I had a very different column planned. I was going to write about the possibility of the United States having a Jewish president, either Bernie Sanders or Michael Bloomberg. The contrast was stark. Bloomberg was the charmless plutocrat, with his arrogant slogan, “Mike will get it done.” Meanwhile, Bernie was the stalwart progressive, with his humble mantra, “Not me. Us.” It now looks like neither of those men will ascend to America’s highest office. But with Passover fast approaching, I decided to compare Bernie to another Jewish leader: the biblical Moses.
Moses was the epitome of “Not me. Us.” The Bible tells us that “the man Moses was very humble, more so than anyone else on the face of the earth” (Numbers 12:3). He had a stutter, so he let his brother do the talking. And despite his pivotal role in the Exodus and the revelation at Mount Sinai, in the traditional Passover haggadah, Moses is mentioned but once, and all credit goes to God.
Moses was a radical in his day. His story anchors the Jewish people’s
master narrative, from slavery in Egypt to freedom in Israel, but also the crystallization of Judaism as a religion of laws. By comparison, Bernie is not so radical. He calls himself a democratic socialist, but he’s really a progressive New Dealer who wants Americans to enjoy the same high-quality, affordable, universal health care I grew up with in Canada – as well as other benefits of a responsible welfare state – strong unions and a commitment to fighting climate change and global inequality.
Bernie’s achievements cannot be attributed to him alone. He stands on the shoulders of earlier generations of activists, most recently the leaderless Occupy Wall Street movement. Bernie’s campaign was never about Bernie and was always bigger than Bernie. Nonetheless, more than any other individual, he helped move the Democratic party and the American political conversation to the left. His legacy is secure.
And yet, in the last two weeks, some of his actions have run counter to the humility embedded in his slogan. After disappointing losses in the Democratic primaries on March 3, 10 and 17, Sanders could have credibly exited the race and endorsed his rival, the presumptive nominee, Joe Biden. I voted for Bernie in Virginia, and was saddened by the results, but felt like this was the right thing to do.
Instead, Bernie pressed on. His campaign continued to send out emails and texts (I received them) telling us to prepare for the New York primary. By not dropping out, Bernie is telling people they should still vote for him, even though he has no realistic chance of winning. While the coronavirus spreads, this strikes me as unconscionable.
What’s more, many of Bernie’s supporters have also been lacking in humility. Instead of looking inward, noting their candidate’s flaws, they have lashed out at the Democratic party, Elizabeth Warren and other external forces.
To be fair, Bernie is handling the coronavirus crisis better than Biden. Bernie is offering policy proposals and fundraising for charities that support those burdened by the disease. Biden, meanwhile, has been mostly invisible or ineffectual.
Still, Bernie could do all the good he is doing now while also conceding the race for the Democratic nomination. He could continue fighting the good fight in the senate. He could have done all this, in fact, starting in 2017. He could have endorsed Warren then and helped her prepare for the 2020 campaign. Or he could have endorsed her after his heart attack in October. That would have been leadership in the spirit of “Not me. Us.”
Moses was the Jewish people’s greatest leader, but he did not lead them into the Promised Land. That task fell to Joshua. Bernie will not be the leader who leads progressive voters in the United States to their promised land either. Once he realizes that, and publicly affirms it, his legacy will be even greater.