Pragmatism, Principle, and Nihilism: What if Bernie Doesn’t Win?

I’ve written already about the dubious pragmatism of establishment Democrats, who seem to think, despite precedent, that they can harangue and shame the progressive base into voting for them, while mocking them and their concerns. It is, if you ask me, no small part of why Bernie Sanders’ supporters have become so firmly-entrenched behind their man: Bernie’s not perfect (his anti-GMO/pro-alternative medicine stance is rather embarassing to those of us who prefer actual science), but he’s at least putting their concerns on the table for discussion, for once.

It’s also why some Sanders supporters can seem positively cult-like in their enthusiasm: he’s the first candidate since Howard Dean, at least, and maybe even since Ralph Nader who’s been willing to do so, and has a record to prove it. Has he been as effective at doing policy as Hillary Clinton? Maybe. Maybe not. But when you look at some of the policies she (or her husband) have backed — NAFTA, DOMA, the Iraq war, immunizing the telcoms against prosecution for warrantless wiretapping, the Clipper chip, welfare reform that only boosted poverty? One can only laugh when someone accuses Sanders supporters of serving the Right’s interests; those so-called “pragmatists” have been doing it for years and making lame (though belligerent) justifications for doing so.

I’ve said before that the Democratic establishment needs to wake up to the fact that it’s the progressive base, not some mythical center, that’s going to deliver the votes it needs to win elections. That it needs to think long and hard about the attitude it takes toward that base — because as it stands, it appears that establishment Dems are more interested in compromising with increasingly-oppositional Republicans than with the people who should, by rights, be supporting them in the first place. Perhaps the satisfaction of being “pragmatic” is greater than the satisfaction of actually being victorious.

But there’s a trend starting to manifest itself in my Facebook feed, of people who have adopted the approach of “Bernie or burn it all down”. Hillary doesn’t represent my values, they say, so why should I vote for her, and against my conscience? Better to let Trump win and spark a revolution, one that will (presumably) put a genuine progressive in the driver’s seat.

It’s not that I don’t get the frustration that goes along with such a position. The neoliberal Democratic establishment has cozied up to big money since the Bill Clinton years, so why should we expect them to take a stand on anything and bring the fight to the Republicans, when they’ve largely failed to do so? Of course we want to send them a message: ignore us at your peril.

But I think the “Bernie or Burn” folks need to think long and hard about what they’re advocating — if not now, then certainly in November. Because the gamble they’d be making in letting Trump (or Cruz) get the presidency? The odds are not in their favor.

For one thing, that revolution some think is going to happen if Trump gets the presidency? People don’t show up to bloodyfucking vote, for ghod’s sake. I don’t see much evidence that people are actually ready for a riot-in-the-streets, risk-getting-shot-by-police Arab Spring-style uprising. People may be disenfranchised, but by the time a Trump presidency pushes them over the edge into full-on revolt mode, it’s likely to be too late already.

If the example of Nazi Germany is unpalatable, the more recent example of Egypt may be just as usefully illustrative: in that case, the people overthrew a dictatorial leader, only to see the Muslim Brotherhood elected in their place (and eventually, overthrown by the military). If there is a successful overthrow of a Trump (or, for that matter, a Cruz) presidency, there’s nothing to guarantee that something even worse won’t take its place.  The Left is too fragmented to mount a significant opposition to a Right that’s increasingly unifying around the same xenophobic and fascistic principles that Trump trumpets. Or, to be perfectly brutal about it: Right now, there’s not much reason to suppose that you can get the American Left to work together in anything except a concentration camp.

The whole revolution scenario pre-supposes that a Trump presidency would unify that fragmented Left into some sort of meaningful opposition, whether that opposition manifests by bullet or ballot. It also pre-supposes, often explicitly, that a Trump presidency would be so awful that it would, essentially, teach Americans a lesson. The problem with that idea is that we’ve been there before, in 2000 and 2004. If the George W. Bush presidency and all it entails, from 9/11 to the Citizens United decision, from the Iraq war to the Great Recession, wasn’t enough to teach that lesson — and the Trump candidacy tells us it wasn’t — what reason do we have to think that a Trump presidency would finally wake people up?

But, for the sake of argument, let’s suppose that people did wake up and turn the House and Senate over to the Democrats as early as 2018. Even if they did, we’d have to count on the Supreme Court to remain static for at least the next four years, lest Trump (or Cruz) get to appoint a justice (or more). That’s simply a mistake that we’d never be able to undo, short of a full-bore revolution, one which I simply don’t think the American people really have the stomach for, despite the fondest hopes of some.

I’ve said before that the “pragmatism” of establishment Democrats is anything but; having said that, the “principle” of some progressives smacks more of nihilism, one which would endanger all of us with a sociopath for a President on a revolutionary gamble that’s, like most gambles, tipped in favor of the house. Even Noam Chomsky has called for “strategic voting” to keep the GOP out of power; if that’s not a wake-up call, I don’t know what’s going to be.

It’s not that I have any particular love for Hillary Clinton; I see no reason to expect anything but a replay of the Bill Clinton years if she wins the presidency, and those were a mixed bag at best. But that mixed bag was a damned sight better than what followed — and the current batch of Republican candidates make Dubya look positively statesmanlike.