What is Political Revolution and Can Bernie Sanders Deliver?

By Ali R. Abootalebi | (Informed Comment) | – –

The 2016 American presidential election can prove to be a turning point in the development of American politics. This is not because a declared democratic socialist is running for the post or because of Donald Trump’s outrageous statements and proclamations pointing to a serious rise of the far right politics. This election is important because the viability of the American political system itself is in danger. The forces of globalization and political erosion in the United States are seriously threatening the viability of responsible politics in the country. The future of good governance in the country now more than ever demands an end to the two-party system domination. The emergence of a third alternative, a Social-Democratic Party, let’s call it the SDP—unlike the earlier ambitious but ultimately failed attempts at the creation of a Socialist Party– can strengthen the cause of political development and true democracy.

A political revolution, as Bernie Sanders has repeatedly called for, cannot be realized without a ‘revolution’ in the American party politics, reinvigorating the legislative branch. The creation of SDP can go far in improving the cause of governance through popular social empowerment. Senator Sanders should take advantage of the presidential campaigning momentum to rally his supporters to build a national Social Democratic Party with a vision for long run progressive change platform. This can prove more important than his bid for presidency.


The American electorate has historically preferred moderate candidates and policies, avoiding the extremes of both sides of political spectrum. Some may see the current ideological divide in the party as ephemeral and that the political clock will once again swing back to the middle. On the political left, Hillary Clinton’s campaign attack is propagating the idea that Senator Sanders cannot win a presidential contest with whoever the Republican Party nominee may be. The argument is that Senator Sanders’ democratic socialism does not resonate with the overall American peoples’ belief system and values. After all, the United States’ experience with political democracy has almost always favored the political center and moderate candidates. As this claim historically may be true, the causes of the polarization of the American public opinion are more pronounced than ever before.

The forward-looking, technologically savvy millennial generation has heard the ‘Yes, we can’ message loud and clear, while witnessing their American dreams for better future evaporating by incompetent politicians and their allied corporate interests. The promises of globalization has turned into a nightmare for the American laborers and the middle class in general who have lost economic power because of it. Thus, the popularity of political left and far right politics in the country should not be viewed as ephemeral but due to a structural shift in the American electorates’ policy preferences in view of the failure of the political system to respond to the net negative impact of globalization of trade, finance and market on their livelihood.

The political and popular polarization in the country should raise serious questions over the future development of American politics. The congressional political squabbling and its historically low popularity and the popularity of Senator Sanders on the left and Mr. Trump on the far right is a sign of drastic changes in the country since the 1980s and the changing parameters of global political economy. Americans’ historical preference for moderate politics may have been true during the cold war years, and especially in the prosperous two decades after world war two. However the end of the Bretton woods and gold-based fixed exchange rate international monetary system, the arrival of ‘supply-side economics, deregulations since the 1980s, and the end of the cold war changed the calculus for the American, and the international, political economy.

The country’s middle class continues shrinking and the ‘triumph of capital’ over responsible social policy and governance has become widespread. This is evidenced in the repeatedly occurring and worsening economic crises since the end of the cold war, including the 1997 Asian economic crisis, the 1994 Mexican peso crisis, the 2000 U.S. stock market crash, 2007 subprime and housing market crisis, the 2007-2011 global financial crisis, and the ongoing soft world economic performance.

The political and popular polarization in the current presidential election in both the Republican and Democratic camps is a reflection of deep political problems. The weak political party system in the country–reflected in little party establishment control over its members and their ideological leanings and decentralized and fractured organizational setup–no longer serve the best interest of the American public. Political democracies need to continuously evolve, presenting themselves as viable and responsive to the ever changing socioeconomic, political, and cultural shifts and the demands of the electorate. Otherwise, political systems are subject to political stagnation and erosion, resulting in, what the late Samuel Huntington called, ‘political decay.’ Political parties are only ‘shields’ protecting the legitimacy of the democratic political system functioning within its legal and constitutional boundaries. As such, party organization and platform, its leadership and discipline, vision, and proven proficiency in meeting the demands of its members and constituencies are crucial for the viability of the party itself, as well as the legitimacy of the political system.

The mechanics of electoral politics through such tools as gerrymandering, redistricting, super-delegates, electoral-college, and winner-take-all, among others, have contributed to the erosion of competitive politics and democracy in the country. Consequently, as some critics like the Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders argue, the American democracy has turned into an ‘oligarchy,’ dominated by the rich and special interests. The media and the Supreme Court also have not helped the cause of responsible politics in the country either. The perception is, more true than not, that the corporate ownership of the mainstream media means profits and not the citizens’ welfare is the priority for the rich. The Supreme Court’s split decision to treat corporations as individuals, endowed with the right to free speech, also means unlimited financial contributions by big businesses and Super PACS, robbing the electorate their rights to legitimate participation in, and the demand for, competitive politics and fair political outcome.

