Biden vs. Sanders, an exchange with my son-in-law

(The following is an email exchange between me and my son-in-law about our differences in the California Democratic Primary. We both found this exchange revealing and very helpful. We plan to continue this conversation.)

March 1, 2020

Brendan,

I am writing this note now to get it to you in time for California Primary vote. I have been working on a message about Bernie for a week or so, but with too many pauses for treatment to finish. It is a complicated issue and that has been difficult to write about, so I am afraid this attempt may not be the clearest. But, hopefully, this will be better than nothing. I know there a many unknowns and gaps in the information anyone would need vote wisely, so if we end up differing, you may well be on the right side. So just read this as part of your analysis and use it only as you think appropriate. We can look forward to continuing this discussion in the future.

To start with Bernie: I must say that I think I know him pretty well. We are close in age, a product of the sixties and even fifties, and a part of the movement back then. Bernie adopted a class struggle approach to politics that has remained his bedrock world view since then. As you know, for complicated reasons that I will tell you about in the longer piece I am writing on Bernie, I took a different turn and replaced Bernie’s class struggle world view with democracy. So, when it comes down to it, my basic problem with Bernie is the very uneasy combination in his thinking of the ideas of democracy and socialism, his democratic socialism. Unraveling the problem with this combination is the hard part for me since it has so many sides that I have yet to explain effectively.

But the issues were in plain sight and can be described to start just by comparing the Biden and Sanders speeches the night of the SC primary. If you haven’t seen the videos of the Clyburn endorsement of Biden and the Clyburn introduction of Biden and Biden’s victory speech, and Sander’s speech the same night, please try to watch them. They pretty much contain the differences I am talking about and trying to explain. Clyburn’s endorsement and intro are some of the best testaments to democratic and Christian values that I have ever heard.

Here are the differences that I see. Biden and Clyburn are talking about restoring the good in our nation, the deep basic goodness –Clyburn even quoting De Tocqueville– of the historic American democratic culture. It is a message of democratic inclusiveness built on the character of the American people from all walks of life and all communities. Biden highlights the remarkable power of the forgiveness and the grace of the survivors of the Emanuel AME Church shooting in Charlestown to transform the city. The same church where he and his family found solace and rebirth after the death their son. In a way this is a conservative message, calling for the restoration of values that Trump is devastating. And, in a way, it is a liberal call for a fulfillment of our nation’s long commitment to caring for all. So, overall, the Biden/Clyburn strategy of restoring and uniting all Americans around our deep democratic culture, using American goodness to defeat Trump and to transform the nation. This is a message that has broad appeal across all sectors of the nation. It seems to me to be the strongest and best strategy to defeat Trump. It is also the appeal to unity that fits perfectly with all the rights movements which are not class based: the women’s and me-too movements, Latino rights, LGBT rights. Bernie has now staffed up to appeal to these groups, but this has been secondary to his working class strategy that has really been the center of his life for 50 years.

And, I can’t help but note that the leadership for this message is coming from elder black American’s who are steeped in the history of struggle and have made a study of how to change the world from the perspective of those left out. It comes from the most sophisticated of our citizens who have been engaged in this struggle for so long. It is exactly the same message that Elijah Cummings had for the nation and would have if he were still alive. I am worried for our nation when we lose the wisdom of these aging elders.

There is a reason that Bernie did not get the support of these elders and their communities in South Carolina. And there is a reason he did not get the Black vote in Nevada. Bernie talks mostly about building a work class movement as the solution to our problems. Because he believes this, he has never prioritized the building of the ties and done the work to impress these elders. Biden has done that work throughout his life.

So, let’s look at Bernie’s speech on the night of the SC Primary to see it compares. His basic message is still the need to build a working class movement to take back the country from powerful corporations and the wealthy. He believes that the way to build this working class movement is to offer a platform that can excite people and get them to turn out for the upcoming election. He actually calls on all his young supporters to reach out to the working class and get them involved. (Reminds me exactly of Helen’s and my efforts to join the working class and build the movement back in the day.) Bernie also talks about engaging young people and much of his platform focuses on their specific needs. Under 35 is his base and he appeals to that base with bold policies to address their needs and the needs of the working class. This is not a call for a broad unity based on more universal democratic values, values that can, I believe, speak in a different way and more effective way to economic class issues. Bernie’s class struggle worldview tends to say that your class determines your view, so this is a battle of working class vs ruling class. How many middle class people will wonder if they are part of the target, especially as Trump makes this point over and over again, as he will?

