This was, indeed, a very different presidential debate from the ones Republicans had in August and September. Sixteen candidates then used their allotted time trying to outdo each other in scaring Americans out of their pants by warning them about enemies everywhere, from illegal immigrants pouring across our borders, selling drugs and sex and bringing all kinds of disease, to jackbooted government agents wrestling guns out of the hands of mothers protecting their children from thugs breaking into their homes, to countries like Iran, Russia, and China interfering with our ambitions to make the planet a cradle of democracy, to which they promised ultimatums followed by military action once they got into the White House.
All this when they were not raising alarms about living babies being chopped up here at home by Planned Parenthood employees and having their body parts sold, or promising to close federal agencies that protect consumers and to dismantle regulations that stand in the way of banks and businesses, while getting rid of entirely or significantly reducing most of the programs for the less fortunate, from Obamacare to Social Security and Medicare.
One expects imbecilities and outright lies from politicians running for office, but not so much undisguised meanness and desire to hurt people. Many of the conservatives we saw seemed moved by nothing as much as hatred. Women, young people, blacks, immigrants, gays, liberals, teachers—the list could go on for pages. The impression I had was that there was a wish to see the lives of millions and millions of their fellow citizens made miserable. The audience loved it. Applause greeted many of these heartless pronouncements. They didn’t sound to me like a crowd pining to elect a future president of a constitutional democracy.
No wonder the Republicans found the Democratic debate dull. What could be more boring than listening to Senator Bernie Sanders telling us that we have the highest rate of childhood poverty of any major country in the world and more wealth and income inequality than any other, and that we are the sole advanced country that does not guarantee health care to all of its people as a right of citizenship, or Hillary Clinton calling for mandated paid family leave when Carly Fiorina, the first female CEO of a Fortune 20 company, made it clear that if the government requires paid leave, it will force small businesses to “hire fewer people and create fewer jobs”—despite California, a state as big as many countries, having had a paid leave program for a number of years with no ill effect of the kind she fears?
I must confess that I didn’t know what to expect from the Democratic debate, although I expected it would be less about fooling the voters and more about informing them. The candidates didn’t disappoint. They talked about gun control, the Middle East, the power of Wall Street, student loans, undocumented immigrants, global warming, Black Lives Matter, Social Security, the Patriot Act, government surveillance, and the widespread corruption that’ll keep anything from happening as long as there is no campaign finance reform. Even Edward Snowden was mentioned, whom Sanders praised, allowing that a “penalty” would be appropriate for his breaking the law, while Clinton claimed he ought to “fac[e] the music,” adding (implausibly) that he could have been a whistleblower and gotten all of the protections of being a whistleblower here at home, while raising all the issues that he raised, hinting at the same time that he stole very important information that has fallen into a lot of the wrong hands.
Hillary Clinton is a politician whom I’ve learned not to fully trust. She may sound like a passionate fighter for truth, but in her long political life she hasn’t shown much spine confronting Wall Street and our warmongers and has on occasion turned her back on progressive principles when they conflicted with her ambitions. Still, with Bernie Sanders sharing the stage and sounding like one of those soapbox orators I heard in the Chicago of my youth, I knew there would be some fireworks, but wondered what effect they would have. These debates are now produced as lavish spectacles rather than serious political events in the life of a democracy and come accompanied with numerous distractions, starting with multiple lights and screens in the auditorium and lengthy interruptions for commercials whose banality and hype, despite their sleek production qualities, are not only irritating under the circumstances, but seem more suitable to an Academy Awards presentation or a Miss America Pageant presided over by Donald Trump.
However, once the debate got going I was proven wrong. I found it captivating throughout, an impression confirmed by reading the transcript. The questions from Anderson Cooper varied in quality but were designed to draw out interesting responses, and the answers by the candidates often exceeded expectations. The pundits and some polls declared Clinton the winner, Joe Klein in Time calling her a voice of sanity, while other polls (backed by what I saw people posting on Facebook) said that Sanders was the winner. Right from the start of the debate it was clear that these five Democrats would be addressing issues that many Americans care about and the Republican Party either ignores or dismisses with contempt. Here’s Bernie Sanders’s opening speech:
I think most Americans understand that our country today faces a series of unprecedented crises. The middle class of this country for the last forty years has been disappearing. Millions of Americans are working longer hours for lower wages, and yet almost all of the new income and wealth being created is going to the top one percent.
As a result of this disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision, our campaign finance system is corrupt and is undermining American democracy. Millionaires and billionaires are pouring unbelievable sums of money into the political process in order to fund Super PACs and to elect candidates who represent their interests, not the interests of working people.
Today, the scientific community is virtually unanimous: climate change is real, it is caused by human activity, and we have a moral responsibility to transform our energy system away from fossil fuel to energy efficiency and sustainable energy and leave this planet a habitable planet for our children and our grandchildren.
Today in America, we have more people in jail than any other country on earth. African-American youth unemployment is 51 percent. Hispanic youth unemployment is 36 percent. [He should have said “underemployment.”1] It seems to me that instead of building more jails and providing more incarceration, maybe—just maybe—we should be putting money into education and jobs for our kids.
