Author Archives: Tom Streeter

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 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.

Before the voting begins: lessons for progressives so far

I write this the day before the Iowa caucuses. Whoever wins, the post-Iowa reportage will make what’s come before it seem profound in comparison. We’ll be in for weeks or months of obsessed, breathless, and painfully shallow discussions of polls, candidate gaffs, quotes from campaign staffers, etc. So before all that noise begins, here are some things I think we’ve learned from Bernie’s campaign so far.

1) Much more is possible in electoral politics than almost anybody thought. Forget Hillary, just consider Bernie’s standing in the polls compared to Martin O’Malley, who at the start of the race was considered by every political insider to define the left-most edge of the electable political spectrum. The entire staff of the NYT and an overwhelming majority of sitting Democrats have been forced to admit they were wrong about Bernie’s chances. Hereafter, insider claims like “that will never happen” are mere astrology. Statements like “he can’t win” just can not be trusted. If Bernie goes down for defeat, there will be choruses of “I told you so” from all over the political spectrum; this is exactly the wrong conclusion to be drawn. He has already proven the common wisdom wrong on so many fronts — “democratic socialism,” refusal to triangulate, bad hair, age, and more.

2) Especially the common wisdom about big money: big money is still a huge force, of course, but Bernie has proven that it is not insurmountable. The math is simple: there are just many, many more people who can give $30 than there are that can give hundreds of thousands, so even in a post-Citizens United environment, all is not lost.

3) Also, you do not have to cower before the mainstream media to succeed nationally. Bernie has systematically treated shallow questions from reporters with clear refusals to play the game, and managed to make it clear to millions that he shares their distrust of most reporters while also offering something different and more substantive. His refusal to go negative on Hillary, to take seriously the email scandal or the behaviors of Bill, his dogged effort to stick to his core principles and goals — all this has worked positively for his campaign and his standing in the polls. There is a model to be followed there.

Even if Bernie goes on to victory, progressives still need to be thinking hard about electoral strategies, about down ballot races, about policy initiatives, about campaigns far into the future. Regardless of what happens in the coming weeks, I hope we can hang on to the lessons of the last year and put them to good use.

If Bernie wins the nomination, what then?

So what would a race between Democratic nominee Sanders and Republican candidate X look like? As a Vermonter, I’ve seen Bernie attacked by big(ish) Republican money a few times. He does have some tricks up his sleeve.

In 1990, when Bernie ran against a Republican incumbent for the U.S. House, the RNC threw some money at Vermont, running TV ads that not-so-subtly red baited Bernie: e.g., an “ordinary Vermont woman” establishing her plain-folks status while stacking wood in her yard, in the final seconds of the ad, turns to the camera and says, “Bernie scares me.” Bernie defeated the incumbent by a margin of 56% to 40%. In his first run for Senate in 2006, Bernie went up against a very popular moderate Republican businessman, Rich Tarrant, who used his own fortune to turn the contest into the most expensive political campaign in Vermont’s history. Tarrant, struggling to make headway in the polls throughout the campaign, towards the end listened to his consultants and went sleazy/negative, using Bernie’s House vote on a spending bill to claim that Bernie supported child molesters. Sanders won by an approximately 2-to-1 margin.

In each case, the dirty attacks and red-baiting failed, and probably boomeranged on the Republicans. Not all Vermonters are Birkenstock-wearing former hippies — we elected a popular Republican governor repeatedly 2002-2010 — but folks knew enough about Bernie (from, e.g., his efforts on behalf of veterans and the like) to know that the sleazy attack ads were just that. Bernie is not only scrupulously consistent and honest about his policies and principles, but he knows how to communicate them. In 2004, he got a higher percentage of the Vermont vote than John Kerry, which means there were a number of Vermonters voting simultaneously for Bernie and George W. Bush.

In the unusually substantive strategic discussions amongst liberals this past few weeks, one fear Bernie-skeptics have raised is that as the Democratic nominee he would be faced with a temporarily reunited Republican Party machine: a no-holds barred, massively funded, merciless attack replete with dog-whistle themes and other shameless techniques. Fox News would craft the nasty memes, and CNN would lap them up. Krugman and others have pointed out that Bernie has not faced that kind of attack yet on the national stage, and so polls showing him doing well in a head-to-head with various Republican candidates do not mean much. This is all true.

