Voting for Bernie Sanders as a Parent

1. Looking Forty Years Forward, and Forty Years Back

When I was younger, to the extent that I thought about the future, it was in a detached way. It would be a time where things would be weird and different, but not particularly concerning. I now have a four-year-old daughter and one-year-old son. Having children has in some ways made me more focused on the present moment; the alternative is tomato-sauce handprints on the kitchen walls. But it has also made the concepts of history and future more concrete for me. Looking back to when I was four, the world of 1980 is quite different: no cell phones, only the  palest glimmers of possibility for same-sex marriage and the internet, and a looming threat of nuclear war. That past is now a foreign country, but it is one that I’ve visited and which is very real for me. The slow voyage into the present makes the idea of arriving forty years in the future more concrete.

The default destination for what the world is going to look like in 2060 is not so great. As an individual I am clearly out of control about the world my children will be living in when they reach the age I am now. At our house, I can provide a stable and caring home environment, but I can’t personally provide my children with a stable planetary environment. I can buy an air filter for our house, but I can’t filter out the smoke outside from climate-fueled wildfires. I can show my kids videos of the Great Barrier Reef on YouTube, but I can’t prevent its total ecological collapse during their lifetime. My family is teaching them to speak German, and taken them on trips to meet their German relatives, but I can’t personally ensure that an environmentally stable way to get to Germany will exist in 2060. This month is the driest in California in 150 years. These things are due to critical flaws in the way we live. Any they are minor inconveniences compared to large areas of the Earth becoming literally uninhabitable because they are too hot for humans or the crops they depend on. 

If I have become more radical politically as a parent, it is partly because I was originally trained as a scientist, and so I trust the work and interpretation of the scientific community when it says that deep social changes are necessary for survival of our species. You can pick random dates and deadlines for action: 12 years from now or back in 1979, but the real deadline is always now. As Kate Marvel writes, “We have both no time and more time. Climate change isn’t a cliff we fall off, but a slope we slide down. And, true, we’ve chosen to throw ourselves headlong down the hill at breakneck speed. But we can always choose to begin the long, slow, brutal climb back up.” I’m not quite up to the level of mayor Heidi Harmon’s “I have two kids, and they’re going to fucking die if we don’t fix all this,” but it’s not far off. There’s gradations of exactly how much to panic, since too much panic might favor last-ditch, high-risk solutionism like geoengineering, instead of the safe but more difficult solution of changing our society. For it how we conceive of ourselves that is one of the most critical factors in addressing climate change; it is instructive that climate models now have variants based on “shared socioeconomic pathways” to show how political choices will have climatological consequences. The 2020 Democratic Primary is one of those political choices.

2. Who Is The Best Pilot For This Storm?

Greenpeace has gone through and scored every Green New Deal or equivalent plan for all the democratic candidates, to give an indication of how they would face the climate crisis. Bernie is the only A+. Warren is an A, Pete’s a B+, Bloomberg and Klobuchar are C+. The Center for Biological Diversity Action Fund has done a similar scoring for the environment (including climate) and separate one for climate specifically. On both, Bernie comes out on top, with the only A and the only 10/10 respectively.  By contrast Klobuchar would be “would be an unmitigated disaster for the environment” (a political outcome that is probably related to Cargill’s long-standing support of her) and Buttigieg’s “climate plan fails to contain critical interim targets” and is “one of the more limited plans in terms of resources”.

If your children are going to be on a plane flying into a storm of historically epic proportions, do you want the A flight plan or the A+ flight plan? I choose A+.  Giving a letter score for such massive plans is, of course, reductionist, but it’s also clear from a wide variety of sources that Bernie’s Green New Deal is the plan to beat.

