It’s the last day of 2016, which was a year for me of really good professional and personal accomplishment…none of which on a day like today feel worth discussing.
Because, like so many of us I’m sure, I feel like I’m standing with Buffy Summers and her Scooby Gang in the emotional ruins of a song-and-dance-filled Sunnydale, asking “Where do we go from here?”
So much seems to have shifted under our feet so fast, and I’ve spent the last two months or close enough trying to think of what to do next, with the one guiding conclusion being that I have to do something. And as 2017 dawns, I feel like sharing what I’ve decided so far. It’s a work in progress—one key bit of language came to me from a random twitter check this morning—but I think it might be worth something. This also may be my final musing relating to politics that I will put on the Internet for a long time (for reasons I will explain below) so I feel compelled to get a lot of this off my chest.
The place that makes the most sense to begin is a thought I shared here in March—I have long believed that the first step towards making actual change happen in the world is to be honest with yourself about the current situation.
And for me, one of the hallmarks of the current situation came from a conversation I had with one of many new friends I made this year, Chris Baugh, whose website The Free Cities became required reading for me. A few days after the election, we had a moment when we said to each other: “we got things wrong.”
I think I got things wrong to the point where for the immediate future, my entire worldview needs some readjusting.
THESE ARE THE TWO MAIN THINGS I GOT WRONG
Anyone who follows me on social media knows that I voted for Hillary Rodham Clinton. But I did more than vote. I spent months during the campaign as a volunteer: I made signs, helped run fundraising parties, phone banked in swing states and canvassed through the Midwest. Of the things I have done in my life thus far, this is one which fills me with pride. And I would gladly do it all again.
There is also an alternate past in 2016. A past in which I spend a day feeling a touch mopey in the “that didn’t work” sense, then order a shirt online—I had it picked out, too, a shirt with the Grateful Dead’s “Steal Your Face” logo with tufts of white hair sticking out from the skull—and get out knocking on doors and calling people again to tell people to vote for Bernie Sanders, a man whom I find as complicated as Hillary and whom I admire every bit as much.
This was not always a popular opinion online, so you might ask, why did I vote for Hillary?
If we’re shaped by our experiences and our principles, Hillary’s presidential bid this year was the culmination of a lot of things I’ve been thinking about in my adult life.
The friendships I made in college and the comics world with women who taught me about feminism gave me an emotional attachment to the idea of a female president. I’ll definitely admit that. But that alone wasn’t enough. If so, I would have been pulling for Carly Fiorina as well back in the primary days.
What appealed to me most about Hillary was the weight of experience she would bring to the role in a time when the world was getting extraordinarily complicated combined with a very center-left philosophy which fit mine exactly. My readings of history and philosophy have given me a certain distrust for politics that go too far left as well as far right, due to a constant, teetering risk of valuing ideology over people. I was and am very critical of some of Hillary’s ideas, especially in foreign policy, but her final platform, which mixed the policies she has held for most of her political life with ideas Bernie pushed for in his campaign, was one that made me happy. It was imperfect, but the primary had shown that Hillary was able to be pushed to go further in positive directions than she might have otherwise. And as I watched America splinter further apart in Obama’s second term, I felt sure that a centrist plan with something to appeal to everyone would carry the day.
I was completely wrong.
Maybe not completely, because she did win the popular vote, BUT the dangers of that plan are now clear. The reaction to her attempt at building a consensus when tensions between the Democrats and Republicans, as well as tensions within the left itself, were at all time highs turned people off. Voters disappointed in Obama didn’t want such a continuation of his work, while I know there were plenty of Bernie supporters who got even more distrustful of Hillary when she courted moderates and Republicans who were repulsed by Donald Trump, and those Republicans ended up toeing the party line anyway, possibly influenced (regrettably so if true) by her vocally calling out the racism present in Donald’s campaign.
What I should have thought than is that an America so terribly divided was going to welcome slightly more dramatic and big ideas, and Hillary’s platform, which I praise for being so thoughtful and far-ranging, never found that big, dramatic hook. As much as I believe in the idea of “stronger together,” and I do, there was very little chance it was going to resonate in a nation where so many face economic and racial disadvantage despite her best efforts. And this was combined with Hillary’s fundamental assumption that there were too many Americans who would not vote for Donald Trump, which led the campaign, especially in the online rhetoric, to stress “Donald Trump is going to be a disaster” as opposed to “here’s how my plans will work for you” when the qualities in the former message were why so many people did want to vote for him.
