Bernie Sanders and the troubles with ‘politics as usual’

This tweet from Harry Enten at FiveThirtyEight yesterday was a shot of vinegar:

So among the 18-29 set, Bernie Sanders is polling at 74 percent, while Hillary Clinton is pulling in 14 percent.

Meanwhile up at 65 and older, Clinton is at 61 percent, while Sanders is at 28 percent.

The numbers are slightly more even in between, with the 30-44 set preferring Clinton, and the 45-64 set going with Sanders. Hmm.

There’s been some comparison of Sanders to 1972 presidential candidate George McGovern, though at the time the South Dakota senator was 50 and ran on a primarily anti-war platform (he was shouting about Vietnam). Sanders is 74 and running primarily on a class inequality platform.

But to many, McGovern’s oratory offered an antidote to the “politics as usual” ideology championed by the man who eventually defeated him, Richard Nixon. Many recall how that sunk a few years later.

“Politics as usual” is tolerated when there’s money, when America isn’t at eternal war, when national power isn’t questioned. In 1972 McGovern was, oddly, a couple years too early. Sure blacks were being abused and destroyed, and cities were falling apart, and soldiers were dying in the paddy fields of Vietnam, but Nixon corrupted our trust, damnit!

Well here we are, 2016. Blacks are still being abused and destroyed (not to mention every other label not considered “white male”). Cities are falling apart. Soldiers are … well, they’ve been in the Middle East a little too long now.

Republican voters have apparently conflated all of this with President Obama, who has fared relatively well as Leader of the Free World but, you know, is black, or could’ve been born in Africa, or is a socialist, or is a liar … whatever the hell they say, and so Donald Trump and Ted Cruz are leading the pack over in the GOP. They’ll certainly kill your idea of “politics as usual.”

And over in the Democratic Party, nothing says “politics as usual” in 2016 more than a Clinton. There’s big corporate money, a run as secretary of state, and strong responsibility for America’s sickly and bloated carceral state, more eloquently put by Ta-Nehisi Coates in a deep dive into what Sanders seems to believe, what Sanders isn’t saying, and how it all adds up.

This is the nut graf, essentially:

One does not find anything as damaging as the carceral state in the Sanders platform, but the dissonance between name and action is the same. Sanders’s basic approach is to ameliorate the effects of racism through broad, mostly class-based policies—doubling the minimum wage, offering single-payer health-care, delivering free higher education. This is the same “A rising tide lifts all boats” thinking that has dominated Democratic anti-racist policy for a generation. Sanders proposes to intensify this approach. But Sanders’s actual approach is really no different than President Obama’s. I have repeatedly stated my problem with the “rising tide” philosophy when embraced by Obama and liberals in general. (See here, here, here, and here.) Again, briefly, treating a racist injury solely with class-based remedies is like treating a gun-shot wound solely with bandages. The bandages help, but they will not suffice.

Responses from Sanders’ supporters has, at worst, attacked Coates’ – and his employer the Atlantic’s – journalistic integrity and, at best, have attempted to engage him on a discussion about what it means to support reparations for a group of people who for hundreds of years have been treated as subservient to another group in a country that makes people believe all are created equal.

Editorializing aside, if I could stupidly boil this all down to one point, it’s that Sanders’ supporters seem worried that this straight-talking socialist senator from Vermont could actually be, you know, a politician.

Just like Clinton, and the other Clinton, and Obama, and Nixon, and McGovern, and Rubio, and Christie, and Cruz and, God help me, Trump. They’re all politicians. They’re figures that parade around promoting change and hope and reform and restoration and whatever else their speechwriters concoct, and guess what, they do a little bit of work in the time they have the office. If they’re good, the work is progressive and points toward a better future for all people, not just a sect, not just a race, not just a class, not just a group – and not just for Americans, by the way – but for all people.

A few people have smartly pointed out a small portion of Coates’ piece:

So “divisive” was Abraham Lincoln’s embrace of abolition that it got him shot in the head. So “divisive” was Lyndon Johnson’s embrace of civil rights that it fractured the Democratic Party. So “divisive” was Ulysses S. Grant’s defense of black civil rights and war upon the Klan, that American historians spent the better part of a century destroying his reputation. So “divisive” was Martin Luther King Jr. that his own government bugged him, harassed him, and demonized him until he was dead. And now, in our time, politicians tout their proximity to that same King, and dismiss the completion of his work—the full pursuit of equality—as “divisive.” The point is not that reparations is not divisive. The point is that anti-racism is always divisive. A left radicalism that makes Clintonism its standard for anti-racism—fully knowing it could never do such a thing in the realm of labor, for instance—has embraced evasion.

Notice how Coates says “embrace” and “defense” when discussing politicians Lincoln, Johnson and Grant. These three were progressive souls, wanting to inch their America to one that accepts all people and gives them the same opportunity, regardless of anything.

And notice how when discussing King, Coates drops the objective language. It was King who was divisive. Sanders, says Coates, is not going to be divisive. Maybe his “embrace” or “defense” will be divisive, but Sanders will not ever by himself be divisive.

Millennials, as we saw at the top of this piece, love Sanders. I support a healthy amount of his rhetoric, but I know he’s not the change agent. He can be a helping hand, but he won’t insert that hand into centuries-old muck and attempt to pull out the answers to a history of inequality. Reparations shows that. If Sanders fully supported reparations he’d lose plenty of steam and, probably, any opportunity to be president in January 2017. So Sanders isn’t the Great Millennial Hope. That hope will be the woman or man – or women or men – who don’t give a cent about running for office, who won’t negotiate their beliefs for support from a larger governing body.

But Sanders isn’t the worst choice. Just remember that he is politics as usual.