The problem I have with Bernie Sanders has nothing to do with Bernie Sanders, and everything to do with you and me. The key point: we can’t elect visionary and progressive leaders without having a powerful, well-organized progressive movement behind them. If we do so, we are dooming them to twist in the wind. And I don’t see that movement happening any time in the near future.
I like Bernie Sanders, his passionate sense of social justice, his ideas for creating a just, equitable, and sustainable society. And the popularly driven campaign that he has created is wonderful. Is he electable? Maybe, at this point, it’s looking bleak. But whether or not he is electable may not matter.
This is not about Bernie versus Hillary. It’s more about what happens when we elect an uncompromising leader without creating a huge and well-organized support structure as well.
If he were to make it to the White House, Bernie Sanders would instantly face a wall. If you think that Obama got pushback when he got to the presidency, just wait for Sanders the socialist. Even if the Democrats take back the Senate, they probably won’t make 60 seats, and they probably won’t tend to unite behind Sanders.
His cabinet nominees will be delayed, filibustered, derailed by Republicans, possibly with the support of a few Democrats. His initiatives, whether they’re single payer or his plan for universal free college, will be stopped dead. Right off the bat, he’ll be pushed into executive action territory, and I can’t help but wonder if Obama might have tapped that well dry, at least for now.
Sanders has been in Congress for a long time. Looking at the past couple of years, I’m not sure that he has been the sort of senator to cajole or arm-twist his fellows, in the old LBJ mold (if that’s even doable in 21st century America). And if he can’t do that while in Congress, I’m not clear how well he will be able to do it from the Oval Office. I believe that as wonderful a fellow as he is, he will be left twisting in the wind.
Unless he were to have at his back a solid, progressive movement across this country. I’m thinking of the sort of movement that would extend even to the most conservative states. I’m thinking of a movement that would be quickly responsive, generous and inclusive, effective and smart. It’s the sort of movement that would get people away from their televisions and into community meetings, a movement that would accept differences, where a pro-choice woman and anti-abortion woman might find themselves united in a fight for clean drinking water.
It’s the sort of movement whose members would be masters of getting their message across, especially in places like the local six pm news broadcast. It’s a movement where local organizations would tie in with each other across the country, and volunteers would keep an eye out for pending legislation, so that congressional offices might be flooded with phone calls and letters at a moment’s notice.
It’s not a third party. In our winner-takes-all system, a third party usually ends up as little more than a spoiler of the chances of a potential ally. This movement would need to ally with the Democrats where appropriate and push them where that makes sense.
And that’s where you and I come in. We’re not creating this movement. Oh sure, we’re doing our best with our favorite causes, and occasionally we’ll see glimpses of what such a movement might be. But on the whole, we’re far from where we need to be.
I can hear Sanders volunteers responding: “Wait just one minute! We’re building that movement! We’re building it around Bernie.” To that, I say “Nope.” It just doesn’t work that way. A presidential campaign is the worst way to build a long-term, effective, political campaign. Ask all the kids who turned out for Clean Gene McCarthy, the Bernie Sanders of the 1960s. Or those who rallied behind Howard Dean decades later. Or even those who worked so hard for Obama in 2008, despite the creation of Organizing for America after the campaign.
After Obama was elected, I often wondered what things might have been like if he’d had that progressive movement at his back, pushing him left where needed, backing him up where appropriate. But it never quite happened. When the Tea Party began to seize the national spotlight, there wasn’t a strong counterforce.
A presidential campaign will never be a good foundation for a strong, long-term movement, because it isn’t set up that way. An effective presidential campaign is designed to be temporary. When the campaign is over, win or lose, those field offices, the headquarters of the “ground game” that the pundits love to discuss, they go away. There’s no long-term funding to keep them in place. And the people running them have either moved on to work in the White House, or if the candidate loses, to the next campaign. Campaign pros are by nature short-term campaigners, not long-term organizers.
Sure, there are some great local organizers in any campaign; I’ve known a lot of them. But they work within a candidate-centered, short-term goal. But “We’ve been getting huge numbers of people out to work on the campaign, staffing the phone banks, doing get-out-the-vote work! And these are people who’ve never been involved in politics before.” Sure, and that’s very valuable. But where do these newly energized people go once the campaign is over? That’s not clear.
I don’t have an easy answer here. This essay is not a defense of Hillary Clinton. A lot of this applies to her as well. But it is essential to the Sanders campaign, especially because he is advocating positions that, while not at all radical, will require a definite shift in a progressive direction, a shift that requires a progressive movement at its back. And that’s not happening, not yet.