I couldn't help but notice a series of posts on Facebook in the last day or two by unrelenting Bernie supporters declaring that they will not vote for Hillary Clinton because she's "just as bad" as Donald Trump and because it's O.K. if Trump wins because the system is so corrupt and broken that it's time to bring it to its knees. A Trump victory, they proclaim, will lead to the complete collapse of the established order and finally open the door to genuine reform.
What they seem to want, in short, is a revolution -- not a violent revolution, but a political revolution, a revolution that will toss out everything that is wrong with our current system and that will enable the American people to start over again from scratch.
Whether or not their understanding of the overall state of our society is correct, the central question is whether either staying home or voting for a third-party candidate -- and thus electing Donald Trump -- will have the positive effect they desire.
Even if their aspirations for our society are good ones (as I generally think they are), this strategy is naïve, dangerous, and self-destructive. With the election of Donald Trump, everything they say they care about will only get worse. The odds of their romantically dystopian scenario occurring are extremely remote, while the disastrous effects of a Trump presidency are very real indeed.
Their strategy for this election calls to mind the approach of the unrelenting Robert Kennedy and Eugene McCarthy supporters in 1968 and of the Ralph Nader supporters in 2000. The decision of those citizens not to vote for Hubert Humphrey in 1968 and Al Gore in 2000 brought us the glories of Richard Nixon and George W. Bush. Any progressive who celebrates those outcomes will LOVE the 2016 sequel!
Is our society in need of repair? Of course it is. There are innumerable ways in which our nation and our political system could be much, much better. But if one steps back and takes a historical perspective, it should be clear that in important respects the United States today is in better shape than ever before in history.
Through hard-bought political and legal reform we have ended state-imposed racial segregation; forbidden private discrimination on the basis of race, religion, gender, national origin, and disability; expanded and protected the right to vote; guaranteed reproductive freedom for women; witnessed a glorious revolution in the rights of gays and lesbians; and guaranteed health care for millions of Americans.
I do not mean to sound Pollyannaish. But it would be a mistake to deny certain fundamental truths. Indeed, one measure of our nation's success over time is that virtually no Americans seek to leave the country to live elsewhere -- except for the very wealthy, who sometimes move to nations with lower tax rates. At the same time, people seeking a better life - now as in the past -- clamor to live in the United States.
This is not to say that there are not major problems in our society today. We are afflicted with persistent racial injustice and serious income, educational, and political inequality. These are critical challenges that must be addressed if we are to achieve our nation's highest aspirations. These aspirations are shared by Bernie Sanders, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and the Democratic Party. The goal should not be to destroy what we have accomplished, but to continue to make progress in a determined, persistent, and realistic manner.
An interesting and important question is why it has been so hard for us to move more quickly towards our vision of the just society. Several answers come to mind. First, and perhaps most fundamentally, many of our fellow citizens do not share our vision of the ideal American society. That might seem weird to the stubbornly unrelenting Bernie supporters who are confident that the truths they espouse are self-evident, but the fact is that many Americans have values different from theirs.
Many Americans, for example, care more about having what they regard as a "moral" society -- a society in which there is no murder of unborn fetuses; in which homosexuality is suppressed and excoriated, as in the good old days; in which women remain where they belong -- in the home raising children; in which African-Americans know their place; in which the government does not meddle with the economic liberties of business; in which crime is suppressed even more aggressively than it is today; in which immigrants are excluded and removed; in which local government, rather than the national government, makes the rules; in which there is no rumor of climate change and no hint of Ronald Reagan's supposed "welfare queens."
Here's the rub. In a democracy, the unrelenting Bernie supporters don't get to have their way just because they think that they have all the answers and because they think that they have the blueprint for the ideal society. Other Americans have different visions of that society, and the unrelenting Bernie supporters don't get to win just because they're certain they are right.
Rather, in a democracy they have to persuade the majority of their fellow citizens to embrace their values and to surrender their own values and preferences. That is at the core of a democratic society. You don't get to win just because you're sure you're right.
The unrelenting Bernie supporters are frustrated because many of their fellow citizens reject their vision. The challenge is not to tear down the system and wreak havoc with millions of lives. It is to continue to strive to persuade others to embrace their views -- while at the same time not making things worse.
But, they say, it's not possible to persuade the majority to embrace their views because the system is rigged. Moreover, they say, even if they could persuade the majority to agree with them about the ideal society, the system is so corrupt that the majority would not be able to change it. There is real truth in both of these points.
Perhaps the most serious problem our nation faces today is the distorting role of money in the political process. There is plenty of evidence that on many key issues elected officials take positions that are consistent with the interests of the one percent at the expense of the interests of the vast majority of their constituents. This is a corrupt and broken democracy.
This state of affairs is due partly to the extraordinary imbalance in wealth in the United States; partly to the often unhealthy and polarizing influence of the media; and partly to a legal system that cannot regulate the impact of money in politics. The latter, which is the most important cause of our political dysfunction, is due largely to a single vote in a Supreme Court decision -- Citizens United, in which the Court, in a five-to-four decision, held unconstitutional all sorts of laws designed to address this problem.
It is absolutely critical that Citizens United be overruled, or at least sharply restricted. With a Clinton presidency, that will happen. Indeed, if Merrick Garland is confirmed, there will for the first time since Citizens United be a majority on the Supreme Court prepared to limit or overturn that decision. And with more appointments possible in the next few years, the effect would be even more dramatic.
But with a Trump presidency, the Court will continue to affirm Citizens United, making it impossible to limit the role of money in politics. Anyone who wants to change the political system in the United States - and to bring about meaningful reform on all sorts of issues ranging from guns to racial justice to economic equality -- first has to elect Hillary Clinton so we can get rid of Citizens United.
That won't solve everything, of course, but it will open the door to dramatic change in the electoral process, and then the governing process, and it will make it easier for people who share Bernie's vision of America to persuade other Americans that their vision of the future is the right one.
Because of the makeup of the Supreme Court, President Obama never had that opportunity. But President Hillary Clinton, with the opportunity finally to replace Justice Scalia, can effect that change, and with that change we can begin to repair the dysfunction and corruption that has distorted American democracy. This is a moment when we can do this within the system. This is a moment when it is absolutely critical to win.
Don't blow it.