Warren, as is often the case, presents a plan that is almost as radical as Bernie’s, but their worldviews are different. As she has stated it, “He’s a socialist,” she’ll say, “and I believe in markets.” I think that’s a gross oversimplification as to Bernie’s position (lots of socialists believe in markets, and with the exception of his Meidner plan, most of Bernie’s policies are more social democracy than democratic socialism), but also is an unnecessary reduction of the scope of possible solutions for the climate emergency. To say “I believe in markets” is like saying “I believe in chainsaws” – both are quite useful for certain purposes, not for others, and tend to injure people when used indiscriminately. In the case of climate change, which is arguably the largest market failure in human history, markets aren’t enough of a solution. Warren is more of a Teddy Roosevelt figure, one who (taken in a most ideal, sanitized sense) campaigns against corruption. Bernie is more of an FDR figure, one who is more willing to shift economic productivity around for a common good. Given the scale and nature of the climate crisis, the FDR approach strikes me as more appropriate. What is even more salient for the “Bernie is ok but I prefer Warren” voter, though, is Warren is very unlikely to win the nomination on the first round. As I write this after the Nevada primary, FiveThirtyEight now gives her a 1% chance of winning a plurality of pledged delegates. Bernie has a 68% chance.  However, because of the DNC’s undemocratic convention system, if no candidate has a majority on the first round, the second round then becomes superdelegate roulette, which is what Bloomberg is betting on. So at this point the game mostly seems to be that a vote for Bernie is a vote for Bernie, and a vote for anyone else is a vote to let a random assortment of DNC party bosses to choose someone. I didn’t make these rules, but that’s the way the game looks to me going into Super Tuesday.

Since it’s a question so perennial it’s almost a meme, I’d like to answer: “how are you going to pay for a Green New Deal?”.  The first answer to that is that it’s not getting any cheaper: right now is the least expensive time to deal with climate change. It is cheaper to shore up the foundation of your house rather than wait to rebuild it after it has collapsed.

The second answer, as CUNY professor and Roosevelt Fellow J.W. Mason argues, is that paying for the Green New Deal would be an economic benefit even setting aside the fact that it prevents the end of the world. This is because, with historically low labor force participation and wage growth, almost any “measure you can think of suggests that the economy is running well below potential even today, and that there is enough slack for a substantial program of public investment without the need to reduce production of anything else.” Imagine a society where some of the most common jobs are manufacturing solar panels, windvanes, electric cars, and lithium ion batteries rather than driving a truck or working retail at Walmart.

A third answer is that, historically, Bernie’s plan is in a direct line of planned projects around common goals, even where the benefits are hard to price: the TVA, the Hoover Dam, the Apollo Project, the National Interstate Highway System, Social Security, or the Second World War. We stopped doing projects on that scale for 50 years, for ideological reasons – a neoliberal-conservative consensus, that no agreement could be reached on what common projects to pursue, and so therefore we ought to abandon the idea of common projects entirely. But if we cannot even agree that avoid killing off our own species as a common project . . . well, perhaps we’re running out of time as a species. However, there’s a good chance that, in the course of saving ourselves from extinction, Americans will come to better understand our ability to cooperate on other projects of common benefit.

3. Running Society Like A Society, Not A Gated Community

In this particular time and place, the climate crisis strikes me personally as the most important common project. However, it is not the only one. It is not enough to provide just my own children with housing, healthcare, and education. For me, true wealth is to be able to walk out your front door and explore and participate in a world where everyone has those things. In my hometown of Oakland, there is one homeless camp per square mile. In camps in California, medieval diseases are making a comeback. It’s great to know that my kids might go to college for free, but it’s better to know that they will live in a society where everyone is getting a college education. At this point in history it seems like it takes that much education in order to be able to understand how our society even functions. Social housing, single payer healthcare, and college for all are the clearest, simplest solutions to these problems.

In the United States, both moderates and conservatives deploy what economist (and World War II hero) Albert  O. Hirschman called “The Rhetoric of Reaction”: perversity (reforms and progress will have the opposite effect), futility (a problem is intractable, and trying to solve it is a waste of resources), and jeopardy (some other pre-existing freedom will be given up). However, the experience of continental Europe on addressing housing affordability and social housing, healthcare and higher education indicates that making these things universal works.  To the extent they involve large outlays of money it is because they have large benefits, and often are an excellent value. What’s really perverse, futile, and full of jeopardy is leaving each individual person to try to obtain these human rights (which is to say: things necessary to obtain a basic level of dignity) on their own. Medicare for All would lead to the biggest take-home pay raise in a generation for most workers. The student-loan forgiveness Bernie has floated is often floated as a $1.6 trillion expense (although there are reasons to think it might be less, since many of the loans would default anyway) is just about the same as the cost of the Afghan war where no one is quite sure what we accomplished.  

