I waited and waited and waited last night. But no congratulatory words for Hillary Clinton ever exited the lips of Bernie Sanders.
Okay. I get how hard it must be to see and feel tremendous enthusiasm among your young supporters at large rallies around the country and then watch voters go to the polls and vote for your opponent. Sure, that is hard to stomach. But Bernie should make an effort to stomach it. At least he should be a little bit gracious when he loses. Or is it that his famous authenticity doesn’t allow him to honor his Democratic opponent-winner with a few kind words?
Here’s how an AP story, written after Clinton surprised almost everyone with her impressive victories Tuesday night, began:
PHOENIX (AP) — Bernie Sanders kicked off his Arizona campaign Tuesday night without mentioning a string of losses to Hillary Clinton in contests in Florida, North Carolina and Ohio.
Not a mention. Not a word. It’s as if last night didn’t happen. It’s as if delegate math has no bearing on the outcome of the race. It’s as if Bernie is living in a different world, a place where even in the face of near-certain defeat, he still has to, like a wounded Drumpf, attack, attack, attack. The AP article summarized his post-loss remarks about Hillary this way:
Sanders only mentioned Hillary Clinton twice during his Tuesday evening speech. He slammed her for giving speeches on Wall Street for six-figure sums and for having a Super-PAC funded by financial and pharmaceutical firms. He also cited her vote for the Iraq War, drawing boos from the crowd.
Bernie Sanders is not a fool. He has to understand what is happening. He has to know he is fighting a lost cause. So, even if he wants to stay in the race and keep spreading his stirring democratic socialist message, why does it have to include attacks on the eventual Democratic nominee’s integrity? He can argue for single-payer health care and free college tuition without undermining Clinton’s general election appeal, can’t he?
Maybe not. Unfortunately, Sanders’ disposition represents a form—hopefully in his case a mild form—of dogmatism that I don’t discuss as often as I discuss religious dogmatism. Let’s call it political fundamentalism. Political-ideological true-believers on the left, like their counterparts on the right, tend to shoot down, with fundamentalist fervor, anyone who doesn’t always practice the politics of purity.
Let me give you an egregious example of such ideological spotlessness run amok from just a few days ago. Leftist writer Thomas Frank, of What’s the Matter With Kansas fame, published a piece for Salon.com titled,
In that piece (actually an excerpt from Frank’s new book, Listen, Liberal: Or, What Ever Happened to the Party of the People?) you will find some valid criticisms of Clinton’s candidacy and presidency—especially the noxious pre-election execution of Ricky Ray Rector, for which Bill Clinton deserves utter condemnation—and you will find some invalid or misleading criticisms. I’m not going to attempt here to litigate the 1990s and Clinton’s role in what happened or what didn’t happen. But what is the point of publishing this particular excerpt from Frank’s book on Salon—known for attacking Democrats from the left—at this time? Bill Clinton is not running for president. Hillary Clinton is. And she is running on a much more progressive set of policies than her husband ran on and governed by years ago, years ago after Democrats had lost the White House for what seemed to them to be forever.
In Frank’s lengthy excerpt, we see why the piece ran at this point in the campaign. Frank spends one paragraph tying Bill’s “odious presidency” to Hillary. Calling her his “chief political adviser,” Frank then goes on to quote from Carl Bernstein’s not-so-flattering book on Mrs. Clinton. As Frank summarized Bernstein’s claim, Hillary announced that the way to win over public opinion in favor of Bill’s “‘vision’ for what the administration was doing” was to “pick a fight with supporters.” In other words, Hillary’s strategy was to piss off the left, to “discipline” them, so the Clinton(s) could stay in power and do nasty things to working class people like shoving NAFTA down their throats and devastating black people by passing a now-admittedly onerous crime bill.
If you don’t believe that is what Frank-the-purist is claiming, let me quote a remarkable passage from his article, a passage that demonstrates how an ideology, if given enough oxygen, can turn rationality to ashes:
Someday we will understand that the punitive hysteria of the mid-1990s was not an accident; it was essential to Clintonism. Taken as a whole with NAFTA, with welfare reform, with his plan for privatizing Social Security and, of course, with Clinton’s celebrated lifting of the rules governing banks and telecoms, it all fits perfectly within the new, class-based framework of liberalism. Clinton simply treated different groups of Americans in radically different ways—crushing some in the iron fist of the state, exposing others to ruinous corporate power, while showering the favored stratum with bailouts, deregulation, and a frolicking celebration of Think Different business innovation.
Some got bailouts, others got “zero tolerance.” There was really no contradiction between these things. Lenience and forgiveness and joyous creativity for Wall Street bankers while another group gets a biblical-style beatdown—these things actually fit together quite nicely. Indeed, the ascendance of the first group requires that the second be lowered gradually into hell. When you take Clintonism all together, it makes sense, and the sense it makes has to do with social class. What the poor get is discipline; what the professionals get is endless indulgence.
Reading that and knowing it comes from a man of the left is really breathtaking. Those claims are made against a Democratic president. And by extension they are quite openly made against his wife, the front-runner in this year’s Democratic primary. And Frank’s claims dovetail nicely with the message that Bernie Sanders, even facing defeat, is still sending about Hillary Clinton.
Frank’s raging, ideology-driven criticism, and Sanders’ refusal to stop attacking Clinton’s integrity, may tell you why there is so much harmful cynicism in our country today. On my chosen side, on the left, such outrageous criticism tends to produce a cynicism that leads to apathy. Fed a diet of puristic left-wing dogma, working class people—who should naturally look to Democrats for help—often stay away from the polls. Many don’t even bother to register to vote.
And on the other side, on the right, such cynicism that right-wing ideologues have created over the years often leads to anger. We have seen the rise of the Tea Party, which doesn’t give a damn about the Republican Party except so far as it can be fashioned into an instrument of political reaction. And the Tea Party insurgency has done such damage to the infrastructure of the Republican Party that we now see a quasi-fascist as the party’s dominant presidential front-runner, even as some party leaders have desperately struggled to stop him. That’s what can happen when people stop caring for the party as a whole and care only for their particular narrow interests. And that lack of caring was created by conservative ideologues, even though those same ideologues cannot now control what they have created.
In our peculiar American democratic system, political parties should differentiate themselves from each other. But they should not become vessels for undiluted ideological brews. They should not be places where one ideological set of ideas completely dominates all others, nor should they be characterized by my-way-or-the-highway policy positions. And, more important, we should not expect them to be led by candidates with perfect ideological scores. If we want our democracy to flourish, our two dominant parties, given the size and diversity of this country, have to have some ideological flexibility built into them. They have to make room for those hugging the center as well as those closer to the edges. They have to make room for ideological imperfection, or else they will eventually self-destruct, if they first don’t destroy the tenuous unity of the United States.
Today we are watching many working class Republicans, and some working class Democrats, embrace with cultish enthusiasm an authoritarian businessman who could very well lead the Grand Old Party—and possibly the entire country—into a neo-fascist nightmare. And it is ideological dogmatism on both sides that, oddly, has made such a scenario possible. For years now, President Obama has been attacked, sometimes mercilessly, for many of his domestic and foreign policies. But those attacks have come not just from conservative ideologues, but also from left-wing political purists. And now that Hillary Clinton, Obama’s natural heir, is dominating the Democratic Party’s nomination process, the ideological knives—again, on both sides—have really come out.
And it’s too bad Bernie Sanders, even with no hope of winning, is wielding one of them.