The Courage to Bern
Earlier tonight a friend of mine posted this article criticizing the #FeeltheBern fervor drowning out all of those Hillary supporters who are just as passionate about their candidate.
I took an hour to pen the following response while my kid waited patiently for supper. I decided to post it here because, I needed a place to expand on these ideas that I have felt too inhibited from proclaiming to a wider audience. In the 10 years since the event described below, I have changed my view on politics and what I expect from our system.
And here I talk very frankly about being forced to create new ideas about myself and about the concept of loyalty. Take from it what you will, but it is my story and my reasons for believing we are on the precipice.
The choices that we make today for ourselves and our generation matter more than ever.
Call and Response
Thanks, B. for posting this and adding your voice to the mix. But I thought I would share a little of my own viewpoint. My issue with Hillary is that after years being active in politics and the Democratic Party I find her solutions to be much of the same and I don’t expect any different results. I am a progressive Democrat and that used to mean something until it got co-opted by every politician who wanted to sound fancy but secretly favored and defended their own power.
Yes, I hear people make the pie-in-the-sky arguments about Bernie, but I don’t know if you know that once upon a time I was a lobbyist who was just as much of an idealist as Mr. Sanders. I worked for a non-profit doing education reform in a highly hostile legislature that was dominated by those who wanted nothing more than to see our issue fail–to see me fail. I remember being so intimidated and scared being asked to write and develop and lead the lobbying effort on a bill that many, including my own boss, deemed to be a pie-in-the-sky assignment. We were going to run it that year, get people used to me as the new lead lobbyist and then after it failed make some minor changes, have another year of meetings without the burden of the term-limited fundamentalists and then run it again.
It was a little two page bill with two strike-outs and two small additions. I was told it couldn’t be done. In a year that voters were rejecting a similar but broader measure on the ballot, I had no chance of passing this little bill and no business thinking that someone as young and as idealist as I could pull it off. I had fierce opposition and and I had vowed to do my job without relying on manipulation or dirty lobbying tricks. It scared me to death and I had many a panic attack over our legislative agenda that year. I was told more than once to let it go and do something more practical and pragmatic.
But I pulled off the impossible that year. And I did it with only three “no” votes, all of them were reasonable objections to the content of the bill. I had conversations. I “reached across the aisle” and listened to the opposition, listened to their points and addressed them as honestly and as directly as I could. I didn’t compromise but I convinced them of the value of the legislation I was bringing to the table. That wasn’t my only upset that year either. I also got a 50% increase in funding restoring funding levels for our program to pre-recession levels.
I was the girl on fire.
Don’t Underestimate Resistance to Change
Democrats had branded me a traitor and literally slammed the door in my face when I would approach them about our issue. They unilaterally hated my issue so much that a few of them didn’t hesitate to make personal attacks, dragging my kids into their perverse loyalty games during committee hearings or negotiation sessions. See, good Dems aren’t supposed to support reform. They’re supposed to drink the kool-aid and demand that all money go to failing public schools. The inequalities be damned. Personal autonomy and innovation can fuck off. If we just blindly followed the platform, we’d be saved, goddamn you.
They demanded such blind allegiance that the only way to get the votes was to remind them that we have more in common than they thought. I appealed to individual ideals for education equality and social justice. Even Republicans were impressed that I had the courage to stand against my party. It was an uphill battle in hostile territory, but I still did it. I did what they say couldn’t be done. I passed nearly everything in our pie-in-the-sky agenda that I had developed with dignity and integrity. I earned the respect of my peers and had even been asked if I’d thought of running for office.
And then I was punished
That same year was also the year I was outed–just a few precious months after all that success. I can’t possibly describe how devastating this was, not just because of the violation of my privacy and ideals, but because it came from the very people I was helping.
The people who outed me did so out of blind party loyalty. They wanted to out me for my “liberal agenda” which also included outing me for my sexuality, my relationships. It was so hurtful and painful. And sadly too ironic since I was promoting their agenda, I was the progressive Democrat putting herself on the line to do what was right for K-12 education, not just because I was paid to do it, but because I believed in it.
When I was outed the Dems didn’t do anything to help me. They shut every door in my face. After being outed they treated me like a liability. Some even openly mocked me. My “story” lingered around the halls for years, the legend growing larger and more ridiculous each time someone whispered it. And only those with the courage of conviction and vision to have stood with me during that uphill battle were the only ones who were there for me to help me pick up the pieces.
Whether it was a Dem or a Republican who outed me, it doesn’t matter. I was punished for something: my courage, my conviction, for being Latina, for succeeding, for daring to do things differently than the pre-ordained formula favored by the elite. I was out of work, broke and suicidal. After applying for hundreds of jobs, I landed only three interviews over 8 months. My spirit was broken and I felt abandoned by the very system that I had trusted for so long.
