David O'Brien: Why not Bernie Sanders?


HOLDEN >> Hillary Clinton will likely become president of the United States. She is experienced working for social justice, human rights and, most of the time, the public interest. And of course it would be a very good thing to elect a woman to our highest office.

Still, we Democrats, perhaps chastened by memories of exciting new beginnings eight years ago, seem resigned rather than excited by the presidential campaign. The GOP alternatives are so bad in so many ways that most Democrats expect by summer to do our bit to help Hillary.

But our mood suggests limited prospects for a Democratic tide that would change the Senate and House and open up possibilities for fixing our many broken policies and programs. In Hillary's case destiny may be mostly deadlock.

Sen. Bernie Sanders has done better than the rest of us by arguing with passion that we can make government work for everybody. Big crowds turn out for him and even many who would never vote for him say they are grateful that he pushes campaign discussions toward serious consideration of economic justice and the common good.

He has a long record of working for poor and working people, supporting civil rights, and telling everybody that if they want good government and a just and peaceful world, they will have to get organized in their communities, workplace and political parties. No one has said it more clearly: electing one person won't do it. The only way to beat organized money is with organized people.

Why do so many Democrats smile but shake their heads when Bernie's name comes up? Maybe they have some reservations about his lack of clarity about foreign policy and national security. Others dislike his dry, rather humorless personality. But when pushed many Democrats admit that the real reason for skepticism is that "He is a socialist!"

Experienced activists say that maybe you and I might vote for a democratic socialist, but our fellow citizens? Never! As one Democratic congressman reminded his friends: "This is a very conservative country!"

Yet I wonder. Sanders is a democratic (small d) socialist because for him socialism is democratic politics. He is not inviting people to become democratic socialists, but to become democratic Democrats. And if he persuades enough of us to win the Democratic nomination, he will invite all citizens to become democratic Americans. That is: he will ask us all, Democrats and Republicans and Greens and, yes, socialists, to practice democracy every day, at work, in communities, in churches and in all forms of civic and political associations. Government will work, for everybody, when we do.

A democratic lifer

Democracy, like peace and justice, is not just something we talk about but something we do: peace must be made and justice, as Martin Luther King taught us, is made by committed and conscientious action. And if we don't do democracy, we lose it.

And if you want to see a real person, with faults as well as virtues, doing democracy, with all its messiness, then you need look no further than that democratic lifer, Bernie Sanders.

Personally I like Sanders because I admire (too soft a word) labor leader Eugene Debs, founder of the American Socialist Party; his successor, Methodist minister, pacifist and civil rights activist Norman Thomas; and the last leader of a democratic Socialist Party, Michael Harrington, a democratic strategist still worthy of consideration by serious citizens.

Equally important I admire — and we all should — European social democrats who were murdered for opposing both Nazis and Communists, who led resistance movements across Europe during World War II and then joined Christian Democrats to rebuild democratic and non-communist societies across Western Europe. This is a very honorable tradition and no one, and surely Sen, Sanders would never apologize for it, whatever Hillary Clinton or the Republicans might say.

So why back Bernie, the democratic Democrat? First, because he is the only candidate in either party who makes it clear that democracy, and for that matter security, depends on public work by the citizens, that's us.

Second, because he measures policies and programs by how they affect everybody, especially the poor, and thus talks about the genuinely common good.

And third, because he alone grasps the torch held by American democratic idealists from our earliest days to Martin Luther King that someday, together, we Americans might build a world in which we can live as one people, the human family, in what Pope Francis calls our "common home."

A summer resident of Richmond, David O'Brien is a graduate of St. Joseph's High School and is a professor of history emeritus at Holy Cross.


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