You may have heard the story of the woman who was walking her dog one night and found a man on his hands and knees, searching the sidewalk under the streetlight. “Can I help you find something?” she asked.
“I dropped my house key over there,” he replied, gesturing behind him, “and I need to find it.”
“But if you dropped it over there, why are you looking here?” she asked.
“The light is much better here,” he answered.
I remember the story when I think about the many Americans who know that huge changes are needed in economic and climate policy, and turn to the electoral arena to find their power. They won’t find their power there because the system is so corrupted, but they nevertheless look for their power “under the streetlight,” where middle school civics textbooks tell them to look.
The corrupted system, however, does not lead me to dismiss Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic nomination for president. He and the many people working with him have already contributed mightily to the task of preparing Americans for a living revolution. How so?
First, he articulates clearly truths about our system that many Americans have figured out, but have wondered — for good reason — if they are alone. In a recent ABC/Washington Post poll, 68 percent agreed that we live in a country whose economic system favors the rich rather than the rest of us. (About half of Republicans thought this, too.) In another poll, 74 percent said they believe that corporations exert too much influence on American politics and life. As early as 2012, a poll found a staggering 75 percent of Republicans agreed there would be less corruption if there were limits on donations to super PACs.
Sanders is giving these views a voice. When Bernie asserts on national television that it is Wall Street that regulates Congress instead of the other way around, he strikes a chord that potentially enables people to resonate together — Republicans and Democrats alike.
Second, Sanders defies the political class by projecting a vision of how our country could move toward justice. U.S. politicians are notoriously vision-averse, except for neo-conservatives and libertarians. (Social justice activists are also remarkably vision-averse, even though the aversion undermines our effectiveness.) By contrast, Sanders repeatedly points to Denmark and other Nordic countries, thereby bringing vision into the conversation. While I have radical Nordic friends, who are critical of their countries’ achievements, in the U.S. context Bernie is performing a remarkable service. He even makes sure to connect the dots by offering a public course on democratic socialism.
Here again, the U.S. public is way ahead of the political class (and even ahead of many social justice activists). For over 30 years Gallup pollsters have found a steady majority who agree that the United States should redistribute the wealth by imposing heavy taxes on the rich. Gallup found in 2014 that even Republicans polled at 45 percent in favor of increasing taxes on the rich. The Pew Research Center found that more Republicans favored increased spending on Medicare, education and infrastructure than favored cutting those programs. The Economist worries that, “Anti-capitalism is once more a force to be reckoned with.” Among Democrats, in October 2015, a YouGov poll found 49 percent of Democrats viewed socialism favorably, while their approval of capitalism had fallen to 37 percent.
So Bernie’s campaign scores high in articulating both analysis and vision. He challenges other activists to stop holding back as we relate to the majority of Americans. Clearly, it is time to be bold and meet people where many of them already are.
A ‘political revolution?’
Sanders’s candidacy is, to be sure, self-limiting. The political revolution he calls for cannot be achieved through the ballot box. Most Americans would agree with me if asked, based on their perception of the corruption of the system. I’d recommend to the remaining true believers in “U.S. democracy” a Princeton study released in 2014.
Two U.S. political scientists conducted a broad empirical study that reveals who actually has the say in public policy. Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern examined the 1,779 specific policy issues that came to a head for national decision over the two decades between 1981 and 2002. Note: that period was before the Supreme Court made the Citizens United decision, before the billions released in the current money rush.
For each issue Gilens and Page determined from opinion polls and other evidence what the majority of the public wanted and what the economic elite wanted. When those two views differed, the scholars wanted to know whose view prevailed. They took into account the fact that ordinary citizens often combine to form mass-based interest groups like the American Association of Retired Persons.
What they found was that, when there was a difference, the economic elite almost always prevailed over the majority. Even the mass-based interest groups had little or no independent influence. In the scholars’ words, “In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule — at least in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes.”
Bottom line, there’s no reason to think that the election of Bernie Sanders as president, even with a Congressional majority of Democrats, could possibly deliver the changes we want. Both major parties are clearly owned by the economic elite, and what they want, they get — as long as movements for change stay within the framework of electoral politics.
The good news is that we have the option of moving outside that corrupted framework. What if the Sanders campaigners maintained their commitment to a progressive analysis and vision and simply acknowledged what so many Americans already know: The system is too rigged to be changed from within.
Looking for power where it actually resides
It’s no accident that schools and the mainstream media urge us to look for empowerment in the wrong place: “Over here, under this streetlight!” For the 1 percent the 1960s was a truly dangerous decade. Too many people at that time discovered their power.
Cultural influencers in the mass media and academia therefore minimized and even ignored what people had learned about power through their nonviolent campaigns. The ‘60s were characterized as either a hippy “summer of love,” or a violent time of the Weather Underground and Black Panthers, thereby ignoring the main events that involved the most people and had the largest impact. Martin Luther King Jr. was caricatured as the “Day of Service” guy — even though, as far as I know, he never did a day of service in his life.
