How Bernie Sanders could make 2016 very, very interesting

History gives us every reason to believe he could dramatically alter American politics—even if he doesn't win

Published May 5, 2015 9:58AM (EDT)

  (AP/John Locher)
(AP/John Locher)

Bernie Sanders is running for president. And you can look at that a few different ways. The cynical take is that this is theatrical, a pretense to grant the appearance of a primary campaign without challenging the expected outcome of a Hillary Clinton nomination. But Sanders certainly doesn’t think of it that way, having raised over $2 million in the first 48 hours since his announcement.

The way I look at the Sanders campaign is through the lens of another campaign: the fight to raise the minimum wage. When that battle was left to Washington, it floundered. But outside agitation unified the Democratic Party over the past week around a true living wage, forcing politicians beyond where they felt comfortable. The story reveals the power of activism based on principle, and a Sanders campaign can serve as a conduit for this kind of work.

The minimum wage started in 1938 at one quarter an hour, rising incrementally through the 1960s. But the apex in terms of purchasing power for the minimum wage was actually 1968. If you adjust for inflation, the minimum wage is lower today, at $7.25 an hour, than what it was more than 45 years ago.

In 2008, the Obama presidential campaign pledged to raise the minimum wage to $9.50 an hour by the end of 2011, indexed to inflation to increase in subsequent years. But without much pressure from the outside, this became a promise without follow-through. It wasn’t a tremendous priority amid the Great Recession, so the wage stayed flat, losing around 6 percent of its purchasing power since the last increase. By the 2013 State of the Union, the proposal had actually slid back: President Obama asked for an increase to only $9 an hour.

But out of the ashes of the Occupy movement, low-wage employees started to organize in their communities and workplaces. First there was the OUR Walmart campaign, which started with 100 Wal-Mart employees demanding a meeting with top executives in 2011. The next year, OUR Walmart members protested on Black Friday, the most high-profile retail sales day of the year. This matured into a coordinated movement, bringing in fast-food and other retail franchises and engaging in regular wildcat strikes and actions. They also came up with a specific goal: a $15-an-hour minimum wage and the right to a union. The idea was that everybody who worked full-time should be able to support themselves and their families at the most basic level.

What started as a one-day walkout by 200 fast-food workers in New York City became the Fight for 15, backed with support from organized labor and endorsed by the vast majority of progressive groups. The most recent action included tens of thousands of low-wage workers walking out of their jobs across the country and the world, from Los Angeles and New York to Hong Kong and Sao Paolo. Workers participating expanded to adjunct professors and home-care assistants. Black Lives Matter, the racial justice movement, collaborated on the April protests, marching together for social improvements, the way Martin Luther King and the Poor People’s Movement in 1968 fought for a concrete rise in the minimum wage that would have been around $15.27 an hour, adjusted for inflation.

Slowly, that moved decision makers in Washington and the executive boardroom. By the end of 2013, the president endorsed a $10.10 minimum wage proposal that had been put out by Democrats in Congress. This brought states on board, with Connecticut passing the $10.10 wage floor in March 2014, and Hawaii, Maryland and California following suit. Vermont will have $10.50 and Massachusetts will have $11 when their wage floors phase in over the next few years. Ballot measures in four conservative states (Arkansas, Nebraska, Alaska and South Dakota) passed even amid Republican successes in 2014. Twenty-nine states and the District of Columbia now have minimum wages above the federal level.

The work in specific cities has been even more promising. The election of socialist Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council and the constant pressure from below helped jump-start the first $15-an-hour success in a major city. Just last week, San Francisco’s wage floor increased to $12.25, the first of several steps culminating to $15 an hour by 2018. In fact, the local SEIU union has either accomplished or planned wage hikes in every city in the nine-county Bay Area region, which will help prevent the flight of low-wage jobs out of the immediate vicinity. Other large cities have either passed or planned increases at or near $15 an hour, responding to the message from workers in the streets.

Perhaps more important than any of this, in February Wal-Mart announced that it would increase its minimum wage to $9 an hour this year and $10 an hour by next year. Because of its dominance in the low-wage marketplace as the nation’s largest employer, the Wal-Mart announcement has effectively increased the wage floor, with other companies scrambling to meet its wages. Movement leaders in the Fight for 15 have called out these changes as too weak and not comprehensive. But it represents real gains, which wouldn't have occurred without pressure from below. And that's also how the next wave of advances will happen, with grassroots advocates refusing to accept anything less than their goals being met.

Finally, last week, Democrats in Washington upped their offer to a $12-an-hour minimum wage, and actually got more support for it than the $10.10 proposal just a couple years earlier. When the Obama administration endorsed, it completed a shift from $9 to $12, a 33 percent increase, in just two years.

That’s how activism works. You make a stand on principle, build a coalition, and force politicians to get out in front of the parade. You create a constituency where one didn’t previously exist. And that’s precisely the promise of a Sanders presidential campaign. If his issues are popular – and every indication in the polling is that things like a higher minimum wage and more equality of income are – and he can build the same kind of grass-roots movement that ignited the fight for $15, then it challenges not just Hillary Clinton but everyone who wants to lead within the party to recalibrate and come closer to his ideals.

That doesn’t mean we will see the benefits of these shifts overnight; a whole other party and a class of business elites opposes this philosophy. But even if these issues cannot be fulfilled immediately, they become part of a value system to define the party nominally on the left. As Bhaskar Sunkara writes for Jacobin, Sanders’ liberalism isn’t far removed from the northeastern liberalism of the 1960s or the welfare-state capitalism of Scandinavia (and “what’s wrong” with looking more like Sweden or Denmark, Sanders told ABC this weekend).

Sanders doesn’t have to win to achieve success. The potential here is to build an organizing apparatus for the ideas, to construct a coalition that supports a generous social safety net, progressive taxation and protection for labor. The Democratic Party once reflected some of that, but has drifted. Only a broad base from the streets can drag them back to that New Deal/Great Society position again, or at least make them afraid enough to toe the line. And it can work; just ask the Fight for 15.

By David Dayen

David Dayen is a journalist who writes about economics and finance. He is the author of "Chain of Title: How Three Ordinary Americans Uncovered Wall Street’s Great Foreclosure Fraud," winner of the Studs and Ida Terkel Prize, and coauthor of the book "Fat Cat: The Steve Mnuchin Story." He is an investigative fellow with In These Times and contributes to the Intercept, the New Republic and the Los Angeles Times. His work has also appeared in the Nation, the American Prospect, Vice, the Huffington Post and more. He has been a guest on MSNBC, CNN, Bloomberg, Al Jazeera, CNBC, NPR and Pacifica Radio. He lives in Los Angeles.

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