So, I guess my basic argument is that our democratic culture and it values are a stronger and a deeper force to appeal to than Bernie’s working class movement. I think that is why our most sophisticated voters, black voters who understand this are behind Biden. That is exactly what they said in South Carolina.

Bernie said something else important and very telling in his speech. He talked for some time about how the establishment was now getting very worried about his campaign, including the Democratic Party establishment. If the Democratic party establishment is getting worried, then he is saying they are a part of, or bought off by, the wealthy. Wow, that is not the way to build the unity we will need. He is basically saying that the loss in South Carolina is the result of the black community being somehow corrupted by the ruling class. He repeats this kind of charge every time he criticizes all the other candidates who have accepted contributions from billionaires despite the $2,800 dollar contribution limit. He seems like he is going to be willing to risk party unity to build his movement and rely on his ability to build a stronger working class movement to replace the current party leaders. No wonder all the down state candidates are worried.

Maybe I should just stop there and see what you think, because, despite the value of the above, things are actually more complicated than that. Yes, I do think that the democratic party establishment has lost touch with the needs of working people. The party has become a party of elite political and policy experts developing policy in Washington that inevitably ends up serving, if unintentionally, the needs of the intellectual and professional class, not average people. This class of politicians and experts believe that their success will allow them to serve the working class better, but it hasn’t really. Too many communities have been left behind and feel left out. This feeling of being left behind goes beyond economics to include communites that feel a cultural alienation and that don’t see their values reflected in the commercial and individualistic dominant culture of our nation, like our Evangelicals.

So, you might wonder why Bernie doesn’t appeal to me because I am also anti-establishment. There are two reasons: first, because Bernie’s strategy seems to me to be less capable of defeating Trump –it would be better to build on the strong unity of our democratic values than on a weaker working class strategy.  And, second, because I think it will be easier to undermine the current democratic party establishment by building on democratic values that Biden promotes. The critique we can use to change the party leadership is build right into our democratic values. In other words, a lot of the real reform we need will be easier with a Biden victory based on democratic values than a Bernie victory based on the values of a working class movement.

To explain that I will have to get even more complicated. The fact is that Bernie’s working class world view never really did fit easily with a democratic world view. Bernie also, like most leaders of class struggle, has an elitist streak. He is not afraid to develope the policies that the workers need and take them to the workers. He is not really allowing policies on all kinds of issues, cultural and economic, to come from the bottom up as they would in a democracy. And all movements, including Bernie’s working class movement, as well as all of our partisan struggles, require organization and discipline that don’t really fit well with democracy. Do you think Bernie when in power will do anything but mobilize his movement to try to get things done? He will not be good at building partnerships or providing opportunities for reaching out to incorporate ideas from outside his movement. Movements succeed with discipline and with a win/lose attitude towards opponents. So, I don’t see much chance for him to succeed in implementing his plans and certainly not much chance to build on democratic values that require decentralization and citizens themselves meeting to find common ground that are all necessary for democracy to work. Obama made the same mistake when he turned his broad election apparatus into a support organization for his agenda. It died out. I suspect that Bernie will try to replace the current elitist establishment of the party with his own “progressive” establishment and it will not be any less elitist and maybe more challenging to our basic values of democracy than Biden’s and the Black leaders’ pledge to maintain and build our democratic values of justice and inclusion.

Now my final complication: Bernie’s socialism. Let’s start with some definitions.

Communism: state ownership of the means of production, maximum state power, led by a party holding all power until the working class can be mature enough to let the state die out. This never happens, and the party becomes a dictatorship until overthrown; China, North Korea, Soviet Union. This is not Bernie; he condemns authoritarianism, mostly, but sees some value in things it can accomplish.

Democratic socialism: this is harder to pin down since it varies a lot in terms of the role of the state in controlling the means of production. The range can cover nations with relatively week states and a dominant private sector controlling of the means of production. This is more like us in the U.S., maybe better called democratic capitalism. Then there is the democratic socialism with stronger state control that includes the social democratic states of Europe with the best examples in Germany and the Scandinavian nations, and our beloved Denmark that we visited together. These states thrive on strong state control of private production. And they have, or used to have, a stronger democratic culture that restricts inequality, which is very different from the culture that our elitists have used to undermine democracy with their worship of talent and expertise in a meritocracy.