Bernie’s approach to campaigning is to stay away from spin, and with enormous sincerity repeat a handful of artfully crafted points, doggedly sticking to them in the face of constant efforts by opponents and journalists to get him to play the sound bite game. (Think of how he has consistently taken the high road with regards to HIllary’s emails and Bill’s peccadilloes, and how effectively that plays.) He is a control freak about this: Bernie is not going to do what Howard Dean did in 2002-03, and start taking his policy cues from his grass roots followers rather than the other way around. But we’ve seen already how Bernie can effectively disarm cynical journalists and politicians by just calling them out and sticking to his principles. “Idealism” in his hands is good strategy.

That said, whether they are going after Hillary or Bernie, the post-convention Republican machine is likely to be ferocious, perhaps like nothing we’ve ever seen before. Whoever the Democratic nominee, they are going to need our help.

Some light shines through — so now what? Pragmatic Progressivism Part 2

Dear Paul Krugman,

Thank you for having long been a powerful and effective critic of received wisdoms in economics and politics. I might not have survived the administration of George W. Bush without your columns. And thanks for recently calling for fellow progressives to engage in some “hardheaded realism” about how to achieve our goals. Yes, please, let’s do that.

But as we do that, let’s also admit that what has long counted as “realistic pragmatism” for many has been just plain wrong. Recently, inside the beltway and the halls of the New York Times, “realistic pragmatism” said Trump was nothing to worry about, Bernie was a sideshow, and Hillary was as good as already nominated. (There’s lots more if you go further back: the Republicans would never threaten a government shut down and the economy just to get their way, a legal challenge to the ACA would never get to the Supreme Court. And then there’s WMD’s . . . )

So when Bernie said in the last debate that healthcare was a human right and that he would “move forward” from Obamacare towards single payer healthcare, your retort that a “single-payer system just isn’t going to happen” worries me. Yes, I wish Bernie had added more details, perhaps saying we should work towards a medicare-for-all system by gradually lowering the age of medicare eligibility over a decade or two. But if it’s true, as you say, “perhaps most, health economists would recommend single-payer,” what does it do for the general public — who generally tell pollsters they think everyone should be legally guaranteed health care  — if we tell them that “it’s just not going to happen” because of the power of insurance companies and others who are for the moment quite comfortable? It’s true that insurance companies have power, that  the necessary tax increases would cause many to freak-out, and the “disruptions” to folks with good existing insurance would combine to make the political fight a hard one. That’s a reality. But “just isn’t going to happen”? That’s just a guess. I don’t know it’s wrong, and you don’t know it’s right. Bernie’s insistence on advocating single payer/medicare-for-all has given many liberals some pause, and its generating some interesting strategic discussion. But let’s not base that discussion on truisms, on “what everyone knows.”

Bernie knows that single payer isn’t happening any time soon, and he’s been quite explicit about the limits caused by the toxic opposition either he or Hillary would face as President. His question is: what’s the best strategy given those realities? Part of his answer is we need a movement, not just a president. And he’s not against compromise. But he’s against the wrong compromises, which he has long argued and in many ways demonstrated the Democratic party has been making for decades. Do you start the discussion by saying “what’s best isn’t going to work because big money won’t let us”? Or do you start by advocating what’s best, and by involving ordinary folks in the effort rather than throwing them under the bus in favor of big money, and then doing the best you can from there. The debate here isn’t pragmatism vs idealism. It’s about what’s really pragmatic, about what’s the truly strategic way forward.

Since my last post, a few cracks have appeared in the dull gray clouds of dominant assumptions: Hillary Clinton staffers and their friends amongst the political journalists at the New York Times have for the moment decided that they were wrong to dismiss Bernie as a mere side show, that he might be a threat after all in the primaries. And he performed not just well in the recent Democratic debate, but did well by sticking to core principles, by being consistent and clear rather than by by being merely clever. (For example, when Hillary accused him of being against Obama in 2011 — a cynical, sophistic move, given all she said against Obama in 2008 — he simply rolled his eyes. For most of my life, a silly attack like Hillary’s would have become fodder for endless discussion in the media, but for now, that kind of thing is not sticking.)

So for the past week or two, the tone of MSM coverage has changed a bit, and as a result a little sunshine is showing through, and folks on all sides are for better or worse given the opportunity to think of things in a slightly new light. In the New Yorker, John Cassidy has a somewhat more measured piece than Krugman’s speaking to the issue of “realism.” Brian Beutler has weighed in thoughtfully on the strategy question in The New Republic. In response to Krugman, Jedediah Purdy has written this and this excellent pieces about “how change happens,” making the case that bold ideas are a necessary if not sufficient part of the mix of any real change. Let’s take advantage of the moment, and let’s engage in hardheaded realism, but let’s not mistake our conventions for inevitable truths. Realism requires admitting what you don’t know, and the range of things we don’t know is vast.

