Don’t Let the Revolution Bern Out
By Asa Kowals-Rose
A year ago, politicos were preparing for a dull election season. As I watched the Iowa caucus results pour in, it became clear that this would not be the case. The effortless Clinton victory many had anticipated for years had given way to an evening of nail biting; as precincts tallies were reported, her lead over Bernie Sanders dwindled to less than one percent, and almost disappeared entirely. The results that would decide the evening came in slowly, as if to foreshadow another long and competitive Democratic primary. For Secretary Clinton, this must have been incredibly disheartening. For a political junkie looking for reasons to put off homework, it was wonderful to watch.
As the dust settled in Iowa, Clinton emerged with a painstakingly thin majority of precincts and 23 delegates; Sanders received 21. The Iowa Democratic Party doesn’t release raw vote totals for the caucus, leaving open the possibility that the Vermont senator actually had the support of a majority of caucus-goers throughout the state. Whether or not this is the case, Sanders and his supporters were quick to declare the caucus a victory. With few party endorsements and no super PAC, they had brought one of the most powerful campaign machines in recent history to a virtual tie in Iowa, and were anticipating victory in New Hampshire. I write this before that state’s primary, but whatever its result, the Iowa caucus demonstrated that Sanders’ “political revolution” is underway.
After President Obama’s reelection in 2012, most pundits spoke of the 2016 Democratic primary with certainty. Many predicted it would be a “coronation” for Secretary Clinton. When Jeb Bush entered the Republican field as an apparent front runner last year, some contended that the presidency—an office designed as a repudiation of monarchical tradition—had become a dynastic institution. This view reflected an assumption that no part of the democratic process could overcome the fundraising abilities and political connections of the Bush and Clinton families—a tacit belief that American democracy was near death, if not dead already.
Perhaps this assumption is what made pundits so skeptical of Bernie Sanders when he announced his candidacy last spring. After all, the Sanders campaign is only nonviable if grassroots organizing is incapable of overcoming the resources and influence of the political establishment. If this is true, and modern political campaigns can only succeed with wealthy donors and powerful allies, then the United States is no longer a representative democracy. This was the indeed the conclusion of a 2014 Princeton study, which found that public policy in the United States typically reflects the interests of the wealthy, and not the will of the majority. In other words, that American democracy has surrendered to oligarchy. It is this system that Bernie Sanders wants to change with his “political revolution,” and I believe that it will take nothing short of a revolution to do so.
This revolution would be different than that of 1917 or 1776. In calling for revolution, Sanders doesn’t wish to overthrow the United States government, but rather to reinvigorate the American democratic process. The revolution he hopes to bring about would simply mean the emergence of an active and engaged political movement led by the oppressed and disenchanted in American society. Sanders’ hope is not to see this movement storm the White House with pitchforks and torches, but that it will grow large enough to elect progressive leaders at all levels of government.
While many criticize this approach at too idealistic, I believe it represents practical understanding of the modern political dynamic. In an age of hyper-partisanship, the best hope for the progressive movement is to draw support from the millions of people who, convinced of their futility, forgo political participation. In this way, Bernie Sanders is neither Bolshevik nor Jacobin, but rather a modern New Dealer. Franklin Delano Roosevelt was only able to enact his agenda because he was supported by the likeminded congress that rose to power alongside him in 1933. Sanders hopes to recreate this model in 2017, and his “political revolution” is the best way to do it.
If the revolution is to succeed, Sanders’ supporters must stay engaged this election season, regardless of the outcome of the primary campaign. While it can be extremely difficult for grassroots movements to take on the political establishment in a presidential race, their effect can be much more pronounced in House and Senate races. 34 Senate seats are up for election in 2016, along with all 435 seats in Congress. Too often, these races are overshadowed by the presidential campaign, and Senate and Congressional candidates are allowed to escape the public scrutiny that is necessary for voters to hold them accountable. This is one of the reasons why, despite their dismal approval rating, members of Congress regularly reelected by wide margins. Some Congressmen regularly run unopposed, giving them little incentive to advocate the interests of their constituents on the floor of the House. Whether or not Bernie Sanders manages to get elected, it is extremely important for the Senator’s supporters to elect legislators who share his passion for working class interests. If Sanders’ legions of donors and volunteers approach these races with the same energy and enthusiasm they have shown in the presidential campaign, their revolution may yet make an impact in 2016.
Sanders supporters should also extend their political involvement to state and local elections, both this year and in years to come. Like Congressional races, these are frequently ignored, but are nonetheless incredibly important with regard to issues like health care, education, and environmental policy. Furthermore, most of these races involve relatively small constituencies, which can make well-organized grassroots efforts extremely influential in their outcome. I have seen this phenomenon firsthand in my hometown of Seattle. There, despite fierce opposition from business interests and the political establishment, outspoken socialist Kshama Sawant was elected to the City Council in 2013, and reelected last November. Her hard-won campaigns relied on an army of small donors and volunteers to defeat business-backed opponents, and their success goes to show that grassroots efforts can stand up to moneyed interests. This type of organizing paid dividends when it came time to enact Sawant’s agenda: after the success of her campaigns, those who had worked to elect her became active participants in the movement to establish a $15 minimum wage. Their efforts proved successful, and within five months of Sawant taking office the Council unanimously passed a citywide $15 minimum wage ordinance. I believe that Sanders’ supporters can use this combination of electoral campaigning and issue-based activism as a model for progressive change throughout the country, at all levels of government.
Although it pains me to write it, I can’t picture Bernie Sanders being inaugurated on January 20, 2017. His campaign is formidable, but I don’t believe it will be enough to defeat the Democratic establishment, the corporate media, and the Clinton machine. This is not an indictment of Sanders, his policies, or his passionate supporters; it is evidence that the American political system is too broken to be fixed in one primary season. For this reason, Sanders supporters cannot let the Senator’s revolution die with his campaign. Instead, they must capitalize on the momentum they’ve worked so hard to create over the past several months. If they do this effectively, I firmly believe that the 2016 primary battle will be remembered as only the beginning of the fight to retake the American political system from the oligarchs.