As an American leftist, and as a supporter of Senator Bernie Sanders, I spend an unhealthy portion of my life arguing with moderate Democratic voters. I say this without shame or apology — I feel to the core of my being that the status-quo has failed, and that radical change is needed.
This could, on a different day, be another essay in my corpus of radical criticisms. Such work is important, and frankly, making moderates uncomfortable is central to the work leftists do. But tonight, as we recover from a war scare, and enjoy the rising likelihood that Bernie will win the nomination, I am choosing to pen an olive branch.
This is a letter to my grandparents, who were Democrats back when Texas was blue, and who are Biden supporters today. This is a letter to all the grandparents of upstart leftists who cannot understand the rage we feel. This is an open letter to moderate voters — to Democrats who are well intentioned and acting in good faith. All I ask is that you take my arguments seriously, and allow yourself to be made uncomfortable by the questions they raise.
When I was in elementary school, I remember watching a classmate’s presentation on climate change. They built a lego model of a coastal town and showed the disastrous results of sea level rise by pouring water over it. That same year, my Lego Robotics team was challenged to construct a (miniature) automated rescue vehicle, whose tasks included raising a levy and rescuing flood victims. One of the hardest lessons of my childhood was learning that we children took climate change more seriously than the adults.
While children were confronting their future, politicians were protecting the past. Oil, gas, and coal markets grew throughout most of my childhood. To this day, my home town is powered by an archaic, disgusting coal plant that spews carbon into the atmosphere. It’s not as if the science was unclear — we’ve known the dangers of climate change since 1912, and the reality since 1970. And yet, politicians did virtually nothing to stop it.
Bush fought a war to keep drilling. Obama pushed for “clean coal” and “all of the above” energy strategies which flew in the face of the science. Hillary Clinton supported fracking globally.
It’s not that moderates didn’t try to stop climate change — it’s that they failed. Take Bill Clinton’s Kyoto Protocols for example. They were humanity’s first chance to curb carbon emissions. They fell flat on their face. In spite of successful negotiations internationally, Clinton was kneecapped by Congress and the protocols died. More recently, Obama’s Paris Agreement (insufficient as it was) was immediately scrapped by Trump.
Now, I know the moderate answer to these failures: “Clinton is not responsible for congress’s actions, and Obama did everything he could to stop Trump.”
Even if we take those statements as fact, it does not explain why they lost. There is no divinely ordained rule that prevents moderate Dems from winning these battles — and yet they lose, time and time again.
This is why some leftists believe there is a conspiracy in the democratic party to lose on purpose. It’s not difficult to see those failures as intentional capitulations to the wealthy, or at the very least, insufficiently zealous campaigns for the rest.
But let us take for granted that Bill Clinton, Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, and Barack Obama had the best of intentions and fought as hard as they could. The fact remains that their strategies failed. Republicans took advantage of high-minded moderate civility politics and used it to defeat hundreds of liberal and leftist campaigns. The stark contrast between Obama’s and McConnell’s treatment of the judiciary bears this out — abortion rights across America are threatened because Obama capitulated on Merrick Garland where McConnell cheated to win.
It may well be that, in a better world, we would want an Obama-like dedication to civility in our highest offices. It certainly has an aesthetic appeal. But this is not a better world. We are in a street fight for our democracy. We have been for decades. Only a mass movement which confronts institutions and roots out Trumpism at every level can win that fight. Only Bernie Sanders has a campaign, vision, and strategy which is built around that mass movement.
True as the above may be, this isn’t about the facts. Not at its core, at least. This is about a fundamental difference in worldview.
I don’t think it is unfair to say that moderate Democrats view the Obama years as a slow, but steady march towards progress. They imagined that Clinton would carry that forward, and that, in a century or two, we might finally defeat poverty, cruelty, and suffering. Even in the aftermath of Trump, the relative stability of the Obama years makes moderates believe things would be better if that status-quo were reborn.
Leftists have no such belief.
To us, the Obama years were defined not by progress, but by a failure to respond to the financial crisis and address the pains of our generation. Our student loans are mounting, our climate is becoming hostile, and our quality of life is decreasing. We are the first generation in the history of America which is likely to live shorter lives than our parents. This was all true under Obama.
In essence, the difference between us is that moderates fear destroying the status quo, while leftists fear continuing it. This reminds me of something Mark Twain once wrote about the French Revolution:
THERE were two “Reigns of Terror,” if we would but remember it and consider it; the one wrought murder in hot passion, the other in heartless cold blood; the one lasted mere months, the other had lasted a thousand years; the one inflicted death upon ten thousand persons, the other upon a hundred millions; but our shudders are all for the “horrors” of the minor Terror, the momentary Terror, so to speak; whereas, what is the horror of swift death by the axe, compared with lifelong death from hunger, cold, insult, cruelty, and heart-break? What is swift death by lightning compared with death by slow fire at the stake? A city cemetery could contain the coffins filled by that brief Terror which we have all been so diligently taught to shiver at and mourn over; but all France could hardly contain the coffins filled by that older and real Terror — that unspeakably bitter and awful Terror which none of us has been taught to see in its vastness or pity as it deserves.
Today, in this America, millions are suffering the daily terrors of the status quo. They were suffering under Obama as well. Wages have stagnated while prices and productivity continue to rise. People are dying of curable diseases and homelessness in the wealthiest country in history. While the Obamas enjoy their new estate, 11 million American children are underfed. This is the daily terror we endure — a daily terror which ignites every fibre of my being with indignant rage.
I know that you (moderates) fear an end to the status quo. Fear is the defining factor of times like these. We aren’t asking you to endorse every radical whim of your teenage neighbors — rather we ask you to understand that we do not want to vote for a reset button. The way things were was suffocating us.
We’re asking you to understand that we want freedom, real freedom, and that we’re willing to take risks to get it. Not because we’re reckless, but because we were given a world where the choices are either to take a leap of faith, or to drown in the status quo.
Ultimately, the title of this piece is a misnomer. As you may have noticed, I hardly mentioned Bernie at all. That’s because this isn’t about him — it’s about his politics. It’s about confronting the political system which failed to stop Trump, which failed to stop climate change, which cannot build us a better future, which gave us Biden and Buttigieg, and replacing it with the politics of mass movement. Bernie Sanders doesn’t just have the best policy and the best chance of defeating Trumpism — he also gives the most power back to the people.
If you find none of my other arguments convincing, at least consider this: the age-gap between Bernie and Biden supporters could not be more stark. Nearly 60% of voters under 30 support Sanders. Only 22% of voters over 65 do.
Whichever candidate is chosen will have immeasurably wide-ranging consequences for the human race. Our ability to stop climate change, build a new economy, and thwart the rise of fascism depends on the choices we make in the next six months.
Please, let us choose our future before we are extinguished by the past.