At last! Senator Bernie Sanders joined Hillary Clinton on a New Hampshire stage Tuesday to say two things many of us had begun to despair we’d ever hear from him. One, that he actually did lose the 2016 primary campaign to Secretary Clinton, and two, that he was endorsing her for president of the United States.
Sure, Senator Sanders’s embrace of the presumptive Democratic nominee included all the inclinations that many of us have come to find, shall we say, a tad grating about the man: his interminable, self-congratulatory stump speech, wearingly bereft of humor, argument, story or anecdote, more a listing of all bad things in the world and how they must be put right, delivered in his usual droning shout. The need to make it all about the platform concessions he had wrangled out of Mrs. Clinton, and the historical magnitude of the Senator himself: “Together we have begun a political revolution to transform America and that revolution continues.” Followed by about as short and perfunctory an actual endorsement as possible.
At least it was done. If Achilles had sulked this long in his tent we would all be speaking Trojan, but never mind. Bernie Sanders did, clearly and unequivocally, say that Hillary Clinton had won the most elected delegates, that she “will make an outstanding president and I am proud to stand with her here today,” and that he intends “to do everything I can to make certain” that she “will be the next president of the United States.”
This was a welcome departure from Mr. Sanders’s tactic of repeatedly questioning the legitimacy of the Democrats’ admittedly imperfect nominating process. After being beaten by over 300,000 votes in New York, Mr. Sanders implied that he might have won, had “tens of thousands of people” not been purged from the voter rolls, while a spokesman called the election “a shameful demonstration” and “a disgrace.” A decisive loss in California’s primary elicited another dark (and baseless) insinuation that, somehow, the vote was not quite right.
In between, there was an almost constant litany of complaints. There were too many Clinton allies in the party leadership. There were not enough debates, or caucuses, or the lines at the polling places were too long. The superdelegates should not count, nor should primaries in reliably red Southern states — even though a large percentage of those votes came from Democrats of color. At one point, a Sanders spokesperson even complained that a Las Vegas caucus was too near the hotel bars and too far from food.
For revolutionaries, Mr. Sanders and his supporters sure seemed to expect a lot of help from the establishment.
These critiques, unsurprisingly, inspired all sorts of conspiracy theories and wild accusations. I was told by two celebrities that their inability to register as Democrats and vote for Mr. Sanders on the day of New York’s primary showed them “the dark underside of American politics.” Mrs. Clinton has “gamed the nominating process,” and her election will leave “a national majority of citizens in open rebellion,” wrote a retired professor on Alice Walker’s official website. An online, “instant documentary” charged the Democratic Party — and by extension, Mrs. Clinton — with outright fraud at the polls in California. Once Mr. Sanders’s defeat became inescapable, some of his most die-hard believers began to argue that a Trump presidency might even be preferable to having Mrs. Clinton in the White House.
“In a way she is more dangerous,” Susan Sarandon insisted in June, warning that under a President Clinton, “We’ll be in Iran in two seconds.”
But other Sanders diehards are quite prepared to “bring the jubilee” and accept a transformative, Trump victory.
“I’d rather see the empire burn under to the ground under Trump, opening up at least the possibility of radical change, than cruise on autopilot under Clinton,” the journalist Christopher Ketcham wrote in The Daily Beast, adding that “the left-contrarian, anti-Hillary, pro-Trump arsonist crowd is larger and wider spread than the cubicled creatures in the Clinton campaign have accounted for.” Mr. Ketcham urged Mr. Sanders to run on the Green Party ticket, and thereby toss the election to Donald Trump. This could, he conceded, “usher in the end of the democracy, the death of the republic, the rise of the hard totalitarian state.” But what the heck? After all, “we are already living in what Princeton political scientist Sheldon Wolin calls a soft or inverted totalitarian system.”
I voted for Senator Sanders in the New York primary in April, because I agree with him on most of the issues. I have never regretted a vote more. You can tell a lot about a candidate only in defeat, unfortunately, and what defeat says about Bernie isn’t pretty. Mr. Sanders has led an admirable life of social activism, and his record of public service is impeccable. But it is impossible for me to imagine that he possesses the temperament or the talents required to be a successful president.
I sympathize with those who believe that Hillary Clinton represents a tired, compromised, laggingly conservative wing of the Democratic Party leadership. They have a point. But she is the nominee and, as Mr. Sanders now concurs, the only alternative to an unspeakable alternative.
