Saturday, February 27, 2016
WHICH WAY TO THE REVOLUTION?
It’s fascinating to follow the discussion about the “Sanders revolution,” a vague phrase that lends itself to a variety of interpretations. Depending on your point of view, the term may be one of hope or derision. For others, it just provokes blank stares.
The idea of a political revolution inspires those who can see that today’s Democratic Party is the captive of a system in which special interest money finances increasingly expensive campaigns. In the post-Citizens United era, these people recognize the historic significance of a candidate making a serious run for President without the backing of corporations or wealthy individuals, and despite the efforts of well-connected party leaders aghast that he is challenging one of their own. Beyond setting an example of how to beat this corrupt system, Sanders is out to change it. He is increasingly making campaign finance reform a centerpiece of his campaign. To many of his supporters, the “revolution” is defined as ending a system where the wealthy determine who are viable candidates to ostensibly represent us, while at the same time protecting their interests.
Those who see the need to address the corrupting influence of money in politics find it hard to understand Democrats who can’t grasp why this prospect is causing such excitement. Party stalwarts are puzzled by the backlash against “the Establishment,” a term most Sanders supporters consider a euphemism for “corporatists.” In their frustration at what appears to be willful ignorance, they lash out at those who they should be trying to convince. Fortunately, Sanders’ popularity continues to increase with the exposure that the corporate media can no longer deny him. We will soon know if his momentum will continue to build fast enough to carry him past Super Tuesday. But even if it does not, the “revolution” must continue.
Critics of Sanders on the left argue that his campaign will actually undermine progress toward more lofty goals, such as ending capitalism. Most commonly, this view holds that as long as people support Democratic candidates there is no hope for changing the system of which both major parties are part. Since Bernie has chosen to run as a Democrat and to throw his support to Clinton should he not get the nomination, so this reasoning goes, it is a no-win proposition. They then point out with what often seems like grim satisfaction, “How will people ever realize that the Duopoly is part of the problem?”
While they have a valid argument, they offer no reasonable alternatives. Voting for either of the corporate-captured parties is a sham? To some extent that is true, but what do we do about it? Third parties are not viable, and given the state of leftist politics they will not become so before global climate change renders the point moot. Mass civil disobedience? In a country where the leading contender for the Presidency is the multimillionaire wife of a former President? Get real.
The naivete of these arguments is matched only by the arrogance of those of their proponents who call Sanders supporters naïve. The smug self-assurance of these self-styled radicals masks a deep cynicism that prevents them from seeing how the Sanders campaign might actually aid their cause. Those who scorn the idea that he is the vanguard of a revolution in any meaningful sense of the term don’t seem willing to consider how his campaign can advance the cause of a more expansive transformation of the political system. In time-honored leftist tradition, they are busy forming a circular firing squad to attack the Sanders campaign from a position opposite that of Clinton backers who are also trying to shoot it down.
Those critics who are serious about to build a movement for what they consider genuine revolution might want to consider the effect of dismissing millions of people who are at least aware of the need for a dramatic change. It is irrelevant that many may not fully comprehend what that means. It is impossible to create a mass movement if you expect everyone to agree with you. Differences are bound to arise and inflexibility causes schisms, destroying the solidarity on which any movement depends. It is elementary strategic thinking to consider how to work together where possible to achieve agreed upon objectives, even when there is disagreement on strategy or ultimate goals. How in the world can anyone expect a mass uprising of a population so steeped in the current system that half of those who consider themselves “progressive” would consider voting for a candidate backed by the finance industry, apparently believing her claims to be its sworn enemy?
It is hard to see how anyone can argue with the idea that addressing the corrupting influence of money in politics is a good way to organize a movement. How many Americans would disagree with the notion that government doesn’t work because those in power put the interests of the 1% over those of the rest of us? The idea is so elementary that when Adbusters first wrote about Occupy, the idea of a constitutional amendment to reform campaign finance was the single action item they suggested. Occupying Wall Street symbolized that the ultimate power behind that money was the banking and finance industry that nearly destroyed the economy (or is in the process of doing so) and with it, the middle class (not to mention the poor). With a well-defined enemy and a clear objective, the movement had a chance to become much more than a symbolic protest, The problem was that Occupy activists refused to prioritize goals, making strategic political action impossible.
Campaign finance reform is not the answer to all our problems, but it is the first step to finding one. If Sanders were to make this point clear, he might just convert a few skeptics. So far, he has focused on a promise to vet any candidates to the Supreme Court according to their willingness to overturn Citizens United. While laudable, Clinton has made the same promise. Despite the fact that this is yet another example of a promise to work on an issue she has avoided in the past and the fact that she depends on the system she now vows to destroy, her supporters trust her to keep it. That’s why Sanders should also be talking about his proposed constitutional amendment intended to end the doctrine that money spent to influence elections is protected speech.
The key to using this to build a movement is that as President, he could promote the idea of voting only for candidates who would support such an amendment, as suggested by Move to Amend, as well as other reforms like the American Anti-Corruption Act. For those unfamiliar with the latter, it would address a variety of other ways that special interest money can influence politics, including putting limits on lobbying to include closing the revolving door (or at least significantly narrowing it). Keeping the need to address the corruption of the system in the forefront of American consciousness cannot but help the effort to get Americans to sustain pressure on Congress to put the needs of people over profit. The only way to advance any aspect of the progressive agenda is to first address the corruption that has created the problems in the first place.
The Sanders “revolution” is just the first phase of the kind of fundamental change in American politics that can put us back on the path toward true representative democracy. How far we go will be up to us.