Talking About Revolution, Colltalers
There are few words as loaded with political significance as revolution, specially when it equates to change. But to evoke it may be misleading, either for being out of step with reality, or for reflecting yet another exercise of wishful thinking.
Lately, ‘revolution’ is being mentioned with abandon by supporters of Senator Bernie Sanders, one of the two Democrat candidates to U.S. presidency, in the context that either he’s already leading one, or, if not elected, one is about to break out.
However, even when discounting the implicit alarmism in such assumptions, it’s not clear that the word is properly invoked, or that its proponents are even fully aware of its meaning. Specially when they call Sanders the only candidate for change.
Throughout history, of course, there are many eventful and indeed shattering instances of political revolution, when people’s desire for a new day evolved into popular unrest and, combined with the right kind of political leadership, resulted in permanent change. Other times, though, things went nowhere fast, and it all wilted, at times violently, under the weight of convenience.
Also, the outcome of revolutions are unpredictable, even when guided by similar principles. French and American revolutions are good examples: despite a common ‘power to the people’ theme, they’ve produced radically different results. While in the U.S. the process became at least functional within decades, France remained soaked in blood and intolerance for years.
In modern times, however, ‘revolution’ generally follows a well-known pattern: popular unrest at first, and then coronation of yet another strongman or party, who then proceed to dismantle or persecute the groups that prompted their ascent to power. The Arab Spring comes to mind, as do uprisings during the Cold War, all of them brutal and disappointingly ineffective.
Successful instances when populism rises to power and succeeds at establishing a new state, or at least, a new power configuration, seem to draw on revolt against dominance, as the case of Russia in 1917, and the wars for independence by former European colonies in
the 19th and 20th centuries. But they all had, as did the American Revolution, a powerful, almost inexorable component to them.
Other instances only served to political manipulation of masses by skilled leaders, who used the ideal to power their own agenda. Mao’s Cultural Revolution, or the return of Ayatollah Khomeini to Iran, to name two, could be cited as producing their own grotesque brand of oppression disguised as change. Thus, there’s plenty of reasons to be suspicious about the concept.
Sanders’ supporters, and the senator himself, would be eager to distance themselves from those historical examples. But words have meaning, and can bring about a whole slew of unintended consequences when used without much thought or context.
They’re likely seeking to contrast between their candidate and the campaign of fellow Democrat Hillary Rodham Clinton, which despite a huge initial lead in the polls, managed to squander it by sticking to bare-bone, and not always inspiring or fresh, tactics. To a great number of registered voters, the former First Lady lacks ‘likability’ as a candidate, whatever that means.
That, and of course, the Iraq invasion endorsement, close ties to Wall Street, a lurking President Clinton – himself a divisive figure – and the general sense that she dabbles on issues according to what’s trending, and not by a ‘personal’ choice.
That last point is an illusion, as are most issues related to appearances in politics. Still, Sanders has an impeccable public record, both as an elected official and political leader, and old YouTube clips of his career have generally bode well for him.
One wonders if that’s enough in American politics, however. Being slow at acknowledging the contemporary black movement resurgence hasn’t exactly helped him, and neither claiming, as some of his supporters do, that he’s an outsider in Washington.
It may be hard to accept but Donald Trump is indeed the only outsider this time around, as a self-appointed maverick who’s making it all up as he goes along. He may become the Republican presidential nominee even as the party implodes at certain point under the weight of so much money wasted to defeat him. Not even Trump, though, is calling anything a ‘revolution.’
Back to Democrats, the last time a platform generated that much heat among traditionally non-voters – a category that tends to recede a little but never hoovers consistently above the 30% average – was the campaign that elected President Obama.
And its arguable biggest disappointment was not exactly with the limitations of the office that segued the enthusiasm greeting his election, but the closing of virtually all newly opened venues of youth activist that were instrumental for his election.
It was as if the mobilization and efforts of progressive forces got all spent on the campaign, and nothing was left for what came after. When the new administration was sworn in, it was as if there were no further tasks to be assigned. History may correctly assess the causes for that, but even before it does, we may be heading for a repeat with the Sanders movement.
While Trump may have figured it all out, and win the nomination, the battle between the Democrat senators is far from over. But there’s reason for concern about what comes next, regardless the outcome even of the November general election.
There’s much wasteful rhetoric between the candidates’ supporters, including poisonous assertions about Sanders’ supposedly lack of electability, and ‘no difference’ between Clinton and Trump (remember Ralph Nader in 2000, about Al Gore and George W. Bush?), and little in the way of ushering the important issues of the era into the next administration’s priorities.
For climate change, affordable education, racial equality, money in politics, infrastructure and many other themes have been discussed by the candidates (Democrats but not Republicans), but where’s the coordinated response by communities directly affected by them? Activists may lose their voices trying to talk over each other, but once their candidate wins, then what?
Or is it enough to discuss to death better means of, say, raising the minimum wage without even bothering having wage workers actively involved in the discussion? Can we find ways to lead these to becoming the basis for the new White House or we are destined to drop them all for lack of local venues, or congressional involvement, to nurture and help them flourish?
It’s fine and peachy talk about revolution with friends and on social media, sign a few progressive petitions, and study with a critical eye our candidates’ platform and proposals. But name-calling won’t change what has to happen after Nov. 7: more than a new president, we’ll need a whole new constituency, still passionate for change. Have a great week ahead. WC