This essay originally appeared at the new "Free The State" web site July 25, 2015.
In this “summer of discontent,” Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont has declared his candidacy for the office of President. Most of the mass media initially portrayed this as a kind of political curiosity, a “last stand” of what remained of the Left in this country. Right away, however, Sanders began to attract sizeable crowds, not only in “Blue” States, but in places like Arizona. Pledging not to accept corporate donations, Sanders seems to be building some momentum anyway, depending instead on many small
Furthermore, Sanders spelled out a platform which included planks such as free college tuition, increased money to restore our infrastructure, reversing climate change, raising the minimum wage, health care as a right, etc. When challenged by reporters that such a platform resembles Scandinavian socialism (actually “social democracy”), Sanders has not flinched, but responded: “Why not?” So in many ways, Sanders represents a surprising new force in American politics.
Already it seems clear that Sanders is mobilizing people who have simply been ignored by the political establishment. Most mainstream Democrats lack any kind of visionary capacity. These same Democrats often actually prefer a status quo, which they can control and manage. Large-scale participation of millions of people threatens that control, which they define as “stability.” We only need to harken back to the ill-fated candidacy of Senator George McGovern in 1972 to realize that much of the leadership of the Democratic Party will sabotage anyone with the slightest tint of “socialist” radicalism.
However, there is a much more serious, fundamental problem facing the revival of any kind of Left in America. And no one is talking about it. This is a failure of the most simply, basic kind of political thinking, namely a failure to begin the process of actually taking power. Nauseated by corruption, brutality and stupidity everywhere evident, including, and especially in the mass media, many people recoil from “politics,” especially the electoral process. The politicians and their media actually approve and support this mass turn away from elections, because it leaves their power intact. Indeed, the one thing they fear is mass participation, which could undermine, if not wholly destroy their power.
It is passing strange that Sanders and his supporters apparently have no strategy to run people for office. We have a long history in this country, of relying on messiahs to “save” us: Nader, Obama, etc. The idea is if we just elect a “good” President, all else will follow. The Republicans, on the other hand, aimed at developing and consolidating power at all levels, from local school boards to State Legislatures. While the Left was dreaming, the Right did their homework and the hard work.
Senator Sanders was long associated with the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). I do not know if he is still a member, but the DSA is solidly behind him now. As a group that emerged from the old Socialist Party, DSA resolved not to become a political party as such, but rather to work as a kind of pressure group within the Democratic Party. Their members are around 7,000. According to their website, they do not run any candidates for office, but may from time to time, support those who do. So they have no strategy at all to build, let alone seize political power in cities or States.
I have implored people involved in opposition to the present extreme Right-wing legislature in Kansas, to run for office. Not as individuals, but as a movement. But I can find no “takers.” Again, this concedes power to the Right-wing.
Historically in Kansas, there has been a hegemony of the Republican Party, dating back to the foundation of the State, out of the turmoil of the 1850s. [Kansas was admitted to the Union in 1861, in large part because the Congressional delegations of many Southern States had left Washington.] To be sure, we have had Democratic Governors within living memory, and even, occasionally, Democratic majorities in the Legislature. But typically, there was a working agreement between the Republican moderates (based in the suburbs of the major cities), and the Democrats, based in the cities. In recent years, supported by church-based Tea Party activists, the moderates were defeated, and the Right took control.
Considered from a sociological standpoint, the moderates were what are called “country club Republicans”—responsible, respected attorneys, bankers, doctors, etc. They never campaigned hard, because they didn’t need to. But the religious Right, starting out under Reagan, mobilized whole new groups, who finally overthrew these elites. As a friend of mine in western Kansas, a respected attorney, lamented: “My Party left me.”
Now, my late father, Bryan Whitehead, a railroad worker, and “yeller dog” Democrat, was a perceptive student of the political process in Kansas. He noted that registration of potential Democratic voters in the cities was low. But if they did register and did vote, they could potentially control Kansas politics, or at least become a decisive factor, if not always an outright majority. The Tea Party did for their “base”—the rural voters, who tended to be conservative anyway, what the Democrats rarely even tried to do for their base—the working class.