How the Three B’s (Bernie, Barack and Bloomberg) Abandoned the Political Revolution

How the Three B’s (Bernie, Barack and Bloomberg) Abandoned the Political Revolution
Jacqueline Salit

I am an independent. Today, 42 percent of the country are independents. Being an independent is not just an electoral category. It’s a social category, a personal category. Actually, it’s a non-categorical category, as in “Don’t put me in a category.” Creating a new political culture has to not only transcend categories, it has to defy categories.

American politics is in chaos, no one disputes that. One of the most riveting things about Donald Trump and the Trump phenomenon is that the Democrats — together with the Republican establishment types who oppose him — think that the best way to counter Trump is to get him into a category. “He’s a fascist.” “He’s a demagogue.” “He’s insane.” “He’s a self-promoter.” Leave aside whether there is any truth to these statements, the point is that many Americans who are supporting Trump, somewhere (between 38 and 45 percent of the American people) are doing so, at least in part, because they believe Donald Trump is refusing to be categorized. They, too, want to defy and repudiate categories, especially those promoted by the liberal establishment, which lives off of categories: identity politics; political correctness; those who care vs. those who don’t. Liberalism is all about categories.

Does it follow from this “revolt against categories” that Trump himself is good for the country? No. But, the latest Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll shows that Trump is viewed as the candidate better at “changing politics as usual in Washington” by 48 percent to 26 percent over Clinton, a wide gulf indeed. Our political system is deeply distrusted by the American public because the political process — including its categories — prevents us from doing good for the country. The best we can do, and this is the argument that Clinton backers make about Hillary Clinton, is to vote for stability and experience. Change will only be symbolic, not transformational.

I wrote a play, produced this past spring at the off-Broadway Castillo Theatre in New York called VOTES. A character based on Hillary, Melanie Jefferson, says to her dearest friend who challenges her political hypocrisy that “there is nothing real in reality” anymore. Melanie announces, “It’s all in the symbolism.” Could it be that this state of affairs, this state of super-alienation, is what the American people are reacting to?

This primary season was the season of resistance, of Political Revolution. The Republican establishment, which believed it could forever manage a tense coalition between a high-turnout social conservative base and a globalist trickle-down elite, had a rude awakening. Their fragile détente was overrun by Trump. Now they are scrambling to save the party, to save GOP control of Congress, to save themselves.

As for the Democrats, the Bernie Sanders campaign revealed a deep distress with the direction of both the party and the country, distress with Clintonian politics — what some call the politics of centrism, of war, of abandonment.

This Political Revolution hit its most potent moment when the process issues kicked in, when the campaign — and Sanders himself — raised, not just the economic and social conflicts that are crippling our country, but the limitations on democratic decision-making imposed by the parties. With the votes of millions of independents hanging in the balance, the Sanders campaign turned toward the call for open primaries, for new delegate selection rules, for electoral fairness. Independents pressed Bernie to speak out and he did. That intersection between process and platform was the pinnacle of the Political Revolution.

As the primary season came to a close, 40,000 people signed petitions, brought to the RNC and DNC rules committees, calling for a rules change to allow open primaries. Both party committees rejected them. But, on the emotional evening when he addressed the convention, Bernie didn’t bring up “the rules of the game.” Instead, his message, in so many words, was “the revolution is over.” This was heartbreaking to many, especially young people who were radicalized by the experience of this insurgent campaign.

But Bernie was not the only one delivering that message. The second messenger was my friend, Mike Bloomberg, the independent, whose job at the convention was to signal to independents that we had only one choice: Support Hillary. I like Mike, I respect Mike. I worked with him for more than a decade, running his three campaigns for mayor on the Independence Party line. Together we tried to bring nonpartisan electoral reform to New York City, which prompted the Democratic Party to fight us tooth and nail. Mike was a good mayor. He became an independent in 2007, which we independents celebrated. But, frankly, there are many independents in this country who do not believe he has the standing to speak for or to us right now. Why? Because in a year when so many Americans were clamoring for a major, well-funded independent presidential run, Bloomberg dangled a candidacy for months and then backed down from running. Jim Morrison, a fellow independent from Arizona, put it very succinctly the day after Mike’s speech to the convention. “As a genuine independent, I can’t vote for Trump, but I really resent being told by Mike Bloomberg that it is my duty as an independent to vote for Hillary. None of the above is the principled choice. Also, with a little more courage, Bloomberg could have given us a choice.”

