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The Movement Has Found Its Leader: Bernie Sanders

02/12/2016 08:31 am ET | Updated Feb 12, 2016
TASOS KATOPODIS via Getty Images

Back in the fall of 2011, when the Occupy Wall Street movement seized Zuccotti Park and then spread at unprecedented speed across the globe the criticism we heard coming from the corporate media (when they weren't denouncing the movement outright) was that the movement had "no direction" and had "no leaders."

We were lectured at. We were dismissed. We were mansplained. We were told we were "naïve" and didn't know how the economy worked. "Your criticisms of Wall Street might be popular," they said, "but your program is vague and your movement is rudderless."

Enter Senator Bernie Sanders.

In case you haven't noticed, the centerpiece of Senator Sanders' campaign is the exact same critique that Occupy Wall Street offered us four and half years ago: Wall Street is functioning as a criminal enterprise that is too big to fail, too big to jail, and too corrupt to manage an economy upon which the 99 percent depend.

Sanders correctly states that only through a "political revolution" and a groundswell of grassroots activism will we be able to challenge the power of the corporate and banking oligarchy that has seized power in Washington.

If the Obama years have taught us anything it is that going to the Republicans on bended knee begging for a quarter loaf and toning down your demands before you even make them is a recipe for stasis.

All of the major progressive changes that have taken place historically in this country have occurred with an aroused citizenry putting pressure on politicians to take a stand: Are you with us or against us?

President Franklin Roosevelt, facing labor unrest and street protests, didn't offer to dial back his New Deal programs because Republican politicians, wealthy newspaper owners, and other moguls were screaming loudly against it. He welcomed the hatred of the "economic royalists." FDR didn't go hat in hand begging Hoover era Republicans for half a loaf.

Similarly, in 1965, Lyndon Johnson sidelined the Republicans to pass Medicare, which moved millions of senior citizens out of poverty. He didn't beg Senator Barry Goldwater and other Republicans to meet him "half way." They denounced Medicare as the end of "freedom" that would usher in Soviet-style socialized medicine.

Fifty years later, Medicare remains (along with Social Security) one of the most popular government programs ever enacted. Americans love single-payer health care - so long as they can make it to the age of 65.

Since the New Deal, every progressive social program that has been successful was accomplished by mobilizing the citizenry, shelving the reactionary Republicans, and passing the needed laws and reforms over the heads of kicking and screaming right-wing opponents.

Bernie Sanders is calling for a new political realignment, not a continuation of the "bipartisan" compromises of the last 20 years that have screwed over the working class. The Bill Clinton and Barack Obama years have coincided with the consistent slide into economic ruin for a large chunk of the once sizable American middle class. After a pair of two-term Democratic presidents what do progressives really have to cheer about with regard to domestic policy other than Mitt Romney's health care reform?

Hillary Clinton apparently believes that by promising to preside competently over this continuous downward slide of the middle class she can win just enough votes to get elected.

Labor unions are weaker, the safety net is in tatters, the profiteers and asset strippers in our health care, prison, and education systems have become richer than ever. And more working people today are feeling economically insecure. We all know we've been ripped off and the economic "gains" we keep hearing about since the "recovery" haven't trickled down.

Has it ever occurred to the Democratic Party establishment that the wipeout midterm elections of 1994 and 2010 might have something to do with their standard bearer not being brave enough to go big and go bold even when the Democrats controlled both chambers of Congress?

The movement that Bernie Sanders is working so hard to lead might finally give us the experiment we've been waiting for: let's find out if taking bold progressive stands can win the presidency and keep the Democratic base energized through the midterms of 2018 and offer the country a different result. We've got nothing to lose for trying.

Bernie is doing exactly what I hoped I would see one day: The Democratic primaries utilized to present a strong critique of the excesses of American capitalism. After the Great Recession destroyed the livelihoods of so many people it's not enough to point to job numbers and say that things have gotten better.

Things are better than they were during the height of the Great Recession. But we've also seen a qualitative shift away from good paying jobs with benefits to McJobs and the "gig" economy where workers earn "chump change." We also live in a period where Congress no longer responds to the will of the people and the Republican attack on the social safety net marches on.

Long ago the Koch brothers and Wall Street decided to wage class warfare against working people. It's time to fight back. We don't know if the "political revolution" that Bernie Sanders talks about will happen because nobody has tried it yet.

All we've had since Bill Clinton and his "New Democrats" are milquetoast leaders supping at the same trough of corporate money and willing to water down there own demands even before beginning to "negotiate" with the right-wing opposition.

Fifty percent of millennials believe the American dream is over. Yet they very quickly transformed the country's attitude toward gay marriage and marijuana. Maybe they can do the same with economic justice.

And wouldn't it be great if the Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016 could find a way to finally put an end to the "Southern Strategy" and welcome back into the party a more conscious working class that no longer falls for the Republican tricks of racial dog whistles and cultural manipulation?

The cynicism of the Citizens United and McCutcheon rulings that Mitch McConnell and other congressional Republicans greeted with glee might have created an unpredictable backlash. There is widespread revulsion towards an activist Supreme Court that has turned the country over to a corporate oligarchy. The gutting of the Voting Rights Act added insult to injury.

Following two terms of the nation's first African-American president, it's impossible to gauge the effect on the Republicans' "Southern Strategy." In this first post-Obama presidential election all bets are off. The nation now might be ready to finish what Obama started, defy the political prognosticators, and realign our politics in a more progressive configuration.

When Bernie Sanders denounces the control of big money over our politics and the unwarranted power of the millionaire and billionaire class, he's not just speaking truth to power, he's mobilizing the "people with the pitchforks" that Obama said early on he was protecting the bankers against.

The social movements that have emerged since the Great Recession, from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter, might be able to coalesce around the Sanders campaign to bring at long last a level of fairness to American capitalism.

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