As I wrote in the weeks before the last Israeli elections, running for office these days has devolved into a game of slogans over substance.
The rules of the game are remarkably simple. Be all things to all people. Speak in the most populist and vague terms about the issues that plague us without committing to bold policy solutions that might raise eyebrows among one or another constituency. Focus more on the failings of the other side and less on your own novel ideas. Play it safe. Take few risks.
And above all else, do everything possible to deny voters the opportunity to choose between clear alternative futures.
We know how well the Israeli elections turned out: a hard-right governing coalition that will be lucky to last a year. And it shouldn’t have come as a big surprise, given that the opposition seemed to be running more on a “Bibi-lite” platform than on a vision of peace and hope.
Meanwhile back in the US, we’re already in political high-gear, a full 16 months before the 2016 presidential election. And, for the most part, the actors in this drama are already well-established in their assigned and familiar roles.
But what Campaign 2016 — and America — needs most is some political risk-taking; people like Bernie Sanders, and even a Rand Paul, to shake up the conversation. Candidates who won’t poll-test every word and idea. Candidates liberated by the knowledge that they don’t have much chance to win — and therefore not much to lose — by telling us what they really believe is best for this country. Candidates who offer clear alternative futures that allow us to have a meaningful public discussion about the challenges of this new era.
Let’s not kid ourselves. We the people pay a heavy price for the politics of slogans over substance: a disengaged and cynical electorate, declining voting rates and elected leaders who give us more or less of the same. The problem of course, in an ever-changing and increasingly fraught world, is that more of the same will sooner or later spell disaster. (Runaway climate change, widening income gaps, persistent racism, endemic gun violence — choose your poison.)
Republican hopefuls are already sparring to burnish their turn-back-the-clock and anti-government credentials. It’s not at all clear who will emerge as the Republican candidate for the White House; then yet again, I’m not so sure it matters very much.
On the Democratic side, nomination odds-makers continue to tilt heavily toward the play-it-safe candidacy of Hillary Clinton; a lackluster campaign already suffering from the double-trouble of inevitability and insularity.
And yet, an unapologetically progressive Bernie Sanders is getting huge turnouts all over the country and firing up segments of the Democratic electorate in ways that should be giving pause to the Clinton camp. (Check out H.A. Goodman’s recent and somewhat fanciful piece in the Huffington Post: “Why Bernie Sanders Will Become the Democratic Nominee and Defeat Any Republican in 2016.”)
Wishful thinking notwithstanding, it’s not hard to understand why Sanders is gaining momentum. It’s certainly not about his Ivy League looks and polished oratory. Sanders is raising serious money and firing up the public by speaking the unvarnished truth about what he believes needs to be done in this country; the same truth that he’s been telling throughout his political career. Getting big money out of politics; carbon sequestration and tight greenhouse gas controls; raising the minimum wage while investing in infrastructure job creation; bold immigration reform; stiffer gun ownership rules; job-friendly trade policies; tightening bank regulation; and Medicare-for-All single payer health care.
Who knows…Given a clear choice and an inspiring vision, bold might yet surprise us and beat out bland. Because risky times demand a risk-taking politics.
That’s why I so deeply respect what Bernie Sanders is doing. And that’s why I support his candidacy. Go, Bernie, Go!