I cried when Hillary lost the nomination. I had desperately wanted her to win the nomination, and especially after the devastating general election losses of the 2000 and 2004 campaigns, I was saddened to see her hard-fought battles result in the nomination of the man on whose general election campaign staff I ultimately served, and who has done an immensely impressive job of reversing the economic downturn created by his predecessor. I believed that Clinton was more experienced and had the command and the gravitas to challenge the status quo, and would not be as conciliatory toward the opposing coalitions in defending a progressive agenda. What’s more, I had concerns about the persistent racial tensions of the United States and the potential hindrance it would pose in reclaiming the White House. (Thankfully, I was wrong on that point). However, there was a surge of enthusiasm that propelled his campaign forward to garner the Democratic nomination and ultimately the presidency, and upon the official declaration of Obama as the Democratic nominee, I was on board, because while I have well-ordered preferences within my party, my allegiance to my party and the principles for which it stands vastly exceed any particular attachment that I have to one particular candidate over another given the similarity in policy positions within the party.
At the end of the day, some elections will fundamentally be more favorable to certain candidates more so than to others, whether because of idiosyncratic features of the candidate himself/herself (e.g., charisma), or because of factors pertaining to the political environment (e.g., the centrality of a particular issue in political discourse). John Kerry’s war service and his tenure on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee made him the candidate with the most fitting experience in the 2004 election, though to be sure there is not perfect correlation between candidate quality and leadership quality. Barack Obama’s 2004 convention speech put him on the map and captured the excitement of new cohorts of Democratic voters and independents who had been previously turned off from the system or felt that the Republican Party had to too great a degree fled the center, thus building new electoral coalitions for the party.
Many people raise qualms with the two-party system. I am not one such person, but I understand the frustration with the lack of diversity of representation among those running for office. (My greater concern is having diversity represented in candidates but having winners who garner a potentially very elite and non-representative 35% of the popular vote rather than anywhere close to a majority). People challenge the role of money in politics, and again I’m sympathetic though don’t see an easy solution – and moreover, prefer to win and fix things once elected than make a point at the risk of losing in November. But regardless of where one stands on those positions, Clinton and Sanders are playing by the same rules as one another, and the same rules as applied in 2012, and playing by those rules, Clinton is winning.
When we dislike how a system is structured, we can always complain about it. Identifying, diagnosing problems is no difficult task. The question is whether we want to make a point about the system or whether we want to fix it, and fixing it requires working from the inside. It requires being in a position of power. It requires keeping in mind the broader, potentially lofty goals while nevertheless being mindful of the political and economic realities of the present circumstances within which one is operating. To win down the road, you need to win in the present first. The fact is, Sanders ran a remarkable campaign considering where he started out even just months ago. Another fact is that he chose to run his campaign in a certain way, to hammer home a certain message, knowing the nature of presidential campaigns and the role of money and networks and strategy and the more-than-just-occasional reality check. That Clinton works the system better (whether you want to call that being intelligent and savvy or overly ambitious) does not make the system rigged. It means that within the confines of the way that American institutions operate, Sanders did well and Clinton did better.
What is particularly distressing about the nature of the Sanders campaign’s discourse with respect to the election is the seeming inability to accept defeat or criticism or even listen respectfully to opposing views even from within their party, when a general election would have posed far greater policy-based challenges to their ideals. The American electorate is split on a number of key issues, some of them central to his campaign, and in making no secret of his identification as Socialist, the campaign virtually invited blunt criticism from moderates and conservatives (or at least, those who aren’t supporting him strategically so as to maximize their chances of running against him in the general election and then defeating him resoundingly) to whom they refused to listen without scowls, sighs, and interruptions, exceeding the condescension that cost Gore more than a few votes and SNL jabs in 2000.
Saying that the system is unfair is a reason to find a way to maximize one’s effectiveness in working toward a better system in the future, not to use it as justification for throwing out attacks, insults, and threats; and it is not a reason to serve as the spoiler candidate we saw Nader become in 2000 under the self-righteous guise of standing up for “the people” (with another point being that those who have supported him bear little resemblance to the Democratic base, a fact that he often dismisses outright when pushed on his failure to capture the support of minorities). It is a reason to acknowledge the success that he has had in pushing important issues on the agenda, pushing Clinton farther to the left, and to work toward ensuring that the Democratic Party remain in the White House, whoever that Democrat is. His willingness to put himself before his party, time and again -- not simply by remaining in the race but further by waging outright attacks to delegitimize Clinton -- is immature and is only a disservice.