Our objective should be to build, painstakingly, patiently but energetically, a movement that, when it reaches a certain critical mass, would shake whoever is in the White House, in Congress, into changing national policy on matters of war and social justice. —Howard Zinn
The Bernie Sanders campaign recognizes the agenda for radical change, which it champions, will not be realized without massive social movements to struggle and force elected officials to enact key legislation. The campaign does not think, if elected president, Sanders would automatically be able to pass legislation to support his agenda. The campaign is realistic about what it will take to win victories for social justice, which is why a recent endorsement of Hillary Clinton by the Rolling Stone magazine deserves scrutiny.
Jann Wenner, the co-founder and publisher of Rolling Stone, penned the magazine’s endorsement, and it is quite frankly filled with misconceptions about movement building and struggling for social change.
“Every time Sanders is challenged on how he plans to get his agenda through Congress and past the special interests, he responds that the ‘political revolution’ that sweeps him into office will somehow be the magical instrument of the monumental changes he describes,” Wenner writes. “This is a vague, deeply disingenuous idea that ignores the reality of modern America.”
“With the narrow power base and limited political alliances that Sanders had built in his years as the democratic socialist senator from Vermont, how does he possibly have a chance of fighting such entrenched power?” Wenner rhetorically asks.
It actually is not disingenuous or ignorant of the “reality of modern America.” For example, the Sanders campaign has relied on the Working Families Party, National People’s Action, Democracy for America, National Nurses United, and other groups in states throughout the country to build up canvassing teams. The campaign has made inroads with the local activist communities in each state, where they have fought for pledged delegates in the primary election.
The culture of the Sanders campaign involves an appreciation and recognition of the fact that change never happens from the top down. Historically, it always takes place from the bottom up.
Martin Luther King Jr. wrote in an essay for The Nation, “Demonstrations, experience has shown, are part of the process of stimulating legislation and law enforcement. The federal government reacts to events more quickly when a situation of conflict cries out for its intervention. Beyond this, demonstrations have a creative effect on the social and psychological climate that is not matched by the legislative process.”
“Demonstrations educate the onlooker as well as the participant, and education requires repetition. That is one reason why they have not outlived their usefulness,” King observed.
This is what Sanders means when he talks about relying on a grassroots mobilization, a “political revolution,” to achieve social justice victories: shift the climate in politics and use the energy of mobilized masses to move a consensus on policy toward an outcome that is more just and equitable than what it would be if there was compromise without vibrant actions.
Wenner suggests the volunteers and supporters fueling the Sanders campaign are merely angry people and anger cannot translate into anything meaningful.
“Anger is not a plan; it is not a reason to wield power; it is not a reason for hope. Anger is too narrow to motivate a majority of voters, and it does not make a case for the ability and experience to govern,” Wenner declares.
However, the Sanders campaign does not appeal to citizens’ anger. That is what the campaigns of Donald Trump and Ted Cruz do. They turn the anger of working class Americans against people of color and against what little social progress President Barack Obama has achieved in terms of health insurance reform, financial reform, and stabilizing the United States economy.
The Sanders campaign appeals to a collective desire among Americans to live in a nation that does right by its people. It invites Americans to imagine a country where policies are enacted that reflect the notion that we are all in this together. It raises expectations, giving poor, working class, and middle class Americans hope for a society structured like other industrialized democracies of the world, where universal single-payer healthcare, paid family medical leave, free tuition at public colleges and universities, and other social welfare programs are available to all citizens.
Responding to how numerous people see Sanders as “authentic,” Wenner praises what he calls another kind of “authenticity, which may not feel as good but is vitally important.” He describes this “authenticity” as the ability of Clinton to speak “honestly about what change really requires, about incremental progress, about building on what Obama has achieved in the arenas of health care, clean energy, the economy, the expansion of civil rights.”
This is not honesty, and there is nothing authentic about it. It is what Democratic Party politicians, who are of the establishment, do in order to manage expectations for change and contain social movements. Such politicians rely on the tyranny of low expectations in order to maintain the status quo so there is no threat to their political power.
The Democratic Party establishment has a way of doing business. It does not involve depending on millions of people to donate an average of twenty-seven dollars per person in order to fund their election campaigns. It does not involve going into arenas or stadiums to gather the masses to encourage a popular uprising against wealth inequality and corporate power. It involves dialing for dollars from major corporations and special interests, who they pledge to protect from any significant social upheaval.
Clinton knows what is required to create change, but she will only pursue the change she can believe in. She will choose not to believe in proposals for improving equality and justice if they threaten the political or ruling class.
Wenner insists, “Clinton not only has the experience and achievements as first lady, senator, and secretary of state, but a commitment to social justice and human rights that began for her as a young woman. She was one of those college students in the Sixties who threw herself into the passionate causes of those times, and she continues to do so today.”
Her record is not one of someone who throws herself into “passionate causes” for social justice and human rights. Facing threats from climate change, she supports destructive practices like offshore drilling and natural gas fracking. She supported legislation for a border fence in 2006. She supported regime change in Libya, Syria, and Iraq, and the impact of regime change policies has been catastrophic.
Clinton has taken money from lobbyists for private prison companies. She supports maintaining the death penalty. She supported the Patriot Act and Patriot Act reauthorization in 2006. She supported bailing out Wall Street. She has remained silent on key measures, like deferred action and criminal history ineligiblity, which could greatly benefit migrants in the United States. She also clings to the Affordable Care Act, which represented a windfall for health insurance and pharmaceutical companies, as an adequate substitute for a Medicare for All system.
As actress Rosario Dawson, who has endorsed Sanders, put it, Hillary Clinton’s track record goes against everything activists have fought for in the past decades.
More significant than Hillary Clinton’s record is the perspective pushed by Wenner of radical change: this notion that somehow the Sanders campaign, and the millions across the country who support it, are deluded by left-wing fantasy driven by anger that can never amount to anything.
During stump speeches, Sanders frequently mentions fast food workers, who went on strike for wages of $15/hour. After they took action, cities like San Francisco, Seattle, and Los Angeles, and states like California and Oregon have initiatives on the ballot this year for $15/hour wage. People defied the harping of pundits, who muttered about what is and is not realistic, or about how this would hurt workers, and fought for dignity without paying much heed to propaganda in the news.
With that in mind, what is truly unrealistic is thinking a politician, who lowers expectations for change and calms the anxieties of corporate and special interests during their presidential campaign, will be able to make any meaningful achievements in social justice and human rights.
The people’s historian, Howard Zinn, asserted, “Historically, government, whether in the hands of Republicans or Democrats, conservatives or liberals, has failed its responsibilities, until forced to by direct action: sit-ins and Freedom Rides for the rights of black people, strikes and boycotts for the rights of workers, mutinies and desertions of soldiers in order to stop a war.”
This is the kind of change Sanders speaks about at the end of every single one of his stump speeches. He receives roaring applause, as he recalls the trade unionist movement, the civil rights movement, the women’s right movement, and the movement for LGBT rights.
Whether Wenner believes powerful elites are impervious to people power these days, the fact is, no matter the cynicism, uprisings are what get things done for the people. It is realistic to declare this is the only way radical change will happen. Without vibrant grassroots movements changing reality, the richest and most corrupt people in power will keep trampling on the livelihoods of lower and working class Americans, allowing cities across America to transform into sacrifice zones like Flint, Michigan.