This misreading of the political climate was accompanied by a period of my life that I deeply regret. There were a few weeks during the primaries when I got more vitriolic and argumentative than I ever have before and pushed back too much against friends of mine and friends of friends who supported Bernie. This is deeply distressing to me now because I have always been the sort who respects others’ opinions even when we disagree…and now I was charging into debate with people whom I fundamentally agreed with on everything important. I was not a pleasant person for a while, and I need to apologize for that. I confused the behavior of certain Bernie supporters (because I did have friends who were all for Hillary who got more harassment and death threats from Bernie’s supporters than Donald’s) with the man himself, and worse, with people who would never have acted like that certain group did in a million years. And in these arguments, instead of defending Hillary’s policies, I went on an attack more often than not (a similar mistake I made during the general election). Considering the Bernie/Hillary divide is still raging, I think I was wrong to have gone against my own usual instincts to press back so hard and make a small contribution to this divide. For that, I am sorry.
ALL OF THAT SAID, I WILL ALWAYS BE PROUD TO HAVE SUPPORTED HILLARY
I will go to my grave believing Hillary Clinton would have been a damned good president in a tumultuous world. Maybe not great, but certainly a steady hand in an uncertain situation. I will not deny that she had her flaws, including a propensity to do things that were going to look bad later on—the Goldman Sachs speeches and the private server to name just two—from what I can only assume was a conviction on her part that such things didn’t matter, when the reality is every single thing you do matters when you’re running for public office. But how those could be weighed against all the good she did and attempted to do in her life, especially compared to Donald Trump, will always be beyond me.
Yes, her campaign made mistakes, but if she had won, then would we have cared? And all of those mistakes seemed justified at the time. Not only the centrism of trying to assemble a big tent against Donald. Laying low in August and raising money for the final push felt justified at the time—there were people on the left who didn’t want to be seeing lots of Hillary and she might have felt, given her relative unpopularity, that letting others speak for her would work, and she also may have expected that Donald’s behavior would cause the press and the GOP to hang him out to dry. This of course did not happen. And when all the polls in the final stretch showed her with relatively solid leads in Michigan and Wisconsin, it made sense to try to throw everything into the bigger territory of Pennsylvania and Florida and inch ahead in Ohio.
Now, of course, I wish I could go back to July and say to Hillary “Hey, if you do these few things differently, you’re going to win.” But that is 20/20 hindsight. (Which, yes, will be a great slogan for the next presidential campaign.) With that said, I feel like I need to address the $64,000 question.
WOULD BERNIE HAVE WON?
This argument got majorly restarted during the holiday season after all the post-mortems of the campaign had been written. My twitter feed of late has been Bernie and Hillary advocates playing endless “Rabbit Season! Duck Season” and being absolutely certain in their positions that Bernie Sanders would or would not have become president.
What’s my answer?
I think Bernie might have won…but I will never be able to say that for certain.
In my opinion, Bernie had two significant game-changing qualities compared to Hillary. First, obviously, with Bernie we never get the James Comey situation. Nate Silver’s analysis showed that it was only in the last ten days, the period Comey released his two letters, when the polls made their final and irreversible break.
Second, I’ve done a lot of thinking, as hinted above, about Bernie and Hillary’s rhetoric. Yes, Bernie could act like your grandfather who wags his finger at you, but there was a particular emotion and conviction in what he said that got people to flock to him. I’m stealing this again from Chris Baugh, but he put it best one day: that it didn’t matter what exactly Bernie’s plans were to get things done. People believed he meant to get them done. And that matters. Hillary, in contrast, is a policy wonk who gets into the weeds of things and dives more into reason as opposed to emotion…and after seeing many of her speeches and the debates, I am convinced she is on the Asperger’s spectrum. These are admirable qualities, and great for a leader who needs to handle hundreds of things a day, but when you’re on an actual campaign you’re more drawn to someone who builds a grand emotional appeal. Bernie and Hillary both believed in their message, but for so many in my generation Bernie carried something extra. When even my libertarian relatives who hate socialism said to me “at least Bernie’s honest,” I should have known that was going to carry weight.
