Sunday, April 17, 2016

The Promise and Peril of Bernie Sanders

 I had originally intended to write a long article on the Bernie Sanders phenomenon unfolding before our eyes in the US elections, but an absolutely brilliant piece by Jamelle Bouie in Slate says almost everything I wanted to say. It is an absolute must read! for anyone interested in the near-future of American politics.

Sanders supporters should not be put off by the headline, "There is No Bernie Sanders Movement". The article is much more about what the Sanders movement can be than about what it is not. As Bouie notes, the most significant fact about the movement is the disproportionate youth of its supporters. As such, it has the potential to go from an insurgency against the Democratic establishment to becoming the future of the Democratic Party. I think that young Democratic leaders with ambition are realizing that, which explains why some of them have chosen to come out in support of Sanders. However, Sanders is less a savior than a harbinger - more John than Jesus. If the potential of his movement is to be realized fully, it will be at the hands of others - perhaps an Elizabeth Warren or Cory Booker - who will put in the blood, toil, sweat and tears to take it from vision to reality. And, above all, it will require a institutionalization of the ideals into something at once more mundane and more durable - an establishment. In this, it can follow the example of the conservative movement of the 1960s, which led ultimately to the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, and a conservative vise-grip on American politics for a quarter century. To achieve similar success on the liberal side, the Sanders movement will need to go from attacking the Democratic establishment to becoming the Democratic establishment. As Bouie points out, the American political system today provides only one vehicle for achieving truly effective change: the two political parties. The best way to achieve the ideals that Sanders espouses is to make them the ideals of the Democratic Party - but this will, at some point, require the flame throwers of today to become the illuminators of tomorrow.

To quote what, in my opinion, are the central paragraphs of the piece:

"All the enthusiasm is there; it just needs to be cultivated and channeled into something durable. But that requires a sacrifice, of sorts. For as much as Sanders and his most vocal supporters identify themselves as outside the party system, the only way a real Sanders movement can make change is to take an active role within that system. Voting is too imprecise to send a message or make a statement, and withholding a vote does nothing to persuade or build influence. (Who in the Democratic Party solicits Ralph Nader for advice and aid?) Sanders supporters who want to move the Democratic Party to the ideological left need to become Sanders Democrats, political actors who participate in the system as it exists. To win a lasting victory—to define the ideological terms of Democratic Party politics—the people inspired by Sanders need to do more than beat the establishment; they need to become it.

"Liberals and leftists will have to work with an eye toward the long-term, operating from the ground up to make ideological liberals a key power-broker in the party. If the Bernie Sanders effort shows anything, it’s that the odds are in their favor. The youngest, most active Democrats are more liberal than their older counterparts, and technology has advanced to the point where they can organize and raise money without relying on established power centers. Even if Bernie Sanders is just the inheritor of friendly demographic and technological trends, his success suggests a real opportunity for the liberals and leftists who back his campaign. They have the chance, if they want it, to channel their energy into a move to make the Democratic Party theirs, in the same way that conservatives—until the rise of Donald Trump, at least—took hold of the Republican Party."

However, as with all great opportunities, this one too is fraught with risk. We are currently watching the conservative movement of Ronald Reagan eating itself alive. Ideologies have a long history of such cannibalism in their inexorable search for ever greater purity. Indeed all systems based on a rigid, uncompromising set of principles - be they political, religious, judicial, or any other - have the seeds of their doom within themselves, as the predetermined, though often unknown, logical conclusions of their abstract principles encounter the ever-changing realities of a complex, all-too-material world. Populist movements are especially prone to this problem because they offer less possibility of top-down discipline. The Tea Party is a good example of this peril, and it would be naive to think that similar mindlessness cannot take hold on the Left. The main challenge for the new, assertive liberalism will thus be to keep its own demons in check, and to remain open to the pragmatic compromise that is the essential genius of American democracy. This will require great wisdom on the part of leaders, and great understanding on the part of the rank-and-file. It is far from clear whether the sheer connectivity and speed of a globalized world leaves enough time or space for either.

As a liberal, I look forward to being a "Sanders Democrat" during a Clinton presidency, but first there has to be a Clinton presidency and not one headed by a conservative reactionary such as Trump or Cruz. The task of political transformation is long and arduous. It will take years to accomplish, but it is critical that these be years of steady progress rather than years of futility. Therefore: Clinton 2016!

As a dispassionate observer of politics, I fear that reality will be somewhat less rosy. The Democratic Party is, in fact, a coalition of interests held together by the fear of conservative ascendancy. As I have written before, once - and if - the Republican Party collapses, the Democratic Party too will find it hard to hold together. To some degree, that is already apparent in this election, though it may take another few cycles to play out. The fact that Sanders is an outsider in the Democratic Party, and has, so far, done little to strengthen the institution makes it at least possible that it will ultimately be more a destructive than a constructive force for the Party. A significant segment of Sanders supporters - at least those with the loudest presence in social media - appears to be open to destroying the liberal coalition in order to save it.

In the end, the United States may well end up with a three-party configuration: A populist/nativist right-wing party, a moderate/business-friendly center party, and a populist/progressive left-wing party. Or perhaps the natural dynamics of a presidential (as opposed to parliamentary) system will force a reorganization into a new two-party configuration, each with a somewhat different cast of uneasy bedfellows. To a significant degree, all this will depend on how the new demographic cookie being baked in the global oven crumbles over the coming years. And also on how hot that oven gets in the age of climate change and global jihad.

1 comment: