The Sanders Conundrum

The following essay was first posted at

Hello darkness, my old friend

I’ve come to talk with you again…

Because a vision softly creeping 

Left its seeds while I was sleeping …

And the vision that was planted in my brain

Still remains…

Within the sound of silence.


It should be obvious by this point that this election is unlike anything we have ever seen before.  The media dwells on the downfall of the Republican Party at the hands of Donald Trump.

What they do not talk about is that the Democratic Party is hardly in better shape.  The reasons are not the same, but the outcome is the same chaos, fear, and uncertainty that you see on the Republican side.

It should be clear to anyone who has followed the events of the past year that what we are seeing has much less to do with politics, at least politics as it has always been defined, and more to do with a society that has, like a Doberman chasing the paperboy, violently reached the end of its chain.  That whine and those gurgling sounds we hear are the desperate gasps of people who have been brought up short with no way to go forward and no reason to want to go back.

The media isn’t covering that.  Oh, they allude to it.  They touch on one or another aspect of it when it suits their purposes, but they don’t dare actually get it out in the open and deal with it.

In restless dreams I walked alone 

Narrow streets of cobblestone 

‘Neath the halo of a street lamp 

I turned my collar to the cold and damp 

When my eyes were stabbed by the flash of a neon light 

That split the night 

And touched the sound of silence 


We have learned more about what America really is in the last few months than in many years previous.  And everyone wants to blame Donald Trump for causing what we have learned.  Donald Trump hasn’t caused anything.  Donald Trump has simply held it up to the light.  He has given it a voice.  He has simply given it the permission to exist that it thought it didn’t have before.  He is the ultimate snake oil salesman and he stood on a soapbox and held America’s dark side up to the light of day.  Snake oil sells itself.

Donald Trump didn’t create racism.  He didn’t create racists.  He didn’t create skinheads or Nazis or angry old white men who are in the throes of a slow cultural extinction.  He just gave them a place where they could all come together so he could manipulate them to his own ends.  He didn’t create the undereducated, low information population who supports him.  That was done by a Republican Party starting with the Reagan administration and by a Democratic Party that didn’t stand up to them and by an electorate that just remained silent.

And in the naked light I saw 

Ten thousand people maybe more 

People talking without speaking 

People hearing without listening 

People writing songs that voices never shared 

No one dared 

Disturb the sound of silence


Trump isn’t the problem.  The Republican Party created the vacuum into which he stepped, and they are terrified.  All of those stupid politicians he talks about aren’t just Democrats.  He’s talking about them, and they know that.  And they are afraid they will lose power if he is elected.  But Trump isn’t the problem the rest of us need to worry about.  Trump will go away – sooner or later – but he will go away.  But he leaves behind all of those angry, bigoted, undereducated and uninformed people he empowered during his rise.  That’s the problem.  Those people will not go quietly back into the shadows.

He also leaves behind the huge numbers of angry people of color, immigrants, and non-Christians who have seen now what so many in this country are really like when they are given permission to be themselves.  And these people will not easily forget.

Whether or not Trump becomes the Republican candidate is irrelevant.  The damage has been done.

And there are worse possibilities.

Think for a moment about what those empowered crowds at the Trump rallies would be capable of under a Cruz presidency.

The Republican Party created the vacuum into which Trump stepped, but it also created much of the desperation that fuels not only his followers, but Democrats as well.

Look at what Republican policies have done in Republican governed states.  Kansas has ruined its entire educational system and is now actually trying to pass a law that says the legislature can impeach judges if they strike down legislation!  Michigan has poisoned an entire city.  In Illinois, the Koch brothers are underwriting an anti-library campaign.

Donald Trump is not a Republican.  Even the established Republicans know this.   He is certainly not a conservative.  He is an opportunist.  He is a showman and an entertainer.  He is a shrewd businessman who knows how to work the system for his own benefit.  But he had no allegiance to the Republican Party and they know it.

But he has chosen to run as a Republican and if he wins the nomination it will embolden the down-ballot Republican candidates.  And that will mean more poisoned cities, more disregard for the constitution, and fewer worthwhile schools and well-funded libraries.  That’s what we should be worried about.

Jeb Bush was supposed to be the Republican nominee.  The party assumed that from the beginning.  Trump was a surprise.  His support was a surprise.  The magnitude of his support was a surprise.

In America we have two political parties.  If one of them moves to an extreme, the other has traditionally pulled it back.  Over the last few decades the Republican Party has moved to an extreme never before seen, and no one has pulled it back.  It has been noted, but never really examined by the media it controls.  And now everyone is so surprised!

“Fools,” said I, “you do not know 

Silence like a cancer grows 

Hear my words that I might teach you 

Take my arms that I might reach you” 

But my words like silent raindrops fell 

And echoed in the wells of silence 


On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton was to be the anointed nominee.  Everyone was so sure that she would easily take the nomination and probably the presidency that the Democratic National Committee didn’t even bother to adequately prepare for a contested primary process.

And then Bernie Sanders stepped into the ring and started drawing huge crowds at rallies across the country.  And everyone was so surprised!  How could this be?

When you reach the end of the chain and it snaps your head back, it doesn’t matter what party you belong to.  And after it happens again and again, you don’t start looking for a longer chain.  You start looking for ways to get free.  It isn’t a political issue.  It is a cultural issue.  And American people have had about enough.

Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are nothing alike, but they are appealing to the same cultural phenomena:  people are afraid, they don’t think things can go on the way they are any longer, and they want the chain off from around their necks.

Trump saw this early and decided that this was the time to actually run for president.  The people wanted someone to do something and he knew he could convince them that his snake oil was the best ever.  He offers few specifics; he just promises to make America great again.  He plays on the fears of many Americans for anything foreign, and tells that that by dint of his personality alone, he will make it all better.

