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Moderate voters don’t necessarily want a President who takes unpopular positions. They want someone who can reassure Wall Street and stop this nightmare we are all living through. (Photo: Common Dreams / CC BY 3.0)

Moderate voters don’t necessarily want a President who takes unpopular positions. They want someone who can reassure Wall Street and stop this nightmare we are all living through. (Photo: Common Dreams / CC BY 3.0)

COVID-19 Pandemic Shows That We Don't Need Return to Normalcy—We Need President Bernie Sanders

Middle America: What happened to the revolution?

Ruth Conniff

 by The Progressive

A few short months ago, neither the coronavirus pandemic nor Joe Biden’s coronation was visible on the horizon.

We’re living in a different world now.

The coronavirus pandemic exposes the huge cracks in our society that Sanders has been pointing out all along.

As we shelter in place, with our schools, workplaces, restaurants, and playgrounds shut down, watching Donald Trump fumble his way through news conferences—giving himself a “10” for his dangerously inept handling of a global disaster he once called a hoax and now calls the “Chinese virus”—it looks as though the guy who seemed least on his toes in the Democratic primary debates will be representing the majority of Americans who want to defeat Trump in November.

The two events are not directly related. Biden won a majority of Democratic delegates not because he seems like the safest bet in a crisis (although some voters think he is). He won because the establishment finally and fully threw its weight behind him, after months of considering every other alternative, from an inexperienced small-town mayor to an arrogant former Republican billionaire who dropped in late and spent half a billion dollars, proposing to save our democracy by buying the election.

When none of the other options worked out, the moderate bloc closed ranks behind Biden, and “Joementum” became a self-fulfilling prophesy.

What happened to the most diverse presidential primary field in U.S. history? What happened to Elizabeth Warren and the powerful group of women who cleaned Biden’s clock in the debates? What happened to the revolution?

Bernie Sanders was right. In his debate with Biden on March 15, held in a sealed CNN studio without a live audience to avoid contagion, Sanders said that the current pandemic exposes the great vulnerability of our unequal, increasingly unjust society.

As Sanders pointed out, the United States spends twice as much per capita on health care as other developed countries, but our patchwork of private insurance providers that exclude millions of people leaves us woefully unprepared to launch an effective, coordinated response to this public health crisis.

Add to that the desperate situation of workers already living paycheck to paycheck, and the need to raise the minimum wage, tax the rich, provide universal health care, and restore the social safety net becomes undeniable.

The coronavirus pandemic exposes the huge cracks in our society that Sanders has been pointing out all along.

Biden’s response in the debate was to say that the nation is in the throes of “a national crisis” that “has nothing to do with Bernie’s Medicare for All.”

Biden has made his case for the Democratic nomination by painting the Sanders revolution as unrealistic. Getting to Medicare for All, he argues, would take years, and people need action now.

Biden projects a knowing confidence in his own familiarity with the system. He can make deals and get things done. He is not alarmed or angry. And that is a big part of his appeal to moderate voters and the establishment. Sure, he has taken money from big donors. But so has nearly everyone in politics. Many Democrats are OK with that.

Young people, on the other hand, can’t stand it. The Bernie revolutionaries under thirty I know are appalled by Biden, who strikes them as the ultimate phony.

All the jokes about his senior moments, his out-of-touch comments about “record players,” and, worse, his use of the word “aliens” in that last debate to describe undocumented immigrants, are just depressing now. The Trump campaign is already gleefully grabbing onto this material.

In the March 15 debate, Sanders hectored Biden about his past positions—supporting the bank bailout; making floor speeches in favor of the budget-balancing Bowles-Simpson Act, which included cuts to Social Security and Medicare; taking contributions from the pharmaceutical industry; voting for the Iraq War, the Defense of Marriage Act, and, repeatedly, the Hyde Amendment that bars the use of federal funds for abortion.

More people are listening to progressive ideas, as the inequities of our current system become increasingly indefensible.

Biden copped to his votes on the war and the Defense of Marriage Act, and explained away the Hyde Amendment, which was rolled into other legislation. But he pretended he had never supported austerity and bank deregulation. He seemed incredulous that Sanders even brought it up. After all, he’s winning. It’s time to pretend he’s a progressive champion, and it’s Sanders’s job to help him with that, not dig into his past.

