I was John McCain for Halloween in eighth grade, mere days before Barack Obama’s electoral trouncing of the man made my costume irrelevant. I remember the progressive optimism surrounding Obama’s first campaign. Those were the days of “yes we can” and “hope and change.” Here was a man, we said, who was different. Who hadn’t yet been corrupted by the political process as Clinton had, who had risen above the tribalism of Cold War geopolitics in which Bush and McCain remained mired.
“How’s that hopey-changey stuff workin’ out for ya?” the nation’s foremost political theorist wryly queried in 2010, in a moment which will undoubtedly be regarded by future historians as a subtle yet striking critique of the progressive angst generated by Obama’s first years in office. She’s right. Obama’s first years in office were marked by prominent leftist dissent — in the form of movements such as Occupy Wall Street — motivated by a bipartisan bailout of the financial institutions responsible for the recession and “his broken promises on civil liberties, executive power, and national security.” This dissent was the subject of Conor Friedersdorf’s 2011 piece in The Atlantic attributing the Left’s dismay with the early years of the Obama presidency to his failure to live up to the systemic structural reforms Candidate Obama promised. Candidate Obama called on the nation “to challenge the broken system in Washington” while President Obama gave AIG golden parachutes payed for by citizens struggling under the weight of recession. Candidate Obama demanded we “stop letting lobbyists use their clout to get their way” while President Obama granted his name to a watered-down healthcare bill that padded the pockets of insurance giants.
I say all that to say this: America’s been feeling the Bern for a while now. And things are finally starting to get hot. Movements like Black Lives Matter, the People’s Climate March, and Fight for $15 have brought woefully ignored issues to the forefront of America’s political consciousness. These movements are too big of deals, with too much energy and too much potential, to waste on yet another meaningless election would be a repeat of a time-honored American con. From FDR to Jimmy Carter, the Establishment has time and again deployed nominally populist Democrats to subvert grassroots rage under the guise of reforms which merely masked the convergence of the two parties into what Howard Zinn labelled “the bipartisan consensus.”
“But surely Bernie will be better!” I hear my progressive friends proclaim. “He has integrity. He’s been fiercely outspoken on issues such as campaign finance reform and the inviability of the two party system.” And I agree. Bernie was the first politician I followed on Twitter, years before he became the subject of his own meme. And his stances on a whole host of issues — veterans affairs, climate change, economic inequality — firmly establish his populist credentials in my eyes.
Yet I’m still not voting for him. Why? So long as Bernie runs as a Democrat, he will be perpetuating the cycle of suppression and repression honed over time by the American system. Honesty and integrity aside, Bernie’s policies are unlikely to be supported by the presumably Republican-dominated Congress he will face. What little reforms he will be capable of enacting will be watered-down cough syrup to a nation in desperate need of a sobering shot. Furthermore, by conceding to the same partisan dichotomy he claims to be fighting, Bernie will relegitimize a broken political system whose very structure is responsible for the dysfunction and greed its constituents bemoan.
So long as our nation remains trapped in the quagmire of political gridlock, we remain incapable of dealing with the most pressing issues of our times. With dark clouds of war looming on the horizon and the existential threat of climate change endangering all humanity, we need an American system capable of responding in an efficient, effective manner. As it stands now, our government is incapable of passing a budget. So long as candidates draw attention to tumors and ignore the cancer, American society is doomed to spiral further downwards. So long as Sanders caters to populist demands but fails to challenge the system that spawned them, he will not have my vote.