Thank You, Bernie Sanders
When I’ve posted things in recent months that indicate my support of Bernie Sanders’ candidacy for president, it has not been lost on me that factions of the LGM commentariat have essentially called me naive or worse.
So let me tell you a brief story.
Eighteen years ago, when I was eighteen (half my life without her now), my mom died from pancreatic cancer. It was exceptionally cruel because of its unexpectedness — sudden and totally out of the blue. She had finally gotten health insurance after taking a new job. She felt fine. And then she went in for a routine physical and was blindsided by the doctor telling her that she had ovarian cancer. Shortly thereafter, they did surgery and discovered that it was everywhere. They told her she had months to live. Seven months later she died on our living room couch.
After she died, the insurance companies came for my dad, telling a grieving widower that he owed them tens of thousands of dollars. They claimed pre-existing conditions on my mom’s cancer because of a trip she’d taken to the doctor months before for a totally unrelated case of stomach indigestion. They denied coverage.
A few weeks after my mom died, my dad’s dad died, too. His dad was a retired railroad worker who’d earned a modest pension. The money my dad inherited from his dad went to the insurance company to pay for my mom’s medical expenses. But it wasn’t enough, not by half. So my dad agreed to let loggers onto his beloved property — a 40-acre parcel of land that he and my mom had bought in the 1970s — to fell trees so that he could afford to settle debts with the insurance company.
My grandather’s labor became insurance company profits.
The trees on my parents’ land became insurance company profits.
My mother’s life became insurance company profits.
Last September, I got married. My dad joked me into a state of paranoia ahead of time that his speech was going to be wildly embarrassing. Of course it wasn’t. It was beautiful, because he is beautiful. And a lot of it was about his gratitude at being able to be there to celebrate, because none of this, of course, is a given. It was a wonderful moment.
Three weeks later, he caught a cancer diagnosis of his own. The doctors gave him a year or two. We’re optimistic that he’ll beat the prognosis, mostly because he’s a badass, is in great shape, and is responding well to chemo. But he is also having to petition to drug companies for financial aid, and make sense all over again of the holey patchwork quilt of the health care industry.
There is nothing quite like watching your parent be crushed by the weight of for-profit healthcare as they die. There is nothing quite like watching your parent grapple with grief as they are crushed by the weight of for-profit healthcare in order to be able to afford to bury their spouse. There is nothing quite like starting that goddamn cycle over again.
I realize that you may disagree with Sanders’s policy ideas. I recognize that a Sanders supporter may have been mean to you on Twitter at some or multiple points. I understand that you may consider yourself very, very politically pragmatic.
But what I am trying to tell you is that the things Sanders fought for on his campaign (whether he fought effectively is not the point) were not abstractions to many of us. They were not laughable pie-in-the-sky visions. When my dad tells you, when I tell you, that Medicare for All is something everyone should be entitled to — including a 4′ 11″ fifty-one-year-old woman working as a teacher’s aid — it is not an abstract argument. It is true that Medicare for All probably would not have saved my mom’s life. But the support and stability it could have offered would have radically altered my father’s life, his future partner’s life, the life of the woods he lives in.
There is a theory of politics that says that pragmatism and winning are what matters. That has been the uneven but prevailing wisdom on this website for as long as I’ve written for it. There is also a theory of politics that says that demanding the seemingly impossible is critical to expanding the vision of the possible. That continues to be my prevailing wisdom, because it was how I was raised. In the spirit of my parents, I must say that it sounds truly shitty to have instinctively truncated visions of what we should fight for.
Anyway, yes, I plan to vote for Biden, so don’t accuse me of being detrimental to whatever cause it is you imagine Biden stands for.
I’ll let Elizabeth Bruenig’s truly wonderful piece on Sanders’s unwavering honesty take us out:
“[Bernie Sanders] was right about virtually everything. He was right from the very beginning, when he advocated a total overhaul of the American health care system in the 1970s. He remains right now, as a pandemic stresses the meager resources of millions of citizens to their breaking point, and possibly to their death. He was right when he seemed to be the only alarmist in a political climate of complacency. He is right now that he’s the only politician unsurprised to see drug companies profiteering from a lethal plague with Congress’s help. In politics, as in life, being right isn’t necessarily rewarded. But at least there’s some dignity in it.
In fact, both of Mr. Sanders’s presidential campaigns, beginning with his announcement in 2015 and ending here, were about dignity. Not only broad human dignity — Mr. Sanders’s relentless focus on the grim lives of the American poor, sick and disenfranchised is perhaps the greatest paean to the notion in modern political memory — but also the daily, personal sort we grant one another each time we tell the truth. Mr. Sanders is not and has never been a liar. His remarkable consistency over time, his notorious bluntness and his open disdain for sycophantic politics are all simply manifestations of that one critical fact. It made him an awkward fit for Washington, and it built him a movement.
A member of Congress for nearly 30 years, Mr. Sanders has been bitingly frank about the way that money strangles American democracy. Rich individuals with a vested interest in defanging egalitarian politics donate to campaigns, PACs, universities and think tanks in hopes of purchasing lawmakers’ loyalties and rigging the legislative process in their favor. These oligarchs — the Koch brothers, the Mercers and Michael Bloomberg, among others — exert control over our politics that far exceeds the one vote accorded to each citizen.
Mr. Sanders wagered that the only way to battle the leviathan was with sheer numbers. In 2019, 1.4 million individual donors from all 50 states sent the Sanders campaign some $96 million, without closed-door fund-raisers, hobnobbing in the Hamptons or groveling to billionaires. Mr. Sanders knows as well as everyone on Capitol Hill that you can’t really resist the people who sign your paychecks. He was just the only one willing to say it and to accept all that entailed.
Mr. Sanders was also honest about the unflattering facts of American life in a period of unusual liberal nostalgia for the way things used to be. In 2016, when Hillary Clinton ran on the premise, as opposed to Donald Trump’s, that America is already great, Mr. Sanders contended that just wasn’t so. America, he argued, is a place where the strong prey on the weak with almost total impunity, especially when that strength is wielded against workers, especially when those workers are undocumented immigrants, women, poor, sick, precarious.
And as Joe Biden prepares to mount a general election campaign based largely on the fantasy of going back to normal (meaning the Obama years), Mr. Sanders remains critical of life under the past administration. He contends that the bailouts bestowed upon Wall Street by the federal government during the 2008 financial crisis were a disaster that rewarded financial malefactors and that the fallout of the recession continues to crush average Americans under debt, poverty and stagnant wages.
None of this is pleasant to hear. And Mr. Sanders has never been a particularly mellifluous speaker. Much has been made in the past several years of his loudness, his anger, his bracing, impolitic bluntness. But that, too, is a sign of his respect for voters.
There is so little freedom in the world. Even here, now, in our celebrated liberal democracy, social mobility is incredibly limited compared with that in countries of comparable development, and there appears to be very little we can do about it. One freedom that cannot be taken from you is your freedom not to like the status quo — your freedom to be angry, disaffected, unimpressed, your refusal to be cajoled, soothed or consoled with small tokens of influence devoid of real power. Mr. Sanders, ill tempered and impatient with pleasantries, embodied that freedom, and he offered it to you.
None of this means you will get what you want, in politics or in life: Mr. Sanders did not win, after all. But he never lied, and he never pretended to like what is so clearly detestable or attempted to persuade any one of us that we ought to like it either. He was right to the end, and he refused to reconcile himself to the forces that eventually overtook him. It is hard to see him go. But there is at least some dignity in it.