Sometimes a Movement Needs a Leader: The Bernie Sanders Campaign

According to a recent above-the-fold, front-page article in the New York Times by Jason Horowitz, Senator Bernie Sanders "bellows" "snarls" and "glares" his way through campaign appearances. His candidacy, Horowitz writes, amounts to little more than giving "disaffected Democrats" the opportunity "to vent their anger at the list of national ills they believe are caused by big business and its conservative allies."

The dismissive tone of such reportage tells us more about what ruling elites would like to sweep under the rug than it does about anything of substance relating to Sanders' critique of American society.

The only good thing about the corporate media's horse race coverage of the 2016 race over a year before the voting is that it gives Bernie Sanders and the social movements he represents ample time to coalesce and bring real progressive policy proposals into the nation's political consciousness.

Despite the plutocrats' largely successful deployment of their wealth to skew the playing field, given the chance, activists can unite with the Sanders campaign to focus the agenda, and maybe even punch a hole in the sealed discourse of Washington-think and lead a long march into the realm of electoral politics.

The most potent ideas for addressing the urgent problems facing the country don't come out of the air-conditioned offices of the American Enterprise Institute, but arise from the kind of unity of thought and action the Sanders campaign embodies. There exists the potential to take the goals of the wider social justice movement and bake them right into the Democratic Party platform for 2016.

The social activism swirling around right now -- from environmental and climate change groups, civil rights organizations, advocates for breaking up the Wall Street banks, feminists, Latinos, LGBTQ activists, Black Lives Matter, the peace movement, labor unions, teachers, nurses, students, the opponents of corporate trade deals dating back to the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle -- all these groups have the potential to join the Sanders campaign and come together in national mobilization.

Senator Sanders is giving voice to those who are tired of the teacher bashing and the warmongers in the party, the "moderates" who depend on corporate cash and are as servile to the ruling elites as the Republicans. This struggle will require dividing the Democratic Party, taking on the corporate media (which always throws a wet blanket on the idea of progressive change), and building a new coalition that has a real chance of winning elections.

Although Occupy Wall Street "changed the conversation" about the criminality of the too-big-to-fail banks and popularized the idea of the "99 percent" fighting back against them, in hindsight, it could have benefited from more coherent leadership. But the activists who occupied Zuccotti Park and other public spaces in cities across the United States (and the world) in September 2011 did not evaporate; they're out there and ready to re-emerge. With Bernie Sanders there now is an opening to bring Occupy Wall Street's sweeping critique of the glaring unfairness of the U.S. economy into mainstream politics.

The struggles taking place these days in America are mostly in the workplace and are defensive in nature. Public school teachers and other public employees and low-wage workers in the "new economy" are either being beaten down or hanging on for dear life. Stagnant wages, the lack of buying power, degraded labor unions (combined with predatory lending) have led to an enormously high level of household debt; the obscene inflating of college tuition (along with predatory lending) has produced a generational debt crisis. Without a radical redistribution of wealth these forces that have produced income gaps and downward pressure on wages will continue to hollow out the middle class.

The baby boomers who've run the country since the election of Bill Clinton in 1992 presided over the loss of something fundamental in America. Their loving bipartisan embrace of all things "neo-liberal" has fused 21st Century technology with 19th Century labor relations. Just look at how Amazon or Uber exploit their employees.

Adding injury to insult, Republican governors and state legislatures, (enabled by the U.S. Supreme Court) have concocted all manner of ingenious ways to suppress the voting rights of African Americans, Latinos, young people, and other likely Democratic voters.

And don't forget the planet is heating up to a point where across the globe emergency mitigation efforts are now necessary and promise to become increasingly costly.

On the Republican side it's just plain scary. Despite the corporate media's blandness about it all, the shit that spews regularly from the mouths of the GOP presidential candidates should be shocking to us all: Marco Rubio about driving around rich neighborhoods confident that anyone can rise; Scott Walker about the evils of labor unions, and Donald Trump about Mexicans. John Ellis Bush tries to sound like the rational one, yet he surrounds himself with people like Paul Wolfowitz. (And what working person in their right mind would ever want a restoration of the Bush Regime?)

