In March 2016, the Green Party nominated Dr. Jill Stein as their candidate for President of the United States. They have had female vice-presidential nominees on every single ticket since 1996, and ran all-female tickets in 2008 and 2012. But unfortunately, the highest the Green Party has ever performed in a general election was in 2000, when they garnered nearly 3% of the popular vote. The party was relegated to obscurity thereafter—decried as spoilers who bear responsibility for the election of George W. Bush and everything that followed.
And while both the Democratic and Republican parties have previously nominated a woman to be their vice-presidential nominees (Geraldine Ferraro and Sarah Palin, respectively), Hillary Clinton is the first woman to appear at the top of one of the major party tickets—making her the first viable female presidential candidate in U.S. history. The U.S. has lagged far behind many other countries in achieving this milestone. For perspective, there have been 11 women from Muslim-majority nations that have served as PM or President, and about 1 out of every 10 contemporary governments has a female head of government or head of state.
The significance of Clinton’s achievement transcends mere symbolism: As a black man, the presidency of Barack Obama has impacted me in ways that are hard to describe, despite frequent political differences. Similarly, while adamantly opposed to Hillary’s nomination, I appreciate how meaningful it could be for a generation to grow up experiencing a woman as the “leader of the free world”—even more so at this moment, when women seem poised to simultaneously head up Britain, France and Germany as well (the implications of the fact that most of these are center-to-far right leaning politicians is a matter for a different essay). However, throughout this political season I have also found myself both perplexed and outraged by how little discussion there has been about the historic nature of Ms. Clinton’s principal Democratic rival, Bernie Sanders.
Now, with the Democratic primary officially concluded, following Sanders’ concession to Hillary Clinton and his full-throated convention endorsement—it is worthwhile to take a moment to reflect on just how significant his campaign has been, and what Sanders’ supporters can take from it going forward.
America’s first viable Jewish candidate, among other trails blazed
While there have been a number of historical Jewish heads-of-government and heads-of-state, the only current example outside of Israel is Ukrainian PM Volodymyr Borysovych Groysman. Bernie Sanders was the most successful Jewish candidate for the presidency in U.S. history (setting aside Joe Lieberman’s ill-fated VP nomination in 2000). And he made plenty of other history along the way:
Sanders began his campaign as an Independent Senator from a small and uncontested state—a progressive trailblazer, but one who had little name recognition outside of Vermont, and no money, organization or institutional support to speak of. He was an avowed socialist—a feature which, on its own, “should” have rendered him virtually unelectable. And yet, by the end of the process he had won 22 states and consistently outperformed all candidates from either party in general election polls. In a post-“Citizens United” world, he set fundraising records despite his near-exclusive reliance on small donations from private individuals. His campaign delivered overwhelmingly positive messaging—to an extent unprecedented in modern political history—and yet he emerged as the last man standing against one of the most powerful political dynasties in America.
Every aspect of this is a big deal (one might even say YUUGE)—particularly given America’s odious history of antisemitism, and the contemporary resurgence of anti-Jewish sentiments throughout the Western world.
This takes us to another profound, yet largely overlooked, aspect of Sanders’ candidacy: the strong support he received from America’s Arab and Muslim communities: Within many Arab, Muslim (and radical leftist or rightwing) circles, opposition to Israel is often indistinguishable from antisemitism, and “Zionism” is typically regarded as a dirty word (although it should be noted that this misuse of the term is not exclusive to Israel’s opponents: at times her supporters use “Zionism” as cover for racism against Palestinians and others).
Yet for all that, Bernie Sanders is a Zionist: he insists that the Jewish people are entitled to emigrate to, establish and defend a state in their ancestral homeland. However, he also demands recognition of the reality that the Jewish people’s legitimate claim to Israel does not, in any way, invalidate the rights of Palestinians to enjoy autonomy, security and prosperity in that same territory. He believes that Israel’s interests and values would be best served through the establishment of a Palestinian state, and by supporting inclusion of, and engagement with, Israeli Arabs (Muslim, Christian) in the domestic political process—as opposed to attempting to out-terrorize the terrorists or to grind the broader Palestinian population into submitting to the indefinite occupation and continued Israeli settlement of Gaza and the West Bank. This view is widely shared, both within Israel and among the Jewish diaspora—yet it is conspicuously absent from the policy platforms of America’s major parties (although American Jews tend to be less sympathetic to this perspective than most, which may partially explain Sanders’ tepid reception among Jewish voters).
At a moment when U.S.-Israel relations are strained, another conflict between Israel and Hamas seems to be looming and negotiations for Palestinian statehood have reached a dead-end, it is beautiful and powerful that America’s most successful Jewish presidential candidate had a radically different approach to one of the most persistent conflicts in modern history, and enjoyed some of his strongest support from the U.S. Arab and Muslim community—drawn together by a shared commitment to social justice and peace.
Turning the page?
But rather than focusing on any of this in a sustained or substantive way, mainstream media has overwhelmingly depicted Bernie Sanders as a kook who never had a chance of winning the race—as just another white guy, beloved primarily by other white guys (the so-called “Bernie Bros“). Hillary Clinton is breaking down barriers and making history—Sanders is just an impediment to be overcome and then forgotten. If that indeed proves to be the ultimate fate of his campaign, we will all be poorer for it.
While Sanders has managed to gain a number of concessions vis a vis the Democratic Party platform, it remains to be seen if or how Hillary Clinton chooses to adhere to these principles (her recent VP pick hardly inspires confidence), or the extent to which the party’s positions will be revised in 2020 should Hillary win the presidency in 2016 and face no Democratic challenger in the next election. The overdue resignation of DNC Chairwoman Debbie Wasserman Schultz, while emotionally satisfying, is similarly more symbol than substance. A rules-change regarding super-delegates could be impactful long-term, but assuming Clinton wins the 2016 election, such a reform wouldn’t actually be relevant until 2024 (following her 2020 re-election bid).
If Sanders’ historic candidacy is to have a more immediate, sustained or significant impact, his supporters will need to wage a two-front struggle: the first campaign, of course, is against Donald Trump and his allies. However, they must simultaneously hold Hillary Clinton and the Democrats accountable—challenging them to be better, to do more—both before and after the election. Never allow them take your votes or your voice for granted.