Just after Bernie Sanders lost the California Democratic primary to Hillary Clinton last month, the New York Times editorial board referred to universal health care and free public higher education—two of Sanders’ most prominent campaign themes—as "feel-good but economically unsustainable."
One has to wonder what the Times editorial board means by “feel-good” and “unsustainable.”
Think of those paragons of American liberalism writing those dismissive words from the Times' new high rise building at 40th Street and Eighth Avenue, packed with high-end tenants, with a view out over billions of dollars in luxury residential construction on the Far West Side of Manhattan.
Those new buildings will likely end up mostly uninhabited for much of the year, serving as investment vessels for the global ultra-rich; gleaming but empty, while thousands across the city are displaced every day.
Can you imagine looking out over that construction, sprawled across what will be the Hudson River's flood plain in a horrifyingly short time, and seriously convincing yourself that guaranteeing health care is unsustainable? That a policy that is a lived reality just across the Canadian border, is not only impossible but irresponsibly profligate in the center of global finance capital? Or that free higher education, which actually existed in New York City until the 1970s, is a pipe dream? Can you imagine how much cognitive dissonance that requires?
The term “feel-good,” when used to dismiss accessible health care as a political possibility, is rich enough, but it’s just bizarre when appended to free college. Calling either proposal “unsustainable” is equally confounding, considering their prevalence across the industrialized world and the much more glaring unsustainability of the reality that surrounds the Times editorial board.
Then again, this is the purpose of liberalism in 2016: to convince us that things that are eminently possible are impossible, and to remind us that the economic and ecologically unsustainable system we live under is not only viable, but preferable to all others.
As the Democratic convention begins in Philadelphia this week, there will no doubt be an hysterical effort to paper over the differences between those who see the demands Bernie Sanders raised in the primaries as essential to our collective future and those who see them as part of a quirky sideshow and ultimately unworkable. Emails divulged by Wikileaks on Friday should eviscerate any suggestion that the Democratic National Committee is anywhere but in the later camp. People who expend no energy fighting for Sanders’ political goals (or, really, any others) will write vast tracts imploring Sanders voters to get real and recognize the realities of our electoral system.
The more savvy tracts will admit the shortcomings of their candidate, their party, and the process, but promise to carry on the fight for Sanders’ goals in a Clinton administration. The less savvy ones will barely be able to conceal liberal contempt, suggesting that anyone who doesn't fall directly into line with the Democratic Party is foolish, destructive, or, worst of all “privileged.”
The real loss for the Sanders campaign would be for Sanders supporters to swallow those arguments whole. Whether one finds them partially persuasive or wholly ridiculous, we must acknowledge that the Democratic Party has no political strategy when it comes to the issues we care about. Their playbook tells them to forge the easiest electoral coalition possible (the Clinton camp is already reaching out to moderate Republicans) and to govern based on that coalition’s interests. By ceasing our demands for social, economic and ecological justice when that coalition is still being formed, we’d be ceding what tiny amount of leverage we might have gained in the Democratic coalition.
Democratic power-brokers would like nothing more than to see universal health care and free college dismissed simply as Sanders issues—the flawed political goals of a losing candidate. We now need to turn them into perennial demands, “wedge” issues that don’t disappear in the general election or in off-years, but are organized around at many levels of government and used to differentiate between candidates in every election.
For those who look at our political landscape and see only bleak choices, our only hope is reminding ourselves that it is actually the current political system that is too often “feel-good but economically [and ecologically] unsustainable.” It is only our political commitment and continued mobilization that can bring about a more just, equitable and sustainable future.