The Hillary-Bernie Debates Part 3: The Dangers of Meme Politics

(It’s taken a while for me to pinpoint just why a progressive young person like me isn’t feeling the Bern [1]. This is the best explanation I have.)

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I know something about working in a job that everyone thinks they know how to do. I couldn’t count the number of times that I have told people I am a teacher only to find myself on the receiving end of advice about how to really interest my students, what assignments I should create, how charter schools really have it figured out, and have I thought about this restorative justice thing?  Teaching is a frustrating profession as it is, but having the general public assume they know how to do my job better than me only makes that frustration more acute, because I can assure you that– even if you’ve read a few articles and seen a few memes and spent your childhood in a classroom– if I put you in front of 30 teenage students, a third of them special needs, a fourth of them English language learners, and several of them heavy hitting behavior cases, you would not know how to do my job. (Honestly, there are days when I’m still learning how to do my job, and I’ve got a Master’s degree and several years of experience under my belt.)

As I’ve watched this election unfold through internet memes and Facebook newsfeeds, I have to admit, I feel nauseous sometimes, and weirdly compassionate for the candidates whose humanities we sacrifice in our frenzy. The sureness with which people declare judgment over politicians, the passion with which they proselytize and justify their own views, the cowing and pandering politicians have to do in order to keep their jobs, the frustration politicians must feel trying to strike a balance between good policymaking, which is complex and rarely easily explained, and the world of memes and sound bites, which loves everything clean, sleek, convenient, and in 140 words or less… I feel bad for anyone caught in it. It’s just a nagging suspicion, but I don’t think we the people know as much as we think we know.

This is my concern with Bernie Sanders. It’s why I can’t get behind what he is selling.

Bernie Sanders sells a meme-ready vision of America as a highly regulated, semi-socialist country. In his America, healthcare is universal and free, college educations are free, minimum wage is $15, and the big banks get cut to pieces.

The only problem is… that isn’t America. America’s strengths as a country are its innovation (a result of semi-unregulated economies, for example, the environment that created Uber), its financial industry (because we are the center of the world in terms of banking) and sheer wealth, the media and entertainment industry, our military power, our corporations’ brand name power, our commercialization of standardized and convenient food products, our obsession with variety and choice, and our population’s relative comfort with heterogeneity (which few other countries can even come close to. I’m sorry, but Finland is never going to be as diverse in race, language, and class background as America. There is nowhere in the world like New York City.).

They may not be likeable strengths, and there may be a lot of problems in the list I just made, but that is the country we’ve got. If we want to have Bernie’s vision (which legitimately would be awesome), he needs to not be running for president: he needs to write a series of constitutional amendments to fix our broken version of federalism.

Government infrastructure, and especially centralized infrastructure, is not one of our strengths. Funding public services and regulatory bodies consistently and effectively is definitely not one of our strengths (just look at the EPA and the SEC– regulatory bodies that Congress has slowly eviscerated through sheer lack of funding in each budget. For that matter, look at public defenders! One person serving as a lawyer to hundreds of defendants? Look at public education! Why do I teach 140 students? How is it even possible to do that well?). Having the government do jobs that private companies can do is definitely not one of our strengths: just look at how many contractors we hire to outsource everything from test-writing to military equipment manufacturing.

Federalism itself is constantly leading to confusions over jurisdiction. My public school district at the moment is caught in a nasty version of Tragedy of the Commons: Trying to Get Funding from Multiple Levels of Government Edition.

I think it’s deeply irresponsible for Bernie to be painting this semi-socialist picture of America, not because it isn’t a powerful and beautiful dream, but because it isn’t achievable through a presidency. Progressive disillusionment is almost as scary as other forms of backlash we are seeing this year, and I am afraid that Bernie is selling an impossible vision to a group of people who are dangerously close to permanent disengagement from American politics. His probable loss in this election is going to lead many of them to simply refuse to participate, which is exactly what we don’t need.

