Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

15 August 2015

Bernie’s Moment, and His Test


Julian Bond

The post below was up and published before I heard the news of Julian Bond’s passing. Perhaps the best I can do to explain his meaning in my own life is to link my post from the day after Barack Obama’s first election as President.

To progressive whites of my generation, Bond was both an inspiration and a disappointment. We all thought that he, not Obama, would be our first “black” president. And we thought it would happen back in the seventies or eighties. We were optimists.

The disappointment, of course, wasn’t Bond’s fault. The nation simply wasn’t ready. Nixon’s dreadful “Southern Strategy” had drawn all the racists into a single party and made it theirs, vastly increasing their political clout and longevity. The counter-revolution had begun the same year, 1968, that Bobby Kennedy and Dr. King were shot down.

Yet there was Bond, nevertheless: attractive, intelligent, soft-spoken, moderate, and relentless. His life and his work were constant reminders of how great this nation could be—and what leaders we could have had—if only we all had taken Dr. King’s advice to value content of character over skin color.

One thing I didn’t realize until today. Bond had been president of the Southern Poverty Law Center for twenty years. That marvelous organization in the heart of the Deep South has attracted my donations for four decades and is now in my estate plan. Yet Bond kept such a low profile that I didn’t know of his major role in it until today.

Bond’s passing is a sad day for all of us. But it’s also a reminder. Economic equality is a sine qua non for a healthy and prosperous society. But so is equality of people. We can’t have the society we’ve dreamed of since our Founding while some of us are head-slammed, choked or shot down just because of the way we look and who our ancestors were.

Sure, we’ve made progress. A half-black, half-white man sits in the White House. He is our best president since JFK, maybe since FDR. Gays and Lesbians now can marry.

But we still have a way to go. Despite all their political genius, “blacks” are still profiled, mistreated and murdered. Hispanics are still organizing, and peaceful Muslims are just beginning to realize that they have a voice and a political role to play, too.

Bond’s passing reminds us that we are all in this together. Up to now, the 1% and the bosses have always found a way to divide us.

But now the inequalities are so stark and raw they affect everyone. If Bernie can just catch the wave, and attract a few darker faces in the sea of white supporters behind him, maybe we can win. Maybe, just maybe, the horrible era that began in the sixties with three great leaders shot down in their primes can end at last. And maybe Bernie can be the instrument of its ending.

It now looks as if Bernie might win New Hampshire. That wouldn’t mean much, as he hails from neighboring Vermont. What matters is how he plays in the rest of the nation, far from New England.

As I’ve blogged before, Bernie Sanders is my candidate for president, and the one to whom I’ll contribute for the time being. Although he has an attractive, optimistic personality and unusual energy for someone his age, neither trait has much to do with my support. It’s all about policy.

Hillary, in my view, just doesn’t get it. She wants Wall Street’s power and money behind her campaign. So she temporizes and kowtows. She kowtows to the very folks who, just seven years ago, destroyed the global economy and, with it, our nation’s theretofore valid claim to global economic leadership.

Hillary seems blissfully unaware that, having suffered no meaningful sanctions whatsoever, Wall Street is poised to do the same thing again as soon as another prospect of quick, obscene riches arises and the Fed—if just for a moment—lets down its guard. Maybe she and her staff believe those ads on PBS’ streaming services, asserting that Goldman Sachs has become a venture capital firm heavily invested in women’s micro-financing.

Like many progressive men, I would love to see a woman in the White House. I would love to see a Yankee counterpart to Queen Elizabeth I, who turned a small island nation wracked by testosterone-fueled internecine wars into the democratic, scientific, business-oriented culture that dominates the world today. I would love to see Elizabeth Warren in the White House, and I will support her with my voice and money when she is ready.

But Hillary is no Elizabeth Warren, let alone a modern Queen Elizabeth I. She just isn’t that smart. She isn’t even smart enough to foresee the many unintended consequences of our Secretary of State running her official communications through a private e-mail server in her private home.

I hate to say I told you so, but I did, right on this blog . “E-mail-Gate” is a story with legs. It’s not going away, no matter what a review of previously or subsequently classified e-mails later discloses.

Our Secretary of State is the perhaps the most distinguished officer of our Cabinet, and fourth in line for the presidency. If Hillary didn’t understand that an official at that level having a private e-mail server in her private home for official business would cause many unintended technical, security and political consequences, she should have had someone on her staff who did. And she should have listened to that person. Her not having done so was a dumb move incompatible with qualification for the Oval Office.

And what about women’s issues themselves? Women’s autonomy, control over their bodies, health care and equality in pay are all in play in this campaign. That’s all true, as Hillary often reminds us. But do you think Wall Street’s total control of the economy and politics will advance any of those causes? will slow the disappearance of our middle class? Aren’t virtually all the “Masters of the Universe” men?

Hillary just doesn’t seem to have grasped that the problems facing women and our nation generally are all of a piece.

