Before it was such an upsetting political year, 2016 was glorious. Back in the spring, Bernie Sanders said he was leading a political revolution for greater equality and against war, and I was among many idealists who believed that he might actually win the Democratic nomination.
Before Trump’s Michigan, there was Bernie’s Michigan. He surprised the pundits and the pollsters last March by coming from way down in the polls to beat Hillary Clinton there. Eight months later Trump would shock the pollsters and pundits by doing the very same thing in Michigan. Obviously, team Clinton failed to learn the political lesson. It was too entitled and insular. (Who else needed a committee of eight to sign off on a tweet about Pope Francis’s statement on climate change?).
The Trump revolution is fearful to many people today because he was so openly racist and sexist, but his revolution was built from some of the same political materials and instincts that Bernie tried to build his out of. In fact, the great thing about Bernie’s revolution is that even though he was incapable of the anger that may have been required to topple Clinton, and Wikileaks hadn’t come along yet with its bald evidence that the system really was rigged, he cobbled together the coalition that is the future of the left in America, and it was non-racial. His movement embraced working- and middle-class white people who have now become the bugaboo of the elites, and some on the left too, in the wake of Trump’s victory. He embraced Muslims and African-Americans and of course millennials too. He was 75, but his movement was generational.
Sanders has maintained that populist ethos through Tuesday’s carnage. He’s declared, “I do not believe that most of the people who are thinking about voting for Mr. Trump are racist or sexist.” And he has pushed for Keith Ellison, the great Minnesota congressman who happens to be a Muslim, and who visited Gaza, and boycotted Netanyahu, to be the chair of the Democratic National Committee. It may even happen.
Sanders’s rhetorical brilliance of the spring now comes back to haunt us. Hillary Clinton refused to release her speeches to Goldman, Sachs, and at rally after rally, Bernie said, I’ll release all my speeches to the Wall Street bankers, and he threw his hands in the air — There they are. Well months later Wikileaks released Clinton’s speeches, and they surely helped Trump. So did a comment that is entirely alien to Bernie Sanders’s worldview: Clinton’s sneering claim that Trump was supported by a basket of “deplorables.” No doubt Clinton stood for a lot of good inclusive things in her often inspiring October campaign against Trump. But she also stood for shallow elitist careerism. It was no coincidence that she was supported by billionaires 20-to-1 over Trump. And though Colin Powell branded Trump as a “national disgrace” in a leaked email, he also branded Clinton: “unbridled ambition… not transformational.”
That is the great frustration of this political season: that transformational populist political materials so important to the left were abandoned by the establishment Democratic candidate, and Trump picked them up instead, and won with them. On election night, it was a Republican commentator who said on one network or another that 13 million people lost their homes in the Wall Street credit meltdown and no banker went to jail. An echo of Bernie. And though Chris Matthews talked every night about America’s costly and brutalizing wars in the Middle East, Clinton couldn’t seize that issue either. Nor could the pundit class that supported her so fervently. Because they too supported those wars; and Clinton surrogate Hilary Rosen was pushing regime change in Syria on CNN; and the neoconservatives were looking forward to regrouping in the shadows of the Clinton administration.
One good thing about the Trump victory is that the shakeup of the Democratic Party that we all hoped was going to happen in the next couple few years is happening right now. The party is smashed to bits. And when it is reformed in the months and years to come, this will be a generational revolution. The millennials who came out to those Bernie rallies by the tens of thousands will be taking over the ideological and political reins of the party. It will be an antiwar party and a small-d democratic party, concerned with social justice and equality. Palestinians will be honored at last; BDS will not be spat upon, as it was day after day in the Clinton braintrust. Haim Saban and the rest of the hard-core Israel lobby megadonors will have to go Republican, and good riddance.
There is obviously a Jewish piece to this reformation. Modern Jewish identity is at stake; and here too Bernie Sanders shows the way forward.
In the last days of the campaign the establishment punditocracy was caught up in the question of whether a Trump ad that showed three Jewish faces, among many others, in an attack on the Clinton establishment was anti-Semitic. But all three Jewish faces are powerful people, Janet Yellen, George Soros, and Lloyd Blankfein. And the price of power in our society is scrutiny. The Jewish establishment was an important part of the Clinton campaign– as everyone from Jeffrey Goldberg to J.J. Goldberg to Stephanie Schriock to Steven Cohen stated.
Bernie Sanders offered a different way. His campaign was based on small contributions, and when he dared to criticize Israel’s bombing of Gaza and say that Netanyahu is “not right all the time” in the April debate in New York, it was a liberating moment for the Democratic Party, and for non-Zionist Jews. Jonathan Tasini and Norman Finkelstein were both over the moon. Critics of Israel could open their mouths inside the mainstream discourse and live another day. The Democratic Party will never be the same.
Just as important were Sanders’s expressions of humility and egalitarianism, which he said he had gotten in part from Jewish tradition. In an era of Jewish wealth and nationalism and particularism, this too is a different way. Sanders is a proud universalist. He drew directly on the life of the Jewish Bundists in eastern Europe: they believed that Jews should participate fully, politically and socially, in the societies they belong to, and they should be part of a broad-based movement for democratic socialism (as James North states it).
Sanders’s personal mythology was Jewish but pointedly not sectarian. He honored his paint salesman immigrant father, and Roosevelt and Churchill, too, but when asked if he believed in God he was a modern, and gave one of the best statements of his campaign:
The answer is yes and I think when we talk about God, whether it it is Christianity, or Judaism, or Islam, or Buddhism, what we are talking about is what all religions hold dear, and, that is, to do unto others as you would like them to do unto you.
I am here tonight, and I’m running for president– I’m a United States Senator from my great state of Vermont– because I believe that. Because I believe morally and ethically we do not have the right to turn our backs on children in Flint, Michigan, who are being poisoned or veterans who are sleeping out on the street. What I believe as the father of seven beautiful grandchildren: I want you to worry about my grandchildren and I promise you I will worry about your family. We are in this together.
One of the most obscene DNC emails leaked after the campaign showed that the Democratic leadership wanted to smear him as an atheist.
Does he believe in a God. He had skated on saying he has a Jewish heritage.
While former party chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz said,
The Israel stuff is disturbing.
Sadly, it required Donald Trump to smash that old sclerotic establishment. But now they’re gone, and Sanders’s populist revolution will not end. It is in the best hands, the next generation’s.
H/t Scott Roth, James North, Adam Horowitz.