“You know why the Democratic Party is going more centrist? Because the ‘progressive’ movement is fully of pouty little bitches who’ll take their football and go home if Bernie isn’t anointed King. We end up having to try and peel away some disaffected Republicans who might vote for a Biden or God forbid, a Bloomberg, but would never in a million years vote for an avowed socialist. You want to affect the party? You want to reform the party? Get over your little snit and work for it.” — former Sanders supporter J.D. Rhoades, April 2020
People ask me, “Max?” they ask. “How is it that you are as big a leftist as you are and you never supported Bernie Sanders?”
Okay, no one actually asks me that, but it reads better. Bear with me.
I’ve taken these tests that show where you fall on the liberal-conservative, libertarian-authoritarian axes. If the resulting chart was a dartboard, my result would be what would happen if my drunken Uncle Luther flung a dart in its general direction: barely striking the board in the lower left corner, an inch away from the guy passed out on the jukebox. I mean, I kick Bernie’s ass on that chart. I’m actually further left than Noam Chomsky! How does that happen? (My scores: Economic Left/Right: -9.5 Social Libertarian/Authoritarian: -8.05)
And don’t get me started on where Joe Biden and Hillary Clinton are on that chart. But I voted for both of them over Sanders. (Okay, I actually voted for Sanders in 2016, but that was a strategic vote to persuade Clinton to move further left. I didn’t want Sanders to win the nomination in either year.)
Max…you got some ‘splainin’ to do.
Maybe this will help.
So often, stories of transformative change start with a beautiful girl and a guy shuffling his feet and trying not to let his tongue flap. In my case it was a girl named Terry. 8th grade. She was beautiful, outspoken and I don’t think she wore a bra, though there was no way inarticulate, foot-shuffling me would ever address that. She was just so goddamned leftist. I loved it. She walked the walk and talked the talk. We visited Washington, DC that year, where our US Senator, Jesse Helms (R-Lynch Mob, if you don’t recall him) formally welcomed us to the seat of the federal government. Terry told me not to stand up when he entered the room. We didn’t. We got in trouble. I didn’t care. I was Standing Up (or Sitting Down, in this case) To The Man. She moved after that year, but I kept going, reading Armies of the Night and articles in The Nation along with what I later divined were vastly contrasting views in Robert Heinlein and Jerome Tuccille, who taught me that Ayn Rand was full of marinated horseshit (an excellent lesson for a precocious 14-year old to learn).
In college (UNC-Chapel Hill) I briefly hung out with members of the Communist Workers Party after the 1979 Greensboro Massacre, and met a young New England woman whose name absolutely escapes me. She dressed and did her hair like Honey from Doonesbury (think pretty young Asian girl in Mao outfits). I thought she was interested in me as a friend and possible lover. She wanted to recruit me. She wowed me with talk of the brave CWP warriors who were going to forcibly take over the sleepy US Post Office on Franklin Street and occupy it, resisting at all cost the efforts of the “heavily militarized” Chapel Hill police force (think Mayberry with a few more deputies) to dislodge them. The occupation never quite materialized, but Miss Honey found me a week later and boasted breathlessly of their Stand Against Oppression, which involved splashing red paint (“like blood, get it?”) on the statue of Silent Sam, a Confederate soldier that stood guard over the wide expanse of the North Campus frisbee-throwing yard. I had seen the paint and thought it was the result of yet another midnight foray by louts from NC State who doused Sam periodically (the louts from Duke used contrasting blue paint). I was stunningly disenchanted. They didn’t follow through! Decades later, I thought, They were full of shit!
I joined an ACORN chapter in Chapel Hill. I quit after one too many meetings where the leaders, two strutting martinets named Frick and Frack (I don’t remember their real names), harangued us at length about what we would believe and how dare we argue with them about any of their policy points. They sent me to the wealthiest neighborhood in Raleigh to gather donations from the overly washed rabble to protest the construction of the Shearon Harris Nuclear Plant; I was invited inside by a gracious older lady who turned out to be Mrs. Shearon Harris, who served me ice water and invited me to get on my little bus and drive all of my commie friends back to Moscow. (Ah, the South.) I got no donations from Mrs. Harris and her fellow Garden Club members, and was excoriated. I was failing the revolution, said they. Fuck the revolution, thought I, and boldly announced my resignation forthwith by leaving quietly and not coming back. They still owe me $80. And they didn’t stop the nuclear plant from being built.
I joined a campus chapter of PFAW, and left after thirty minutes when Frick and Frack’s ideological twins, the chapter heads, began haranguing us about what we would believe and how dare we argue with them.
After college, my then-wife and I joined a local chapter of the Star Trek Appreciation Society or whatever it was. We were assured that it would be very politically active, with suitably leftist policies. We left after twenty minutes, when the guy who ran the chapter announced that he and his executive board had decided his title would be God. It was ironic! It’s funny! The guy was way too excited about the whole thing, and we didn’t want to be his cherubim.
