It seems fair to say that most observers of politics in the United States have been surprised by the ascent of Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the presidency. I put myself in a special category, though, with respect to that feeling of surprise. As a political scientist, I purport to have at least better than average observational skills and analytic tools focused on the world of politics. And as a lifelong democratic socialist, I know well the tenuous position in US politics occupied by anyone branded with the scarlet “S.” Watching as another lifelong democratic socialist becomes a viable candidate for the White House has been nothing short of astounding.
For decades, historians, sociologists, and political scientists disagreed as to why among all the highly-developed industrial democracies, the United States alone lacked a socialist party capable of winning national elections, but the fact itself was unquestionable. While Western European socialists sent representatives to their national legislative assemblies and prime ministers to their seats of government, their American colleagues huddled in small, dingy offices, maintaining mailing lists of no more than a few thousand members. In Western Europe, policy debates may be very real and ideological gaps very wide, but attempting to disqualify one’s opponents from office simply by referring to them as socialists (as happened frequently during Barack Obama’s campaigns for the US presidency) would be nonsensical. In the United States, a self-identifying socialist like Seattle’s Kshama Sawant winning a city council election made for enough of a political oddity as to be national news.
Yet, despite his unwavering self-identification as a socialist, Bernie Sanders’ popular support continues to grow. His popularity has been especially strong with young people. A McClatchy-Marist poll conducted before the primaries began gave Sanders a 58% advantage over Hillary Clinton among 18-29 year-old Democratic Party voters So far, however, the enthusiastic support for Bernie Sanders the socialist has failed to translate into similar levels of interest in socialist ideas or energy within socialist organizations. The organized elements of the US socialist left remain miniscule and marginalized.
The organization perhaps best positioned to align with Sanders supporters – the Democratic Socialists of America – is a case in point. Led in the 1980s by the charismatic Michael Harrington and drawing in public intellectuals the likes of Barbara Ehrenreich and Cornel West, the DSA attempted to push the Democratic Party toward a European-style socialist agenda. The Democratic Leadership Council pushed back hard in the opposite direction, successfully turning the party to the right and paving the way for a Democratic Party president (Bill Clinton) to smile for the cameras as he signed legislation dismantling income support for the poor. As the Democratic Party’s ideological center drifted to the right, DSA’s membership numbers declined and many of its once energetic college campus chapters disappeared.
Of course, the day-to-day work of organizations is not what most Americans think of as politics. For most people, politics means elections, and presidential elections loom large over all others. The rhetoric of presidential campaigns encourages voters to place all of their aspirations on the shoulders of an individual candidate, and most people – whether they make it to the polls on election day or not – are eager to oblige. Their disappointment in the months and years after each presidential election is a certainty. US presidents may have important responsibilities in our system of government, but they lack the powers required to fulfill the majority of their campaign promises. US presidents cannot make laws. They cannot undo laws already made. They cannot raise or lower taxes. They cannot alter the composition or distribution of the federal budget. If push comes to shove, a determined Congress can make law without the president, but the president cannot make law without the support of Congress.
These are basic facts about American politics and government that any US high school student should be aware of. But they are basic facts many of us seem happier ignoring. What we seem to want from politics is not the tedium of an organization, nor even the mass energy of a movement. What we want is for someone to arrive on the scene and deliver us from our problems. What we want is a messiah. It goes without saying that this is one of the deepest themes in Western culture. It should also go without saying that real political change, no matter the direction, does not look like the New Testament or The Matrix. For their part, the Koch brothers seem well aware of this. They devote their considerable resources not only to supporting electoral campaigns, but to building organizations through which their libertarian ideology can be crafted and disseminated. As inspiring as the Occupy movement was for the US left, its tragedy was the failure to recognize that its goals could not be accomplished all at once, through necessarily temporary forms of action. Even the most dedicated activists can only remain camped outside of the New York Stock Exchange for so long. Transforming American capitalism – even in relatively modest ways – will require more durable forms of organizing.
None of this should be taken as a critique of the Bernie Sanders campaign. The left has a long and dreadful history of tearing itself to pieces, charging every leader, every organization, every movement with the crimes of insufficient purity and radicalism. The American working class needs a president like Bernie Sanders. The US left needs the leadership of a dedicated democratic socialist like Bernie Sanders. But a Sanders administration in the White House would be hamstrung without a majority of likeminded representatives in Congress. American workers would remain hopelessly outgunned without strong unions to bargain collectively with their employers. And if Sanders is unsuccessful in his campaign for the presidency, the ideas that are now energizing his supporters will go nowhere without organizations to carry them forward. Real politics is not the stuff of superheroes. It is, to use Max Weber’s phrase, the strong and slow boring of hard boards.
Photograph courtesy of Dave Maass. Published under a Creative Commons license.