Sanders had plenty of material. Biden, as a Senator from Delaware, spent years developing a cozy relationship with the banking industry headquartered there. He has a long record of less-than-perfect populism.

“That’s what leadership is about,” Sanders instructed Biden after one particularly bruising exchange on Biden’s record, in contrast to his own. “It’s having the guts to take an unpopular vote.”

Moderate voters don’t necessarily want a President who takes unpopular positions. They want someone who can reassure Wall Street and stop this nightmare we are all living through.

Biden has adopted Senator Elizabeth Warren’s bankruptcy bill and part of Sanders’s free-college plan that would cover tuition at public universities for families that earn less than $125,000 per year. But the bankruptcy bill Warren seeks to undo is one Biden helped to write, Sanders pointed out. (“I did not!” Biden huffed.)

Biden wasn’t prepared to relitigate his whole, long record. He expected to be allowed to morph into the candidate voters want him to be. That’s the realistic approach to politics.

The longer the coronavirus emergency goes on, however, the clearer it is that a New Deal style rethinking of our whole society is in order.

Even Mitch McConnell told his Republican colleagues to hold their noses and vote for a House bill that gives workers affected by the coronavirus temporary paid sick leave, boosts unemployment benefits, strengthens government food aid, and helps states meet expenses for Medicaid.

Senator Ron Johnson, Republican of Wisconsin, derided the bill for “incentivizing people to not show up for work.” Johnson, who has suggested that the government might be overreacting to the pandemic, since it may kill “no more than 3.4 percent of our population,” spoke for a minority of Republicans in Congress and business interests against helping the working poor. He lost that fight.

Biden is seeking the middle ground, even as the Earth heaves and cracks beneath him. He pitches himself as the candidate of a “return to normalcy,” after the dystopian presidency of Donald Trump. But more and more Americans are coming to grips with the fact that we may never see normal again.

Sanders, in that last debate, made the connection between the need for a robust government response to the emergency of the coronavirus pandemic and the way we address the emergency of climate change. Biden’s climate plans are “nowhere near enough,” Sanders said, painting a picture of massive flooding, drought, food insecurity, and populations displaced by global warming.

“This is not a middle-of-the-ground thing,” he added. “It is insane that we continue to have fracking . . . and to give tens of billions of dollars a year in tax breaks and subsidies to the fossil fuel industry.”

While Biden describes coronavirus as an emergency requiring a response akin to war, Sanders said, “I look at climate change in the exact same way.”

Sanders wants to spend billions more than Biden on a transition to renewable energy—a massive $13 to $14 trillion investment that others have dismissed as unrealistic.

But continuing as we are is also unrealistic.

“It is time to ask how we get to where we are,” Sanders said in his closing statement. It is time “to rethink America,” to try to make it “a country where we care about each other,” not “a nation of greed and corruption.”

The Democrats are not going to have a brokered convention. But Bernie Sanders and his base still have a lot of power. Before 2016, many of Sanders’s ideas were dismissed as fringe notions, including the $15 an hour minimum wage, student loan forgiveness, and Medicare for All.

Now, not only have they moved to the mainstream of the Democratic Party, but the whole world is waking up to the need for a more unified, community-minded approach to public health and our general welfare.

Every four years, we see the battle within the Democratic Party—the rise of candidates like Bernie Sanders or Ralph Nader or Elizabeth Warren who show us a vision of what America could be, and then the inevitable collapse into the candidate who is more palatable to the guardians of the status quo.

But the revolution in our politics is about more than winning a single election. We have to keep building power at every level, pushing the idea of a saner, more humane nation. More people are listening to progressive ideas, as the inequities of our current system become increasingly indefensible.

We need the Sanders revolution more than ever.

© 2021 The Progressive
Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff

Ruth Conniff is Editor-in-chief of the Wisconsin Examiner. She formerly served as Editor-in-chief of The Progressive Magazine, and opened the Progressive’s office in Washington, DC, during the Clinton Administration, where she made her debut as a political pundit on CNN’s Capital Gang Sunday and Fox News. Se moved to Oaxaca, Mexico, for a year in 2017, where she covered U.S./Mexico relations, the migrant caravan, and Mexico’s efforts to grapple with Donald Trump.

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