NH Primaries and Political Heroes

A week ago, New Hampshire’s voters gave Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders impressive victories. I won’t dwell on what it means, because many news outlets have already done that here, here, and here. With one caucus and one primary under our collective belts, and a slew to come, this seems like a good time to pause and reflect on just what’s happening in 2016. On the one hand, voters have rarely faced such stark contrasts in vision within each primary in the same year. On the Democratic side, voters have a choice between a socialist progressive and a pragmatic progressive. On the Republican side, there’s a libertarian tea party candidate, a neoconservative, and a bombastic, policy-agnostic, personality-driven strong man.

One thing that unites fans of Bernie and fans of Donald Trump is hero worship. People flock to Sanders events and Trump events like they are the next Bobby Kennedy. The biggest glaring difference, however, is that when Bobby Kennedy ran, he had concrete proposals on a range of issues, had toured impoverished places from Appalachia to the Mississippi Delta, and had four years in the Senate, three years as attorney general, and several years as an aide to his brother under his belt. His accomplishments ranged from helping tackle corruption in unions, taking on the Mafia, and using his time as attorney general to enforce federal civil rights laws in the South. He knew how to work the system and he worked it for social justice.

By contrast, the hero worship of Bernie and Donald is more like worshipping the idea of their success rather than any concrete accomplishment.

Sure, Trump would take exception to that. He’s built a number of impressive buildings, been on reality TV, and has written a couple books on cutthroat business practices. However, none of these evidence the kind of skills required for statesmanship. If anything, he should be the rock star at a real estate broker convention, not a political campaign.

And then there is Bernie. I have to be careful now, you see, because if anyone so much as says “boo” about Bernie Sanders, pretty soon there is an angry e-mob of supporters who demand an apology – just ask Madeleine Albright, who has been saying women should support each other for years. The one time she says it in the midst of a truly credible shot at having a female president, watch out! She’s attacked by young women who haven’t had it nearly as hard as she. (Before you take offense, she survived Nazi-occupied Czechoslovakia, immigrated to Britain and then to the United States, learned English, and climbed her way up to being Secretary of State. If you’ve done as much while also dealing with gender disparity, write me and I’ll recant).

But back to Bernie. He has 25 years in Congress, right? Have you thought about what he’s done in those years? Sponsored three bills that became law. THREE BILLS! His success rate is 1%, according to the Washington Times. But I bet they were important bills attacking Wall Street interests you say. Nope. Two were bills to rename post offices in Vermont. The third was an admirable proposal to increase VA benefits. That’s a terrible track record for a congressman who says he’s going to lead a political revolution. So, why the hero worship?

Bernie’s a good salesman. He knows what to say and when to say it. Most of his responses to questions – no matter what the topic – start with something along the lines of “the real trouble is with Wall St…” fill in the blank. Is Wall Street a problem? YES. Will fixing campaign finance reform solve all issues? No.

The best analogy for Bernie isn’t so much a “rock star” but “one hit wonder.” He’s got a catchy tune, one with a great “hook” that has a timeless ring to it (I’m looking at you, John McCain, Russ Feingold, and Paul Wellstone), but not much staying power.

By way of contrast, Ted Kennedy, who was only viewed as a rock star towards the end of his life, was a true multi-platinum success. He was lead sponsor on countless bills often with bipartisan support, ranging from welfare to education to children’s healthcare. Shouldn’t we be looking for someone like him to embody our hopes and dreams?

Much like last week’s discussion of wellness and its pseudo-religious implications, we can say we’re a secular nation, but are we? We are still prone to the same religious-like experiences, blind spots and tendencies. We just pat ourselves on the back for not getting a tingle at the back of the neck when we smell frankincense or when the bells chime for communion. But, if we get that tingle for a political candidate, that’s alright. We’re willing to look beyond the record and believe what we’re told. I fail to see the difference between a tent revival with promises of salvation and a Sanders event with promises of political revolution.

In closing, if you are a Sanders supporter, that’s great. I believe in many of the same principles that you likely do – I’d like better healthcare, more inclusive government, big money out of politics, and more affordable college education. But do me one favor: see him as a politician, not as a messiah or a revolutionary. He’s no better than Elizabeth Warren, Russell Feingold, or countless other liberal politicians who’ve been toiling for a better future for decades. Bernie can’t do it all on his own –he’s no Messiah and he needs help.
If you’re a Bernie supporter, you’re not off the hook for your social justice views just for voting for him. If you vote for Bernie, you have a responsibility. Get to work in your Congressional district supporting like-minded candidates for House and Senate seats. Nothing will change unless there is a broad effort to make it happen.

If you’re a Bernie supporter, you’re not off the hook for your social justice views just for voting for him. If you vote for Bernie, you have a responsibility. Get to work in your Congressional district supporting like-minded candidates for House and Senate seats. Nothing will change unless there is a broad effort to make it happen.

While you’re at it, figure out how you can be part of the solution, too: from running for office yourself, to working in a non-profit instead of a commercial industry, to countless acts of charity and activism you can undertake in your own community. Bernie isn’t the answer, knowledgeable and active citizens helping elect a slew of progressives and building a web of social justice advocates is the answer.

Thanks for reading. I’ll be back next week with a review of David Brooks’ latest book The Road to Character.

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