Hillary vs. Bernie: What Liberals Need to Know

I have been a longtime admirer of Mrs. Clinton, and who wouldn’t be? Strong, principled, experienced, and smart as hell, Hillary Rodham Clinton has broken through many barriers for women, showing us that the sky’s the limit. Or almost the limit: she is trying to break through the last glass ceiling, trying to become commander-in-chief of the most powerful nation in the world, a country that has not yet had a female president or prime minister. She has the knowledge of five people, knows America and the world inside and out, knows the common people (given her own middle class roots and her activism for underprivileged children) as well as those at the top. Many hate her simply because she is a woman, and an ambitious one; she has endured invective that no man could ever possibly endure.

However, there are those who raise a legitimate criticism: Madam Secretary is disliked not due to her gender, but due to her links to power. Again, we must distinguish here that this criticism is not about her being a woman who desires to be politically powerful. Rather, it is that she is allied with the forces that possess tremendous power in this country, power that is simply inaccessible to the vast majority of Americans. Those who dislike her say that she is part of the establishment, the 1%, makes tremendous amounts of money and receives tremendous amounts of money to support her campaign from questionable and influential sources. Objectively, one cannot deny these facts.

This is what provides strength to the campaign of Bernie Sanders, someone else whom I admire greatly. Senator Sanders has truly led a life of simplicity and commitment to public service. Originally an independent “democratic socialist,” he has a long track record of taking concrete action to help the common man and woman, and fighting for social justice. Sanders runs, unhypocritcally, on a platform of transparency and sincerity. One cannot deny that his campaign has been a grassroots one, with his claim that the average contribution made to his campaign is merely $27 and that he does not accept money from super PACs. His ideas for helping the middle class – and all non-wealthy Americans in general – are extremely necessary, sane, and in line with the rest of the civilized industrial world. It is very reassuring to know that we have a politician who is really working for us, and is willing to take on Wall Street and the institutions that really work to our disadvantage. Sanders gives visibility to “the rest of us,” the honest, decent, hard working people who want a better society and who despise a system that favors financial corruption in the hands of a few.

But the question is, can such a “man of the people” (who until recently flew economy class) really succeed without big money behind him? I believe the answer is that liberals who have made it to the top usually have one foot in the corporate or mainstream/establishment door. Being a grass roots activist alone will not enable someone to have the power necessary to make large-scale social change. It is one of the “dirty” secrets of our country that even the most liberal-minded social activists need to realize. Or perhaps it is not so dirty, but a necessary and resigned acceptance of how the structures in American society work.

There are many noteworthy examples of people who have had one foot in each door. Rachel Maddow was very leftist and involved in LGBT and women’s issues, even writing a thesis on AIDS, then became a Rhodes Scholar and journalist, accepting the opportunities offered to her by Air America and then corporate giant MSNBC. A Stanford friend who developed a program to send medical supplies to Bosnia during the time of war later worked in corporate finance. Another friend who is works in bonds and is one of the 1% had worked for a feminist think tank in college. We can also look at our politicians. Barack Obama grew up in developing country Indonesia, and was a community organizer in Chicago in his earlier days. Al Gore has straddled both high-level politics and environmental activism. So has California Governor Jerry Brown. Even the most wholesome of nonprofits receive funding from corporate sources.

Even Bernie Sanders has contributions behind him from Apple, Amazon.com, and the U.S. Navy, according to opensecrets.org. Also noteworthy is the fact that Sanders implicitly acknowledges that he accepts money from PACs, just not super PACs. A super PAC not approved by him called Billionaires for Bernie formed last year, though it seems to have dissipated. Certainly, there are millionaires and billionaires who do support Sanders’s vision; some might find this hypocritical, while others find it commendable. And the Washington Post recently reported that the average contribution made to his campaign is slightly over $27.

This is in no way meant to speak ill of Sanders, who is a very commendable politician. Rather, it is to remind liberals that even our most honest politicians do have to work with big money. Also of note, liberals need to know that the Ivy League and elite schools train students to be able to contribute to the community in a sincere way, understand poverty and disadvantage (many students come from such backgrounds themselves), but are inescapably allied with the establishment and its institutions of politics and corporations. Many liberals are quick to tar and feather anybody who works in finance or corporate America. While these people are often worthy of great scorn and even punishment, too many white-collar criminals get away unpunished, and our tax system favors the ultra rich, there are still many commendable individuals in these fields. Though I personally wish the system and structures would change, I would encourage liberals to understand how the country works and not to make sweeping generalizations or dismiss everyone in the establishment. Study economics, finance, and political science, even law. Don’t be blind to how things really work, and don’t underestimate how difficult it is to climb to power while maintaining a liberal agenda.

As we wait on the edges of our seats to see who the Democratic candidate will be, at least we can talk about Sanders’s greatest accomplishment so far: bringing national visibility to- and discussion of social issues and ordinary people’s contempt for the establishment that takes advantage of them.

Either way, be it Hillary or Bernie, we will be in good hands.

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5 thoughts on “Hillary vs. Bernie: What Liberals Need to Know

  1. Great post.
    This part: “Though I personally wish the system and structures would change, I would encourage liberals to understand how the country works and not to make sweeping generalizations or dismiss everyone in the establishment. Study economics, finance, and political science, even law. Don’t be blind to how things really work, and don’t underestimate how difficult it is to climb to power while maintaining a liberal agenda”
    is well said.

  2. Another great post. So measured, so smoothly written. As a Hillary supporter, I try to make the case that you have made so well — that working within the establishment does not mean you are tainted by its worse aspects. And that it is the establishment and its institutions that guide our country and that have to participate in its remodeling.

    • Thank you! Yes, it is easy to throw the baby out with the bathwater, but I’ve come to realize things are not so black or white, and to move at high levels, one must embrace the establishment in order to make significant change. (Sorry for any previous glitches with the reply function).

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