Uh, about that “movement” thing: it’s not going to be simple

Dear fellow progressives,

The sun is shining on the political terrain, for once. Bernie Sanders has shattered expectations, and proven wrong the long-held assumption that progressive goals like single payer healthcare, free higher education, and higher taxation are toxic third rails in U.S. politics. It turns out folks in large numbers can be persuaded to take those ideas seriously.

But how do we go from winning some electoral contests to actually enacting reforms? Bernie has been pretty clear that, even if he wins the White House, he won’t be able to do much without a lot of help from elsewhere. His answer for how to get that help is a “nationwide grassroots movement.”

Here’s an open secret: Bernie is probably not the guy to make that movement happen. His strength and his weakness is that he is a campaign control freak, accustomed to crafting his message and sticking fiercely to it, watching everything like a hawk. He does not like to adapt to spontaneous initiatives coming from the outside. He does not work very well with other politicians on the electoral front. When Bernie first won office as the mayor of Burlington, a Progressive movement formed around him that became the Vermont Progressive Party. For thirty years, Bernie has refused to officially join it, always running as an independent (though he has endorsed many of its candidates.) This caused much grumbling in the early years of his success; now people have gotten used to it. Bernie as a campaigner is a one-man-band. The point is, he is deeply sincere when he calls for a grassroots movement, but if folks sit back and expect him to be the one to reach out and cause down ballot initiatives and new progressive candidates to come rushing in, we might be disappointed.

All that this means is that others are going to have to get involved, and do some coordination. There are other strong progressive politicians already on the national stage like Elizabeth Warren and Barbara Boxer. There are established organizations, ranging from Progressive Democrats of America to Democracy for America to MoveOn.org. Russ Feingold, currently trying to get his senate seat back in the very purple state of Wisconsin, has long been an effective champion of progressive causes and, much more than Bernie, has worked hard to build communities of grassroots activists that can sustain action beyond individual elections. And one hopes that young folks coming out of efforts like OWS might be willing to loosely coordinate and/or engage with electoral efforts and initiatives, even while not completely signing on to one or another established political group. Lets hope that folks are listening and talking to one another, and looking for areas of mutual benefit.

Social movements are real. They are not magic. And initial bursts of popular energy as we’ve been seeing around Bernie do not always translate into sustained, decades-long movements for change. So perhaps now is a good time to remember all the other work that needs to be done, whatever happens to his campaign.