The Crisis in American Politics: A 2020 Campaign Diary [Part 1]

Ted Grimsrud—May 1, 2020

[More than any other presidential campaign in my lifetime, I paid attention to and cared about the 2020 campaign. Beginning in January, I wrote a number of short posts on my Facebook page. There will be many more twists and turns before November, I am sure, but virtually all my hopefulness has drained away. I fear the people of the United States and the world are heading into a time of even deeper darkness. This post captures a bit of the ups and downs of my sense of hope. These are excerpts from the Facebook posts.]

PART I: Sanders ascendant

January 20, 2020 notes for an unpublished post

I have appreciated Bernie Sanders ever since he was first elected mayor of Burlington, VT, in the 1980s. If I think of him as a presidential candidate in relation to my ideal of what a candidate would be like, I’d rate him only fair to good. But if I think of him in relation to all the serious candidates for president I know anything about in American history, I would rate him exceptionally good. Right now, it is looking as if he has a genuine shot to win both the nomination and the general election. For the first time ever since I began voting, I feel as if we have one candidate that I can support both in terms of my ideals and the pragmatic likelihood of actually being elected.

As a voter, I tend to place a higher priority on the candidate’s fit with my political values than a sense of who would be most electable. With Sanders, though, I don’t feel as if I have to make a choice between these two approaches.

Sanders is not an extremist. Most of his values correspond with what most American people want when they are polled. At the center is universal healthcare, what Sanders calls “Medicare for All.” He also advocates what he’s calling a “Green New Deal” that will thoroughly address that climate crisis and other environmental problems. I appreciate his critique of the domination of big corporations and billionaires that corrupts our political system. He’s less of an imperialist and warist than any of the other Democratic Party candidates.

He energizes young voters, as well as other generally marginalized groups such as Latinos and Muslims. He cares deeply about the needs of black Americans, other working people, and others at the bottom of the economic hierarchy. He’s critical of the retributivist criminal justice system, he supports unions, is more positive toward Palestinians than the other candidates. He is pushing for an increased minimum wage and for much greater access to higher education and assistance for those who have accumulated major debts from their schooling.

I am optimistic that Sanders actually has a greater potential for defeating Trump than the other candidates. He understands that the Democrats need to expand the electorate and provide reasons for many of the scandalously large number of non-voters (especially young people and people of color) to enter the electoral process. At the same time, because of his critiques of free trade and other policies that alienated working people from corporate-friendly Democrats such as Hillary Clinton, he might also be able to attract some of the “Obama/Trump” voters who might have become less positive about our current president.

A significant attribute that Sanders has compared to a candidate such as Joe Biden is a strong reputation for honesty and incorruptibility. Even people who don’t necessarily agree with many of Sanders’s policy proposals respect him for telling the truth and acting with integrity throughout his career. This aspect seems like an strong electoral asset.

The biggest problems I envision should Sanders gain the nomination would come not from Trump and the Republicans and would not result from Sanders seeming to be too far to the left by the American voters. What I fear is a repeat of the 1972 election when corporate friendly Democrats abandoned candidate George McGovern. I fear that today such party leaders and backers fear Sanders bringing genuine change more than they actually fear Trump’s craziness (since the latter certainly remains supportive of the corporate agenda). I also fear that the ways Sanders has been (likely will be even more) demonized by the “liberal” corporate media (such as the Washington Post, the New York Times, CNN, MSNBC, and even NPR) will make it ever more difficult for Sanders to gain strong support from “moderates” who actually are mostly positive about most of his policy agenda.

January 26, 2020

I tend to think that hostility from the corporate media is a good reason to support Bernie. This quote comes from the article, “Corporate Media Equates Sanders to Trump—Because for Them, Sanders is the Bigger Threat,” FAIR.ORG 1/24/20: “The real trouble is that most in the establishment media—and the centrist political elite like Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and their allies—fear left populism more than they do right populism. For them, replacing Trump with Sanders would not end the nightmare begun with Trump’s inauguration, it would simply begin a new and more frightening chapter of it. If under Trump, our democratic and social institutions are endangered by authoritarianism, xenophobia and racism, at least our economic ones are protected, so that Wall Street can continue its upward march, corporate profits can continue unabated, and journalists can marvel at the robust economy.

