Election 2016

Berned Out? Don’t Mourn—Organize

The Sanders campaign is over, and we are left with the centrist Democrat as the only option to save the country from a rabid Republican.

NEW YORK CITY - MARCH 31 2016: Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders appeared before thousands of supporters at St Mary's Park, The Bronx
Photo Credit: a katz / Shutterstock.com

Backers of Bernie Sanders are angry over his decision to endorse Hillary Clinton, a rival he spent more than a year critiquing and challenging, distinguishing his positions from hers. 

I get it. There is a deep sense of betrayal for a faction of the American left who had probably given up on the U.S. political system, only to find inspiration in the progressive values of a white-haired senator from Vermont. 

I admit I got caught up in the fervor for a while, especially during his short-lived string of primary election victories, when the possibility of his nomination felt real—before it all started to fall apart.

This election year began in an unexpected and historic way. Never before in recent memory had a candidate been able to run so far to the left of the centrist Democrat and garner such a high level of enthusiasm. It should have been a telling moment for all elected officials about the political views of a large chunk of American voters who feel disengaged from the political process. 

We can blame our terribly designed primary election systems, or the media bias against progressive values and candidates, or the fact that some progressive voting blocs simply didn’t “Feel the Bern,” despite sharing his values. Regardless of what combination of factors led to Sanders’ losing the delegate count, the fact is that deal is done: The Sanders campaign is over, and we are left with the centrist Democrat as the only option to save the country from a rabid Republican. 

In other words, we are back to square one. That which was unpredictable has become foreseeable.

Most “Berners” are disappointed by this turn of events—and the feeling is justified. But we must remember that in the political arena, pledging allegiance to any candidate is doomed from the start, especially for voters who want political change. Taking such an approach will almost always leave people with inevitable disappointment, for all candidates are flawed human beings with personal aspirations and failings, who draw their own lines in the sand. 

Despite all of Sanders’ rhetoric about not letting the momentum of his “political revolution” stagnate, the only basis for his exhortation that “we must elect the Democratic nominee in November” is that he has extracted some promises from Clinton to be a better progressive. She has been dragged kicking and screaming leftward, and now we are to believe that she will keep her campaign promises. 

Just as Obama did.

In Sanders’ endorsement of Clinton, he made a political calculation to extract as much leftward movement from Clinton as he felt he could, and then paid his price with an endorsement. That was his right—even if he may be proved wrong.

Now voters get to exercise their right to vote for the candidate who they feel best matches their values. Those who choose Clinton are settling for second-best, and Clinton knows it. She is nearly as unpopular as Donald Trump (and, according to a new poll, is losing to him in three swing states). 

In endorsing Clinton, Sanders may be hoping he can transfer his backers to Clinton—like a corporation that has grabbed as much market share from a rival company as possible before merging with it when the wealthier one offers a buyout. 

But voters are not market share. And both Sanders and Clinton may be surprised if the specter of a Trump presidency is not enough to scare all left-of-center voters into picking Clinton. 

So what is left to happen between now and November? Trump’s disastrousness is Clinton’s biggest asset. We are trapped in a flawed electoral college system, where small numbers of voters in small numbers of swing states decide the outcome on Election Day. If enough people decide to follow their conscience and refuse to vote for Clinton, the Democrat’s loss will be no one’s fault but her own. And perhaps the next Democratic nominee will realize that voters are in charge, not political parties, and conclude that emotional blackmail as a tactic to win elections will not work anymore.

In our current system, elites have grasped the political calculus. They have gamed the system, and we are on the losing end. 

Those Sanders backers who cannot bring themselves to vote for Clinton—and who can blame them?—will either abstain or vote for a third-party candidate like Jill Stein.

But rather than trying to find a new messiah to vote into office, imagine if presidential elections were focused on issues rather than people. Instead of a ballot with names on it, we would have multiple-choice questions that looked something like this: 

  1. What sort of health-care system would you like to see?
    • a. Single-payer or Medicare for all
    • b. Affordable Care Act (aka Obamacare)
    • c. The status quo, i.e., semi-regulated private health insurance companies
  2. What sort of public funding should there be for higher education?
    • a. All higher education should be free
    • b. Students should simply take out loans if they cannot afford college
    • c. The status quo, i.e., a combination of government funding and private loan companies
  3. What should our criminal justice system and prison industry look like?
    • a. Reduce the prison population, decriminalize drug offenses and shut down private prisons
    • b. Privatize all prisons and continue our current levels of incarceration
    • c. The status quo, i.e., a combination of private and public prisons, and continue our current levels of incarceration

You get the picture. The answers that win majority votes would set the agenda for the country and offer a binding set of tasks for a public servant willing to take them forward. 

Of course, we cannot run elections in this hypothetical and unrealistic way. And we should not even try, given that majorities can trounce the rights of minorities. But we should think about our elections in this way and imagine the president not as a leader whom we follow but as a paid public servant who does our bidding. 

Perhaps, then, candidates might flock toward the political positions that voters demand of them. Instead, every four years, we find ourselves pasting bumper stickers on our cars in support of our favorite personality, only to scrape them off in frustration years or months later. It is an experiment with repeatable results.  

What if we metaphorically replaced “Feel the Bern” bumper stickers with issue-oriented messages like “#Black Lives Matter,” “Abortion Is a Constitutional Right,” “End War,” “Free Palestine,” etc.? Elections are one aspect of our political system, and voting on Election Day is the barest minimum we should expect of ourselves. 

Vote Clinton, vote Stein, or vote not at all. That is your right. 

But fighting to uphold our values is a lifetime commitment and requires year-round work. If we want Bernie Sanders’ stated goals and values to be realized, we have to work hard to manifest them. 

Sanders will work to make Sanders’ dreams come true. We have to work to make ours come true, and that can ultimately, albeit slowly, be achieved through political activism and organizing. 

It is our only hope.

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Sonali Kolhatkar is co-director of the Afghan Women's Mission. She is also the host and producer of Uprising Radio, a daily morning radio program at KPFK, Pacifica in Los Angeles.