Bernie and Political Change

Disclaimer: I'm not saying Bernie's achievements aren't impressive. He took what many assumed to be a gadfly candidacy and turned it into something that will probably get around 45% of the pledged delegates for the Democratic nomination. But now the question is: where do the supporters of Senator Sanders go from here?

In many ways, I can't answer that. Ultimately, the decision will be up to every individual Bernie supporter. (Bernie has some thoughts.) However, one word of caution:

In every cause, in every campaign, there are people who are so committed they will throw reason out the window. They will advocate for things that are dumb, dangerous, or damaging to the cause and ideals they support. As causes and campaigns wither, the percentage of those who remain who are in this category increase, creating a radicalized echo chamber. Aurora Dagny described four attributes of such political echo chambers:

1. Dogmatic. Anyone who questions beliefs or ideas is seen as committing violence. An "in-group" forms around those who share political goals and anyone outside is regarded with, at best, suspicion.

 2. Groupthink. Everyone winds up in agreement on a very wide range of issues.

3. Crusader mentality. The cause or campaign in question is the most important one ever. It cannot fail; it can only be failed. People feel intense guilt or shame for not living up to what they think is demanded by the cause. They end up doing things that damage themselves, their family, or their friends.

4. Anti-intellectualism. Details can be figured out later; winning is the most important thing. Evidence that questions the official story must be cast aside or downvoted.

Every campaign has these qualities to a certain extent. These things are the darker side of elements that required for putting together a cohesive team or community. But humility and being open to a wide range of information sources are key tools to avoid doing things that harm yourself or others. 

Which brings me to a photo I've seen circulating on Facebook. It had 250 shares an hour ago; it's now up to 310:

Sanders_Revolution.jpgI will leave aside for now the troubling capitalization issues. I will also leave aside the pro-revolution argument (as much as it pains me to do so, as a historian of revolutions as I am). 

The premise is wrong.

Senator Sanders is not being "denied" the presidency. He currently needs about 66% of the remaining pledged delegates to win a majority of pledged delegates, an act that would almost assuredly rally superdelegates to his side (à la Obama in 2008, who trailed in superdelegates for several months). However, to date, Bernie's only won about 45% of pledged delegates.

It's a very tough climb.

A small minority of Bernie supporters are telling a different story. Instead of one where Bernie lost at the ballot box, he was cheated, he was denied his chance, and therefore the system must be overthrown. They're promising to march in Philadelphia (their right, under the First Amendment), and they're also talking about rising up in a less-metaphorical revolution.

Elections are won by getting people to show up and vote. Change is maintained by getting people to show up and vote time and again. Sometimes our preferred candidate or cause loses; we re-group and try again. In the meantime we organize around key causes and issues to show the winner that the causes and issues matter. But politics also ain't beanbag, a fact that the appropriation of this photo illustrates ironically.

While the picture is of a revolution, a peaceful assembly, the political change it depicts is President Obama's first inauguration in 2009. (Source.) The core of Obama's organizing strategy is, in some ways, the cure for the echo chambers Dagny diagnosed. Respect. Empower. Include.

What happened to the 2008 revolution:

The night after this photo was taken, the night after millions thronged the National Mall for the inauguration, key Republican leaders met and agreed on a simple strategy: oppose everything. Oppose reining in Wall Street. Oppose making it easier for Americans to have health care. Oppose any and every measure proposed by the President and the party with Congressional majorities to help the dire economy. This strategy had already been kicked around by then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell for a couple weeks. Senator McConnell, by the way, is currently spearheading the movement to keep an open seat on the Supreme Court for President Donald Trump to fill, despite President Obama nominating someone who has been praised on both sides of the aisle. 

We're still fighting for that revolution, to build on it, to improve on it. But people have different ideas about what's important, and political organizing requires long term strategy and commitment. 

I know the maker and sharers of this meme represent a generally fringe opinion among Sanders supporters. I'm grateful for the intense debate about issues and process we've managed to have during the primary season. And we have a few more weeks to go. But after that, it's time to focus on the general election, on building campaign infrastructure that's long-lasting, on organizing for change.

Fighting for political change is good! We shouldn't let disappointment keep us on the sidelines! But we also need to be sure to be intellectually humble, to gather information from lots of different sources, and make sure our investments of time, energy, and money are sustainable for ourselves, our families, and our larger relationships. 

Showing 5 reactions

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  • Rob Taber
    commented 2016-05-15 21:46:55 -0700
    Wow- comments! To respond to Gwendolyn and Carolynn’s concerns, briefly:

    Three contests tend to be the biggest areas of concern.

