When talking about Bernie Sanders’s amazing rise as a formidable opponent to Hillary Clinton, his supporters often like to say that until 2015 no one has heard of him. I find that surprising given that for years he has been a guest on MSNBC. He was my favorite senator because, as an independent, he challenged the status quo in a way that Democrats didn’t. But when he declared this candidacy for the presidency, like everyone else at the time, I didn’t think he would go far—and, like everyone else, I was wrong. How could a self-proclaimed socialist have any chance in the USA?
I grew up in the Socialist Republic of Romania and immigrated to the States in 1991 after the collapse of communism in Eastern Europe. I was in my twenties and had lived for years under 24-hour surveillance because my then-husband was a dissident. Before I left the country, the clerk who looked at my ID told me with dumbfounded surprise: “Do you know that you were considered ‘very dangerous for the security of the state’?” If you imagine that to get that honor I was some kind of female James Bond you overestimate both the communists and me. The only thing I did was to support my husband and give several interviews to the foreign press, but in a country where the opposition was virtually inexistent, that was more than enough. If the anti-communist Revolution hadn’t succeeded, my husband and I would have been murdered by the regime.
As an immigrant to this country I was shocked to discover that in spite of the cold war most Americans (and this included intellectuals and academics) had no idea of what it meant to live under communism. I discovered that there were two kinds of Americans: the right wing, who hated the “Red menace,” but all they knew about it were slogans from the Reagan era like “the Evil Empire;” and the leftists who either didn’t care to know more about the incarnation of this ideology in a part of the world that was too far away from them, or else, through a binary logic specific to the cold-war period (Reagan hates communism, therefore communism must be good), tried to convince me that the communism I knew wasn’t “the real one.” I needed to be schooled in the “real” communism they knew from books written by people who never lived under communism. I also discovered what most immigrants know: that our view of the world, our politics, is framed differently, depending on the country, and as a consequence, my politics could fit neither within a Democratic nor a Republican worldview. I couldn’t understand why something like abortion, for instance, was such a big deal in American politics. Where I came from abortion had been illegal—not for religious reasons (communist countries are officially atheist), but because the country’s dictator wanted to rule over a more numerous population. When communism fell, the first law that was passed was to legalize abortion, and for my generation the right to have an abortion was equivalent to Freedom. Every woman I knew there had had abortions, and everybody (including religious people) was pro-abortion. What was the big deal, and why was this even an issue in the freest country on earth?
So, I was with the Democrats as far as women’s rights were concerned, but on the other hand, found identity politics, particularly the way it was played in academia, rather distasteful; as I was to discover, my position was similar to that of most French (and European, in general) intellectuals at the time. On social issues I was left of most Democrats—I couldn’t understand for the life of me how “the richest country in the world” had millions of people without healthcare, and was constantly waging some war, yet money was still flowing.
Fast forward to 2016: for the first time this country has a candidate for the presidency who has adopted the radical (you can put this word in quotation marks or not, depending on your views) positions on health care, wars and money that I used to (and to a large extent, still) hold. Then, why am I not drawn to him? Why do I resist a candidate who, in theory, should be my dream candidate: Bernie Sanders? Why do I increasingly find myself drawn to his counterpart, Hillary Clinton, of whom I hadn’t been particularly fond in the past? Why do I find so exasperating those who say they would never vote for her, or worse, who claim that a Trump presidency would be preferable because he would—indirectly—bring about the Revolution (as Susan Sarandon said, talking to Chris Hayes on MSNBC)?
If I prefer Hillary Clinton to Bernie Sanders is not because I am—as Bernie supporters would have it—hawkish, but because I have come to learn that in politics one should be wary of too much passion. In politics the best candidate is the one who, while representing (as much as possible) our views, has the intellect and the political shrewdness to govern in the most efficient way possible. Barack Obama was that candidate, and while Bernie Sanders may be in some ways more progressive than Obama, as a candidate, he lacks Obama’s intelligence and diplomatic skills, never mind his shrewdness. Yes, Sanders has an honesty rarely seen in politics, an honesty Obama had too, but unlike Sanders, Obama is a great politician because he is also calculated. Being calculated isn’t a great quality in a friend, but it’s necessary in a president. And nice people (like Bernie Sanders) do not necessarily make good presidents; in fact, more likely than not, they would make lousy ones. The problem is that Bernie’s supporters think that he can be a president (presumably a good or even a great president) without being a politician. Unfortunately, a president is a politician, and a politician is…
What exactly is a politician?
The word “politician” and all the other related words come from the Greek polis, which means “city.” A politician is someone who deals with a city (or its larger version, a country) and its problems.
“Fuck politics! Vote Bernie!” was the sign one of Bernie’s supporters carried, a slogan that gives us pause on many levels. First of all, it assumes that voting has nothing to do with politics. Second, it seems to ignore that Bernie Sanders has been involved in politics since the mid seventies—a mayor after 1981, a congressman for 16 years, and a senator for 10–, so he is at least as much of a politician as Hillary Clinton. In politics, there is often a very fine line between what is inspiring and what is demagogical. Obama walked that line, and in most cases, he was inspiring. Bernie Sanders is, as far as I am concerned, sometimes inspiring, but most of the time, not. And a “Revolution” may sound great on paper, but it’s an entirely different thing in reality. With few exceptions, revolutions are bloody, and to want a revolution in a country where there are millions of guns—mostly in the hands of the right—is not very wise. When Obama was trying to pass his health care law the town halls were full with Republicans (with guns!) protesting it—and those who think that Bernie’s radical policies have any chance to succeed were probably on vacation during Obama’s first term.