With all this said, the problem with Bernie is that he is really unclear about how much power his state would need to implement of all of his programs. He does not talk about the need to decentralize and devolve power that a democracy requires, things that are required to prevent the development of a new and powerful state elite. I think this is just another by product of his central class struggle world view. He just believes that winning the class struggle battle will solve all of our problems, both economic and social. And that leaves him unprepared to resist the continuing weakening of democracy that would come from a new, or another, elitist state.

The fact is that the liberal and conservative terms as we use them don’t really adequately describe our world and our needs anymore. Liberal, in the US, has come to mean a strong state to control capitalism; conservative means strong private sector to control authoritarian states. Neither really talks about decentralization and democracy to control both the liberal and conservative tendency to the concentrate power and form elites.

And, finally, Bernie is threatening to undermine the effort to defeat Trump by talking about breaking his alliance to the Democratic Party. How far will he go to maintain his working class focus and risk a Trump reelection?  Could he actually risk losing because he sees only a difference in degree between Trump and the Democratic establishment that he believes is controlled by the wealthy? He denies this but doesn’t he sow doubt in the minds of his supporters every time he talks about the “establishments”. As a result, I am afraid too many of them may decide that they cannot vote for the “establishment” person who defeated their hero.

In summary, the best way to beat Trump and to set the stage for the deeper transformation we need, is to build on the deep tradition of American democratic values, not on class struggle. This means electing Biden and building on his democratic values to create functioning local democratic communities that can rebuild our democracy and replace our top-down meritocracy. Not as easy as voting for change, but proven to be more effective in communities like Charleston.

Love, Hank

_____________________________________________________________________________

March 1, 2020

Hank,

Just finished reading your message. And I can’t thank you enough for the intense time and thoughtfulness that went into it. It really is a privilege to be on the business end of this amount of care. I appreciate it massively. 

Everything you write makes heaps of sense. I hear your concerns about a Bernie administration’s ability to lead. And I had not considered the lack of bottom-up problems that he and Obama would and did face. I see many of your points clearly, but the only thing that doesn’t compute for me how you land on Biden.

My Bernie support back in 2016 came from the fact that, in my lifetime, there had never, ever, ever been a candidate whose rhetoric matched so exactly my beliefs. Maybe Dennis Kucinich. Maybe Paul Wellstone. But Obama, Clinton, the other Clinton, John Kerry, and even Al Gore were all so very neo-liberal, incrementalistic, wrong-headed (publicly) about no-brainer social issues like gay marriage and just out-and-out cautious, that the Democratic party quickly came to feel like the Party of No Ideas. It always seemed like Republicans acted like Republicans, and Democrats acted like Republicans, and no one was acting like us.

So, for my entire life, the two party system was a choice between the Party of Bad Ideas and the Party of No Ideas. Until Sanders came along and actually said things that contained ideas. Who said, in the 1980s, the heart wants what it wants. We all knew it was true, but he wasn’t cautious and obfuscating. He said what was true and he said what was just. That was game changing for me. It felt like I was dreaming. Suddenly, as his 2016 race took shape, this country felt like it had a place for me, for the first time in all of my then 41 years.

Kelly Anne Conway was on a talk show shortly after the election. She knew the audience was hostile towards her and she turned to them and said, “okay, name one thing Hillary Clinton believed in and stood for.” There was a silence from the audience. “See?” she said to the host. Awful as she is, she had a hell of a point in that moment. Hillary just said, “I’m qualified. Give me the job. If you want to know what I believe, sift through the whitepapers deep in my website.” Above all her strategy was: don’t be controversial. Just be qualified. But the problem is that doesn’t win elections anymore. On that same score, I can’t think of a policy stance Joe Biden has taken, besides his own experience. Seems like he too is going the non-bold, uncontroversial, focus-grouped-to-oblivion route.

And that way madness lies. 

One thing wins nationwide general elections: emotion. The DNC’s tired strategy of disenfranchising those most passionate, and nudging the rest towards getting enthusiastic about beige is exactly the wrong thing to do while we have a stadium insult comic in the White House.

