This week (week ending June 10, 2016), Hillary Rodham Clinton clinched the nomination of the Democratic Party for President of the United States–the first woman nominated for the top spot by any part in American history. It’s no secret that I’ve supported Secretary Clinton since the beginning, and that I have serious issues with her Republican opponent, so this is welcome news to me. On the evening that Clinton secured the nomination, Tuesday, a strange thing happened to me. On my Twitter account I posted a tweet congratulating Secretary Clinton for her victory, referencing how proud I am that a woman has been nominated for President. Almost instantly after I did so, a person I’d followed for years on Twitter, a committed liberal progressive whose tweets I’ve enjoyed for a long time went on a sudden angry rampage. He tweeted obscenities, declared that America had been destroyed, blocked everyone on his timeline (including me) who supported Hillary Clinton, and declared he was leaving the country–all because Bernie Sanders did not receive the Democratic nomination. I admit, even in this midst of this campaign when emotions have been running high, this behavior surprised me. It make me realize just how lonely I feel, approaching this political season from a standpoint that evidently few others do: that of political realism.
This certainly has been a season of political unreality. Neither nomination race, on the Democratic or Republican sides, ever really focused on the candidates’ qualifications of the potential they had to perform as U.S. President. Trump ascended to the top of his party by channeling the rage of his supporters, both at groups of “others” he carefully identified (Muslims, Latinos, liberals) and particularly at the “establishment” Republicans whom these people feel betrayed them. Bernie Sanders, with very thin claims to executive experience or potential, did something quite similar, focusing especially in the latter stages of the race on the “corrupt” nature of the Democratic Party, specifically the superdelegates. For their part the press has been uninterested in substantive issues. After spending most of their time reporting on what outrageous thing Trump said today, they content themselves with stories on the size of Trump’s hands, whether Hillary deleted an email improperly, or whether Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the Kennedy assassination. None of these stories come anywhere close to focusing on political reality.
In this clip from Remains of the Day, my all-time favorite movie, Congressman Lewis (Christopher Reeve) delivers an unpopular message on the politics of reality. Though set in the 1930s, a similar message is relevant for today.
The disheartening thing is that it seems I’m in a definite minority of voters who would prefer to focus on real issues rather than on feelings, emotions, or symbolic votes. Raising the issue of experience and competence at the basic functions of government seems especially heretical in this political season. Talking to another friend of mine, a Sanders supporter, I voiced my opinion that Sanders, while talking a good game, has exhibited little sign of his readiness to step into the complex job of the presidency on day one, and that he would need years of on-the-job training. My friend’s response: “I never thought of that.” On Twitter, at one point a Sanders supporter asked me, “What could Bernie possibly have to learn about being President?” as if the job of leader of the free world is comparable to hiring someone to work at Mr. Cluck’s Chicken Shack. On the Trump side, the issue is so completely removed from the milieu of acceptable discourse that it never comes up–everyone knows Trump has never served in office a day in his life, and that lack of experience doesn’t seem to bother very many people in the Republican Party.
Indeed, focusing on real issues like experience, diplomatic capability, or understanding of complex geopolitical and economic issues is not only a non-starter in 2016, it’s nearly heretical. To my friend who blocked me on Twitter, Hillary Clinton’s long years of working within the dreaded “system” obviously made her irredeemably corrupt, and my own embrace of those qualities evidently made me so tainted that he’d rather leave the country than share it with people like me. Anything short of a total denunciation of “the system” marks someone as being insufficiently committed to progressive change, and therefore must be excised from the body politic (or, if that can’t be done, you must excise yourself in order to avoid being corrupted by it). This is the basic argument of the “Bernie or Bust” folks, whose intransigence seems based on a fundamental misunderstanding of how democracy works. Trump’s supporters seem no more, and perhaps much less, inclined to accept the legitimacy of the system their candidate seeks to lead. Political realism involves compromise at its core. These days, it seems “compromise” is a dirty word.
Senator Eugene McCarthy, seen here across the table from President Lyndon B. Johnson, ran for President in 1968. His base of support had much in common with that of Bernie Sanders in 2016.
Unrealistic thinking isn’t just limited to the “Bernie or Bust” or Trump extremists. One of two articles I read this week on the subject of the nomination race was by Joe Kaminski, a writer, historian and liberal activist, in his post-mortem of the Bernie campaign. Though a strong Bernie supporter, Joe will support Clinton in the general election, but much of his article explains his expectations that Bernie has built a “movement,” centering on young millennials, that will ultimately achieve many of the goals Sanders claims to have been fighting for in 2016. While I’d certainly love to see that come true, I think Joe is a little starry-eyed to see a real “movement” behind Sanders with any coherent ideological definition. If history is any indication, Bernie faces tough odds in being more than a footnote. In 1968 Eugene McCarthy challenged sitting President Lyndon Johnson on an anti-Vietnam War platform. He didn’t get even as close to the nomination as Sanders did this year, but for all the soaring talk of “movements” that followed McCarthy’s inevitable loss, this “movement” was nowhere in evidence when George McGovern–a candidate who believed in many of the same issues McCarthy championed in 1968–ran for President four years later. Conversely, it’s kind of hard to claim that there was a “movement” behind Bill Clinton in 1992, but Clinton was far more successful than either McCarthy or McGovern. It was not a “movement” that elected Clinton, but skilled politics. Real politics, if you will.
The other great blog I read this week on this subject, and the one that inspired me to write this article, was that of Padre Steve, a military chaplain and Civil War historian. Steve’s article Steve uses the analogy of William Tecumseh Sherman, who was quite unpopular in 1860-61 when he told his Southern friends that their attempt to secede from the Union was an impossible and quixotic dream. Steve argues that Sherman’s political realism was as out of vogue in 1861 as his own is in 2016. But however unpopular it may be, it’s realism, ultimately, that gets things done, especially in politics. This is not what very many voters in America in 2016 want to hear. There’s nothing I can do about that, but this November I can and will vote with my head, not my heart.