There is one moral channel in my mind that wants all of these things for others out of empathy, an understanding that each person has an experience like mine that is worthy of a dignified existence in a livable environment, with healthcare, housing, and education. There the things that have made my life enjoyable and livable. Another cold and rational channel in my mind also wants them, but for more selfish reasons. Sick people get other people sick, the uneducated vote for Trump, unhoused people camp under freeway underpasses and in public parks. In a space between these two rationales lies the understanding that scarcity begets scarcity: people who do not have what they need to function are, well, not going to function. I do not feel any need to choose among these various channels of moral reasoning, since they lead to the same place. It would be like trying to decide whether I drive carefully to avoid damaging my car, or the avoid damaging other people’s cars.

Nevertheless, just beneath most public discourse in America is a flavor of social Darwinism that seems to think there has be a choice between taking care of others and taking care of oneself. It’s a hope that if you bulldoze the unhoused, ask the poor to fund their own education, and tie healthcare to work, and incarcerate more than any other county on Earth, out of all that pressure will evolve a nation of upright citizens who take care of themselves. This is a “gated community” approach to running a society, with barriers to separate the worthy from the unworthy. Sometimes it might be a literal wall, but often the walls are social or legal, like the historical redlining boundaries that have been replaced by school districts, or differential methods of policing by neighborhood, the socioeconomic wall of having zero wealth, or the social enclosure that occurs among those who graduate from elite universities and populate Wall Street and presidential administrations

The apotheosis of this “us versus them” strategy is nuclear missile silos converted into apartment-bunkers for the ultra-wealthy, perhaps with guards wearing disciplinary collars to keep them in line, as an escape when society breaks down under pressure from the climate crisis.  There are always weirdo survivalists who prepare for the end times, but I don’t remember hearing about so many of them being hedge fund managers before. There is also a flavor of the gated community mindset that exists in the professional-managerial mind, a wish for the “basket of deplorables” that occupy the red flyover states to disappear into a hole, which of course they will not.

The gated community approach is putting a cork in a dam that needs to be rebuilt. It’s like trying to  flee to Versailles. We’re all stuck together on this planet that’s rapidly becoming uninhabitable from our own activities. Maybe things are ok for you personally at the moment (especially if you are a white member of the professional-managerial class in America), but it’s important to recognize the fundamental flaws of economic individualism. Sometimes bad things happen to good people, sometimes factories move to Mexico. Maybe you’ve insulated yourself for now from economic risk with a great mutual fund portfolio, but you can’t insulate everyone you know. More importantly, the many Americans who feel left outside the gates of American society (like the 57% who can’t afford a surprise $500 expense) will turn to the political as a solution: either a strongman like Trump to protect them, or a deep social safety net and workplace fairness like Sanders is offering.

Research has shown that threats, whether perceived or real, and including economic threats, tend to make people more authoritarian. Another way of framing it is that they lead to social “tightness”. So conversely, reducing threats should make some people (like Obama to Trump voters) less authoritarian. As a Democratic voter, some threats you can’t really address for a Trump voter because they aren’t true threats, or they involve human rights of others: these are issues like fear of immigrants or LGBTQ+ equality. No Democratic candidate is going to try to compete with Trump on those grounds, because it would be immoral to do so. But the threats of losing your job, not making enough to feed your family, debt from education, trouble finding affordable housing, and not having healthcare: those are real economic threats that can all be addressed, and Bernie is the candidate best suited to doing so.