Despite this, working class and poor people did wage campaigns in the 1970s and ‘80s through unions and groups like ACORN, with little support across class and color lines. Environmentalists won their largest victory by stopping the spread of nuclear power with nonviolent direct action. Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network kept nonviolent campaigning alive, but failed to get the support they deserved because the electoral streetlight remained so appealing. Under the radar, Movement for a New Society, War Resisters League, and other clusters of trainers and manual-writers helped keep the direct action craft in circulation, laying the groundwork for the Battle of Seattle and the subsequent resurgence of larger-scale nonviolent direct action.
Throughout the period covered by the Princeton study, 1981-2002, and since, many continued to cling to electoral politics despite the onslaught of what billionaire Warren Buffett later acknowledged to be a successful class struggle initiated by his class. Over and over middle-class liberal Democrats legitimated an arena that couldn’t work for them, acting against their own interests as the wealth gap grew. Some are now noticing that looking under the streetlight is the wrong place to find their power.
Plan B: A strategy for those who ‘feel the Bern?’
The Sanders campaign is doing fine work in projecting analysis and vision so people can recognize they are not alone, then claim it, and work side by side with those who share it. The question of strategy remains. When the electoral arena reveals itself to be an instrument of the 1 percent, where will the Sanders movement go? Will people accept the lessons of their own experience, integrate the Princeton study into their worldview, and re-form to claim their authentic power: nonviolent direct action?
Veteran campaigner Antje Mattheus suggests that the Sanders movement take a part of the vision that has the most potential and form a nonviolent direct action campaign to fight for it. Why not a national fight for free higher public education, say? Or fight for federally-guaranteed green jobs for all, a goal that would combine economic and racial justice with the climate justice imperative, and would expose the utilities and fossil fuel companies that try to stand in the way? Such a campaign could attract majority U.S. support across class and race lines and support us once again to go on the offensive for change.
When we don’t find our power under the streetlight, we need to shine a light of our own.
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First off, this is not “the Bernie Sanders movement. ” He just happens to be in front of it for the moment. This is about more than Bernie Sanders For President, the same as Occupy Wall Street was about more than a bunch of miscreant thimblerig banks. La Lucha Continua. (Look it up.)
Thanks for your comment. I agree that it’s not the “Bernie Sanders movement” — it pre-existed his decision to run and he is certainly not doing the personal charismatic thing that shows up in our political culture. That was short-hand because it’s hard to know what to call it. What’s your name? I don’t want to call it “progressive Democratic movement” — although that’s where I heard him speak last — because that already implies that its home is the Democratic Party, which is historically in the business of co-opting forces that have independent legs and inspiration. I’d love to have better short-hand for describing the phenomenon we’re seeing, so please share. Also, what do you think of my suggestion for where “it” should go, post-November?
the only way sanders can lose is if the electronic voting machines and other ballot counting procedures are messed with
There will be no more Bernie Sanders “movement” after he fails to win the nomination and, therefore, will not be on the ballot. This is a fact of political life when people invest time and energy into a personality and not a grassroots movement built on principles and values, irrespective of a particular person.
Sanders supporters could begin to organize that kind of movement and/or new political party. But that will take many years and much effort. A better plan — a real Plan B — would be to join parties that have actually existed for decades — the Green Party, or one of the Socialist parties, for example — and help nurture something that has already taken root. Presumably, these parties speak to the values of Sanders supporters.
A Green Party presidential candidate will be on the ballot on Election Day 2016 (presumably, Jill Stein); the Socialist Party USA has Mimi Soltysik; the Party for Liberation and Socialism has Gloria La Riva.
The Green Party, in particular, has been growing slowly and steadily, having more people elected to office than all other alternative parties combined, Libertarian Party included. There’s no need to re-invent the wheel.
BTW, I am Chair of the Bronx County Green Party and I’m the 2016 Green Party candidate for NY State Senate District 34. I’m an enrolled Green and also member of SPUSA.
I am mystified by George Lakey’s article. Why must we assume a “one or the other approach?” What is wrong with Direct Action AND Electoral Politics? I have my disagreements with President Obama, but there can be no dispute that he has real accomplishments.
It is true, however, that our democracy has become more brittle. Obama’s accomplishments are currently dependent on electing a Democrat to succeed him. This is because so many of President Obama’s actions have been taken via Executive Order or Executive Branch Rule Making. That is to say, in the case of Rule Making, Administrative Laws implementing legislation already passed by Congress. So, the Clean Power Rules and other critical environmental policies can be withdrawn if a Republican becomes president.