This fundamentally changed my view of “business as usual” politics and the idea of blind party loyalty. I took great personal and professional risks to advocate for this issue. Those who outed me cheapened those victories and tarnished my credibility. They made me pay for my sins–for sharing a vision and taking an honest stand.
Make Way for the Anointed Leaders
All of this soured my taste for the way we establish our platform as Dems. I started to require more of our leaders: to be thoughtful, to be discerning, to be courageous, to be empathetic, to be a voice for their constituents as much as active listener to those who dissent.
I’ve witnessed a very disturbing trend in our party politics. There has been a growing invasion of what I call entitlement politics. And it’s not what you would think. It’s party leaders at mostly low to moderate level of influence who gain a little bit of power by running caucuses, hosting candidate fundraisers, and generally being the gatekeepers of information who feel entitled to be the next rep or senator because of some magic formula that somehow anoints them as the heir apparent to the incumbent who is term-limited.
I don’t throw my support behind someone just because they’re a Dem, just like I don’t automatically love someone just because they’re also a woman or Latinx or a geek or poly or sex-positive. I demand more for the price of my support and trust.
We all should.
When I’ve questioned these entitlement candidates about why I should vote for them, I get answers like “I worked for X candidate” or “I was elected to school board and this is the next step”. Why is that a valid qualification? Sure it’s a resume line, but tell me, what do you believe?
So I pull out my pet issues and see if they have anything resembling an informed position.
Or in the absence of that, do they at least have an openness to considering another viewpoint?
And if that fails I have to only judge them on their ability to construct a sentence or memorize the party talking points.
We need to demand more than anointing a leader just because they did their time licking envelopes and waving signs. Sorry to sound so pejorative, but for some of these candidates I’ve met that’s all they are: fluff and circumstance. I am most impressed with substance and character. What wins me over is someone who answers the question they are asked without equivocation or evasion, by addressing it with substance and understanding, even if I don’t like the answer.
During my caucus those party elite, the anointed kings and queens of their sad little hills, are the ones who stood for Hillary. And the majority of the people who were coming to their first caucus ever stood for Bernie. That speaks volumes to me.
An answer worth giving
I have worked in politics for too long and have seen too much. We are on the crest of a revolution and I see the need for a leader who will recognize a problem and listen to people who have ideas on how to fix it. I desire a leader who has the courage to put themselves out there for a cause that may be unpopular. I want a leader will speak up for the people and give them a voice. I desire a leader who can inspire those who are often shifted to the sidelines of our process to get up and pay attention.
Bernie has stood against the unpopular position so often that when I heard he was running I thought he didn’t have a chance. And while I was wary, I wasn’t ready to crown Hillary as the nominee yet. He convinced me that he just might be able to pull off the impossible. And that is worth the risk, because I know from first-hand knowledge that it can be done.
But what solidified it for me was the debate in Flint, MI and this gem of an answer from Bernie:
Clear, visionary, unpopular (kinda), direct. He didn’t give conditions on his support or opposition to fracking. He didn’t play to the crowd. He didn’t care that he pissed off the oil & gas industry. This is what I want in a leader.
And yes, leaders do need nuance to their policy positions. Yes, leaders need to listen to people who are impacted by proposed policies and changes. Yes, leaders need to consider evidence. And it is completely valid to change your position on an issue once you’ve become convinced of a different viewpoint. But we equate changing your mind to all-out calculation or betrayal.
I don’t hate Hillary or her supporters. We each make our choices and have our own priorities. For me–I have lost faith in the party elite and Hillary and Bill Clinton are as close as we get to modern day anointed royalty (although not the Kennedy-level democratic royalty the prior generation established). I have watched the democratic political machine tear apart dissent and revolution, focusing only on stopping Republicans instead of creating good policy. Using a lopsided superdelegate system that allows the party elite to be the gatekeepers.
Simply put I don’t want a candidate who is anointed just because everyone thinks they can (or should) win. I want a candidate who will step forward with vision and purpose. I want a candidate who will fight for what’s right, who doesn’t give up hope on that vision just because it’s not politically easy. I want a candidate who aims to earn my support, not one who expects it. I want a candidate who has a vision of the world as it ought to be instead of what is politically expedient for it to be.
Clinton is a fine person and a very smart woman but not the leader for where I want our country to be at this critical time in history. Her presidency wouldn’t be a disaster. I’ll support her if she wins the nomination, but I want her to earn it, not have it handed to her.
But consider for a moment that maybe Bernie’s ideas seem unrealistic because we’ve been so deprived of political leadership and imagination for so long that the contrast in speech, thought and vision is like someone turning on the color in a black and white/Republican-Democratic movie.