Fortunately, most Sanders supporters agree. The old saying that “Republicans fall in line, Democrats need to fall in love” with their presidential candidates was never really true, and it seems less so than ever this year. Polling shows that 85 percent of Sanders supporters are willing to vote for Mrs. Clinton in November, a faster coalescing around the survivor of a fervent primary fight than her “PUMAs” exhibited in 2008. Most of the remainder will likely come around over the next four months, even if some do go ahead with their promise to run disruptive demonstrations at the Democratic convention in Philadelphia.
Yet there is a lingering problem here, one that goes beyond simply finding the intellectual honesty to admit that Hillary isn’t Trump.
With Bernie out of the battle, what remains is the left’s odd, outmoded doctrine of purity, of revolutionary posturing. This is a philosophy alien to the long legacy of pragmatic American liberalism. Its perpetuation speaks directly to the reasons today’s liberals seem to have such difficulty holding and wielding power in this country. “The worse, the better,” went the Leninist saw. There is no reforming the rotten old system. Best to “let the empire burn,” and have the fires purify the new society.
True believers will not be dissuaded from this worldview, even if history tells us that almost no violent revolution in a major country has ever brought about a better, freer society without intervening years (and more like decades) of dictatorship and slaughter. Even our own revolution left the little matter of slavery for another day and the bloodiest war in our history.
“Why visit Russia when you can go to Denmark?” the great jurist Louis Brandeis, one of the intellectual fathers of American liberalism, liked to say in the 1930s when friends told him they were off to see how the future would work. It was his tribute to social democratic incrementalism when revolution was all the rage.
Change — lasting, democratic change, which is the only kind worth fighting for — is hard, slow, often exasperating. And yet the theatrics of revolution seem to mesmerize the left, over and over again. The concept, all too similar to the religious fundamentalist’s obsession with the end times, is that cataclysm will bring redemption. There is inherent in this a deep indifference to the historical recognition that one thing proceeds from another, reaction following action, and that when we start down an unknown trail we cannot be sure where we will end up. Hubert Humphrey or Richard Nixon, Jimmy Carter or Ronald Reagan, Al Gore or George W. Bush, it makes no difference, for if the apocalypse comes the millennium will follow. The worse, the better.
“Our intuition knew better than our passion that radicalism and liberalism were joined in a symbiosis,” Todd Gitlin wrote in “The Sixties: Years of Hope, Days of Rage,” his soul-searching account of the old New Left, and his own radicalization. Alienated in ‘68, Mr. Gitlin doesn’t bother to vote against Richard Nixon, only to realize that “New Left radicalism was a vine that had grown up around liberalism, they had sprung from the same energy and soil of possibility, and although by now the two represented different cultures, different styles, different ideologies, like it or not they were going to stand or fall together.”
The corrosive effects of a political philosophy devoted to waiting for the revolution can be heard in the oddly passive demands of those speeches by Mr. Sanders that lay out always what he wants, but not how we can get it. It is reflected in the left’s distraction over presidential elections while failing to build democracy on a state or local level. Voter turnout in the 2014 midterm elections — another in what has become a long line of off-year, Democratic electoral disasters — dropped to its lowest level since 1942, when much of the country was preoccupied with driving the Axis powers back to hell.
A better concession speech than Mr. Sanders’s was Barry Goldwater’s address to his own, angry supporters, at the 1960 Republican convention in Chicago, who were convinced that the party’s nominee, Richard Nixon, had sold out to the liberal platform demands of Gov. Nelson Rockefeller.
“This country is too important for anyone’s feelings,” Goldwater thundered at his delegates. “This country, and its majesty, is too great for any man, be he conservative or liberal, to stay home and not work just because he doesn’t agree. Let’s grow up, conservatives. We want to take this party back, and I think some day we can. Let’s go to work.”
Goldwater backed up his words by campaigning hard in support of Nixon — and not incidentally, building a foundation for the right wing around the country. Four years later, he would use it to gain the nomination himself, and by 1980, Ronald Reagan had taken not only the party but the country for conservatism.
If Bernie Sanders and his followers want to do their best for the things that he — and most Clinton supporters — care about most, they will take Goldwater’s words to heart, instead of opting for suicide by Trump. Let’s grow up, liberals, and take our party and our country back.