Are you detecting themes here? Rigidity, intolerance, subtle misogyny (I didn’t see any women in leadership roles except for Miss Honey, and I don’t think she was in charge of anything in particular), and a propensity for Not Getting Shit Done.
But I wasn’t abandoning my ideals. I proudly cast my first presidential vote in 1980, for John Anderson, because fuck the two-party system (Kennedy lost the primary, and I felt cheated). Reagan won the presidency, and ever since then, I’ve felt, totally illogically, that I caused that because I didn’t vote against Carter. I voted for Mondale in 1984, my first real taste of a tapioca-flavored moderate candidate. Mondale was actually a pretty stand-up Midwestern liberal, but he laughed too hard at Reagan’s corny jokes and might as well have worn a “Kick Me” sign on his back. (I voted for Jesse Jackson in the primary, because yeah liberalism!, but I had the sneaking suspicion that Jackson, who had never been an elected official and worked within a system, might not have had the first clue on how to actually get shit done in government. Shades of Bernie Sanders….)
Don’t get me started on Michael Dukakis, though I’ve come to think over time that he might have been a surprisingly good president.
Then here came Bill Clinton, out of the swamps of the 1992 primaries. I supported Jerry Brown (yay liberalism! We used that term and not “progressivism” in those days, by the way. Progressivism equated mealy-mouthed centrism, and “liberal” was a bad, bad word as handed down from the mountain by Newt Gingrich), but damn me if that glad-handing, grinning shoe salesman from Hope, Arkansas didn’t skunk the whole crowd of cranky liberals and stiff-necked technocrats. The boy had charisma, and could charm the pants off a cheerleader or a Democratic donor with equal effectiveness. I cast an unenthisiastic vote for Clinton, but damn, y’all. That boy got shit done.
Let me say that again. That Boy Got Shit Done.
Not all of it good shit, to be sure. He was more interested in “getting shit done,” even when it meant meeting slithering Republicans halfway or three-quarters of the way. But he fucking killed it on the economy after the long desert years of Reaganomics and deficit spending, expanded college opportunities, signed sweeping gun reform legislation, shrunk the nuclear arsenal, protected millions of acres of pristine wilderness…well, he did a lot. I always thought his wife was the real brains of the outfit, a suspicion that was affirmed years later.
But I began putting together a pattern. You want to get shit done? Move incrementally. Give the Republicans what you have to in order to get them on board or at least water down their opposition, then come back again for a second and then a third bite of the apple. Excoriate Clinton as you will, but by damn, he got a lot of shit done.
Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders sat in the House of Representatives for the entire time, a nonesuch — the only Democratic Socialist in US history. ladies and gentlemen! — and did nothing of note.
Then we got eight years of Grinning Monkey Boy, who undid everything he could, and I began to see another pattern that started with Reagan: Democratic presidents like Carter and especially Clinton were achieving goals and making things better, and Republicans were blowing it to hell as fast as they were able. Dubya made a fair mess of the economy (among so, so many other things), and left it to Barack Obama to clean up his titanic mess and make things incrementally better, which he did in the face of a relentless GOP opposition who roadblocked him on everything from a Supreme Court Justice to declaring National Yummy Red Apple Day.
We lost Paul Wellstone in 2002, one of the few progressives (the labels were shifting by this point to how we use them today) who I thought could truly Get Shit Done.
Sanders spent Bush’s two terms in the House and moved to the Senate in 2007. Once again, crickets. Even Dennis Kucinich made his presence known as a cranky, dyspeptic liberal who talked a good game (mostly…a Department of Peace?) and got some face time on cable news television, especially when he channeled his inner Marianne Williamson in two quixotic presidential races. But Sanders? Did someone have him bound and gagged in a storeroom somewhere?
Sanders was a reliable Democratic vote even though he was a independent, by God and Vermont maple syrup. He mocked and scorned the Democratic Party, and assured Vermont proglibs he would never, ever join that bunch of buttoned-down centrists. But through both Obama terms, when Obama was battling the Congressional Republicans and Fox News tooth and nail and wearing a smile while doing so, Sanders…was there.
So, when Sanders came out of nowhere to shoulder O’Malley out of the 2016 Democratic primary, I was interested. He was a proud, unbending liberal/progressive with staunch principles that he had espoused for decades without faltering. At least that was the narrative, and I had no reason to disbelieve it. (It was true. He’d espoused the same core principles since he helped head the Liberty Union Party in Vermont. Not that Democrats outside of Vermont knew much about him.) And as much as I admired Hillary Clinton, she was, through no fault of her own, damaged goods. I didn’t like her chances against Jeb Bush or whatever trained seal the Republicans would throw against us that year.