What the corporate media cannot see is that the era of the Bill Clinton "New Democrat" is finished. In the real world, the crash of 2008 blew the lid off the bipartisan "Washington consensus" with its blind faith in the benevolence of capitalism. Virtually all of the economic gains since 2008 have gone into the hands of the wealthy, and the big banks are even more concentrated and powerful today than they were before they ruined the economy.

The Obama presidency, albeit facing an unbelievably vicious partisan opposition, ended up leaving behind far more missed opportunities than accomplishments. The "hope and change" enthusiasm of 2008 was allowed to fizzle out sometime between Citizens United and the 2010 midterm elections.

I used to see the slide into the "permanent campaign" as an unmitigated disaster for this country. There's no time left to govern anymore in Washington, only time for fund raising and campaigning. The 2016 presidential race began the minute the 2014-midterm elections concluded. But now I see a silver lining in the absurdity of the "permanent campaign": Bernie Sanders has a whole year to build a vibrant, multifaceted social movement.

And a year in politics is a very long time.

A lot of shoes can drop in the next fourteen months that are impossible to predict. The stock market is larded with over-valued corporate paper; the unresolved debt crisis in Europe could lead to greater financial instability; the $1.2 trillion student debt in America has been sliced and diced in similar fashion to the Collateralized Debt Obligations (CDOs) that helped bring on the Crash of 2008 (students might also choose to boycott repayment at some point); a new civil rights movement is gaining momentum with each new police killing of an unarmed black person.

A century ago when the labor leader and socialist, Eugene Victor Debs, ran for president he had no idea that many of the policy proposals he championed would later become the law of the land. The reason why Debs ran for president five times (1900, 1904, 1908, 1912, 1920) was to give focus to the labor movement in a time when the voice of working people was being drowned out with political money in a way that is eerily similar to today.

Most of the public policies that Debs advocated, working people's rights to collectively bargain, breaking up big cartels, social security, old age pensions, and other ideas were ahead of their time. And when Debs was active it was impossible to predict that many of his ideas President Franklin Delano Roosevelt would institutionalize as part of the "New Deal."

Similarly, A. Philip Randolph played the role of advocate on a national level who could apply pressure at the highest levels of the U.S. government for all those who were fighting for basic human rights for African Americans in an era of Jim Crow and white terrorism. More recently, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy offer good examples of the importance of leaders in times of crisis and social polarization. When they were both assassinated -- MLK at the age of 39, and RFK at the age of 42 -- the movements they were marshaling on a national level were thrown into disarray. King's Poor People's Campaign was kaput after he was killed, and the Democratic Party limped into 1968 after Kennedy's murder. The deleterious effects of the MLK and RFK killings on the movements of the 1960s illustrate the significant role leadership plays.

The assassination of Robert Kennedy, only 82 days into his presidential campaign, threw some social justice movements, including Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers Union and many liberal civil rights organizations, into a period of aimlessness and internecine battles. The ultimate outcome was Richard Nixon's victory, the prolonging of the Vietnam War, and the birth of the Republicans' devastatingly effective "Southern Strategy." Sometimes a movement needs a leader.

Since the 1970s, the Democratic and Republican party conventions have become bland pep rallies where candidates and their surrogates don dorky hats, spit boring talking points, and play act to the corporate media cameras. We should demand an "open convention" where a floor vote can decide who the Democratic nominee for the national ticket will be; where old-fashioned wrangling can prevail and the popular will might stand a chance.

Sometimes movements can coalesce around an individual in a way that focuses its overall power and can catapult it into the realm of electoral politics. These days the trick for the Left is not to splinter into pieces, identity group versus identity group, or cause versus cause. There should be no beating up on Bernie Sanders because he hasn't checked the right box yet or he doesn't perfectly conform to this or that ideological tendency. Just think for a minute what the 2016 presidential race would look like if Sanders didn't step up.

A full year to organize gives the campaign time for a long, slow take off, to organize and mobilize a grassroots progressive bloc of voters and to have a real impact on the 2016 elections.

Sanders didn't create the conditions that gave rise to the resurgence of social activism we're witnessing today. And the enormous crowds he is generating at his rallies are not part of a "cult of personality." The Bernie Sanders phenomenon reminds me of the old story of the European revolutionary who, watching from a window and seeing the crowd running by, exclaimed: "There go the people -- I must hurry and catch up with them, for I am their leader."