So, Bernie Sanders, You Say You Want a (Political) Revolution? Well, You...

So, Bernie Sanders, You Say You Want a (Political) Revolution? Well, You Know…


Yeah, we all want to change the world, as the Beatles sang. The questions are, what changes do we want to see and HOW do we plan on making those changes happen?

Regarding the first part of the question, I think it’s pretty clear by this point what changes Bernie Sanders would like to see: break up the big banks, smash the power of Wall Street, sharply raise taxes (particularly on the wealthy), provide universal health care and higher education to all Americans, raise marginal tax rates sharply on the “millionayahs and billionayahs,” get rid of fossil fuels, etc, etc.

Setting aside for the moment whether or not you agree with any of those things, the question is HOW to go about accomplishing those objectives. Bernie’s “theory of the case” is clear, if not particularly detailed: “’We need a political revolution of millions of people in this country who are prepared to stand up and say, ‘enough is enough,’” Sanders argued. ‘I want to help lead that effort.’”

Now, forgive me for being reminded of the old Steve Martin joke: “‘Steve.. how can I be a millionaire.. and never pay taxes?’ First.. get a million dollars.” In other words, just snap your fingers and voila, you’ve got a million dollars. Or, in the case of Sanders, just run for president and voila, a political revolution?

Unfortunate, no. It simply doesn’t work that way. To the contrary, the correct “theory of the case” is much closer to the slogan of this blog: “think globally, act locally.” Which raises the question: will the millions of Sanders supporters who are really “feeling the Bern” right now stick around after June, when Hillary Clinton almost certainly wins the Democratic nomination? Just as importantly (if not more so), will Sanders’ supporters, many of them young and enthusiastic, stick around after November 2016 for the hard, slogging, grueling work of building a progressive movement at the local, state and national level going forward?

I asked some Democratic friends of mine this morning this question: “What would you say the chances are that Sanders supporters will continue their ‘revolution’ after Sanders loses, at the local and state levels in particular?” The answers included: “at best 5%;” “I guess Howard Dean after 2004 would be the best corollary;” and “they might get excited for someone else, but it’s not gonna be consistent.” Also, here’s a lengthier response which I think is worth quoting in full:

Obama tried to make his revolution more permanent, turning “Obama for America” into “Organizing for Action.” They never really figured it out. Obama proved much better at winning election himself. Same goes for Howard Dean with DFA. I don’t know why they failed, but I definitely don’t think Sanders is the person who will succeed, because he’s never shown any interest in building a movement for the cause, rather than for the candidate.
I think that’s all true, and very much on point to raise Dean and Obama as examples. Keep in mind that since Obama was elected in 2008, Democrats have gotten creamed just about everywhere else, losing the House, the Senate, governors’ mansion and state legislatures across the country. It’s been brutal, and it’s not that hard to understand what happened.
See, for instance, Jonathan Capehart’s recent Washington Post article, “Democrats aren’t good at the political revolution thing — and Sanders won’t be any different.”  The main point is this: after the presidential election is over, “despite all the heady talk of political revolution, those fired-up folks go home — and stay there for the next four years.” Unfortunately, it’s far worse on the Democratic side:
In the 2008 election, 65 million Democrats cast ballots for House candidates. That number dropped to 39 million in the 2010 midterm elections. That 26-million-vote plummet helped flood the House of Representatives with tea party revolutionaries as the Republican Party took over the chamber with a gain of 63 seats…In the 2008 elections, 33.6 million Democrats voted for Senate candidates. By the 2014 midterm elections, about 15 million fewer Democrats cast ballots. That 43 percent drop-off helped hand the Senate majority to the Republican Party. That was also the election that saw the GOP House majority increase to its largest since World War II.
That’s for midterms federal elections. It’s even worse at the local and state levels. For instance, here in Virginia, voter turnout was 75% in the 2008 Obama vs. McCain election and 72% in the Obama vs. Romney 2012 race, plummeting to just 43% in the 2013 Virginia governor’s election (when the entire House of Delegates was up as well), just 42% in 2014 (right-wingnut Rep. Barbara Comstock thanks you!) and a beyond-pathetic 29% in 2015 (when EVERY SINGLE member of the Virginia General Assembly was on the ballot!). It’s even worse still for Democratic primaries for state legislature, where turnout is often in the single digits or teens. Ugh.
The tragic results of this massive dropoff in Democratic turnout? In 2015, Virginia Republicans held the State Senate and basically maintained their 2:1 advantage in the House of Delegates, despite this being a state that went for Barack Obama twice, and where every single statewide elected official is a Democrat! So yeah, Democratic (non)voters, Speaker Bill “ALEC” Howell and Senate Majority Leader Tommy Norment thank all the Democrats who voted in 2008 and 2012, but who can’t be bothered to get off their a**es and vote in non-presidential elections.
All of which brings us right back to Bernie Sanders and his political “revolution.” Again, how is Sanders planning to prevent the enormous dropoff in Democratic turnout in non-presidential years from happening yet again (and again and again)? I’ve been following the Sanders campaign VERY closely, listening VERY carefully to what Sanders has been saying, and honestly, I have no clue how he would do that — whether he wins or loses. Because the fact is, most Democrats (and humans in general) don’t spend their time thinking about politics, getting involved in their local committees, knocking on doors, keeping informed and engaged with what’s going on with their city council, county board, state legislature or even in Congress.
Try this. Go to a public place – mall, restaurant, gym, whatever – and randomly ask people your choice of question — “who’s your Virginia State Senator? who’s your Delegate? who’s on the County Board?” — and see how many know the correct answers. Ask them if they know when the next election is for House of Delegates or State Senate. You could also ask them if they’re involved with their local Democratic (or Republican, for that matter) Party. Of if they’re involved politically in any other way at the local, state or federal level. Have they called or emailed their Congressman recently? Have they watched (or spoken at) a County Board or City Council meeting recently/ever? Have they ever considered running for office themselves?
As I said in one conversation this morning, the problem is that most political change is not glamorous or “sexy” or “exciting,” but a long, hard slog for the most part, one that needs to be worked on consistently, day-in/day-out, year-in/year-out — relentless and largely thankless. You know who’s been much better at this than Democrats and progressives? That’s right, Republican and conservative activists, who have worked for years or even decades to change the political conversation, to take over their own party and to move the country in their (hard-right) direction. Where’s that passion and dedication on the progressive side? Uhhhhh.
So, no, I don’t think that Bernie Sanders is wrong to call for a political revolution in this country. And I strongly agree with him that rapid, progressive change will only occur if tens of millions of progressives get involved and engaged on a continuous basis — not just disappear after the presidential primaries and/or presidential election in November. But Bernie Sanders IS wrong to simply call for a political revolution without investing in the states and localities, letting his supporters know how important it is to stay involved/engaged in non-presidential years, and personally committing to lead that effort, whether he wins or loses in 2016. In short, what’s the plan, man?
As for Sanders’ supporters (and Clinton’s too), they need to look in the mirror as well and ask themselves, “am I doing everything I can, year-in/year-out, to fight for the change I want to see, or am I just going to disappear again after November?” Or, as the Beatles put it, “You say you got a real solution, Well, you know, We’d all love to see the plan.” 
  • Elaine Owens

