Bernie Sanders had a great run. He exceeded every expectation, mobilized millions, and changed the political conversation. He made the word revolution fashionable again.
Now he’s focused on getting Hillary Clinton elected and forming a new grassroots organization, Our Revolution.
My question for Bernie is an ontological one: “Is this a “what” revolution or a “how” revolution?”
How he answers it has everything to do with whether Bernie 2.0 orients toward remaking the Democratic Party or toward partnering with diverse Americans to remake the country. Big difference.
The Sanders campaign went through a significant transformation during the primaries. It started out as a “what” campaign – focused on inserting progressive programmatics into the debate and exposing Hilary Clinton’s weak left flank. Against all expectations, Sanders gained traction by articulating social democratic positions on income inequality, globalization, college tuition, taxation, and trade. His lone nod to process was the standard lamentation against money in politics.
But the campaign evolved from a left critique of Clintonism into a broader call to action against a rigged political system. Sanders — who had dismissed open primaries activists as recently as January 2016 — became a champion for allowing independents to vote in the primaries. He started to talk about how the architecture of the political system itself insulated the parties against the people. He began to talk about democracy. He began to address the “how,” not just the “what.”
Senator Sanders came face to face with the ugly partisanship that dominates both parties and our political process as a whole. And to his credit, he spoke out against it.
After November, the Democratic Party will invite Bernie Sanders to be their official in-house radical – as long as he puts process issues on the back burner.
That would be a huge mistake. And I think Bernie needs to do two things to avoid falling into that trap.
First, he should insist that the “Our” in Our Revolution refer to the American people, not registered Democrats. If he limits his scope to Democrats, Our Revolution will be no more than an interest group, which is, paradoxically, a conservative and self-interested niche.
Second, Sanders should insist that process issues be included in the mission. He should expect to get significant pushback, most especially from the Democratic Party, but he should insist. I’m not suggesting he abandon his program. But fighting for programs without fighting to enhance the democratic rights of all Americans is a fool’s errand. There is little space within the current, highly partisan arrangement for new ideas and new programs. From both a moral and a pragmatic standpoint, the process issues are crucial when it comes to Bernie's next steps.
The presidential election is being framed as a choice between two views of America. America, the diminished great power seeking to reassert itself or America, the well-meaning work-in-progress. There is a third choice. America, a relentless democratic experiment where the people, not the parties, reimagine the way we do politics, handle social conflict, and determine our future.
The country is ready for “Our Revolution.” But it must be ours. It cannot belong to a party or an ideology. It cannot be exclusionary or narrow. It must bridge the partisan divide, not add to it. It must involve the American people in answering the question, “how do we do this?” That’s the revolution we need.
Editor's note: This article originally published in The Hill on August 3, 2016. Reprinted with permission.