What Happens to the Bernie Sanders Movement If He Loses?

George Lakey Feb 2, 2016

You may have heard the story of the woman who was walking her dog one night and found a man on his hands and knees, searching the sidewalk under the streetlight. “Can I help you find something?” She asked.

“I dropped my house key over there,” he replied, gesturing behind him, “and I need to find it.”

“But if you dropped it over there, why are you looking here?” She asked.

“The light is much better here,” he answered.

I remember the story when I think about the many Americans who know that huge changes are needed in economic and climate policy and turn to the electoral arena to find their power. They won’t find their power there because the system is so corrupted, but they nevertheless look for their power “under the streetlight,” where middle school civics textbooks tell them to look.

The corrupted system, however, does not lead me to dismiss Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic nomination for president. He and the many people working with him have already contributed mightily to the task of preparing Americans for a living revolution. How so?

First, he articulates clearly truths about our system that many Americans have figured out, but have wondered — for good reason — if they are alone. In a recent ABC/Washington Post poll, 68 percent agreed that we live in a country whose economic system favors the rich rather than the rest of us. (About half of Republicans thought this, too). In another poll, 74 percent said they believe that corporations exert too much influence on American politics and life. As early as 2012, a poll found a staggering 75 percent of Republicans agreed there would be less corruption if there were limits on donations to super PACs.

Sanders is giving these views a voice. When Bernie asserts on national television that it is Wall Street that regulates Congress instead of the other way around, he strikes a chord that potentially enables people to resonate together — Republicans and Democrats alike.

Second, Sanders defies the political class by projecting a vision of how our country could move toward justice. U.S. politicians are notoriously vision-averse, except for neoconservatives and libertarians. (Social justice activists are also remarkably vision-averse, even though the aversion undermines our effectiveness). By contrast, Sanders repeatedly points to Denmark and other Nordic countries, thereby bringing vision into the conversation. While I have radical Nordic friends who are critical of their countries’ achievements, in the U.S. context Bernie is performing a remarkable service. He even makes sure to connect the dots by offering a public course on democratic socialism.

Here again, the U.S. public is way ahead of the political class (and even ahead of many social justice activists). For over 30 years Gallup pollsters have found a steady majority who agree that the United States should redistribute wealth by imposing heavy taxes on the rich. Gallup found in 2014 that even Republicans polled at 45 percent in favor of increasing taxes on the rich. The Pew Research Center found that more Republicans favored increased spending on Medicare, education and infrastructure than favored cutting those programs. The Economist worries that “Anti-capitalism is once more a force to be reckoned with.” Among Democrats, in October 2015, a YouGov poll found 49 percent of Democrats viewed socialism favorably, while their approval of capitalism had fallen to 37 percent.

So Bernie’s campaign scores high in articulating both analysis and vision. He challenges other activists to stop holding back as we relate to the majority of Americans. Clearly, it is time to be bold and meet people where many of them already are.

A ‘political revolution’?

Sanders’ candidacy is, to be sure, self-limiting. The political revolution he calls for cannot be achieved through the ballot box. Most Americans would agree with me if asked, based on their perception of the corruption of the system. I’d recommend to the remaining true believers in “U.S. democracy” a Princeton study released in 2014.

Two U.S. political scientists conducted a broad empirical study that reveals who actually has the say in public policy. Martin Gilens of Princeton and Benjamin I. Page of Northwestern examined the 1,779 specific policy issues that came to a head for national decision in the two decades between 1981 and 2002. Note: That period was before the Supreme Court made the Citizens United decision, before the billions released in the current money rush.

For each issue Gilens and Page determined from opinion polls and other evidence what the majority of the public wanted and what the economic elite wanted. When those two views differed, the scholars wanted to know whose view prevailed. They took into account the fact that ordinary citizens often combine to form mass-based interest groups like the American Association of Retired Persons.

What they found was that when there was a difference, the economic elite almost always prevailed over the majority. Even the mass-based interest groups had little or no independent influence. In the scholars’ words, “In the United States, our findings indicate, the majority does not rule — at least in the causal sense of actually determining policy outcomes.”

Bottom line, there’s no reason to think that the election of Bernie Sanders as president, even with a congressional majority of Democrats, could possibly deliver the changes we want. Both major parties are clearly owned by the economic elite, and what they want, they get — as long as movements for change stay within the framework of electoral politics.

The good news is that we have the option of moving outside that corrupted framework. What if the Sanders campaigners maintained their commitment to a progressive analysis and vision and simply acknowledged what so many Americans already know: The system is too rigged to be changed from within.

Where power actually resides

It’s no accident that schools and the mainstream media urge us to look for empowerment in the wrong place: “Over here, under this streetlight!” For the 1 percent the 1960s was a truly dangerous decade. Too many people at that time discovered their power.

Cultural influencers in the mass media and academia therefore minimized and even ignored what people had learned about power through their nonviolent campaigns. The ’60s were characterized as either a hippie “summer of love,” or a violent time of the Weather Underground and Black Panthers, thereby ignoring the main events that involved the most people and had the largest impact. Martin Luther King, Jr. was caricatured as the “Day of Service” guy — even though, as far as I know, he never did a day of service in his life.

Despite this, working-class and poor people did wage campaigns in the 1970s and ’80s through unions and groups like ACORN, with little support across class and color lines. Environmentalists won their largest victory by stopping the spread of nuclear power with nonviolent direct action. Greenpeace and the Rainforest Action Network kept nonviolent campaigning alive, but failed to get the support they deserved because the electoral streetlight remained so appealing. Under the radar, Movement for a New Society, War Resisters League and other clusters of trainers and manual-writers helped keep the direct action craft in circulation, laying the groundwork for the Battle of Seattle and the subsequent resurgence of larger-scale nonviolent direct action.

Throughout the period covered by the Princeton study, 1981-2002, and since, many continued to cling to electoral politics despite the onslaught of what billionaire Warren Buffett later acknowledged to be a successful class struggle initiated by his class. Over and over, middle-class liberal Democrats legitimated an arena that couldn’t work for them, acting against their own interests as the wealth gap grew. Some are now noticing that looking under the streetlight is the wrong place to find their power.

What would Plan B Look Like

The Sanders campaign is doing fine work in projecting analysis and vision so people can recognize they are not alone, then claim it and work side by side with those who share it. The question of strategy remains. When the electoral arena reveals itself to be an instrument of the 1 percent, where will the Sanders movement go? Will people accept the lessons of their own experience, integrate the Princeton study into their worldview and re-form to claim their authentic power: nonviolent direct action?

Veteran campaigner Antje Mattheus suggests that the Sanders movement take a part of the vision that has the most potential and form a nonviolent direct action campaign to fight for it. Why not a national fight for free higher public education, say? Or fight for federally-guaranteed green jobs for all, a goal that would combine economic and racial justice with the climate justice imperative and expose the utilities and fossil fuel companies that try to stand in the way? Such a campaign could attract majority U.S. support across class and race lines and support us once again to go on the offensive for change.

When we don’t find our power under the streetlight, we need to shine a light of our own.

George Lakey has authored seven books on nonviolent social change, peace and organizational development. This article originally appeared at

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