The key thing with Bernie Sanders is that, unlike Obama, he is not going to make the mistake of telling us to STAND DOWN once he is elected president. We’re going to continue building our Movement For Change.
I see no reason why electoral and protest politics cannot be combined in pursuit of meaningful social change. I know that many people share this perspective. In fact, the Sanders campaign is based on this approach.
“The key thing with Bernie Sanders is that, unlike Obama, he is not going to make the mistake of telling us to STAND DOWN once he is elected president. We’re going to continue building our Movement For Change.”
As I mentioned in my reply to George’s comment below, I haven’t been following Sanders’ campaign closely at all, so I’m wondering – what evidence do you have for this assertion? Obama talked a good game when he was running for office, and maybe, as George believes, he really meant it, and yet, somehow or other, we still ended up here. What is it in Sanders’ actions that you can point to which makes you so certain he won’t repeat Obama’s mistakes?
Thanks for this timely piece George!
The headline could also be, “What happens to the Bernie Sanders movement if he wins?” (the Primary and/or the General Election).
To his credit, Sanders says “This is not about Bernie Sanders. You can have the best president in the history of the world but that person will not be able to address the problems that we face unless there is a mass movement, a political revolution in this country.”
I have been asking my friends campaigning around Bernie, what are the next step plans after each election (win or lose) and what happen with the groups, networks and people?
interesting; form a UK perspective Sanders is similar to Jeremy Corbyn. It was a shock when he became leader of the labour party.
Corbyn talks about turning the labour party into a social movement. Although Corbyn’s shadow ministers have supported striking junior doctors and other cuases in a way that would have been almost unthinkable a few months ago I have not seen any evidence of a grass routes movement eminating from Labour.
A lot of campaigners like what Corbyn says, it gives us hope, but I don’t see time and money being put into encouraging direct action campaigns, or teaching the skills that grass route groups need in order to fight back against cuts in benefits, rising rents, cuts in wages and working conditions, fracking etc etc etc.
So I say Sanders and Corbyn give people hope but it is movement building and direct action campaigns that are likely to create the force needed to win.
Very valuable piece from George, very interesting comment on the UK, John.
One thing that’s relevant, I think, is the British Labour Party’s history in the 1980s. There had to be a huge internal struggle for party democracy to try to get the leadership to enact the policies that the membership had voted for at the party’s annual conference.
Precisely because of all the pressures that are on a group of people who are a potential government, the leadership continually ignored party policy to serve the interests of the corporate elite.
Labour today no longer has the internal democratic processes that were won in the past. Labour Party members were so confused and demoralised by the 1982 Falklands War, the 1983 general election loss, Thatcher’s brutal war on the miners and so on, that they allowed Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair to do as they liked, which included restructuring party democracy in a leader-oriented, authoritarian direction.
So there is a huge struggle there which is part of making change through electoral processes – making parties themselves democratic – which is a relevant piece of this conversation about Sanders and the possibilities for electoral change.
The real question to ask is what becomes of the Democratic party and the nation if Bernie does not win. Sanders energizes both the youth vote and independents of different stripes, as well as progressive/liberal Democrats. If it becomes Hillary in the general — that is lost. The momentum towards energizing progressive voters in the midterms will wane. We’ll be back where we started on voter turnout. And, a Republican-led Congress (which is where we need to get n advantage if a Bernie Sanders (or, a Hillary Clinton, for that matter) could make effective changes.
As far as the movement behind Bernie? It was there before, and, it’s not going anywhere (away from what people think). It just needs to stay energized. That can only happen with Sanders, as Clinton will be perceived as ‘more of the same’ by all except her staunchest supporters.
As a former organizer with the Occupy movement, Bernie Sanders’ candidacy gives me hope. He speaks truth in a way that few (if any) other national politicians do.
That being said, George is right that we need a grassroots movement to undergird any long-term change. At his best, I hope that Bernie can serve as a tribune for the popular movement of the 99%, which found expression in Occupy Wall Street and is a growing tendency in the US today.
Win or lose, the Bernie for President campaign is a part of this ecosystem. Let’s do our part to support Bernie Sanders, and let’s also commit ourselves to the long-haul effort of movement building at the grassroots.
The role of the Democratic Party won’t change, whether Sanders wins or loses. The implication of the Princeton study is quite clear on that (and please let us know who has refuted the Princeton study, if anyone). The Democratic Party’s role will continue to be to implement the 1 percent’s preferences, just as it has in the past (although one could argue that it became even more marked since the Clintons marginalized the liberal/left wing of the party). As Dave Solnit implies, if Sanders by some miracle entered the Oval Office, he wouldn’t have a party to back him in making major changes. Wall Street would continue to “regulate Congress” (Sanders’ words). If you doubt this, then explain how it is that the labor movement was utterly unable to get its priority legislation passed when the Democrats controlled both the White House and both houses of Congress? Or even to end subsidies to corporations to assist them in moving jobs overseas? Labor leaders were told Democrats gave them “a seat at the table.” Hmmmmm.
