I had voted for Bernie Sanders on Super Tuesday. A very disappointing day considering that Joe Biden carried Massachusetts, though it's hard to say if it was because of a split among left-liberal voters choosing between Elizabeth Warren and Sanders. There's evidence that Warren supporters were nearly evenly split between Sanders and Biden.
Now, a little over a month later, Sanders has dropped out. While I was expecting it to happen after his recent losses, the day it happened has left me ever more disillusioned about American politics, given his record of being honest, consistent, and right.
It looks like Sanders will remain on primary ballots for states yet to vote so that his campaign has more leverage over the Democratic Party's platform at the convention, but Biden is the de facto nominee at this point. I will vote for him come November, but it will be from a state of mind characterized more by necessity than by enthusiasm.
Enthusiasm. I'm thinking about moments I truly felt that when voting. Perhaps the first time was 2012 when I cast my vote for Barack Obama. Why did I feel that way? It was the optimism, arguably the most salient quality of Obama's rhetoric. As an example, it would be a bald-faced lie to say his 2004 DNC convention speech didn't move me:
Still, 2012 was a long time ago, and my political senses have matured since then. After reflecting on 8 years of Obama, I am not as starry-eyed. Obama did many good things: expanding healthcare, opening up to Cuba, the Paris Climate Accord, among other things. But on many other fronts, he was a bad president: record deportations of undocumented immigrants, unconditional arms sales to Saudi Arabia as they committed war crimes in Yemen, persecution of whistleblowers like Edward Snowden, increased extra-judicial drone attacks in countries like Somalia (my birth country), and more injustices.
This is the great cognitive dissonance I came to recognize. There is Obama the person and Obama the symbol. When I voted for Obama in 2012, I was voting for the symbol, one that never quite reified despite my best hopes. I'm far more cautious now whenever politicians lean too heavily into symbolism. This is why I was violently allergic to candidates like Pete Buttigieg, who I saw as cynically crafting a symbol of themselves to obfuscate the generally uninspiring person they are.
Then there was Sanders, the one national figure where both the symbol and the person aligned most closely with my policy positions. In 2015, in the midst of the Democratic primary then, Sanders gave—in my opinion—the most substantive speech in his career, providing a vision that merged an ethical theory with political practice:
This is why Sanders inspired enthusiasm in me more than any other political figure. With a sense of economic realism and an even greater sense of moral urgency, he makes an unabashed case for his policies. His aggressive rhetoric should be no surprise—Sanders the symbol is angry and yelling because of what Sanders the person sees in the world. There was a realism backing his idealism.
While both Obama and Sanders were idealists rhetorically, only one was a realist in terms of what solutions were needed to not only help people but fundamentally swing the trajectory of American society in the positive direction. Sure, Obama gave us the ACA, but private and employer-based insurance remained the norm. Sometimes, incremental progress just seemed like slowing the descent into further societal destitution. A decade after the ACA became law, Medicare-for-all is a serious policy proposal. So is the Green New Deal, abolishing super PACs, free public college, and more supposedly unrealistic ideas. Sanders, starting with his first run for president, played the single most important part in raising public consciousness on what is politically possible.
It's hard to overstate just how great of a public service that was. For that alone I am grateful. So whatever happens in November, it's encouraging to know that millions of Americans—me as one among them—will carry these grand ideas into the future.