When I hear the term “revolutionary,” Malcolm X comes first to mind. Followed by others like bell hooks, Che Guevara and the city of Ferguson, Missouri. Talk of a “revolution” conjures thoughts of France in the 1700s, and the Arab Spring. I think of rebellion, radicalism and dramatic shifts in power.
I don’t, however, think of a white, male U.S. senator who is running for the presidency: I don’t think of Bernie Sanders. It seems borderline oxymoronic to think of him as a revolutionary figure when comparing him to others who have risked and given their lives for radical change. And yet, Sanders supporters feel that he fits right in with this group.
The Sanders campaign has been extremely effective in its efforts to create an image of the democratic socialist from Vermont as a real beacon of hope for a political revolution. Additionally, Sanders has successfully sold himself as somehow operating above the political game, despite the fact that he’s a career politician.
The success of this image is largely thanks to the fact that the Sanders campaign eschews the reality than any U.S. president will have to work within the confines of capitalism and political bureaucracy. This is essentially to say that nobody who is feeling the Bern will acknowledge that the office of the presidency is necessarily non-revolutionary. To revolt is to overthrow and replace, not to dominate and excel in what exists.
Further: Wouldn't a radical revolution negate the very system that got a President Sanders elected? Will people with the most power (such as a president) ever actively work to undermine their power? It’s not likely.
Some have suggested that the campaign isn’t addressing these obvious questions because Sanders is oblivious. Earlier this week, the Atlantic claimed that Sanders doesn’t understand “the limits of American politics,” which could only be true if Sanders were uninformed about the political process. As a veteran of the Senate, he’s certainly the opposite.
He knows very well how this thing called American politics works. So well that he just might end up with the Democratic nomination. He not only understands contemporary politics, he’s mastered the concept.
This is not necessarily to say that Sanders doesn’t believe in the ideas he espouses — he very well might. But what matters most is whether he can realistically deliver on the promises he is making to the American people. I suspect he’s aware, as all politicians are, that he simply cannot.
From a campaigning perspective, we can commend the appropriation of the term “revolutionary” by Sanders for its efficacy, sound-bite quality and broad-base leftist appeal. He’s tapped into something that the Democratic base finds very attractive, all the while knowing he will ultimately fail to deliver the goods. It’s a classic political trick, and I expect nothing less from a presidential candidate, even if that candidate is Bernie Sanders.
While this line of reasoning is anathema to the Sanders persona that has been so carefully and intentionally crafted, it’s necessary to get honest about what Sanders is doing so we can have a more productive conversation about the Democratic candidates.
So here is the unpleasant truth: Bernie Sanders is pandering to the left when he speaks of revolutions. All politicians pander, and Bernie Sanders is a politician. His pandering is just as bad as that of the rest, but he’s done a (much) better job of tapping into pandering that liberals can not only believe in, but fall in love with. Sanders' supporters are so enamored with him that they often fail to notice that he’s still a politician, and he’s playing the same game for which the prize is the Oval Office.
Despite the clarity of Sanders’ use of pandering in this regard, it has gone utterly unacknowledged by his supporters, many of whom truly do believe the revolution will arrive with a Sanders presidency. And it’s not that the left is merely blind to pandering. Far from it. This is evidenced by the many callouts on Sanders’ rival, Hillary Clinton, on her overt pandering, particularly to black, Latino and millennial voters, which has been laughably unsubtle.
The right has been even worse. Donald Trump won New Hampshire this week because of expert pandering of the fear-mongering variety. Trump knows that he won’t be able to build a wall separating the U.S. from Mexico just as well as he knows that he won’t be able to kick Muslims out of the country. The only thing he knows better is how many people will vote for him if he continues to repeat these talking points to a voter base that’s deathly xenophobic and racist.
Sanders has not gone over the top (as Clinton has) by making noticeably shallow attempts to appeal to oppressed voters. We’re all absolutely right to aim the spotlight of scrutiny on the Republicans’ and Clinton’s methods of pandering, but we’re wrong to willfully ignore the same underlying behavior from the Sanders camp.
Nobody particularly wants to notice the flaws in someone they’re rooting for (or donating to and ultimately voting for), especially when the stakes are so high. But it’s dangerous and ill-advised to believe that Sanders is a revolutionary who is above the game, when the truth is that he has become one of its star players.
Bernie panders well, better than his rival, but that doesn’t mean he isn’t pandering, it doesn’t mean he is separate from the political process, and it certainly doesn’t mean he’s a revolutionary.
But it’s also an important question to ask if, despite all of this, Sanders is the best candidate we have for president. There’s a great argument to be made that he’s the better of the two Democrats, and an even better argument that he’s preferable to any of the Republicans. But is he a meta-politician who could, as president, operate outside the confines of Washington bureaucracy and corruption? No. Will he bring a revolution? Absolutely not.
Though given our current state of affairs, nobody can blame the Berners for wanting to believe.