Sanders’ plan of political revolution is absolutely pragmatic. The dismissing of it by pundits is shameful. What is his revolutionary vision? Getting people engaged in democracy and voting. It’s not the ballot or the bullet. It’s just the ballot.
Gandhi famously outlined the stages of reactionary response to revolutionaries, explaining, “First they ignore you, then they ridicule you, then they fight you, and then you win.” Bernie Sanders has experienced something similar.
They tried ignoring him. Then when polls moved and that was no longer possible, they ridiculed him as unelectable, even resorted to red-baiting, declaring him out of touch with mainstream voters and insisting, “America isn’t evolved enough to elect an avowed socialist.”
When it turned out Americans are willing to look beyond provocative labels and scrutinize policies, “they” now call him unrealistic.
Chaz Pazienza encapsulates this latest attack strategy: “Sanders wants to fundamentally change American hearts and minds. Clinton wants to formulate a plan of action that gets things done. Sanders sells idealism.”
This is the story now. Hillary will get things done as the pragmatist, whereas Sanders is the out-of-touch idealist who has to invoke “political revolution” to advance, Pazienza says, “pie-in-the-sky thinking that simply doesn’t occur in representative democracies like ours, where change always comes incrementally and our system is designed so it can’t be remade in one fell swoop.”
I guess King’s “I Have a Dream Speech” wouldn’t play so well these days.
How quickly we forget about dreams and their importance, their necessity, for significant social change.
But now “dream” is a dirty word, a communist plot.
Indeed, the vocabulary of “incrementalism” Pazienza employs calls up the politics of gradualism invoked when African Americans sought basic and long-overdue rights in this nation. “Just wait. Be Patient. These things take time.” Are we seriously going to invoke the language of consensus and gradualism when it comes to gross and unsustainable inequality that undermines democracy and people’s basic dignity in this country?
Was it right to ask African Americans or women to wait for basic political rights and social equality because a good number of the nation’s citizens were racist and misogynist?
We are driving forward-thinking imagination out of our politics, going from “Yes, We Can!” to “Maybe later. We need to wait for reactionaries to change their minds.”
More to the point, though, is the utter speciousness and bad faith involved in figuring Clinton as the realist who will get things done and Sanders as the idealist who has no idea how to play the game in Washington. Remember, Sanders served sixteen years in the House of Representatives and has been senator since in 2006. He has legislated, and governed. He was elected to be mayor of Burlington, Vermont four times. Clearly, he can get some things done. He also helped craft the Affordable Care Act legislation, let’s not forget.
And let’s here address a grossly slanderous misrepresentation promulgated by the anti-Sanders campaign. This is the notion, forwarded by Clinton herself, that Sanders wants to tear down the Affordable Care Act and start from scratch rather than build upon it.
Sanders does want to move to a single-payer system, but his opponents make it sound as if suddenly people will be without health insurance, as when Clinton has said repeatedly that it’s easier to move from 90% insured to 100% insured than to start again at zero. These statements are either disingenuous or just outright ignorant, making it sound as if Sanders will dismantle or repeal the ACA before beginning and completing the process of putting something better in its place. He has never said or implied anything of the sort. The beauty of his vision is that we have the ACA in place so that now we can work for better. Until we arrive at a more optimal alternative, we’ll still have the ACA in place. Let’s face it—the U.S. spends more than twice as much per capita on healthcare as the average developed nation does and ranks worst among eleven wealthy nations in terms of “efficiency, equity, and outcomes,” Time magazine reported in 2014. Can’t we do better? Of course, we can.
And what about Clinton? I have heard little in terms of how she’ll get things done. According to the Washington Post, Sanders’ agenda doesn’t have consensus and ignores the reality of the checks and balances of our system. But what will Clinton do? Obama stepped into office met by a Republican constituency whose chief goal was obstruction. Clinton may be even more reviled by the Republicans and will face the same gridlock. Yet those who attack Sanders, arguing he will be ineffective in implementing his policies, have yet to offer any clear sense of what Clinton’s pragmatic strategy will be.
Finally foregoing bi-partisanship, Obama proceeded with what has been an historic presidency, using the power inherent in presidency, issuing executive orders when he could to realize his vision, most notably on issues such as immigration, gay marriage, wages, and gun control. He had a large vision, and he implemented it as he could—often not through political negotiation but through executive action. He did not have consensus; he dealt with checks and balances, just Lyndon Johnson did when pushing through civil rights legislation ahead of the national consensus.
Change may come incrementally, but don’t we want someone with the larger vision, the guiding dream, even if we only take baby steps toward that pie in the sky? How can we realize the ideal if we don’t articulate what it is and fight for it? Sanders has given no indication that it’s all or nothing for him–that it’s a socialist society tomorrow or he’s out of ideas. His years as senator suggest his ability to hold onto his ideals while he works the daily grind of the political process.
Moreover, Sanders has presented plans to pay for his programs, but it is easier for critics to ignore what they don’t want to hear.
Maybe he can’t get all this done, get the tax reform he wants through congress, but wouldn’t you rather have someone who tried, who had a larger vision of where we needed to go and took what steps he could to get us there, rather than someone with a modest and compromised vision from the start?
His plan of political revolution is absolutely pragmatic. The dismissing of it by pundits is shameful. What is his revolutionary vision? Getting people engaged in democracy and voting. It’s not the ballot or the bullet. It’s just the ballot. If people vote, pressure will be put on representatives. That, Mr. Pazienza, is how representative democracy works.
Is thinking the American voter can have a role in democracy really pie-in-the-sky? Shame on anyone who dismisses this possibility.
Is this so much of a dream?
Geez, let’s at least dream the small dream of an engaged and empowered electorate to create a modicum of the democracy we are supposed to have.
Or are we too pragmatic for that?
Tim Libretti is a professor of U.S. literature and culture at a state university in Chicago. A long-time progressive voice, he has published many academic and journalistic articles on culture, class, race, gender, and politics, for which he has received awards from the Working Class Studies Association, the International Labor Communications Association, the National Federation of Press Women, and the Illinois Woman’s Press Association.
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