A Sanders presidency represents, for me, a possibility that American society will come to realize itself as one that is capable of accomplishing common projects, and avoid stratification into classes that consider themselves to have different inherent qualities, fates, and survival strategies. We all made it off the savannahs (supplanting every other mammal except our pets and livestock in the process) by virtue of our human abilities to work together, use language, and create a joint plan to solve problems. No one hunts a wooly mammoth alone. The best way to ensure your children and grandchildren survive the climate crisis is to ensure everyone survives the climate crisis. The best way to ensure that your grandchildren will have healthcare and good schooling is to ensure that everyone does.

Most of what I’ve written so far has little to do with Sanders as a person, but rather about his worldview. I do wish that much of what he stands for was institutionalized into a political party, rather than in a person. However, he is nevertheless an extraordinary person and politician, and for me it largely comes down to his consistent humanism, an attentiveness to the everyday problems of ordinary people. I don’t know if this is actually what goes on in Bernie’s mind, but he seems like he is trying to make every decision from the Rawls’ original position, the view of a person who does not know what place in the society they will occupy. Most poeple can’t or won’t do that, because they in fact they do occupy a specific position. Bernie seems like he honestly wants to take power, not to have it himself, but because he wants to give it to the forgotten and less powerful. His campaign slogan, “Not me. Us.” is carefully worded to be anti-egotistical.

So much of organizing people is about agency problems: how do you delegate power to someone else, without having them abuse that power for personal gain? This forms a lot of the basis of how both governments and corporations are structured, and I think we need to do more work on how governmental power is allocated, through stuff like participatory budgeting. For now, though, one of the best things we can hope for are politicians who approach what they do with the attitude of a civil servant, an egoless understanding that they are acting for regular people. Bernie seems more like this than just about anyone else in American politics. As AOC said of Bernie: “He is a real one. And in politics, that is nearly impossible to find.”

4. A Section For All The “Electability” People, Which Is Most Of Us

“Great,” you say. “But you’re just being an unrealistic idealist. Americans will never go for it.” This is electability. Every Bernie argument seems to be, at least in part, about electability. It’s not enough to decide that Bernie is what one wants, but that it’s what others want also. If Bernie can’t win, then it’s not just that there’s no Medicare For All, but there’s four more years of Trump.  

First, I can’t promise you certainty, Bernie can’t, and no one else standing on a debate stage can either, nor can their supporters. Anyone who tells you differently is selling something. Like any other reasonable person, I would rather not be Jonathan Chait. This is certainly one of the major lessons of 2016, in which polls and betting markets had Trump at 20% electability on the night before the election. Electability is also a feedback loop, which varies widely based upon perceived success: it’s voters who want to vote based upon what other voters think, but all the other voters are doing the same thing. Most people thought Biden was most electable until a few weeks ago; after a few primaries where he did well, now most people think Sanders is the most electable.  There’s at least as much reason to think Sanders is electable as anyone else from all the polling information available, so if he aligns with your values (A+ flight plan into the turbulence of the climate crisis!) you might as well be like “I’m voting for this guy!”. Maybe some other voters who are looking to see what other voters think will follow your lead. Rather than being blown about by the winds of public opinion, you can be the wind. You cannot know who is most electable in advance, especially on this set of facts, although Bernie looks the best at this point. You can definitely know what values you want to see in office.

The second response is that Bernie at this point has the momentum, and it makes more sense to me to pile on to the person with momentum. If this were a football game, going into Super Tuesday it looks like Bernie has now broken loose with the ball, and rather than asking for a lateral pass to some other candidate you think might do better, it is better to starting blocking for him. This avoids a brokered convention where, in the words of V.O. Key, often “animosities [between factions] reach such intensity that deadlock ensues and whatever party unity is achieved by the convention is mere façade”. The most likely way to avoid that is voting for Bernie, who is the only clear front-runner. If you’re really into someone else other than Bernie (as per my first point above), great, stick with them! But if you just want to win against Trump, momentum is important, having a clear winner going into the convention would help that, and voting for Bernie is the most likely to make that happen. I think that gives more salient information than polls.