My biggest complaint is that, left to its own devices, the Democratic Party always finds the most sophisticated and elegant way possible to lose. This time, it is by betting on centrism. Once again, like when Joe Lieberman intoned about “the loooord” throughout his VP announcement, and Tulsi Gabbard and Pete Buttigieg kept harping on how holy our blessed military is, the Democrats are trying to seem as Republican as possible. Because god forbid anyone around here have an idea. Joe Biden came out strong as a Centrist and planted his flag firmly wherever the Republicans had set the center that month. I’ve always loved the guy but it was that key early strategic blunder that just blew it with me. The New York Times headline writers do the same thing. Wherever the Republicans have placed the center that week, that’s where they report from. As a result, it has become crystal clear to me that the Democratic Party, especially those that have devoted their life to it, like perhaps allthe establishment endorsers of Biden’s campaign, are seeing nothing but trees while the forest is eating them alive. They are entrenched, they are ensconced and they are terrified, and the last thing they want to do is try anything different. They’d rather lose in a familiar way than win with ideas. They’ll still have their careers, and it’s easier to be the opposition.

But it’s time to actually lead. It’s time to have actual ideas. The way you move the needle is with a gigantic opening salvo. Medicare for All! Close all private prisons! Starting from there, we might actually get somewhere towards justice. But starting from “well, gee, it’s probably going to cost too much. Let’s just start from a pre-compromised position with the criminally-insane Republican Party and see if they’re willing to listen to reason.” The problem is that Republicans eat their young at this point, they only understand brute force. The way I see it, when wifi was invented, the world bent over backwards to get it installed everywhere. The same is true for these big ideas. When the spark is lit, humans find a way. The only costly thing is political will.

For me, the Democratic establishment, filled with people that don’t blink at $45 entrees, needs to be shaken out of their coma and shown in no uncertain terms that while they successfully disenfranchised Generation X out of needing ideas from their leaders, they will not do so with the Millenials and GenZ. I frankly thrill at the handwringing of the center, because finally it means the plutocracy-perpetuating institutions are nervous. 

And this feels like our only chance! No one is going to stay home in November, not with this guy in the White House. So we might as well get bold. If we don’t now, we never will. Now is the time to yank the country to the left after 4-5 decades of a systematic rightward lurch. No matter who the nominee is, the drumbeat will be loud and Trump will force even ambivalent people to the polls. The only way people would stay home is if Bernie gets all the delegates and then Tom Perez brokers the convention and gives it to Biden. That would be the end for all of us. If the superdelegates steal the election from Bernie (or Warren?) and hand it to Biden unfairly, I will unregister as a democrat and maybe never follow national politics again. 

I feel very passionately that it’s our duty in the primary to vote for the candidate with whom we agree the most, and not try to quarterback or estimate electability. To do otherwise would threaten to condone the entrenching of elites. If Joe Biden is our candidate come November, boy howdy will I vote for him with gusto, the same way I voted for Hillary. But it would be a dereliction of my citizenship to vote for him tomorrow. I took a quiz on the Washington Post website. It said that I agreed with Sanders and Warren on 14 points and with Biden on 2. That’s hard to argue with.

Having grown up around the movement, going to marches and demonstrations my whole life, and being imbued with liberal values I deeply believe in, I have to admit I feel betrayed by the generation above me that is now fleeing rightward en masse, toward the center. I find it shocking, and strange, and upsetting. I feel as though I have been sold a bill of goods. I am having a hell of a time squaring the circle of my upbringing and the narrative of the Movement 60’s, with the boomers’ wholesale rejection of the liberal candidate of a lifetime. I would genuinely love your help making sense of this, because it comes with a personal level of hurt for me.

Ultimately, and here’s the punchline, I’m leaning hard towards Elizabeth Warren. I totally hear you about the shrill cacophony of Bernie’s march, and that it is not uniting. I don’t blame Bernie for that though. I blame the extremely centrist headline writers at the New York Times for torpedoing him as much as they can, because he so threatens their $45 entrees. It is a concern, nonetheless.

Warren has all the right values, is not a Centrist, would be a brilliant decision-maker, would be palatable to a wide swath, would be just the liberal injection we need, would be the first female president, would destroy Trump in a debate (not that he’ll actually debate), would probably be collaborative and democratic in the way you’re looking for, is still a capitalist but could fix our system, and would provide us a way to meet in the middle. How about a compromise: how about we both vote for Elizabeth Warren?

Thank you for your letter, it’s a privilege to be able to articulate these feelings.

And I will sleep on it.

Love,

Brendan

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