    Arizona, which has far fewer polling places now that the Voting Rights Act has been gutted. Hillary, Bernie, and the DNC have teamed up to sue Arizona over the voter suppression. (

    New York, where a local elections supervisor purged 100,000 names from a Brooklyn voter roll. There’s an investigation that’s ongoing and the supervisor is suspended, though perhaps the wrong supervisor. It’s clear that New York needs to get their act together, but even assuming that all 100,000 went to Bernie— if they were all eligible and all voted, and keep in mind Brooklyn went for Hillary— that would have only been a third of Hillary’s vote margin. (Story:

    Nevada, where Hillary won the popular vote on election night, Bernie out-hustled her in the county conventions, and then 56 Bernie supporters and 8 Hillary supporters (at last report) were disqualified at the state convention, tipping it back to Hillary (oddly, looks like that it now matches the expected 20-15 breakdown based on the February vote results.) Here’s a write-up: Generally, Nevada appears to be a mess and I’m relieved that there’s already chatter about changing from caucus to primary for 2020 and beyond.

    Gwendolyn mentioned the exit polls.

    The problem with exit polls is that despite networks’ best efforts (they want to be right, after all), they still tend to over-report the side with the more enthusiastic supporters. So John Kerry won the Ohio exit polls in 2004; the exit polls often inflated Obama’s vote share in the 2008 primaries, and now the same thing is happening to Bernie.

    I’m not saying no mistakes were made in the running of this primary, or that there’s no room to improve the process (there’s lots!), but it’s also in the Bernie campaign’s interest— to a certain extent— to emphasize allegations and the way the deck’s been stacked against them. This is the same campaign that lost access to the voter database for 48 hours (after improperly accessing the Hillary campaign’s data) and then pursued a lawsuit against the DNC over the loss of access for the next four months. Bernie signed the same joint-fundraising agreement as Hillary to help downticket, did nothing with it, and then slammed her repeatedly for raising money for the party. So, yes, the DNC could have done more, especially early on by scheduling better debate times, but respect is also a two-way street.

    Looking at the primary at this point: it’s been a hard-fought contest that’s brought to the forefront some great ideas from both candidates on how to help our country. It’s been generally substantive, with few negative ads (none from Hillary directed at Bernie, and Bernie’s ads have stayed at the “implied” level). And while it’s close enough to go through June, Hillary’s margin— in pledged delegates and in percentage of the popular vote— is over twice what Obama’s ever was in 2008. Seven of her ten biggest victories so far have been in open primary states. She will almost certainly be the nominee. I hope that in her victory speech she thanks Bernie and his supporters for the energy and new people they’ve brought into the process; she would be foolish if she doesn’t. And I hope Bernie campaigns hard for her and for the issues he cares about, helping guide his supporters into avenues where they can keep fighting for change; he would be foolish if he doesn’t.
  • Denise Furlough Grayson
    commented 2016-05-15 12:24:27 -0700
    Please understand, the winner is chosen by wins in each state. When Hillary says she has more votes than Donald , in the plurality, so what? The proportion of the delegates is shared state by state for us dems. Even Bernie knows that. The rules are not changing this cycle. Get on your local committees and change them. Sulk, sit in the corner or scream "we’ve been robbed " does very little. like Pres Obama has tried to teach the disillusioned, he never said HE was the change he said WE are. When we vote once, and think that is all that needs to be done, we should realize there is more. That’s how most political change happens and why there are people like DWS, And Pelosi , etc, they stuck around and made the change, and it doesn’t happen overnight. Ya gotta deal with the good and bad. Keep complaining, but realize we aren’t going to win every fight.
  • Jim Thompson
    commented 2016-05-15 11:31:12 -0700
    I would agree if the Democratic party, of which I am a member, had not done every underhanded thing possible to deny votes for a non-establishment candidate. Too many “anomalies” and “mistakes” have happened to not be an organized effort. You can call this conjecture all you want but when exit polls don’t match what we see then there is a problem, a real valid problem. Not to mention what just happened in Nevada where delegates were not counted. The party is in charge and the party is responsible for ensuring that votes are counted. If not I don’t ever want to hear another Democrat, myself included, complain about Republican obstruction at the polls. If Hillary truly won the majority of votes I wouldn’t complain but I do not believe that is the case and Hillary and the Democratic party aren’t really doing anything to make me believe I am wrong.
  • Denise Furlough Grayson
    commented 2016-05-15 11:03:46 -0700
    So many of those who thing there is some manipulation at the voting booth, box, are refusing to see, the majority of us who , have voted, voted for Hillary. Have there been political gyrations, sure. But Hillary is still winning. When and if Bernie, were to get the needed votes, the superdelegates would switch or finalize their vote for him. Like Rob said, this happened in 2008. Then, mAny who follow Bernie now, as college students, where around 8- and up. Keep up the fight,but “taking our toys and going home”, defeats all the good that can be done by defeating the republican agenda. You just switched sides, and pick up their banner.
  • Carolynn
    commented 2016-05-15 10:25:46 -0700
    Rob, what about the voters who were told to leave the polls? The ones whose party affiliation was changed? Those who were wrongfully stricken from the polls? Those are not brands of paranoia or dogmatism or groupthink or a crusader mentality, those are FACT. And those facts have denied Bernie voters their franchise. I understand your premise, but it assumes no corruption. There HAS been corruption.

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