When it comes to voting behavior, the American electorate participation is unsurprisingly dispassionate and divorced from the reality of party politics and political partisanship. The People usually vote knowing well that what the politicians tell them at campaign rally can and will be ignored or forgotten in the polls-driven and ‘special-interest’ dominated politics. Overall popular participation at local, state, and federal elections remain unenthusiastic and below the participation rate of Europeans and other democracies. The presidential elections seem particularly long, full of personal attacks, devoid of substantive debates over issues and policy, and with special interests and money fundamentally determining the political outcome. Americans overall view of politics in recent years stands at historical low.

And, we have come to rely on interest groups to further connect the ruled to the rulers. The presupposition is that in a ‘pluralist democracy’ such as ours, interest groups are agents of ‘interest articulation’ and can promote civil society and citizen participation in politics: They mobilize people with similar interests into interest groups in pursuit of their ‘narrower’ interest that also serve the cause of responsible citizenship and political participation and good governance. In reality, however, groups in support of organized labor and progressive social advocacy groups have lost ground in competing with business interest groups and their lobbying partners: the interest of the main street has increasingly diverged from those of the Wall Street. This has been particularly true since the 1980s.

The deregulation of the 1980s, including the revocation of Glass Steagall Congressional Act, and the globalization of finance and market capitalism since the 1990s have further sharpened the labor-business divide over the distribution of economic and social resources and the extent of government intervention in the market and society. The evidence shows a shrinking American middle class and an extraordinary wealth gap between the top 1 percent of the Americans and the rest of the populace, as well as racial, ethnic, and income disparities. The age of globalization and technological revolution has dashed the earlier hopes of the millennial generation for a secured and free future in the face of irresponsible politics, much of it in a span of only few years since the end of the cold war in 1989.

The structural changes needed in the American body politics demand reconnecting the governed and the governors after years of political underperformance. This task calls for the creation of an alternative SDP to address the needs of the American electorate on the political left–and possibly the creation of a conservative party on the political right as well. Bernie Sanders’ political revolution requires not only popular input in electing a progressive candidate like him, it demands continuous popular engagement in politics through disciplined and well-organized party politics participation. Progressive candidates in the Congress can help the cause of progressive politics in the executive office, further mobilizing popular opinion to demand structural changes in the body politics and the better distribution of national resources though more effective governance. In that case, the American courts also will be more responsive in considering the popular will in their overall balancing calculation of legal and political rights. The inaction alternative will only see the continuing political decay. Then, no amount of political rhetoric and false promises through short term economic ‘bandaging’ and irresponsible fiscal borrowing will resolve the country’s deep-rooted political problems, nor will it rescue it from its international decline.

Professor Ali R. Abootalebi teaches in the Department of Political Science at the University of Wisconsin, Eau Claire (UWEC). He is the author of Islam and Democracy (2000) and numerous articles on Islam and Democracy, Arab Political Development and Global and Middle Eastern Politics. He can be reached at abootaar@uwec.edu

8 Responses

  1. The good professor has not spent nearly enough time making cold phone calls to raise money for a third party. I have. Even with a list of people who’ve signed your own petitions at events or on street corners, to actually get money out of 1 in 15 is doing pretty well.

    Everybody has a favorite celebrity they’d love to see as President. Most everybody has a prescription for the two major political parties. But hardly anybody cares about their own darn state legislators, and nobody cares about a different state legislature race if they’re ten feet outside the district.

    I am a radical who was mugged by reality, back in ’00 I had spent a lot of hours in Green Party meetings, for me it was just about shoving the Democrats to the left. We got our state up into over 10% polling for Nader, we got gob-smucked by a wave of Democratic Party pushback. For everyone of our people, there were ten people bashing us. Two people in my social circle did a blatantly dishonest thing claiming to be Greens who were now backing Gore, and got stories all the biggest papers in our state — papers that had been ignoring our press releases for five years.

    And then, in my opinion, both we Greens and the Dems — who I expected to win and wanted to win — failed to see how much the R’s were ready to steal the election if necessary. And the Dems spent the first part of 2001 harping and wailing on how the Greens cost the election, leaving us all adrift when 9-11 came thru, enabling Bush’s worst excesses.

    By 2004 I was walking my precinct for Kerry, but still trying to push the Dems to the left. And those people in my social circle, they’ve had their ups and downs, and so have I, and there’s a reason we’re still in the same social circle and see each other at events, and darn it, I can genuinely be glad to see them.

    2016 has unleashed a lot of anger. I spent the ’90’s trying to slime the Clintons, but today I am surprised at the anger of some Bern-ers against Hillary. Yes she’s made every compromise over the years, but I do understand, from decades of trying to sell activist positions on issues and how hard it is, that if I had ever achieved power I would have become much more centrist too.

