Our Bernie Sanders moment: This July 4, remember only true independence and revolution ever brings change

Tectonic change comes when people are hopeful and sense something new is possible. Here's how we build on victories

Published July 4, 2015 2:45PM (EDT)

  (AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Salon)
(AP/Jacquelyn Martin/Salon)

One of the things progressives often get wrong has to do with how fundamental change comes about. The standard reasoning is that people are stirred when they hit the bottom of the bottom—a condition of diminished expectations. It takes an economic depression, or a lot of political repression, to prompt people to rise. We need things to get worse before they get better. Let the suffering come.

This appears to be an entirely logical dialectic. But politics as desperation, as we might call the thought, rarely, if ever, proves out. Almost always it turns out to be an error.

Follow this line, and you want the Kochs to smash what remains of the political process to smithereens. You want the Supreme Court handing down ever more irrational judgments, you want more cops-in-camo shooting African-Americans, you want more unemployment and more reckless ambition among the foreign policy cliques. Then, you declare, people will be stirred out of the stupefied apathy that grips this nation.

We ought to ask ourselves this July 4 the extent to which we are given to this argument. Speaking only for myself, I made the mistake too many times too many years ago not to have learned how wrong it is.

Those who, in another time, made revolution their work knew better. It is amid rising expectations, not falling, that people are most likely to exert themselves in pursuit of authentic change.

The key to this truth, I have always thought, lies in a people’s consciousness of themselves. It is when they get some worthy things done, and so realize the power they possess, that they use it to effect change with true dedication. Nineteenth century Europe offers many examples making the point. If I have my history right, the Russian revolution is a classic case. (And so is the Berlin Wall’s fall.)

But there is no need to go further than the event we now celebrate, thoughtfully or thoughtlessly as the case may be, to find an irrefutable demonstration of the point.

Let’s ask ourselves this July 4: What exactly was on the minds of the signers gathered in Philadelphia 239 summers ago this weekend? Was George III’s boot on the colonists’ necks the primary sensation? The Declaration was the original American case of politics as desperation? It was all about the Stamp Act, the taxes on tea, the Boston Massacre?

Wrong read, obviously. The Declaration was a statement of principle reflecting the confidence of people who had the Boston Tea Party, the First Continental Congress, the battles of Lexington and Concord, the Second Continental Congress and Bunker Hill immediately behind them. In Jefferson’s handwriting they read of a future that they understood would belong to them. The document exudes determination in its very cadences.

I mention this for a reason that may be plain by now. As anyone who pays attention knows, we have just witnessed at least two very significant political advances and probably a third. Suddenly, the expectations of many millions are rising.

The gay marriage and health care decisions, handed down by the worst, most corruptly biased Supreme Court to sit in my lifetime, suggest that those judges who are nothing more than creatures of conservative ideology and corporate interests recognized that they would risk a national revolt had they ruled the other way on these questions. This is my read.

What will come of the Charleston murders is still to be determined. But we have already seen an extraordinary display of solidarity and restraint as a forms of power among South Carolina blacks close to the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and it looks like this could eventually drive the worst of Old Dixie down.

The point not to be missed: We reach this national day with the wind at last at our backs and the road coming up to meet us, as the Irish say. I see a momentum in the cause of a progressive redefinition of what it means to be American that seemed little more than delusion or a faded memory but a few years ago, so thoroughly did the American right appear to triumph in the name of a perverse notion of patriotism.

Expectations rise. Returning to my original thought, a chance to get still more done, created by way of a lot of sacrifice and hard work, presents itself. What will people do with it? This is our question—not least because the 2016 election draws near, and I will return to these.

A little autobiography here. In many years abroad I often looked back and thought I saw some salutary impulse to resist the marketization of the political process and the commodification of all culture at the hands of corporations possessed of a conscienceless greed. It seemed just under the surface, waiting to break through.

Then I would return on home leave and find everyone kicking the dirt. Talk about diminished expectations. An assumption of powerlessness was everywhere I looked. I found it hard to be around. I had to put what I thought I saw from afar down to illusion, or an incurable streak of optimism wholly in the American grain.

What about Obama’s victory in 2008, you ask. Yes, it seemed at the time a confirmation of the perceptions I describe. I have said this before in this space: I wept tears of joy when McCain capitulated—11 in the morning where I was. But soon enough, the cold, hard judgment rendered by the late, estimable Alex Cockburn seemed more the case: The junior senator was too pretty for his own good, Cockburn wrote before the election, and would never get his hands dirty.

A revised, altogether complicated take on Obama will have to get written, given how things have just turned, but it no longer seems I was so wrong as all that. What I thought I saw now takes form. The events of the past couple of weeks have been crystallizing in this respect.

I leave the foreign side out of this, you will note. It is the dark side of Obama’s moon by any reasonable reckoning.

At writing, there are one and a half exceptions.  Yes, the opening to Cuba is a triumphant stroke. (I wept the morning that was announced, too, half a century’s suffering at American hands finally ended.) Iran may come good, depending on how Secretary of State Kerry does in the final days of negotiations on a deal governing the Iranian nuclear program.

But Cuba is as nothing next to the truly strategic blunders—Russia, Ukraine, Iraq redux, a god-awful misinterpretation of China and its intent and now NATO unbound. By the same token, any Iran deal will be purposely shorn of its proper significance: An agreement with Tehran should open out to a broad rapprochement, so altering numerous dysfunctional relationships, not least Washington’s with Israel. But the White House is already clear that no such potential is to be explored. What Obama wants is primarily to assuage the Israeli right wing, and that is the wrong ambition. It has already cost Egyptians their first attempt at democratic government.