What this campaign is about is whether we can mobilize our people to take back our government from a handful of billionaires and create the vibrant democracy we know we can and should have.
Hillary Clinton was not as blunt in her analysis of what ails us, but she too proposed some “loony” policies, as the conservatives would most likely call them. She spoke of her plans to create more well-paying jobs: by investing in infrastructure and clean energy, by making it possible once again to invest in science and research, and by taking the opportunity posed by climate change to grow our economy. At the center of her campaign, she declared, will be her goal to raise all wages, including the minimum wage, and to find ways for companies to share profits with the workers who helped to make them, and to grant Americans paid family leave, which is a right in every other Western democracy.
Of course, much of our media, which treat the fake economic remedies proposed by Republicans with the utmost gravity, will say that this is pie-in-the-sky liberalism with no chance of ever being enacted. With the corrupt Congress we have today, and many voters who have little knowledge of their country’s political past and our workers’ long and often thwarted struggle to unionize and be paid decent wages for their work, and the equally important history of how all those gains were gradually reversed in the last thirty to forty years, the cynical journalists are not wrong.
American workers were not always so impotent. My first job, after graduating from high school in 1956, was at the Chicago Sun-Times, where I worked in the mail room distributing mail to different departments of the paper together with several other young men. Being the youngest, I was given the composing and printing rooms in the basement and the dock where they loaded printed papers onto the waiting trucks. Since there were three mail deliveries every weekday, I spent a good amount of time down there and got to know a number of workers, middle-aged and older, who after discovering from my accent that I was a recent arrival to the United States took it upon themselves to explain to me what this country is about, telling me over the course of a year much that Senator Sanders was saying the other night. They knew from their long experience with labor strikes and union organizing who their enemies were, and they had no illusions that things would soon change.
The memory of their faces and stories came back to me when I heard Anderson Cooper ask the senator from Vermont in an incredulous tone of voice: “You don’t consider yourself a capitalist?” The senator from Vermont took the question seriously and wondered aloud:
Do I consider myself part of the casino capitalist process by which so few have so much and so many have so little by which Wall Street’s greed and recklessness wrecked this economy? No, I don’t.
Clinton then remarked that when she thinks about capitalism, she thinks “about all the small businesses that were started because we have the opportunity and the freedom in our country for people to do that and to make a good living for themselves and their families.” To call the owners of a corner grocery capitalists is ludicrous. They may be a family-owned business, but putting them under the same label as franchises and large corporations that have multiple operations in various locations is the kind of bullshit that makes one recoil.
Sanders also tried to pass off some baloney, though not as often as Clinton. His explanation for voting five times against the Brady Bill, which mandated background checks for people buying guns, and insisting that it was a bad idea to hold gun manufacturers legally responsible for mass shootings, giving the excuse that he lives in a rural state, was easily refuted by Governor Martin O’Malley, who pointed out that in Maryland, he and the legislature were able to pass such a bill while still respecting the hunting traditions of people who live in rural areas. Clinton also didn’t hedge: “I think that we have to look at the fact that we lose ninety people a day from gun violence. [She neglected to say that these include suicides.2] This has gone on too long and it’s time the entire country stood up against the NRA.”
Another interesting exchange was the one about Syria, in which Sanders recommended that we stay out of a quagmire, Clinton called for a no-fly zone, and O’Malley said that it would be a mistake, since with the Russian air force already in the air, it could lead to an escalation due to an accident. As president, he said, he would not be so quick to resort to a military response, which is something Clinton can certainly be accused of. Here’s her explanation for why the United States bombed Libya and worked to overthrow its government:
Well, let’s remember what was going on. We had a murderous dictator, Qaddafi, who had American blood on his hands, as I’m sure you remember, threatening to massacre large numbers of the Libyan people. We had our closest allies in Europe burning up the phone lines begging us to help them try to prevent what they saw as a mass genocide, in their words. And we had the Arabs standing by our side saying, “We want you to help us deal with Qaddafi.”
Our response, which I think was smart power at its best, is that the United States will not lead this. We will provide essential, unique capabilities that we have, but the Europeans and the Arabs had to be first over the line. We did not put one single American soldier on the ground in Libya….
And the Libyan people had a free election for the first time since 1951. And you know what, they voted for moderates, they voted with the hope of democracy. Because of the Arab Spring, because of a lot of other things, there was turmoil to be followed.
Talk about not learning anything from experience. If this is what she really believes, and if she sees the brutal fighting among Libyan tribes, militias, and others as caused in any large part by the Arab Spring, she’s ignoring the realities that have been reported, and she poses a risk that if she becomes president she may not avoid colossal failures of judgment. As for Sanders, he’s too much of a realist, I believe, to imagine that he has a chance of becoming president and is running merely to enlighten the public about the realities that are being hidden from them by our corrupt politicians and our groveling media and to start a mass movement among the younger voters that would fight for the liberal values in which he believes.
I look forward to the next debate.