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What Tomorrow May Bring: Politics of the People

With two narrow popular vote wins behind him and national poll leads in the double-digit leads and growing, Nevada is Bernie Sanders’s first decisive victory. He will now be taking this momentum to South Carolina, where he is just 2 points behind Biden and has a real chance of going into Super Tuesday essentially undefeated. The “electability” myth demolished, each win will only make it easier for people to vote for him. Corporate Media can no longer ignore him, and narratives of “Bernie Bros” and Putin are unlikely to halt the snowball effect. As we saw with the failed “sexism” attack – which actually raised Sanders’s numbers while lowering Elizabeth Warren’s – the more people actually see and hear Sanders, the more his numbers rise.

It was in the days before the Iowa vote that I first began to realize that Sanders had the potential not merely to win, but to completely blow his opponents out of the water. Reports from friends volunteering on the ground there told of an incredible spirit among volunteers and voters. One friend called it “a political Woodstock” but it may be more accurately described as the rebirth of Occupy. Large numbers of volunteers, record small donations, an intense presence on the ground, excellent strategy, and a message that is coherent and inspiring.

To truly appreciate the uniqueness of this campaign, it may be worth taking a look at the traditional electoral politics it is challenging; a politics that has hardened around a triune top-down structure of Big Parties, Big Donors and Big Media.

First, the Big Party. The US electoral process differs from those of many other democratic countries in several important ways. One of these involves the fact that there is only one round of balloting, rather than an initial round followed by a runoff. This arrangement favors the consolidation of a two-party system and the concentration of political power into two deeply entrenched party elites – both beholden to the same Plutocracy – that effectively become the gatekeepers of the entire process and ensure that no one not vetted by them has a chance on the national political stage. The very fact that Sanders is running as a Democrat, when the Democratic leadership is clearly determined to stop him is precisely because the alternative would be getting shut out of the process like a Ralph Nader or a Jill Stein. The most obvious practitioner of this Big Party politics is Hillary Clinton, whose strategy relied on the cutting of insider deals, from her failed attempt to get the Super Delegates to overturn the popular vote in 2008 to the secret agreements of the Hillary Victory Fund with 33 State Parties in 2015, thus being able to boast a massive Delegate lead before a single vote was cast.

Next, the Big Donor. While other democratic countries have government-financed elections, US elections have become driven by private donations to the point where one literally needs billions of dollars to run for President. Donald Trump actually boasted that he could not be bought like other politicians because it was he who did the buying. But Mike Bloomberg is taking this reality to a new extreme, not only by financing his own campaign but by making the amount of money he can spend literally the main arguments for his candidacy. And the DNC is so eager for his cash that he will clearly be a key figure in any horse trading at a brokered Convention in Milwaukee no matter how poorly he does in debates and even votes. The fact that our politicians come into office indebted to donors the same way graduates leave college in debt with student loans shapes our policymaking and determines what is “politically possible.” Studies have shown that as much as 94% of Congressional races were won by the candidate with the most money and, when one considers that three individuals currently own more wealth than 50% of the population, this means that we truly do live in a plutocracy.

Trump took the Media-based model to a new extreme with his brilliant strategy of giving the networks content they wanted and thereby receiving an estimated $1-3 billion in free airtime: nearly 1/3 of all campaign coverage and far more than any other candidate (ABC World News Tonight reportedly devoted a total of 81 minutes to Trump compared to 20 seconds for Sanders). As Corporate Media airtime is the big-ticket item in US Presidential campaigns, this meant that Trump largely eliminated the need for funding.

But even though plutocrats essentially determine who can run, voters still have the final say with their votes, right? This is where the third leg comes in: Big Media. After all, where does all that money go if not to paid airtime on major corporate networks? Unlike many democratic countries, which provide free airtime for electoral campaigns as a public service, the US leaves its candidates obliged to spend billions on network ads to have any chance of winning. This among other things helps to strengthen the monopoly power of the two parties. In 1980, some 30 companies owned 80% of US news outlets. Thanks to a series of legislative changes, and particularly the 1996 Telecommunications Act signed by Bill Clinton, 4 companies – AT&T, Comcast, Disney and ViacomCBS – now own 90% of our news.

