Although I’m a Sanders supporter, I have always been skeptical of the emphasis on winning the presidency as the path forward for progressive politics. Yes, a great political movement requires a great leader who can inspire people to work for positive change. Bernie Sanders is such a leader, and he has started something that will hopefully become bigger than his own quest for the White House — a historic campaign which has significantly overperformed expectations, but which seems increasingly likely to end in electoral defeat.
I will be voting for Bernie in the Virginia primary on Tuesday. I would like to be able to do more, to help his cause of systemic political reform continue after the Democratic nomination is sewn up, most likely by the corporate establishment candidate, Hillary Clinton.
As Sanders himself often says, we need a “political revolution” to make the changes that are necessary for the American people’s future wellbeing. And the fact is, most of these changes require legislative action. Laws begin in the Congress, not the White House. So it would seem that the political revolution that is needed is one which can elect lots of populist progressives, like Sen. Sanders, to Congress.
As a thirtysomething Bernie voter who sees the impending Trump vs. Clinton matchup as a sign of severe decay in America’s body politic — the culmination of decades of rot, the very decades which have constituted my entire lifespan — it is tempting to say “f*** politics” and limit my participation from now on to resignedly casting a lesser-of-two-evils vote when the sad time of election season rolls around, if even that much.
But I would like to think that the dream of better governance — a government that actually serves the needs of the people and reflects high ideals — can someday rise again in America; that our nation will not always from now on be condemned to choose between the lowest common denominator of uber-macho vulgarity and xenophobia (Trumpism) or the low expectations and competently managed decline that is the result of pay-to-play pseudo-democracy (Clintonism).
The problem is that with Trump and Clinton as the parties’ standard bearers, much of the populist mantle and passion may shift from the Democrats to the GOP. Trump will run to the left of Clinton on trade policy, campaign finance and political corruption, the Iraq War, and possibly other issues such as universal health care and big infrastructure spending. With Sanders leading the Democratic Party into battle in November, this problem could have been avoided. Now, assuming he loses, it will take a well-organized progressive populist movement to try to overthrow the Democratic establishment in future election cycles — and not just for the presidential race, but for downticket races as well — to try to recapture the populist vote from the Republicans, after Trump will have remade the Republican Party in his image of “National Socialism lite.”
As much as many people on our side may be loathe to admit it, a somewhat toned-down version of fascism is very appealing to much of the population — and not just to conservatives, but to many independents who might more naturally be inclined to vote progressive too! A heady brew of “national greatness” programs such as big building projects to create jobs (starting with “the wall”) and repealing the corporatist trade deals that everyone but the 1% hates (NAFTA, TPP, etc.), combined with militaristic bravado and a “volkish,” “wounded pride of the average joe”-based racism, is the classic right-wing populism that has seduced nations into tragedy time and time again. This is the new version of conservatism that Donald Trump is creating right before our eyes. This kind of platform, with a vigorous, tribal chieftain-like, “I’ll get things done and woe to anyone who stands in my way” alpha-male leader like Trump enunciating it, often wins elections and wreaks great damage in its wake, as the history of other countries shows.
The only effective antidote to the seduction of neo-fascism is a new progressive populism — the Sanders path, basically. That’s the way to get the swing voters who are dissatisfied with the establishment of both political parties — a huge and growing portion of the American electorate — to vote for the Democratic Party instead of the newly populist version of the Republican Party after Trump is done transforming it.
So, what is being done to make the movement that Bernie has begun into the progressive populist electoral juggernaut at all levels of government that is needed?
It’s easy to get depressed about politics when Trump and Clinton are our choices. It’s even more depressing to think about the dearth of progressive candidates for office and elected officials in the Congress and the state legislatures. Where is the movement? If it’s just about one inspiring leader running for president, and little else, then how can we hope to create the systemic change we seek?
I would feel more confident in the future of American politics and the Democratic Party if I could see that hundreds of progressive candidates in the mold of Sanders are being groomed to run for Congress in 2018 — and that down at the state level, thousands of ordinary citizens are getting ready to run for office on a Sanders-inspired platform, building a base from which seasoned candidates can rise up and win Congressional seats in the future.
Really, there is no excuse for this not to happen — if, in fact, a progressive political revolution is to be created, which is what Bernie Sanders is asking for, and what we know is needed. The money is out there and can be raised from the grassroots, as Sanders has amazingly shown.
I’m not the kind of person who is well suited to running for office myself, but I can offer some strategic insights into how a successful progressive populist movement might be built. The most important thing is that it needs to have a very simple platform based on common-sense, bread-and-butter issues such as ending political corruption and making the economy fair for everyone.
All candidates need to run on a list, like a caucus or party-within-a-party, with a descriptive and brandable name. There needs to be strong message discipline, so that it’s the caucus that people are voting for, not so much the candidate him/herself. The candidates should be basically plug-and-play, all running on the same system, agenda and playbook (tweaked for the unique features of each locality), making it easy for any normal person to sign up to run for office without needing to reinvent the wheel.
To expand upon that last point, there should be a “citizen legislator” ethos — this should not be a movement based on a small number of rock star candidates, but instead, a movement for ordinary people who care about the future of the country to get involved and try to win office and systematically replace the existing bought-and-paid-for Democratic establishment, brick by brick, until it is no more.
I can’t think of any other way that progressives can take back the country from what it has become, and the dystopian nightmare that it risks becoming if our choices remain either politics-as-usual or a toxic right-wing populism.
So I ask a simple question: Is any organization being formed, or has already been formed, to do what I’m describing? If not, are any influential activists planning to form one, in the wake of the Sanders campaign, to keep the momentum going in a positive direction?
If Bernie Sanders has proved one thing, it is that lots of people are motivated to try to make a difference, to change the downward trajectory of American politics and bring a rebirth of hope for the Millennial generation and beyond. Please tell me that there’s a plan for what happens after Sanders exits the stage of the presidential campaign — a plan that will make his noble, longshot campaign the opening salvo of a true political revolution in this country, not the beginning of despair and political apathy for a new generation of much-needed participants in our nation’s democracy.