I suppose Bernie Sanders believes he's accomplished something in not endorsing Senator Dianne Feinstein for a fifth and final term. At this point, however, we should be doubtful the Vermont independent can achieve more than political gesture.
It’s true that today’s Senate is among the oldest in the nation's history and probably does not reflect the viewpoints of younger Americans as it might if it were less geriatric (a caucus that could include, some might argue, Sanders himself). But is that good reason to unseat an 84-year-old incumbent seeking her final term?
Activists aimed to accomplish one thing at the California Democratic Party’s convention last month. They denied Feinstein, the ranking member of the Senate Judiciary and Intelligence Committees, their party’s endorsement. Oh, and they booed a lot. Otherwise, Feinstein is a four-term senator from California in the era of Donald Trump.
Will she be primaried? Yes. In California, everyone competes with everyone in primaries regardless of party. Will she win? Almost certainly. Along with the jungle party, Feinstein has another built-in advantage: being a Democrat in a midterm year that’s a referendum on a Republican president.
Still another advantage is that she’s lead to charge to reinstate the ban on assault weapons, and she’s hammering the president for kowtowing to the gun lobby—especially important in a year when it seems that this issue might actually cut in the Democrats’ favor.
I get that her senior status is an issue, but seriously, the only instrument of direct power a senator has is her vote. As long as she can vote in accordance with her constituency, and mostly in line with her party's priorities, Feinstein’s advanced age is nary an impediment. Hell, Strom Thurmond was a century old when he retired. As long as his aides could wheel him onto the Senate floor to vote along party lines, his age was pragmatically moot.
Why is Feinstein’s age being held up as an issue? Because activists will take any excuse to whack her. Feinstein has never been popular with the party's grassroots. She favored capital punishment when they were against it. She supported the Iraq War when they were against it. For these and other political sins, Feinstein is seen as a relic of another age when the Democrats were a truly centrist party (think Bill Clinton) rather than the center-left party it is today.
That activists are targeting Feinstein is worrisome—for progressive politics. It suggests the base, as it functions in California, will accept gesture in lieu of power, an outcome of the Sanders campaign that does not receive the scrutiny it deserves.
It’s one thing to blast a sitting senator as insufficiently loyal to progressive causes. It’s another to accomplish something for having done that. If all you've done is deny an incumbent an endorsement, you haven’t done much. If denying an endorsement results in defeat, what then? A Democrat beat a Democrat, and nothing has changed.
What happened in California illustrates my frustration with a left in thrall to the “Sanders Revolution.” It believes it’s radical, but really, it’s not radical enough to do what needs to be done. It should establish a channel of communication with Feinstein and find common areas where it can push like hell. Instead, it attacks her, thus marginalizing the left, thus fueling soaring levels of resentment, thus giving people like California State Senate leader Kevin de León ample fodder for exploitation.
What’s the point of politics? It shouldn’t be ideological purity. It should be “maximizing human freedom.” That’s how the radical’s radical, Saul Alinsky, put it. The question, then, is what’s needed to do that. In part, it would be keeping a shoo-in like Feinstein in place in the Senate while attacking vulnerable Republicans—all in the interest of acquiring the power needed to effect change.
Doing that will dirty your hands. That’s inevitable. But that should not be an impediment to doing what’s needed. Guess whose hands are dirty? Dianne Feinstein voted with her party to increase Pentagon spending—a no-no for most leftists—in exchange for billions in relief funding for Puerto Rico and other disaster areas. Democrats got billions for children’s health, too. Feinstein did something “bad” to achieve something good. Activists should understand that. If not, they don’t deserve the name.
If values are the end, that’s religion, not politics. “He who fears corruption fears life,” Alinsky wrote nearly 50 years ago. When we act politically, he wrote in Rules for Radicals (1971), we must do so bearing in mind what’s best for humanity, not what’s best for our own consciences. Choosing conscience over what’s best for the rest means we don’t care enough to be “corrupted for their sake.”
While the GOP is satisfied with gestures—“Lock her up!” for instance—the Democrats can’t be, because their aim must take into account what’s best for everyone. If certain Democrats who’ve been inside the system for a while seem corrupt, there’s probably a good reason for that. But not all corruption is equal. It depends. If it results in laws that try to maximize human freedom, that’s corruption we can live with. Feinstein’s is the kind of corruption progressivism needs.