THIS TILE OF THIS POST ISN’T MERELY A RHETORICAL QUESTION. If it were, then hope is gone.
Vaclav Havel protested against dysfunctional politics for a long time before he eventually became the peoples’ choice as president of Czechoslovakia in 1989. As a playwright and a philosopher prior to his political ascendancy, he asked a penetrating question: “Are we implicit n the system that enslaves us, or are we what we always wanted to believe of ourselves?”
Though on the surface it seems that the average citizen believes conscience and politics have become mutually exclusive, it seems more likely that they hold on to the faint hope that in some way, or somehow, the political influence in our country can still bring us back to a place of meaning.
South of the border a story is rising that brings a glimmer of hope that things are maybe changing. Most Canadians wouldn’t be able to tell you much about Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, but in America this aging public figure, now challenging Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, is capturing a whole new audience, pulling from across the political spectrum.
How can it be, considering that he has no big money donors, is a strong ideological voice from the Left, and has existed on the fringe for decades? Perhaps the answer is to be found in one word: conscience. “He’s the real deal and he’s never changed his message in order to secure more support,” one associate says. In many ways, he holds striking similarities to the ever-popular Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren. She, too, is seen as someone authentic and courageous while constantly fending off pressure to run herself for president.
In Sanders and Hillary Clinton the Democratic Party is confronted with what should be an easy choice. Clinton appears to have all the pieces and is a formidable, perhaps unstoppable, force. But questions of funding, and how she acquires it, runs contrary to the feeling of those who are convinced that people like Clinton and Republican contenders pander to the wealthy and are, in turn, too much under their influence.
Financial inequality continues to appear at the top of the list of concerns for Democratic voters in advance of the nomination and this is precisely why Sanders has appeared out of obscurity to capture public attention. He has been speaking out on the negative influence of big money for years and has been one of those stressing the need for campaign finance reform. You can hear the effectiveness of his message here. He has held his convictions for decades, even though he has had to endure slights from the political mainstream. When he recently said in an interview, “I’m the only candidate who is prepared to take on a billionaire class which controls our economy and increasingly controls the political life of this country,” he drew significant support from across the country because people understand that he has been saying this for years, an action that had previously resulted in ridicule.
But not anymore. His voice has found a place to land effectively: in the aspirations of millions of voters. And this is what makes him worrisome to elite Democrats and Republicans alike. Hearkening back to Havel’s question at the beginning of this post, what happens when contenders themselves are “implicit in the system?” The serious challenges facing our world aren’t going to be solved by political aspirants who alter their platforms in an endless effort to corral the vote, or who say one thing while they are running, only to do whatever their party says once they’ve succeeded. We need people who are the “real deal,” and we feel like that now more than at any other time in recent history.
Upon becoming president, Havel summed up the choice any politician must confront:
“Can we find a new way of governing that allows us to move forward, to bring politics to a deeper level that engages our whole beings, and to save our civilization from its collective hubris?”
Increasingly, American voters are looking to Sanders who is one who could perhaps bring such an influence to the upcoming presidential election. It is highly unlikely that he would beat Clinton, but the addition of his authentic voice to the debate can at least remind the political class that voters are tired of a politics that doesn’t work despite who gets elected. Canada has its own federal election coming later this year and Canadians are just as weary as their southern counterparts, and putting conscience over endless compromise will have more appeal than ever.