The Democratic Party’s attempt to treat Bernie Sanders as a normal political candidate would be laughable were it not so perilous to the ruling class. If only he would mouth the party’s “liberal” principles (and Hillary would keep the FBI off her back), all would be well.
But of course the entire Bernie phenomenon has nothing to do with liberal policy or ideology. It has nothing to do with the Democratic Party, either, except in its historic role as incubator of this singular hope for our democracy. Bernie has transcended the party that produced him. His growing army of supporters no longer cares about the party. Because it did not immediately and fully embrace Bernie, because a good number of its political and intellectual leaders still resist him, the party is regarded with suspicion and even hostility by his followers. Their allegiance is to him and him alone.
And the source of allegiance? We’re supposed to believe that Bernie’s support stems from economic stagnation or dislocation. Maybe some of it does. But what Bernie offers his followers are not neoliberal economic remedies — his proposals change everything. What he offers is an attitude, an aura of crude strength and solidarity, a boasting disillusionment for the niceties of the hijacked “democratic” culture that he claims, and his followers believe, has produced national weakness and incompetence. His clear and consistent utterances have one thing in common: They provoke and play on feelings of resentment and disdain, intermingled with healthy doses of hope, love and resolve. His public discourse consists of listening and including a wide range of “others” — Muslims, Hispanics, women, Chinese, Mexicans, Europeans, Arabs, immigrants, refugees — whom he depicts either as human beings or as people with rights. His program, such as it is, consists chiefly of promises to get tough with billionaires and people of aversions to taxation. He will stand up to them, bar them, get them to knuckle under, make them pay up or make them shut up.
That this old-Jewish-guy, get-loud-and-get-even approach has gained him an increasingly large and enthusiastic following has probably surprised Bernie as much as it has everyone else. Bernie himself is simply and quite literally a loud-mouth from Brooklyn, NY. But the phenomenon he has created and now leads has become something larger than him, and something far more powerful.
Establishment politicians marvel at how he has “tapped into” a hitherto unknown swath of the voting public. But what he has tapped into is what the corporate founders most feared when they first started buying up politicians and selling consumerism as democracy: the Internet. Neocons have been warning for decades about the Internet breeding democracy. But here is the other threat to the ruling class that Karl Marx and the ancient philosophers warned about: that the ridiculously wealthy people in a democracy, excited, angry and unconstrained, might run roughshod over even the institutions created to preserve their effective tax rates. As Hillary Clinton watched the Republican primaries unfold, she feared in the Democratic Party what she saw play out in the GOP — that the unleashing of corporate donors would lead not to her nomination but to the arrival of the people, riding to power on the mantra, “enough is enough.”
This phenomenon has been slowly brewing in all “democratic” and quasi-democratic countries over the past century, including the US, and it has generally been called “political revolution.” Political revolutions, too, are always blamed at first to lack coherent ideology, no clear set of prescriptions for what ailed society. Occupy Wall St. was a bundle of contradictions, they said, united chiefly by what, and who, it opposed; the hippies were all delusional, they said; “A war on drugs? Why, that’s a terrific idea,” they said. Successful revolutions are not about the strongman, the leader (Donald Trump, Stalin), but about the people, in whom could be entrusted the fate of their own lives. Whatever the problem, they could fix it, together. Whatever the threat, internal or external, they could face it, together, and it was unnecessary for them to blame each other for everything. Today, there is #feeltheBern, which also has nothing to do with the tough man who has his entire life spoken out against injustice and defended his people against all threats, foreign and domestic, but is about those people finally standing up for themselves and creating their own hashtags on the Internet.
To understand how such movements take over an oligarchy, one only has to watch the Democratic Party today. These movements play on all the contradictions, vanities, ambitions and insecurities that make up the neoliberal machine. In oligarchies, at least for politicians, the only thing that matters is what the donors say they want — Citizens United v. FEC. A mass political movement is thus a powerful and, to those who would oppose it, frightening weapon. When joined and supported by millions of people, it can be aimed at whomever the people choose. If someone lies to and defrauds the people, it doesn’t matter how rich or successful that person has been. She might be a famous warlord, but if the people deride and ridicule her heroism, the establishment eventually laughs and jeers too. She might be the highest-ranking elected guardian of the party’s most cherished principles. But if she hesitates to get on the right side of history, she faces political death.
In such an environment, every political figure confronts a stark choice: Get right with the people or get run over. The human race in such circumstances breaks down into predictable categories — and democratic politicians are the most predictable. There are those whose integrity leads them to help organize. They praise the people’s grievances as the beginnings of wisdom, empowering them to come together to find solutions. There are those who merely hope to survive. Their large bank accounts and even larger egos won’t let them pander to populist sentiments so shamelessly, so they copy some of the symbols and rhetoric, perhaps not realizing that their donors will jump ship in the end anyway.
A great number will simply kid themselves, refusing to admit that something very different from the usual politics is afoot. Let the storm pass, they insist, and then we can pick up the pieces, rebuild and get back to normal. Meanwhile, don’t alienate the mass movement. After all, they are voters and will need to brought back into the fold. As for Bernie himself, let’s put out rumors that he might be tapped as VP, steer the media coverage in the right direction, and, not incidentally, save our political skins.
What these politicians do not or will not see is that, once in power, Bernie will owe the people everything and their party nothing. He will have ridden to power despite the party, catapulted into the White House by a mass following devoted ultimately only to bringing some joy, love, and purpose back into the world. By then that following will have grown dramatically. Today, many independent voters have been blocked from voting for Bernie or from getting their votes counted correctly. But if he wins the nomination and election, his legions will comprise a majority of the nation, incorporating many of Trump’s even most ardent followers who will, by then, be stuck with the same life problems but with nobody to turn to as Donald retreats back into the Hollywood studio that created him. Imagine the power the people would wield then. In addition to all that comes from being a part of a democracy, the people would also have the immense powers of the American presidency at their command: the Justice Department, the FBI, the intelligence services, the military. Who would dare to oppose them? Certainly not the overworked technocrats and tired soldiers. And is a man like Bernie, who has progressively held increasing responsibility in his hands, likely to become less humble, less judicious, less conscientious than he is today, than he has been his whole life? Does democracy corrupt?
This is how revolution comes to America, not with a phony billionaire, a textbook egomaniac “tapping into” popular resentments and insecurities, not with a Democratic candidate who takes money from phony billionaires like him, and not with more articles about how Trump is so dangerous either — but in the form of a humble public servant and the millions of empowered citizens who all hold their breath even as the tiniest of birds gets up on stage to spread the message of peace.
(This is an adaptation of an article originally written by Robert Kagan for the Washington Post: http://wpo.st/N56b1)