    So Hillary’s people do need Bernie’s vision, and Bernie’s people do need Hillary’s commitment to the long slog against ignorance and muck. Work for your third party! Great for you if you get anywhere! It really is OK for different types of people to do different types of work, pushing both “politics” and activism to the left, and pushing the overall culture to the left, as far as they think they can push. Let’s have a consciousness of all pushing together in the same general direction, and avoid the consciousness of “my way to do things is the only possible way.”

  2. In answer to the question, no American President can deliver much without the support of the Senate/Congress. So Saunders won’t be able to do much if elected, if he doesn’t have support in the House.

    Economic inequity continues to grow in the U.S.A. and until that is addressed not much will get better. When Govenors think its O.K. to let their citizens drink water full of lead, the country has a problem and one man is not going to be able to solve it,
    of course if Saunders is elected, we will have one pissed off Clinton

  3. For 25 years as a member of the US Congress Bernie Sanders remained a Party of One. He has a degree in Political Science from the University of Chicago. He identifies himself as a Socialist. If he was interested in forming a movement he would have started organizing long ago. A Socialist alone and unaffiliated for 25 years is a contradiction.

    I hear that he caucuses with the Democrats but his record is inconsistent. He zigzagged Left and Right without participating in any political party. After 25 years in Congress with no real accomplishment he was still unknown to most Americans.

    His performance during those years is preserved in the Congressional Record which is available to the public for free. His statements and his votes don’t match the image he promotes. He voted to deregulate the commodities market. He voted to authorize the war in Afghanistan and he side-steps questions about it when asked.

    Today, Sanders is the Ranking Member of the Senate Budget Committee. It’s a platform for him to demonstrate leadership of the minority party Democrats.

    It’s a powerful position. In hearings, he delivers the same speech he always delivers, yelling and waving his hands. Sanders is a talker, and there’s no amount of emphasis that can make his words into deeds. We don’t need a talker. We need a doer.

    • What we do not need is a doer who sells out to Wall Street and screws the middle class like the Clintons. why won’ t Hillary release those secret transcripts of what she promised W all Street in exchange for more than $20,000,000 in “campaign contributios” and $2,000,000 directly into her own, personal account? I would rather lose with bernie to someone who at least admits being a Republican tool of Wall Street than support the dishonesty of Hillary’s secret pact with Wall Street. We get screwed either way.

      • Is the popular movement or political revolution promoted by Senator Sanders feasible? Can Bernie deliver? That’s the topic. Stick to it.

  4. The article does not argue the feasibility or position of candidate Sanders. It also does not argue its thesis, that an SDP and a “conservative” party would improve matters. Changing party names does not make them follow the nominal philosophy, and adding parties does not change the underlying problems of dominance of debate by money.

    It would be better to have a genuine SDP, but that cannot happen because the mass media and elections are controlled already by economic power. That is the central problem, and it cannot be solved by political means because those tools of democracy are already controlled by the anti-democratic forces of economic concentrations.

    So the underlying question is really How do you propose to free mass media and elections from control by money, without another American Revolution as in 1776? The answer is not to hide from the facts and dream that the battle is not yet entirely lost, that somehow you will prevail without a free press and fair elections. You will not restore democracy with nonviolent dreams.

  5. I’m pretty damn happy with us just kicking the Blue Dogs out of the Democratic Party, including Sen. Clinton, and rebuilding around the Sanders funding model while promoting a Rainbow slate of candidates in all 50 states. The Democrats have already ceased to be a national party because they don’t run candidates for many local offices, allowing a Republican monopoly over oligarchical fiefdoms known as the Red States. Do the corporations ration out a pittance of campaign donations to the Democrats to keep them alive but keep them from really competing? Let people like that form a third party in the center, a party that truly stands for nothing but agnostic greed, while the Democrats return to the social democracy of the New Deal half-century. That’s less bizarre a leap than the party of Lincoln becoming the party of secession and White supremacy.

    If nothing else, Sanders and Trump proved that there’s wildly alternative ways to finance election campaigns. The root purpose of campaign money is to alter the voting actions of people whether they believe in your agenda or not. The fact that people can be deceived by paid advertising to vote based on smears and irrational prejudices is what makes money, and thus the rich, all-powerful in our politics. Trump got around the problem by skipping the ads and outright telling the bigots he will crush their enemies in front of TV news cameras. There are so many bigots in the country that he’s moving ahead in the system, stage by stage. Sanders got around the problem by asking from small donations from the kind of people you would expect to be the backbone of a political party in any democracy beside the USA, people who are angry that they’ve been forgotten by the party’s corporate establishment. They’re on board with him; now he has to turn that money into advertising that convinces others that we can have a better deal than a slow retreat in the face of evil.

  6. I agree with Super390. The best thing for all the young people who are so turned on by Sanders (I like him too) would be to channel that energy into local and state politics. Voting every four years gets you only so far. I’m not optimistic this will happen after all the enthusiasm over Obama evaporated in 2010. Where were all those voters?

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