What still matters


This piece originally appeared on Medium.

One of the most difficult tasks I face as a novelist is one that seems the simplest: explaining what my books are about. It’s almost always the first question I get in a casual conversation. Quickly outlining the plot feels reductive, but it’s hard sometimes to see my own larger themes and motivations, especially when I’ve just finished a book: the world I’ve created still seems too large and the people too complex to pull out one-sentence, much less one-word, explanations.

But distance helps. I’ve had a little time now (my first book came out in 2010, the second in 2015), and with it more insight — which, believe it or not, has come at least partly by way of Bernie Sanders. I was trying to figure out why my feelings about his campaign are so strong, why they resonate with me, as they do with so many others, so deeply, and I realized that the driving ideas — necessities — of both my fiction and my activism are the same: truth and courage. Or, to state them negatively (but in a way that lends itself much more to plot-making, as well as politics): lies and fear.

My two novels, which are completely apolitical, are about the effects of lies in families over generations. Even more, they are about fear of losing control: over one’s loved ones, over one’s own fate and identity. They’re about characters who discover lies — or, conversely, truths — and in the resulting upheaval learn to tell the truth to themselves and to others, and then, finally, to let go of their terrified, fruitless attempts, through self-isolation and denial, at controlling their own destinies. This is, I believe, the essential human project.

This election, as many are, is also largely about fear, and also anger, its blighted offspring. Quite often Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are spoken of, together, as populists riding the wave of anger, but this characterization misses the crucial distinction. Where Trump is about lies, Sanders is about truth. Where Trump (and, often, Clinton too) is about fear, Sanders is about courage. In a Sanders speech there are no lies and no fear; there is instead fearlessness, and speaking truth to power, and tremendous hope.


In August of last year, I completely disengaged from the election. I remember the specific time because when a friend chastised me for not paying attention, I responded that it was summer, and I was taking a break. Really, though, it was that the air of resigned inevitability around Clinton, and the accompanying passivity of nearly every liberal I knew, sapped my spirit. I knew Bernie, that socialist from Vermont, was running; I assumed he’d barely last until Iowa. On the Republican side — it’s hard to remember now — Jeb! looked equally inevitable. The election was shaping up as a festival of uninspired nepotism. I felt no sense of agency, because the establishment inertia embodied in Bush’s and, especially, Clinton’s campaigns seemed too mighty a force.

Fall came. I figured that, to be a responsible citizen, I should pull my head out of the summer sand. My teenaged son went to a Bernie rally, which, of course, was what teenagers did. Then the debates began, hidden away on Saturday nights; we recorded them. I’ve always detested political debates. I cringe at the confrontation but, even more, the spin: I hate the way truth is buried in layers of calculation, so diluted as to be unrecognizable, and I can’t abide when people, especially those who want my vote, do not say what they mean and mean what they say.

Still, I watched the first one, and when Bernie was speaking, I was astonished to find I didn’t want to mute the TV or leave the room. This was new. This was different. I sat there as he said one thing after another that I’d never heard most politicians say at all — and certainly not with such clarity and undaunted, unapologetic moral certainty. He was giving voice to a vision of equality and balance and fundamental compassion that I’d always taken as self-evident and therefore, in the upside-down world of mainstream politics, unsayable.

I said to my husband, “I think he means it. I think he’s real.”

I began to do research. I read old articles, watched old interviews. I watched his old Burlington cable-access shows, which are hilarious in their own way (especially, say, the ones where he plays hockey with no skates, or when he drags his son, home from college on break, around with him to hold the mike). They’re almost painfully earnest but also revealing: anyone who says Bernie Sanders can’t see details and think in granular policy terms needs to watch how excited he gets about the new town dump. I investigated his supposedly meager congressional record, and found a ridiculously underreported story (with the exception of Matt Taibbi’s oft-cited piece) of Bernie working across the aisle, forming coalitions, and even leaving his name off of legislation so it would have a better chance of passing, all in the service of amendments as down in the nitty-gritty as that town dump technology — legislation, in other words, that was the opposite of flashy or ego-driven, but that would make a real and concrete difference in the lives of constituents.

