Maybe it’s just my own personal Hamilton-mania talking, but it feels like we’re living in a revolutionary time.
Even if not quite revolutionary in the precise political science definition of the word, it is at least a moment brimming with possibility.[i] In sharp contrast to every other election in my lifetime, tackling inequality is among the fundamental urgencies driving voter decisions in the U.S. Democratic Party primaries. People seem to have their eyes fully open to the degree of transformation they are asking for, if not all the potential consequences. After all, disrupting the layered and interwoven financial and political systems that are sustaining (and sustained by) economic, social, gender, and racial inequality would be nothing short of tectonic.
But then, George Washington, in all his post-Cabinet-rap-battle wisdom,[ii] pulls me back to reality. Winning – whether it’s a war or an election – is easy, and governing is indeed harder. Politics is inevitably messy, and we often have to settle for better instead of best, as President Obama recently expressed so well in a speech to Howard University grads.
It is this tension between visionary idealism and incremental change that divides so many of those I know on the left. I’m not interested in writing another Bernie vs. Hillary piece, but just to boil it down: In Bernie Sanders, many see a refreshing break from politics-as-usual, a bold truth-teller, a debate changer, a person who can be trusted to take principled stands. While Hillary Clinton’s policy proposals share many of the same values, the course she articulates is consistently more measured. Many of her supporters see this as a more reasonable approach in line with current political realities.
Ideally, we would have both – a political leader who inspires broad support by igniting the fire of the possible in us, while deftly navigating a thorny political atmosphere by outsmarting opponents and (yes, sometimes) making deals. But if we cannot have both of those in one package, then the deft navigator is more important. It all comes down to the roles of government vs. civil society in creating progressive change.
Throughout history, progressive civil society organizations in the U.S. (as elsewhere) have worked separately and in concert to voice dissent, reveal oppressions, propose alternative political and economic visions, mobilize support, craft policy solutions, and hold authorities accountable to progressive policies and laws. It is essential that movement protagonists sit outside of government. This ensures at least a modicum of independence from government and party interests and pushes the boundaries of debate beyond what is politically accepted at the moment. It also allows civil society to play that watchdog role that is so essential – even (or especially) when a friendly political party holds power. Principled, well-articulated demands from civil society meet the political reality of negotiated progress. It’s usually not pretty, but it’s what has worked.
So when people talk about “revolution” in the context of a presidential campaign, I get nervous – mostly because I don’t believe it’s the role of a U.S. president to embody revolution. Why do we want so desperately to believe that one person at the executive level has to be the vanguard? Why do we give that power away from ourselves?
I also get nervous because many of the people supporting the revolution against inequality don’t seem to be as concerned about racial and gender inequality as they are about economic inequality – as if race and gender will sort themselves out once the economics are taken care of.[iii] Those most affected by economic and political inequality (people of color, especially women) are not the primary protagonists of this revolution, and that raises all kinds of questions about authenticity. Would their voices be lost when choices inevitably have to be made?
There’s also a practical reason for the president to not be the leader of the revolution. Pitching revolution in a campaign, promising an end to inequality, voicing commitment to a wide range of progressive goals – all of these are easy. But once someone promising massive change is in power, he or she has limited ability to fundamentally alter political and economic structures without support. Sustained mass mobilization – including the kind necessary to elect progressive allies at the state and local level – is essential to a progressive agenda. And it’s something we haven’t managed recently.
But we can. We can take all the passions that this campaign has stirred up on behalf of social and political transformation and we can channel it into civil society – into the organizations that work daily to win and sustain progress on a broader progressive agenda, including gun violence, abortion rights, institutional racism, pay equity, family leave, immigration, and campaign finance reform. All of the social media energy, all of the rallying – this can fuel a real revolution from the bottom up. There are already promising signals that this is happening. For example, some Sanders supporters have drafted a plan to harness the campaign’s strength to defeat Trump in the fall, fully aware that a Trump presidency would seriously impede a progressive agenda.
I really want to close on this optimistic note, but I unfortunately can’t. I fear that Sanders’ campaign is becoming cynical, and nothing kills participation in the political process better than cynicism – the overwhelming feeling that the game is fixed and there’s no chance to influence the process. Top Sanders officials dismissed reports of that plan for anti-Trump mobilization by actually saying “we could care less.” The campaign’s response to the vile insults and threats leveled against Nevada’s Democratic Party convention chair was a tepid repudiation of harassment couched in a full throated proclamation that they had been cheated by “the establishment.” One of the texts the convention chair received from an apparent Sanders supporter said, “I would rather vote for Hitler than Hillary.” Let that sink in a bit.
Progressives can certainly squander this moment and decide politics is bull and compromise is capitulation. But that will do nothing to end inequality. If people really think Hillary will not fight for progressive ideals as president, what better way to ensure she does than to stay mobilized, get a progressive Congress, and put pressure on her from outside the White House?
We have a revolutionary moment to challenge inequality. We cannot throw away our shot.[iv]
[i] In political science terms, I would label Sanders as more of a populist than a revolutionary.
[ii] All praise and thanks to Lin Manuel Miranda, from whose brilliant work I have borrowed phrases and concepts.
[iii] There are endless examples of populist movements (and even revolutions) in Latin America failing to address racial and gender inequality. For example, leftist leader and former revolutionary Daniela Ortega in Nicaragua made abortion laws stricter in his country in exchange for support from the Catholic Church.
[iv] Lin Manuel Miranda’s words again.