I didn’t become involved in politics until just a few years ago. For so long, I thought that, by not being involved, and by not addressing messy questions about power, inequality, war, economics, ethics, etc., I could somehow stay politically neutral. But, a few years ago a good friend introduced me to the American Historian Howard Zinn. Zinn makes a powerful case for the idea that political neutrality is impossible.
If you think you are being neutral by doing nothing, you are deceiving yourself. You are not being neutral. You are collaborating with whatever forces are dominant in a society, collaborating with whatever trends are already taking place in society. There’s no such things as neutrality in a world which already is subject to many many different kinds of forces, and so many of them malevolent.
So, if Zinn is right, and we can’t be neutral, where shall we start? What sort of political positions should we favor, and what sorts of political positions ought we denounce? My attempt at an answer to this question begins by identifying in what ways a society might be judged. At least according to some, a society will not be judged by how it treats the rich and the privileged, but by how it treats the poor, the marginalized, the underprivileged. In my view, it is how we care for these people that illuminates something profound about our cultural character.
Thus, when I think of who earns my vote, especially my vote for president, I first ask myself whether I think candidate X would represent people on the margins. It seems overwhelmingly clear to me that, of any candidate running for president, Bernie Sanders would represent people on the margins with dignity, character, and authenticity. In what follows, I try to justify why Bernie Sanders has my vote; not because I think that he will be an advocate for me, but because I believe that he will be an advocate for those who need the scales tipped in their favor.
Black people in America have faced and continue to face obstacles on the road to justice. Many are marginalized and disenfranchised by a criminal justice system that treats you better “if you’re rich and guilty than if you’re poor and innocent,” better if you’re white and guilty than if you’re black and innocent. I don’t like Bernie because I’m white and I think that he has the interests of white people in mind (though, he does). I like Bernie because, if I were black, I would think that he has my best interests in mind.
Why do I think this? Well, consider the following from an interview with Howard Zinn:
The civil rights movement accomplished a good deal by beginning to remove some of the important social barriers. What it did not remove was the barrier of class, the barrier of economic injustice.
Martin Luther King recognized this. That’s why toward the end of his life he began working for economic rights for Black people. The trajectory is one which took a very sharp upturn in the 1960s and which then has, you might say, settled down into a situation which is not going to change very much until there’s a change in the economic system of this country. So long as we have an economic system based on profit and corporate wealth, there’s going to be an impoverished class. And so long as there is an impoverished class, I’m talking about the 40 million people who don’t have health care, the 20% of children in the country who grow up very, very poor. So long as we have an impoverished class, Black people will be disproportionately in that class. The trajectory has reached a point where it is not going to go up much further unless we have economic changes which benefit not just Black people but White people, fundamental change in our economic and social system.
It’s no coincidence that Zinn seems to be in agreement with African American leaders like Cornel West and Killer Mike about the fact that Bernie’s economic plans, better than any other candidate’s plans, would carry on the legacy of Martin Luther King Jr. The fight for economic equality is intimately tied to the fight for racial equality. Bernie knows this; sometimes it sounds like he’s reading The People’s History on the campaign trail!
Further, I don’t like Bernie because I’m straight and I think he cares about the well-being of straight people (though, he does). I like Bernie because, if I were LGBT, I would think that he has my best interests in mind. Bernie has been fighting for gay rights since at least the early 70s. There’s nothing wrong with Hillary Clinton (or Barack Obama, or anyone else, for that matter) evolving on the issue of gay rights; it’s better to evolve than to stick to an immoral and oppressive position. But the fact that Bernie has been consistent for so long on gay rights is a testament to his character, his judgement, and his leadership ability. He was for gay people when it was extremely unpopular, because he knew it was the right thing. That’s character. That’s authenticity.
Further, I don’t like Bernie because I’m a male and I think that he has the interests of men in mind. I like Bernie because, if I were a woman, I would think that he has my best interests in mind. Bernie’s record on woman’s issues–from paid sick and maternity leave, to calling for an increase in support to planned parenthood–is about as good as can be.
I mean no disrespect to Hillary Clinton when I say that I think Bernie Sanders will do a better job of representing the interests of the poor, the marginalized, the disenfranchised, and the oppressed. Some might argue that, although Clinton is less progressive, inauthentic to some degree, etc., she is, in a fact, “a progressive that gets things done.” I think this claim is deeply mistaken. It seems to me that the only person that conservatives hate more than President Obama is Hillary Clinton. If she becomes president, conservatives will try to impeach her for the email “scandal” and the Benghazi “scandal” on the first day. They’ve said as much already. Do we have any reason to think that they will work with her any better on anything than they did with Obama? Absolutely not. Bernie Sanders is far less contentious, and has a strong record of working with republicans to best serve the interests of the American people.
Finally, but importantly, the virtues of being a “pragmatic progressive” are, in my view, far overblown. Pragmatism results in slow and careful change–the kind of change that Dr. King deeply criticized white moderates for supporting in the face of oppressive conditions for African Americans in the deep south. Real change is affected by the people committing profound acts of heroism, honesty, protest, etc., not by a “pragmatic progressive” cautious of every next move. Such next moves, as careful as they may be, are likely to be squashed by the flip side of the same power structure coin that elected the pragmatic progressive. As Zinn claims, “What matters most is not who is sitting in the White House, but ‘who is sitting in’– and who is marching outside the White House, pushing for change.” If you want real change in this country–change from our system of capitalist oligarchy, with some democratic representation–you have to be very skeptical about whether Hillary Clinton will conjure up the sort of activism that Zinn is speaking of. In fact, Bernie’s entire platform is based on the idea that, when millions of people become involved in the political process–including people who, up until now, have been fed up with business as usual–we can actually make this country serve the poor and marginalized, rather than the rich and privileged.
That’s why Bernie gets my vote. And that’s why I hope he gets yours, too.