Yes, it’s old — very old, older than me — and black and white and a tad corny. But you’re not a true political junkie unless you confess that your favorite political movie is the 1939 Frank Capra classic, “Mr. Smith Goes to Washington” — a movie that manages to combine cynicism about bosses and corruption with the ever-so-faint hope that at least one time the underdog will finally win. If you’ve followed the depressing art of politics for several decades, that crazy notion is why you still manage to wake up every morning.
There’s one part of the film that still gives me chills, during the epic filibuster by the once-naive fill-in Sen. Jefferson Smith, portrayed by Jimmy Stewart. It’s when he repeats the wisdom that he’d learned growing up, that lost causes “are the only causes worth fighting for.”
As stirring as those words are, experience tells us that the maxim is only half right. If you’re the aforementioned political junkie, you’ve also been paying an inordinate amount of attention this month to South Carolina, site of key primaries in both parties. It’s also the state where in 1861 the Confederacy fired the first shots of the Civil War, a battle to preserve the inhumanity of slavery that was remembered by too many people for far too long across the Deep South as ” the Lost Cause.”
So, yeah, only some lost causes are worth fighting for. The righteous ones.
It’s easy to say — and indeed, I had to mute my TV from all the pundits so eager to say it — that the presidential hopes of Sen. Bernie Sanders have become of a lost cause — after he was administered what even he had to admit today was a “shellacking” by Hillary Clinton in the Palmetto State. At the heart of his defeat was a shockingly bad showing among African-Americans, who went for the former secretary of state by an 84-16 margin, better than the future first black president Barack Obama performed there in 2008.
You look at those numbers and think that Sanders ran a platform combining the worst of George Wallace and Donald Trump — not a guy who’d fought for civil rights and even got arrested in the early 1960s before it was a popular cause, and who offers a solid program of economic uplift for working-class blacks and for combatting social injustice. But Sanders found himself preaching to the choir — that is, the pro-Clinton choir of folks who’ve seen both Bill and Hillary coming around for 25 years and simply liked them and had no reason to budge. Sanders didn’t run a perfect campaign in South Carolina , but even if he had it just would have been…a lesser shallacking.
But is Sanders really a lost cause? If your only political reference point is mathematics…probably. In less than 48 hours, voters will be going to the polls in a raft of Super Tuesday states like Alabama, Mississippi and Georgia that have similar demographics to South Carolina — the difference being that Sanders spent a lot less time and a lot less money in those places. That will increase Clinton’s lead in pledged delegates, which will only solidify the resolve of the more than 400 elite party insiders — “superdelegates,” a firewall to protect the establishment against a populist revolt — to vote for Hillary when the party’s convention comes to the Wells Fargo Center (if it’s still called that) in July.
So why doesn’t Bernie suspend his campaign after Tuesday, or some future point in March when the math seems unconquerable? That would be a terrible idea — for his supporters (and especially those under 25), for democracy, for the Democratic Party and even, believe it or not, for Hillary Clinton.
First and foremost, the Sanders campaign has always been about finding a platform for his ideas — based on his core values of a more equitable and more honest society that go back a half-century — and hoping that the votes and delegates would follow. In other words, not the modern fashion of figuring out where the votes are first and then focus-grouping your policies to match.
He’s already revolutionized 21st Century politics by not just calling for the money changers to get out of the temple — but by showing that you can run a credible campaign without billionaire donors or super-PACs. And he’s mainstreamed ideas — like the $15-an-hour-minimum-wage or the dream of free public universities — that have changed the conversation about what is truly possible in America. To echo the words of Bobby Kennedy, “to dream of things that never were and ask why not.”
That message resonated with voters in New Hampshire and in Iowa, where Sanders’ share of the youth vote was comparable to Clinton’s share of the black vote in South Carolina. It needs to be heard in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, in Los Angeles, in Newark — in all the states that come late in the primary calendar. Or else the Democrats’ can disappoint many of their young voters — and watch their hopes of retaining the White House throughout the 2020s vanish with them.
With the increasing all-but certainty that Donald Trump will be the GOP nominee, our nation turns its lonely eyes to Hillary to save us from this warm case of Mussolini Lite. And is there any doubt that Bernie Sanders has made Hillary Clinton a 10X better candidate than she was just six short months ago? On so many issues, from the minimum wage to lousy trade deals to real steps, like stopping Arctic drilling and the Keystone XL pipeline, for fighting climate change, it has been pressure from Sanders — and only from Sanders — that has moved Clinton away from her cautious Wall Street-centric stances toward where the American middle class is actually at these days. Were Sanders to drop his campaign, the pressure would be coming from the other side, from her big-ticket supporters in the financial industry, to abandon liberalism.
No, if ever a lost cause was worth fighting for, this one is it. Bernie Sanders needs to fight on, and not just to Pennsylvania and California and New Jersey. I hope he gets a ton of delegates who come to Philadelphia in July and raise holy hell, not against Hillary Clinton — but on the issues that really matter. The future is still at stake. And if you’re willing to look across the aisle, there’s a precedent. In 1976, Ronald Reagan fought the GOP establishment all the way to Kansas City, and that set the stage for conservatives to take over the party just four years later. Remember, the same pundits who cluck about possible disunity among the Democrats are pretty much the same dopes who told us that Trump would collapse any day now. Don’t worry. There’ll be plenty of time from July to November for decent Americans to rally against Trump.
Bernie Sanders may not be the present of the Democratic Party, but he’s made it pretty clear that his movement is the real future of forward-looking progressivism in the country. This would be a terrible moment for the Democratic establishment, with its history of suicidal tendencies, to snuff out that flame.