Spring Awakening

The power exercised by private wealth in this country is all pervasive. It shows up in every walk of life: education, health care, housing, employment, the criminal justice system, and of course in politics. But as the gap between the privileged few and everyone else has become a yawning chasm, an oppositional movement has come to life. Occupy Wall Street first brought the problem of inequality to public prominence, and Bernie Sanders has carried it into the electoral realm. The 5,000 people Democracy Spring and Democracy Awakening mobilized in Washington during the weekend of April 16-18 -- with more than 1,000 people engaged in civil disobedience and arrested by the Capitol police -- has built on those efforts. Could it be that we are witnessing the growth of a social movement that will provide the political dynamism necessary to create a more egalitarian America?

There are grounds for optimism. The coalition that formed Spring Awakening was impressive in both its diversity and size. More than 200 organizations sponsored the Washington events, including the NAACP, the National Organization for Women, Democracy Matters, the National LGBTQ Task Force, the Small Planet Institute, the Communication Workers of America, and the Sierra Club. The diversity that this coalition represents organizationally was vividly present on the Washington streets. The marchers really reflected the country by age, ethnicity, occupation and sexual preference. Equally impressive were the five demands on which the coalition members agreed: legislation to provide public funding for Congressional candidates; to modernize voter registration; to restore the Voting Rights Act; to repeal Citizens United; and that the nominee for the current Supreme Court vacancy be fairly considered. Taken as a whole, this package would go far to reverse the power grab that the super-rich have engaged in.

Constructing and maintaining a coalition like Spring Awakening is not easy. By definition, coalitions require individuals to allocate some of their time and resources to projects other than the ones to which they are primarily committed. This coalition was successful because each of its constituent elements understood that a more democratic politics was necessary for their individual goals to be achieved. They therefore were willing to march for democracy in the name of securing their specific objectives. In doing so none was required to reject its own identity. Environmentalists continued to devote most of their time to the environment, and the same was the true for all the members of the coalition.

The success in Washington is part of a sea change in American politics, the most important element of which is the surprising strength of Bernie Sanders' challenge to Hillary Clinton. Both Spring Awakening and Sanders reflect the fact that large segments of the American electorate are eager to act politically to reverse the growth in inequality that has changed the shape of America. To some extent this is true also of Donald Trump's campaign which has tapped into the frustrations of those who have suffered job loss and income stagnation. But that campaign's scarcely hidden racism, xenophobia, and misogyny suggest that Trump's adherents seek to turn the country back to its past, rather than toward a progressive future.

But the sea change that allowed a democratic socialist to become a viable candidate is only the necessary, but not sufficient, condition for inequality to be reversed. Two other elements are required. Needed will be a much more powerful social movement than Spring Awakening, and a President who will respond when subjected to intense pressure.

It is not difficult to imagine that in the near future both of those conditions will prevail. Hillary Clinton in all likelihood will preside over a new Administration that will find its comfort zone in the political center. But it will also be sensitive to pressure from those of us on its Left. What happens will be decided by the strength of the ongoing pressure that an enhanced Awakening-like social movement can generate. It will need to be intense enough to influence Clinton's priorities.

Whether such a hopeful scenario emerges will largely depend on what Sanders and the people around him decide to do. No one, perhaps not even Sanders himself, knows what he will do once it becomes clear that Clinton is the Democratic nominee. The most favorable response would be a decision to continue to take up the challenge that animated his campaign - reversing inequality - well beyond the nominating process. His campaign's leaders and supporters could redirect their energies and join Spring Awakening in movement-building. That would provide a historic opportunity to scale up a movement that, while impressive, is still too small to decisively influence national politics. If the Sanders' organization were to do this, the potential would exist for a broad progressive social movement to become an effective instrument of political power.

The country is already debating inequality, most especially how political campaigns are funded. But it will take a vast coalition of organizations and activists to transform those debates into legislation. Democracy Spring Awakening demonstrated that the problems associated with coalition-building can be overcome. The Sanders campaign has shown that such a movement could be massive.

It could happen here.