Jimmy Carter showed, when elected on a platform of reducing the defense budget, how easy it is for Washington to marginalize an outlier President who imagines that he can somehow change how the 1 percent does business! The defense budget is both an effective way for the 1 percent owners of military corporations to pick our pockets — i.e. re-distribute wealth upwards — and a macro-economic stabilizer (“military Keynesianism”), and both of those important goals of the 1 percent need continued hikes in military spending. Carter could do nothing about that, any more than he could launch what he knew was a badly needed renewable energy surge.
Any President is powerless to do anything about that — it takes, as Sanders says, a revolution. To reduce confusion with powerless electoral games, I would call it a “living revolution.”
I could not possibly agree with you more about the Democratic Party, George. A couple of years ago, I was introduced to a pair of web videos which took sequences from the first two “Lord of the Rings” movies and recast the story as being about global justice and the War on Terror. So, for instance, Elrond is an anti-capitalist organizer, Aragorn is an anarchist, Saruman is George W. Bush, King Theoden is the NGOs, and so on. It’s mostly just silly, incredibly nerdy fun, but I think there are some moments of satiric brilliance – such as having Gollum at the end of the second movie, “The Twin Towers” represent the Democratic Party leading the young voters towards Shelob’s Lair.
You credit Bernie Sanders with speaking truths which are often dismissed or ignored in mainstream discourse and with articulating a vision for an improved society and disseminating that vision far and wide – fair enough, we could do with a lot more of both.
But here’s my fear about the Bernie Sanders campaign: that it will mobilize people who resonate with the truths he’s speaking and who are inspired by the vision he articulates to pour their energy into an arena which you and I agree is completely controlled by the political class: electoral politics. In other words, that it will bolster the flagging enthusiasm for the Democratic Party among progressives, and lull into thinking that this time, finally, they can use the master’s tools to dismantle the master’s house. And when the campaign inevitably fails to deliver on those people’s expectations, rather than looking around for an alternative mode of social change, they’ll see it as a sign that real social change is impossible, and become resigned to the status quo. In other words, that it represents not a cornerstone but a stumbling block to organizing a living revolution.
I admit, I’m sufficiently jaded that I haven’t followed the Presidential race too closely. So perhaps those of you who have followed the Sanders campaign more closely can tell me: is it running in such a way as to encourage people who agree with the criticisms he voices and the vision her articulates to find their power and organize social change through nonviolent direct action, or does it, like the schools and mainstream media, encourage them to look for their power under the streetlight?
Thanks George Lakey for another high quality analysis. I too find the presidential run a fantastic educational tool. My own choice of a major nonviolent campaign would be on climate change – which of course includes stopping capitalism, but the up-front issue is climate – because it is such a near threat to everyone equally.
Right on. So nice to hear from you. I would be glad to provide training to such a movement.
Even if Bernie wins we need to continue the struggle via nonviolent direct action campaigns! Witness what happened with Obama. Although I’m not equating Obama’s vision and analysis with the Sanders vision and analysis, many of us were convinced that there would be good changes that didn’t happen and couldn’t without the pressure of campaigns outside of the electoral/political process.
I understand and agree … however, as of this moment not enough people join us in this fight so I am trying to join them under the street light and hope that Bernie gets elected.
After the election and, if no election,
then back to the drawing board.
Like every “new left” movement in the USA und NATO Europe – this movement towards a social reform will drain away under the diversion of “animal rights”, “gender issues”, “indigenous rights” , “drug policy reform”, “ethnic equality” – as worthy as they are – INSTEAD OF CONCENTRATING ON SOCIAL CHANGE!
While labels and comparisons are leveled at Bernie Sanders, from communist to this generations’ George McGovern, there is something about him that resonates with me in an entirely new way. He is a statesman outside of political allegiances. He has spent his life fighting for human rights and dignity and was as surprised as anyone else when he was called upon to run for the presidency. I believe that this is a very smart, honest person who now has a lifetime of advocacy and experience under his belt to put him in the best position to head our nation.
Any successful leader needs the support of the grassroots. What Bernie Sanders has done, as George refers to above, is to empower each and everyone of us to recognize our own innate power to make change.
As we all choose what media we read now, I was under the impression that everyone was familiar with Bernie Sanders, but I find that is not the case. Speaking with the post office employees near me, I was dismayed to learn that they had no idea of his suggestion to enable local post offices to do basic banking services. They thought this was a great idea, but they had no idea who Bernie Sanders is.
Our task, those who see the potential for good in a Sanders presidency, is to spread the good word.
Unlreallepad accuracy, unequivocal clarity, and undeniable importance!
It’s really great that people are sharing this inofrmation.