Too clever by half

Nobody knows who will win the Democratic Primary. Why can’t we admit that and move on?

The New York Times thinks it does know, and seems so content in their certainty that Bernie can not possibly beat Hillary, that they have been ignoring rather than attacking him. Most of the rest of the mainstream media have followed suit. But those media outlets and their resident pundits have clearly lost some of their stranglehold over the construction of “electability”: viz, Trump. National polls have consistently shown Hillary with a vast lead, but those polls are much less significant than state-based polls conducted a few weeks before a primary, and Bernie’s lead in New Hampshire and neck-and-neck status in Iowa also have been pretty steady — and the outcome of those two primaries traditionally have more effect on subsequent primaries than anything that has come before. But that only tells me: we don’t know.

Real small-d democracy necessitates living with uncertainty, and in a way embracing that uncertainty. The insider baseball that has dominated political journalism for the past half century is politically enervating at best, anti-democratic at worst. It’s too clever by half, speaking with certainty about things that aren’t certain, while avoiding obvious, if difficult truths. (OK, if you accurately predicted in 2014 that Donald Trump would be the Republican front-runner going into the 2016 primaries, then I want to hear from you. Otherwise, please talk about something else.)

I’ve been enjoying some of the debates between Bernie supporters and Hillary supporters (though I think the more interesting ones are between women). Though I’m a Bernie supporter, I think it’s true that it would be a major breakthrough to have a committed feminist in the Whitehouse, and that a future political landscape in which the problem is pushing President Hillary to the left does not seem a whole lot worse than a landscape in which the problem is trying to get any of Bernie’s progressive policy proposals enacted against enormous resistance. We live in interesting times.

But there’s a tendency in Hillary’s camp, and to some extent in Bernie’s as well, where the debate devolves into insider baseball, where people, with much self-certainty, throw around poll results and anecdotes about how the world “really works.” For example, Katha Pollitt, who I like a lot, wrote “Bernie Sanders isn’t going to win the nomination… can we at least be honest about that? And if he did, he wouldn’t win the general election.” That’s a guess, not hard knowledge, and rhetorically it works to shut down discussion, not open it up. Sanders supporters, understandably annoyed at the MSM’s inevitability assumption, respond with equally thin lists of reasons why Bernie will win, such as not-very-meaningful head-to-head matchup polls. I’m all for being pragmatic and realistic, but the only thing the last decade and a half has taught me is that the world of politics is less predictable than we imagine.

As progressives, I think we have to get out of the habit of second-guessing democracy. There’s so much else to talk about, to ponder, to debate; let’s focus on that. Enough of the prognostication, already.

talking strategy with Hillary supporters

Dear friends who lean towards Hillary:

Now that Bernie has appeared on the cover of Time and is leading Hillary Clinton in the polls in both Iowa and New Hampshire, let’s talk some strategy. First, let’s agree that it’s not just about the personalities: maybe you find him annoyingly self-certain and monotone, but Hillary’s lifetime of poll-driven equivocation is also not particularly heartwarming. And they’re both smart and have records of getting things done — modest records in both cases. And the policy differences are real but there’s still more overlap than not: e.g., economically, his democratic socialism is not anti-capitalist (think Denmark) and she’s no market fundamentalist. The real question is strategic.

I do NOT think the answer is just about preventing a Republican president in 2016. If that’s the only question you ask, if you put all your eggs in that basket, your candidate gives off a smell of fear: not very attractive to the independents and swing voters that are necessary to win. I think that had a lot to do with why Gore, Kerry, and many others failed to follow in Bill Clinton’s footsteps down the path of triangulation and moving toward the center. And even under Bill Clinton, we got a lot of Republican policies and a Republican dominated house. Someone once said having the courage of one’s convictions is worth about 6 points in an election. That actually seems high to me, but most elections are won or lost on smaller margins. Having a vision and a broad movement, having something deeply positive to say, certainly was key to Obama in 2008. 

