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After Bernie Sanders: how progressives can actually change America



After almost a year of primaries and the threat of a contested convention, Hillary Clinton is being officially nominated for President at the Democratic National Convention. Even her rival Bernie Sanders has publicly endorsed her.

But as the convention got underway, plenty of Sanders’s progressive supporters were far from happy with the outcome. Clinton and her allies have shifted leftwards on a number of issues, among them student debt and the minimum wage. Yet one recent poll showed that nearly half of Sanders’s supporters are still unwilling to vote for Clinton, and plans for large and conspicuous progressive protests were very much borne out as the convention opened.

The head of the Democratic National Committee, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, had just been forced to resign after leaked emails showed that she and other party leaders had discussed undermining the Sanders campaign during the primaries. Meanwhile, many of Sanders’s supporters loudly booed or openly wept when he made an impassioned appeal from the stage to get behind Clinton. Outside the convention hall, protesters were far from ready to embrace the nominee, chanting instead “lock her up”.

It’s easy to overstate how big a problem this is for Clinton. But it goes to the heart of a serious question about the continuing prospects of American progressivism: Bernie’s movement, its leaders and those it has inspired, need to figure out how they can actually change America. If they want to be more than the anti-establishment protest movement they’re often reduced to, they have to start thinking about how to take real power.

Helpfully, the Sanders campaign is itself proof that true progressivism is no longer a “fringe” politics. After all, its self-declared “democratic socialist” standard-bearer ran a very strong second in the Democratic primary – this on the back of over 13m votes and with next to no corporate backing. Progressive values are also getting more popular, particularly among the younger generation.


Hasten the day.
EPA/CJ Gunther

So the immediate task is to translate this progressive energy into real political representation and influence. It’s already happening to some extent: thanks to input from voices on the left, the Democrats now have what’s been called their most progressive party platform in history. It calls for expanding social security, serious Wall Street reform, opposition to the death penalty, and support for a living wage.

And on the back of Sanders’ success, a new group appropriately entitled “Brand New Congress” has formed to promote left-wing candidates nationally without corporate funding.

These things imply that the movement is genuinely starting to embrace reality, and to learn the lessons of the campaign just concluded. Sanders himself apparently missed an opportunity to become the Democratic nominee by not taking his own chances seriously enough until mid-spring, when it was too late. The left cannot make the same mistake again; if it wants to make a real impact, it must be committed to building a progressive establishment now.


Back from the fringe

Politics, of course, is much more than simply winning elections. A tough criticism of “moderate” parties throughout both the US and Europe, the US’s Democrats and Britain’s Labour among them, is that they have traded their core progressive values for the sake of “electability”. What is required is a new political narrative of how left wing values can pragmatically address present problems.

The opportunity for doing so has arguably never been so ripe. These times we live in might ultimately be looked back at as an interregnum; the current system’s days are numbered, but a new one has yet to emerge to take its place.

More and more people across the political spectrum are realising that orthodox economic and political ideals are no longer sufficient. Issues of racism, inequality and terrorism seem to be getting worse, not better. The prevalent feeling is one of hopelessness and insecurity, and the danger is that this desperation will turn reactionary – as it has on the American right.


That means it’s essential to articulate how only a strong, realistic progressive agenda can help. It means highlighting that the status quo is dangerous: just as the War on Terror is implicated in the rise in terrorism, so surrendering the War on Poverty has opened the door to endemic social and economic blight. To stick to politics-as-usual is to embrace the risk of social, political and economic ruin.

This critique must be the basis for credible progressive alternatives. The Black Lives Matters movement is an example of this approach in practice. Its urgent criticism of law enforcement has already started congealing into a constructive program for deep policing reform, and as a result, once-dismissed ideas are becoming mainstream – as is radical thinking about a “cop-free world”.

Progressivism that works: a Black Lives Matter protest in New York.
EPA/Alba Vigaray

Taking this strategy further, progressives must put forward genuine and technically practical policy proposals for increased public investment, stronger labour rights, a stronger welfare state, drug liberalisation, and participatory budgeting.


This could finally overwrite the American left’s image as an anxiety-inducing melee of umbrage, intransigence and even violence, and replace it with an exciting ethos of experimentation and innovation.

Building a progressive future

The left’s focus on whether leaders are “hypocrites” or if existing institutions are fit for purpose can be useful, but it is no substitute for envisioning what a progressive society could be and how it can be made reality. First of all, that means getting to grips with the reality of a rapidly globalising world.

Authoritarianism is very much alive, and active on every continent. Various wars and their spillover crises are feeding the politics of fear the world over, and suck resources into the military and security services rather than public goods. Nascent global free trade agreements threaten environmental and workers’ rights in the US and most of its partners – a global “race to the bottom” that will bring us all down unless we have the international solidarity collectively to end it.


However, it also means harnessing global progressive networks to empower their members. There are concrete lessons to learn from the real experiences of progressive experimenters, from the communist community in Marinaleda, Spain to the “radical city” projects throughout Latin America and the creation of radical co-operatives all over the world.

So a real progressive transformation will begin with a realistic, achievable and yet exhilarating vision. To be truly “revolutionary”, the left has to demonstrate to the sceptical masses how a radically different world is not only desirable, but also possible.

The 2016 election has already been historic, from the astonishing rise of the US’s first socialist candidate in almost a century to the nomination of the first woman to top a presidential ticket. It also leaves progressives at a crossroads; thwarted in their struggle to win the presidency, but nonetheless confronted with the chance to build a progressive American and global future.


The Conversation

Peter Bloom, Lecturer in Organisation Studies, Department of People and Organisation, The Open University

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

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