What brings me back to Bernie. So far, he has been a one-trick pony. Cut our gross New-Gilded-Age inequality, he seems to say. Then the middle class will magically rise from the dead, and everything will get better.

There may be a germ of truth in that. Bernie is not the only one to recommend breaking up our “too big to fail” banks. Elizabeth Warren has done so. So has a good Republican, Jon Huntsman, Jr., back in 2012.

If only it were that simple.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot more to sitting in the Oval Office than understanding the vile corrosive effect that extreme and rapidly growing economic inequality has on our American experiment. Last Friday, David Brooks—one of the most reasonable conservative commentators—likened Bernie to Donald Trump in what most voters will conclude upon visualizing him in the Oval Office.

I don’t agree with that assessment. Not at all. But there’s a germ of truth it it. If Bernie really wants to be president, he’s going to have to stop being a one-trick pony and take some serious campaign risks.

In my view, there are two things he must do to realize the dreams of progressives like me, the sooner the better. First, he has to catch the wave of nationwide disgust and revulsion at the manhandling and killing of unarmed African-Americans for no or minor offenses.

I’m white and just turned seventy. Since our useless, costly and losing War in Vietnam, nothing in America has made me angrier, more disgusted and more disappointed in my country than reading about Sandra Bland—a woman!—being head-slammed and dying in jail for failing to signal a lane change, or seeing the video of a South Carolina cop killing an unarmed, fleeing African-American by shooting him in the back.

My first reaction to these (and many similar) events was, “This can’t be my country.” But it was and is.

When I was a kid, my Dad, a writer, made friends with the then police chief of Los Angeles, a man named Tom Reddin. We had him over for dinner, and my Dad got to know him. Maybe I’m naive, and maybe my memory is faulty. But I don’t believe Tom Reddin ever would have have tolerated anything like that kind of police action on his force.

On this issue, I don’t want politics. I don’t want to see another academic study. I want to see a candidate who will come out and shame every police chief in the country, and keep shaming all of them, until all the rotten apples are thrown out of the barrel. I want to see an immediate suspension, preferably without pay, in every such incident and a fair and speedy trial, by zealous prosecutors, for crimes or internal discipline. I want proof that that every police officer knows he or she will pay a price for rash action or excessive force, not tomorrow, not in some utopian future, but right now.

I know, I know. Lots of white people have bought racist stereotyping without much thought. They fear black people and don’t think much about why.

But isn’t that what leadership is for? This is not a “black” issue. It’s an issue of justice and humanity. It’s an issue of who and what we Yanks are. If Bernie can explain that as well as he explains how economic inequality is destroying our middle class, I think he can win. If not, I’m not sure his winning will make much of a difference.

Dr. King understood. Towards his end, his restless mind was discovering the link between violence and inequality. If too few have too much, and the rest have too little—and as the excuses for excessive inequality wear thin—only one thing can maintain the growing inequality: violence. Virtually alone among our political thinkers at the time, Dr. King saw the links between our senseless and unnecessary violence in Vietnam and what was happening at home.

Some say that fundamental discovery was why Dr. King was martyred. I don’t know. There’s enough racism afoot still today to have motivated his murder, let alone in 1968.

But Dr. King was onto something. If you have a just society and a just world, there is much less need or justification for violence, whether at home or abroad.

And so we come to the second thing Bernie must do to win. He must stick his neck out and support the President’s nuclear deal with Iran.

In the general election, no one is going to vote for a presidential candidate with no experience or expressed views on foreign and military policy. If Bernie is serious, he’s going to have to take a stand sooner or later. Why not now, when it matters most?

There is no credible alternative to the deal that the President and Secretary Kerry have spent many months laboriously negotiating with Iran. There is only further bullying—with the prospect of Russia, China and the EU bailing out—and the likelihood of war.

Again, Dr. King would have understood. He would know that what is at stake here is a vital inflection point in world history—a key step in human social evolution.

Iran is absolutely no threat to us. A single one of our many nuclear submarines, against which Iran has no defense whatsoever, could take out all of Iran’s major cities in fifteen minutes. So what is at stake is not our national security, or even Israel’s. What is at stake is whether the world’s leading superpower and putative global pathbreaker takes the path of peace and diplomacy or continues to base its foreign policy on bullying.

Progressives like me understand these points. They know that over two-thirds of our people want single-payer health insurance and want to expand Medicare and Medicaid, not starve them. They know that Obamacare is a small, incremental step in the right direction, against entrenched and well-funded opposition.

But they also know that a lot else in the world, and in our nation, has not yet seen even that tiny level of incremental progress. People my age already have seen three unnecessary wars—in Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan—in our short lifetimes. We want a well-rounded progressive president, not a one-trick pony. We want a leader for all seasons, not an economic Gene McCarthy.

Can Bernie be or become that leader? The answer, as Dylan sung, is blowin’ in the wind. But it’s pretty clear right now that he doesn’t have a serious chance to win unless he can.

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