Back in July, Barney Frank, for whom I have a lot of respect, made the case for HIllary against Bernie. But I’m not persuaded: he exaggerates Hillary’s progressivism, and just takes for granted that she’s more likely than Sanders to defeat a Republican, without really explaining why. (Hillary certainly has broad name recognition, and her support is still wide, but I also suspect that much of her support is thin: for many, I think she’s least-worst, not someone that generates fire in the belly. That’s not a formula for certain victory.) And Frank doesn’t seem to understand that Sanders’ arguments are to a large degree strategic, not ideological. Bernie’s not looking for purity, he’s just looking to move the polity in a better, electorally more successful, direction. He’s long been a believer in the What’s the Matter with Kansas argument, which is not that Republican’s have pulled the wool over working people’s eyes with social issues, but that because Democrats have largely ignored working people and adopted policies that do little or nothing for them, working folks will go with social issues that seem to them better than nothing. The solution is to actually do something that matters for working people, listen to them, and explain how you will help them in plain language; that will get votes, Bernie believes, and his own electoral successes, past and present, lend some credence to his view.

Regarding the effect of an extended primary battle between Sanders and Clinton, as I said in my last post, “if Clinton is forced to get her head out of the NYTimes and the polls and start actually making clear arguments for specific positions to the general public, I think respect for her and for the Democratic Party among a significant number of independents would likely rise.”

One piece of puzzle is Congress: without more Democrats in Congress and across the country, neither a Sanders nor a Clinton presidency will be able to get much of value done. Bernie’s answer to the nationwide question is first, grass roots organizing to create a movement. What’s Hillary’s? How do we get to a better place? 

[this post is derived from a discussion on Facebook; I’m still trying to figure out where to best post stuff.]

left 3.0

NYC_Sept_2015If the first modern major wave of leftist activism in the U.S. was the progressive
movement of the turn of the 20th century, and the second was the 1960s counter-culturally inflected New Left, then perhaps we’re experiencing a third moment of left activism.  With Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn, Syriza, and more, the progressive left has now become a force in electoral politics in Europe and the Americas. When Forbes advises its wealthy readers on how to prepare their tax havens for the contingency of a Sanders Presidency, it’s safe to say the left is now something that non-leftists can no longer ignore. After decades of being invisible, of being dismissed or taken for granted by the powers that be, the left is back on the stage.

None of which is to say the left is on the verge of triumph, or the revolution is at hand. The left is now just one force among several. Nor is it to say that the left is monolithic. In the U.S., I think what’s going on is a loose coalition between old-new-lefties who’ve shouldered the burden of pragmatic electoral politics (e.g. Sanders, Todd Gitlin), and Democratic party activists who have grown disillusioned with the strategies of narrow Clintonian triangulation (e.g. Elizabeth Warren, Zephyr Teachout).

But if I look at the current situation with an eye beyond the U.S. Presidential contest towards the longer game of influencing the terms of the debate nationally and globally, I’m encouraged. My initial predictions about the MSM’s response to a Bernie campaign still hold. The attention he’s getting is due more to political journalists’ need for a horse race, rather than serious attention to his arguments. But Bernie is doing better than I expected, and I originally expected him to make much more of a splash than most people did.

That said, the strategic dilemmas are huge. I respectfully disagree with Barney Frank that a vigorous Democratic primary contest between Sanders and Clinton would hurt the Democrats’ chances in a final campaign against a Republican; if Clinton is forced to get her head out of the NYTimes and the polls and start actually making clear arguments for specific positions to the general public, I think respect for her and for the Democratic Party among a significant number of independents would likely rise. Yes money matters in campaigns, but so does the energy of having the courage of one’s convictions. That said, the question of who would be more likely to prevent another Republican President — especially given the current crop of candidates — is an important one, if the answer is not as obvious as the punditocracy makes it out to be. The Nation magazine recently framed the question as one of determining when pragmatism becomes complacency, or when recourse to being “practical” just becomes a claim that nothing can be done. Important questions; not easy to answer.

Bernie’s best hope right now is the effort to build a grass roots movement that reaches out to folks throughout the country who know little or nothing about him. He very astutely made the case to the DNC that, if they wanted to win back the Congress, “politics as usual,” i.e. Clintonism, would not do the job. And there are some signs that that message made an impression. The media are mostly incapable of understanding grass roots efforts — they tend to imagine it’s about social media and gadgetry, rather than the fine art of widespread, organized face-to-face contact, which may be facilitated by technology but can never be reduced to it. That’s just as well. Bernie no doubt knows that the moment the establishment understands him as a real threat, the forces brought to bear against him will be ferocious. (For Howard Dean in 2003, that moment was when Al Gore endorsed him in December, at which point the media turned on him with a kind of adolescent rage; the silly “scream” coverage was just a symptom of something that had been going on for weeks.)

