The Limits of Political Revolution

In 2003 or so, in the height of the Bush II era, when you were ‘with us or with the terrorists’ and the Iraq War was in its first Friedman Unit, I went with my friend Jonny to an event called Drinking Liberally. As you might expect, it was held at a bar, and the idea was for liberals and progressives and so on to gather together and drink, bond, commiserate, and strategize. George W Bush was at the height of his power and popularity, and the various candidacies to replace him were in their beginning stages. I remember we all sat around a big table, with another rank of folks standing behind us. At one end of the table were these two dudes in sweaters doing their absolute best to hijack the conversation, talking over people and extolling their liberal-than-thou bona fides.

Their main point, aside from smug self-satisfaction? That the key to the Democratic party getting back into power was to get rid of all these centrists and DINOs, so the ‘Democratic wing of the Democratic Party’, i.e. its most liberal faction, could ascend to power. By some sort of Underpants Gnomes calculus, this was supposed to lead us to victory in 2004.

Let me say that again: shrinking the party to its hardest hard core of (let’s be honest, white, mostly male) progressives would somehow lead to electoral victory, where the key is to convince the most people to vote for you.

I believe the technical term for that is magical thinking.

I’d love to forget those two smug assholes. Hell, I’d love to forget the whole Bush II era, when conservatives started trying on their brown shirts and jackboots in earnest, and fucked shit up so bad these racist-ass United States actually elected a black man President. And it seems I’m not alone in that. To be honest, it seems like half the damn left forgot the lessons we should have learned back then, which is a big part of what made Donald Trump possible.

Which brings me, sigh, to Bernie Sanders and his ‘political revolution’.

In 2016, I was a Sanders guy, right up til it became mathematically impossible for him to win the nomination. I was thrilled to see someone bring the kind of deep progressive policy and political goals and rhetoric I, a lifelong progressive, had been wanting to see in mainstream discourse ever since I was old enough to vote and engaged enough to pay attention. Even when he didn’t win, I was thrilled when his rhetoric and platform did indeed cross over into the mainstream. I was less thrilled than the candidate himself, who crossed the line somewhere from someone whose goals and interest were driven by principle to someone whose principles were driven by his goals and his self-interest. But that seems to be most politicians, so it’s if not forgivable then not a deal-breaker on its own.

But Bernie Sanders political revolution’s greatest strength is also its greatest weakness: it’s an insurgency defined as much by its opposition to the institutional Democratic Party as it is by its positive political and policy ambitions. Which, if you’re running for the Democratic Party’s nomination to be President, with the institutional backing that comes with it for a general election, is kind of a problem.

Yes, the party leadership has probably coordinated in response to Sanders’ rise. Which is, you know, their job and all that, conspiracy theories aside. But so, apparently, have the voters, who yesterday — and much to this Warren supporter’s chagrin — coalesced around Joe Biden, FSM help us all, as the last man standing/consensus choice.

Turns out snake emojis and sneering contempt for people you’re going to need later on isn’t the best strategy for building coalitions.

Look, temperamentally and policy-wise, I’m firmly aligned with Bernie Sanders (I’m even more so with Elizabeth Warren; the misogyny and deliberate erasure that handicapped her campaign will have to be a whole other post, though). We do in fact need radical change, even radical-er than Bernie himself calls for (ain’t a goddam thing gonna pass as long as there’s a filibuster in the Senate). But you know what we need to get that radical change passed into law? A great big fucking coalition, not all of whom are going to be hard core progressives who only identify as Democrats in Presidential election years.

I told those two guys all those years ago that much as I agreed with them on policy, you can’t get shit done if you don’t have a majority, and you don’t get a majority by telling people they’re sellouts or assholes if they don’t believe just as you believe, just as hard as you believe it. Almost twenty years on, looks like I’m still over here in the corner, saying the same goddam thing.

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