Opinion

'Bernie or Bust': Yes, Electing Sanders Is More Important Than Just Defeating Trump

Sanders should capitalize on the fervor of his base, including many young Jewish voters, to win the Democratic nomination, and block an authoritarian racist like Bloomberg. That’s not blackmail, it’s principled, hardball politics

Democratic presidential candidate Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders addresses supporters during a campaign rally in Denver, Colorado on February 16, 2020
AFP

Like a lot of supporters of Bernie Sanders, I do not especially care for the man. I’ve said otherwise, joked in my writing and to my friends that he reminds me of me: a thoroughly secular East Coast Jew who raises his voice and has too many strong opinions. And there are certainly someidolaters out there who love the guy, who see him as a loveable, avuncular figure. 

He does have his moments: when he movingly elicits stories of medical and financial hardship from supporters, for example, or when, confronted with his reputation for unlikability, he quips with the quickness of an old Catskills comedian: "On a good day, my wife likes me." 

But for the most part, I - and many of even his most die-hard backers -find him exactly as his most dedicated opponents find him: strident, too irascible by half, grouchy, and hoarse. This perhaps accounts for the unique attraction of his campaign slogan: Not me, us.

This is true, too, for his strong core of young Jewish supporters. Sanders has never hidden his Jewish heritage - how could he! - but he has more recently made a point of campaigning explicitly as a Jew. While I can’t deny the appeal of electing the first Jewish president of the United States on its own merits, here, too, the appeal must extend beyond the crass politics of mere representation.

I would not vote for a Michael Bloomberg, also Jewish, under any circumstances, nor does it give me any vicarious pride to see the likes of Jared Kushner or Stephen Miller, both Jews, casting shame around the White House right now. 

Bloomberg holds a certain appeal for the technocratic urban professionals who have increasingly come to dominate Democratic electoral strategies, but his record as a law-and-order authoritarian and his record of naked racial animus toward communities of color while mayor of New York cannot be expunged by a convenient eleventh-hour conversion to wokeness. They make him a non-starter for anyone on the progressive left.

Sanders attracts young Jewish voters (if polls are to be believed, he still leaves our parents and grandparents cold) because he represents our views: often secular, sympathetic to Palestinian causes, deeply skeptical of the Israeli state, and equally skeptical of the legacy Jewish institutions, from the Anti-Defamation League to the Union of Reform Judaism, which at their best seem paralyzed by indecision regarding modern Zionism and at their worst seem to forget that American Judaism even exists in their zeal to police the boundaries of public discourse about Israel.

Throughout the Democratic primary campaigns, you have seen the traditional political media scratch its collective head as it tries to account for Sanders’ unsinkable popularity with his largely (though by no means exclusively) youthful core of support, feeling certain it would melt away the moment someone, well, frankly, younger and cooler came along. When it did not, this same political media pronounced the campaign a cult of personality.

But this formulation gets his draw precisely backwards. It was not the vacuous substitution of personality for policy that drove young people into the Bernie Sanders camp; it was the vacuous obsession with personality cues that put Beto O’Rourke on the cover of Vanity Fair, that cried crocodile tears over Kamala Harris’s rudderless and unpopular candidacy, that continues to propose the contentless, corporate, LinkedIn account-turned-human being Pete Buttigieg as a palatable alternative to Sanders’ issue-driven, policy-based approach to politics.

Campaign stickers for Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders at a campaign event in Manchester, New Hampshire. Feb 10, 2020
AFP

Young people, especially the so-called Millennials, were not, you must understand, radicalized by Donald Trump’s vulgarity and impoliteness. They were radicalized by the financial crisis and the Great Recession. 

They were radicalized by the fecklessness of Democratic politics-as-usual, by the personality-driven presidency of Barack Obama, which the grown-ups on the editorial boards and the cable news shows recall with a saccharine fondness as an era of articulate charm, cultural sophistication, and good taste in restaurants, but which my generation (those 5-10 years younger than me in particular) recall as a period of terminal malaise, a crisis-in-permanence of poor job prospects, yawning inequality, rising housing costs, and a supine, timid Democratic party that somehow managed to give trillions of dollars to Wall Street financiers, the military, and defense contractors, but somehow could not manage the slightest bail-out for the rest of us, telling us again and again that Republicans were to blame for our woes.

The confluence of these factors has led a significant vocal minority of Sanders voters to declare that their support for him is non-negotiable, demanding that the squishy middle of the Democratic party join then - or else they will abandon the party in the general

This has led to accusations from the camps of other candidates, from the Democratic party establishment, and even from the supposedly non-partisan political press that Sanders backers were engaged in a kind of blackmail. This is pure petulance from a party that is constitutionally averse to playing hardball and playing to win.

Is it blackmail for a large coalition of Democrats to say that an anti-abortion candidate is unacceptable for national office, for example? Or, was it blackmail when a significant portion of Hillary Clinton supporters in 2008 refused to vote for Obama? (Far more, in fact, than Sanders voters who stayed away from Clinton in 2016.)

For these "Bernie or bust" voters, it is more important to elect Sanders than to simply defeat Trump and figure things out from there. I tend to agree, although I think personally I would temporize and vote for a Warren, or even a Klobuchar, just because it might forestall for a few more years the inevitable downstream victory of a more competent Trumpism in the form of a Tom Cotton, for example, or a Josh Hawley. But I think Sanders would be crazy not to capitalize on the fervor of his base - the one comparison with Trump that I do think is accurate.

Out there among the twenty- and thirtysomethings, I have heard one expression for the Sanders campaign again and again, a single despairing hope: it’s "the last offramp." The last opportunity to do something about the rising tide of fascism and, well, the rising tides, before the waves wash us all out to sea.

In absolute terms, assuming a voting public of 130 million or so, the population of Sanders-or-no one voters is small, but I am quite convinced it exceeds those famously narrow margins of victory in Wisconsin, Michigan, or Pennsylvania in 2016. This makes for a stark math: Sanders is not guaranteed a win in the general, but any other candidate is guaranteed to lose.

I’m more of a cynic, and I suspect that we passed that offramp a decade ago at least and will have to deal with a series of unpredictable yet inexorable crises for the rest of our lives. But I respect this ultimately hopeful sentiment nonetheless. Why shouldn’t Sanders use it to his movement’s advantage if he believes, as they do, that a new political movement is our only hope?

Jacob Bacharach is a writer based in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania and the author of the novels, "The Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates" and "The Bend of the World." His most recent book is "A Cool Customer: Joan Didion's The Year of Magical Thinking." Twitter: @jakebackpack