On Political Revolution and the Meaning of a Sanders Presidency

Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt,  speaks during a campaign rally in Springfield, Mass., Saturday
Democratic presidential candidate, Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vt, speaks during a campaign rally in Springfield, Mass., Saturday, Oct. 3, 2105. (AP Photo/Michael Dwyer)

As grassroots enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders's campaign continues to grow, many -- including progressives -- have expressed doubts about his ability, if elected, to achieve even a fraction of his radical proposals. They argue that an obstructionist congress would block all of his initiatives, leaving him powerless and deceiving crowds of hopeful supporters. It would be wiser, then, to elect a less radical leader, such as Clinton or Biden, who would compromise with Congress and achieve at least some progress. This thinking is only proof of how misunderstood Sanders's campaign is.

The one area where the President of the United States has the most power and influence is foreign policy. Sanders could thus deliver on his pledge to pursue a less militaristic foreign policy and to renegotiate investors' rights agreements (commonly and mistakenly known as free trade agreements). But the bulk of Sanders's proposals, those that have generated massive popular support, fall distinctly in the domestic realm: tuition-free public universities; criminal justice reform; single-payer healthcare; $15 minimum wage; electoral finance reform; massive public investments on infrastructure; and overhaul of the tax system. The breadth of each of these proposals is such that they could never be enacted through executive orders and that they would have no chance of becoming law without congressional support. A mere look at Barack Obama's years in power with Republican majorities in both houses suggests a Sanders presidency would achieve little. But Sanders's campaign is hardly about the presidency.

An electoral campaign, whether at the local, state, or federal level, can only achieve so much. The separation of power exists for this very reason: one office-holder cannot, by himself, radically alter the political course of a city, state or of the country. The president can certainly use his position to promote an agenda or issue executive orders to make up for a lack of congressional support, but this can only achieve fairly modest reforms. Transformational change only happens through grassroots organizing, citizen mobilization, and sustained popular pressure on policy-makers. This is how labor rights were gained, racial segregation ended, and sexual liberation achieved. And this is how 21st-century institutional racism will be abolished, gender equality and full LGBTQ rights achieved, democracy restored, and socioeconomic equality advanced.

Barack Obama, despite his electoral rhetoric of "change," was never interested in meaningful, bottom-up change. The level of grassroots organizing generated by his campaign could have helped him push for an ambitious reform agenda; instead, he decided to demobilize the movement and settle for the little he could achieve by himself. Marshall Gantz, advisor to Obama's 2008 campaign, wrote that:

... the president demobilized the widest, deepest and most effective grassroots organization ever built to support a Democratic president. With the help of new media and a core of some 3,000 well-trained and highly motivated organizers, 13.5 million volunteers set the Obama campaign apart. They were not the "usual suspects" -- party loyalists, union staff and paid canvassers -- but a broad array of first-time citizen activists. Nor were they merely an email list. At least 1.5 million people, according to the campaign's calculations, played active roles in local leadership teams across the nation. But the Obama team put the whole thing to sleep, except for a late-breaking attempt to rally support for healthcare reform. Volunteers were exiled to the confines of the Democratic National Committee. "Fighting for the president's agenda" meant doing as you were told, sending redundant e-mails to legislators and responding to ubiquitous pleas for money.

For Gantz, once Obama sat in the White House, he saw his grassroots organization as "a tiger you can't control," a challenge to his own authority. Bernie Sanders has repeatedly stated that this was Obama's greatest mistake, promising he would not repeat it.

Like Obama did when creating Organizing for America, President Sanders would likely transform his campaign's grassroots organization into a new group to support his agenda. But unlike Obama, Sanders would never place it under the authority of the National Democratic Committee. In line with his long-standing attachment to independent politics, he would keep it independent, decentralized and free from Democratic interference. In fact, if he does not win the nomination, Sanders would likely do just the same: work to maintain and further develop the movement. Whether he becomes president or not, he will lead the movement to weigh on policy-making, push for radical change and help elect lawmakers in cities, state legislatures and Congress that would support and work towards that change.

Bernie Sanders has been bluntly honest about it. His election to the presidency will not achieve a political revolution. It is only a first step in a protracted, grassroots effort to fix a broken political, economic and social system. Only if millions stay mobilized after the election can the political revolution happen. That's what Bernie Sanders's campaign is all about.