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Democratic Unity in the Age of Trump and Terror

We live in troubling, sometimes terrifying, times. The number of mass shootings this country has experienced in recent years has been such a horrendous and tragic thing, and so has the violence and hatred all over the world. But what is most scary of all is the reaction of some of our politicians and their followers. I am, of course, speaking of Donald Trump and his angry devotees: they apparently believe that all the members of a religion should be blamed and penalized for the actions of a tiny number of sick, violent people who claim to follow that religion.

Donald Trump is a small-minded, egomaniacal, dangerously unstable, racist, fascist thug. But scarier still is what terrorists and foreign dictators will do to take advantage of such a man’s knee-jerk temperament if he is president of the United States. We would live in a country where hate and violence would keep ratcheting up and become the everyday norm instead of the exception, both here and around the world. We cannot afford to have this unstable and nasty man be our president.

That’s why Democratic Party unity at this moment in history is so damn important. But it needs to be the right kind of unity, the kind that both wings of the party take seriously, not just the Bernie wing. We need a unity that motivates activists and disappointed Bernie voters to be involved in this election and the fight against Trump.

For those D.C. establishment types who want to write off the #FeelTheBern movement as an irritating aberration comfortably dispensed with, you aren’t getting it. And I say that as a longtime beltway Democrat who came to town with the Clintons in 1992, and was neutral in the primary. The overthrow of the Republican establishment and the surprising endurance of the Bernie movement in the Democratic Party is a sure sign that Americans are eager for some big political change. Party leaders should not ignore this challenge and act as if everything is business as usual. Big change is coming. We should embrace it and do everything in our power to make sure that change is not driven by a Trumpian movement full of racism and ugliness.

So before going any further in analyzing things, let’s congratulate that cranky old socialist with the wild hair for shaking things up and raising the issues that needed to be raised. In spite of being an unknown to most of the country, a profoundly unconventional candidate who embraced an unpopular label and made it acceptable in American politics, a candidate with hardly any endorsements or institutional support or donor class aid, Bernie shook up a political party he had never even been a member of until he entered the race. In spite of his age, he spoke for a younger generation. Bernie deserves enormous praise, credit, and — most importantly — respect from Hillary Clinton and her campaign.

The best way to assure Democratic victory in November, and a successful Clinton presidency, is to embrace the heart and soul of Bernie’s message and platform: to challenge the wealth and power that dominate our economy and democracy. Democrats should not be focused right now on lecturing Bernie to get out. He has plenty of time to do that in his own way and on his own timeline. Instead, we should all be thanking him for his strong campaign that inspired millions of people who had felt disconnected and alienated from politics.

The party platform should be negotiated in a way that makes Bernie’s people feel good about the language (which I think, by the way, is happening); the vice-presidential pick should be someone who gets Bernie’s supporters fired up for the tough campaign ahead; and Hillary should, as I have written before, embrace her inner Bernie and be fiery about speaking truth to power. In order to beat Trump, we are going to need the enthusiastic support of the Bernie movement, especially the young people he inspired. We will need their help as volunteers, their passion on social media, their online contributions, and yes, we will need their votes. The Clinton campaign won’t get those votes by trying to force Bernie and his supporters to their knees. Hillary needs to make clear that Bernie’s cause and passion is her own.

To my friends in the Bernie movement: I am so proud of you and I respect you enormously for fighting so hard to change America. But I also want to say this: any theory of change that involves letting Donald Trump become elected because Hillary isn’t good enough is a deeply flawed theory, utterly unsupported by history. I am old enough to remember how disappointed I was when Teddy Kennedy didn’t win the primary against Carter in 1980, and the argument being made afterward that if Reagan were elected, things would become so bad under him that the country would swing to the left four years later. It sure didn’t work out that way.

Our country has been so much worse off economically, for two generations, as a result. I also remember the argument being made in 2000 that Gore was no different than Bush. The people who argued that were dead wrong, and we got eight more years of radically worsening climate change, a disastrous war in Iraq, the nightmare of Katrina, and the worst financial collapse since the Great Depression as a result. And as bad as Reagan and Bush were, Trump — racist, violent, nasty Trump — will be far worse than anything we saw from them.

The way you make progressive change in this country is to elect people who progressives have some leverage over. Tax increases on the wealthy in 1993 and 2013, the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, 20 million more Americans getting health insurance, Family and Medical Leave, DACA, increases in the minimum wage, more restrictions on greenhouse gases, and dozens of other good changes in policy that happened in the last quarter century were only possible because the progressive movement had some amount of leverage over Presidents Clinton and Obama and Democrats in Congress. What leverage would we have over a President Trump and a rightwing Republican Congress? Almost none. We would be fighting one desperate, defensive battle after another.

Will progressives be able to appeal to the conscience of such a man, or persuade him to do what’s right? Not likely. But because progressives are a part of her base, we can work with Hillary to make positive change. And if our movement grows and strengthens, we can get her to make more and bigger changes. That’s how change works in this country — strong movements get open-minded presidents to get on the progressive reform bandwagon. It happened with Lincoln and the abolitionists. It happened with Teddy Roosevelt and progressive/populist movements. It happened with FDR and the labor movement. And it happened with the Civil Rights movement and JFK/LBJ. It could happen again in this era.

I know this is possible because I have lived my life as a movement progressive, working as a community and labor organizer, working with MoveOn and the progressive blogosphere in their early days, working closely with Elizabeth Warren and the Congressional Progressive Caucus for many years. At times I’ve been critical of Hillary Clinton, but I’ve also worked closely with her, and I know that she has a big heart, good values, and progressive stances on a ton of issues. Progressives will no doubt have to fight with her on some things if she becomes president, but I think our country would be better at the end of her presidency than it is today. And I know for damn sure this country will be worse off under a Trump presidency!

So Team Hillary, reach out to Bernie Sanders and his movement. Embrace as many of their ideas as you can. Berners, your job is to respond, to work with this candidate — however flawed you think she is — to push her to be more progressive. Too much is at stake in this election not to unify the Democratic Party and the progressive movement.

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