The Sanders Revolution: A Historical Reflection
As I’ve watched the news evolve about the Democratic primaries, one worrisome trend—worrisome for me as a Bernie Sanders supporter—has been the commentary pairing Sanders and Donald Trump. Some of that trend involves the intersections of real historical phenomena, but some of the commentary has been nefarious. I can get interested in the former, when it involves thoughtful, informed explorations of populism, political outsider status, and anti-establishment candidates. The latter, which superficially focuses on topics like anger, rage, reaction, radicalism, destructiveness, and impatience, comes from both within the party’s establishment and outside interests. When this happens, they are painted together, with a broad brush, as bitter revolutionary outsiders.Thankfully there has already been a fair amount of pushback against the trend, much of it smart and well–informed. And I even appreciated this bit of comparative trickery, because it underscored some real differences. But by pairing Sanders with Trump, commenters risk diluting real historical and philosophical differences between the two candidates. Those differences are large enough to cause some to view Sanders’ candidacy as truly revolutionary.
In today’s climate, what is a revolutionary candidate? What does it mean to be involved in a political revolution, or to embrace the status of being a political revolutionary?
When one considers the breadth of meaning attached to those terms, I think the ‘revolution’ appellation, fostered by Sanders himself, does him both a service and a disservice. It both accurately and inaccurately describes what he is attempting to achieve.
At heart, Sanders is attempting to undo the political changes wrought by neoliberalism (both in its European and American inflections), including a free market ideology, business-friendly politics, and deregulation.Those ideas arose out of the early Cold War era through the work of Friedrich Hayek, Ludwig von Mises, Milton Friedman, and others associated with the Mont Pelerin Society. The spread of their ideas converged with the ideology of Ayn Rand and the political commentary of William F. Buckley. All of this came together in the politics of the “Reagan Revolution.” That revolution involved a philosophy of European neoliberal economics alongside the rhetoric of nationalism and strong defense spending (“peace through strength”).
Ronald Reagan’s appointment of Alan Greenspan as chair of the Federal Reserve, a term which lasted from 1987 to 2006, meant that an ideological representative of that economically revolutionary movement would head the most powerful financial institution in the world for nearly twenty years. And all of this was accomplished “peacefully,” or even somewhat quietly, so far as political revolutions go. It was a long march, but with some spectacular episodes (e.g. the 1981 Air Traffic Controllers strike). Whatever the noise level, the members and supporters of that movement see their efforts as having been successful. They believed they saved the world from both statist liberalism and communism.
That revolution was powerful enough that Democrats had to work within it, economically at least. The New Democrats, most often associated with Bill Clinton and his political circle (i.e. Third Way Democrats, neoliberal Democrats), were business friendly and willing to entertain and implement market-oriented solutions to social and political problems. They arose after the formation of the Democratic Leadership Council in 1985.The power of this group came from working within the free-market paradigm of the Reagan Revolution while also speaking comfortably within framework of identity politics. The new social liberalism of these Democrats, called neoliberalism, applied Reagan Revolution economics to welfare state problems and constituencies.
The neoliberal, New Democrat moment was powerful enough to garner Clinton two terms. And after the interruption of a two-term George W. Bush presidency, New Democrats returned to power, for two more terms, in the person of Barack Obama. Indeed, Obama designated himself a New Democrat in March 2009, shortly after taking office. It appears that many of Hillary Clinton’s policies and positions exist within, or mostly within, the neoliberal Democrat framework.
Returning to today’s election year politics and Republican opposition, a Trump presidency, for instance, would not undo much of the economic policies of recent administrations. And even if some of his economic positions work against that prior economic revolution, none seek to undermine it completely. Trump is primarily a Culture Wars candidate, especially as those issues have evolved over the past fifteen years. Some of that evolution involves what I’ll designate as the “international Culture Wars” (civilizational, as it were). His platform explicitly speaks to those issues. He’s an aggressive interventionist on international issues (esp. ISIS) and a demagogue on immigration. He’s also a staunch second amendment supporter. His governmental policies are generally anti-statist: watch the debt, be more aggressive on trade pacts, reform taxes, and reform the Veterans Administration. His less prominent political and cultural stances, documented here, are friendly to old culture warriors and few other recent Culture Wars issues: he’s evolved into a pro-life position (would defund Planned Parenthood), he’s against the Common Core, he wants to cut the Department of Education, he calls the EPA a travesty, he calls climate change a hoax, he defends current policing practices, he hedges on vaccination, he is against Obamacare, etc. Again, there is a great deal of anti-statism behind Trump’s positions. It’s the long, quiet Reagan Revolution with a loud, strong demagogic edge, especially with regard to immigration and international issues.
