It happened late in Tuesday night’s Democratic presidential debate. “It” being the moment when I questioned my own role during the primaries as a socialist and activist.
As a socialist, I support Bernie Sanders. I’m impressed with his ability to stick to the issues and not turn his campaign into Hillary Clinton-bashing as some who identify as left do.
I’m intrigued by Sanders’ campaign because I want to see the American people’s response to his far-reaching radical solutions to the wealth gap and climate change, to institutional racism and comprehensive immigration reform (nothing warms my heart more seeing Sanders – an older white guy – say, “Black lives matter!”).
I figured I would support Bernie and challenge the bashing because once the primary is over, if the expected result becomes a reality and Hillary gets the nomination, the work to win the general election remains. Hillary Clinton would be head and shoulders above any Republican, especially one who could rename the president’s residence “Trump House,” and she would finally smash through the ultimate political glass ceiling.
However, the rancor I hear about Hillary from my left friends is more than disturbing. Usually couched in the mantra “She’s tied to Wall Street” or “She comes with a lot of baggage,” such complaints miss essential points.
First and foremost, the policy differences between Hillary and any Republican candidate are stark. It would not be a cakewalk for Hillary to get elected. The sexism is thick and the country is split, with only a few percentage points between Democrats and Republicans.
Second, I think such criticisms represent an underestimation of how a liberally-minded woman president like Hillary (as opposed to the reactionary Carly Fiorina) would impact the structures of gender inequality, often called patriarchy. These cultural, economic, social and political structures have prevented women from being elected president for the entire 239 years of the United States’ existence, and denied women the right to vote until 1920. Wouldn’t breaking that cycle be an important step in chipping away at such a system?
The election of Barack Obama did not bring elimination of racism or create a post-racial society, but it did provide new avenues to address and struggle against racism, and gave millions of people a deeper understanding of how racism deforms democratic society. I think the movements to save Troy Davis’ life, protest Trayvon Martin’s murder and to guarantee that Black Lives Matter all had their genesis in Obama’s election, giving especially younger activists a whole new model and political space in which to organize. Similar space could open up on struggles for women’s rights and freedom.
These thoughts were triggered during the debate when Clinton answered a question on paid family leave so strongly and beautifully:
“…it’s always the Republicans or their sympathizers who say, ‘You can’t have paid leave, you can’t provide health care.’ They don’t mind having big government to interfere with a woman’s right to choose and to try to take down Planned Parenthood. They’re fine with big government when it comes to that. I’m sick of it. … we should not be paralyzed by the Republicans and their constant refrain, ‘big government this, big government that,’ that except for what they want to impose on the American people. I know we can afford it, because we’re going to make the wealthy pay for it. That is the way to get it done.”
Sanders responded next. And frankly, I was more than a little disheartened. I was shocked when he said:
“Every other major country on Earth, every one, including some small countries, say that when a mother has a baby, she should stay home with that baby. We are the only major country. That is an international embarrassment that we do not provide family – paid family and medical leave.”
Did I hear that right? “When a mother has a baby, she should stay home with that baby…?” No father should be able to as well? No parents should be able to stay home? Just the mother? Granted that is probably the case most of the time but still hearing it like that stopped me in my tracks. For me it was a jarring throwback to a bygone era. Gender matters, I thought.
And that’s when I stopped to think that my assumptions may be missing the point of this political moment. I needed to do what mathematician Shinichi Mochizuki said regarding researchers: They need to “deactivate the thought patterns that they have installed in their brains and taken for granted for so many years.”
What if the role of a socialist is in fact to support Hillary? The left is not immune from sexism as it is not immune from racism or homophobia or anti-working-class ideas. It takes a struggle to be aware of those influences and to change, including women who may internalize sexism.
Sanders has done a terrific job of sticking to the issues, articulating far-reaching solutions and NOT attacking Hillary. His much-hailed criticism of the media coverage of her emails stopped that issue cold, and both Hillary and Bernie talk about the important differences between Democrats and Republicans in a unifying way. His presence, some say, has strengthened Hillary’s campaign. No, Hillary is not a socialist. But Bernie is not a woman. So perhaps the primary is not about “either/or” with Hillary and Bernie but “both/and.”
Photo: David Becker/AP