Progress Isn’t Settling: Trump’s Rise Threatens to Make Moderate the New Progressive
“I like Sanders’ ideas better, but I voted for Hillary. It’s just the more pragmatic decision. The idea of a Sanders presidency is unrealistic,” a friend remarked to me, a few short hours before Clinton’s now-infamous Nancy Reagan comments. Their reasoning frustrated me, even though it’s a refrain I’ve heard a lot this election season. Usually it comes from progressives who like Bernie’s platform, but are casting a vote for the perceived sensible option in Hillary Clinton.
But as we move further along in this seemingly unending primary season, each candidate misstep becomes increasingly costly. Social media lit up Friday afternoon, after Clinton praised former first lady Nancy Reagan’s “low-key” activism during the 1980s AIDS crisis:
“It may be hard for your viewers to remember how difficult it was for people to talk about HIV/AIDS in the 1980s. And because of both President and Mrs. Reagan, in particular, Mrs. Reagan, we started national conversation when before no one would talk about it, no one wanted to do anything about it, and that too is something that really appreciated, with her very effective, low-key advocacy, but it penetrated the public conscience and people began to say ‘Hey, we have to do something about this too.’”
With all due respect to the former Secretary of State, this statement is not only antithetical to historical reality, but also disrespectful to the experiences of LGBT people who lived (and died) in the 1980s. Rebecca Watson has a video detailing how truly wrong Clinton is on this front, saying in part:
Far be it from me to speak on behalf of the tens of thousands of people who lost their lives to AIDS while the Reagan administration laughed — literally laughed about it — for five years, but allow me to just say: fuuuuuuuuuck you.
Nancy Reagan helped start a national conversation about AIDS in the same way that Switzerland helped start a conversation about the Nazis: by ignoring it and hoping it would just go away.
Clinton has since apologized for misspeaking and issued a categorically strong retraction. But the mistake still brought to light a serious quandary for some progressives. Many feel torn between a looming Trump or Cruz nomination, and not wanting to settle for a candidate who too often seems at odds with progressive values. I spoke with Ingrid Nelson, an activist who worked with ACT UP (one of the groups Clinton referenced in her retraction), during the AIDS crisis, and whose work continues today. In fact, when I reached out to her, she was busy at one of two HIV clinics where she works as a nurse practitioner.
Like many progressive voters, Nelson was disgusted by Clinton’s comments, but said it would still be tough not to vote for Clinton if she is the Democratic nominee:
I do think Clinton takes progressives for granted, though I don’t think she is any worse on that count than any other Democrat. Democrats play to the absolute blandest, most middle of the road, vaguely liberal-of-center types. I think that’s why I find them so un-inspiring. And I deeply resent it, because they do count on us to show up and vote anyway. Because we’re scared of the alternative. With good reason! I mean, the lesser of two evils is… less evil. I feel more unsafe with a Republican in the White House.
I certainly know people who are not going to vote for Clinton no matter what — mostly people who live in “safe states” though. I respect their position, but it’s hard for me. I’ve been assuming I would vote for the Democratic candidate this time around, no matter what. Because Trump and Cruz scare the crap out of me, and because the next Supreme Court seat is so crucial. But I was in actual pain all day Friday about the AIDS comments, wondering if I could even vote for her after that. I am so angry at all the comments I saw from her supporters, that we should shut up because if we criticize her in any way, it helps Trump win. That is on her, not on us. And I will never not speak up about AIDS. I couldn’t shut up if I tried.
[The retraction that Clinton later issued] is why speaking out matters. This is proof that activism works. If we had all kept our mouths shut like good little queers, do you think we would now have the Democratic front runner issuing a major statement that includes HIV criminalization, PrEP, transgender people, and all these other points?
It isn’t just LGBT and AIDS activists like Nelson who have been hurt by Clinton’s past & present missteps. Black activists have taken Clinton to task numerous times for her role in passing 1994’s Violent Crime Control & Law Enforcement Act. Many individuals, including writer Michelle Alexander, credit the bill for bringing the school-to-prison pipeline into the mainstream. Clinton supporters sometimes seek to disavow her role in this bill, reminding us that, “Hillary isn’t responsible for her husband’s policies.” And they’re right! We should never hold women responsible for the sins of their husbands. Except ten minutes later, those same supporters are talking about how Secretary Clinton revolutionized the role of first lady, by taking an active role in policy-making while her husband was in office.
And Hillary Clinton did do just that, to her credit. She was the first (and as of writing, only) first lady to have an office in the West Wing next to the President’s closest advisors. White House Budget Director for Bill Clinton, Alice Rivlin, credits Hillary with guiding Bill’s decision-making, saying “I think for a good part of his career, he was probably rescued by Hillary—by her being a more decisive, more disciplined kind of person who kept things moving.”
