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Bernie Sanders, Hillary Clinton, and a liberal voter’s dilemma 

A question: In politics, when should you compromise, and when should you stick to your principles?

We're watching that issue play out in the Republican Party right now, in Congress and in the party's presidential campaign. But Democrats - in particular, liberal Democratic voters - have to deal with it, too. At some point, liberals - and many moderates - will have to decide where their allegiance lies: with Hillary Clinton or with Bernie Sanders. And for some, that decision won't be easy. Because it may involve choosing between principles and pragmatism.

As a friend of mine put it the other night, "My heart is with Bernie, but my head is with Hillary."

Any of the Republican candidates would move the country sharply to the right. On health care, foreign policy, wealth disparity, climate change, workers' rights, gun control: A Republican president would lead us in a dramatically different direction on key issues. And a Republican president would strengthen the conservative weight on the Supreme Court when a vacancy occurs there.

The key outcome of the Democrats' presidential primary process has to be nominating the person most able to defeat the nominee of the Republican Party as it is now.

But many of us aren't happy with Clinton, the Democrat everybody seems to assume is the most electable. Wall Street's influence, the Clinton Foundation, her tendency to embrace military solutions to conflicts: those are just some of our concerns. Bernie Sanders has managed to pull Clinton leftward, but I wouldn't count on her staying there. Conservatives aren't the only ones who worry about her trustworthiness.

And so the dilemma regarding principles.

Ensuring a successful democracy is a balancing act. And in this country, clearly, we're out of balance. Too much wealth, economic power, and political power is in the hands of too few people. Too many people are poor. Too many people lack affordable health insurance and affordable, quality education. We don't adequately finance our infrastructure, our scientific research, our education.

The United States is not an example of capitalism at its best. Far from it. And Sanders has been doggedly pursuing reform in key areas for years.

But is he electable? In part, that may depend on how effective his critics are at using labels to scare voters.

Sanders is a democratic socialist. And the way some of his critics talk, you'd think that means that Vladimir Putin himself is pulling Sanders' strings. So it would be good to keep in mind what socialism is, and what democratic socialism is. A recent Washington Post article by Max Ehrenfreund has a neat analysis.

"Socialists," Ehrenfreund writes, "believe that the government should provide a wide range of basic services to its citizens free of charge or at a discount, typically including university education and health care as well as child care, housing, telecommunications, energy, and more in some countries. They believe that these services should be available to everyone, not just the neediest."

As with democracy, different socialist countries have adopted different forms of socialism. And, Ehrenfreund notes, there's a difference between socialism and the democratic socialism that Sanders embraces. Sanders isn't proposing doing away with our representative form of government. He doesn't want the government to take over a lot of the private sector. But he does want to end the influence by the wealthy over what government does. And he, like many of us, believes that things like health care are a right, not a privilege.

Socialism "isn't just a list of economic prescriptions for government," Ehrenfreud writes. "Perhaps above all, socialism is a moral view. It is the idea that people share something, that we're all in this together, that we've got to help each other out."

The United States already has plenty of socialist programs, and Americans seem quite fond of them: Social Security, Medicare, the federal highway system, unemployment insurance, federal dams, public libraries....

I grew up in the headquarters town of that huge socialist program, the Tennessee Valley Authority, and I've seen its impact first-hand: providing power to rural areas, preventing disastrous floods, boosting the region's economic development, improving farming methods, and providing amazing recreational resources. And yes, during the debates about creating TVA, opponents fumed that it was a socialist program.

Now a democratic socialist is running for president, and he's considered unelectable. Despite the success of existing socialist programs, apparently a lot of the public can be cowed by the same scare tactics used against TVA in the 1930's. But there's an important exception: young adults, who have ignored the label twisting, are paying attention to what Sanders has said, and think he's describing the kind of America they want to live in.

The country would certainly be better off with Hillary Clinton as president than with any of the Republican candidates. But the need for reform - of the kind Sanders talks about - is enormous. How much compromise should we agree to? How much compromise is conscionable in areas like campaign finance, energy policy, and financial industry regulation?

Against enormous odds, President Obama has managed to initiate critical changes in foreign policy. Clinton's record is one of supporting aggressive US military involvement abroad. Given the conflicts in the world right now, it seems more than a small possibility that with a Clinton presidency, we would find ourselves drawn into more war - possibly involving Russia. How much compromise should we agree to?

Increasingly, the voices and interests of the average person are overwhelmed by the people with money and power. That's simple fact. Clinton talks like a progressive, and I think she does care about the poor and the middle class. But - not to echo Donald Trump - she has some other people to answer to. When big donors call, she'll listen.

The only power voters have is their vote (which is also, of course, increasingly under attack). So: pragmatism or principles? At what point do liberals compromise?And at what cost?

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