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Can Bernie’s Movement Pressure Clinton to Tack Left?
An editorial from the Summer 2016 issue of Jewish Currents
THE STORY GOES that President Franklin Roosevelt, at the conclusion of a 1940 meeting with A. Philip Randolph
about overturning racial discrimination in the defense industry, told the black labor leader: “I agree with you. Now go out and make me do it.”
Can we make Hillary Clinton “do it”? The strength of the American labor movement and left pales today in comparison with its power at the end of the Depression and at the start of World War II — yet the sheer energy of Bernie Sanders’ youthful base, as well as the mass dissatisfaction with politics-as-usual expressed by both the Democratic and Republican primary campaigns, could certainly provide Hillary Clinton with wind in her sails were she to choose to tack left.
More than likely, with the Republicans wallowing in racism and rage, and with Democratic greatly prospects buoyed by America’s shifting demographics, Clinton’s establishment advisers will urge her to remain the centrist, the voice of “competence” and “experience.” That could prove to be a fatal mistake, however. Clinton is already heavily identified with the Wall Street wing of the Democratic Party and the pro-globalization policies of her husband’s presidency. The less she challenges that reputation, the less she succeeds at responding to the disenchantment of the American voter, the less likely it is that the passionate young followers of Bernie Sanders will be willing to hold their noses and vote. With Trump portraying himself as the anti-establishment dissident, the nightmare of a Republican-controlled U.S. government could become a reality.
Clinton therefore needs Bernie’s endorsement and spirited support. What can the remarkably indefatigable senator from Vermont, and the movement he represents, demand in return?
• First, there is reform of the Democratic primary process. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz (D-FL) should be ousted as DNC chair (her positions on immigration, prisons, medical marijuana, and economic justice have alienated numerous left-leaning Democrats) and replaced with a bona fide progressive. Primary caucuses should be replaced by elections, so that all registered Democrats can participate without great sacrifice. The primary calendar should also be adjusted to give the Rust Belt states, which have strong labor traditions, more influence at an early stage.
• Second, the Democratic Party platform should help hard-pressed Americans recognize their own policy interests — for Medicare for all, a $15 minimum wage, organized labor protections, progressive taxation, government regulatory power capable of protecting the planet from abuse, and government investment in job creation and education.
• Third, Clinton should be cajoled to appoint progressives to her cabinet, especially as secretaries of the Treasury (Bernie’s economics adviser Stephanie Kelton would be a fine choice) and the Defense Department (it’s time to audit the Pentagon!). She should also be convinced to commit to supporting solidly progressive candidates for Congress. (Visit brandnewcongress.org to see how a group of Bernie volunteers and campaign workers are planning a campaign to clean out the Congress in one fell swoop.)
That even these minimal demands seem a pipe dream, and that it is hard to conceive of how progressives might truly influence the Democratic Party — notwithstanding Bernie’s 12 million Democratic primary votes and more than $220 million in small contributions — testify to how thoroughly “establishment” the party is, and how its strategists bank on progressive fears about the rightwing bogeyman to keep us in line. “The hope among Clinton allies,” wrote Alexander Burns in the New York Times within a week of her becoming the presumptive nominee, “is that she can bring reticent liberals on board with a sharp message of contrast with Mr. Trump, rather than an explicit campaign to placate the pro-Sanders left.” Even if Bernie keeps the pressure on right up to the Philadelphia finish line, in other words, it is safe to say that Clinton will lean left only if she loses confidence about her “anyone-but-Trump” strategy.
BUT JUST IMAGINE what the first woman president in American history could actually do were she not relying on the repellent force of Donald Trump! Imagine Hillary Clinton visiting a federal prison, where she might pardon several non-violent drug offenders and pledge to dismantle the War on Drugs. Imagine her setting up an alternative White House in one of the poorest cities in the U.S. — say, Camden or Encino or Louisville or Detroit — to focus the nation on alleviating poverty.
Imagine her intensifying Barack Obama’s use of the regulatory power of the Environmental Protection Agency to slap down the use of fossil fuels. Imagine her extending her support for gun control to the international stage by announcing her intention to attach provisions curbing arms purchases to every treaty or foreign-aid package that the U.S. negotiates.
Imagine President Hillary Clinton cultivating a politics of rakhmones (compassion), mobilizing a public demand for national health insurance, standing up for the 99 percent, and putting an end to the “strangle-the-government-in-the-bathtub” bullshit that has undermined our country’s well-being for the past four decades.
Imagine. Then let’s organize to make her do it.
Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.