So I think that if things had played out with that strength above carrying the day, Bernie would have won an election against Donald…but when I dive into the weeds myself, there are so many variables. Bernie and Hillary never ran negative ads against each other—what happens when the Republicans turn up the attack on Bernie, especially considering how easy Donald got off with media? Do angry Democratic loyalists not vote for Bernie, seeing him rightly or wrongly as an outsider who joined the party for a grab at power? Does Bernie’s rhetoric end up turning off undecided voters who don’t like the idea of being given more from the government? (As one of my coworkers put it, so many people hate Obamacare, so why would they have gone for NEW universal health care or free college?) Hillary won black voters by 30 points in the primary and Hispanic voters by 25 points…do they get turned off by Bernie? Does Bernie’s untested campaign have the national success Obama had in 2008 or founder? Because again, the way I’d like to go back to July and give Hillary advice, I’d like to go back to June 2015 and tell Bernie “Hey, do these things, and you win, or at the very least you make the primary close enough for a challenge!” Because this needs to be repeated: Debbie Wasserman Schulz was a jerk to Bernie, but Hillary beat him by twenty times the margin Obama beat her by in 2008. If you’re going to rig something, it’s not going to get rigged that majorly.
And then, going back to my earlier points about how divided this country is, I never saw this election as a sure thing for anyone. I never bought into polls—and worked hard for that reason—because even before Donald locked the nomination, I was saying to people “Hillary and Bernie are going to have equal chances to win and lose not because of their own merits but because this nation is so split.” Only one person believed me. And when I see that the state candidates and propositions that were closest to Bernie’s platform not only lost but underperformed Hillary’s performances, I feel a bit more sure of that assessment.
Which is all to say that while Bernie definitely had some unique strengths, I am not prepared to say yes, he would have won.
(And I think this point would be easier to make if there had been as many profiles in the media of “the Hillary voter” as there were of “the Donald voter” and “the Bernie voter” to show how much support she had. Maybe the Hillary voters weren’t as…interesting? Or maybe they were educated, female, and POC. In either case, they were out there.)
I’ve spent 2,400 words now talking about the past in a piece where I promised I would try to offer help on “Where do we go from here?” For this reason:
BERNIE AND HILLARY HAVE POINTED THE WAY…BUT NOW IT’S ON US
Hillary Clinton’s political career is finished. I don’t think she will ever run again because why would want to get slammed from every side again? (And I’ve said this elsewhere, but I am bemused that people who never wanted to support her, like Shaun King, are now asking why she’s not helping against Donald Trump. These people wanted her to go away, they got their wish, they have the chance to remake the party, and now they’re mad she’s not around? She will never satisfy people, I am convinced.)
Bernie Sanders is in a strange position. He immediately returned to Independent status after the primaries, but since the election he’s been continually giving interviews criticizing the Democratic Party and basically telling them what they need to do. This may be hard to swallow but…Hillary supporters, just because he’s no longer a Democrat doesn’t mean everything he says is wrong, and Bernie supporters, don’t be surprised if a rebuilding Democratic Party doesn’t want to take advice from a non-Democrat.
(I’m probably going to get some hate for that statement. C’est la vie.)
My point is that in trying to make the pendulum swing away from Trumpism, Bernie and Hillary have given us a foundation. I am seeing a future for the Democratic Party and the American Left more clearly than ever: a mixture of keeping up the stirring rhetoric of economic equality with a doubling down on fighting for the rights of others…because let’s be clear, neither Hillary nor Bernie talked enough about voter suppression, and in this first presidential election without the full VRA in place, it showed.
This vision may now lean more into Bernie’s point of view because something in that POV did fire up younger Americans…and if we’re going to be honest, the baby boomers are starting to die and a new foundation is being built for ideas. It has always been a principle of mine to try to do the greatest good for the greatest number, and at this moment it seems this is how you accomplish that.
And right now there are people in the Democratic Party who are showing me their commitment to keep up this fight. Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Julian Castro, Kamala Harris, and especially at the moment, Keith Ellison and Tom Perez, two excellent men whose commitments to getting out the vote and working for the lower and middle classes are deeply impressing me.
