“What we now need is a new kind of Selma or Birmingham to dramatize the economic plight of the Negro and compel the government to act. We intend to channelize the smoldering rage and frustration….We also look for participation by representatives of the millions of non-Negro poor: Indians, Mexican-Americans, Puerto Ricans, Appalachian whites, and others.” Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Announcing the Poor Peoples Campaign December 4, 1967
Much has been made of Senator Bernie Sanders call for a “political revolution”, and with his decisive victory over Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire Primary, he has put the formidable Clinton team on their heels. Only time will reveal whether Mr. Sanders has the political mojo, muscle and magic that propelled Barack Obama past Mrs. Clinton eight years ago. But, for now, the battle lines are being drawn and clarified. In simplistic form, Hillary Clinton part of President Obama’s “Team of Rivals” is pitching her experience, and her brand of “pragmatic progressivism”. Mrs. Clinton wants Democratic Primary voters to believe that while she agrees in principal with many of the issues espoused by Senator Sanders, her progressive vision is much more achievable. And even if the 2009-2010 fight for Health Care was not in her portfolio, she was close enough to the battle to believe that the Democratic Party simply doesn’t have the stomach to re-litigate that fight even for a progressive dream like a single payer heath care alternative. In addition, Mrs. Clinton has been attempting to make the case that Single Payer, like many other Sanders policies are unrealistic and can only be paid for by raising taxes.
Republicans running for President in 2016 say that no matter which Democrat garners the nomination; they will ostensibly be serving the 3rd term of Barack Obama. Well let’s take that premise to its natural conclusion. The Affordable Care Act (ACA) represents Mr. Obama’s signature domestic achievement, and in Obergfell vs. Hodges, the Supreme Court codified his gay rights agenda. The recent Supreme Court decision on Clear Air, notwithstanding, Mr. Obama can point to a bevy of initiatives, and agreements that have moved the needle significantly in the area of Climate Change. In addition, President Obama claimed victory with the Trans Pacific Trade agreement or TPP.
On the other hand, a recalcitrant Republican Congress has thwarted Mr. Obama in the area of immigration and Gun Control to such degree that he has been forced to enact minimalist but controversial executive orders. It goes without saying that a Sanders or Clinton Administration will attempt to hold serve on the efforts of their predecessor. The argument put forth to Democratic primary voters is – after that, then what? And it appears that the left in the Democratic Party while extolling the achievements of President Obama, need to hear a vision that represents a more pure progressive agenda. If Iowa and New Hampshire is an indicator, the message is getting clearer – the status quo ante is not an option.
The word purity was often used to describe the litmus test applied to conservative Republicans in recent times. The dramatic victories of Tea Party Candidates in 2010 reflected a purging of political moderates in their party. At the same time although less dramatic, the Democratic Party was confronted with their own internal crisis. Angst from the left. In my book Barry! A Citizen Blogger’s Commentary on the 44th President I wrote a piece titled Memo to the Left – is there Whine with that Cheese? In it I noted that even during the Obama transition period in the winter of 2008, progressives in the Democratic Party had already rolled out a laundry list of complaints. They ranged from holding the new President’s feet to the fire on closing Guantanamo Bay, raging about his campaign flip flop on the FISA bill, his reticence to prosecute Bush Administration officials, and the presence of Clinton holdover Larry Summer on his economic team. They saw the Clinton presence in the Obama White House as looking backwards, not forward.
As the first term of President Obama got mired in health care, and bailouts, things got worse. In the summer of 2011, in an Op Ed titled The President Surrenders Paul Krugman of The New York Times eviscerated President Obama’s attempt at a “Grand Bargain” with then House Speaker John Boehner. And a few weeks later, Bernie Sanders suggested the unthinkable, that sitting a President within his own caucus should have a primary challenge. In September of that year, a movement that became known as Occupy Wall Street begun to highlight Wall Street greed and income inequality. Finally, civil rights activists Tavis Smiley, and Dr. Cornell West led a poverty tour, which often included speeches accusing President Obama of turning his back on the poor. By 2012 what was smoldering in 2008 was closing had become a boiling point. That said, the specter of a Republican winning the White House and the impact of Mitt Romney’s infamous 47% remarks, help to galvanize the party which catapulted Barack Obama to a 2nd term. But the voices of the left were not to be ignored.
The competing interpretations on how to assuage the political left goes to the heart of the Democratic chasm. The Clinton campaign narrative is to urge primary voters to choose a candidate who can basically hold serve and offer practical advances rather than a candidate whose “pie in the sky” vision may render him unelectable in the general campaign. That said, the path to 270 electoral votes is much easier for a Democrat if they can effectively hold on to the Obama coalition, especially with the anti immigrant message coming from the Republican Party. Because many feel the Republican nominee may have such a deleterious effect on the party there is hope that the Democratic Party may win back the Senate. That hope does not extend to the House of Representatives which will most likely remain in the hands of the GOP. Which brings us back to the same gridlock that often frustrated POTUS number 44.