Of course, campaigns wouldn’t spend this much money on airtime if it didn’t affect public perceptions. The entire advertising industry is based on the understanding that it does. Comcast Corp, which owns MSNBC (along with NBC, CNBC, Sky and Telemundo) and spent $6.12 billion on advertising in 2018: more than any other company, according to Business Insider. Or AT&T, which owns CNN and came in second with $5.4 billion spent on advertising. Or Amazon, whose billionaire owner Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post and which came in third, with $4.5 billion spent on advertising in 2018. And Big Media does not merely run campaign ads or objectively report the news, but in fact plays a major role in shaping public perceptions and political decisions. Just consider, for example, how AP effectively ended the 2016 Democratic Primary by announcing on the eve of the California vote (which Sanders was favored to win) that, based on calls to Super Delegates, Clinton had already won. The formal political process was thus literally replaced by a media-driven process.

These news and opinion outlets are owned by large multinational companies and billionaires (such as Jeff Bezos, Rupert Murdoch and Bloomberg himself) who themselves are political actors who pour millions into lobbying and political donations. According to open Secrets, Comcast spent some $4 million on lobbying and $13.4 million in contributions to political parties, PACs, committees and candidates during the 2018 election cycle; CNN spent $8.2 million and $18.5 million respectively; and Amazon $13.6 and $14.4 million. In other words, Big Media are themselves also Big Donors and major investors in the political system.

This top-down system is much easier to control and requires much less effort than traditional electioneering. One doesn’t have to deal directly with voters; only has to court a small number of corporate and billionaire donors and use their money (or one’s own) to finance ads on major networks, while racking up the right endorsements and political alliances to grease the wheels. Hillary used the exclusivity of Big Party politics to curry donor and media support to tip the system in her favor. Trump relied much less on money than on a masterful use of Big Media. In Bloomberg, the billionaire Wall Street insider, media mogul, and well-connected politician are fused into a single individual. Bloomberg has a net worth equivalent to that of 125 million Americans – more than 1/3 of the population. He owns his own news company and has held and continues to seek political office. His company, Bloomberg LP, spent nearly $100 million on lobbying and political donations in the last election cycle and he recently purchased a DNC rules change that allowed him into the debates for a mere $300,000. With Bloomberg, we seem to have reached the culmination of oligarch politics.

Sanders’ approach is completely different. Building on a volunteer base and organization begun in 2016 and fielding an extremely well-staffed, passionate and creative ground game, he is opposing the entire top-down electioneering system with a ground-up one, focused on volunteers making phone calls and knocking on doors, packed stadiums and record numbers of small donations. While far more labor-intensive than the top-down approach, this strategy capitalizes on Sanders’s greatest assets: his capacity to inspire and mobilize large numbers of people and his connectedness to the moment. When Hillary said that “nobody likes” Sanders, she was stating a profound political truth: nobody who matters in the rarified universe of top-down politics likes him. Instead, his movement – “Our Revolution”– can be said to have become the converging point of diverse social movements that have pushed back against elite control for the last two decades: Anti-Globalization, Anti-War, Occupy, Black Lives Matter, the Dreamers, Palestinian Rights, Indigenous Resistance, the Sunrise Movement, among others. And these movements bring with them their own bases and strengths. For these people, this is not as much about electing an individual as it is an organizational opportunity. And this passionate organizational base only grows and improves with each state.

Sanders’ main rivals are products of the top-down system. And, as Nevada suggested, none are even remotely equipped to handle a challenge from below. When, at the end of the last debate, Sanders alone said that the will of the People should prevail in July as opposed to an opaque system of backroom horse trading among billionaires and Party insiders, the audience reaction echoed the Nevada results. And last week saw not only Bloomberg’s implosion in his first public vetting but also Joe Biden’s endorsement from the leadership of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers publicly challenged in an open letter by 1200 IBEW members.

So when people look back on the causes of this campaign’s success they may find at least part of the answer in the triumph of a ground-up, crowdsourced, popular politics over a controlled, elite-focused top down one; a Politics of the People over a Politics of Power. Sanders hasn’t invented anything so much as tapped into something that was already there. After the futility of the movement to prevent the 2003 war, the misplaced hope of 2008 in a figure who was beholden to Wall Street and utterly tied to the status quo, the violent crushing of Occupy and Standing Rock, the ongoing attempts to stifle BDS through unconstitutional laws, and the aborted Sanders run of 2016, and in spite of every obstacle the Big Parties, Big Donors and Big Media will throw in our way, we can say today with confidence that our moment has finally come.

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Peter Cohen holds a Ph.D. in Applied Anthropology from Columbia University and has worked in International Development in more than twenty countries. He has taught, lectured, organized and delivered training events, and authored publications ranging from articles on the historical spread of African religions through the Atlantic Slave Trade to guides to working with informal recyclers, as well as essays on politics and social change.

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