Certainly, for those of us who’d like to see some fundamental progressive changes in the U.S., now is not the time to give up. But we have to think strategically, and probably work on many levels at once.


Who are “Democrats” according to reporters? Language and the ideology of the “pragmatic”

The most ideological moments are often, not when one loudly states a position, but when one AVOIDS stating one’s position, when things are assumed to be so obvious that you feel no need to mention them. Consider this routine bit of political commentary by Chris Cillizza in today’s Washington Post, in which he engages in some routine armchair quarterbacking about the Democratic primaries. His argument is unsurprising: any new entrants into the race have little chance given all the money behind Hillary Clinton. But what interests me here is how he uses the word “Democrats.”

“Dear Democrats:” he begins, “It’s too late to start over.” Noting the staffing and fundraising leads of Clinton, Cillizza argues, “If Democrats wanted a serious primary fight between Clinton and someone else — it’s hard to imagine who — that decision needed to have happened a year ago [when] all of the Democratic eggs were put in Clinton’s basket.”

Who are the “Democrats” Cillizza is referring to here? Certainly not U.S. citizens who might vote in the Democratic primaries: they won’t be heard from until January 2016 and later. Nor is it really all those folks across the country who have been and might be active in the Democratic Party, getting involved in local elections, campaigning for causes and candidates.

As Cilliza puts it toward the end of the article, he’s talking about “Every leading consultant, fundraiser, donor and staffer [who] sought to get on board either her campaign or the super PAC dedicated to electing her.” He uses the word “Democrats” to refer to political professionals and big donors, people plugged into the Washington D.C. beltway circuits. He’s talking about the Democratic 1%, the very wealthy who care about Democrats — Goldman Sachs’ top executives care about Democrats for self-protective reasons, though they may not vote for them — and those political insiders who solicit their wealth and attention.

If you were to replace the word “Democrats” in Cilliza’s piece with “centrist wealthy elites and the political professionals who cultivate their good will,” it would be more accurate, if awkward; “the socially liberal 1%” might flow better, and be almost as precise. But Cilliza refers to this tiny group — probably a few thousand in total number — simply as “Democrats.” Actual Democratic voters? Well, they aren’t worth talking to or about. No need to mention them.

Why split these linguistic hairs? Because this kind of systematic linguistic slippage or inaccuracy, this inability to state the plain facts of the situation, is symptomatic of the current state of U.S. Presidential elections, in which journalists take as “natural” the fact that loose coalitions of elites serve as gatekeepers before any candidate can become “viable.” Cilliza takes this situation completely for granted, yet it’s significant that he cannot quite name it out loud; hence “Democrats” rather than, say, the “socially liberal 1%.” He imagines his take on things to be “pragmatic, not ideological.” But last I checked, being truly pragmatic meant dealing with the actual facts at hand, not with linguistic airbrushing.

We have a long way to go.

Is the left prepared to govern?

So the left has had some surprising achievements in the past year or two: the no vote in Greece and the rise of the Syriza coalition, same sex marriage by ballot in Ireland, the NDP’s historic win in “the Texas of Canada” (Alberta), the swift shift in attitudes and laws regarding same sex marriage in the U.S., the FCC’s swing towards genuine net neutrality, and more. And in the U.S. we’ve seen some signs of electoral potential by liberal-left candidates from Zephyr Teachout to Bernie Sanders. (If you think I’m being a pollyanna, read this.) So far, however, most of this activity can be seen as expressions of popular exhaustion with the status quo: people have lost faith in austerity policies and corporations who say “trust me,” are tired of government interfering with personal lives, and are looking for something different.

But what something different, exactly? If this trend is going to amount to something more than a pendulum swing in political mood, the left is going to have to deliver something more. It will have to offer a plausible alternative way to govern the global economy. The Greek “no” vote is a rejection of a Eurocratic regime that trusts banks and financiers more than it trusts elected governments. But the vote is not a clear “yes” to anything in particular. Now the Syriza government is left with a near-impossible task: fixing the Greek economy in a way that works and that Greek citizens can trust and respect. Yes, the Troika should cancel some of that debt, but even if it did, there’s still the problem of reorganizing the Greek (and over the long term, world) economy on a more transparent, fair, functioning basis.

