Saturday, June 11, 2016

Keep on Bernin'

Do a Google image search on "Bernie Sanders," and you'll get a whole lot of this:



It's the quintessential Sanders, voice raised, hand up to emphasize the point he's making, hitting on the same points he's made hundreds of times in the last year about the inequities of American politics and economics. Of course, he didn't just start campaigning for these values in April 2015, when he announced he would compete with Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination for the Presidency. He's been an activist for leftist causes since before I was born, and his message has never wavered: equal rights for all people; redistribution of wealth and power; socialism as the cure for all our nation's ills.

That stubborn consistency singles Bernie out from the political class, who by and large succeed by adjusting their positions to match or at least work in sync with the shifting views of their constituents. It helps, in Bernie's case, that his entire career as an elected politician has been based on New England, a region that values bluntness over polish. It has not, however, yielded results in Washington, where as first a Congressman and, more recently, a Senator, he has had few legislative victories. Until he decided to run for President, he was not even affiliated with a major political party, calling himself independent but caucusing consistently with the Democrats. While his principled stands have earned him the admiration of many of his colleagues, he has not had many friends on Capitol Hill. Of all the 538 potential Congressional candidates for President, he seemed the unlikeliest to attract a following.

And yet this stubborn curmudgeon came within a few hundred delegates of winning the nomination.

To be clear, I have never been on the Bernie Bandwagon. I liked what I said, would be delighted if any of his dreams were to come to fruition; but I knew that the office of the Presidency had no power to implement any of those programs, that in fact the President's greatest influence lies in the realm of foreign policy, an area that is a Sanders weakness; and I worried that a socialist heading the Democratic ticket would ensure a Republican victory in November. For all that, I have been impressed with his tenacity, amazed by the youth and passion of his following, and I very much hope we are seeing, at last, the awakening of the Millennial generation to its own political power. Over the next few decades, I expect Bernie's movement to remake American culture and governance, to nationalize and institutionalize the gains in equity made since President Obama took office, to shift political influence from the wealthy back to the populace.

But what of Bernie himself? At 74, he really is too old to have another shot at the Presidency. But I don't believe that was ever the right place for him, for one simple reason: prophets ought not be kings.

And with that, I put on a hat I haven't worn in awhile: theologian.

In the Hebrew Scriptures (commonly referred to be Christians as the "Old" Testament), there are two classes of prophets: those who work for the king, speaking for God in ways that, by and large, affirm his policies; and those who independently speak for God against the evils of the dominant culture. We only hear about the king's prophets when they come up against the independent prophets, and typically, they wind up disgraced or dead (the Bible is not kind to toadies). The independent prophets, though, are the heroes of the Scriptures, railing against injustice and corruption, predicting destruction for the leaders and their followers, offering up a vision for a future that is just, equitable, and righteous. There's no glory in this job: prophets lead their lives in isolation and poverty, under the threat of persecution, imprisonment, and execution for their treasonous views.

Read the Biblical narrative from end to end, and there will be little doubt in your mind who the true prophets were. Even the best kings come across as flawed individuals. Prophets, on the other hand, stay true to their messages, no matter what the cost.

And now I'll put my pundit hat back on.

Bernie Sanders is a prophet. He's been a prophet at least as far back as 1960, when he joined the Young People's Socialist League at the University of Chicago. As an activist through the 1960s and 1970s, and as an elected politician since 1980, he has continued to prophesy, holding true to a message that is wholly compatible with the prophetic ministries of Elijah, Isaiah, and Jeremiah: justice, righteousness, mercy. He has, quite remarkably, managed to hold true to this prophetic work from within the government he criticizes--though he's done this at the cost of legislative effectiveness, and by virtue of representing a region of the United States known for its idiosyncrasies.

There are many within the Sanders movement who are grieving now, angrily railing against the system that kept their prophet from becoming king. They're right in their belief that the deck was stacked against him: the politics of any republic favor candidates of the middle, and it is rare for a candidate from either extreme to ascend to office without manipulating or subverting the system in some way.

That's as it should be. Had Bernie won the Presidency, he would have either spent one frustrating term of accomplishing nothing, finding every one of his radical policies rejected by Congress, the only branch of government that could put them into practice; or he would have had to compromise every one of them to the point at which they became unrecognizable. The United States is not a dictatorship; the executive branch does not have the power to implement policies anywhere near as radical as those proposed by Bernie Sanders.

Continuing with how it should be: this keeps Bernie where he belongs, prophesying from Capitol Hill. But there's a difference now: thanks to his campaign for the Presidency, both his colleagues on the Hill and the next occupant of the White House will have to reckon with him. He's no longer just the junior senator from one of the smallest states in the union. He speaks for a movement of millions of voters, voters who were the majority in nineteen state primaries and caucuses, most of whom will grudgingly vote for Hillary Clinton in November, but none of whom will just disappear. These voters are the future of center-left politics in America, and ignoring them will cost the Democratic party dearly. The Republican party is on the verge of self-destruction because its own fringe candidate's following proved far stronger with voters than any had suspected; Democrats of future elections could face a similar fate if they don't heed the message of the Sanders movement.

That's why I'm glad Bernie Sanders is not going away. Don't get me wrong, Hillary Clinton has an essential, historical role in the immediate future. But long term, Bernie matters more. He speaks for those who will, more and more, decide future elections. We know he won't be silenced--25 years on Capitol Hill have proven that. The difference is that he can no longer be ignored. He speaks for millions.

So no, Bernie, you don't get to be king. And that's just as well, because from the very beginning, you were called to be something far more significant: prophet.


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