If there was one bright spot in 2016’s slow electoral train wreck, it was the unexpected and inspiring candidacy of Bernie Sanders, who proved that there’s still a place in national politics for unadulterated progressivism — that a belief in a caring, communitarian society can actually motivate millions of people. As one observer put it, Sanders wasn’t just getting people to vote for him, he was influencing the politics of a whole generation. The bulk of his support was among the young, while the boomer generation, to the embarrassment of many, mostly went for Clinton or Trump.
In “Our Revolution,” Sanders’ describes his background, campaign and political program, if only to explain what he is and what he isn’t. Sanders, as he comes across in the book, seems the epitome of a competent and principled politician. “Politician” is a dirty word in modern America, but Sanders clearly believes in what he’s doing — representing his constituents, passing legislation and making sure justice is done.
What brought such a man, who was doing well in his job, to make the decision to run for president? Sanders has a credible explanation for that — when people encouraged him to run, he decided to visit other parts of the country and got surprisingly strong encouragement. Perhaps it’s the measure of a competent and not necessarily ambitious politician that he would test the wind in this way. Sanders obviously knew what he was doing, given the groundswell of support he found. And it’s also clear that he knows how to organize grassroots support. In fact, the strongest explanation in the book for how he came so close to winning is that, unlike any other candidate (except possibly Trump), he almost entirely eschewed expensive fundraisers in favor of large mass rallies, as well as innumerable town hall meetings. He listened to people as much as he talked at these meetings. Sanders would be the first to say that his campaign was not about him — he claims he’s not a brilliant leader — but about the people’s desire to return to politics of democracy instead of oligarchy.
“Our Revolution” was an anachronism from the day it was issued, about a week after the election. That’s not because the kind of politics Sanders represents is necessarily dead, but because the book was clearly written with the expectation that the forces Sanders set in motion would be engaging with a moderate Democratic administration, spelling out a pathway to the Left. There’s hardly a mention of Trump in the bulk of the book, and certainly no attempt to talk about how the movement Sanders inspired can go up against Trump’s politics.
The best part of “Our Revolution” is a sober, detailed, statistically backed set of chapters on what should be done to get this country back on track. It’s not particularly innovative in the sense of representing a new kind of politics. It’s the return to Franklin Roosevelt’s New Deal, with some updating, that progressives have been advocating since the end of the ’60s. There’s no reason that we couldn’t have a country like that, except for the rich elites who have been successfully whittling away at social programs since the ’80s.
That’s where “Our Revolution” falls down. Sanders, the politician, thinks in terms of legislation more than social movements. When he advocates for a “political revolution,” he’s talking about a renewal of American democracy, where change takes place through the legislative process, backed by an electorate that is empowered rather than suppressed. And there’s nothing wrong with that. Except that it will likely never happen primarily through the legislative process. One of Sanders’ goals (and an appropriate one) is overturning the Citizens United decision; but one can look at the labor and social democratic parties of Europe, most of which have bought into the same kind of austerity we’re undergoing here, to realize that solving the political illness of our society goes beyond getting big money out of politics. Money in politics is already strictly regulated in Europe. Our political illness is based in capitalism itself. Sanders’ grassroots movement is a beginning, but it’s going to have to become much deeper and broader.
The other place “Our Revolution” falls down is that it spends too much time on the Sanders campaign — not analyzing it, which might prove useful for a future insurgency — but describing events and listing campaign workers in tedious detail, to the extent that it sometimes reads like an extended acknowledgements section. This is really a pity, since it’s precisely the unique success of the Sanders campaign that would make it worth emulating in the future. Hopefully some other writer will take on the task of explaining how Sanders achieved a near-miracle — coming within a few hundred delegates of capturing the Democratic nomination. Imagine if Sanders had been running against Trump: He might or might not have won, but it would have been something to see. And if he had won ...