“Sanders, on the other hand, seeks to shore up those democratic and social institutions by reining in the corporate ones. For our country’s most influential media outlets, which have thrived under the Trump administration, it’s clear which one is the greater threat.”

February 24, 2020

For the past several months I have been subscribing to the digital versions of the New York Times and the Washington Post—mainly looking for input during the presidential campaign. Today I decided to discontinue both. I have been impressed with how unhelpful both have been. I actually can’t think of one of their dozens of reporters and op-ed writers who has been insightful in what they have written about the presidential campaign. And by reading them (that is, the representative fraction that I have had time to read), I have felt myself growing gradually dumber and fearful of being sucked into a propagandistic bubble.

February 25, 2020

My philosophy of voting has generally been to vote for my values more than calculating what would be most “pragmatic” or “realistic.” Hence, in my voting career for president I have voted third party more often than for Democrats (and once did vote for a Republican). This approach has seemed the most consistent with my theology.

This year, for once, it seems like values and pragmatism go together. Our primary in Virginia is in a week. I don’t think any specific Democratic candidate is nearly as “electable” as Sanders (even if he is no shoo in to defeat Trump)—and perhaps no major presidential candidate in US history has aligned as closely with my values.

I can see how someone could conclude that one of the other candidates lines up better with their values (that is my kind of approach)—though, interestingly, I haven’t noticed many saying that. However, I don’t see how any other specific candidate would be a more “realistic” choice if defeating Trump is the goal.

February 26, 2020

I have been struck (and a bit surprised) by how many of the people in my broader circle (who are mostly on the left side of the political spectrum), both social media and face-to-face folks, have negative attitudes toward the candidacy of Bernie Sanders (the virtues of that candidacy seem so obvious to me!). So I did some reflecting.

I have a hypothesis. There is at least some correlation between the sense of urgency a person feels about the major problems our society faces and the likelihood that they would support Sanders. My perception is that the people who feel more of a sense of urgency interpret Bernie’s style as an appropriate intensity in response to these problems. To them, Bernie is not obnoxious but rather inspiringly expressing a passion for making progress on, say, the climate crisis or the lack of access to medical care or the runaway militarism or the overwhelming destructive power of big corporations or the struggles of the working poor or….

It seems like the two pillars of the Sanders campaign are his widespread fundraising base of small donors (and no big corporations) and his appeal to younger voters (the ones with the biggest stake in solving these problems). These pillars reflect a sense of urgency. And these supporters have noticed that back when Hillary Clinton was campaigning for Barry Goldwater, Sanders was getting arrested at a civil rights demonstration. He has been engaged over the long haul, advocating for finding ways to solve these problems while Warren was voting for Ronald Reagan, Biden was advocating for the war on Iraq, Klobuchar was adding to the problem of mass incarceration as an aggressive prosecutor, Bloomberg was introducing and endorsing George W. Bush at the 2004 Republican convention, and Buttigeg was doing PsyOps in Afghanistan.

February 28, 2020

In the Democratic presidential debate the other night, Bernie Sanders made a remarkable statement. It was quick and he did not elaborate on it: “Occasionally, it might be a good idea to be honest about American foreign policy, and that includes the fact that America has overthrown governments all over the world: in Chile, in Guatemala, in Iran.”

This is an obviously true statement. But what makes it remarkable is that, as far as I know, no American president or serious candidate for president has ever said this before—at least not in the sense that such overthrowing of foreign governments was (and would be) wrong.

Now, I do not expect that if Sanders is elected president that he will be powerful or effective enough to transform the American Empire and turn us from our warist ways.

But I think it is enormously important that we have a chance to elect someone who would actually seek to implement a foreign policy that was genuinely peaceable. I don’t think there is any issue as important as turning away from militarism. And as near as I can tell, none of the other Democratic candidates, not even Elizabeth Warren (who I think is very good on many issues), share Sanders’s views on this issue.

I appreciate the Jacobin Magazine, an admittedly leftish publication. The following article directly compares the two, focusing especially on their respective philosophical views. The article suggests that a big difference is that Warren remains within the perspective of American exceptionalism—and Sanders does not.