But perhaps Hillary’s most well-known role is the one she took when pushing for harsher crime legislation, a role that earned her the financial support of corporate prisons – something she only recently denounced. While campaigning for that infamous 1994 crime bill, she notoriously called it “smart and tough:”
It’s hard to talk about Secretary Clinton’s role in that crime bill without bringing up her “super predator” comments. Those now-infamous statements were recently brought back into the mainstream conscience after Black Lives Matter activist Ashley Williams confronted her at a private fundraiser. Shortly after Williams’ encounter, Clinton addressed the inflammatory comments:
“Looking back, I shouldn’t have used those words, and I wouldn’t use them today.”
Without the direct action and confrontation of activists, our already glacially paced progress as a nation would move even more slowly. It was public outcry that prompted Clinton to walk back her AIDS comments. It was protestors and activists who forced Hillary to give up funding from for-profit prisons. And it was protestors like Ashley Williams who forced Clinton to address her “super predator” words head-on.
But this isn’t just a Hillary Clinton problem. Clinton’s opposition, Bernie Sanders, also voted for the 1994 Crime Bill. But unlike Clinton, Sanders hasn’t felt the need to atone for his role in the bill’s passage. Instead he tells voters that he reluctantly supported it due to VAWA provisions that provided $1.6 billion in funding for preventative and investigative measures relating to violence against women.
Also unlike Clinton, Sanders’ support among black voters is flagging – although numbers in Michigan indicate that could be changing. Throughout his campaign, Sanders has faced criticism that he responded dismissively to Black Lives Matter activists who staged protests at his rallies. He also responded to the inimitable Ta-Nehisi Coates’ demands to address reparations, by simply labelling reparations “divisive.” Coates’ response was perfect: “There are few political labels more divisive in the minds of Americans than socialist.” Concerns that Sanders is dismissive to issues outside economic justice also echoes criticism from black leaders who have worked with Sanders in Vermont:
He just always kept coming back to income inequality as a response, as if talking about income inequality would somehow make issues of racism go away.
We must not simply accept a candidate’s errors as business as usual, but instead must push them to do better. But if even our progressive candidates (as Sanders & Clinton both claim to be) are sometimes dismissive of protest and direct action, how do we hold candidates accountable? Do we simply accept that we must vote for the least-terrible of two options? What recourse, if any, do we possess to hold candidates accountable? Writer Ijeoma Oluo says:
We elect our officials because we have a representative democracy. Then we demand they represent us. If we don’t hold them accountable for every decision they make we are not keeping up our part of the deal. We don’t make the compromises, they do. Politicians will always take the path of least resistance, and we should not grease the wheels for them. Every choice that can harm the lives of people should be a hard choice. Every choice that results in harm to people should be a choice you are held accountable for.
That’s their job. It sucks, and I wouldn’t want it – but I’m not running.
All that we have is our vote and our voice. That is all. Two simple weapons. Don’t take one away from others because it makes things harder for your favorite candidate. It is supposed to be hard. It’s supposed to be hard every damn day.
Pragmatically, if our choice is Clinton or Trump, it’s understandable that voters feel the need to hold their nose and opt for the candidate who doesn’t openly advocate for banning Muslims, building a wall between the US and Mexico, and beating up protestors. But if we must continuously settle for less progressive candidates, progress will remain elusive. Is this a flaw inherent in our system? I spoke with feminist & LGBT activist Tony Lakey, who told me:
I think the two party system severely impairs our ability to have worthy candidates. If we can be bullied into voting for Democrats based on the threat of a Republican candidate, it provides no incentive for Democratic candidates to actually represent our interests.
Practical voters will respond that no two (or even three) candidates, will be able to address all issues perfectly. This is true, as no candidate can possibly please every constituent. Perhaps everyone’s threshold for pragmatism is different. For AIDS activists like Ingrid Nelson, that threshold is tested when Hillary Clinton perpetuates the revisionist history of those responsible for the deaths of thousands of AIDS victims. For black activists, that threshold is tested when Bernie Sanders discounts the fact racial injustice routinely occurs outside of economic injustice, and must be addressed on its own. For others, that threshold is somewhere else, waiting to be pushed to its limit by the next candidate’s mistake.
In the meantime, stop demanding that other progressives align with your pragmatism threshold. Stop ignoring and downplaying other people’s pain while arguing for your preferred candidate (I’m looking at you, fellow Bernie supporters). Instead, practice empathy throughout this trying election season, and direct your ire where it belongs: at the candidates who have made mistakes and alienated the marginalized. After all, that’s the only way they’ll change.
Featured Image by DonkeyHotey.