And even if he is elected: if the majority of liberals in America were disillusioned with Obama after four years in, how on earth will Bernie supporters feel after four years of him getting pummeled and blocked at every corner? Are they going to turn their backs on him in disdain too?

Plus, even though his policies might make great memes, I honestly don’t think many of them make good federal laws in the country we currently have.

For example: a national $15 minimum wage. Interesting idea. Great meme. But far more complex in reality: it would certainly make the human capital costs to get small businesses started much higher, it would certainly raise the prices of certain products, and it would most likely increase the rate of inflation. I am betting it would add pressure on companies to outsource labor to other countries as well. How will we address these concerns? How will we protect small businesses and keep companies from outsourcing? What about the people who don’t get paid by hour, but by weight of food picked? How will we address the almost certain consequence of a resulting increase in undocumented labor abuse?

And does a higher minimum wage really address the issue Bernie cares about, expanding and securing the middle class? I’m not sure. I’m all for keeping the minimum wage at pace with inflation, and that’s fine. But (a) isn’t that a state issue? And (b) shouldn’t we be prioritizing not better minimum wage jobs, but rather more jobs that are better than minimum wage? We want more great jobs, not better shitty jobs.

This is just one of those moments when meme-politics make me skeptical. Maybe a $15 minimum wage would be amazing; I’m excited about cities that have tried it. Or maybe it would be disastrous. But it seems a lot more complicated than Bernie suggests.

And then there’s universal healthcare. I’ve had positive experiences with it in both India and Europe. But are we thinking about just how many jobs will be lost in the eradication of the highly lucrative insurance industry? And the backlash? Are we thinking about the tax money it’ll cost? Are we thinking about the sheer infrastructure required to make this happen? I work in a public profession, and I can tell you: it isn’t always pretty. Do we want our doctors to be unionizing? Do we want healthcare to be a bargaining chip between different levels of government who are arguing over funding? And is the public really ready to give up their freedom to choose their healthcare and have it when they want it? Are we ready for the wait times? I’m skeptical.

I know European countries can do it, and good for them. But they are smaller, their governments more centralized, their populations more homogeneous. And they are a bit better organized. Plus, half of their populations, generally speaking, are not trying to defund and abolish all public services at all times.

[And call me capitalist, but I sort of like Obamacare. It’s a very American compromise between socialism and capitalism: Yes, everyone needs to be insured and have access to healthcare, but we’ll offer a public version of insurance to cover those who can’t get it privately, while the private companies will still be able to do their thing, earn their money, employ their people.]

The only part of Bernie’s platform that I really want to fully get behind is campaign finance reform[2]. And that’s a big one, so it’s nothing to spit at. If he gets elected president, and that’s the one thing he manages to change, I would not be mad at him. That’s a battle worth fighting, and if won, it would have ripple effects on every other battle we fight.

But I don’t know if he really has a viable plan for fighting Citizens United from the Oval Office. (No– refusing to take donations from big banks who don’t want to donate to him anyhow is not a viable plan for fixing campaign finance reform. That’s just proving a point, and it’s likely not even going to get him the election, though I could be wrong). And that’s my concern with so much of Bernie’s platform: his ideas are too broad and too vague, and it seems to me that his supporters generally base their arguments on the premise that Bernie deserves the presidency because he is morally more righteous than everyone else in the game.

I just can’t remember the last time ‘being right’ got much of anything done on Capitol Hill.

Maybe I’ll be wrong. God willing, I’ll be wrong.

I think that Bernie correctly identifies some of the most problematic parts of our country. I think he has suggested some great infrastructure changes based on precedents in other countries. I think that the vision he has is beautiful, and it has led to enthusiasm from a huge part of the American public that has felt disappointed in our broken government up until this point.

