On the first night of the Democratic National Committee Convention, comedian and actor, Sarah Silverman, in an unscripted moment on stage, said told some rambunctious members of the audience, “‘Bernie-or-Bust’ people: You’re being ridiculous!”
After thinking about this for a short time, her words brought me back to the 1968 DNCC in Chicago. I became very angry as I imagined how I would have responded if she had said something similar to those of us who were fully committed to Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota even after it was apparent he wouldn’t become the Democratic Party’s standard bearer that year. So I wonder now how Silverman resonated with Bernie’s supporters around the country.
I turned 21 in May 1968, and, therefore, I was authorized to vote for the first time since back then, the legal voting age was 21. However, at the age of 18, I, my friends, and classmates were old enough to be eligible to fight and die in Vietnam: a war I actively protested and worked vigorously to bring to an end. I viewed the war as a blatantly criminal, illegal, and unjustified invasion and occupation that brought misery and death to our military and to the people of Vietnam in the north and the south.
As an undergraduate student at San José State University until 1969, I joined the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) to oppose the war. I helped organize demonstrations, attended and led study groups and sit-ins, while I also worked to improve conditions in student off-campus housing and to challenge racism on our campus.
Though I became involved in my Young Democrats group in high school in the early to mid-60s, and even ran and was elected as secretary of our group named after then-Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey, my deep political education took off in college. Looking back, I remember much more what I learned outside the classroom than in my courses, for those were truly exciting and terrifying times of war, riots, and political assassinations.
While we lauded President Lyndon B. Johnson for his courageous leadership in the realm of his domestic policies, especially his active and enthusiastic support for the passage of the 1964 Civil Rights Act and Voting Rights Act, we saw how his military ventures had torn apart the country.
Stepping into the political void left in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party after what we saw as Humphrey’s capitulation to his administration’s disastrous hawkish military policies, a fresh and dynamic voice articulated the feelings and visions of a younger generation of concerned activists. Senator Eugene McCarthy of Minnesota courageously challenged a sitting President of his own party, and along the way, he captured our imagination, our hearts, and our minds.
Running in the first state primary in New Hampshire that year, he garnered 42% to Johnson’s 49% of the vote. Four days later, seeing that Johnson could possibly lose his small lead in the primaries, New York Senator Robert F. Kennedy threw his hat in the ring. Though I and many of my peers liked Kennedy’s politics, the timing of his entry into the primary process smelled of pure opportunism rather than courage.
And then we were all completely thunderstruck with surprise watching Johnson give a televised address on March 31, 1968, when he suddenly uttered from the Oval Office that “I shall not seek, and I will not accept, the nomination of my party for another term as your President.” Less than one month later, on April 27, Humphrey announced his candidacy.
Though I have seen instances of the Democratic Party placing its metaphoric thumb on the scales in favor of Hillary Clinton this year, this pales in comparison to the heavy hand that Party officials deposited on the scales to assure Hubert Humphrey’s nomination in 1968.
While McCarthy won the largest percent of the popular vote in the Democratic general primaries by far (approximately 3 million or 38.7 percent to Humphrey’s 161 thousand or 2.1 percent) in a crowded field of candidates, and Humphrey didn’t even bother to enter some of the state primaries, Party officials gave Humphrey the right to carry the Democrat banner as its presidential nominee. It did this by awarding Humphrey the vast majority of overall delegates in the non-primary states, thereby bringing him over the top in terms of the number of delegates needed. Talk about “rigged elections!”
By the time the election came around in November, I was so angry and discouraged by the political process, I decided that if I were going to maintain any sense of integrity and ethical standards, I could not and would not vote for anyone that year, even though I considered Humphrey the least reprehensible relative to Richard Nixon.
The day before election day, two friends and I drove south down Highway 1 along the beautiful California coastline. We camped and played our acoustic guitars and violin beneath tall ancient redwoods overlooking crashing waves at Big Sur. Two days later, as we returned to San José, we remained unaware of the election’s outcome by choice.
