Bernie Sanders, Movement Politics, & Changing the Wind

WindyWhatever the final outcome of the Democratic primary, the contest between former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Senator Bernie Sanders has served to highlight two rather different philosophies of political change. Indeed, many Hillary supporters often have been heard to say things along the lines of “I like Bernie’s ideas, but I just don’t think they’re realistic. He can’t win, and even if he did, he’d never get any of them passed.” The underlying assumption is that politics is merely the art of the possible – that fighting for one’s dreams and ideals is naïve at best, and that one must only ever work within existing realities for small, incremental changes.

In contrast to this is what we might call movement politics, which understands that (as progressive evangelical prophet Jim Wallis often puts it) since politicians ultimately follow the winds of public opinion, the secret to political change is to change the wind. Those engaged in political movements, like the one currently led by Bernie Sanders, agree that politics is the art of the possible, they just don’t believe that what is “possible” is a fixed reality. Possibilities can change – and they change when groups of people rise up, en masse, and begin to demand something different than the existing realities.

This is what Bernie has done for America. He has changed the wind and moved the goal posts on what we believe might be possible in this nation. Before his candidacy, the furthest “left” one could go on the political spectrum were some half-hearted suggestions about slightly cheaper student loans, defending Obamacare from unending Republican assaults, and maybe a handful of mild Wall Street regulations. Now, thanks to Bernie, these are the centrist positions, while we begin to envision the real possibility of free public colleges, universal healthcare, and getting Big Money out of our politics altogether (among a whole host of other possibilities).

More importantly, Bernie has awoken and mobilized millions across the country to begin demanding that these possibilities become reality. Because of this movement, new options are on the table and political leader are being forced to adjust their sails to these new demands. Yes, compromises will eventually have to be made. We are not likely to get everything we want. But when we were only asking for a foot, we were likely to gain a few inches at best. Now that we are asking for a mile, well… who knows how much farther we might find ourselves in the end?

This is how it has ever been in American history – it requires mass movements by we the people to change what is politically possible before we can expect our politicians to act. It’s what Dr. King, John Lewis and so many others did at Selma for the Voting Rights Act. It’s what suffragettes like Alice Paul and Lucy Burns did to finally win women the right to vote. And it’s what the labor movement did for worker’s rights over a century ago. None of these happened through mere incrementalism alone. They happened because people dared to dream of wider possibilities, and then organized and agitated in mass movements until those dreams became reality.

From a Christian perspective we might say that movement politics are eschatological. The Jesus movement, from first century Palestine through today, has never been about merely accepting the status quo. Instead Christ’s earliest followers, and his most radical disciples in every century since, have dreamed of and worked toward a better reality – a reality Jesus called the “kingdom of God.” This kingdom vision is far larger and far more significant than Bernie’s movement of course, but they do overlap in many ways. And like the Jesus movement, the movement sparked by the Sanders campaign looks not just to present realities, but to future possibilities, believing that these should be embraced and worked-for in the present, not just cynically dismissed as pie-in-the-sky naiveté.

No matter what happens with Bernie’s candidacy, this movement will continue. The people have awoken, the winds are shifting, and the possibilities have already been changed. Soon even the cynical, pragmatic politicians will be adjusting their sails.

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