But, as I watched the primary races unfold, two things struck me. One, the Republicans were looking increasingly likely to nominate that criminal buffoon Donald Trump, and two, both races were getting really ugly. Trump was turning the Republican primary into a sewer, a milieu where he was most comfortable, and Sanders’s staff and surrogates, along with an increasingly vitriolic cadre of “Bernie Bros,” were going after Clinton with a savagery rarely seen in Democratic primaries since Kennedy beat on Carter in 1979. The GOP propaganda machine churned out attack material against Clinton that was eagerly adopted by “the Bernie irregulars” (shorter than typing “staff members, surrogates, and Bernie Bros” over and over) with a ferocity that confounded mainstream Democrats. We saw Obama and Clinton get into it with a will during the 2008 race, but Clinton magnanimously threw herself on her sword during the convention, removing most of the sting from that race and cementing Obama and Clinton as allies, and later as friends, forevermore amen and huzzah. Would that happen in 2016?
Oh hell no. It was Sharknado time at the July convention. The Bernie Irregulars excoriated Clinton to any news reporter that didn’t run fast enough away from them, Bernie delegates booed and chanted “Lock her up!” during convention speeches, and, most memorably, strung a banner for the Russian intelligence cut-out WikiLeaks from the ceiling of the convention hall one halcyon evening. Bernie endorsed Clinton during the convention, yes indeedy, and earned the opprobrium of some of his own supporters as a result; he decided keeping the loyalty of his supporters was more important than helping Clinton defeat the goombah Trump, and during his “Clinton campaign appearances” he presented an attenuated version of his campaign speech and rarely mentioned her name. His Irregulars tormented Clinton throughout the general campaign, and cost her some critical votes in swing states.
I flashed back to Miss Honey and the laughably pointless red paint on the statue of Silent Sam. I flashed back to Frick and Frack lecturing and issuing edicts, and not accomplishing a goddamned thing. I thought of Bill Clinton, with Hillary standing by his side and providing the brainpower (her health care plan was good, y’all!). I thought of Barack Obama, who Got Shit Done for eight years just like Clinton, both channeling, in their own fashion, the spirit of LBJ, a sour, bigoted centrist who successfully pushed for some of the most progressive legislation of his time.
I concluded, rightly, that Sanders had no clue how to get shit done. He never had to as a representative or senator, and he didn’t know how now. He’d been preaching since I was mooning over a little CWP gal about breaking up the big banks, but didn’t know how he could do it. His ideas for pushing radical legislation through was to bring a million shouting protesters to Washington who would pressure and shame elected officials into doing what he thought needed doing. The Atlantic’s David Graham nailed it in April 2016: Sanders was running for Chief Executive, but he would govern as Chief Ideologue. As Chief Quarterback, he would throw 90-yard Hail Mary passes and then bitch when they didn’t score.
It struck me that Clinton, the “corporate shill” who cozied up to Wall Street vampires and Henry “Meat Grinder” Kissinger, wouldn’t do that. As Chief Quarterback, she would stay safely in the pocket, running a “four yards and a cloud of dust” offense that would slowly, steadily, maddeningly move down the field, making progress and Getting Shit Done. And at the end of the day, President QB Sanders would bemoan all the things that the Republicans and the Democrats and the DNC and the Trilateral Commission and the Illuminati wouldn’t allow him to achieve, while President QB Clinton would get up from being tackled, spit grass out of her mouth, grin, and achieve the next in a series of small but important victories.
I should have voted for Clinton in the 2016 primary. I damn well did in November 2016. We didn’t get her.
Now we’ve weathered another primary season with a Get Shit Done center-liberal in Joe Biden, and Bernie and his band of bloody-teethed Irregulars. The Irregulars tried their level best to sink Democratic candidacies with snake emojis, bad language and haphazardly selected GOP propaganda attacks. Bernie barked the same speech he’s given since I was patting myself on the back for voting third party. He ignored critically important components of the Democrats (hint, Bernie: they’re black voters, and they don’t like you much) and counted on a Hail Mary pass thrown to the mass of radicalized young voters who, in the end, may have come to his rallies for the fun and camaraderie, but didn’t feel compelled to keep up their end of the deal by voting for Uncle Bernie. Like the guy they liked so much, they didn’t have an impetus to get shit done.
Biden will. I’ve learned enough from my 45 years or so of political observation to have confidence that he will grind out four years of small and medium incremental victories. Bernie, if he ever figured out how to get elected, would have dithered and grumped and demanded Big Changes that he had no idea how to make real. His presidency would have been a failure that would set us back for a generation. Biden’s presidency will not.
I am a leftist who may never get to vote for a real leftist candidate. And I’m okay with that. (Though I still have some hopes. Come on, AOC! Unleash your inner Wellstone!)
That’s because, at the end of the day, I just want someone who will get shit done.