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Beyond the Bern: How Progressive Movements Leap Ahead of Electoral Politics

Now that Bernie Sanders’ candidacy has engendered new forms of progressive mobilization, we must decide what to do next.

An audience member raises their hand at a presidential campaign event for Bernie Sanders on September 27, 2015, in Des Moines, Iowa. The Sanders campaign implicitly calls upon us to begin talking about how we might move beyond the Bernie Sanders political battle. (Photo: Phil Roeder; Edited: LW / TO)

Part of the Series

Following Hillary Clinton’s primary victories this Tuesday in Florida, Illinois, North Carolina, Ohio and Missouri, some new questions are emerging among progressives: Can the enthusiasm that Bernie Sanders has inspired weather electoral disappointments like this one? And — perhaps most important — has Sanders’ candidacy engendered new forms of progressive mobilization that will last beyond this primary season, no matter who wins the nomination? In both cases, I would say the answer is “yes.” However, this affirmation is entirely contingent upon what we do next.

From the start, the thrust of Sanders’ political campaign has resided in the idea that a truly representative candidate funded by ordinary people is possible. To the surprise of many and the consternation of a few, he has proved that fact again and again.

No matter which candidate receives the Democratic nomination, an important shift has occurred: Sanders’ campaign has consistently emphasized how opportunists and wealthy elites have gradually taken our democracy from us and turned it into an elite oligarchy that benefits the few instead of the many.

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

It has become abundantly clear that Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party see this kind of anti-establishment, grassroots, democratic political movement as a very profound threat. The evidence for this lies in the loyalties of the superdelegates. For example, even though Sanders took 60 percent of the popular vote in New Hampshire, he will only end up with about 15 delegates (tied, or even losing to Clinton) because insider superdelegates who do not represent voters have pledged to support her. This not only makes a mockery of democracy, but also it shows beyond any doubt that Clinton and the Democratic Party are the quintessential face of establishment politics. In all honesty, with that sort of backing, she will likely win the Democratic Party’s nomination for president.

Leaving projections aside, however, let’s move beyond the actual political race and look at what Sanders has inaugurated, both concretely and symbolically. Many pundits have argued that the reason people gravitate toward outsiders like Sanders is because of their deep-seated “anger” at what the United States has become. Sanders has made it OK to be angry about the economic plight of ordinary Americans, the unconscionable wealth gap and the loss of jobs as a result of corporate outsourcing.

However, what Sanders has tapped into is more than just anger. People have gravitated toward him not just because they are righteously angry at the way things are, but also because they see in him an earnest and lifelong passion for justice. They perceive in his campaign something that has been lost, and needs to be recovered — an authentic (rather than opportunistic) sense that an ethical orientation in politics grounded on fairness, democracy and the common good is not something that just “happens,” but something for which we must collectively fight.

The Sanders campaign implicitly calls upon us to begin talking about how we might move beyond the Bernie Sanders political battle.

Sanders’ recent political campaign is just another chapter in a book that he has been writing over the course of 50 years — a book that gives life to something that has been stomped on by the neoliberal agenda, but has deep roots in the psyche of most Americans: compassion and care for the other.

Whether in his advocacy for universal health care, getting big money out of politics, a living wage, issues around immigration, the unemployed, race or gender, Sanders has fought to make it possible for ordinary people to embrace the idea of genuine social solidarity — that we are not isolated individuals, but people who need each other and want to see everyone treated with fairness, compassion and justice.

Sanders characterizes himself as “socialist.” We can debate whether this is an appropriate label from a historical or philosophical perspective. However, if the most basic meaning of the word “socialism” is underwritten by the recognition of our social need to embrace an ethic of fairness and a notion of “sharing,” then Sanders is undeniably a “socialist” — and in this sense, he is an advocate of a perspective that is entirely opposed to the selfish egoism and crass individualism Ayn Rand would have us believe is the highest American ideal.

Sanders has not fought for socialist causes and policies because they are strategically advantageous for his career, or because they afford him a political advantage. Given the neoliberal Democratic and Republican establishments he often finds himself up against, to take on Wall Street, the military-industrial complex, casino capitalism etc., would be a serious tactical error. And yet, by persisting in his relentless critique of the fraudulent banksters and 1% for over 40 years, he has taught us that “impossible possibilities” are actually worth fighting for. They are worth fighting for because they bring out the best in all of us and remind us that authentic politics is possible only when we presuppose the inescapability of an “I” that is “we” and a “we” that is “I,” as the philosopher Hegel once elegantly put it.

Sanders asks us to once again recognize the importance and the power of the “we.” Beyond his actual political campaign, he has revived a fundamentally important political (and ethical) notion: the retrieval of the “commons.” The commons is not created or sustained by the wealthy elite, but by the economic, artistic and cultural wealth to which each of us as people contribute. To retrieve the commons is not only to advocate for peace, clean water, renewable energy, nutritious food, universal health care, debt-free education, reasonable wages and jobs for every American, but also to recover something that makes the latter really possible: faith in the really existing “power of the powerless,” as Vaclav Havel put it — or as I have put it here, a deep faith in the power of the “we.” This is not the rhetorically empty or politically expedient “we” of “Yes, we can,” but the concrete and ethical “we,” which presupposes that we are not only unique and irreplaceable persons, but interdependent and hope-oriented beings who flourish not just as individuals, but as a cooperative of people who can accomplish amazing things when we come together in solidarity.

Sanders has not only given new life to what would be an otherwise dull and predictable Democratic Party coronation; he has opened up a space of possibility where progressive social movements might now grasp how they can unite with political causes, actions and policies. In other words, the Sanders campaign implicitly calls upon us to begin talking about how we might move beyond the Bernie Sanders political battle. Sanders is not a revolutionary — he is a New Deal Democrat and will support Clinton and the Democratic Party if he loses. Between then and now, we must occupy the space he has opened up, and — perhaps drawing inspiration from the Canadian activists who drafted the Leap Manifesto — “leap” beyond our electoral politics.

We can no longer afford to wait. The simple reason is that our planet is now in peril in a way it has never been before. This will not simply be a matter of “breaking up” the banks, raising or lowering taxes, regulating toxic industries or spending less on military adventures. The point is to radically and imaginatively move beyond the current capitalist economic system and the entire military-industrial-prison-complex. Politics stops short of such revolutionary change. Only revolutionary movements — not political campaigns — have the power and courage to continue this campaign over the long term.

Whether political pundits, political action groups or Facebook users say that they “feel the Bern” or “just don’t feel the Bern” is really unimportant. What is crucially important now is that progressives, activists and ordinary people begin to think and act in a way that turns the impossible into the inevitable. There are plenty of historical and contemporary exemplars we can look to for inspiration. But importantly, it will not only be a matter of pressing Bernie Sanders to advance a more thoroughly progressive democratic platform in both domestic and foreign affairs but, more crucially, a matter of pushing beyond what he has set in motion. Political and social movements must now seize this revolutionary “we” moment and take back from the opportunists, careerists, banks and “private corporate tyrannies” (to use Noam Chomsky’s apt phrase) what they have undemocratically seized from us — our inherent right to determine together, without physical or economic coercion, the public good.

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