This is how the article, “On Foreign Policy, Bernie Stands Alone,” 10/18/19, concludes: “Sanders is the only candidate who stands aligned with the admirable, if recently mostly moribund, traditions of democratic socialist internationalism. He is the only candidate who appreciates the rapacious history of US foreign policy; he is the only candidate to envision a post-national future; and he is the only candidate to take all of humanity, and not just American citizens, as his subject. If elected, he has the potential to revolutionize how Americans understand both their own country and its relationship to the rest of the world.”

March 4, 2020

I had hoped for a different outcome in the primaries yesterday. My sadness is heightened by how hopeful I was. It seemed, perhaps fleetingly, that something truly different might happen in American politics. Sigh….

I believe that Bernie Sanders offers the Democratic Party a template for an approach that is both value-based and pragmatic. Some criticize him for not being a “true” Democrat. To the extent that that might be the case, at least in a formal sense, perhaps he should be appreciated even more for his offer to the Democrats. Regardless, the response seems to be, “No, we will not accept your gift.”

These are some of the elements of the template: offer some genuine empowerment for vulnerable and excluded people, expand the electorate by drawing in many of the non-voters, profound attention to the aspirations of youth, freedom from the corporate stranglehold on what’s left of democracy, an alternative to empire as a way of life, creative energy to address the climate crisis, et al.

That this template did not lead to electoral success yesterday does not invalidate it, I don’t think. It’s more that the power in the Democratic Party does not lie with the Sanders coalition. Those who are happy about the success of Joe Biden seem to think it’s a good thing to embrace corporate donors, to campaign lightly and emphasize vague generalities and past electoral successes, to have a low level of 20-something voting, and to embrace the American Empire.

My sense is that this choice to turn from the Sanders template was indeed one made by Democratic Party voters, not only the Party elite (except in the west). I’m not sure why that was, but I think the future now looks much bleaker.

Just on pragmatic grounds, it’s very difficult for me to see how a Biden candidacy will generate the kind of energy that seems key to defeating Trump. And it’s hard to see how such a yesterday-focused candidate with virtually no support from young people and showing little evidence of having a vision for a just and peaceable society can lead the Democratic Party (and the country at large) into a hopeful and creative future. And that is even if the nation’s hostility toward Trump is strong enough to insure the latter’s defeat in November.

A key element in the Democratic Party’s quick and decisive turn toward Biden and away from Sanders was the large number of black votes that Biden received. Nonetheless, there are many different views among Black Americans. Here’s a less positive perspective about Biden’s success: Adolph Reed, Jr., and Willie Legette, “South Carolina, Neoliberalism’s Stranglehold, and the Mystique of the ‘Black Vote’,” Common Dreams, 3/4/2020): “Since 2016 the black punditry has converged around a narrative that Sanders has difficulty appealing to black voters, even as polls have shown repeatedly that his program is more popular among black Americans than any other group. This effort recently hit a comic plateau when the The Root produced a report purporting to evaluate the Democratic candidates in relation to a ‘Black Agenda.’ The report, based on criteria crafted by anonymous ‘experts,’ ranked Warren first with Biden, Buttigieg, and Steyer also ahead of Sanders. Tellingly, Buttigieg and Steyer offered decidedly class-skewed racial programs centering on entrepreneurship and business development, and Sanders was graded down for having had the temerity to consider mobilizing a primary challenge to ‘the first black president’.”

As well, I think it’s inaccurate and unfair to blame Sanders too much for his lack of success with Black voters. He tried. I think he learned from some of the weaknesses of his 2016 campaign and did work much harder to win over Black voters (starting with making Nina Turner his most visible surrogate). But making inroads in the South was always going to be difficult. What the following piece calls the “Black misleadership class” simply has not been open to a relationship with Sanders (and for them, perhaps, the reason for that is “ideological”).

In any case, Sanders failed to make enough inroads among Black voters in these early southern states. So he’s in trouble (and, Warren, of course, failed even worse). So we may be stuck with what the following article calls “the worthless corporate hack.” Good luck beating Trump with that.

From: Glen Ford, “Fear Pervades Black Politics, and Makes Us Agents of Our Own Oppression,” Black Agenda Report 3/5/20: “The screechingly raucous, out-of-control Democratic debate in Columbia just days before the South Carolina primary appears to have scared the hell out of Black voters—and lots of white ones, too—who perceived ‘their’ party coming apart at the seems and blamed the mayhem on Bernie Sanders. With Sanders and Michael Bloomberg bearing the brunt of the assault, Joe Biden appeared like the tranquil eye of the storm, a safe haven for fearful party loyalists. Biden’s endorsement by Amy Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg on the eve of Super Tuesday, enveloped Obama’s former vice president in an aura of consensus.”