Against this backdrop, it is entirely correct to think of Sanders as a kind of revolutionary. The “Sanders Revolution” opposes the Reagan Revolution, Trump’s positions, and the recent history of the Democratic Party. For Sanders and his supporters, to undo the deep changes implemented by that prior, radical free-market economic movement will involve both a changed voter mindset and a thorough institutional reworking. It will likely take as many years to foster change as it took for the Reagan Revolution to be implemented.
And though Sanders has caucused with Democrats since achieving national offices, he has never given up his affiliation with “democratic socialism.” He has continued to claim it even as his national profile has risen as a presidential candidate. That seems to be the definitive mark of a revolutionary in the history of American politics.
Even so, a “Sanders Revolution” is only ideological, or metaphorical in relation to traditional definitions of revolution or revolutionary (noun), or even in relation to traditional associations of democratic socialism with Marxist thought. There is nothing violent, sudden, or even extreme in what Sanders discusses or proposes. He has nowhere said that his ideals need to be achieved immediately or by any means necessary. While we have seen violence and disorder in Republican primary events for Trump–events involving jingoism, racism, and xenophobia—Sanders’ events are the opposite. They are orderly, even while the excitement is real. There is a “decency” about him not normally attributed to those outside of the mainstream parties. Despite that character trait, few attribute his rise to personality or demagoguery.
The Sanders Revolution is, in my mind, a revolution in service. He desires a true focus on public service. The state is not a problem for him. Of course redistribution is involved. Sanders’ policies would move the benefits of wealth creation from going primarily to individuals, or small groups of stockholders, and more towards the masses people who are part of the wealth-creation apparatus. These are the people left behind during the Reagan Revolution. The wealth created in that paradigm never made it down to the lower orders as promised (i.e. “trickle down”).
Sure, in the recent historical context of politics and political economy, Sanders’ ideas are “revolutionary” (adj.) according to one sense of “revolution” (i.e. from Merriam-Webster, “a fundamental change in the way of thinking about or visualizing something : a change of paradigm”). A Sanders Revolution is about bringing government offices and bureaucracy back to focusing on the people as a whole. He’s striving toward fairness. Sanders is trying to move the scales of justice back toward some equality of wealth distribution. One way to do that is to regulate large corporations and break up large, overly powerful banking institutions.
If the Sanders’ program can be called a revolution, it is a revolutionary return—a positive regress—to New Deal ideals (e.g. freedom from want, freedom from fear, etc.). It is an iteration of that past era, Sanders’ political philosophy being what Jedediah Purdy called “Bernie Sanders’s New Deal Socialism.” The Sanders program only appears to be a revolution because of the thoroughness of the ideological revolution that preceded it. Sanders wants to turn what Jefferson Cowie termed “The Long Exception” into a new normal state.
As I wrap up this piece, news has rolled in that Sanders lost the Nevada primary. Because it was a relatively close loss, he’ll likely gain nearly the same number of primary delegates toward the Democratic nomination. But it looks like the Sanders Revolution is still a tepid one in the minds of some voters.
I wonder if, in the end, selling oneself as a passionate New Deal Democrat that embraces both the Democratic establishment and democratic socialism would have been better? Maybe that was an impossibility. Perhaps that more historical political ideology wouldn’t resonate as much with today’s change-craving moderates? This brief historical survey seems to indicate something less radically framed would not have been possible in relation to a 2016 Democratic establishment that has favored Hillary Clinton for some time. We shall find out soon enough whether the “Sanders Revolution” was the right rhetorical strategy. – TL
[Update: Corrected typos and added clarifications at 7:45 am, US Central time.]
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