The third messenger was Barack Obama. After delivering soaring rhetoric about the vision and inherent humanism of the America he knows, the America he sees, his appeal to the country was that we all need to get out and vote for Democrats, up and down the ballot.

Of course, there are so many Hillary endorsers on display, why do I call out this triumvirate? Here’s why. Sanders, Bloomberg and Obama were all leaders in movements, independent movements, movements that directly challenged — and in some cases defeated — the partisan status quo. In 2008, with a core alliance of African Americans, independents and progressives, Obama defeated Clinton and Clintonism in the Democratic primaries and went on to become president. In 2001, 2005 and 2009, Mike Bloomberg, in direct partnership with progressive independents, defeated the hyper-partisan New York Democratic machine. His political tenure saw an exodus of 47 percent of black voters to support his independent run in 2005. This year Bernie Sanders, the 74-year-old socialist, sparked an uprising of young Americans, including millions of independents, to call for an alternative to the politics of centrism, partisanship and greed.

Those three leaders — Bernie, Barack and Bloomberg, the Three B’s — could have used the chaos of this cycle to advance a new majoritarian, transpartisan, and multi-racial electoral coalition, one that is pro-reform and breaks with the endless regress of winning-at-all-costs. But they didn’t.

Instead, they turned a blind eye to the movements that created them and empowered them. Their message was that we who want a new politic have no choice but to vote for the old one. That was painful to watch. Given who they are, given who they could be, it was painful to see.

So where does that leave the Political Revolution? Maybe the good news is that the American people now have a new set of questions. After all, you can’t produce new answers without asking some new questions. Here are some of them. What kind of movement is needed to transfer power from the parties to ordinary Americans? How do we keep going when the “big shots” have pulled back? Can we develop coalitions that are not simply cross-ideological, common ground coalitions, but “process coalitions” that promote changes in the political system itself?

Ours is a difficult road and it is made all the more difficult by the specter of “shoot-from-the-hip” Trump intolerance and Clinton “know it all” elitism. People will choose between them or will choose to vote for the Libertarian Gary Johnson or the Green Jill Stein in November. But, on the scale of things, the presidential vote this year does not determine the strength or the future of our movement.

This movement is growing from the ground up. It does not succumb easily to fear-mongering. This is a grassroots movement against categories, against division, ultimately against alienation. We are not only alienated from one another across an ideological or socio-economic or racial divide. We are alienated from our own history, from our own power, and we have to break that down as part of creating a new democracy together. That is a political activity, an emotional activity, a subjective activity, a spiritual activity, or what some modern and postmodern philosophers have called a revolutionary activity.

Zadie Smith, the brilliant novelist, recently wrote a lucid article in the New York Review of Books on the Brexit vote. She shared her anguish over the British decision to leave the European Union, complete with its racialist and anti-immigrant overtones. She struggled to make sense of it, as a self-described middle class progressive Londoner of Jamaican and English descent. At first, she asked, what were people really voting for? It meant this. It meant that. It was a vote against the European Union bureaucracy. Against immigrants. For sovereignty. All the things that leftists say, she observed. You fill in the blanks. But then, she asked, what if the “Leave” vote was not a vote to set up a new economic and social nationalism? What if the “Leave” vote was a way of doing something to shake up those who think they know everything?

So maybe our movement — in its many disparate forms — is a movement against knowing, and all its authoritarian trappings. Maybe this presidential election has helped us to look away from the tortured exercise of partisan power towards a different endgame, where we replace “endgames” and “knowing” with the creative collective activity of shaping a new kind of democracy. Maybe the Political Revolution is having a good year after all.

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