Given the number of deeply rooted policy problems facing the United States today – extreme inequality of wealth and political influence a fountainhead among them – it is perhaps not surprising that the idea of revolutionary change is becoming increasingly popular. Evidence of this is found, for instance, in the popular support for Democratic Party presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, who has boldly proclaimed his commitment to a political revolution.
Sanders supporters warn that if Sanders does not win the Democratic Party nomination, we will be left with a terrible choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump. However, several factors suggest that the Sanders campaign may be doing more to stifle the revolutionary “third way” than to advance it.
Would Sanders Be Able to Fulfill His Pledges?
Sanders has pledged to advance a relatively radical set of reforms: free higher education, breaking up too-big-to-fail banks and a single-payer health insurance plan among them. However, as the Obama presidency has demonstrated, it is unlikely that Sanders would be able (if willing) to implement such sweeping reforms once elected.
The Affordable Care Act nicely illustrates this point. During his 2008 campaign, Barack Obama pledged to advance a public health insurance option. However, despite having a strong voter mandate plus a filibuster-proof Democratic Party congressional majority, the public option was dropped from the bill to avoid opposition from senators such as Joseph Lieberman and the health insurance lobby. If Obama couldn’t pass a public option in that advantageous context, why do people assume Sanders would be able to pass a single-payer plan once elected?
Sanders’ Objectives Are Not Revolutionary
Sanders and his supporters often refer to his campaign as revolutionary. However, this is inaccurate. Even if Sanders was able to implement his domestic policy pledges, such reforms would be no more radical than the New Deal reforms implemented under Roosevelt in the 1930s. However, even the New Deal reforms didn’t amount to a political revolution.
In Jack Goldstone’s Revolutions: A Very Short Introduction, revolution is defined as, “the forcible overthrow of a government through mass mobilization in the name of social justice, to create new political institutions.”
A Sanders presidency would fall short of this definition in a couple ways. First, Sanders is not calling for the establishment of a new US Constitution. Second, Sanders does not intend to lead a movement to overthrow the ruling class. At its most radical, a Sanders presidency would take on powerful interest groups such as the health insurance lobby and too-big-to-fail banks. However, Sanders’ foreign policy stances suggest that he has no intention of taking on the powerful military industrial complex.
Sanders’s Foreign Policy Stances
Sanders’ critics often emphasize his imperialist foreign policy stances, such as his 2014 Senate vote to reaffirm US support for Israel’s assault on the Gaza Strip and his pledge to keep US troops in Afghanistan. Stances such as these make it difficult to distinguish Sanders from the establishment policy makers he claims to oppose, at least in the foreign policy domain.
How the Sanders Campaign Undermines Revolution
Grasping the key lesson of the Obama presidency – the two-party system offers only false hope – a truly revolutionary movement would eschew electoral politics, setting its sights on more ambitious goals such as the establishment of a more proportional electoral system for the House of Representatives, which would allow a multi-party system to take shape.
Against this, the Sanders campaign is resuscitating the myth of electoral choice, redirecting alienated voters back into the two-party system and shoring up legitimacy for the establishment. This comes right at a moment in US history when the two-party system is vulnerable to attack. Thus, the Sanders campaign is probably doing more to undermine than advance political revolution.
With Sanders out of the race, the American people will be left with a choice between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump (or one of the other comparably undesirable Republican candidates). At that point, it will be harder not to conclude that the two-party system offers no solutions, leading more to recognize the revolutionary “third way” as a necessary alternative.