One of the most remarkable things about Sanders’ campaign was how it electrified the young, reinvigorated progressives, and forced Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party to lurch desperately to the left.
Of course, once she got the nomination, she wasted no time in tacking back to the right of center and doing what Democrats have always done – assuming that progressives would fall in line because there was nowhere else to go.
But the level of support Sanders got from those under 45 was unprecedented. If that support can be consolidated and mobilized, the future belongs to progressives, and more importantly, the ideals of progressivism.
Which makes getting Our Revolution right, all the more important. Unfortunately, the launch failed to ignite the same passion and commitment that Sanders’ campaign did.
Many of the concerns progressives have about OR were outlined in a petition released by the Bernie Delegates Network on Tuesday entitled, “Support and Improve ‘Our Revolution.’” One particularly important one was the omission of anything about the essentially neocon foreign and Defense policy that dominates establishment politics. Another is whether OR will support only Democrats or whether it will also support third party candidates.
The pathway to the status quo is composed of revolutions that devolved into chaos, and Bernie’s revolution is in danger of becoming yet another footprint on that trail.
If we want the same level of engagement and commitment toward Our Revolution that made the Sanders campaign so effective – if we want to inherit the future – then we must understand what Sanders got right, and why his campaign resonated with progressives and united them, then replicate that in OR.
What Sanders offered progressives, for the first time, was agency and transparency, and they go hand in hand. There can be no sense of agency without transparency, and no transparency without agency.
Let’s explore why these ideas are linked, why they appear to be missing in Our Revolution, and how they can be better integrated into it.
Agency and Transparency: Most politicians try to run on as vague a platform as possible, under the assumption that it’s better to avoid alienating anyone with specifics, than it is to inform them about where they stand.
Clinton is a classic example. Back in July of 2015, I referred to her as the cypher candidate “who won’t answer questions; who equivocates on the issues; and who speaks in vague generalities and stunningly calculated language that is designed to say nothing."
When it became apparent that Sanders’ progressive stands were a serious threat to her coronation, she became “the progressive who got things done.” What things? Well, that was a subject she avoided.
I made the same point in 2008 about Obama’s “Hope and Change.” Hope for what? change to what? We never found out. Still hard to tell.
What resonated with people about Bernie was that he staked out very specific positions that fell into a coherent framework, and he insulated himself from influence by appealing directly and exclusively to the people for funds.
He was not only for a more equitable economic system; he was against a “rigged system.” He favored reinstating a modern Glass-Steagall; he wanted to overturn Citizen’s United; he wanted to defeat the TPP; end overseas tax shelters… the list is long, specific, and intellectually consistent. Or take climate change. He not only wanted to back renewables – a political no-brainer that Clinton also endorsed – he wanted to ban fracking, end fossil fuel exploration on federal lands and tax carbon. Again, specific policies that were integrated into a coherent framework.
In short, when you gave Bernie money, or a vote, the transparency enabled you to know what you were backing, and it also gave you a sense of control. There was no intermediary; no “trust me, I’ll do the right thing,” no feel-good abstractions that didn’t pin him down. This kind of empowerment – or agency – was and is central to what made Sanders successful.
After decades of poll-tested spinmasters whose main attribute was to say nothing without appearing to, this kind of specific, honest, and transparent candidate was the perfect antidote to people grown justifiably cynical about a process fueled by the rich that left them out.
Building Transparency and Agency into Our Revolution: Under its current framework, Our Revolution denies people that direct sense of agency, and is less transparent than it could be. There is an explicit “trust me, we’ll do the right thing” that is exercised by an intermediary. The appeal is based on the promise to support “progressives” -- an abstraction – rather than the specific list of policies Bernie offered.
Without a specific definition of what progressive means, it may be a level of abstraction that’s a little too close to “hope and change” or “a progressive who gets things done” for people who have been lied to and intentionally deceived for most of their lives about everything from their deodorant to their president
The fix is for Our Revolution is to address these two issues directly, and one other – the notion that accepting anonymous contributions from the uber-rich in the context of a 501(c)(4) is somehow consistent with a people’s movement.
First to achieve transparency, OR should establish a set of core values that any candidate they back must subscribe to, and do so in cooperation with the community they are seeking support from.
These don’t have to be exhaustive, but they should articulate more than a commitment to a candidate who self-identifies as progressive. The list might include requirements such as:
- Refusing to accept corporate money and limiting the size of contributions from private citizens;
- Supporting aggressive campaign finance reform (we could even limit the length of campaigns to mirror that in other – still functioning – democracies);
- Supporting universal health care;
- Supporting fiscal and other policies that restore the middle class and protect the poor;
- Reigning in big banks and Wall Street, breaking up too big to fail banks, restoring a modern Glass-Steagall;
- Supporting a transfer tax on Wall Street and other security exchanges;
- Supporting a carbon tax – perhaps a fee and dividend structure which would return the tax to consumers while banning fracking and establishing a path to getting off fossil fuels completely;
- Supporting a $15 an hour minimum wage;
- Assuring that any trade agreements have protections for American workers and for the environment;
- Supporting a rational and humane immigration policy that includes a pathway to citizenship;
- Revamping the criminal justice system so that the US is not the world leader in incarceration, and making sure that it is free from bias due to race, ethnicity, nationality, religion, or sexual orientation;
- Committing to end the endless wars, making war our last resort, and demanding a rational and relevant Defense budget; and
- Restoring needed authorities to the FCC, including the Fairness Doctrine, and rules which require a greater diversity in ownership at both the local and national level.
This is probably too extensive but the key is to have specific criteria and to allow the people who contribute to OR to select which elements are required. This would provide both transparency and agency.
Second, in order to sustain a sense of agency, OR must give the community that contributes, a say in who OR backs.
None of this is easy; and it’s not convenient. It would be far less burdensome to simply trust Jeff Weaver or whoever to do the right thing and back the right people. And to be sure, OR will likely be a positive force in politics regardless of whether they institute something like this or not.
But if OR wants to replicate the kind of success Bernie had, if they want to occupy the future, this is what it will take.