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Honesty Isn’t Just a Campaign Attribute, It’s a Prerequisite for Change

Last week, after Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ victory in the Nevada caucus, long time human rights activist Brian Concannon wrote:

The Democratic candidates missed the opportunity last week in Nevada—a state with a 30 percent Latino population—to address the root causes of our immigration crisis. They predictably criticized the worst Trump administration immigration policies, such as families separated at the border and chronic uncertainty for undocumented people in the U.S., many of whom arrived decades ago as children. How we treat people at or inside our border certainly deserves attention, but we cannot ignore that many people come to the United States in the first place because our foreign policies—by both Democrats and Republicans—force them to leave their homes in Latin America and elsewhere.

Concannon is, of course, correct. And how can a politician be honest about addressing migration if they can’t be honest about their country’s role in stoking the migration in the first place? Still, Concannon writes what few politicians are willing to say out loud: that US foreign policy is part of the problem and is not a partisan issue.

This was on full display at the last Democratic primary debate, held in South Carolina. The six candidates not named Bernie Sanders all took aim at the front runner of the Democratic primary campaign. Former Vice President Joe Biden, former New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg, and former South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg all laid into Sanders for his acknowledgment that Fidel Castro implemented literacy programs in Cuba after the revolution that toppled the US-backed Batista dictatorship in 1959.

Putting aside the fact that these candidates opted to perpetuate right wing red-baiting tactics used against progressives (and even moderate Democrats!) for decades, and that Sanders’ comments echoed those previously made by President Obama, the attack revealed something deeper about the candidates on the debate stage.

Pundits often credit Sanders’ appeal with his consistent track record of advocating for progressive policies. Most voters, poll after poll shows, consider Sanders to be an honest politician, even if they don’t agree with all of his policies. But honesty isn’t just a campaign attribute, it is a necessity in accurately diagnosing problems and coming up with solutions. And nowhere is that clearer than with the issue of immigration.

“Excuse me,” Sanders said amid the debate-stage attacks, “occasionally it might be a good idea to be honest about American foreign policy.” That includes, he continued, “the fact that America has overthrown governments all over the world in Chile, in Guatemala, in Iran.” The list goes on.

Mayor Buttigieg responded by saying these coups of the distant past were irrelevant. “This is not about what coups were happening in the 1970s or ’80s,” he said. “This is about the future. This is about 2020.”

Here’s a really crazy idea: maybe being honest about what happened in the 70s and 80s will help you understand the future. Sanders could have – and should have – noted that US support for violent coups is not constrained to ancient history. As Concannon writes:

The U.S. displaces its neighbors by displacing their governments. The Obama administration supported the 2009 coup d’état against Honduras’ elected President Manuel Zelaya by U.S.-trained generals. The Obama and then the Trump administrations supported repressive and corrupt governments that followed Zelaya’s ouster, giving a green light to assassinations of dissidents and journalists, government-linked drug trafficking, and spiraling crime. This repression continues to drive tens of thousands to seek asylum in the U.S. each year, regardless of the legal obstacles we erect. More recently, the Trump administration supported last November’s military coup d’état in Bolivia—with little opposition from Democrats—deepening that country’s political crisis.

While others on the debate stage pandered to South Florida, Sanders did what he has done throughout his career: he made an honest statement that most politicians are too scared to say in public. That honesty is one of the many reasons Sanders is leading the field in the Democratic primary. But that honesty will also be a precondition for any leader serious about addressing the roots causes of migration. And it might help explain why, in Nevada at least, Sanders received more than 50 percent of the Latino vote.

This column first appeared on the CEPR blog.

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Jake Johnston is a Research Associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington, DC.

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