Which speaks to another Clinton argument against Senator Sanders. Governance. Last September on Meet the Press, Moderator Chuck Todd citing the high number of Senate Bills sponsored by Bernie Sanders that failed to have a single co sponsor, asked him as President, how would he get potential gridlocked and hyper partisan Congress to support his agenda? Sanders replied, “The only way that real change takes place, and what we're doing in this campaign, is bringing millions of people together to stand up and say, "Enough is enough.” In that answer lays the essence of his vision of a political revolution. But there is a problem with that.
While millions of Americans may be in the same drowning economic boat, steeped in personal debt, student loans debt, low wages, and marginal job prospects, Senator Clinton is correct in asserting that Wall Street is not the sole culprit for their plight. Globalization and 21st century technology has changed the economic landscape. In addition, those boats have different cabins, some of those cabins are filled with people of color, some or not. Some are filled with people from Northern urban centers, some from rural areas, and some from the Deep South. In any case, both Wall Street and corporate America assert undue influence on our political system, affecting millions of Americans across all demographic lines.
For example, in 2014, Republican Senators held up the passage of the Farm Bill, which threatened Food Stamp payment to thousand of their citizens, many of them were white. Websites as different ideologically as Huffington Post and Occidental Dissent which call themselves Pro White, Pro South and Pro Labor ripped the North American Free Trade Agreement or NAFTA for it’s deleterious effect on American jobs, American wages, and American Manufacturing. The high cost of college is effecting poor white students much the same way it poor brown and black students. Thus one can say that it not enough for a candidate to be a political revolutionary. That candidate’s message must be able to transcend partisan politics, rise above racial animus, and speak to their hearts in a manner that will cause them to re-think old political alliances, in favor on a movement aimed at breaking the status quo.
For Bernie Sanders to be effective, he must go where few Progressive candidates dare. He must do what the Democratic Party in general and Democratic Senatorial Committee utterly failed to do in 2014. In the fall of 2014 with the balance of power in the Senate on the line, the Democratic Party could not, or would not find their voice with poor whites by unmasking the manner in which the Republican Party into voting against their own economic interests has manipulated them. Hopefully Mr. Sanders’ version of a 50-state strategy can do that. On that note, one of Senator Sanders challenges is to reconcile his economic justice pitch with the nascent Black Lives Matter Movement. And while I am hard pressed to envision any scenario where a Black Lives Matter activists and poor Southern whites can fit seamlessly under the same progressive umbrella, it is exactly that kind of revolutionary coalition building that is needed to achieve his goals.
The reality is that forging a new coalition to look much like the true dream of Dr. King over 50 years ago, is rooted deeper than mere politics. Forging a coalition of people whose history has been of animus and vitriol, at minimum that would pivot away from a history of hatred to a shared belief that many systems have failed the poor and the middle calls takes work and political courage. I appreciate Mr. Sander’s vigor, and his vision, and I agree that what is needed is much more than pragmatism, and a desire to merely hold serve as the Clinton campaign offers. Yet, unless his campaign extends beyond the political comfort zone, of his progressive base, and into the hearts and minds of those with a drastically different demographic profile, a true political revolution will not emerge.
Bernie Sanders victory in New Hampshire signals both a Democratic break away from their recent past, and a rejection of their establishment rules. The coalition that Mr. Sanders spoke of in his victory speech is exactly the kind he will need to both win, and achieve his stated goals. But it will take real effort. He will have to connect the dots in ways that other politicians have failed to do, behind the issues that Mr. Sanders speaks about, climate change, income inequality, criminal justice reform, affordable health care, college cost is a broken system designed to ring up profits for the one percent or what he calls the oligarchy class.
Those broken systems are affecting millions and they all must be dismantled. While covering the Ferguson Protest movement here in Saint Louis, one of the most popular protest chants ended with the phrase “ the whole damn system is guilty as hell!! If I turn on a Bernie Sanders campaign event either during the primary season, or a general election, and I see a cross section of Americans crossing demographic, and cultural lines they never crossed before, chanting “the whole damn system is guilty as hell” it will tell me a new day is dawning in American politics, a 21st Century Political Revolution has unfolded. But be careful what you wish for. The image of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in the nation’s capital in the summer of 1968, not for an “I have a Dream” “kumbaya” moment, but with poor blacks and poor whites united and demanding change was an image that shook the status quo to its foundation. That image made Dr. King dangerous. Does Senator Sanders understand the furies he is attempting to unleash? The power of a people united against a broken, “guilty system” is truly revolutionary. If Senator Sanders is successful, the people will rise, if Senator Sanders is successful, the people will march.