Monday, 29 February 2016

If you are choosing between two great candidates, choose the Democrat. Or: How I stopped worrying and learned to love Hillary Clinton

This is the Hillary Clinton endorsement that I was never sure I’d write.  Getting myself to the point where I was certain enough of my vote to be able to write it has been the most complex and, frankly, emotional political journey that I’ve even been on. And, I suppose, in a real sense, we are only at the beginning of that journey – paddling though the last stretch of calm waters and catching our first glimpse of the waters ahead.

Now, this essay will only be relevant to those of you who are convinced progressives. If you are a wavering general election voter, looking to be convinced that the Progressive vision of America must be our future, then look away now – but come back later, I will have much more to say to you in the run-up to November. (I’m looking at you, Dad.)

So, fellow progressives, now that we’re among friends… let’s talk. It’s been a roller coaster the last 7 and a bit years, hasn’t it? On the one hand, if you’re anything like me, you wake up every morning a little bit grateful that Barack Obama is in the White House, but your heart sinks every time you turn to the news and see how they treat him. If you’re anything like me, you thank your lucky stars that we managed to do so much (a pretty effective stimulus package… intergalactic leaps in LGBT rights… health care reform! Hosannah in the highest, the first comprehensive health care reform package anyone’s been able to deliver in the 100+ years that we’ve been trying!) before Congress was taken over by a cavalcade of outrage merchants who hate the government they serve in. (Selfloathing, thy name is Tea Party.)

And now, you look at the unseemly freak show that is the Republican primary, and wonder when someone is going to shout April Fools and admit that it’s all an elaborate and, frankly, tasteless practical joke. President Donald Trump. No. It can. Not. Happen. Apparently, it falls to us not only to save the nation from this angry-without-a-cause mob, but actually to save them from the consequences of their own actions. So be it. It won’t be the first time life was unfair to progressives.

OK, enough background. We know what the stakes are, and we know that they are vast.

We also know that failure is not an option, except that it is. Losing is inconceivable, but plausible.

On the Democratic side, we are divided. Divided on substance. Divided on a sincere and well-considered difference of opinion that is not at all easy to resolve, and that I find splits my own convictions down the middle. On the one hand, Hillary Clinton and her supporters are arguing for a politics of pragmatism. They suggest, and not without foundation, that holding on to the considerable gains progressives have made recently is already a form of victory. They say that safety is radicalism here, because we are about to see the tipping of the Supreme Court, the locking in of health care reform, and demographic trends favour our case for immigration reform. They stipulate that we are in an era of political gridlock, and they promise to do everything in their power to 1) hold the line and 2) make incremental advances where we can. I find that to be a compelling analysis, and thus a fairly appealing promise.

On the other hand, Bernie Sanders and his supporters say that the problems of this country go beyond what we have yet begun to solve. They point out – rightly – that to our shame, economic inequality is becoming crippling, that the richest are getting richer, and the middle class is being squeezed out of existence. They argue that we need a bolder politics, a genuine revolution that can begin to reverse these trends, and they further argue that there are entrenched interests even within our own party system that must be combatted if we are going to make progress. I also find that to be a compelling analysis, and at least an INTRIGUING promise.

If we combine these two analyses (because they CAN be combined), we arrive at vision in which much change is needed, but very little change is possible. In which gridlock is inevitable, but devastating.

I’ve spent months wrestling with this choice of candidate, and in the course of that consideration the big surprise to me has been how much I have come to like and admire Bernie Sanders as a person. I fully expected in the course of this race to find that he was a bit kooky, a bit unserious, a bit starry eyed. He’s none of those things. In fact, he’s got an amazing record for being right about things progressives care about long before America comes around to our point of view. He’s been right on civil rights and segregation, he was right on LGBT rights (watch this amazing video of him standing up for LGBT soldiers back in 1995), he was right about the war in Iraq. He’s never compromised his principles, and bless him for that.

But here’s the thing... Bernie’s not saying that you should vote for him for President because he’s been pure in his ideals through all or his career. He’s arguing you should vote for him for President because he is in the best position to lead a movement that will fundamentally change the nature of politics and economics in this country. And he needs to do that in a world where it is not conceivable that any Republican or right-leaning public official of any kind will cooperate in any way with any efforts in this direction that any progressive might make.

