Thursday, January 21, 2016

Can a President Lead a Revolution?

I love Bernie Sanders' latest ad.

In discussing this ad, Greg Sargent got it right when he compares it to the Obama 2008 campaign. He quotes what Sanders said in a Vox interview about how he would realize his goals.
The real way that change takes place — and that’s always been the case in this country — is when people on the bottom begin to stand up and say enough is enough. That’s true of the civil rights movement, it is true of the women’s movement, it’s true of the environmental movement, of the gay movement. Millions of people begin to stand up and say, ‘We need change. Current situations are intolerable.’ That is when change takes place….The United States Congress is going to start listening to us and not to a handful of wealthy campaign contributors.
But then Sanders also said this:
The major political, strategic difference I have with Obama, is it’s too late to do anything inside the Beltway. You gotta take your case to the American people, mobilize them, and organize them at the grassroots level in a way that we have never done before.
One has to wonder if Sanders missed the whole, "Yes We Can" theme of Obama's campaign that was predicated on this:

So what happened? Did Barack Obama fail to deliver the change he promised? Was he disingenuous when he made those kinds of claims? Did he abandon the movement in order to focus his efforts "inside the Beltway?" Perhaps. A lot of people have offered informed critiques about that. Here is one from Marshall Ganz who is our country's leading expert on community organizing and is responsible for the efforts of Camp Obama in 2008.
Abandoning the "transformational" model of his presidential campaign, Obama has tried to govern as a "transactional" leader. These terms were coined by political scientist James MacGregor Burns 30 years ago. "Transformational" leadership engages followers in the risky and often exhilarating work of changing the world, work that often changes the activists themselves. Its sources are shared values that become wellsprings of the courage, creativity and hope needed to open new pathways to success. "Transactional" leadership, on the other hand, is about horse-trading, operating within the routine, and it is practiced to maintain, rather than change, the status quo.
I am reminded of what Michelle Obama said about her husband back when he was still the U.S. Senator from Illinois.
Barack is not a politician first and foremost. He's a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.
So there are a couple of things we might learn from Barack Obama's exploration of what it means to go from community activist to politics. First of all, it is helpful to remember the context of that quote in the image above.
We know the battle ahead will be long, but always remember that no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.
When Sanders reminds us of things like the civil rights and women's rights movements, it is helpful to remember that those battles were also long. For example, from the Montgomery Bus Boycott until passage of the Civil Rights Act, there were nine long years of struggle. It's clearly not as simple as "elect me and you're done."

But I think it is also worth asking whether or not a president of the United States can actually lead a revolution. That is the dilemma Howard Dean identified when he talked about the need to make the turn from insurgent to establishment.

Mark Engler and Paul Engler recently reminded us that Martin Luther King, Jr. rejected calls to run for political office.
But King had a very different perspective, one consistent with the field now known as "civil resistance." Drawing from the work of theorists such as Gene Sharp, scholars in this field argue that power is more widely distributed than is typically believed — and that CEOs, generals and senators do not hold all the cards. Even entrenched dictators rely on the compliance of the people in order to maintain power. If a sufficient number of people choose not to cooperate with an existing order, the standing of these leaders crumbles.
Civil resistance movements can look beyond a "transactional" model of politics that attempts to exact small gains based on conventional wisdom about what is feasible within Washington. Instead, through disruptive and dramatic protest, they alter the political climate and create new possibilities for change - turning impractical demands into urgent priorities.
While the Engler's provide us with that important history, their suggestion is that Sanders understands this model of change. But they fail to address the fact that King saw it as incompatible with being president.

I'd love to hear a discussion with Bernie Sanders about how he views the possibility of combing the roles of president and revolutionary. That's because I continue to be fascinated with this question of how a community activist explores the viability of politics to make change.


  1. 'Afternoon, Nancy
    "it is important to remember that those battles were LONG (my emphasis)". From where I sit, that has been and continues to be one of the chief problems right there. No matter how often and how he would and has attempted to define it, that "we" thang....If any number of us had some significant money for every time we heard how "disappointing" PBO has been. You presented it BEAUtifully. For many, he was elected and they were DONE. He was/is supposed to do everything else. Just had a very little back and forth with an interesting guy you'd like on FB. He put up some, to me, hit piece and then said: "He didn't take care of his base" My response was: "At bare minimum, we didn't vote in the mid-terms. "We" didn't take care of HIM". You've noticed, too, that Bernie is taking a bit of heat for this ad because minorities didn't show up until well into it. An additional problem for Bernie is, and I agree with this assessment, how T. Coates sees him (the result of his weaving and bobbing from Coates' request to talk with him). Bernie's a radical who, looking at his career, one wonders if he even knows how to spell "pragmatic"(Coates points out that, while Bernie, re: Reparations and guns attempts to sound pragmatic - 'it's too divisive and would never get through Congress' - the exact same thing can be said for just about all of his platform) Therein, your cohort Martin raises some very good points about who does he have around him who, currently, can additionally explain him? An EXcellent question you raise. Bernie's temperment (and record) to me show that he's a much better railing firebrand and leading that way (which, also, is all Trump can do) does not translate into solid governing ability.

  2. I guess Bernie never heard of OFA(Organizing For America) the grassroots organization that led to getting President Obama elected in 2008 and 2012.

  3. I have some hope that if Barack Obama is willing to lead OFA, the next Democratic president will have better support than he did.

  4. I have some hope that if Barack Obama is willing to lead OFA, the next Democratic president will have better support than he did.

  5. Bernie basically makes the same mistake that Republicans do: you can't campaign on the fundamental broken-ness of the system, and then take office and make it better as part of the system. You will at the very least be philosophically disinclined to execute the duties of your office, and there stands a very good chance that, once you're in, you'll start seeing that the system makes more sense than you thought it did (or at least, the system ended up as it did because of trends and tendencies that you can't bully pulpit away).