I sense he is a man with a big heart. I actually cherish many of his goals and was excited when he announced his Quixotic campaign. 

But he never moved beyond the realm of rhetoric for me: he raised great ideas without a significant history of accomplishments and his legacy of securing practical results through cooperation with other colleagues was also notably absent. The more seriously I studied Bernie, the more I had to conclude that while he has been able to remain ideologically pure over the decades, he hasn't been able to accomplish much else on any level of government. And not because the institutions are corrupt or rigged. But because he balks when it comes to compromise and cooperation.

That is the first reason I found his campaign so troubling. I, too, long for true, single-payer, universal health care for all Americans. I support the call for funding higher education in a way that avoids crushing debt. It is clear that the influence of Wall Street and market place thinking has replaced caring for the common good. And I am dubious of the long-term effectiveness of nation building as it has been practiced over the past 40 years. Further, while there were some benefits to engaging in the global economy a la our various free trade agreements, they have clearly been imperfect, hurting US manufacturing and workers in many of those industries. Consequently, free trade agreements need correction and change, but not dismantling - even the TPP. When Senator Sanders started, I responded to the issues he was raising. I continue to believe that they must still be raised but with an ever clearer and more credible attack than the direction he articulated.

What I never saw materialize during the 18 months of the primaries was BS doing more than raising issues. Living the questions matters theologically and good questions are vital, but vague or ill-conceived answers strike me as troubling for this moment in our culture. He even let himself start believing his press releases about the insidious corruption that had afflicted his rival Hillary Clinton. Thankfully, he got off that dime, but not before poisoning the minds of many young followers who bought into his left wing innuendoes like some of the working class swallowed the earlier right wing defamation of her character. That, too, did not earn respect for him in my political playbook. It just verified in public what I suspected in private: that Bernie was another politician - no worse but hardly any better - than any of the other players vying for office. He had a more progressive message - and that was cause for celebration - but he was just as obsessed and mono-minded about winning as everyone else.

So, the question was put to me as the evening unfolded, why were/are you so angry in some of your writing about Bernie?  That's always hard to hear, yes? Guess I still can't see parts of my shadow - and coming from one I love and respect I needed to own and process this with honesty and humility - so here's what I've come up with so far:

1) When comparing Hilary to Bernie, Sanders encouraged incendiary language and a personal messianism while Clinton recognized her modest speaking abilities alongside her significant record of accomplishments.  Given the on-going recovery of the economy - even with the ugly and broad pockets of despair - the use of revolutionary language sounded immature and irresponsible to me. I would rather a candidate talk to me about how he/she was going to address issues like worker retraining, educational debt, protectionism and social fear rather than fan the flames of discontent. This is a time for careful and cautious commentary in public - lots of listening, too - and that never seemed to me to be the public style of Senator Sanders.  In a word, he struck me as too emotionally erratic and even manipulative. I am looking for a steady mind and heart right now, one with a demonstrable and proven record of getting things done that matter to me:  strengthening racial harmony, bridging the wage and opportunity gap for women and people of color, creating genuine educational opportunities for young people and learning from her/his mistakes and failure. In this regard, Mrs. Clinton stood head and shoulders above Senator Sanders in my view. And, she spoke in humble and honest ways about the wounds we must heal together. My anger was in reaction to what I saw as Bernie's manipulative and left-wing demagoguery. I found this particularly offensive when directed at young, newbie voters. How does the old song go? "Won't Get Fooled Again?" 

2) I often spoke disparagingly about Bernie's undisciplined campaign - and that caused some confusion - especially among his devotees.  In my blog postings, I tried to unpack my critiques more carefully but not everyone wants to read nuanced reflections. So here's the crux of my concern: BS mounted a GREAT public media campaign that not only generated billions of small financial donations, but also turned out millions of supporters to his rallies. That was not what I was worried about nor does this effort suggest a lack of discipline. Time and again, this effort proved quite the contrary. No, my worries involved what takes place once the internet connections fail - or fade - or the momentary energy dissipates? What are the down ticket plans for the "revolution?" Who will be doing the recruitment and training of new leaders? Who will be doing the on-going fund raising to sustain this work after the wave of passion evaporates? It is one thing to call new and young voters into the system, it is a whole other project to train them, keep them engaged and do the disciplined work of building an organization beyond the website. When I raised those questions during the DNC, some thought them too critical. I saw them as strategic: Obama wasn't able to maintain the mojo after his 2008 effort - he was unable to achieve voter turn out and funding for the midterm elections - and he had a stronger network than BS. So, while I wasn't angry about this, I wanted clear and honest answers - and I am still unconvinced that it will happen. Not because I disagree with the Senator nor because I mistrust him or his people. It is just there is precious little evidence that the movement goes deep - and can be sustained - in what community organizers call a disciplined way.

And 3) I genuinely don't trust Mr. Sanders in an international context. I have respect for Mrs. Clinton in this realm. She knows the players and has delivered on this stage in the past. She has fumbled and hurt people here, too - and I believe that angst has humbled and helped her become more sober and strategic. Like a dear friend once said, "In this election all of a sudden everyone has become a pacifist." Mrs. Clinton has never fallen into that category. Would that she would explore it more thoroughly in the future, but she is a Niebuhrian Christian realist who always asks: how can I do the most good with the least amount of violence knowing that my actions will always be partially corrupt and contain consequences I cannot yet know at this moment in time.  Mr. Sanders continued to strike me as a one issue isolationist at a time when such naivete is too dangerous to consider.

It will be important to see where Mr. Sanders goes after Labor Day: will he stand and deliver his support in opposition to Mr. Trump? Will he withdraw and sulk? Will he actually use his wisdom and political capital to advance down ticket candidates? Will he open an honest and useful dialogue with Mrs. Clinton like President Obama did? Or will he keep his own ideological counsel in purity as has been his habit? I don't know. I was so glad to talk this through - taking the challenges and questions as well as the common ground - with one I love and respect. Having adult children is just as rewarding as being poppa to a toddler. I hope I never stop learning from my daughters.

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