When Barack Obama ran for president in 2008, he marshaled his supporters under the banners of “change” and “hope.” “Change We Can Believe In” was the 2008 campaign slogan. “Hope,” the one-word promise of the Obama presidency.
For many, that hoped-for change fell short. In 2009, President Obama appointed Wall Street friendly Timothy Geithner to succeed Treasury Secretary Henry Paulson, a former chair and CEO of Goldman Sachs. Geithner had been head of the New York Federal Reserve and was a protégé of Robert Rubin, the former co-chair of Goldman Sachs and Treasury secretary in the Clinton administration. The disillusionment continued with Obama’s 2013 appointment of Wall Street attorney Mary Jo White to head the Securities and Exchange Commission, in which capacity she (inspired perhaps by Citizens United) decided not to require all publicly registered corporations to make their political donations public.
Today, Bernie Sanders’ supporters are rallying behind the banner of “A Future to Believe In” — a future that Sanders is leading a “political revolution” to create. This call to revolution is being endorsed by an overwhelming majority of Democratic voters under the age of 30. And that is shaking up a Democratic establishment that has put its chips on Hillary Clinton.
Clinton is a candidate who, from 2013 to 2015, earned $2.9 million by giving 12 speeches to financial institutions, including Bank of America, Goldman Sachs, Morgan Stanley, Deutsche Bank, UBS and Ameriprise. We will never know what she said to those banking industry executives, as she is refusing to release the transcripts of any of her private speeches to corporate interests. It’s doubtful, however, that she called for political revolution.
Similarly, Clinton has yet to fully explain why she actively supported the Personal Responsibility and Work Opportunity Reconciliation Act, aka “welfare reform,” that President Bill Clinton triangulated through the Republican House and Senate in 1996.
When Clinton graduated from law school, she went to work — as she never fails to mention — for Marian Wright Edelman at the Children’s Defense Fund, an anti-poverty nonprofit in Washington, D.C., that Edelman founded in 1973. When Bill Clinton moved into the White House, he appointed Edelman’s husband, Peter, assistant secretary for planning and evaluation at the Department of Health and Human Services. After Bill Clinton signed the landmark welfare reform bill, Peter Edelman resigned in protest. As he explained in an Atlantic article titled “The Worst Thing Bill Clinton Has Done”:
The bill that President Clinton signed is not welfare reform. It does not promote work effectively, and it will hurt millions of poor children by the time it is fully implemented. What’s more, it bars hundreds of thousands of legal immigrants — including many who have worked in the United States for decades and paid a considerable amount in Social Security and income taxes — from receiving disability and old-age assistance and food stamps, and reduces food-stamp assistance for millions of children in working families.
Like the $675,000 in speaking fees from Goldman Sachs, Hillary Clinton’s support for welfare reform has become a campaign issue. Sanders, who voted against the bill, said while campaigning in South Carolina:
What welfare reform did, in my view, was to go after some of the weakest and most vulnerable people in this country. And, during that period, I spoke out against so-called welfare reform because I thought it was scapegoating people who were helpless, people who were very, very vulnerable. Secretary Clinton at that time had a very different position on welfare reform — strongly supported it and worked hard to round up votes for its passage.
Clinton is running on the slogan “fighting for us.” But that raises a question: Who is the “us” she is fighting for?
Is it the party of Democratic National Committee (DNC) Chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz? The Florida congresswoman is a member of the “New Democratic Coalition,” the congressional affiliate of the pro-corporate Democratic Leadership Council (DLC), which disbanded in 2011. To no one’s surprise, she announced in March that she was co-sponsoring legislation that would eviscerate the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau’s planned regulation of the predatory pay-day loan industry.
Wasserman Schultz has told Politico that she and Clinton have “a special relationship.” And her favoritism toward Clinton during the campaign has riled some of her fellow committee members. After all, the DNC charter charges the chairperson with exercising “impartiality and evenhandedness as between the presidential candidates and campaigns,” a task at which Wasserman Schultz has failed.
This failure is most visible in her decision to schedule only six Democratic debates, three of them on weekends when the least number of people would see them — a move calculated to appease the Clinton campaign, which had argued against even six debates. (In 2008, there were 26.)
When DNC Vice Chair Tulsi Gabbard, a U.S. representative from Hawaii, criticized the lack of debates and the way the decision was made, Wasserman Schultz responded by revoking Gabbard’s invitation to attend the CNN debate in Nevada in October 2015.
In response, DNC Vice Chair R.T. Rybak, the former mayor of Minneapolis, went on the record: “The person who is leading us is not leading us.” Massachusetts Democratic Party Vice Chair Deb Kozikowski accused Wasserman Schultz of “establishing a full-fledged dictatorship at the DNC.”
On July 28, either Sanders or Clinton will give an acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. The next day, Wasserman Schultz will be tasked with asking their supporters to come together under the big tent of the Democratic Party. Will they heed her call?
Surely, Clinton’s supporters would vote for a Sanders presidency. But would Sanders’ political revolutionaries be willing to brook political compromise and make common cause with those with whom they differ on issues like single-payer healthcare, breaking up banks like Goldman Sachs, trade agreements such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership, and the bloated size of the Defense Department budget? Would they be willing to vote for Clinton?
Could good, principled people be dumb enough not to? Look no further than the 2000 candidacy of Ralph Nader, which was embraced by many on the Left who saw no difference between Al Gore and George W. Bush, and consequently had no problem casting a vote for Nader — which had the same effect as abstaining and thus passively voting for Bush.
Having a politics that makes the perfect the enemy of the good or holding to the silly notion that things must get worse before they can get better, what the French call le mal politique, are both well-traveled dead ends.
As MoveOn put it when announcing its endorsement of Sanders, supporters of both Clinton and Sanders share the common goal of helping “the Democratic nominee win and keep a Republican out of the White House in November.”
But is the tent big enough to ensure everyone inside is a happy camper?
Sanders is thinking long-term. Maybe he will win the nomination. Maybe he will not. The nomination is not his end game.
Sanders has made no secret of his political agenda. Speaking to supporters in Essex Junction, Vt., on Super Tuesday, he said:
This campaign is not just about electing a president. It’s about transforming America. It is about making this great country the nation that we know it has the potential to be. It is about dealing with some unpleasant truths that exist in America today and having the guts to confront those truths. … We are not going to allow billionaires and the super PACs to destroy American democracy.
How receptive will the Democratic Party establishment be? Will they open their arms to legions of young people who have no compunction talking about democratic socialism, breaking up the banks and dismantling the health insurance industry?
Or will we all get trumped?
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Joel Bleifuss, a former director of the Peace Studies Program at the University of Missouri-Columbia, is the editor & publisher of In These Times, where he has worked since October 1986.