    You have pointed out the reasons that Democrats, who, I believe, are a plurality of Americans, cannot seem to get their voters to realize the importance of voting in every election at every level of government. As someone who got very active in politics because of Howard Dean, I can vouch for how that passion did not translate into a lasting political movement, even though many of us worked to try to get that. Remember Dean’s call for the national party to have a “50-State Strategy”? It was dropped completely when President Obama put Tim Kaine in charge of the DNC. Who votes most consistently in this country, election after election? White males ages 35 and up.That’s the base of the GOP base. If there is a 35-40% turnout, the GOP wins. Look at our history. There have been maybe three times when fairly radical change happened in the nation. The first was following a civil war that was required to settle once and for all two questions: existence of the institution of slavery and the right of a state to secede from the union. The second followed a terrible financial collapse in 1898-1899, a period when the robber barons of the day were basking in their wealth and the income disparity was far worse than today. (Plus, there was no government safety net or union membership for workers.) That progressive change, however, had two things we lack today: a muckraking press and an exceptional leader in Theodore Roosevelt. Finally, the worldwide collapse of economies everywhere in the 1930’s brought about the safety net we have today and the most radical change in our institutions of government. And, that only happened because of FDR’s leadership and fears of communism spreading among the working classes. So, Bernie, here’s what I think. I have studied the histories of TR and FDR, and you, sir, are not either one.

    • lowkell

      I strongly agree with your analysis. I might just add the Great Society legislation passed after the assassination of President John Kennedy. And actually, President Obama got a lot done (although I wish it had been a lot more) the first two years, with a Democratic Congress. That’s what we need in 2017 and beyond, but it won’t happen if young people and others don’t vote in the presidential election and then every election after that!

      • Elaine Owens

        I certainly agree that LBJ was a powerful figure in the passage of both Medicare and the civil rights legislation of the 1960’s. He had all those years of experience in Congress and a huge majority in Congress after the Goldwater debacle for the GOP in 1964. (Isn’t it interesting that health care for the aged and at least a stab at health care for all occurred only when the Democrats had 60 seats in the Senate following the sea change FDR had made in the direction of the party. It’s been my personal opinion that LBJ was the best president we have ever had for domestic policy, except for TR and FDR……Oh, and Lincoln :-)