Wednesday, December 30, 2015

December 30, 2015: AmericanStudying 2015: Bernie Sanders

[In my annual end-of-year series, I’ll AmericanStudy some big stories from the year about which I didn’t get to write in this space. I’d love to hear your thoughts on these and any other 2015 stories!]
One AmericanStudies reason I’m not quite feeling the Bern.
Most everything I’d want to say about Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the presidency, I said way back in May for The Conversation. When it got picked up by Newsweek online, they gave it an unnecessarily incendiary title: “He Can’t Win, So Why is Bernie Sanders Running?” As the original title (“Run Bernie Run … But Why?”) better illustrates, and as I hope the piece itself makes clear, I wasn’t trying to make predictions about whether Sanders can or will win the candidacy nor a general election; instead, I was arguing that his campaign can contribute significantly to our political and national conversations regardless of such outcomes. I stand by that argument, and believe that we’ve seen many such contributions over the campaign’s first eight months.
At the same time, as a public AmericanStudies scholar, and one particularly interested in our collective memories and national narratives, I think there’s something to be said for symbolic identities and the very real things they can mean in our society and culture. And in the first post-Obama presidential election, and one in which so many of the defining issues have to do with the battle between exclusionary and inclusive images of America, between polar extremes like #BlackLivesMatter and a resurgent white supremacy (to put it bluntly and reductively, but not inaccurately), I think the difference between a candidate who would be the first woman to run as a major party’s presidential nominee and a 74 year old white man is not an insignificant one. (It’s worth adding that Sanders is Jewish in heritage, but is in his own words “not very religious”; and also that Joe Lieberman’s multiple prominent presidential bids make the possibility of a Jewish president far less striking than it once would have been.)
Hillary Clinton might not be a revolutionary candidate or president in many ways, that is, but in one very important way she most certainly would be—and would represent an unquestionable broadening of what our highest office, federal government, and symbolic national identity can and would include. That’s not the only reason to vote or not vote for a candidate, of course—but even a cursory study of American history reveals that we overlook such symbolic narratives and images at our peril. Symbolic doesn’t mean insignificant, and indeed (as Benedict Anderson knew full well) nations are in many ways constituted out of symbols and narratives. If electing a candidate like Donald Trump would represent one kind of symbolic extreme, electing our first female president would certainly represent another. In what feels like a crucial, constitutive moment for America, that’s a possibility we should keep in mind.
Next 2015 story tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other 2015 stories you’d AmericanStudy?

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