IT WAS ONLY A MONTH AGO WHEN ROLLING STONE magazine declared in a feature article titled, Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders: The Good Fight, that “Hillary and Bernie have waged campaigns full of vision, ideas and promise – and have shown us the best in American politics.”
Most of America seems infatuated at the worrying spectacle of the Republican primary campaign – a fascinating intrigue unlike anything seen in recent memory. Any policy pronouncement has tended to come wrapped in some kind of slam against an opponent or a simplistic concept bearing little understanding of its complexities.
While all this was going on, the Democratic Party debates were fluid and probing affairs full of substance and intriguing ideas – just as Rolling Stone stated. For policy wonks, there was much to chew on.
For those of us interested in civility and respect in politics and public life, the Democratic contest was a bit of fresh air. In the early months of the primary campaign Bernie Sanders was given little chance. But then he came marching out of obscurity with millions of young supporters and talk of a political and social revolution that easily matched the spirit of middle-class families while at the same time decrying the immovability of the political establishment in Washington. Yet he refused to slam Clinton over her burgeoning email scandal and reminded anyone who listened that on her worst day she would still be more fitted to the presidency than Trump on his best day. It was kind of fascinating.
Until these last few weeks – something has changed and it’s discouraging. The very first promise Sanders had pronounced as a candidate caught America’s attention: “I’ve never run a negative ad in my life. I hate and detest them.” He then committed to run a campaign devoid of such subterfuge. It was precisely the kind of commitment that drew so many to Sanders and his revolution.
Those were the days when Sanders used to stop his supporters from booing Clinton at rallies; now he permits a growing chorus of negative voices against the former Secretary of State. The fascinating evolution of an older man transforming into a populist giant only to run the danger of looking cranky and somehow diminished might eventually be seen as one of the many tragic casualties of this election season.
Hillary Clinton has occasionally shown a propensity to be a practitioner of the darker political arts, as when she increasingly turned negative in her battle with Obama for president eight years ago. Her team began this election season viewing Sanders as a kind of noble distraction – an elderly politician who meant well, believed in change, and who shared many policy similarities to Clinton herself. The media paid him little attention and he was more of a small bother to her than anything else.
In ironic similarity to the early dismissals of Donald Trump, he nevertheless began showing political traction that eventually became a populist momentum. Far from being a nuisance, Bernie Sanders had become a clear competitor, and eventually a target for Clinton’s attentions – perhaps an understandable evolution from someone who once regarded a certain young black Illinois senator, named Barrack Obama, as hardly worth the bother, only to see him surge to eventually win the nomination and then the presidency.
The Democratic race had been both a bracing and inspirational contest to many of us. The possibilities of a woman at last gaining the highest office in America, or of a rugged no-nonsense populist tracking towards perhaps the same outcome were intriguing and a clear alternative to what was developing among the Republicans. To see it descend into the kind of negative politics millions of people detest is saddening. For it to be a dynamic influence for improving the world, politics has to keep as far away from the same old, same old as it possibly can. Both Clinton and Sanders have to claw their way back to a sense of fairness and respect.
Perhaps, as Albert Einstein once offered, “Everyone should be respected as an individual, but no one idolized.” In an election season in which idolatry has risen to new heights, it would be helpful if both Sanders and Clinton were reminded us why a dignified politics is good politics.