There are lots good ideas and models worth considering. For example, the Scandinavian model of social democracy (strong safety net, flexible economy, commitment to liberal democratic transparency and values). And there are lots of institutions inside otherwise neoliberal nations that provide interesting models, like the politically unassailable medicare system in the U.S., or the free higher education system in Germany. And all kinds of interesting experiments, from coops to legal commons to “free and fair” regimes of trade. The left has no shortage of ideas.

The task, though, is making this diverse and loosely related collection of ideas into something effective, and associated with actual success in the minds of majorities of voting publics across the world. I’m not sure exactly how to do that, but my guess is that it will involve an intertwined mix of many-leveled political organizing, smart policy innovation and experimentation (often in very contradictory contexts), and a set of practices that may look incremental over the short term, while keeping a sharp eye on the long term goals of deep social transformation. Take small good things and build on them, all the while with an eye on both hearts and minds and structures.


What is pragmatic progressivism? Musings about Bernie’s run

I’ve often been in conversations with lefties in which, when the name of a politician is brought up, someone quickly lists an objectionable thing or two that politician has said or done — and then the speaker sits back with a conversation-stopping self-satisfied glare in their eyes, as if to say, see?  I knew all along that person was no good. They’re imperfect, therefore they’re worthless.

Whatever this habit of thought is, it does not reflect a realistic or materialist approach to life and politics. As Rebecca Solnit puts it in her lively critique of cranky left negativism, “What we’re talking about here is not an analysis, a strategy, or a cosmology, but an attitude . . . The mentioning of something good does not require the automatic assertion of a bad thing.”

So what’s the alternative? I’ve already argued that Bernie’s campaign is about a many leveled long struggle for hearts and minds, not an election or two. I truly believe the world can be a better place, more just, more democratic, more productive, more free. But only if folks work hard for it; there are no guarantees. One needs a practical plan for how to get from here to there. And while I don’t think elections by themselves are nearly enough, given the current lay of the land, I can’t imagine achieving serious change for the better without taking electoral politics seriously.

So what’s to be learned from Bernie’s ongoing political career? These are just a few thoughts, for starters:

1) Learn to listen outside your ordinary circles. Bernie’s extraordinary political successes — he’s won elections by overwhelming margins over and over in a state where Republicans still on occasion win statewide office — come from tireless efforts to hold town hall meetings and otherwise get face-to-face with folks from all walks of life, and developing policies that directly address their needs. He’s long been a champion of free local health clinics, improved day care, better care for Veterans, and other policies that emerged from listening to folks, and that generate trust and respect from people who’ve never read The Nation. As he once said at a campaign kickoff  to a bunch of us NPR-listening Burlington liberals , “to win, you need to get outside your comfort zone.” Get out in the state, in the rural areas, in other towns, talk to people, listen to them, figure out what you can do for them now, not just in some utopian future.

2) Run government very well, and transparently. If you’re going to do bold new things with government, make damn sure you do them effectively and right, and make sure that people understand what you’re doing. The bar is higher when you’re trying things that others don’t; you’re out on a limb in the public eye. When Bernie was Mayor of Burlington, budgets were balanced, the streets were well plowed, the impact of taxes on businesses and homeowners was carefully considered, and his more daring experiments — e.g. waterfront development, the Burlington Community Land Trust — were very smartly managed. (The US Democratic party clearly did not understand this when they set out to implement Obamacare; yeah it’s starting to work, but the website disasters were avoidable and a big political setback.)

3) Make the right compromises, and behave in a way that communicates your principles. Bernie is currently a thorn in the side of Clintonians, because he’s living proof that principled progressives are not just starry eyed idealists who don’t know how to get anything done. But as Stuart Hall once said, “the only given of history is compromise.” So Bernie is not above working with Republicans, and he’s made some controversial decisions, like supporting the stationing of the F35 fighter plane in the Burlington area; his argument was that this expensive, noisy boondoggle of a war machine was going to be stationed somewhere, and Vermonters might as well get the jobs that come with it. One can reasonably disagree with his position on this and on other issues; politics can be complicated. But the point is that while he’s famous for taking outlier positions — for most of his career refusing to become a Democrat because they make the wrong compromises, voting against the invasion of Iraq, refusing PAC money, etc. — his political strategy is not to refuse all compromise, but to make creative compromises that keep him within his principles and move the political ball in the right direction.

I think a President Bernie Sanders would be a good thing. But to get to a better world, we’ll need lots of Bernie Sanderses, of a wide variety, working at many levels throughout society. So let’s get to it.