Yes, We (Really) Can

“Change will not come if we wait for some other person or some other time. We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”
- Barack Obama; February, 2008
“A political revolution that says when millions of people come together, including those who’ve given up on the political process, they’re so dismayed and so frustrated with what goes on in Washington, with young people who before had never been involved in the political process, when young people and working people and seniors begin to stand up and say loudly and clearly, enough is enough, that our government, the government of our great country belongs to all of us and not just a handful of billionaires, when that happens we will transform this country.”
- Bernie Sanders; February, 2016

Imagine, for a moment, a Democratic primary already determined, requiring but the formality of cast votes. The frontrunner — a candidate of exceptional qualification, seasoned in Washington politics while connected to power brokers from Hollywood to Wall Street. As month chews month onward to Iowa, poll upon poll, pledged Super Delegates bludgeon opponents and public alike with inevitability. No opposition. All sewn up. Hillary Clinton for President.

Two-thousand-and-seven feels a very distant nine years past to many Americans. However, likely not Secretary Clinton.

From July 2007 through the Iowa Caucus on January 4th, 2008 Hillary Clinton maintained a decisive command in national polls over all her rivals, namely, Barack Obama. In fact, as the caucus approached, her lead only increased compared to the summer months. Hillary, the Inevitable, was public record. Taken as a whole, Ms. Clinton’s demise was truly a fanciful apparition, until it wasn’t.

While the story of 2016 is yet to be completed, the prologue already tracks historical reverberations. Bernie Sanders was credited absolutely zero chance to contend, let alone win, the Democratic Primary. A (democratic)-socialist septuagenerian Senator (from Vermont) in contest with (for better and worse) an American icon who has lusted for the Presidency ever since her last tour in the White House. Sanders, on the other hand, a politician who does not even identify with the Party whose nomination he seeks. But here we are, a few days post the first-in-the-nation presidential caucus, Sanders and Clinton in a dead heat. Deja vu.

If on the surface Senator Sanders and President Obama’s Iowa revolts share similar beats — insurgent candidate rides paradigm-shifting message past the establishment rival — how deeply does the parallel run? Both Obama and Sanders positioned themselves as the liberal alternative. But more, both prospectives crafted their candidacies as means to a much broader end. They were not running for President; they were the seedlings for a political movement, pollinated by an active citizenry, that would transform the very nature of American politics.

Barack Obama failed to realize his systematic ambitions. He is one of the first to admit it. A myriad of challenges, beyond the scope or depth of Tumblr blogs, hindered the President’s effort. Nonetheless, the result stands. The initial spark lighting off Mr. Obama’s improbable rise and victory flamed out in the Oval Office. Nothing to say of his policy achievements, Obama the symbol, the leader of a great movement, fizzled.

Such historical recognition proves valuable for its potential present-day analog — Senator Sanders. Why should young folks, first-time voters — the politically inactive — pour their hearts into Sander’s “movement” when the Obama administration betrayed their commitment once before?

Or to put it another way, does Sanders risk Obama’s pitfall? Is he generating an idealistic movement without hope of realization?

Only a President Sanders tenure could provide a full answer. However, the substantive differences between Obama’s “Yes, we can,” and Sanders’ “Political Revolution” offers genuine reason to feel the Bern.

Although both Senators Sanders and Obama hinged their movement on inclusion, the relationships between their grand crusades and concrete policy proposals widely differed. Barack Obama orated on “hope” and “change.” He preached of transforming the country’s patchwork of red and blue states into land of uniform purple. The campaign’s grassroots energy burned in lofty abstractions. Practically, on the other hand, his rhetoric bears little connection to liberal ideology. Barack Obama as a symbol for change sounded on entirely distinct planes from his substantive proposals. In truth, a conservative gifted in oration could theoretically sell a similar message. The vagaries in Obama’s message allow easy repackaging for other political campaigns. At least, Ted Cruz agrees.

Contrarily, Bernie Sanders predicates his political revolution on the same policies anchoring his entire presidential bid. Sanders’ political revolution assumes a harder edge than Obama’s nebulous referendum. Unlike Obama, Sanders does not invite everybody to join him: he is contented with the ninety-nine percent of Americans fed up with economic corruption. Reflecting the heart of his movement, overthrowing the economic oligarchy remains Sanders single highest (and most verbalized) priority. Those buying into Bernie’s revolution do not exist apart from policy. Instead, policy and movement reinforce each other in a way entirely distinct from President Obama’s 2008 campaign. In short, Senator Cruz would have a much tougher time starting any Bernie style “revolutions” on the stump.

Placing the two campaigns in contrast, then, allows better understanding of each movements’ essence. The swarms of disillusioned Obama supporters were never disappointed with the President’s legislative agenda, but rather his inability to leverage unifying rhetoric into true unification. In fact, disenchantment was likely unavoidable. Considering Obama’s popularity rooted in apolitical ideas, the politics of governing unsurprisingly poisoned the enthusiasm.

Yet Sanders supporters relish the fight. By structuring his revolution around gritty policy solutions (campaign finance reform, higher minimum wage, single payer healthcare, free college tuition), Sanders recruits supporters in it for the long haul. Rather than fade after elected to office, Sanders supporters will only strengthen. The mere election of President Obama climaxed his movement. For Sanders and his legions, nothing changes until his policies become law — until money disappears from politics.

Electability is a funny concept. Establishment Democrats have increasingly lobbed the term against Sanders, exclaiming his radical policies could never win over in the general, but more, would never find passage in Washington. He’s too idealistic. While the former argument feels a bit tired, the latter claim signals a fundamental misunderstanding of Sanders’ movement.

If Sanders becomes the 45th President of the United States, he will have enlisted tens of millions of voters into his ranks, into a revolution that does not rest until policy meets paper. Notice when speaking after the Iowa upset, Bernie did not mention the word socialist, Democrat, or liberal once. He stuck to policy. His “revolution’s” thesis, in a bizarre twist, sprouted in the weeds of Washington’s current climate. What could possibly be more pragmatic?