March 9, 2020

I feel quite anxious about what is happening in the presidential campaign right now. It’s as if the Democrats vowed 3+ years ago to devote themselves to make sure to defeat Trump in 2020—and then spent that time refusing to challenge the system that made him possible (note the inept attempt at impeachment that followed the most pro-status quo strategy possible and abjectly failed in a way that seems to have left him stronger; note the tepid “resistance” offered by pro-corporate party leaders such as Pelosi and Schumer). Now they are rapidly coalescing around a candidate and strategy that is at best a pale imitation of what failed in 2016.

It is stunning that Biden has been anointed the “candidate of choice” after running his career’s third inept campaign for president. He has few virtues beyond his incredible luck of being chosen despite giving us little evidence that he’s up to the task of running a winning campaign vs. Trump or serving as a president who can provide leadership in dealing creatively and effectively with today’s major issues (e.g,, the climate crisis, runaway militarism, healthcare needs, economic stratification, white supremacy, and corporate domination).

I support Sanders and hope for a rally of his chances. However, I could imagine ways the Democratic Party establishment (if they truly wanted to beat Trump) could have learned from his insights (e.g., how to run a campaign free from corporate domination, the need to bring in young people and those who fear lack of access to healthcare and affordable college, to generate grassroots enthusiasm) without necessarily nominating him. But in fighting vs. him and putting forward an anti-Bernie like Biden, it seems to me that they enhance the likelihood of failure in November—and push the entire world closer to more disaster. It is ironic that while Sanders has been condemned as a rigid ideologue, it is the ideological rigidly of the Democratic Party’s establishment that has led them to a path where defeating Trump is not actually as a high a priority as rejecting Sanders and what he stands for. I suspect that the rallying cry touting Biden’s “electability” is purely ideologically distorted wishful thinking.

[Here’s Part II: Biden Takes Control]



5 thoughts on “The Crisis in American Politics: A 2020 Campaign Diary [Part 1]

  1. The Democratic Party leadership really does not care that much about the Party winning. What they care about is continued establishment control. A number of members of the Democratic National Committee (DNC) are corporate lobbyists. One of them, the Kentucky Democratic Party Chairman and a member of the DNC Executive Committee, donates to Mitch McConnell and other Republicans but not to Democrats.

  2. Ted,

    I can’t be sure, but seems like you blame the Dems for failing to impeach Trump. In fact, the House did impeach him. So perhaps you’re referring to the Senate trial vote, where every Dem voted yes on both counts and every Republican voted no on both counts, except for Romney’s split vote.

    And, I can’t be sure, but it seems like you don’t think Bernie drinks from the same poisoned political well as all the other players, which then leaves his endorsement of Biden a head scratcher. Being an Oregonian, perhaps you’re thinking Bernie is the reincarnation of Sen Wayne Morse?

    1. I will admit to a lack of precision in my language, David. Indeed, the Democratic House did formally impeach Trump. The Dems, though, failed to remove him from office and their efforts seem to have had no positive effect. I think it was mostly their fault that they focused on the wrong issues and failed to stir up widespread public support for their actions. So, they actually seem to have made things worse.

      As I wrote, compared to my ideals, Sanders is only “fair to good.” Of course, he drinks “from the same poisoned well.” But I think he has resisted the poisonous effects from that well far better than almost any other major American politician (let me just cite his refusal to take corporate and billionaire money). I think that is worth a lot.

      I am not sure what to think of his endorsement of Biden. I suspect he was stung by being demonized so vociferously (and unfairly) by the pro-Clinton forces last time. I think he also hoped that he and his people would have more possible influence with the Biden forces if he made such an endorsement right away. I can understand why he did so—though it seems already that he is being betrayed.

      I think that the endorsement may be more an indication of Sanders’s distinctiveness—he believes the best of others. He’s not Machiavellian—which to me is more an asset than a liability (and not a sign of drinking from poisonous wells).

      I can see some parallels between Sanders and Morse (not all totally positive). Sanders seems like a much kinder and more honest politician and person.

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