Though I support Bernie Sanders for president, I thought it would be worthwhile to offer instructions to both camps. Not that the Hillary and Bernie campaign reads this blog. But some of my friends supporting both candidates do. So I can treat this as a letter to them in sorting out the issues between these two candidates.
First, I will say, even if this loses me some friends, that I will support anyone who wins the Democratic nomination for president. The modern GOP has taken such an extreme turn to the right, proposing to end Medicare, Medicaid, and Social Security as we know it, abolishing most federal poverty programs, ending the minimum wage, overturning Obamacare, that the cost in lives and well being makes it a moral obligation to prevent that party from ever winning national office.
And there are areas I genuinely admire about Hillary Clinton. She understands the cultural divides in this country and knows how to speak of an inclusive America that welcomes people, regardless of immigration status, gender, sexual orientation, race, and religion. She has been in the forefront in defending reproductive choice, in broadening the debate on immigration reform, and she is likely to put together the same rainbow coalition that elected Obama to office. That is a good thing .
Here’s what I admire about Bernie Sanders. He understands the central economic dilemma of our time; income inequality. It does not matter how much you grow the GNP, we have severed wages, job creation, and economic well being from economic growth. If all the gains go to the top 0.01%, then growing the pie is not enough. You need to talk about redistribution. Here’s the problem. This severing began in the Reagan years but it did not abate under the Clinton and Obama years. This problem was started by the GOP but the Democrats have not significantly addressed this issue.
So even if we have had record economic growth under Obama, Americans are angry. And they are angry because regardless of which party takes over, the middle class continues to shrink. This creates the space for demagogues like Trump to blame the “other”, immigrants, non whites, etc. We can shake our heads at this or we can notice that neither party has begun to tackle this issue or even relate to it as an issue. Bernie is the first candidate, though John Edwards tried as well, to make this a central concern.
And he didn’t adopt this position in this election cycle. This has been the animating passion of his 30 plus year old political career. This matters to me because it tells me what he is willing to expend political capital on. It’s also why the issue of campaign contributions and where they come from matters. The Democrats since the mid 80’s has significantly sought and received donations from some of the main economic actors who have exacerbated income inequality. It’s hard to tackle an issue when your biggest donors are opposed to this. This is why campaign finance reform is such a big deal.
So Bernie has a series of interlocking proposals that address every area of economic inequality. A Hillary supporting friend of mine said that Bernie’s proposals go into uncharted “socialist territory.” But they don’t. They are either proposals developed from what most western nations in fact do or they are proposals based on what the US used to do when we were a much more equal society.
Tuition free colleges That was the CUNY college system in NY, the California state system, they were what many of the land grant colleges or small normal (teacher colleges) were established to do. I used to teach at Southern Illinois University in Carbondale and the University of Southern Indiana. Both were started with next to no tuition so that the farm kids in the area had a college accessible and affordable to them. The astronomical costs of college is a recent development over the last few decades, not a given feature of how the US has always done higher ed.
Medicare for all. Single payer is Canada’s system, it is Norway’s system, it’s been in almost every Democratic platform since 1948 and it’s based on a government program called Medicare. The plan Democrats passed for the elderly in 1965. It would cover the remaining 28.5 million Americans today who have no health insurance with a program far more popular than any other provider in our health care system, save the VA system. Yes the VA system receives the highest marks of any part of our health care system.
Breaking up the big banks recognizes the fact that there are 5 banks who make up over half the assets of the banking industry. That this concentration is higher than before the Great Crash. That any one of these banks are already too big to fail. The US used to break up monopolies. Remember Ma Bell in the 1970’s? Glass Steagall which separated commercial banking from much of the financial sector, was only changed in 1999.
The financial sector determining much of the US economy is not a given throughout our history. It’s a rather recent development. I’m apt to think that modern capitalism is dedicated to historical amnesia. To help us to forget that there is nothing inevitable about how we organize our economy. When we are told to reject the language of the 1% or class conflict, it makes me think that folks are wanting to remove any agency from how our economy works. Which makes us powerless to do anything about it.