Here in the UK, we have recent experience of what happens when the Left throws it’s support to an ideologically unimpeachable maverick. Jeremy Corbyn, the new leader of the Labour Party, is a lifelong rebel against the compromising instincts of his own party, a perfectly uncompromised and consistent man who has always been well liked by his party and whom even his opponents agree is a man of integrity and principle. He’s also led Labour so far from the possibility of being elected that the Conservative government has decided it is fully inconstrained. Jeremy Corbyn promised that he could leverage his Party leadership into a transformation of this small-c conservative country into the Socialist utopia of Labour’s dreams. There is evidence that instead of his promised political revolution, he has secured an unbreakable Tory majority for the foreseeable future.

It’s a cautionary tale, and reinforces my belief that there is no secret path to peaceful revolution laying behind the door marked, “Authenticity of the Left”.

So, let’s leave aside for the moment the question whether a political revolution is even possible. Let’s talk first about business as usual – What will it take for the next President to do the job of President?

Well, it will take ruthless Party discipline, for a start.

But Bernie Sanders is not even a member of the Party he seeks to lead. His purity of principle, which I admire, prevented him from joining the compromised, imperfect Democratic Party. As a self-described democratic socialist, he was the only socialist in Congress. 26 years after he became the first, he is still the only socialist in Congress. Put bluntly, that doesn’t sound like a record of creating transformative progressive political movements.

Does Hillary Clinton have a record of leading progressive movements? Well, she has a record of leadership, for sure. In the Senate, in the White House as First Lady, and as a powerful Secretary of State – everywhere she’s gone, she seems to have accrued to herself a roster of highly loyal, highly capable people.

I don’t think she’s the right person to lead a political revolution. I don’t think SHE thinks she’s the right person to run a political revolution.

But she’s a great person to lead Democrats.

Look, I’m a member of this Party. I’m a proud member of this party, even on the days when this party does not make me proud. I was a member of this Party even when many of its members were to the right of me on LGBT rights, even when its leaders voted for a war I thought was a terrible mistake, because I believe that creating a coalition of people with enough shared values to work together for the general interest is how political change happens. I do not believe it happens overnight, I do not believe it happens simply or easily. And I really, really, don’t believe it happens by transitioning the one and only avowedly socialist member of government directly into the White House.

Hillary Clinton also believes that political change happens through hard work, and within the coalition of the Democratic Party. And she’s been in the dirt negotiating towards that change for decades.

On a personal level, I always say that when I vote for President I want to vote for someone who is better than me. Smarter than me, tougher than me, with better judgement than me. One way in which I know Hillary Clinton is a better person than I am is how insanely relentlessly she perseveres. I’ve watched her over the years work with Republican Senators who called her insulting names during her husband’s impeachment. I watched her go to work with the man who beat her in the 2008 Primary, I’ve watched her go back and face the same electorate again. She’s not a natural politician – she’s said so herself.

So why is she doing it? Why face so much punishment and loss of dignity? I think that if you apply Occam’s razor, the simplest explanation is her own: she says she has always felt called to service. She says she’s been fighting for a vision of a better, fairer America since she was a young woman at Wellesley. Her path to that America hasn’t always matched up step by step with the path I would have taken. But I am entirely aligned with her about the mode of transport (if you’ll forgive the analogy…) – change within, and THROUGH the institution of the Democratic Party. Being in the room when hard decisions are being made within a coalition is important. Some of the most powerful changes that can be made in politics happen at the local, state and national party level, when activists show up to canvass and call, but call out their leaders for not being good enough on the issues they care about. When activists and make things tough for the Party leaders until those leaders finally GET that they have to take these activists concerns seriously. Hillary’s been in those rooms for longer than I’ve been alive, and she’s been on both sides – she’s been the activist fighting for feminism, and children’s rights, and reform. And she’s been the party leader, listening and adapting. I respect that process. We need more of it.  
Bernie Sanders has clean hands, the utmost integrity, and no credible way to deliver what he promises.

My vote for Hillary Clinton is a vote of respect for her personally. But it’s also a vote of confidence in the Democratic Party – in the ideas of the Democratic Party, but also the idea of the Democratic Party. Under all circumstances, the next President must be a Democrat. My preference is that the next President has always been a Democrat.