Throughout his presidential campaign, Sen. Bernie Sanders has frequently pointed out to his legion of young supporters that his political platform, which many in the commentariat have dismissed as pie-in-the-sky idealism, can only be achieved when people come together in mass to fight special interests in Washington and pressure the political elite. This kind of thinking is somewhat foreign to the pundit class, who tend to view politics through a lens of unimaginative pragmatism. Many of these commentators, who dismiss Sanders and his call for a “political revolution,” have concluded that the democratic socialist is more or less spreading false hope that will simply create more disillusionment in the long run. Indeed, whenever the notion of an ongoing popular movement is broached, these pundits tend to argue that President Obama’s 2008 campaign and election, and his ensuing presidency, discredit Sanders’ concept of change.
“On the left there is always a contingent of idealistic voters eager to believe that a sufficiently high-minded leader can conjure up the better angels of America’s nature and persuade the broad public to support a radical overhaul of our institutions,” wrote New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, a notable critic of Sanders, in January. “But as Mr. Obama himself found out as soon as he took office, transformational rhetoric isn’t how change happens. That’s not to say that he’s a failure...Yet his achievements have depended at every stage on accepting half loaves as being better than none.”
The first problem with this line of reasoning is the notion that Obama actually wanted a “radical overhaul of our institutions.” As Krugman notes in his piece, Obama faced GOP resistance from day one, even though he had a majority in Congress — but there were still many steps that the president could have taken, especially in the midst of a financial crisis, that he deliberately chose not to. Once in the White House, Obama began governing as a centrist, bringing in Clinton administration veterans for his economic team, taking a moderate approach towards Wall Street reform and white-collar crime, abandoning policy that would have allowed bankruptcy judges to lower mortgage payments on primary residences — thus saving millions of vulnerable homeowners — while supporting corporatist trade deals like the Trans-Pacific Partnership.
Obama consciously chose not to confront powerful D.C. institutions because he was never interested in radical reform. It should also be noted that Obama’s 2008 rhetoric was never as progressive as some like to remember (Clinton was actually to his left on healthcare reform), and that Sanders is much more of a populist. One only has to consider the fact that Obama’s top donors in 2008 came from banks like Goldman Sachs and Citigroup.
Furthermore, Obama never seemed entirely interested in maintaining a popular movement beyond his election. And while he never claimed he could single-handily change Washington by himself, he didn’t exactly challenge the notion that he was some kind of messiah, and his post-partisan rhetoric was inevitably going to crash and burn. (Special interests do not want a post-partisan America, especially when it keeps the illusion of choice alive.)
Bernie Sanders is clearly uninterested in this kind of post-partisan idealism, and is under no illusion that Republicans would ever concede to his social democratic policies for the sake of compromise. (Nor would he bend over backwards to work with right-wing obstructionists, as Obama did during the first half of his administration.) Sanders wants a fight, and he wants millions of average people — workers, activists, union members, students, etc. — on the frontline of this fight. The senator also rejects any kind of messiah treatment (which some of his more partisan supporters are sometimes inclined to provide). At a rally on Saturday, he bluntly told his supporters that he was no savior:
“If there is any person here, any person here that thinks I'm coming to you as some kind of savior, that I'm going to do it all — all myself, you're wrong. No president, not Bernie Sanders or anybody else, can do it alone. We don't need a savior, we need a political movement with millions of people.”
As a lifelong activist who participated in the civil rights movement, Sanders is a believer in collective action, and has advocated a class-based politics to combat the tremendous power that the country’s economic elite have in shaping our government and politics. If there is one issue — other than economic inequality — that has driven the Sanders campaign, it is that of eliminating private money from political campaigns. For Sanders, this is more or less a prerequisite for accomplishing his agenda. As long as politicians and parties remain dependent on contributions from the wealthiest individuals and the biggest corporations, there will never be any kind of meaningful change.
Of course, Sanders has proven that there can be power in numbers by rejecting support from super PACs and running his campaign entirely on small donations. Unfortunately, Bernie is a rare exception, and most politicians couldn’t dream of running a successful campaign in today’s political climate without some kind of big-donor backing, which makes electoral reform and a popular movement demanding it all the more critical.
Sanders obviously wants his movement to continue beyond 2016, and this seems to have been his goal from the beginning. So far, Hillary Clinton and the Democratic establishment have proven resistant to his campaign. Of the 45 names Sanders submitted for consideration to be standing committee members at the Democratic convention, for example, only three were chosen by DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz on her list of 75, while vocal Sanders critics and Clinton supporters (notably Barney Frank) have been named as committee chairs.
This is only to be expected. Sanders is an outsider and his disruptive policies will inevitably be opposed by the donor class. But the Senator and his supporters must respond to this hostility forcefully. Sanders is much more threatening to the status quo than Obama 2008 ever was, but it is ultimately up to his base to transform this one presidential campaign into a potent popular movement after the election.