I embarked upon this research with trepidation, because I was waiting for the other shoe to drop. I was waiting to find venality, ambition trumping principle. I was waiting for the telltale skeleton that would reveal he was not the man or politician he claimed to be.

I never did find it.

Bernie Sanders is not perfect. He has feet of clay as we all do. But his record is one of preternatural consistency. The line from his activism as a college student in the 60s to the candidate of today is a direct one, although he’s also, in that now-loaded word, evolved: he’s learned to compromise and to play the game, as Taibbi so memorably documents. But he’s never flip-flopped. He has stayed rock-solid in his convictions, and not cared about the derision of his congressional colleagues. He has declaimed his opposition to the first Gulf war to an empty chamber, called out homophobic congressmen, confronted powerful but shortsighted economists, and told an arena full of fundamentalists that he supported a woman’s right to choose, because it was necessary. Because it was the truth. And because he’s telling the truth, I’ve been phonebanking and canvassing and donating. I co-founded Writers for Bernie; our motto is “Words matter.” I wrote ourendorsement. It’s the boldest public statement I’ve ever made, and I felt no hesitation.

I believe in telling the truth, in looking for the truth, in calling out untruth, in defending the truth. In fiction, this means something more ephemeral than being factual in everyday speech, or, certainly, politics; but, crucially, fiction cannot succeed without authenticity.

Politics has always seemed to me to be the opposite. Politics, in the near term, saves its largest rewards for those who can be inauthentic most convincingly. The game of politics is won by politicians deploying just enough truth to move the ball forward, whatever that ball may be — their pet policies, pork for their states, their own candidacies and careers. When progress is made, it’s called incrementalism; in tranquil times, maybe that’s enough. But, thanks to years of collective denial of economic, environmental, and racial injustice, the times we live in are not tranquil. And since the advent of Citizens United, politics has become even more a hall of mirrors, an orgy of truthiness. The flood of money is drowning the islands of good that the most dedicated public servants have been able to achieve. And the mechanism of what Bernie Sanders correctly calls oligarchy gives the lie to our American ideas of meritocracy and egalitarianism — of democracy itself.

It’s been noted more than once that Bernie Sanders, agnostic Jew, is themost Christian candidate in the race. I grew up in the church, and it might not surprise readers to hear that of all the images of Christ in the Gospels, one of the most resonant for me is Jesus in the temple, whipping the moneylenders, full of righteous anger. I like Jesus the troublemaker, the nonconformist; Bernie, I imagine, approves of that Jesus too. But the funny thing is that that isn’t why people draw the comparison. No, it’s Bernie Sanders’ driving abhorrence of inequality, coupled with his hope in his fellow citizens. It’s what he said in the speech he gave at the Vatican, which was called “The Urgency of a Moral Economy”:

“In the year 2016, the top one percent of the people on this planet own more wealth than the bottom 99 percent, while the wealthiest 60 people — 60 people — own more than the bottom half — 3 1/2 billion people. At a time when so few have so much, and so many have so little, we must reject the foundations of this contemporary economy as immoral and unsustainable….[Pope Francis has] stated plainly and powerfully that the role of wealth and resources in a moral economy must be that of servant, not master….The issue of wealth and income inequality is the great economic issue of our time, the great political issue of our time, and the great moral issue of our time….I am told time and time again by the rich and powerful, and the mainstream media that represent them, that we should be ‘practical,’ that we should accept the status quo, that a truly moral economy is beyond our reach. Yet Pope Francis himself is surely the world’s greatest demonstration against such a surrender to despair and cynicism.…It is up to us to move boldly toward the common good.”


In the heady early days of my discovery of Bernie Sanders and his movement, my husband — a longtime journalist, and as realistic as they come — said, “You’re prepared to be disappointed, aren’t you?”