Also, If no one has 50% of the delegates going into the convention (the “first ballot”) then there will be a second ballot with unelected superdelegates. That’s undemocratic on principle, but it would also be bad for the Democratic party, especially on these facts where it seems like the party elites would be taking the nomination from Sanders to give it to one of the many moderates. As David Plouffe, Obama’s 2008 campaign manager, put it: “Whoever is the plurality leader…we’re really going to take the nomination away from them in Milwaukee? I’m not sure the party recovers from that for decades…The party bosses have decided the person who got the most delegates is now not going to be the nominee? Like, parties don’t recover from that for a long time.” If Bernie comes in with over 50% of the delegates, there’s no second ballot, no superdelegates, and no contested convention.  

The third response is Bernie’s campaign has a larger base of support. Sanders has by far the most individual donors, polls by far ahead of everyone else, and, in the words of Jennifer Medina and Astead W. Herndon for the New York Times in the wake of the Nevada caucuses, “Only Mr. Sanders, with his uncompromising message that working-class Americans affected by injustice can unite across ethnic identity, has shown traction in both predominantly white Iowa and New Hampshire and the more black and brown Nevada.” Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor had this analysis back in December: “[u]nder normal circumstances, the multiracial working class is invisible . . . But these voters are crucial to understanding the resilience of the Sanders campaign, which has been fueled by small dollar donations from more than one million people, a feat none of his opponents has matched . . . Mr. Sanders is the top recipient for donations by teachers, farmers, servers, social workers, retail workers, construction workers, truckers, nurses and drivers as of September.”   

Fourth, to the idea that “Sanders is too far left to be elected” is that it flattens out American politics and political history into a single left-right dimension. It’s a useful dimension, certainly, since it can help you think about how hierarchical you like your society. But to grade politicians on a linear scale from left to right creates a mythical “moderate middle” that doesn’t exist. To the extent it does exist in the way that politicians self-identify, those politicians don’t have a great record recently, and Bernie is not George McGovern. At a minimum, it makes sense to consider voters on a two-dimensional scale of cultural and economic values (and even that must oversimplify things). As the Democracy Fund’s Voter Study Group notes, “the Obama to Trump voter was overwhelmingly a populist — liberal on economic issues, conservative on race issues.” This is a lot of the working class, which the Democratic party walked away from starting in the late 1970s, not the other way around. It’s possible to admire Obama personally while also realizing that his presidency did not live up to the promises of 2008 in terms of the lives of ordinary people, and recognize him as a continuation of Bill Clinton’s neoliberal political tradition, which is to the right of Richard Nixon. Since Bill Clinton, the working class has kind of been floating around politically, looking for representation. For a while the Democratic ploy worked, because the Republican party was even worse for workers. Trump, at least at a level of rhetoric, changed that.

It would be immoral to concede to Trump on any kind of cultural politics, where he basically is a walking EEOC nightmare, discriminating on the basis of disability, national origin, religion, race, and sex. Any Democratic nominee will fight him on those grounds, but 2016 showed that is not enough. It is on the question of economic anxiety (which is not a special province of white people, since people of color often are “the other swing voter” that finds neither party inspiring), territory abandoned by the Democratic mainstream, where only Bernie can credibly confront Trump. Every other candidate exudes a veneer of managerial-professional superiority (or in Bloomberg’s case, billionaire bullshit) when they talk about economic anxiety. Bernie still sounds like the son of a paint salesman, and the voters you need to beat Trump are more like paint salesmen than lawyers or McKinsey consultants. Sanders also brings in people who haven’t participated in politics before, with twice as many first time caucus-goers in Nevada as the next-best candidate.

The final and perhaps most important reason Bernie seems “left” is that the country has drifted left since the Great Recession. It is just to say the Democratic Party’s leadership has taken a forty-year rightward detour while a lot of the country stayed put. Accordingly, Bernie seems a likely candidate for regime change, along the lines of FDR ending the Gilded Age to instantiate the New Deal, or Reagan ending the New Deal in favor of neoliberalism. That idea may worry former Clinton and Obama staffers that might not have a role in a Sanders administration, but it gives me hope for the future of the country, and the world my children will live in.