For the last forty years, presidential politics has been moving undeniably to the right. Each quadrennial contest has featured a pair of establishment figures who are barely different from each other and every time that the party occupying the White House has switched, the change has been for the worse. It’s been two sides of the same patriarchal, white-supremacist, ecocidal coin. What we’ve been witnessing is a creeping corporate coup.
This pattern has been so entrenched that a change in direction has seemed impossible. This is the conventional wisdom on much of the left, and I respect many of the people who put it forth.
But lately I’ve been questioning that viewpoint, and at the risk of invoking the derision of my radical peers and elders, I venture to say that the 2020 presidential election really is different, and that it makes sense to support the campaign of Bernie Sanders.
Not because he will end war. (He won’t.)
Not because he will shut down capitalism. (He can’t)
Not because he will stop the climate crisis. (That’s impossible.)
The ballot box accommodates changes of the guard but not transformations of the system. For the latter, we need mass movements engaged in non-violent civil disobedience. I’m up for that. Let’s go.
That being said, I see three reasons why it’s worth it to support Sanders in the narrow context of electoral politics:
1. His establishment opposition
2. The environment
3. The Youth
First, the establishment is clearly opposed to Sanders. Ruling class figures across the mainstream political spectrum dislike him, but most tellingly it’s at the liberal end where his biggest enemies are. Even though Sanders is the front-runner among the Democrats, and the candidate most likely to beat Trump according to polls, the Democratic leadership is openly plotting against him in a brazen display I don’t recall witnessing before. The corporate media’s bias is also naked and has been well documented. [See FAIR.org and TruthOut.]
I absolutely hate the Democratic Party and I hate the corporate media more. So the fact that that they are both so intent on squashing Sanders has prodded me to reconsider my “never blue” policy. (I’m not the only one. As Danny Haiphong writes: “How Establishment Hate for Sanders Only Fuels His Rise.”)
For 28 years, the Democratic party has been under the sway of neoliberalism as imposed by the Clintons and the Democratic Leadership Council. They have assaulted social services, civil liberties and safety & environmental regulations more effectively than the Republicans. Overall, their evil has not been “lesser.”
For all of Sanders’ faults (and there are many, and I’ve written about them myself), he’s not a neoliberal. He’s a ’60s style Great Society Democrat like LBJ: in favor of both domestic equity and overseas military intervention. Not by any stretch is Sanders anti-war. This is a tragic flaw. Yet he is genuinely in favor of people over profit and his election would be the first ever challenge at the presidential level against the forces of neoliberalism. That has real value. It’s about time those bastards get some push back. It could help make space for more action elsewhere in society.
Secondly, on the topic of the environment, the president has the power to change vital regulations. Trump’s administration certainly has been. There’s too much to list here (see the New York Times for a list of 95 of them), but we are in the process of losing protections that go back literally a century: The Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918 has been “reinterpreted” to allow incidental killing of birds by industry and this is sure to lead to great loss. Also on the chopping block have been rules protecting clean air, clean water, and endangered species. The gutting of the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) alone is an unmitigated disaster. Even the National Parks system is under attack. Trump’s first term has been all about handing over the fate of the nation’s ecology to the resource extraction industry, and it’s nothing short of nightmarish. A second Trump term could result in the extinctions of animal species such as the Mexican Grey Wolf.
So would a first term from Biden, Buttigieg, Bloomberg or—goddess forbid—Hillary Clinton. Mainline Democrats don’t give a flying fuck about the environment, as proven by the last two, Bill Clinton and Obama. The destruction of old growth forest under Clinton was an unconscionable act for which he deserves to be turned over to the Ents. Obama was responsible for the “largest domestic oil production increase during any presidency in U.S. history,” which might very well have been the last nail in our carbon coffin. Both of these men were ecocidal maniacs who set the stage for Trump’s slashing and burning. I hate what they did and I resent the Democrats who empowered them to do it.
Much of the ecological damage cannot be undone or will take lifetimes to repair. But with Sanders in the Oval Office, could some of Trump’s assaults be turned back? Yes, and if any of them are, that would be a blessing. Would Sanders also commit ecological sins? Undoubtedly. There’s nothing “sustainable” about razing wildlife habitat for huge solar projects in the desert, but that’s what the Green New Dealers are calling for. So that’s a fight no matter who wins.
On the environment, we would need to put Sanders’ feet to the fire, as it’s said. Clinton and Obama both got away without any such pressure. Would it be different with Sanders? That question brings us to the third reason that 2020 is different: the youth.
I’ve argued before that my generation, the Gen X’ers, should step aside for the Millennials because they’re more open-minded and less saddled by illusion. On a practical basis, they and their younger cohorts are the ones who will have to deal with the frightful effects of climate chaos and the societal breakdown that will come with it (probably sooner than predicted). The sooner they can be put in charge, the better. So how can we do that?
Well, in the 2020 election, they want Sanders. Among likely Democratic primary voters under 35, 52% prefer Sanders, and only 11% Biden. That’s a stark difference. Other polls show smaller spreads, but Sanders is the clear favorite among young people. On the basis of those statistics alone, I feel like we should support the Sanders campaign, just to help the youth get what they want.
Given a victory, it’s my hope that the youth would feel empowered to push Sanders and the rest of the establishment for more of what they want. That’s where things could get exciting. The Millennials are the largest generation in US American history and their values are different. Unlike the Boomers and the Xers, the Millennials and the younger Gen Z take climate change seriously and want to do something about it. The rest of us should be following their lead.
As a Millennial friend of mine put it: “Bernie isn’t the answer but he is what is needed to allow the space to start really asking, and living into, the most important questions.”
If Sanders wins in 2020, it would be the first time since the 1970s that a new president wasn’t worse for planet and people than his predecessor. This is the point that I feel some of my radical compatriots are missing. Collectively, we would be taking a step in the right direction. Yes, it would be a small step, and no, it wouldn’t be a “revolution” but it would be something and we’ve had nothing—or less—for far too long.
So, I’m not a fan of Bernie Sanders himself, and I doubt I ever will be, but for me, it’s no longer about whether I agree or disagree with him, but about the fact that I want to support the energy that is pushing him forward. That energy is bigger than Sanders and deeper than electoral politics, and has real potential to make change. I’m excited about it. Sign me up.