“Of course,” I said. Bernie was a long shot. I knew that. I had no illusions.

And now, of course, I am not prepared. The California primary is today. Last night, the media, against DNC rules, called the primary for Clinton. I don’t know for sure what will happen, although I have a good idea. I don’t know what the progression of my thoughts and feelings, and those of millions of my fellow Berners, will be between now and the convention. I’ve written before about letting now be now. Today, now is not a comfortable place — but what other choice do we have?

I don’t want to talk much about Hillary Clinton. Suffice it to say that a few weeks ago I was working hard on resigning myself to a Clinton nomination when the State Department’s Inspector General report came out, confirming beyond the shadow of a doubt the untruth and deception of so many of Clinton’s statements, and the fragile construct of support for her I’d been gingerly building was smashed.

I cannot accept the arrogance of someone who wants to be my leader feeling entitled to make up her own reality. I cannot accept that truth doesn’t matter. Many would say I simply don’t understand how the world works; but I would say, with not a little novelist’s pride, that in fact I understand it very well. Clearly, I’m not a political animal. But I am a thoughtful citizen, and when, anyway, did idealism become a liability? More to the point, when did a dedication to honesty become idealism?

The condescension toward voters like me has been thick this primary season. Sanders supporters are supposedly naïve, undisciplined, starry-eyed, uninformed, unrealistic. And, of course, young. Never mind that at my recent fiftieth birthday lunch, all seven of us — women past the magic age of 45, most with graduate degrees, suburban, and, to the naked eye, thoroughly of the establishment — were feeling the Bern. At that lunch, my friend Audrey, who’s originally from Scotland, said, “I think in this election, suddenly a lot of people are looking under the hood for the first time, and they don’t like what they see.” I know I’ll remember this because, in her lovely accent, “hood” sounded like an owl calling. But it’s also such a stark image. So many of us, formerly happy, complacent, liberal Democrats, lifting that hot, heavy sheet of metal, peering in at a smoking pile of rusted-out scrap.


As I was finishing this piece, my son — my fellow Berner — turned on CNN, and there was the latest Trump controversy, which involved him saying that something didn’t happen when eyewitnesses said it did. There were surrogates and spinners, and David Gergen getting more worked up than I’ve ever seen him, and I was reminded how principled Republicans are hurting too. Where in the world do they go? I take no pleasure in watching them crumple and endorse a man for whom they once claimed to feel anathema. What a sight it would be if they also began to stand up! Courage is courage. What if Paul Ryan had said, I’m giving up the speakership? What if Reince Priebus said, I’m resigning as RNC chair? If the people in power, on all sides, from President Obama on down, said no, we are not going to lie, or support a liar, or construct an entire candidacy and campaign and administration that is a lie?

That’s where fear really comes in. It’s terrifying to think of letting go of the nominee, of the sure thing, or the closest you’ve got to a sure thing. Letting go, in the near term, of power. Letting go of control — or its illusion. How will we survive without pumping oil from the ground? Without the rich being propped up by the underpaid underclass? Without our endless cheap goods? Without the deep but familiar stratification by income? Without the scapegoats of other races and religions? Letting go of truth instead seems like a decent bargain. Who needs truth? The thing, though, is that lying doesn’t erase the truth. It just makes it harder to find. But it is always there. And there’s a cost to keeping it hidden.

Bernie’s movement isn’t going away. As he has often said, it’s much larger than he is. Besides, we have all gotten too used to saying the truth out loud. We have gotten used to this incredible kinship. A lot has changed overnight, and much might change today — although, even if it doesn’t, what we Writers for Bernie wrote months ago will still be true: “We believe truth should not be a rare commodity in civic life, and that both leaders and citizens have an obligation to speak the truth as they see it.

Words still matter. Truth still matters. If it doesn’t, all is lost. But we have more hope than that.