Leonard Quart: Bernie back in the day, but Hillary today

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NEW YORK >> The Bernie Sanders campaign has elicited innumerable columns and articles, by writers trying to get a handle on the principled, somewhat rigid septuagenarian. He is a politician whose hectoring, finger-wagging style evokes an old socialist uncle I would have revered as a boy, if he only had existed.

Liberals and leftists criticizing either Bernie's political limitations, such as his repetition of the same mantra opposing the big banks and the one percenters, or praising his integrity, idealism, and ability to move the Democratic Party in a more radical direction, write most of the columns I read. One of the most clear and convincing statements about his virtues was written by New York Times columnist Timothy Egan, who is not a Sanders supporter, stating that: "He's done a real service, for the party he only recently joined, and for the country. Clinton is a far better candidate because of him. More than that, the Democratic Party is paying attention to the angry millions in the margins, those who may be tempted by the demagogue who wants to make America white again. Thank Sanders for that."

What struck me is that when I was active on the 1960s left, I would probably have embraced Sanders and been part of the adoring, youthful crowds in Washington Square Park. I spent a great deal of time involved in student and faculty issues, but I was never a hard- line, ideological leftist. I never mouthed revolutionary slogans nor romanticized Third World movements, and I was totally opposed to violence.

What I did was passionately embrace the era's rebellious atmosphere, being sympathetic to the undermining of traditional roles and authority and some aspects of the counterculture. My politics were generally democratic socialist, seeking to create a more egalitarian and cooperative society.

That led me to nebulous dreams, which were often utopian in nature, but I remained always skeptical of ideological certitudes. Even then I believed in seeing the world as filled with ambiguity and contradiction, though there were a couple of moments I would indulge in the empty rhetoric of the era, damning the powers that be as "fascists," but using that kind of over-the-top jargon was a rarity, and that put me at odds with some of my leftist peers.

Bernie would have been the kind of political candidate I would have welcomed then, a man of the left who had a moral and social vision, but didn't sound as if he was parroting Mao, Stalin, or some version of homegrown terrorism or nihilism. He would have represented a sane anti-war and anti-corporate political alternative, more radical than Robert Kennedy or Eugene McCarthy but still believing in the political process. I would have been satisfied that he was a moderate man of the left.

More than 45 years later I voted for Hillary in the New York primary rather than Bernie. It's not that Hillary, who though more knowledgeable and cogent about the issues than any of the candidates, and also extremely competent and intellectually sharp, arouses my passionate support. I remain wary of her hawkishness, and her links to Bill Clinton's neo-liberal legacy with its close ties to Wall Street, its repeal of the Glass Steagall Act, and its deregulatory agenda that contributed to the financial crisis. Still, I feel the uncharismatic Hillary, who has a penchant for making political blunders, such as her infamous use of her family's private email server for official communications as secretary of state, would make a stronger candidate and president than Bernie.

Though Bernie's vision of a more equitable society still stirs my '60s soul, and the movement he leads, if the young sustain it with their political enthusiasm, holds out some hope for the future, I can't imagine him either winning an election or being able to achieve anything if he comes to power. I share Paul Krugman's belief that making a "stirring progressive case" doesn't mean "we can overturn the innate limits of politics." And that dreams are no substitute for "hard thinking about means and ends."

I know over the years the dashing of hopes, and a dose of cynicism have made me more pragmatic politically, and also much more pessimistic about the possibility of grand transformations. So I believe in incremental change, and I work for candidates who can make our daily lives just a bit better.

I am at one with Barack Obama when he offered a measured criticism of the Black Lives Matter movement in London recently: "Too often what I see is wonderful activism that highlights a problem, but then people feel so passionately and are so invested in the purity of their position that they never take that next step and say, 'Well now I have to sit down and try to actually get something done.'"

Those words seem sensible, and rather than promising "revolutions," they speak of the possible. That's why the compromised Hillary got my vote, rather than the "pure" Sanders. I have sadly lost my capacity to tilt at windmills.

Leonard Quart can be reached at cinwrit@aol.com


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