Bernie Sanders surprised a lot of people, many of them self-perceived political experts, with the vigor and resonance of his long-shot candidacy for the Presidency. He raised some important issues around economic fairness that deserved a hearing. They were ones which had been clearly misunderstood by those who were not among the losers of the tectonic shifts taking place in the world's economy propelled by the twin forces of technology and globalization.
He is now risking much of his ability to influence the shaping of the platform which his victorious rival, the flawed by otherwise qualified Hillary Clinton, will run on and hopefully soundly trounce her opponent, the woefully unqualified and temperamentally unsuited for the presidency failed business tycoon, Donald Trump.
Sanders' inability to forthrightly accept the obvious — that he wound up 14 million votes and 1,000 delegates behind Mrs. Clinton in the primaries — is a stunning case of ego and emotion trumping — pardon the pun — good judgment. No doubt it's hard to give up a dream, after giving speech after speech before adoring crowds and raising millions of dollars the hard way. At 73 years of age, this is no doubt his last hurrah on the national stage in quite this fashion. But given the average age of U.S. Senators, he still has many more years he can expect to serve in Washington and be taken a lot more seriously than he was before.
But what Vermont's junior Senator doesn't seem to understand is that influence is purchased by being at least in part a team player. Bernie may be on a crusade to "transform" the nation — whatever that means — and lock in an approach that favors the ordinary working folks instead of the vampires of Wall Street. If so, his moment of maximum influence is now, or maybe was last week. Given an opportunity to straightforwardly say he was getting behind Clinton's candidacy, he instead fudged and talked about bringing his fight all the way to the Democratic Party's convention. But in the end, he would do what he could to ensure Mr. Trump was defeated, he said.
Well, good. The smart way to achieve that would have been to occupy the zone Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren did earlier this week, and get on the bandwagon, distasteful as that might be for Sanders, an independent who only formally joined the Democratic Party last year in order to run for president.
Sanders could bring a lot of clout and influence, and maybe as important, millions of committed supporters who may be induced to vote in the general election for Mrs. Clinton, or could choose, shortsightedly, to sit on the sidelines in a fit of pique and purist principle. Politics is often a messy business of compromise and accepting half a loaf — something the Republican Party seems to have forgotten — but if too many of Sanders' supporters sit out the election that would be a critical blunder and open the door to an unwelcome can of worms. The Donald may be on his back foot right now, owing to a spasm of self-inflicted wounds, but if this election year has taught us anything, it's that it ain't over until it's over. It's still a long way to November.
It's not too late for our junior Senator to awaken and smell the coffee, but with each day that passes without a gracious acceptance of political reality, his influence wanes rather than waxes. And given some of the Senator's more hair-brained concepts, like free college tuition for all or nearly all minus a clear or logical means to pay for that, it may not be a bad thing.
Meanwhile, Sanders, along with Trump and now "Brexit," last week's inexplicable vote in the United Kingdom to pull out of the European Union, have made clear there is a deeper crisis festering in Western democracies which can no longer be swept under the rug. The Great Recession of 2008 may have exacerbated trends which were already advancing by then, but the last eight years have clearly demonstrated that expecting tens of millions of ordinary working people to meekly accept stagnant wage growth while others reap outsized rewards is at best an unstable and probably morally wrong approach to progress.
We are entering or in the middle of, it now seems clear, of one of those periods of history similar to the early stages of the first Industrial Revolution of the 18th century. The shift from agrarian economies to industrialized ones was massively disruptive and took two centuries, two world wars, and countless other smaller conflicts to sort out. Hopefully the Technology and Global Revolution won't demand the same price, but those who ignore history, a wise man once said, are condemned to repeat it.
Technology and globalization have produced great wealth and risen millions of people out of poverty in formerly underdeveloped parts of the world. It has also outsourced jobs and living standards from industrialized nations. The recent Brexit vote in the United Kingdom last week and the unexpected strength of the Sanders and Trump campaigns can be seen in part as responses to the fact that the rising tide did not lift all boats, and many felt their economic prospects under assault and prospects dimmed.
A corollary thought to that worth mentioning in passing is the corrosive decline of once solid working class communities for whom the social ties of common values and shared sacrifice have badly frayed. The upsurge of heroin addiction, while in part a result of the medical community's misunderstanding of the consequences of more freely prescribing opioid-based painkillers, is both a symptom and a cause of this malaise. Where churches, labor unions and community organizations once provided support and structure for many who had little material wealth but a shared set of reinforcing values, too many have been cut adrift, fueling the populist anger.
Another corollary to this is a challenge to educational institutions to better prepare not only young people entering the workforce, but those already in it who have seen their jobs disappear and career plans jeopardized. Clearly, many people who once never expected to have to be continually learning new skills across the entire spectrum of their working lives now have to. Now that this is clear beyond all doubt, we should look to educational institutions to not only provide basic factual knowledge, but also emphasize values like inquisitiveness, curiosity and being open to learning new things and skills all the time. Learning how to learn, in short.
It's a brave, and to a degree, scary new world, not the one we would have expected when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989 and an era of peace and prosperity seemed at the threshold. Now, an aggressive and economically suspect China, asserting its perceived rights in Asia, a snarling and recalcitrant Russia, an unstable (when has it been otherwise?) Middle East, and now a divided and perplexed Europe, form an unrosy future. Coherent leadership by the United States has never been more urgent or needed since the end of World War II. That means Donald Trump does have be defeated. Bernie, hold your nose and do what a lot of other Americans are accepting they will have to do — support the flawed but competent Hillary Clinton.