Bernie Sanders (Reuters/Jonathan Drake)

Don't say Bernie's revolution is dead: Why the real work of making change in America starts now

No, Bernie Sanders probably won't be the Democratic nominee. But that doesn't mean this moment is over


Bob Cesca
May 2, 2016 1:56PM (UTC)

It happened slowly and quietly, but for the last 50 years or so, since Lyndon Johnson's devastating 1964 landslide victory over Barry Goldwater, the conservative movement and the Republican Party has managed to successfully infiltrate government at every level, from the school board on up. It's been an almost imperceptibly gradual process, but they've done it. The movement started fresh at the very bottom and grew virally through the 1970s -- gurgling upward in dribs and drabs -- overtaking city councils, mayorships, boards of supervisors, state legislatures and governorships.

The patience and tenacity of this effort has been absolutely something to admire, even though the repercussions have been terrible. After 1964, the GOP could've focused exclusively on the presidency and, to an extent, Congress. Successes along those lines would be hard fought and won, but while Americans watched in shocked horror at the Nixon administration and, eventually, Ronald Reagan's war on the middle class, the bulk of the conservative movement was clandestinely working behind the scenes, statewide and locally, to not only build a broad political base, but to subversively re-educate Americans with conservative ideology -- almost subliminally injecting it into public school curriculum and text books, building a family values platform propped up by new litters of manufactured conservatives who've been instructed to religiously vote against their best interests.

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Leaders of the conservative movement understood that in the age of mass media, voter attention would be increasingly drawn by big, fat, sexy presidential contests, leaving state and local contests unguarded and ripe for the plucking. The proof is in the numbers. In 1978, 31 state legislatures were controlled by Democratic majorities. 11 were controlled by Republicans, and seven legislatures were split by chamber. Today, it's almost exactly the opposite: 31 state legislatures are entirely controlled by Republicans, including the governorships. 11 are Democratic, while eight are split. As a result, red states are getting away with murder. Do the list: unconstitutional anti-choice laws, Voter ID laws, voter purges, election fraud, union busting, so-called "religious freedom" laws and so forth. Worse, most of these laws have been easily passed with little or no attention from the progressive movement and the national Democratic Party.

Cutting to the chase, there's an opportunity today for disaffected supporters of Bernie Sanders to duplicate the same strategy as a means of perpetuating their political revolution and changing American politics from the ground up.

The writing is on the wall: Hillary Clinton will be the presumptive nominee after the California primary, despite the massive crowds and substantial electoral victories for Bernie and the millions of young people who passionately fought for his one-of-a-kind candidacy. Moving forward, there appears to be a super-colossal tanker of energy fueling Bernie activists without any constructive means of putting it to good use. Consequently, we're hearing about self-defeating Bernie Or Bust campaigns to either not vote in the general election or to write-in Bernie's name, in both cases damaging the Clinton ticket. Elsewhere, Bernie supporters are (ironically) forming a PAC to target the midterm elections, presumably running far-left primary challengers to Democratic incumbents and so forth. As we've witnessed in the past with progressive challengers, it hasn't always worked and often managed to swap moderate red-state Democrats with conservative Tea Party Republicans.

Short of all that, the revolution is chiefly composed of Facebook and Twitter minions who might venture out to a Bernie rally or two but who aren't really doing much more to carry on the idea of the revolution beyond genuflecting before a cult of personality. As a creature of the internet, I completely understand the benefits of engaging in online shovel fights, and not everyone has time to do more than that. However, now that Bernie's presidential campaign is slipping into its twilight hours, the revolution has to be more than just about Bernie. It has to be more than about fighting for systemic changes handed down from the lofty heights of the presidency, especially given the well-known menu of horrible things occurring state by state and municipality by municipality.

They say all politics is local, and this is where the revolution can flourish.

Becoming Bernie

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Moving forward, Bernie supporters should try to embody what it was that they've loved about Bernie. Specifically, and simply put, it's as simple as borrowing his message and platform, adapting it for state and local government and running for office. Become Bernie. Do the hard work. Convince voters door-to-door.

