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Bernie and Baltimore: “The People” in American Politics

We have all seen how the conservative media patronizes Senator Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign. He is a diversion, a cute sideshow, and the newscasters insist that he will not get the Democratic nomination. Someone more mainstream, more sensible—someone like Hillary Clinton—will be the nominee. But, we have to ask, how is it that a candidate can be diversionary and alternative because his platform and politics are about the needs of American people?

The answer is that Bernie isn’t out there talking the deceitful politics of greed that we are used to. Bernie Sanders talks about those politics, in order to expose and challenge them, but he is talking a different politics than we have heard on a national scale in a long time. Because of the Sanders campaign—because it is happening at all—Americans have to recognize that what has been for many years disguised as politics is simply the squabbling of financiers and corporations with politicians on their side who win campaigns based on how enticingly they can package the agenda of capital. Sanders, by doing something different, puts the lie to that mode of politics as definitive.

Whether he wins his party’s nomination or not, Bernie Sanders has changed American national politics. For as long as he is in it, Bernie has forced issues into this presidential race that intimately affect average Americans—and not just as the unsolicited trickle down consequences of elite politics. Candidates have often treated these issues as nothing more than an ingredient in the sweet exterior of the exclusionary, poverty-making politics pill. Bernie reminds Americans that people are what politics is about: that the daily lives of Americans are the most important reasons why we have politics in America, and that (as Sanders’s voting record as a Senator shows), the daily lives of Americans do not need to be relegated to rhetoric. The corporate, exclusionary norm is contestable and, in the end, disposable. Mainstream and sensible might mean willing to ignore people in favor of corporate interests, but as Bernie tells us so frequently: corporations are not people. Politics is for the people.

Something else has been happening in America that makes us think differently about politics. Black people in cities American cities have mobilized against police brutality. They have confronted police brutality en masse. But, when there were protests in Ferguson and in Baltimore, you might remember some responses you heard: we must let the law do its work; or, it’s wrong to protest in the streets because there are better ways of dealing with problems; or, it’s sad that our country is still dealing with such (overt) racism; or, maybe the response was racist itself. So, we heard the legal argument, the moral argument, and the emotional argument. And we heard the indefensible “racial” argument. But we never heard the political argument. We never acknowledged that “rioting” in Baltimore was a political action in itself.

Like the Sanders campaign, and probably better, the mobilisations of black people in American cities have changed how Americans have to look at politics. Politics is not, for example, the prim show of denouncing racism or feeling sad about racism. Politics is contesting racism. As our recent history of the 1960s shows, if official structures offer no avenue for contestation—if racism pervades those structures so deeply that to seek the aid of the police or the local government is useless—then politics must happen on the paved avenues. And that is politics: politics by the people.

This idea might make some Americans uncomfortable. But the fact is that a racist culture and corporate domination of politics have been making Americans uncomfortable for a long time. And discomfort in this case can mean unemployment, or homelessness, or sickness, or depression, or death. Politics does not have to perpetuate the daily distress many regular Americans face, nor create it, and politics shouldn’t. Politics can make American lives better, if the people are centered. Bernie and Baltimore have reminded us that. Through the ballot box or in the streets—however it comes—politics is first and foremost a project of the people.

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Paddy O’Halloran is a native of Providence, Rhode Island.  He is currently a master’s student in Political and International Studies at Rhodes University in South Africa.  His research interrogates race and space through the politics of social movements.

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