March 13, 2016, Revised March 14, 2016.
By Jonathan Michael Feldman
A New York Times editorial published on March 12, 2016 faults Sanders for claiming that a political revolution is either desirable or operational. They write: “revolutions are typically bottom-up, not top-down events.” They also note: “there are not enough elected office holders in Congress or in statehouses to carry out his revolution through new laws or policies.” This limitation represents “the big difference between running an inspiring campaign and actually governing.” The formula here is that revolution is a function of governors and not the pressure that a social movement inspired by a leader can bring on elected officials. Yet, the history of the United States shows how various social movements can successfully challenge legislators and make changes in policy. The Civil Rights movement is a case in point, having charismatic leaders who led massive social movements to effect change.
The counter-argument to this claim is twofold. First, Sanders is just running a presidential campaign and not necessarily directing a social movement. Is this claim accurate? Sanders has thousands of followers, a detailed mailing and fund-raising list, organizing staff, discrete policy messages about a number of social issues and problems, etc. His campaign has all the ingredients for a social movement and is in fact based on various social movement actors. For example, when activists mobilize to shut down Trump rallies such episodes represent a social movement action and some portion of these activists are supporters of Sanders.
The second counter-argument is that activities like the Civil Rights movement took place when the Democratic Party had a lot of power in statehouses and the U.S. Congress and now the situation is different. This counter-claim is supported by the Times when they write: “should Mr. Sanders win the nomination and the White House, he would very likely inherit a Democratic Party whose numbers in Congress have sharply dwindled and whose proportions in state legislatures–the farm team for potential national office holders–have likewise declined.” Now, in contrast, “the oldest members of both the House and the Senate are Democrats; the youngest in both chambers are Republicans.”
This second argument is weak for many reasons. One reason is that large parts of the Democratic Party, before the ascent of Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy, were tied to a politics of segregation and racism. Another reason is that the very young Republicans now in government positions are partially there because of a social movement linked to the T-Party. As The Wall Street Journal explained recently in an article entitled, “Grass-Roots Anger Transforms Republican Party in Congress and Presidential Campaign,” local movements are challenging political leaders: “insurgent uprisings rocking the Republican Party in Congress and the presidential campaign are creating heartburn among establishment party figures, who worry an unguided fury will keep the GOP from reclaiming the White House next fall. But that same turmoil is eliciting cheers from many in the party’s grass roots, who, far from fearing the turbulence, think it serves their burning desire to force changes in the government.” The very youth of the Republican Party cannot be detached from social movement action: “This ground-up rebellion is shaking a party long dominated by seniority that habitually elevates the next person in line. This is particularly true in the presidential primary. Former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, the son and brother of the last two GOP presidents and the early favorite among the party’s establishment voters, has failed to generate enthusiasm among the grass roots.”
Of course, one might argue that the T-Party phenomena is limited to right-wing grassroots action, with little implications for the Left or the Sanders movement. This is hardly true when it is the Sanders campaign that is most attracting younger voters. In Michigan, Sanders won 81% of the youth vote, with Clinton getting only 19%. If we turn to the United Kingdom, we see Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign for leadership of the Labour Party, his success and related movement support, has led to a dramatic expansion in the number of Labour Party supporters. As The Guardian explained in one news story: “Corbyn’s campaign has also been helped by a surge in new members and supporters who paid £3 to take part in the vote, leading to a near-tripling of those eligible to about 550,000 people. Throughout the campaign, he addressed packed rallies and halls, where he had to give speeches outside the buildings to crowds gathered in the street.” Likewise, Sanders has led numerous rallies, mobilizing in one sense thousands of supporters throughout the United States. While Corbyn runs to the Left of Sanders, the similarities between the campaigns should not be underestimated.
Another argument by the Times is that “Sanders’s own political career illustrates what can happen when a revolutionary has no ground troops.” In his 25 years in Congress, they argue “he hasn’t gotten many big things done.” Being “an uncompromising political independent, his outsider status has largely prevented him from attracting the support that would be needed among Democrats to turn into law his liberal ideals on health care, on college education and on fighting poverty and climate change.”
In this particular paragraph of the editorial, there are again numerous problems. First, Sanders now has more “ground troops,” in contrast to his 25 years in Congress. Second, the idea that “getting things done” is always virtuous is belied by the trajectory of President George W. Bush who–by getting things done in Iraq–helped waste and destroy thousands of lives and trillions of dollars and also helped give rise to ISIS. In contrast, if Bush got fewer things done, the United States would have been stronger militarily, economically, and politically. Third, the idea again is that mobilizing young and progressive people is somehow bad for getting young and progressive people in Congress. This line of thought is clearly illogical and shows how the editorial seems to be grasping at straws. It almost seems like an intellectual form of desperation to make points that invert realities. As Ryan Lizza of The New Yorker explained: “With Sanders winning young voters overwhelmingly, his campaign may eventually be seen as an incubator for the Party’s future politicians.”
Towards the end of the editorial, the Times suggests that President Obama, like Sanders, created an electoral apparatus outside of “traditional party structure,” but failed when he could not reverse the growing tide of Republican Party support. Yet, Obama did not mobilize the millions of Americans on the Obama campaign’s mailing lists but rather killed “the Obama movement” as soon as the election was over. Obama did not create ways to organize the social movement or consumption power of millions of voters. He did not support mass rallies and marches against Republican retrenchment. He did not put empowering trade unions at the forefront of his first months in office, but took up other concerns. He did not back some kind of community action programs which would have used government money to empower local organizing campaigns or try to raise money for such campaigns by organizing a series of speeches that supported local organizing efforts. He did none of this while the T-Party was busy generating a mass movement to help take over Congress.
At the end of the editorial, the Times praises the Occupy and Black Lives Matter movements and sees them as a potential base for future Democratic Party support. Yet, the former movement could not offer a comprehensive program linked to a legislative agenda making it a weaker vehicle for social change. In fact, the Sanders campaign builds on some of the themes of that movement and so to set the two in opposition is somewhat misleading. So too is the attempt to suggest that Sanders has little to do with the Black Lives Matter movement. Sanders slowly has taken up many themes addressed by that movement including police repression, the prison-industrial complex, and the very need to create social movements to combat racism and poverty.
It is true that there is a need for a social movement support system that operated in concert with but independently from the Sanders campaign, giving it a more critical direction. Such a system could complement the routines of electoral politics with other forms of economic, media and political action. Electoral politics in itself as Sanders acknowledges will not change much. But so too will traditional social movement activity not change much unless it develops new strategies and designs. The counterfactual argument that working within the system through pragmatic deals changes much is belied by Obama’s trajectory and the relative success of the T-Party and Corbyn revolution.