So the Cold War ends in Cuba and begins again on Russia’s western border and across the Pacific. Status quo in the Middle East. This is the Obama record on the foreign side. I count it an appalling legacy.

I do not think we can forget this when celebrating the past couple of weeks’ good news at home. In this there is a lesson in the Obama presidency, and I will return to it shortly.

For now, a couple of things that should be considered next to the crystallizing events of the past couple of weeks.

One is the unexpected (at least among many of us) success of Bernie Sanders since the Vermont senator announced he would run for the Democratic nomination. The other, of considerable importance if of somewhat lesser magnitude, was a remarkable piece published recently on this site called “Hillary Clinton is going to lose: She doesn’t even see the frustrated progressive wave that will nominate Bernie Sanders.”

Numerous students of American politics argue now that Sanders cannot win the nomination and is even further from carrying the election next year; he is important because he shows how weak Hillary is. As of now, both of these judgments seem right.

But I hold to “as of now.” One, Sanders trails Clinton by a startlingly small margin in one poll after another. Two, you do not want to underestimate the power of rising expectations. Think again of the signers in Philadelphia and the events that propelled them there over a very short period. Political landscapes can change very quickly.

Listen to what Sanders has to say. To me it is perfectly clear, and I doubt he would be so shy of the language as American politicians customarily are: He is talking about a social democratic America, which is not a new idea. It is a 19th century idea buried and made “un-American” by very bad Americans posing as patriots.

In terms deployed previously in this space and in the books noted at this column’s end, Sanders is talking about a demythologized America, a nation free of its exceptionalist tradition, one wherein we understand ourselves and what we do in historical terms. Myth or history: In my view, absolutely no distinction is more important now. At bottom, it is putting this question in front of us, if only implicitly, that makes Sanders important.

As to the Salon piece just noted, it is remarkable not only for its argument but also for who makes it. Read it here. Bill Curry was an adviser to Bill Clinton and twice ran for governor on the Democratic ticket in Connecticut. And here he is asserting, “There’s a rumbling out there, but most Democrats are a long way from hearing it, let alone joining in.”

Curry’s piece astonished me for its to-the-point pith when I read it and has captivated me ever since. Here we have a mainstreamer and one-time White House insider identifying a progressive groundswell—his word—that has often seemed illusory because virtually no one in power dared acknowledge it. In effect, Curry pierces a conspiracy of silence, just as Sanders does.

More than this, Curry thinks this now-evident current in American politics is already strong enough to tip Hillary over.

None of us can forecast with authority at this early moment. What interests me is the power Curry assigns those who want to see authentic change and who see Hillary Clinton for precisely what she is: treacherously awful, whose nomination would amount to a political blight. Hillary would do one thing with the expectations now rising among Americans: Foil them, crush them, pervert them, turn them bitter. Take your pick, they all amount to the same thing.

I got off Hillary’s bus long ago. Anyone remember November 1999, when, as first lady, she traveled to the West Bank, where she lunched and exchanged ceremonial praises with Suha Arafat, the late Yasser’s wife? On departing she kissed Suha Arafat on the cheek—a kiss of Judas straight out of Matthew, for when Clinton arrived in Jerusalem to shrieks of protest, she thought nothing of denouncing Arafat and effectively denying the gesture of friendship made a matter of hours earlier.

Unforgivable, but that is Hillary. Opportunism incarnate is all I see. To be honest, until Sanders announced his candidacy I could not think of a single reason to vote. We were offered no choice.

In pursuing the Democratic nomination, Sanders has craftily averted all the “don’t split the vote” rubbish one heard when Ralph Nader ran as the candidate of the Greens, the Vermont Progressives and the United Citizens Party. This is exceptionally astute. There is nothing better than winning, but a close second in the current American context is pushing candidates with alternative politics in voters’ faces and forcing them to think about what they have to say.

Such candidates have a cumulative effect, in other words, that can take several election cycles to play out. The rapid pace of recent events notwithstanding, we have to think in terms of a generational project, it seems to me. In repudiating Nader in 2000, those who may otherwise have supported him missed this, so that when the election was over, George W. the victor, Democrats were at square one, no ground gained, as there could have been, in the course of the defeat.

I would support Sanders on this basis alone. In a phrase, he speaks to the groundswell. He is rising expectations, so obvious on this 239th anniversary, made flesh. And in this Sanders stands more or less alone among holders of high office for the moment, unless we count the reticent Elizabeth Warren.

And here is the lesson the Obama administration leaves us with. As expectations rise by way of big victories, we do not need another gradualist who comes out of the policy cliques, or is too weak to resist them, and is hence available to be betrayed in their internecine wars for power. If the successes of the past few weeks tell us anything, it is that transformers, not transitioners, are required if we are to make sense of our time. Obama wanted to be the former but has turned out the latter.

More broadly, we must begin to identify mythologizers and exceptionalists, no matter their professed stripe—and Hillary and her former boss are of this type. And we must recognize the historicists among us, such as Bernie Sanders. If this is what sets Sanders fundamentally apart, I urge we learn from him the importance of the distinction: Unless Americans master the exceptionalist impulse and dispose of all its attendant rhetoric, no battle worth fighting can be decisively won.

Genuine Americans are critical Americans. This is by definition. And they are unceasingly critical of the definition itself. Critical Americans just handed us some excellent news. Happy 4th to them, especially.

By Patrick L. Smith

Patrick Smith is Salon’s foreign affairs columnist. A longtime correspondent abroad, chiefly for the International Herald Tribune and The New Yorker, he is also an essayist, critic and editor. His most recent books are “Time No Longer: Americans After the American Century” (Yale, 2013) and Somebody Else’s Century: East and West in a Post-Western World (Pantheon, 2010). Follow him @thefloutist. His web site is patricklawrence.us.

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