Upending the Oligarchs

As Bernie Sanders held forth this evening for tens of thousands of supporters inside and outside Key Arena – yes, an arena whose name was purchased by the same predatory banking industry Sanders regularly denounces – my mind kept going back to a recent political science study that should have received a lot more attention than it did.

In April 2014, a Princeton study was published that compared poll results by income level on a variety of issues with how Congress acted on those issues. The authors found that the policy preferences of the extremely wealthy correlated very strongly with what Congress – under the control of either party – actually did. Conversely, the policy preferences of ordinary Americans were within the margin of error of never having any correlation at all. This led the authors to conclude that, in function, the United States is an oligarchy, not a democracy.

Bernie Sanders was correct today when he labeled the US an oligarchy rather than a democracy. Sadly, that’s why the size of today’s overflow crowds won’t matter. That’s why when Sanders wins our state’s caucus next weekend – which he will – it won’t matter. The Democratic Party’s leadership, on behalf of the corporate titans who are their only real constituency, have fixed this contest from the beginning, even though Sanders would be a far stronger general election candidate than Clinton. A contest that features a charisma-free, wealthy has-been against an even wealthier, megalomaniacal reality TV star would be no contest at all were it not for the minority of Americans who fear the idea of an unqualified, openly fascistic bully having the single most powerful job in the world. But since the Democratic Party’s nomination process is, far more than even the Republican side’s, a top-down affair, that’s likely the match-up we’ll get.

It’s a political truism that most voters don’t decide who to vote for based on issues. Tribal identity, perceived values, good branding, and personal likeability are all more important. Does anyone, to borrow a phrase that helped George W. Bush get close enough to steal the 2000 election, ever want to have a beer with Hillary Clinton? For all his negatives, Donald Trump is charismatic and appealing to some specifically because he’s a walking id of unfiltered, non-PC resentments and bullying.

It hardly matters that, aside from being a straight white man, he is a demographic nightmare for most of his fans – a thrice-divorced, four-time bankrupted con man who expanded his inherited fortune mostly in the mobbed-up gaming industry, a hyper-wealthy East Coast elitist from this country’s most visible multi-ethnic city. All that is forgiven because he’s made it socially acceptable again, at least in some circles, for his fans to express their bigotries. In a warped way, that’s empowering, and that’s where the Sanders-like enthusiasm for his campaign comes from. Also: Winning campaigns almost always offer hope: Morning In America, Hope and Change, and yes, “Make America Great Again.” “My husband was a breath of fresh air a quarter-century ago” just doesn’t pack the same punch, figuratively or literally.

Sanders, in short, has a much more difficult path to the presidency than Trump does. Against a weak opponent like Clinton – who has literally never won a seriously contested election and, unlike Trump, blew one in which she was the prohibitive favorite in 2008 – Trump has the potential to change the Electoral College math that currently makes any Democratic Party nominee a heavy favorite to win the presidency.

Clinton’s best general election hope lies in communicating just how serious a threat that would be – but plain speaking is his style, not her’s. There’s a reason why, even in corporate media, putting Trump, fascism, and Hitler in the same sentence no longer sets off Godwin alarms. Hitler was originally elected – by appealing to German voters battered by a bad economy (in his case, the fallout from World War I and the Treaty of Versailles), strong appeals to nationalism and to making radical changes in leadership, and punching down at the relatively powerless, often defined by ethnicity, as representing the internal enemies holding Germany back. Sound familiar?

Worse, if Trump wins in November, he’ll almost certainly inherit a Congress controlled by his party and a Supreme Court that, by stonewalling Merrick Garland and confirming a Trump pick for Supreme Court, would also likely ratify his actions. All Trump needs to do – remember that Princeton study? – is promise to do everything to favor his billionaire colleagues that they want, and he’ll likely face little elected opposition on anything else. (Remember the principled, unified congressional opposition by Democrats to the worst excesses of Dubya, even when the Democrats had absolute congressional majorities? Yeah, me neither.) Meanwhile, the term “fascism” comes not from Hitler, but from his contemporary, Italian dictator Benito Mussolini; fascismo referred not to strongman authoritarianism or the bullying and intimidation, and eventually elimination, of opponents – Hitler had that, too – but to a government run by and for rich industrialists and other corporate interests. Those interests are now more globally powerful than most countries. A President Trump could literally be the worst of both worlds.

Hillary Clinton has neither an enthusiastic base nor a hopeful message. American history is littered with major party nominees whose message was, essentially, “It’s My Turn!” Most of them lost – Kerry, Dole, Mondale, etc. Clinton herself can tell you what a weak candidate the only successful nominee in recent history with such a message was (George H.W. “I can’t believe I lost o that guy” Bush.)

In such a hype-driven political environment, an issue driven campaign like Sanders’ just doesn’t fit at all. Yet.

Today’s rally changes nothing in these equations. But what will matter, NO MATTER WHO WINS, is what comes next. Past progressive presidential candidates – Ralph Nader, Jerry Brown. Jesse Jackson, even going back to George McGovern – all said they wanted to build a lasting movement that would transcend any issue or candidate. All of them withered once the presidential campaigns were over.

If the tens of thousands who came to hear Sanders today, and those who’ve attended all of his other madly enthusiastic campaign stops. dedicate themselves to the long-term process that any successful revolution requires, then we’ve got something.

It would be a positive message of inclusion, not one, like Trump’s, defined by resentments and punching down. It offers hope – a lot more hope if this year’s movement can, in 2018 and beyond, also more progressive champions elected to Congress and to state legislatures and governorships, providing the logistical support essential for meaningful public policy changes. And it would be a lateral, grass roots movement that’s not only more inclusive and creative, but far more difficult for oligarchs to disempower – whether led by Donald Trump or anyone else.

As much information as our government and private companies now collect on each of us, and as easy as it remains for insecure governments around the world to censor or control not just traditional but also social media, “consent of the governed” still means something. And when the policies of our government consistently work against the interests of most Americans, it is, as Sanders says, time for a revolution.

Revolutions, the political scientists tell us, usually don’t come when there’s no hope. They happen when there is hope, and then that hope is taken away. Currently, among other things, that’s the American economy in a nutshell.

Today’s rally doesn’t matter, but the people who came to it very much do. Get busy. Don’t get discouraged when things don’t change overnight; keep at it. Or, as Mohandas Gandhi said in very different times, “Whatever you do may seem insignificant, but it is most important that you do it.” In politics, things can change very quickly, but only when people have worked for that change for a long, long time.

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