Morality and the Soul of America

Is it time for Bernie Sanders to drop out of the race for the Democratic nomination and for his supporters to unite behind Hillary Clinton?

With only the District of Columbia primary remaining, Hillary Clinton leads in pledged delegates, superdelegates, and the popular vote, and has all but wrapped up the Democratic nomination with a rousing speech after the close of the June 7th primaries. Many media outlets, politicians, and pundits are now mounting pressure on Bernie Sanders to abandon his previous proclamations to stay in till the Democratic National Convention and to drop out and throw his support behind Clinton. Some even go further, saying that Sanders’ continued presence in the race just shows he is arrogant, unable to let go of his ego, and out of touch with reality. They argue that his goal now should be to unite the party to defeat Donald Trump, rather than advocating for his own views.

On the other side, many Sanders supporters are as fervent as ever, publicly stating that they would like Sanders to stay in the race. They point out that Clinton herself claimed multiple times in 2008 that she would stay in the race until the convention and actually gave a speech on June 3, 2008 – the date of the final Democratic primaries that year – in which she did not agree to drop out (though notably she did drop out a few days later, on June 7). They also note that Sanders polls much better against Trump than does Clinton.

However, all of this misses the point. Sanders v. Clinton in 2016 is fundamentally a battle for the soul of America: it is a contest between morality versus practicality, between a philosophy of “it is the journey, not the destination” versus “the ends justify the means”, between standing firm by convictions versus compromising within the system. It is at its core, a question of methodology: are we, as a country, going to try to move forward by any means necessary or will we go after progress in a way we can be proud of?

Obama v. Clinton in 2008 was strikingly different – Obama and Clinton actually agreed on methodology as well as policy. Consider this article from before the 2008 election, which marks both Obama and Clinton as “establishment candidates” rather than “conviction candidates” and notes that “neither of them has shown a desire to spend their significant political capital taking risks to, for instance, confront entrenched power or highlight taboo issues like economic inequality” (http://www.nbcnews.com/id/15920730/ns/politics-tom_curry/t/clinton-versus-obama-there-any-difference/#.V1dVwfkrJzU).

Both Obama and Clinton spoke of withdrawing from Iraq, of resolving the financial crisis, of expanding access to health care, and more, but they were notably aligned on the idea that all of this should be done in a politically expedient, non-controversial manner. There was little to no debate about trying to do things a better way, a way inspired by morals first and practical considerations second.

This is precisely why Bernie Sanders’ presence is so valuable. It is Bernie Sanders in 2016 (and frankly the last 30 years) who has truly inspired millions of Americans to think about our moral obligation to be better human beings and pull each other up, to remove the influence of money in politics and the media, to disavow SuperPACs, and to combat the grotesque income inequality we see in the United States. Perhaps the most powerful examples of this call for empathy come from his own words on his spirituality and his closing statement in the New York Democratic debate, both shown below.

I believe that, as a human being, the pain that one person feels, if we have children who are hungry in America, if we have elderly people who can't afford their prescription drugs, you know what, that impacts you, that impacts me," Sanders said. "And I worry very much about a society where some people spiritually say, 'It doesn't matter to me. I got it, I don't care about other people.' So my spirituality is that we are all in this together and that when children go hungry, when veterans sleep out on the street, it impacts me. That's my very strong spiritual feelings."

I believe that this country has enormous potential if we have the guts to take on the big money interests who dominate our economic and political life. And I disagree with Secretary Clinton in the belief that you can get money from Wall Street, that you can get money for a super PAC from powerful special interests, and then at the end of the day do what has to be done for the working families of this country. I just don't accept that.

What I believe is that this country, if we stand together and not let the Trumps of the world divide us up, can guarantee health care to all people as a right, can have paid family and medical leave, can make public colleges and universities tuition-free, can lead the world in transforming our energy system and combatting climate change, can break up the large financial institutions, can demand that the wealthiest people in this country start paying their fair share of taxes.

And we can do that when millions of people stand up, fight back, and create a government that works for all of us, not just the 1 percent.

The point is not even that Clinton does not believe in doing things a better way – I would love to believe that she does – it’s that she can never be a true champion for doing things a better way in the same way that Bernie Sanders can. Her actions demonstrate that she sees things like SuperPACs – and a correlation between money and influence – as necessary evils to achieve progress today. In addition, whether or not you believe she is a victim of an age-old Republican smear campaign to paint her as dishonest, she unequivocally lacks transparency when it comes to any controversial issue, from her email scandal to her Goldman Sachs speeches.