Sanders saw the same fear and the same inevitable outcome if things continue the way they have been going.  But he has focused on the causes.  He has tried to get people to understand why they are where they are and what they have to do to fix things.  And it turns out that they have to do a good deal.

But a Sanders’ candidacy poses conundrum after conundrum.  Sanders wants voters to understand the inter-relatedness of the economy with societal issues.  He is asking people with an eighth grade reading level to understand how race relations are tied to prison policy and drug legislation and how big money influences all of that.  It’s a hard sell because it is nuanced and complicated.

He wants to make big changes in American society starting with getting big money out of politics.  And the political establishment isn’t having any of that.  Everyone agrees (when pressed) that big money influencing political campaigns is not a good thing, but no one really wants to tackle that.

Sanders has few super delegates.  The media has mostly ignored his campaign.  They continue, even now, to slant news coverage to favor Clinton.

But people are showing up at Sanders’ rallies in large numbers.  He’s closed the gap on Clinton in the national polls.  He has won an upset victory in Michigan.  Why?

Because Sanders isn’t really a Democrat any more than Trump is a Republican.  Sanders has always been an Independent and self-identified Democratic Socialist.  And the Democratic Party knows that.  Sanders chose to run as a Democrat (he has always caucused with the Democrats) and he will never betray Democratic principles, but he will change the party if he is elected, and they know that.

The American people no longer trust the political establishment to help them.  They are looking outside of it.  Many like what they hear coming from Trump.  He’ll make things better by fiat.  Many like what they hear from Sanders.  He’ll go after the root causes of the problems.  These are very different approaches, but they arise out of the frustration of people with what they have now.

But the establishment does not want to see that happen.  It would be a significant diminishment of their power.

The establishment doesn’t want Trump.  The establishment doesn’t want Sanders.  But a large number of the American people do.

Hillary Clinton may be “establishment,” or she may not be.  But on the Democratic side, she represents the argument for a longer chain… make little changes… tweak this… don’t throw out the baby with the bathwater.

Bernie Sanders want to take the collar off altogether.  He wants to stand up to big money and he wants to make enormous changes.

His opponents say that he can’t do all those things.  They are right.

As president, Bernie Sanders cannot accomplish everything that he has talked about in his campaign.  That does not mean that he shouldn’t be elected president and allowed to do as much of what he has talked about as he can.

The Sanders campaign presents an enormous conundrum for the American voter.  I hear over and over people saying that they like what they hear from Bernie Sanders, but they don’t think he can win, so they will vote for Hillary.  We can’t get the collar off, but at least we can have a longer chain.  Never mind that there is no food and there is no water, we have more room to chase our tails.

For women over 50, Hillary Clinton was supposed to be the culmination of the feminist movement.  Years of struggle and hard work would finally result in the first woman president.  But after seeing Sanders’ support among young women, many of these same women now have to ask themselves if this is really the right time?  Is this really the right woman?  There are families in turmoil over this.

Sanders wants universal health care.  Members of the Democratic Party who just fought tooth and nail for the Affordable Care Act because they couldn’t get single payer through congress see that as a negation of all their work.  They will support Hillary Clinton.

If we get single payer health insurance, the drug industry will take an enormous hit.  That’s not only less money for drug companies, but less revenue for advertising in the media.  A huge lobbying group is impacted.  The drug companies, the media, the lobbying groups will support Hillary Clinton.

But the nurses – the people who have to work in the industry day after day – they support Bernie Sanders.  The American people as a whole will benefit from single payer health care, and they know it.

And that is the dichotomy in this election process.  What the people want and what those leading and misleading the people for so long want have moved apart beyond the ability of the culture to absorb those differences.

Something has to give.

It can happen peacefully, or it can happen violently.

It will happen.

Bernie Sanders has repeatedly talked about the need to send a message to the 1% who manipulate elections, manipulate the economy, and who have destroyed the middle class.  If we say nothing, if we stifle the few voices willing to stand up for the rights of the people in the face of overwhelming opposition, we contribute to the very real possibility that the resolution will be a violent one.

And it’s not just a message to the plutocracy.  It’s also a message to the people struggling to make ends meet, to overcome racism, to achieve some semblance of stability in America, both economic and social, that they are not going to be ignored any longer.

Sending that message, both to the plutocracy and to the people, may well be more important than all the tinkering, baby steps, and chain lengthening we could do.

Bernie Sanders is the message.  It may not be a perfect message, necessarily.  His election will not bring prosperity and “free stuff” to everyone overnight.  We may or may not see single payer health care.  We may or may not see big banks broken up.  We may or may not see free tuition at public colleges right away.

But we will see work toward those goals with the backing of a majority (assuming his election) of the people.  And we will see the down-ballot Republican agenda hurt.  And we will have finally stood up to the corporate and moneyed interests and denied them their uncontested monopoly over our country.    We will have sent the message.  We will no longer be silent.

And the people bowed and prayed

To the neon god they made

And the sign flashed out its warning

In the words that it was forming

And the sign said “The words of the prophets are written on the subway walls

And tenement halls

And whispered in the sound of silence.”

                               Paul Simon, 1964

For an incredibly powerful cover of the song above, go here.


Roger A. Shipley - The Willowbrook Curmudgeon

Roger Shipley, AKA The Willowbrook Curmudgeon, spent forty years teaching in the American educational system and emerged a grumpy old man. Ensconced in the Pacific Northwest, he writes, carves, and chides people for bad grammar. You can also find his grumblings at The Curmudgeon's Lair or follow his nonsense on Twitter or Face Book

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