For anyone who had waited a lifetime for a political leader to truly, madly, deeply believe in, our affair with Barack Obama has been a complicated one. Progressives who lived through Bill Clinton’s endless, tuneless sax solo welcomed Obama with a mixture of joy and apprehension; Slick Willie had taught us (the hard way) to be distrustful, that disappointment was a staple of a political diet. And Obama in some respects has hewed pretty closely to Bill’s original score. The wars, the drones, the de facto exile of Ed Snowden, the imprisonment of Chelsea Manning, Guantanamo — progressives have plenty of reasons to feel ill-used.
But even if Obama hasn’t turned out to be the reformer we hoped we were voting for in 2008, it’s also true that he’s not the equivocating conflict-dodger many of us feared we had elected in the early days of his first term. Between healthcare and Iran and Cuba and marriage equality and the most aggressive (if still deluded) attempt to date to deal with global warming, the man has proved worthy of a little love. He also delivered something of value beyond specific policies: He proved that there can be a moral center to a politician — even a president. Gnarled political hearts softened here and there; leafy shoots of optimism managed to break through.
And now this. As the Democratic National Convention pulls into Philadelphia, many progressives are staring at their shoes. The Bernie Sanders “revolution” has passed and we are contemplating yet another period of incrementalism. Or worse. Just when the threads of contemporary life seem to be at their knottiest, we are offered a choice between a triangulating lapsed idealist and a know-nothing jingoist.
That Americans face such lame, dispiriting alternatives can be laid to some degree at the feet of Sanders himself — the man many saw as an apostolic Bringer of Truths. Sanders turned out to be clay-footed and crusty not only in his persona, but in his ability: This was a guy who staked his run on a vow to break up the big banks but who, as the Daily News exposed, never developed a plan for how to do so. His populism may have been sincere, but his intellectual equipment turned out to be a dial-up modem.
Which leaves us, now, with Hillary: emotionally clubfooted, ethically anemic, shackled to more than a few inconvenient truths (Goldman Sachs, her personal server, Bill). Hillary is, if not anathema to those on the aggressive left, at the very least a depressing symbol of compromise, calculation, and capitulation. She, along with the First Spouse she’d be dragging back into the White House, has quite rightly become a global symbol of self-sabotaging arrogance and deceit.
But when it comes to deception, as craven as hers may be, we should try to keep things in perspective, given the forces arrayed against us. Besides, Hillary is nothing if not a quick study when it comes to reading the national mood, especially within her party. Much like Obama, who harbored truly progressive impulses even during his largely inert first years, she clearly has a little bit of idealist muscle memory left in her somewhere. For this we need to thank Bernie — for jumpstarting her heart and drawing her away from the gray technocratic middle where she set up shop at the start of this campaign cycle. Without the Bern at her back, Hillary’s electoral calculus would likely have led her to avoid talking about tightening up tax laws for corporations or the flaws in the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Without him, her recent commitment to introduce a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United — perhaps the single most essential step we need to take as a society — might never have been offered.
As Melissa Gira Grant makes clear in “A Brand at the End of the World,” some on the left simply refuse to say “yasss” to Hillary. Others intend to let her twist in the breeze in the hope that further concessions can be wrung out of her. But the idea that Clinton will move further left now that she has the nomination in hand, rather than reverting to the center, seems counter-historical. And at a time when the issues have ceased to be “merely” sociopolitical and are, increasingly, existential, the time for withholding support (or for a protest vote) is past. With oceans swamping the edges of our own continent, with police and black America caught in a deadly cycle, with our very life expectancy flat or falling — and with the rich walling themselves off, physically and economically — we can’t afford to hold out for perfection. Like so many in this country who are living from hand to mouth, crisis to crisis, we need to take whatever good we can find.
The irony of all this fetishizing of presidential elections is that it draws our collective attention away from what truly ails us — and from how to fix those things. “The real work” of making change, as the Voice‘s Nick Pinto wrote last week, “involves organizing people, educating people, using the theatrical potential of protest and direct action to highlight the violent and absurd contradiction of the way things are. Sanders marshaled the rhetoric of revolution, but he was running an electoral campaign. He lost. Even if he’d won, he would not have been the savior the more messianic Berners believed him to be. The real work is harder and longer than a presidential campaign. Sad Bernie-lovers of America, time to get back to it.”