Do you like elections? I'll come back to that question. The 2016 elections are into the backstretch—sorry, I just watched the Preakness—and a couple of things are bothering me.
One is the near-total media blackout in North Carolina when it comes to a certain Democratic presidential candidate.
Another, and it's related, is that as yet there's no Democratic candidate—not one—for what would seem to be a highly winnable U.S. Senate seat from North Carolina in 2016.
On the first subject, let's hear from Gary Pearce, the Democratic strategist and ex-Jim Hunt aide. "As always," Pearce wrote on his blog, "there is the urge to be real, full-throated liberals. And, Lord save us, a suicidal impulse to embrace Bernie Sanders' socialism."
Wait, where else did I hear the "s" word lately? Socialism, that is. Not Sanders.
Right, it was at the Triangle Labor Group last Friday, where the discussion was about the rise of economic inequality as union power falls. And yet, one labor official lamented, few question the "weird, reverse socialism" that allows companies to pay their workers so little that they need food stamps and other government benefits to get by.
Privatized profits from socialized wages.
I'll take Bernie Sanders' brand over that one.
I like elections, but only when candidates run on the issues and not who's best able to suck up to wealthy contributors.
There's a well-established formula for progressive change in this country: People hit the streets, upstart candidates endorse the cause, and whether they're elected or not—and usually they're not—the combination forces the political establishment to at least look like it's listening. Which gives the activists hope and emboldens additional candidates. Rinse and repeat, until public opinion moves.
You know you've had a breakthrough when an establishment figure like Hillary Clinton speaks out, for example, on immigrants' rights—as she did this month—and sounds like she's channeling an activist from 10 years ago.
I've written previously about Clinton. It's time to give our attention to Sanders, not because he's going to defeat her for the Democratic nomination—we don't live in that wonderful world—but rather because his platform is a roadmap for this country's future, lest we plunge over the economic and environmental cliffs ahead.
Sanders would lift up labor and locally owned businesses in a world economy tilted dangerously toward the bankers and mega-corporations. He's for massive spending on public works to create jobs, rebuild our infrastructure (e.g., Amtrak!) and help save the planet from climate change.
Sure it's socialism, of the sort practiced by European social democracies where a robust public sector—the government—serves as a counterweight to the banks, not their handmaiden.
Sanders is asking why public universities in Germany, Denmark and Sweden are tuition-free, while ours go up, up, up in price. How can their governments deliver high-quality health care to every citizen for half what Americans pay?
These are good questions. Let's explore them. That's what elections are for, if they're "for" anything. With the rise of Huge Money in American politics, and the scorched-earth political ads, you have to wonder.
But here, too, Sanders is a refreshing throwback—or perhaps a throw-forward to when the Huge Money is driven out of our democracy temple. Sanders started in Vermont politics with nothing in his pocket except his principles. He lost his first three elections—badly. He's not afraid to push the political ball uphill. One example: When Congress passed the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act in 1996, Sanders was in the U.S. House. He voted no.
But he's someone to be "saved" from? Not if you like elections as a tool of reform.
Actually, Sanders' political courage has made him overwhelmingly popular in Vermont. In 2012, running as an independent, he was elected to his second Senate term with 71 percent of the vote.
Democrats are perpetually torn between candidates "who can win" (i.e., raise money) and "movement" candidates who try to reshape public opinion. In 2016, there's no need to be torn. Clinton is the former—and maybe she can win, maybe not, against a Republican "change candidate" like Marco Rubio. But she'll be helped if public opinion goes left on the economic and environmental tyranny of the super-rich. Which may happen if Sanders gets a hearing.
Fortunately, Sanders is off to a good start, raising money from 75,000 small-money contributors (average: $43) in the four days after he announced, and more than $4 million from 100,000 donors to date. Unfortunately, Sanders campaigned unofficially for 18 months, including two trips to Raleigh—only to be ignored by our in-state press.
Similarly, there's no need to be torn in the Democratic Senate primary. Quite the opposite: The door is open for a Sanders-style progressive to run on a platform of national reform and raise the issues that the "candidate who can win"—when the Democrat establishment finally produces one—will be advised not to touch.
A progressive candidate might, for instance, talk up the virtues of unions and join the AFL-CIO in fighting the latest free-trade deals that promise to enrich corporations at the cost of American jobs.
Oh, my. A Democrat who's for working people and organized labor? Why that's ...that's ... socialism!
This article appeared in print with the headline "The S word."