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Bernie Sanders’ Political Revolution: Think National, Act Local

Until this month, the only compelling story in the run up for president had to do with which loathsome candidate might win the Republican nomination. The more civil, substantial, policy-driven division in the Democratic Party escaped notice. For much of the early campaign season the candidacy of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders had been ignored by the mainstream media. Instead, the Democratic Party establishment, and its presumptive nominee, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton captured the majority of headlines.

But as Sanders began drawing large, enthusiastic crowds and huge numbers of small campaign donations that have amounted to record-breaking totals Clinton and the party took notice. When Sanders came in a very close second in the Iowa caucuses and soundly beat Clinton in New Hampshire, there was genuine concern in the establishment/Clinton camp. Following these early setbacks the establishment candidate rebounded, buoyed by her decisive wins in Southern primaries along with her presumed support among African-American voters.

Clinton, while liberal on social issues including abortion, same-sex marriage and gun-control is an establishment, pro-business candidate. She is very much a penultimate “New Democrat,” who over the last thirty years was responsible for domestic policies that have resulted in unprecedented levels of incarceration along with income, wealth, and political inequality in America today. Unequivocally, the Sanders campaign and his call for a “political revolution” seeks to upend this state of affairs. Wealth and income inequality, and the political inequality that results is the core focus of the Sanders campaign. Ahead of what is predicted to be a close primary in New York, a state each candidate likes to call home, and following on the heels of a succession of victories in the West and Midwest, notably Michigan and Wisconsin, Sanders’ message resonates with a substantial portion of the Democratic electorate.   This is significant because Sanders is running as a self-described democratic-socialist, albeit, in reality a New Deal Democrat. Nevertheless, his is the furthest left-wing candidacy in the Democratic Party in decades.

In the short-term, if Clinton defeats Sanders for the Democratic nomination, Sanders supporters may very well vote for Clinton in the general election. Sanders crossover votes will not be cast because they embrace her or the “New Democrat” vision, but because any and all of the Republican candidates are so retrograde and dangerous they must vote defensively to prevent a Republican presidency. However, given Clinton’s unequivocal pro-business positions and her inability and unwillingness to challenge income and wealth inequality in any substantial way may lead to a significant portion of the Sanders -Democratic electorate, to challenge establishment Democrats (as the Tea Party has done to establishment Republicans). There already are many groups who while presently working to get Sanders elected are eying the future—one with a President Sanders or without—with a grassroots, local, state and national progressive program for a slate of elected officials.

If Bernie Sanders and the “political revolution” he claims to lead, which prides itself as posing a robust challenge to the structural domination of wealth in the U.S. and its concomitant allies in the Democratic Party is to make inroads in the political process, he must build and institutionalize an electoral apparatus at the grassroots level that competes in local and state elections. The impressive work of the Sanders for President campaign for the Democratic nomination is an important beginning, but it is only a beginning. The support that his candidacy and his message have garnered, particularly in states where the Democratic Party rarely competes anymore, shows that a democratic-socialist, one who rails against the domination of wealth in both public and private life is no longer a fringe element, but one that resonates with a huge number of people, at both rallies and in the voting booth.

The Sanders campaign has brought the politics of inequality to the attention of the mainstream media in ways that others, individuals and social movements could not. However, the work of building a political revolution cannot end there. Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, his campaign and supporters have taken on a burden, willingly or not, to go further than starting a conversation about economic inequality. Sanders leads a campaign that has garnered millions of supporters. His campaign runs on an almost singular message about the moral and ethical responsibilities of good government. But if his message is to be realized in substantive political change such a transformation requires more than a presidential primary election. Sanders’ political revolution requires sustained electoral activism in local polling places across America.

The Sanders campaign has garnered more human and financial resources than anyone expected. For months in states all across the U.S. Sanders campaign offices were opened, staffed by enthusiastic people, both young and not so young, who phone banked, canvassed, distributed information, held events in their living rooms and in public spaces, and organized campaign rallies that were attended by thousands of people.   State by state, in Kansas, Colorado, Idaho, Utah, Michigan and more, they tirelessly organized, advertised, and facilitated events in an impressive effort. Their work energized the electorate, gave Sanders’ message a presence in communities, and successfully mobilized Democratic voters to support Sanders on primary/caucus day. As of mid-April, Sanders has won primaries/caucuses in 16 states. To allow all of this organization and energy to dissipate at the conclusion of a state’s primary/caucus is a grave mistake and will result in a short-lived political revolution.

The Sanders campaign and its supporters must not abandon their local efforts once the presidential primary/caucus is over. Instead, they must reorient their efforts in order to do the following:

* Recruit candidates at the local and state levels who are Sanders Democrats or candidates in other parties that share Sanders’ platform.

* Sanders’ campaign staffers and local volunteers must maintain a presence in the communities to lend their expertise and experience to elect desirable candidates to local office (town/city council, mayor, the local school board, alderperson, district attorney, local/county justice, etc.) and state offices (state legislatures, governor, state attorney general, etc.).

* The Sanders campaign must share its informational and data resources with local affiliates and their staffers so that they can effectively raise resources and mobilize voters on behalf of desirable candidates in local/state elections.

* The campaign must also share its financial resources with local affiliates and candidates. The Sanders campaign has been tremendously successful at raising money in the form of small donations from millions of people. According to opensecrets.org, as of April 2016 the Sanders campaign has raised nearly $140 million dollars and while having spent the vast majority of it, the campaign still has $17 million cash on hand.

These efforts are crucial as movement progressives cannot have an intermittent, single candidate messenger foray into electoral politics and expect the structural change that the Sanders movement promises. Historically, progressive structural change in the U.S. pertaining to labor, income security, and civil rights, are the result of widespread popular pressure on elected officials who were either pliant to movements’ demands or ideologically aligned with them.

A political revolution, if successful must have grassroots organization and an infrastructure if it is to continue to work with and sustain the extraordinary support that Sanders and his message has mobilized. To accomplish the public policies that progressives demand, be it free tuition at public colleges and universities, a public-option and truly universal health care, a living wage, trade agreements that protect workers and the environment, strong regulatory oversight of corporations, progressive taxation, and the end to incarceration and discrimination requires not only a movement and a sympathetic president, but an equally sympathetic Congress, state legislatures and governors, and local elected officials who share this vision. It should not come as a surprise, or a shameful admission, but the Tea Party’s local, state and national campaign is a good example to emulate. The resistance among Republican governors, state legislatures, and attorney generals to President Obama’s Affordable Care Act and his efforts on immigration reform are instructive as examples of the importance of local and state government officials’ ability to block political change. The U.S. system of federalism, for good or ill, has many access points that allow for a sweeping new direction for American politics.

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders certainly did not start the conversation about political revolution. This has been a constant in the progressive and left discourse. However, and significantly, Sanders has brought the progressive discourse into the mainstream political arena, with excellent result. This is a major accomplishment to which he rightly deserves credit. However, as he himself readily admits, political revolutions are not made by presidential candidates, or sitting presidents either, for that matter. Political revolutions are years in the making and painstakingly, methodically built at the local and state level. Sanders and the thousands of people who have supported his campaign must not squander the opportunity to lay the foundation, in every district, town, city, state and national election for a real political revolution. In the oft repeated words of the candidate himself, that would be “Huge”.

Peter Kolozi and James E. Freeman are, respectively, Associate Professor and Professor of Political Science at the City University of New York, Bronx Community College.

October 22, 2018
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