With results in from a small handful of early primary states, the election’s early narratives can finally be parsed by the press with greater scrutiny. And right on cue, one of the central story lines on the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders’ so-called “political revolution,” has received more than its fair share of scrutiny.
Bernie Sanders has staked his campaign on the premise that the deck is stacked against the average American, and that only by motivating a political movement of unprecedented energy and scale can the working and middle class hope to combat the incredible power that wealth and influence bring to the top 1 percent of the population. Sanders hopes to be the candidate who can both motivate and benefit from this untapped political energy. Whether that untapped energy can be mined — and whether Bernie is the candidate able to mine it — is one of the central questions of the 2016 election.
Whatever you think of Sanders’ strategy, it has the benefit of being measurable. We can examine the entrance- and exit-polling to check just how well Sanders has motivated populist support so far: Has he dominated younger voters typically disengaged with the process? (Yes.) How’s he doing among the working class? (So-so.) And most crucially, how many voters are showing up to vote in Democratic primaries compared with previous election cycles? (Unfortunately for Bernie, probably not enough.)
An array of articles have been penned this week by commentators eager to point out Sanders’ apparent inability to motivate the level of turnout that his campaign’s ambition requires. At New York magazine, Chas Danner asks, “Is Bernie Sanders’s ‘Political Revolution’ Fading?” while Sahil Kapur at Bloomberg Politics warns that “Sanders’ Political Revolution Not Evident In First Three States.” And Jeff Stein at Vox explains “Why Nevada was a bad sign for Bernie Sanders’ ‘political revolution.’”
There is simply no disputing the characterization that these pieces present: Up to this point, Sanders hasn’t motivated a large enough turnout to leverage his “political revolution” into a realistic primary election strategy. Only Sanders’ most fervent proponents would dismiss what these early turnout figures imply about his chances. (Though maybe that will change in March! We’ve only had one election and two caucuses, and it’s still entirely possible that reports of the campaign’s demise are premature.)
Even if Sanders doesn’t accomplish his ambition, those who are paid to think and write about our politics would do well to hear the larger argument that Sander is advancing — and to take note of the groundswell of support it has engendered. Septuagenarian Jewish socialists from Brooklyn do not get the most political donations of any candidate in U.S. history because of their good looks or conventional charm. To dismiss Sanders’ political revolution out of hand is to dismiss the million Americans who’ve already donated money to his campaign. Americans do not typically rush to support quirky, unpolished politicians with funny accents serving their third decade in Congress and facing the longest of long odds.
The eagerness displayed by some in the press to write off Sanders’ chances reveals the limitations of explainer-style journalism. While telling us that Bernie’s strategy is unlikely to succeed informs, grappling with why he believes we need a political revolution — and why this idea has gained such popular support — would also educate.
The moral necessity to bring large numbers of disengaged voters back into the political process is arguably the central premise of the Sanders campaign. The candidate is comfortable talking about the dearth of trust Americans feel about their politicians and the political process more broadly — and he’s willing to speak about it with great sympathy. It’s exceedingly rare for a national politician to empathize with the public’s broad and growing distaste for politics. It’s even rarer still for a candidate to recognize the grievances that breed that apathy, and to treat those grievances with respect — to treat the politically apathetic as reasonable citizens with sound complaints about the way our political system is run, rather than kooks or ignorant rednecks or shiftless millennials too lazy or stupid to head to the ballot box.
No, it’s far easier for Democratic candidates and their surrogates in the media to blame apathy and disengagement on those crafty Republicans, who rail against government as The Problem and then set about proving their point by deliberately sabotaging the mechanisms of government — effectively turning government into The Problem and smugly declaring victory. Yes, it’s well-documented that the Republican Party leadership willfully engages in this kind of destructive behavior. But this argument puts the full weight of voter apathy on Republican shoulders, allowing the leadership of the Democratic Party to elide any responsibility that they might share for the widespread hatred of politics that’s currently rotting the core of our civil society.
You know, the kind of cynicism that's often stoked by the deep disconnect between a certain Democratic candidate's soak-the-rich rhetoric and her political career's total reliance on the financial contributions of large corporate interest groups and the insanely wealthy. Lofty rhetoric about helping the working class and prosecuting Wall Street crooks is a great way to win support among working-class Democrats, but it becomes a toxic liability to the party's broader chances when it's contrasted with the same candidate's hypocritical speeches delivered to those same Wall Street crooks at a shamelessly high price.
Most Americans who follow politics probably understand — at least on a subconscious level — why Hillary Clinton took $3.15 million in speaking fees from Wall Street banks in 2013, and why she thought nothing of it at the time. Clinton was just doing what all the other high-profile current and former politicians in Washington do. And since Clinton does not perceive the cultural norms of Washington, D.C., as inherently corrupt, she couldn't possibly foresee the blowback her speeches might cause. The fact that these norms allow politicians to charge six-figure speaking fees to kiss the you-know-whats of Wall Street bankers and then immediately turn around and atack those bankers from the stump is the ugly business of politics, too complicated and depressing for the idealistic and naive minds of regular folk.
Far too many Democratic politician implicitly accept a political culture that allows this type of cynicism to blossom, unwilling or unable to consider the longer-term consequences that their behavior might have on the trust American voters place on the system more broadly.
In a nutshell, this is the political revolution that Sanders envisions: A version of American politics where the people can elect candidates who have earned their trust, free from the poisonous conflicts of interest brought about by big money donations and their precursive fundraising, or the revolving doors that allow the captains of our industries to become the watchdogs charged with their regulation.
Sanders’ revolution envisions a groundswell of political engagement, but in our current political climate, his plan honestly seems rather far-fetched. For Americans to truly accomplish his vision, the public will need the ability to elect candidates who tangibly represent their concerns, and who cannot be rightfully accused of pandering for working-class votes while serving the interests of the donor class.
Scolding readers about Sanders’ steep uphill climb to accomplishing his political revolution is technically informative. But isn't it better to discuss whether it's a cause worth fighting for at all?