Can the Sanders Campaign Build a Progressive Alternative to the US Establishment?

After her victories against Bernie Sanders in the California and New Jersey primaries, Hillary Clinton is the presumptive Democratic nominee, but her road to the White House is paved with major obstacles. Clinton is facing two enemies at once: Republican candidate Donald Trump on the right, and the mass movement created by the Sanders campaign on the left. The presidential race is morphing from a contest between Republicans and Democrats, into a dramatic clash between the establishment, embodied by Clinton, and the mass dissent rallying around Trump and Sanders.

Several polls show Sanders would have a better chance than Clinton at beating Donald Trump. Others report that a significant section of Sanders’ electorate will not vote for Clinton in November, and some of them might even vote for Trump. Many are asking Sanders to break away from the Democrats and run as an independent candidate.

The Convergence of the Far Right and the Far Left

Sanders and Trump have gained popularity as anti-establishment figures, but their visions are radically different. Sanders calls for a market regulated by the state and heavy taxes for the rich. He emphasizes free health care and education, and is committed to equality, human rights and anti-imperialism. Trump’s worldview flirts with white supremacy and asserts the primacy of the needs of disgruntled whites, who are seen as the only “true Americans,” threatened by “Mexican migrants” and Muslims. A dislike of big government and an emphasis on individual freedom have more of a currency among his fans.

Yet there is something that unites supporters on both sides. They are tired and angry with the current system. They have experienced the negative effects of the withdrawal of the welfare state, which funded decent public education, grants to cushion unemployment and vital social spaces like public libraries and community centers. At the same time, the expansion of big corporations and financial capital pushed wages down and made everybody precarious. Alienation and anxiety have become commonplace, and face-to-face regular contact with other fellow citizens has largely disappeared. Social media have taken over as the main public space for the disaffected majority. The process hit hardest those who were already suffering from structural discrimination — people of color, women and low-income migrants — but the middle classes have also been affected.

Trump and Sanders appeal to the broad social base that went through this crisis. Their followers have a powerful weapon in their hands: a politics of emotions that is hard to dismiss. They shout back at the powers that be. Their anger and hope mobilize support through social media and at rallies, where multitudes of disenfranchised individuals connect with each other and foster new solidarities.

Disillusioned with traditional politics, Sanders and Trump’s supporters have little faith in the conventional mechanisms of representative democracy. They are asking their leaders to do away with the ills of the system all at once, and to avoid compromising with those that would stand in their way — mainstream politicians, bankers and corporations. There is a utopian charge in these demands that cannot be ignored. People are calling for a new world order to deliver them from the evils and injustices of the current dispensation. Gradualist approaches to reform are seen as ineffective and ultimately serving the interests of the powerful.

Utopian Vision vs. Broad Consensus

Trump is good at manipulating the desires of his crowds. He portrays himself as an authoritarian figure that will deliver what people demand; all they have to do is place their trust in him. As for Sanders, there is a fundamental tension between the kind of mass support he is drawing and his own politics.

He is an old-school social democrat. He comes from an era when grassroots organizing in small, tightly knit communities went hand-in-hand with fighting for a different economic and political system. His experience as mayor in the small city of Burlington, Vermont, is telling. Elected against all odds in 1981, he was re-elected three times. He mobilized citizens to reclaim the waterfront from corporate interests, winning a landmark legal battle in the Supreme Court. He made more affordable housing available, and worked with civic organizations, unions and social welfare agencies to improve citizens’ lives. His success in Burlington was as much about engaging people in the streets as it was about conducting long and tiring negotiations with powerful people and institutions.

There is nothing radical in his agenda. Sanders’ policies were the pillars of social democracy in Europe until recently, and are still current in Nordic countries like Norway and Sweden. They were promoted — and still are in the Nordics — by a broad consensus that included most political parties from left to right, trade unions, churches and civil society organizations fighting against various forms of discrimination. Behind social democracy, there were national societies, composed of popular associations that maintained strong ties with their members. This world has little in common with the Facebook video montages of Sanders’ speeches accompanied by dreamy music and pictures preluding to a “brave new world” that is supposedly just around the corner.

Participatory Democracy in the Real World

Sanders’ supporters want community and belonging — the same principles Sanders is fighting for. Yet they struggle to come together beyond social media and mass gatherings.Popular protest plays the essential role of signaling to a corrupt and undemocratic establishment that things have to change, and soon. But it cannot on its own deliver the desired change. There is a need to develop democratic spaces that are grounded in local interactions between people in the physical world.

The Sanders campaign has a tremendous opportunity. It can harness the positive power of mass dissent into a durable social movement for a progressive alternative to the current US-dominated world order. To do so, it needs to focus on building a broad consensus, give priority to long-term projects with physical communities offline, and recruit skillful and principled politicians to connect people to the places where decisions are made. The horizon is much longer than the November presidential election — even though a Trump victory would only do harm to such aspirations.