But I don’t want him to be my president. Instead, I wish that he would us his position in Congress to actually fix our government constitutionally. I wish he would increase the number of seats in the House. I wish he would mandate that we develop a multiparty system. Perhaps most importantly, I wish that we would quit having a popularly elected president and instead move to a prime minister elected by Congress (then people would pay attention to the elections that really matter, and billions of dollars wouldn’t be spent on one that honestly, doesn’t. Plus, we would be guaranteed a less obstructed lawmaking body). I wish that he would rewrite the Amendments that dictate the rights of the states and the rights of the federal government to clearly delineate who is responsible for what is so we stop wasting government money on battles between different layers of government, or battles between parties arguing over these powers. I wish that he would constitutionally define who gets to vote and how much money is allowed in politics.

But he doesn’t need to be president to do that. He needs to be in Congress.

To Bernie fans: I love that you exist. Our country was founded by people like you. One can only hope it will be re-founded and revolutionized by people like you. Our government is deeply broken and needs to be re-done by people who have imaginations big enough to look past questions like “Is it possible?” to see a different way. We need people like you to counter old despairing codgers like me.

But if Bernie burns in this election, don’t abandon our country. You are the people we need. The system is broken. You are the ones we need to fix it.


1. Honestly, one of the biggest reasons I didn’t vote for Bernie is how his followers talk about Hillary. Bernie isn’t a god. He might be great in your estimation, and he might even end up being an awesome president. But he’s going to let you down. And the passionate Hillary-hating is nauseating, and it’s unfair; if you’re hating on Hillary personally, you need to hate on every single Democrat. The party took a series of calculated risks, because politics is like chess, and they were trying to gauge strategies for success. Hillary was a representative of a party trying to serve you in a world trying to take things from you. You may not like parties because you don’t want to get your hands dirty, and you may not appreciate the groundwork laid there, but there is a reason Bernie Sanders has declared himself a Democrat; he knows he can get something from affiliating with an organization that has such strategies. This is politics; half of the country disagrees with you about what should be done, so what are you going to do to get around that? For Bernie’s followers to take those chess moves out of context and place personal moral judgment on the pieces, I have to stand up with everyone else crying foul. Why should Hillary be crucified for decisions Democrats have made as a group? That is both illogical and unfair. Plus, she is perhaps the most actively apologetic politician I know; she– like all people– makes mistakes and sometimes poor choices of word or action. But better than the rest of them, she apologizes and rectifies. She takes criticism and suggestions pretty darn well for a politician. I am fine with Bernie running against Hillary. I am fine with him suggesting a new ideology for the Democratic party. I am even fine with him joining the Democratic Party now that it’s beneficial to him. But I am not fine with the special vitriol with which his followers are treating Hillary, as if she is the worst of all humankind. She actually isn’t. She’s just a Democratic politician who has lived through an era when the party moved to the center. Disagree with her, hold her accountable, fine. That’s your job. But the treatment I hear is straight up dehumanizing hatred, which is unfair–and really turns me off. Why would I join a group of people who do that to people on their own team? I didn’t even talk about Bush with that kind of hatred. Disdain and frustration, but never this sort of hatred. It’s alarming. (I am not going to get into sexism right now, but that’s also a real thing).

2. I get that Wall Street is incredibly problematic. Actually empowering the government to regulate what Dodd Frank outlines would be world-changing, literally. But it feels far too simple to direct the rage of the frustrated victims of a broken economy at the nebulous concept of “Wall Street” and “Income Inequality” because there isn’t a simple fix for it. Isn’t such scapegoating the same thing Trump does, except instead of using immigrants we’re using bankers? Wall Street itself is just far too complex for this sort of rhetoric. If in 2008, the government hadn’t stepped in, it wouldn’t have just been the banks that had failed. Our lives were bound up in those banks: our pensions and mortgages and family savings accounts, not to mention a ton of jobs. The banking industry, as problematic as it is, is one of the major sectors of our economy. We must regulate it without destroying it. We must regulate it without pushing it abroad to countries with friendlier corporate tax policies. I have a hunch that regulating Wall Street is going to take more than a stubborn president who scorns banks and refuses their money. There are deeper rooted problems.


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