Bernie, You Say You Want a Revolution?

Bernie, You Say You Want a Revolution?
Jacqueline Salit

Congratulations, Bernie Sanders. Everyone bet the farm on Hillary. (Except Trump, of course, who promised to buy the farm.) But you showed the country that the mighty Clinton machine could be penned in by the call for a political revolution.

You did good, Bernie. You reminded the country that we have to choose what kind of country we want to be—whether or not we can “get it done” in the next session of Congress. And you have reminded the Left that its role is to lead, not just to protest or to be the “experts” on progress for the American people. Any Left worth its salt has to bring political empowerment to those who lack it. After all, that’s what a political revolution is. It’s a transfer of power from a set of autocratic institutions to a new set of democratic institutions, maybe even to a set of anti-institutions.

Now comes the tougher stuff. You have to do more than show that Hillary is vulnerable. You have to show that you can shape and lead an expanding electoral majority, one that “crosses the Rubicon” beyond the Democratic Party and beyond the orthodox liberal Left. A closer look at the Iowa results reveals some of the choices and challenges you face.

With all the campaign hoopla, the Ted Cruz upset, the closeness of the vote, and the rush into New Hampshire, little attention has been paid to what happened with independent voters in Iowa. My advice: Ignore that at your peril. Based on turnout and entrance polling, more than 71,000 out of the 358,000 Iowa voters were independents—or about 20 percent. 52 percent of those independents chose to caucus with Republicans, 48 percent with Democrats. On the GOP side, indies went 22 percent for Trump, 22 percent for Rubio, 19 percent for Cruz, 11 percent for Carson and 10 percent for Paul, with the remaining 14 percent split among six other candidates. There was no decisive Republican favorite for independents, even though a slim majority of them chose a GOP caucus.

The Democratic side was a different story. Among independents, you, Bernie, were the runaway favorite—with 69 percent of the nonaligned voting for you, compared to 26 percent for Hillary, almost a 3 to 1 margin. These independents include many young people under 30 (who supported you 8 to 1) and who have little or no attachment to the parties. And if you compare the number of independent voters who supported you to the number who supported Rubio or Trump or Cruz, you outpolled each of them 3 to 1 as well.

Independents become independents because we are repelled by the current political system—by the self-dealing and arrogance of politicians and political parties. We are 44 percent of the country today. We believe the economic system is rigged against ordinary people and we believe the political system is rigged in favor of the powerful. Many align with you because you are speaking out against those unconscionable barriers, though ironically, many will not be able to vote for you. Why? Because we live in states where independents are barred by the parties—including yours—from casting ballots. I am one of them. This is one systemic abuse of power you have yet to address, one that the popular Arizona attorney and community activist Daniel Ortega has called “another form of voter suppression.” (In Arizona, 41 percent of Latinos are registered as independents and will be locked out of the presidential primary on March 22.)

Clearly, independent voters—at least in Iowa and likely in New Hampshire as well—have an affinity for your message, all of which causes us to ask whether, and to what extent, you have an affinity for us, even if you identify as an independent.

The GOP edged out the Democrats on Monday night both in raw numbers and percentages of participating independents, but in 2008 Iowa was a different story. Fully 76 percent of participating independents voted in the Democrats’ caucus that year. Forty-one percent of them chose candidate Obama, while Hillary garnered only 17 percent. (John Edwards took 23 percent.) That’s when America first caught a glimpse of a new electoral majority that broke through the barriers of party, ideology and race.

However, while independents ultimately propelled Obama to a victory over Clinton in the 2008 primaries and caucuses, and to a win over John McCain, the Democratic Party proceeded to squander that coalition. This drove independents into the arms of the GOP in 2010, where they powered the Republican takeover of the House of Representatives, a vote that was largely a reaction to the Democrats’ “takeover” of President Obama. Two years later, in 2012, our effort to persuade Obama campaign advisors David Axelrod and David Simas to appeal to independents by advocating the simplest of electoral reforms was rebuffed by party leaders.

What’s the significance of this history? On Monday night, the GOP doubled its percentage share of independents as compared with 2008, while the Democrats’ share shrank by more than half. Perhaps, this should be taken as a warning about the extent to which the Democratic Party has pulled back from building a bridge to independents, because it believes that “demographics are destiny,” i.e., that certain groups are “naturally Democrats” and that the traditional liberal/left coalition will thereby thrive. Think again. For those of us who build mechanisms for transfers of power, e.g., independent movements for systemic reform, the Iowa results suggest to us that you should challenge your own party’s “official policy” on independents and work to build those bridges. Democratic Party norms, like disenfranchising independents and tilting the presidential nominating playing field through the use of superdelegates, should not be exempt from your political revolution.

And then there is the issue of your relationship to African American voters, a community that must be part of any political revolution. While independents are a culturally, politically and racially heterogeneous grouping, Black America, as a whole, is rooted in the Democratic Party. In the run-up to the post-Obama era, it has been allied with the Clinton camp. Meanwhile, the American Left has a long history of being “mainly white.” The Democratic Party has been happy to fuse the Left and the black community, along with labor, Latinos, environmentalists, gays and other identity groups when it’s time to vote. Otherwise, best to keep everyone divided by identity politics and frightened by the power of the Right. The Clintons have fed off of progressives’ panic about social conservatism for decades, tacking right (the old Bill) or left (the new Hillary) as needed.

This pattern has resulted, among other things, in Black America being taken for granted, politically speaking. Very few black leaders have worked to bring new electoral options to African American voters. Jesse Jackson challenged the delegate allocation rules of the Democratic Party in 1984, rules that marginalized the insurgency he led. Dr. Lenora Fulani’s 1988 independent presidential run created the beginnings of a national infrastructure aimed at offering the black community a new set of tools and partners to leverage its agenda, in and out of the Democratic Party. That infrastructure became key in the explosive disruption led by Ross Perot and the national Reform Party. It also helped to foment what became known as the Black and Independent Alliance, which propelled Michael Bloomberg to City Hall in New York and nourished Obama’s upset victory in 2008.

These days, the definition of “reaching out to Black America” has become equivalent to meeting with Black Lives Matter. Black Lives Matter wisely says it is withholding support from any presidential candidate, at least for now. But the political stakes for African Americans, as well as for Latinos and other communities of color under the gun of police misconduct, go well beyond the issue of justice to the issue of power.

You did good in Iowa, Bernie. But here are some things you should do now. While you’re in New Hampshire, go visit Tiani Coleman, head of New Hampshire Independent Voters. Ask her to help you tell the world you pledge to fight to make the electoral system fair for everyone. No one should be required to join a political party as a condition of voting. New Hampshire permits independents to vote. Half the states don’t.

When you head to Nevada, hook up with Catana Barnes, leader of Independent Voters of Nevada. Help her dramatize the fact that the Nevada caucuses exclude independents from casting ballots at all. And when you get to South Carolina, call Wayne Griffin, the independent City Councilman from Greer who ran Independents for Obama in 2008 and helped to shatter the Clinton firewall. Ask him to campaign with you in the black community and to offer African Americans a new kind of leverage in a new kind of political coalition that puts people ahead of party.

You say you want a revolution, Bernie? Lots of Americans do. And they’re not all Democrats.

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