What Sanders Did

So Sanders threw in the towel and decided after all to endorse the very corruption and oligarchy he claimed to berate. Perhaps he decided the bugaboo of Trump was too terrible to do anything other than knuckle under and endorse Hillary, despite her representing in so many ways the opposite of what he stood for. Much as the use of the word “revolution” in his speeches struck me as vestigial, a buzz-word without consequences, it is a great pity to see the man now try to drown his own revolution in the sink in such a craven way.

Nor is there much consolation to be found in the platform changes which he held out for over the last month or so. They are in general far short of what was asked for, and have the flavor of a perfunctory consolation prize–one more insult handed down from the sage heights of the Establishment. Yet even if these concessions were more extensive and daring, no sitting politician, to say nothing of a sitting president, has been or will be seriously constrained by them.

Online, a great many of the supporters of the Sanders campaign are reacting to this hyperbolically, seeing it as the most rank possible betrayal, calling him a “judas goat” (after a goat trained to lead the others to slaughter) and so forth, but the truth is that unless he won outright, an ending like this was baked in from the moment he decided to run as a Democrat. During the campaign, Sanders himself reiterated that he would support the party’s nominee. This is the nature of party discipline: unless you’re the leader, you either take the best deal you can get and then play for the team, or you become persona non grata. It’s disappointing but not surprising that Sanders decided to take a deal with HRC, whom he always liked and admired anyway, rather than break his word to his own party and run off into the wilderness of an independent run.

It is mildly interesting to note that Sanders has not formally conceded or suspended his campaign, and therefore remains a candidate for President as of this writing. But this seems all but a formality. Far more interesting will be to see whether Sanders’ followers meekly agree to be led into the DNC–that abattoir of grassroots movements–and give HRC the fear-based “lesser evilism” support that Democrats have increasingly relied on in recent years–or whether a significant chunk of them say “no way” and continue to behave as a coherent unit, by going en masse to the Greens for example. Such coherence is the true sign of a movement: the ideas and issues it is based on have an independent existence and define an identity, and so the life of it continues even without any specific leader.

As for Sanders, even if he has indeed now “sold out”, at least it took him a hell of a long time to do it; in the intervening time, by outspokenly bringing into the national limelight a slew of long-exiled and badly needed ideas–from healthcare as a right, to walking the walk on campaign finance reform, to viewing climate change properly as the foremost crisis of our time–he did a tremendous service to the people of this country, maybe far more than he planned.

It’s important to remember that Sanders, for all his audacity during the campaign, and for all the disappointment of this moment, is but a spark, a shiny point on which many people could focus at once and thereby discovered not Bernie Sanders, but each other. If Sanders’ words about a “revolution” are not to be a throwaway as he perhaps himself took them to be, then, now may be a good time for people to begin thinking about what a revolution really is, for “revolution” is one of the most fiery and aspirational words in our language and yet also one of the most hoary and overused.

Revolution is not something utterly dependent on one man; it is a shared feeling and vision, a demand for urgent and dramatic change that rips like a tide across multitudes. In revolution, those who had been successfully convinced by the established powers that they were alone and isolated in their beliefs and problems are suddenly brought together, and as part of a vast shared cause are able to feel themselves not just as part of history, but as its necessary authors. “We are the ones we have been waiting for” captures the spirit of this. Though the Obama campaign’s use of it left this saying with an oddly disempowering connotation–as though all the recession-stung electorate of 2008 needed to do to attain heroism and salvation was to fill in the bubble for the right candidate–the real lesson behind it is that we cannot depend on any individual as anything more than a symbol or a rallying-point. We have to do it ourselves.

I have seen enough of the Sanders story to know that the forces he unleashed would not simply go away, even if he endorsed Pol Pot for president. People have come together in huge numbers at his rallies across the country and realized they aren’t flukes or freaks for believing what they do, and that they aren’t blind or crazy for seeing what they see. They have tasted shared purpose for the first time, and having tasted that, many for the first time in their lives, they will not settle for being so blatantly corralled back into the fold of the status quo.

But even more important than any question about parties or leaders or other organizational or administrative issues, political revolution, to be successful, requires a philosophy. A philosophy, contrary the common interpretation, is far more than a set of rules or talking points, or even a model of the world; a real philosophy requires a new way of living and seeing, an understanding made so tangible and accessible that it is explained not so much with books or arguments as by being lived.

To bring forth such a thing is immensely difficult, which is why successful revolutions are rare. In particular, though, the American citizenry’s ability to think in terms of this kind of living political philosophy has become deep-frozen, partly through malign neglect, partly through the psychological numbness promoted by consumerism and wage-slavery, and partly through the droning, soft autocracy and false combat of the corporate two-party system. But Sanders (and Hillary and Trump, through their pungently awful examples) began a process of thawing this ability, by the simplest and most accessible of means–by provoking people to step out and begin questioning.

The worst thing that could happen now would be for cynicism to take hold, so that the thaw is met with another deep freeze. But even had Sanders kept silent and denied Clinton his endorsement, it was never going to be just a matter of just having gone to hear some stump speeches, even if we listened very closely and tried to codify everything he said (which would be a terrible idea).

(One of the most important things and the most difficult, I think, will be to find a new name. Now that Sanders has endorsed the antithesis of what so many people following him believed in, terms like “Sandernista” or “Berner” or “former supporter of the Sanders campaign” are too unwieldy and again too focused on one man. Suggestions are welcome here.)

And so we bid Bernie Sanders adieu, for now. It may be his fate to be reviled by the very movement he helped create. Perhaps he is now in the belly of the Democratic whale, fighting his best under terrific pressure to master it–or perhaps he has simply gave in to whatever perks he was offered. Only time will tell. With the problems he so forcefully articulated still far from solved (and probably worsening rapidly), there is little danger anyone will forget them very soon without him.

There are already signs that the endorsement has backfired, that the unity that he ignited will neither dissipate nor be co-opted, but will find another outlet. Most of the senator’s supporters are unlikely to believe that the fork-tongued and corrupt Clintons will actually fight for the issues they care about, or that she will stand in any meaningful way against the interests both parasitic and predatory whose counsel and cash she so sedulously cultivates; lesser-evilism, on the other hand, has been stretched to the breaking point by such appalling major-party candidates. The proof is already in the pudding: the Green Party’s Jill Stein is surging in donations since the endorsement.

Stein is articulate and has promptly gone on the attack, with her most perceptive précis of all this probably being that “it is impossible to have a revolutionary campaign within a counter-revolutionary party”. Indeed, the two-party system functions as a clever two-headed vacuum attachment for non-establishment political movements, with the GOP head sucking up rightist groups and and the Dems anything leftist or social democratic, and suppressing the envisioning of new philosophies throughout.

In the meantime, let us remember again that this is not about any one man. And therefore to despise that man for his cave-in (or whatever it was) is nothing more than a waste of our energy, and a garden path to that brand of self-defeating or conspiratorial thinking whereby movements regularly destroy themselves.

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