Bernie Sanders, conversely, lives and breathes the idea that in order for America to change, the system must change and give voice to everyone. He campaigns on the idea that every single American must commit to being more empathetic and getting involved. Again, Hillary Clinton may agree with these ideas but rather than truly embody them, she has chosen the mantle of a “progressive who gets things done” given an understanding that there are some limitations we must just accept.

Now, there is nothing wrong with this positioning by Clinton – clearly, some consideration of reality and practicality is necessary and Clinton has a staggering level of experience and understanding of the nuances in today’s political system. Making the point that change doesn’t happen overnight and stressing that we all have limitations is absolutely important. But we have also received a resounding message in this election cycle that the youngest generation of voters – the future of America – is not willing to accept the status quo and genuinely believes we can and should aspire to do better. There’s a reason young voters are massively in favor of Sanders. Yes, it is important to be aware of reality, but setting boundaries first and then thinking about how to make progress is not how our greatest thinkers and achievers make a difference – it is hugely more productive to instead set the goalposts first and then think about how to reach them.

This, in essence, is the Sanders v. Clinton battle – the rhetoric of political revolution in which everyone must get involved to reach an ideal future versus the rhetoric of overcoming pre-existing barriers in order to reach an achievable future. It is the contrast between the statement “Here’s what each of us must do to make our collective dreams come true” versus “Given the challenges we collectively face, here’s what we each can do.”

All of which leads me to back to the initial question: is it time for Sanders to drop out and for his supporters to unite behind Clinton? Quite frankly, the question is condescending. Asking the above question is really like asking whether we a nation should stifle the messenger who best espouses the ideology that is inspiring a generation of Americans to be better humans just when he has captivated their attention.

People who say yes to our question at hand typically use at least one of two rationale: (1) a fear that Sanders may harm Clinton going into a general election battle against Donald Trump and (2) a belief that Sanders would be wrongfully deluding his most ardent supporters by staying in the race rather than energizing them to work hard in the future for the change they believe in.

On point (1), let’s pause and really think for a second about how feeble of an idea this is. Consider the fact that Trump is a demonstrably racist, inexperienced, and unpredictable Republican challenger. Do we as a nation have such little belief in Clinton that we think Sanders staying in the race and advocating for basic human morality will harm Clinton’s chances of winning a general election against Trump? Yes, Sanders uses rhetoric that is at times acrimonious, but he is also talking about issues that politicians have not dared to talk about for years, and is asking all of us to get involved in the American policy debate so that we can create a better democracy in which each and every person actually has a voice. He is asking us not only to make progress, but to do it the right way. That’s all.

On point (2), the most ardent Sanders supporters actually believe so deeply in his message that they are already inspired to fight for it for years to come, and that is precisely why they don’t want him to drop out – they want him to continue being their voice. Staying in the race gives Sanders a wonderful chance to continue to speak to huge audiences about these issues on a national stage. Suggesting that Sanders’ continued present in the race would be disingenuous to his ideals and his supporters is ludicrous.

Shouldn’t we as a country want a society in which all people are more aware and empathetic of each other’s struggles and differences in order to find solutions and achieve progress? Shouldn’t we celebrate a candidate who has the courage to call out how much influence a wealthy elite has in society today? Shouldn’t we encourage that candidate to take advantage of his recent surge in popularity to both reinforce his message among a captive audience and inspire even more Americans to be better? Shouldn’t we be energized to dream about how much better we can really be as a nation if each one of us commits getting involved?

People who call on Sanders to drop out, and on his supporters to unite behind Clinton right now are unfortunately missing the point of the Sanders movement. Sanders supporters were energized this election cycle to speak out, volunteer, and donate not simply to see Sanders win the presidency or to help institute progressive change, but because deep-down they want to see America do things the right way. Regardless of what happens to the Sanders movement after this election, he has an opportunity right now to reach as many Americans as possible in just the coming seven weeks before the Democratic National Convention with his ideas of equality in every sense of the word. In order to achieve a more perfect union, we owe it to ourselves and our nation to give Bernie Sanders that opportunity.

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