I first learned of Bernie Sanders as I began college and he served his first term in the Vermont Senate. I immediately gravitated toward the only politician I’d seen plainly link inequality to a system of concentrated power wielded by a few at the expense of the majority, without qualification. He had no appetite for imperialist projects abroad, and his persistent pluckiness defining working class suffering as a feature, not a bug, of our economy galvanized a budding activist and lifetime idealist like myself. It also belied what I had long thought about politicians, that they were stewards of the elite no matter how noble their intentions. As I followed Sanders’ career, I hardly expected to one day cast a vote for him to be my party’s presidential candidate.
When this year’s Democratic primary took shape I was ecstatic that a bold message on inequality, climate change, and a rigged campaign finance system resonated with large swaths of Americans. On other hand, Hillary Clinton had been present in the public sphere since my earliest formed memories, as First Lady then as my Senator in New York. I respected her, but considered her deeply yoked to some of the most toxic structures of the American polity.
I was rocked by the disdain Sanders faced from Democrats during the primary. Here was a longtime stalwart for the poor with a career steeped in conviction and integrity, heaped with accusations of sexism and white male privilege (even though he outperformed Clinton with young women and young people of color). Not only were these screeds infuriating because they cheapened social justice language, but also because no one seemed to make a progressive case for Clinton. As leftists named substantive concerns, including Clinton’s support of a Honduran coup that precipitated extraordinary violence, callous response to the 2014 child migrant crisis, and tepid stance on curbing Wall Street corruption, we only unearthed condescension for deigning to challenge her bona fides. My support for a candidate whose career I’d admired for nearly a decade was diminished as a performance to impress boys.
But this election is far more consequential than sour feelings over party infighting. Governance is messy, change is a slog, and a Republican president is a terrible prospect for our country. It was thrilling to live in a gilded moment of left-populist fervor, but I knew Sanders would lose and never considered sitting out or voting third party in November. I will look back on his insurgent candidacy-turned-legitimate-movement with pride, especially as we simultaneously contended with the inhumanity wrought by the rise of Donald Trump, stark foil to Sanders and an egotist who gleefully flouts basic decency. Sanders’ success should be a source of motivation for leftists; we allowed a little-known socialist to win 22 states over one of the most globally recognized public figures. Clinton has already veered left on several Sanders mainstays: free college, universal pre-k, and worker leave benefits. A unified left can pressure her from Day One.
The general election has also revealed the strength and resiliency of Hillary Clinton. The poise she’s displayed in the face of a despicable chauvinist and megalomaniac reassures me she has the grace and grit required for the job. I plan to both support Clinton and remain a staunch advocate for broadening the social safety net and reining in interventionism abroad. I will hold her accountable where she fails to protect the most vulnerable in whatever capacity I can, and I encourage those of us with a stake in manifesting leftist ideals to vigorously engage the extant system. Even if we believe it to be broken, its progress depends entirely on our agitation and participation.