“Feel the Bern”: Reclaiming Democracy’s Future

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Several months still separate us from the November elections but the atmosphere in the country is getting increasingly tense. Americans are angry and they direct their anger against the political establishment. They blame both the Democratic and Republican elites for the continued malaise and political paralysis. While the growing number of American voters believes that the country needs new ideas, there is little new in what either the Democratic or the Republican establishment candidates propose. Neither Ted Cruz nor John Kasichventures in their imagination far beyond the defunct policies of cutting taxes. The agenda of Hillary Clinton is essentially a rehashed and scaled-down version of the New Deal. With their clear anti-establishment message Sanders and Trump, as different as they may be, are the two candidates who stand to benefit most from the current discontent.
Although the elites in both parties are deeply troubled by voters’ prevailing attitudes, they are reluctant to endorse the candidates who are riding at the crest of this discontent. They have displayed considerable uneasiness about nominating candidates who oppose business-as-usual. The Republican brass has gone out of its way in trying to prevent Donald Trump from becoming a nominee. The leaders of the Democratic Party have repeatedly sent strong messages to its rank-and-file that their preference lies with Hillary Clinton, and not Sanders.
After numerous attempts to derail Trump’s campaign, the Republican leadership is gradually warming up to the idea of nominating Trump as their party candidate form. In his turn, Trump has also made an effort to make peace with the party hierarchy. Now it seems increasingly likely that Trump will be the party’s nominee in November. Reince Priebus, Chairman of the Republican National Committee, has stated in a recent interview that Trump is definitely one of the three possible candidates for nomination in July.
On the Democratic side, the party establishment refuses to entertain any idea of nominating anyone other than Hillary Clinton. Despite the fact that Sanders has scored some remarkable victories over Clinton and has demonstrated his staying power and the ability to excite voters, Clinton remains a clear favorite of the party establishment and the pro-Democratic media. The possibility that Bernie Sanders will be the party nominee remains extremely distant, if at all real, even though many polls suggest that his chances of beating Trump are better than those of Hillary Clinton.
Thus the likely candidates in November will be Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. In this showdown, the general mood among the country voters will favor Trump and his anti-establishment rhetoric, while Hillary Clinton will emerge as an inside-the-Beltway candidate with deep connections to the establishment. Nobody will venture at this point to predict the winner in this face-off, but the dominant attitude among the voters will not be in Clinton’s favor. And it is unlikely that she will find the way to change this situation.
The Democratic elite has been refusing all along to recognize that the defeat of Hillary Clinton is a real and likely possibility. By doing this they follow the path of perdition. The Republicans will nominate Donald Trump; and in the current anti-establishment climate Trump is likely to defeat Clinton. With the Republican president and Republican control over Congress America will effectively become a one party state. The consequences of this likely outcome will be disastrous for both the Democratic Party and for this country.
By investing all their hopes in Clinton’s candidacy, the Democratic establishment is demonstrating that it has learned little from the world shaking events of the recent past. The upheavals of the Arab Spring, the Maidan in Ukraine, the Occupy Wall Street movement – all have shown that the world has dramatically changed. They have revealed the awesome power of popular protest.
The driving force of this unrest was the broad opposition of society to elite domination. The very same attitude defines the current presidential races in America and is likely to play a very important role in November. By choosing to place their stakes in Hillary Clinton, the Democratic elite hopes that it can withstand this upheaval. They reject Bernie Sanders to their own and their party’s peril.
The current anti-establishment mood is a product of complex and diverse causes. Paul Mason, among many others, have discussed them in hisWhy It’s Kicking Off Everywhere: The New Global Revolutions(London: Verso, 2012) and there is no need to go into this subject now. It is, however, worth pointing out that these revolts were not so much about redistribution of wealth but much more about participation in the political process as equals, not extras. The activists of the Maidan movement in Ukraine appropriately called the uprising that overthrew President Yanukovich and his clique “a revolution of dignity.” Whether in Cairo, Kiev, Damascus, New York, or Hong-Kong, these protests represented a clash between citizens organized in networks and political hierarchies. Although vague and inchoate, the main aspiration of their participants was to end the domination by the elites and to introduce broad democratic rule.
The much-bemoaned current political crisis in the U.S. offers unique opportunities to re-shape the existing political system in ways that would reflect the changes that have transformed our world in the past few decades. This renewed political system should be more inclusive and more open. It should balance the relationship between networks of citizens and political hierarchies and offer broad participation in the political process to all citizens.
Bernie Sanders is the only candidate that reflects this vision. He has been often criticized for what many see his unrealistic promises. His critics are really missing the main point. They view Bernie Sanders through the traditional lens of elite politics that focuses on goodies that political leaders can deliver to their voters. That’s the old way. It may appear that Sanders also harkens back to the past and to the robust muscularity of the New Deal state. However, one can see some very significant differences between the New Deal and what Sanders advocates. These differences suggest that Sanders is open to the possibility of a more active role of the civic sphere as the domain of political opinion and will formation; and that he will favor the enhancement of the agency of common citizens by expanding their participation in the political decision-making process.
Bernie Sanders bears some of the blame for being misunderstood. He has not articulated sufficiently clearly what is really new in his message. He needs to do a lot more to develop his incipient vision into a fully applicable model. This task is difficult but not impossible since both theoretical grounding and practical experience for creating such system are available.
Bernie Sanders still has his one foot in the past, but his other foot is planted in the future. He is the only candidate whose vision of democracy is one of universal empowerment, rather than continued elite rule. He has refused, for example, to use PACs. Unlike Hillary Clinton who owes much to wealthy tycoons like George Soros, Sanders relies entirely on his supporters to fund his campaign. Unlike Clinton, he owes everything to his supporters and will have to turn to them to be effective. He shows willingness to make citizens and leaders equal partners in the common enterprise; his political practice reflects a more balanced relationship between the leaders and led. And that perhaps is what is most significant about Sanders’s campaign. He will not be fighting for us, as Clinton proclaims in her campaign slogan. No, Bernie Sanders will be fighting WITH us.
As the developments in the world over the last few decades show, if democracy is to survive, it has to be more open and more inclusive. It should seek to empower all citizens, not just the elites. There cannot be any other future for us.
Systems in nature, including human systems, do not tolerate status quo. They either evolve or they start disintegrating. We have a unique opportunity to move forward. Moving forward beyond elite rule will have a profound significance not only for the U.S., but also for the entire world. A working democracy as a form of universal empowerment, as elimination of exclusion and domination, will show the way to many other countries around the world. If we fail to move forward along this path, we will be missing a great opportunity that history is offering us.
Gennady Shkliarevsky​ was born in the Soviet Union and moved to the United States in 1976. After receiving a Ph.D. from the University of Virginia in 1985, he has taught European and Russian history at Bard College. He published on a wide variety of topics ranging from the Russian Revolution to the current global political unrest, sustainability, science and religion, systems theory, and others.