By Paul M. Lewis
Next Monday, the 1st of February, 2016, we begin—and here, you choose how best to characterize it—either: 1) the democratic process of selecting a candidate from each party to run for the presidency; or 2) the giant circus act, including legions of clowns and endless pratfalls; or 3) all hell breaking loose. Also known, of course, as the Iowa caucuses. And soon after that, on Feb. 9th, we will get the results of the first actual primary voting, when New Hampshire holds its election.
I’ll leave it to another time to wonder about the sagacity and utility of the whole process of selecting candidates, of why two states with so few people and so little diversity get to set the stage for the debate (note that Iowa is 92% white, and New Hampshire is 94% white—hardly a reflection of America as a whole). More important and germane for the moment is the question of who the candidates actually are. But I also won’t bother—for now anyway—with the Republicans, as I consider them to be virtually a lost cause. Does it matter if Trump or Cruz wins in either of these places? The former is a blowhard of a buffoon, who touts overly simplistic answers to complex and weighty questions of policy and practice, while the latter presents himself as a rigid and doctrinaire authoritarian, with frighteningly xenophobic and jingoistic tendencies.
That leaves me with Hillary and Bernie to think about. And as a lifelong Democrat anyway, it’s only right that I do so. I will admit to having not paid as much attention to the contest as I should have, indeed, as much as I have done in years past. My partner and I have been preoccupied for months with matters of family, specifically with eldercare and its endless and enervating demands of what is best to do, how it should be paid for, and if what’s provided, in the end, really is sufficient. But this too is a topic for another time.
The question remains, am I for Hillary, or for Bernie? And how should I reply to the endless requests for money I’ve gotten on my email every day without fail from both the Clinton and the Sanders campaigns. So far, I have to admit, I haven’t donated a single dollar.
So, how to respond, especially when I fear that I haven’t done enough of my homework yet to feel as though I’ve fully plumbed the ins and outs of either of their policy positions? Of course, I know in a general way who is who, and what they more or less stand for. Hillary is the middle-of-the-road candidate, pragmatic and practical, who knows how to get things done, and who isn’t too afraid to crack a few heads along the way. While Bernie is more the ideologue, a guy who doesn’t shy away from calling himself a socialist, almost a dirty word in American politics—or at least so it has been up until now—and who stands for lots of things that I like, such as a single-payer healthcare system, the breakup of too-big-to-fail banks, free higher education, etc.
But Hillary poses a question about Bernie that is not irrelevant: if elected, would he be able to work within the system, especially if, as seems likely, at least one of the houses of Congress remains in Republican control? And if both are under GOP domination, he would be stymied on virtually all counts. Of course, the same question about ability to work with a Republican controlled Congress could be posed in regard to Hilary, as much as she apparently thinks she could do so, or at least that she would not be so utterly shut out by the Republicans as he (perhaps its own dubious and uncertain assumption).
To an extent, I’m beginning to feel as though this is coming down to a debate between the head and the heart. I have to admit that my own more pragmatic side leans a little bit toward Hillary. I keep hearing that nagging inner voice of reason, so-called anyway, saying things like: “Bernie would never be able to pull in that vital one-third of people in the general election, the Independents, who will ultimately decide the race. So why risk voting for him as a candidate and sending those middle-of-the-road voters running straight into the arms of Trump’s shallow and overly simplistic answers, to say nothing of his racism, or to Cruz’s totalitarian extremism?”
The other more idealistic, and dare I say more hopeful, side of me wonders why I shouldn’t vote for a candidate who finally embodies some of the values I have long cherished, but always thought too far outside of the mainstream of American politics. Isn’t this my one chance to do so, maybe my last and only opportunity to side with a guy who has the guts to say what needs to be said, and damn the consequences?
Not that even Bernie is without his flaws, mind you. His take on some issues related to race, for example, leave something to be desired. As the cogent and insightful commentator, Ta-Nehisi Coates, said recently writing for The Atlantic magazine: “Sanders’s basic approach is to ameliorate the effects of racism through broad, mostly class-based policies…This is the same ‘A rising tide lifts all boats’ thinking that has dominated Democratic anti-racist policy for a generation.” But it hasn’t worked, as anyone can see who looks at the still enormous disparity in economic opportunity between the races in this country. As Coates goes on to point out: “We now know that for every dollar of wealth white families have, black families have a nickel…We know that in a city like Chicago, the wealthiest black neighborhood has an incarceration rate many times worse than the poorest white neighborhood.” These are specifically racial, not just class, divisions, and Bernie has not addressed them. Neither has Clinton, it could well be argued, nor any other candidate in the race, for that matter. This is Bernie we’re speaking of, though, and haven’t we come to expect more of him?
But, in regard to Bernie, is it wise to think that the good ought to be the enemy of the perfect? Furthermore, should we even consider questions of pragmatism when it comes to choosing a candidate? If you don’t have somebody you can believe in, someone whom you can get excited about, someone you’re willing to work for, or at very least whose campaign you’re willing to open your wallet for, then what chance does he, or she, have against boisterous and bloviating bigots?
So, this is where I’m at for the moment. I get it that a lot rides on who wins the upcoming presidential race. So much is at stake, from questions of global climate change, to international policy as it relates to Iran, China, Russia, and the Middle East, to immigration, to healthcare, to the economy, and even potentially to new justices for the Supreme Court. More still could be added to this list, big questions having to do with race and class, education and employment, the use or abuse of public lands, and on and on.
So, do I follow my head or my heart? That really is the question. And I have to admit; I don’t know the answer yet. I love much of what Bernie stands for, and I at least like many of Hillary’s positions. But who could win, and who could best govern if they do win? For me, given our odd and dysfunctional primary system wherein the most populous state gets the last chance to vote for a candidate, it may well be a moot point. By the time we Californians cast our ballots on June 7th, it might all be settled anyway. Just in case, though, it’s probably time for me to try to sort this head-heart thing out once and for all. And as soon as I figure out how to do that, I’ll be sure to let you know.