For instance, the loss of unions is treated as inevitable, given the changing shape of our economy. But it’s not. Most western nations have not seen the declines the US has experienced. Canada and the US in the 1970s had 1/3 of our workforce organized. Today the number remains the same for Canada. For the US in the private sector it is 6%. The loss of unions has done more to lower wages and increase inequality than any other factor. Bernie hones in on this with supporting the Employee Free Choice Act which makes joining unions easier. Hillary has no mention of unions in her plans.
This does not mean that Hillary has no good ideas. From paid parental leave to universal pre-k from expanding investment in infrastructure to raising the minimum wage, there would be improvements made, which as her website notes, builds on Obama’s progress. When Donald Trump retweats white supremacist sites and talks of registering Muslims, when Ted Cruz Mike Huckabee attends a rally led by a pastor who wants the death penalty for homosexuality, you cannot in good conscience say the 2 parties are the same.
So for my Hillary supporting friends, don’t worry. I will vote Democrat in the general. But I am disturbed by a line I am hearing from the Hillary campaign and many of her supporters. That we cannot accomplish any of the ideas of Bernie Sanders.
And more perniciously, that we should not. We should not pass single payer even as Hillary has no plan to expand health care to the 28.5 million uninsured. That we should not make college tuition free, that we should not tackle the big banks. And she is repeating GOP talking points on every one of these claims. And her surrogates and some of my friends are even red baiting Bernie for proposing these ideas.
My problem with this is that her campaign are limiting the political discourse in our country by pulling it to the right. And it undercuts her own campaign because it suggests that Hillary will defend the past accomplishments with no overarching vision of the future. If my friends who support Hillary, support her, tell me why. Don’t simply undercut Bernie and his progressive vision. Because if Bernie wins, he needs your support. And if he loses, his vision needs advocates that last beyond this election cycle.
Why? Because unless we tackle income inequality, the decline of the middle class, the decline of wages, there will always be an angry divide that the Donald Trumps of the world can exploit. The irrational hatred against Hillary is a byproduct, not only of sexism, but of an increasingly powerless middle and working class America that has no political agency anymore. They have to personalize their problems, find an “other” blame, to give them any sense that things can be reversed.
Unless that agency is restored, restored by showing that political action, democratic action can build wages, can build good jobs, can build an economy and therefore lives you can raise a family on, with some stability, then there is always the space for the demagogues to take advantage of this. The Tea Party, the ugly anti immigrant sentiments, the polarization of this country has experienced over the last number of decades won’t dissipate unless you can tackle these issues.
My argument for the Bernie Sanders campaign and my friends who support him is not to dismiss these cultural divides as distractions. They are not. Planned Parenthood may seem like a cultural issue but not when women’s lives and their health care are on the line. Immigration may seem like a distraction but not for the families whose lives are broken up with record deportations. And don’t fall for language about Hillary that is often used against women who run for office. This re-enforces our country’s divides.
For my Hillary supporting friends, the issues Bernie raises and the plans, not in every specific detail, but in broad outline, Hillary needs to address. And she’s not. And if she doesn’t, we will still be a country with a shrinking middle class, a disengaged public who are angry, waiting for demagogues to placate them and enemies to find. Which is to say that the old adage from Engels, socialism or barbarism, really is what is at stake in 2016.
I have not addressed the complaint that a GOP congress will not pass Bernie’s agenda. Of course they won’t pass Hillary’s agenda either. But the vision cast matters because we can’t treat our current political configurations as eternal. We have to make a case and organize folks to build a majority coalition that can tackle these issues. I am betting that Bernie can do this. Can Hillary? Our country can’t afford for this not to happen.
Dwight Welch is the pastor at the United Church of Norman, Oklahoma
PS. I write this as an individual who happens to be a pastor. I am not representing my congregation or denomination in this column. But I am trying to sort, beyond individual candidates, to the issues our country faces, that bear on building a shared world.