You Say You Want a Revolution

The passion's undeniable. The strategy? Hmmmm...

Let me get this out of the way up front: I agree with everything in Bernie Sanders' platform. He's on what I believe to be the right side of every issue save gun control--which, if I was a single-issue voter, would be my single issue. But I'm not. I'm a strategic voter, checking the box of the candidate I think is most likely, if elected, to make the most substantive progress in making this nation more free, open, compassionate, and affirming of diversity. If Bernie Sanders is the Democratic nominee for President, there is no question but that he'll have my vote.

Until that happens, though, I've got some concerns about Bernie.

I've spelled them out in this space. I'm not convinced Bernie's electable, given this nation's long-running distaste for socialism, and I worry that this could put Donald Trump or Ted Cruz in the White House. The possibility of Michael Bloomberg entering the race as an independent candidate--as he has threatened to do should the nominees be Trump and Sanders--deepens this concern.

But let's set that aside for now, and look at another problem I see in the Sanders platform: despite being a great set of talking points, an agenda that warms my leftist heart, it's unnervingly short on specifics. As I wrote in those previous essays on the Sanders phenomenon, hardly anything on this agenda is doable by executive order. It all depends on our bicameral legislature, at least one side of which is almost certain to remain in the hands of extremely conservative Republicans who've spent the last six years making life miserable for the White House, blocking any piece of legislation to bear the President's fingerprints, devoting their energy instead to trying to take down his signature health care reform. We don't have a parliamentary democracy: our President is not guaranteed a legislature that agrees with his or her agenda.

Confronted in interviews and debates with this reality, Bernie falls back on a single word: revolution. He believes his campaign will stir up the American people to rise up against their do-nothing Congresspersons, demanding that they roll over and enact socialist legislation. If enough Americans believe in change, his theory goes, then Congress will have to accede to their wishes, giving us a $15 minimum wage, free college, single-payer health insurance, paid family leave, publicly funded elections, et cetera. 

That's a lovely thought. Certainly that's how republics are supposed to work: the voters tell their legislators what to do, and they do it. Unfortunately, it flies in the face of generations of Congress ignoring the wishes of vast majorities of Americans, opting instead to preserve the status quo.

Consider, for instance, my single-issue voting point, gun control. In the wake of every school shooting, polls are published that confirm a significant majority of Americans want sensible limits on gun sales, limits that fall far short of any real control over gun ownership. None of these tweaks has made it out of Congress, leading the President to finally throw up his hands and simply put in place what mild regulations he had the authority to enact by executive order.

The reality of voter revolts is that they have to get ugly to have an impact: consider the Tea Party, whose virulent light is only now beginning to fade, as an even nuttier segment of Republicans swings toward the fascist views expressed by Donald Trump. The kind of revolt Bernie Sanders advocates--progressives politely insisting they be listened to--isn't going to have any impact on the nut wing of the GOP, the cabal responsible for keeping the House of Representatives firmly in the "Hell no" camp. These legislators were elected by reactionaries who will eject them from office the moment they make even the slightest of concessions to progressivism. Any progress to come from the House will be despite them, and likely bring the downfall of Speaker Ryan, just as it did for Speaker Boehner. 

All right then, suppose there's an expansion of the Occupy movement, with progressives camping out on Wall Street, the Capitol Mall, on state capitol grounds, city halls, any public place that stands in the way of progress. Suppose these activists add some bite to their bark, chaining themselves to gates, pushing back at police who come to impose order on their rowdiness, screaming so loudly at town hall meetings that conservative opinions are drowned out (a favorite Tea Party tactic). Suppose this becomes a real revolution, the kind LaVoy Finicum was advocating to his gun-toting right wing militia buddies. Are we really going to have violence in the streets? And is it going to bring the change Bernie Sanders is advocating?

No, it's not.

The Civil Rights movement of the 1960s was most effective when it was following Gandhi's principles of non-violent resistance. That brought change, though at a price--many activists lost their lives--and the change, even with significant pieces of legislation being passed, was too incremental to satisfy the more militant factions of the movement. Gun-toting Black Panthers and rioters led to a backlash that got Richard Nixon elected President, and set back the movement for decades.

And how about successful revolutions? I can name three: Soviet Russia, Nazi Germany, and Communist China.

Let's start with China, where a genuine people's movement succeeded, after decades, in ejecting a corrupt Western-backed government--then replaced it with a monolithic dictatorship that remains in power 65 years later. Reforms in China continue to be incremental, as the pragmatic oligarchs who continue to run the country make minor concessions to the populace, who have learned not to push too hard against their masters, for fear of massive reprisal.

Nazi Germany is an example of a small contingent manipulating the rules of democracy to its own advantage, placing a populist leader in a position to impose a reform agenda that pleased the majority of Germans, but contained within it the seeds of genocide and nearly destroyed European civilization.

And finally, the granddaddy of all leftist revolutions: the Bolsheviks rose to power in Russia by overthrowing an ineffective monarch, taking advantage of the chaos of a world war, to put in power a team of socialist leaders whose ideals could not survive the decade. The death of Lenin paved the way for decades of brutal, genocidal absolutism. The regime ultimately rotted from within, but the populist government that took its place fumbled for years before reverting to strong man rule under Vladimir Putin.

There are other, smaller examples of revolutions, many of them non-violent, bringing hope to a nation, ending long-lasting regimes: Cuba, Egypt, Libya, Nicaragua, El Salvador, Liberia, South Africa. It could be a very long list. And unfortunately, again and again, we'd see that the very forces that make a revolution effective do not translate to an equally effective government.

Because, sadly, revolution is just not a good way to run a country.

The one exception to this litany of failures is the United States. Within just a few years of their victorious revolution, the founders realized the survival of the republic depended on massive compromise. They drew up a Constitution built around a three-branched government that included a bicameral legislature. Running the country would depend, repeatedly, on the separate powers negotiating with each other, giving up ground to make incremental progress. Some of those compromises were horrendous: it took another revolution to end slavery, massive movements to give anything approaching equal rights to women, and the subjugation and near-extermination of the native population to make room for the expansion of the nation beyond its initial eastern dimensions. But compromise by compromise, the equity and justice envisioned by the founders continued to expand and grow, diversity taking root in communities across the nation.

It's the exception that proves the rule: this country would not exist but for the leadership of visionaries who were also pragmatists. Revolutionaries typically don't build up; they overthrow.

To close this out, I'll make one more appeal not to misunderstand me: I agree with so much that Bernie Sanders advocates. I just wish he had a realistic strategy for creating his socialist utopia. Because revolution ain't it.


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