I’ve never put much stock in presidential elections. As a socialist, the idea of choosing between different capitalist factions always seemed unappealing. While both Democrats and Republicans perpetuate boom-and-bust corporate economic cycles, it’s hard taking solace that one side might generously allow same-sex spousal benefits to the NSA agents conducting mass wiretaps. Historically, I’ve simply voted for whichever candidate suited my ideals best.
That meant Ralph Nader in 1996 and again in 2000. By 2004 I switched over to the Socialist Party favorite Walt Brown, but 2008 presented a dilemma. Barack Obama was clearly a status quo apparatchik, yet the conservative hysteria opposing him demanded pushback. I don’t think I changed, but it seemed perhaps America had. Could a person of color bearing a non-European name be electable? I wanted to take part in the experiment.
Both eyes stayed open though. An introduction I wrote for the Winter 2009 issue of my old ‘zine, American Gun Culture Report concluded: “I offer President Obama a hearty AGCR congratulations; although while the euphoria surrounding his election is undeniably intoxicating, let’s remember Democrats have let us down before and will do so again.” Obama verified this over his two terms by keeping a firm hand on the establishment tiller. Financial institutions remained too massive to fail, while secretive domestic surveillance chugged away unchecked and drones carried out extrajudicial assassinations against US citizens. The middle class continued its long decline as wealthy elements prospered.
So, did I learn any lessons? Will my 2016 vote go to some third party also-ran? Again, I don’t think I’ve changed, but just maybe America has. Bernie Sanders is not a completely radical candidate and already disappoints many leftists, first attracted by his embrace of the term socialism. A closer look explains why. His position on Israeli apartheid remains relatively uncritical, and given the number of votes cast in a lengthy political career, it’s not hard finding other exceptions to the progressive trend.
The gun issue for Sanders was always interesting and will probably become more so. While representing Vermont, a state with lax regulations, he has showed little motivation toward greater gun control. Votes landed on both sides; against the 1993 Brady Bill background checks, for the 1994 Assault Weapon Ban, then against holding gun manufacturers liable for operator misuse in 2005. Realistically, his record slightly favors gun rights, but for their official letter grade regarding him, the NRA awarded Sanders an F. Indeed, this says more about the NRA, which clearly feels burned after the only election where they supported him.
This occurred back in 1990, when Sanders ran against an anti-gun Republican. NRA strategists thought he might be easily dislodged, once the suitably chastened GOP produced a better material. In Vermont, that day never came. With all fairness, C+ makes more sense.
Sanders campaigns about big picture problems, most importantly wealth disparity, but that’s not all voters care about. He long ago realized Vermonters valued 2nd Amendment freedoms, and in a state with low gun violence, saw no reason for moving against a popular issue. Any personal feelings about arms took a distant back seat.
For example, last August I attended a large Sanders rally in Portland. He spoke extensively about poverty, racial injustice, unaccountable corporate monopolies, abuse of state power and the for-profit prison system. Compared with such major social concerns, firearms rightly warranted no mention. It can’t be denied, his speeches are sheer electricity.
Unprecedented success gained by Sanders in the Democratic primary has thrown status quo candidates into crisis. His stance on economic issues are undeniably popular, finding traction even when addressing audiences considered hostile territory for leftists. Among the current competition, mainly Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley, gun control is the only area they might appear more progressive by comparison.
This presents a great opportunity for Sanders to own the issue. What other Democrats see as weakness, could prove viability on a national level, plus boosting his case for economic equality. Sanders should highlight his moderate voting record, regarding firearms, as simply reflecting mainstream American values and demonstrate economic inequality as the real cause of violence. This drives home the importance of leveling American economic systems, reassures potentially sympathetic conservative voters and exposes other Democratic candidates clinging to short sighted gun ban solutions.
However, recent high profile shooting spurred calls for increased gun control and instead, Sanders joined the bandwagon with other Democrats. Advisors presumably tell Sanders, to win the primary he must toe party lines, but that’s where establishment candidates hold advantage. For a candidate hoping to ride a wave of credibility to the White House, the issue that should propel him, may instead become Sanders’ anchor.