At the time, I regretted nothing for my decision to opt out. My integrity remained intact. Well, at least that’s what I thought until I reflected on the potential consequences and then the actual realities of a Nixon presidency.
For a full five additional years, the body bags carrying the fallen continued to pile up. The people of Vietnam, combatants and civilians alike, continued suffering the horrors of incinerated flesh and scorched fields and forests from the massive airdrops of napalm from U.S. bombers, increasing the already massive profits by Dow Chemical Company, and other corporations.
Race relations worsened, as did the already large gap in wages and accumulated wealth between the socioeconomic classes. Nixon’s involvement in Watergate and his eventual resignation further divided the country.
So in retrospect, I ask myself the perennial two-part question, “By failing to vote for ‘the lesser of the two evils’ in 1968, did I really maintain my sense of integrity on the micro level, and did I serve the best interests of the country on the macro?”
Looking back now, I realize that in 1968 at the age of 21, I was functioning on a dualistic or binary cognitive development level. I perceived the world, people, and events as either “good” or “bad,” and pragmatism as “surrender.” Viewing both Humphrey and Nixon as “bad,” I could not honestly vote for either without surrendering my ideals and ethical standards.
Using this event as a constant touchstone document in my personal historical library, I now understand the cosmos more in its multiplicity, its nuance, along a continuum rather than as a binary. I also often consider pragmatism not so much as surrender, but more as compromise and as a necessary give and take.
For this reason, when Sarah Silverman reprimanded “Bernie or Bust” enthusiasts, I did not react with anger. On the contrary, I surprised myself by automatically shouting “You go girl!” with a wide, circular, three-point finger snap toward the TV screen.
But for other Bernie backers who are finding it difficult to transfer support to Hillary, you might want to consider the model used in the 2000 presidential election between Republican George W. Bush, Democrat Al Gore, and Green Party candidate, Ralph Nader.
That year many progressives wanted to vote for their preferred candidate, Nader, and, thereby, maintain their political values. On the other hand, many feared that by voting for Nader, people would in essence be casting their lot with Bush since Nader had as much change of rising to the Presidency as any individual does when purchasing a single ticket and winning a national MegaBucks lottery.
I don’t know who or which group devised a strategy by which people who wanted to vote for Nader, but did not want Bush to ultimately win the election, to engage in a “vote-switching” arrangement with a friend. This plan involved Nader supporters contacting an acquaintance who was intending to vote for Gore and lived in a “safe” blue Democratic state where Gore had a virtual lock. This person on election day would, instead of voting for Gore, cast a vote for Nader. In return, the initial Nader supporter would vote for Gore, especially in red Republican and “toss-up” states.
In this way, Nader advocates would not inadvertently help elect Bush, while engaging in the electoral process. Unfortunately, an inadequate number of Nader supporters followed this plan since Nader garnered enough votes in Florida alone to hand Bush the presidency.
I often wonder how history would have been different if Gore had won. Would we have invaded Iraq? That turned out to be a misguided and disastrous venture that resulted in the death of over 4,000 U.S. military personnel and severe injuries to thousands more, and the expenditure of trillions of tax dollars wasted needlessly. Think of the deaths and injuries to literally hundreds of thousands of Iraqis, plus the political destabilization of the entire Middle East giving rise to radical terrorist groups.
At home under the Bush administration, we witnessed a gradual loosening of governmental regulations on Wall Street and the housing industry, which set the stage for the biggest downturn in domestic and international economies since the Great Depression.
So I ask those who voted for Ralph Nader, did you really walk away with your integrity intact? Did your vote serve the best interests of the country?
In this crucial election year, for Bernie supporters who simply cannot under any circumstances vote for Hillary, at least try to work out a vote-swap arrangement with someone in an overwhelmingly “Blue” state.
And for champions of Bernie who are considering voting for Donald Trump, the only thing you have in common with Trumpets is your anger at the electoral system, and nothing else. If, however, you think you can switch your allegiance from Bernie to the Donald, then you haven’t the faintest clue what Bernie and the movement he unleashed stands for and values.
To you, I would simply repeat Sarah Silverman’s admonition: “You’re being ridiculous!”