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Bernie Sanders’ Political Revolution Still Can Triumph and Transform America. Here’s How.

Posted on Mar 17, 2016

By Alan Minsky

  Bernie Sanders has raised more than $60 million in 2016 and inspired a grass-roots political revolution in the United States. (Jeff Roberson / AP)

The Bernie Sanders campaign has shown that traditional left-wing politics are far more popular among the American public than anyone realized a few months ago. Indeed, Sanders’ surprising success suggests that American left progressives are the most underrepresented constituency in the country. And given that Sanders’ campaign was probably the first time millions of Americans encountered these ideas, it’s reasonable to think they will become even more popular with greater familiarity.

Thus, the 2016 Sanders campaign for president, however the second half of the primary process plays out, should be a starting point, not the end game. But given the sorry history of left politics in America, there’s every reason to think nothing will come of it. So the salient questions for left progressives are:

What would it take for this time to be different? Can the Sanders campaign be the spark that creates lasting and powerful left progressive politics in the United States?

I don’t think there’s a choice. It has to be. The problems facing the country and the world are too serious and seemingly intractable (the destruction of a middle-class society, mass incarceration, institutionalized racism, permanent warfare, environmental collapse, etc.). Not only does the political establishment have no remedy, it has been instrumental in the creation of these problems. Millions upon millions of Americans recognize this, including a majority of young people. Leaving them hopeless is not acceptable, especially after Sanders proposed a compelling alternative. We must pursue a strategy to maintain the momentum of the senator’s campaign and win political power.

In November 2014, just after the Democrats suffered a crushing defeat in the midterm elections, I wrote an article for Truthdig, “This Democratic Party Is Going Nowhere. Can Progressives Take It Over and Change the World?” in which I proposed that a left progressive candidate, either Elizabeth Warren or more likely Bernie Sanders, run for president in order to introduce the nation to a left progressive platform and set the table for running like-minded candidates in every one of the 435 districts of the United States Congress and for every elected position in the country. At the time, I anticipated that Sanders could do much better than anyone else seemed to think possible, but even I didn’t anticipate the level of success he ultimately has achieved. Sanders’ success has confirmed the central thesis of my article: that a coherent left progressive platform would be very popular with rank-and-file Democrats and even a broad array of voters outside the party. Such a platform directly and rationally addresses the central issues we face as a society.

However, unlike in the scenario outlined in my article, progressive Democrats did not organize a unified national slate of 435 congressional candidates for the 2016 election. Outside of a few other stray races, the Sanders insurgency has been the sole focus of American left progressives active in the electoral realm, which means a newly revived left progressive politics is poised once again to do an all-too-familiar disappearing act. Not surprisingly given my 2014 article, I believe that what has to happen now, before the Sanders campaign folds up its tent and goes home, is that the campaign has to pivot and start organizing a movement committed to running left progressives in every significant election in the country. In contrast to late 2014, in early 2016 we know for sure that there are legions of Americans ready and willing to participate in such a movement—and the candidates themselves can be drawn from Sanders’ campaign activists, and other left activists, from every locale across the land.

How can it get done? As no doubt everyone reading this knows, Sanders has stated that his campaign was conceived as more than just an effort to elect one man. It was and is a political revolution, calling for a revitalization of American democracy in which the people will take back the country for themselves from the oligarchs who have been firmly in control in recent times. However, at no time has the candidate, or his campaign, signaled a desire to organize a slate of left progressive candidates in the manner I outlined in 2014. So let me state clearly that I see no other path forward for the Sanders revolution.

Sanders has implied that, if elected, he would confront challenges from members of Congress who did not support his agenda. He did this at a town hall meeting on March 7 when he said members of Congress who stood in the way would soon “learn firsthand what it’s like to be unemployed.” However, in an earlier exchange, with MSNBC’s Chris Matthews, Sanders expressed confidence that masses of people “outside the windows” of Congress mobilized in support of his agenda would sway reluctant Congress members to give him the votes he needed. Sanders was far from convincing on this occasion, and I do not believe that current elected officials who have organized their entire adult life to be on the congressional gravy train would give in to such public pressure. In contrast, I think both Republicans and conservative Democrats would feel confident that, with the full backing of the mainstream media, they could wait out the storm. A much more realistic scenario for a President Sanders to pass his ambitious legislative program would be to do like Santa: see who in Congress is being naughty or nice, keep the public up to speed on the obstruction of the programs they voted for, and then, in marked contrast to Barack Obama in 2010, bring a left progressive challenge in every congressional district and Senate seat on the ballot in 2018, both in the primaries and in the general election. The goal would be a legislative revolution in January 2019 (with a nice byproduct of a fully engaged citizenry at his back).

Of course, our current scenario is quite different. It seems unlikely at the moment that we’ll have a President Sanders, but that doesn’t negate the idea that the best way to maintain the momentum generated by the Sanders campaign is to organize a left progressive electoral slate across the country. How else can left progressives reverse damaging public policies and implement positive programs designed to protect the environment, combat poverty, grow the middle class, reform the criminal justice system and so on? And, of course, the left progressive candidates at the state and local level will be able to cross-fertilize with social justice movements and respond to the needs of people at a daily, local level—to a much greater degree than a national presidential race ever could.


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