I want to make this point because in Ellison and Perez, I am seeing the Bernie/Hillary debate start up again. This is not useful. I actually prefer Ellison a smidge, but either of them are going to get me off my feet for working.
Because that’s where I’m going from here. In 2016, I made a resolution to quit simply sharing articles online and get on my feet and moving, volunteering for causes I believe in. This was one of the best and most fulfilling decisions I’ve made, and I’m aiming to step up that action in 2017. I want to help the Democrats get ready for local elections here and elsewhere, as 2018 is going to be ABSOLUTELY CRUCIAL. When groups like the Democratic Socialists of America present legislation and action I support, I want to help with that as well. And many wiser people than I have said words to this effect: do not spread yourself thin. If you try to fight every battle, you lose. If, on the other hand, all of us pick a cause to get behind that doesn’t involve a political party and work for that cause, we’re going to get a great deal done.
And the final part of this is…I’m going offline politically more than ever to do this.
THE FUTURE IS NOT ONLINE
This is where I’m going to be at my most fiercely opinionated, but it needs to be said. I regretted above the arguments I got into online, and part of that regret comes from my knowing that I never changed anyone’s mind by arguing and no one changed mine…the revolutions in thought I had were all strictly by the example of others who weren’t trying to argue. I’m not going to be completely offline in political matters…I will share information and events, and will always take private messages…but I have discovered that the energy I expound in fruitless dialogue could be better served elsewhere.
Because I have found that online is where the people I agree with so much, be they Bernie or Hillary supporters, show off the sides that turn me off the most.
There are people who talk in absolutes and who every say for certain “this is what will happen or would have happened.” All I have written above has centered around the idea that I was wrong about a lot and will probably continue to be wrong in the future, and this holds true for all of us. These absolutes manifest in several ways:
There are people whose self-righteous conviction in their being correct is so strong they hold everyone to purity tests and refuse to be challenged. I am incredibly wary of joining any groups such people are part of because I would feel I couldn’t speak freely lest I be purged myself. Right now, we’re facing a great uncertainty and I want to be open to allies anywhere I can find them; self-righteousness in a time like this is self-defeating.
Others can, in defense of their absolutes, engage in quiet, sometimes inadvertent racist or sexist thoughts, not as strong as those on the right wing but strong nonetheless, and they will laugh off or lash out against attempts to point this out.
There are people who respond to criticism with long screeds about how they’re misunderstood instead of engaging.
And finally, there are people who continually talk about carrying out progressive action in the most self-promoting terms imaginable, who talk incessantly about what they do and by extension what you should be doing, and how the potential dangers we face will affect them. This particularly hits me the wrong way because I see it as a self-promoting and aggrandizing act as opposed to leadership…because this year, I have seen among my friends who worked for Hillary and Bernie and other causes what real leadership is. These people do not continually talk about what they do online and offer heavy, imperative advice. They simply get out and do things and foster communities and think about people whose problems they may never experience and whose points of view are so different from theirs.
I am not a leader. I am a straight, white, Christian man—someone who will be affected by Donald the least—who is signing up as a foot soldier to serve under people who understand what needs to be fixed more than I ever will, and I am happy to serve and to have my mind changed more if need be.
To do so, the energy I spend in political debate online has to be channeled elsewhere, and this site in particular will return to musings on writing and good comics…because I have a lot of said musings, and in these times we all need good art and the power it gives us more than ever.
I cried for a bit the day after the election and some of my friends and family asked why; it was not for myself but for all the people I care about whose lives now faced potentially drastic loss.
That did not last long, because I knew my tears were not going to help anyone, and that somewhere out there people I did want to help were already organizing. It’s time for me to join that fight again.
But this is only my way. We all have to go our own ways towards building the better future we need…and I am not unaware that I’ve written a lot on this subject. But if there is something in here that helps someone, I will be glad. And if you read it and reject it, I will be glad as well…because we need people who think for themselves more than ever.
The road ahead is not going to be easy. There will be losses. But I firmly believe the pendulum will swing again because I know too many good people fighting so hard…and I hope to live up to that example.
Happy New Year, everyone!