Surprisingly, running a campaign for mayor of your town, or for an open seat on your local school board can be done on-the-cheap. There are innumerable opportunities, nationwide, to run for open seats and to win uncontested races. Bernie may have started the revolution at the presidential level, but his supporters can, if they truly believe in it, continue the revolution by running Bernie-style campaigns for attainable local offices.

Imagine if just a fraction of all Bernie supporters who volunteered for the campaign or who attended his rallies took the time to seriously run Bernie-style political campaigns in each of their towns or local municipalities. Imagine the long-term impact if Bernie supporters harnessed their exuberance and applied it toward building a state and local power base over, say, the next 10 to 15 years. With enough tenacity, as momentum snowballs, this new Bernie coalition could take hold in a similar manner to the conservative infiltration of government that began 50 years ago.

So, if Bernie's revolution is a real thing, requiring more than just a 74-year-old democratic-socialist presidential candidate, it seems as if becoming Bernie locally or statewide is a vastly more productive means of achieving it than exiting politics in a contrarian huff, or figuring out new ways to get back at Hillary and her supporters. Political revolutions are meant to be charted on narrow timelines, running on parallel tracks with the presidential primary season. Revolution is about digging in, suiting up and becoming the political leaders we desperately need. That's what Bernie has done, and that's what his people can do, en masse.

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Infiltrating the Democratic Party

One thing's for sure as we emerge from the primary season: Bernie supporters aren't particularly big fans of Debbie Wasserman-Schultz and the Democratic Party establishment. But not unlike becoming Bernie and running for state and local government, it's also quite possible and, indeed, practical to run for various Democratic Party committees at the state and county levels. This way, rather than simply tweeting about ways to upend the Democratic establishment, Bernie revolutionaries can become precinct captains and decision-makers with their local party chapters, which, in turn, influence both the state party and its platform.

Quick story: While I was casting my ballot in the 2004 election, I noticed there weren't any candidates listed in the block for Democratic Party Committee-person from my precinct. With a half-grin on my face, I decided to write-in my own name. And why not? After a few weeks, I received a note in the mail from the county Democrats informing me that I had won my election and that the first Democratic Party meeting was in a week's time. Naturally, I was shocked. I hadn't run a campaign and the most effort I had exerted was asking a polling place volunteer if I could borrow a pen. Later that day, I checked the board of elections website and, yes, there was my name listed with a check-mark next to it indicating that I had won -- and not only had I won, but I won with 100 percent of the vote. That'd be my one vote -- for myself.

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I might've been an outlier, but it was almost too easy. It's fair to assume, however, that there are more than a few openings to run for precinct captain and the very real opportunity to hold sway over your county party. In many cases, it only takes a pen.

Along those lines, there's a reason why Bernie Sanders ran as an insurgent Democrat, rather than running an independent campaign. Bernie knows that in order to influence the party and, indeed, to win the presidency, you have to play ball within the two party system. While there are advantages to hammering the party from the outside, the most expedient and successful means of influencing that structure is to actually become a part of it. It certainly worked for Bernie, who will likely emerge from his presidential campaign as a king-maker and Democratic statesmen. Better yet, Bernie's relative success at the presidential level has already made it easier for other Democrats, namely Hillary Clinton and her delegates, to talk about single-payer and income equality. Now, again, imagine this outcome backed with a grassroots explosion of individual campaigns at the state and local levels, carrying Bernie's message street-by-street and door-to-door, effectively supplementing Bernie's top-down influence.

All told, it's a recipe for a revolution that goes far beyond an applause line in a stump speech.

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We've arrived at a crossroads in history. Bernie's activist base can either foment political chaos from outside the establishment, or it can change the establishment and rewrite the laws -- sneaking into the system by paths of least resistance. Beyond anything else, this is what a real political revolution will look like. It's a marathon, to be sure, and it will never be easy, but if Bernie's supporters can harness its unspent energy and apply it to real-world governing, it's a marathon that will honor Bernie's sacrifice and his agenda, while manufacturing lasting changes at every strata of our system.


Bob Cesca

Bob Cesca is a regular contributor to Salon. He's also the host of "The Bob Cesca Show" podcast, and a weekly guest on both the "Stephanie Miller Show" and "Tell Me Everything with John Fugelsang." Follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Contribute through LaterPay to support Bob's Salon articles -- all money donated goes directly to the writer.

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