A Time for Graciousness: Memo to Senator Sanders’ Campaign

by Charles J. Reid, Jr. Professor of Law, University of St. Thomas 21.05.2016

I have supported Senator Bernie Sanders throughout this campaign. I caucused for him in Minnesota where I live and I have commented favorably on his campaign to friends, to family, and in these pages. I am proud of my support for his candidacy and for what he has achieved. And I must add that Senator Sanders has run a campaign that has been successful beyond all reasonable expectations. He will come to the Democratic Convention this summer with well over 1,500 delegates. His delegates — and his ideas — will be a force in influencing the platform and the principles of the Democratic this summer, and well into the future.

His candidacy has moved the United States in a more progressive direction. What are the issues defining the 2016 campaign for the White House? They are not sterile fights over trivia, but meaningful contests over the nature and content of the social contract that defines the relationship of citizens with their government.

In preparing this blog, I viewed Senator Sander’s announcement of his candidacy on April 30, 2015. He declared then that he was in the race “to win it.” And he has truly run a highly competitive race.

But he also identified a series of compelling issues that caused him to launch his bid. College education should be low-cost, even, ideally, free. Talent, Sanders pointed out, is evenly distributed among the population but the opportunity to develop that talent is not. We would be a richer, better, more productive society if everyone were given the means to develop their talents and gain the skills to succeed and thrive. Opportunity must not be limited to the well-to-do. Other nations provide such support to their citizens — Germany does, so do the Scandinavian nations. The United States should adopt similar policies.

The growing class division in American society was another issue Senator Sanders identified. Most Americans are working longer hours for less income than they did ten or fifteen or twenty years ago. Productivity is strong. But the benefits of that productivity accrue to the wealthy, not to employees. The upward redistribution of wealth has become a crisis and Senator Sanders promised to address it.

Childhood poverty was yet another crisis Sanders highlighted. The United States consistently ranks behind most developed countries in its rates childhood poverty, yet it is simultaneously the wealthiest nation on earth. No child should be forced to live in poverty, and that is especially true in a nation of great abundance, like ours.

In that announcement, Senator Sanders emphasized other major issues. He wanted to make international trade agreements and the impact they have on American workers an important part of his campaign. He also spoke of American foreign policy and reminded his listeners that he was vindicated in opposing George W. Bush’s invasion of Iraq in 2003. Finally, he asked whether it was even possible in a post-Citizens United world to mount a grassroots campaign funded principally through the small donations of committed citizens.

On all of these issues, the tide of public opinion is running with Senator Sanders. Millenials who know their history will appreciate that low-cost college education was once a reality in many parts of the United States, and can become a reality once again, if we had the political will. The fight against wage suppression is also enjoying some success, as is the fight for a meaningful increase to the minimum wage.

On foreign interventions, it is possible that we have achieved a consensus that I thought was impossible only a few months ago. Grassroots Democrats and Republicans alike agree that the Iraq War was a disaster of profound proportions. Similarly, at least at the grassroots level, there is a growing bipartisan consensus that trade agreements that favor only the interests of capital are unfair. Future trade agreements must become a means of lifting wage and labor standards around the world, not suppressing them. The elites of both parties remain at odds with their grassroots supporters on both war and trade. It will be interesting to watch how this tension plays out.

On campaign finance also, Senator Sanders has called attention to the ugliness of American electoral practice. Crony capitalists of immense wealth pledge tens of millions of dollars to influence the outcome of elections and we have a Supreme Court that along narrow partisan lines sanctified these practices in the name of the Constitution. We rightly condemn this kind of coziness in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, yet we tolerate it at home. We have Senator Sanders to thank for making campaign finance reform a major issue.

Senator Sanders has captured the imagination of the American public with these issues and he consistently polls better than Hillary Clinton when matched against Donald Trump. The 2016 primary campaign — in both parties — was a struggle over ideas and there is little doubt that Bernie Sanders has prevailed against all comers.

Still, we must acknowledge political reality. Hillary Clinton has won more votes in the Democratic primary and she has accumulated more delegates. She will be the Democratic nominee. Bernie Sanders will not. So, we must ask, how should the Sanders’ campaign proceed?

There are only a handful of state-level contests remaining. My advice is to remain active in these contests simply so as to accumulate delegates. The goal can no longer be to win the nomination but to shape the Democratic platform. Senator Sanders should concede the reality that Hillary Clinton will be the nominee. And when the time is right, knowing that it will be difficult, he should endorse her, campaign for her, and give her his full support.

We are, after all, building a movement. For much of the twentieth century, it was the progressive movement that was responsible for laying the foundations of American greatness. Progressives ended child labor, introduced the minimum wage, supported the rights of labor, and made possible broad middle-class prosperity. Progressives pressed the case for racial and gender equality when those seemed like hopeless causes. And a reinvigorated progressive movement can once again renew America. But we should also keep in mind that this battle will not be won or lost in this fall’s presidential election. Now is a time for winning allies, disseminating our ideas, and showing graciousness in a tough-fought contest.

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