THE BLOG

After Bernie Wins, Then What?

01/28/2016 06:50 am ET | Updated Jan 28, 2016
  • Les Leopold Author, "Runaway Inequality: An Activist's Guide to Economic Justice"

Look, politicians respond. If the people are asleep and not involved, they respond to the lobbyists and donors. But when people speak up and fight, if you want to survive [as a politician], you have to respond. My job is to activate people to fight for their rights and to force Congress to respond to the needs of working families.

What the president can do is to say to the American people, "OK, if you think that it is important that public colleges and universities are tuition-free, and that that program be paid for based on a tax on Wall Street speculation, well, on March 15th there is going to be a vote in the House, and let's see if we can bring large numbers of people here to Washington to say hello to members of Congress. Let us make every member of Congress aware that millions of people are involved in this issue. They know how you are going to vote." Of course we'll win that. Bernie Sanders, Nov. 2015

If Bernie captures the nomination, then what does his "political revolution" look like? Arguably, whether he wins or loses the nomination, our task will be roughly the same.

We will need to build a massive national organization with staying power to push for a broad-based agenda for justice -- along the lines of the platform Sanders is spreading so successfully. We can't let this golden political moment slip away....again.

Occupy Wall Street gave us a similar moment. In six short months it grew to 900 encampments around the world. It changed the national discourse. Before OWS, President Obama was proudly pursuing a bi-partisan austerity bill -- a "grand bargain" that would have included cuts in Social Security. After Occupy Wall Street put runaway inequality on the map, the national debate radically shifted... and it's still shifting in the direction of taking on the "billionaire class" as Bernie puts it.

But Occupy Wall Street essentially disappeared within six months. What can we learn from its demise?

The standard line is that repression from city governments took them down. But while police actions did take place, OWS faded primarily because it didn't believe in organization. Rather it called for "horizontal" organizing and mass consensus decision-making that supposedly would avoid the pitfalls of oppressive hierarchical organization. .

This was akin to believing in spontaneous political combustion -- much like the Arab Spring. While such spontaneous uprisings can change discourse in profound ways and even topple governments in some countries, they can't survive without organization. (It was the well organized Muslim Brotherhood that harvested the fruits of Egypt's mass uprising, and now the Egyptian military has taken over with a vengeance .)

The problem however goes far beyond Occupy Wall Street. The rest of us were asleep at the switch. OWS showed us that the American people detested runaway inequality and Wall Street's financial strip-mining of the economy. As the Tea Party demonstrated on the right, the moment was ripe to build a national progressive movement. But we didn't do it. Why?

The answer in large part lies in how our generation of progressive organizations are structured. We are entangled in thousands of issue-based silos, each struggling to raise money, survive and do good work. Although the talent level of staff is enormously high, when the 2007-08 crash occurred, our silos were totally unprepared. We did not reach out to each other to build a massive national response, even as the national piggy bank was donated to Wall Street bailouts.

That kind of action just wasn't on the to-do list of our siloed organizations. That's not what most of our funders were funding. We refused to realize that progress on our siloed issues was doomed unless we banned together to take on Wall Street. Many of us today still don't get it.

Bernie does.

He offers us another critical moment to build a lasting movement for economic and social justice. His campaign has hit the same raw nerve as Occupy Wall Street --- except on steroids.

There is great national sentiment to break up the big banks, to tax Wall Street to pay for free higher education, to raise the minimum wage to $15 per hour, to stop the billionaire tax evaders. Sanders has put a social democratic agenda on the political map in full relief.

But as Sanders knows full well, none of it is attainable unless we apply massive, sustained political pressure on every aspect of government. And this is the case whether he wins or loses. It's on us, not him, to build that movement and those structures.

Here are some of the basic features that we need to consider:

1. A coherent short agenda and common analysis that binds us together:
Sanders is field testing a common agenda each and every day. We know it must include a vast redistribution of income and wealth from the "billionaire class" to the rest of society. It also must confront the fact that we're the largest police state in the world, bar none.

We need to get all of it down to no more than a 10-point plan that clearly reflects the anger we feel towards the super-rich, the rigged political system, and systemic racial and ethnic injustices. The trick will be to blend a mix of class and discrimination issues without ripping ourselves apart.

We need a common analysis of how financial strip-mining and runaway inequality are harming the 99 percent.

2. A national educational infrastructure to spread the agenda and analysis:
The populists of the 1880s during their anti-Wall Street revolt fielded 6,000 grass roots educations to spread the word about the need for cooperatives, public banks, progressive income taxes and popular control over railroads and communications systems.

Given the growth of our population, we will need to develop more than 30,000 educators to spread our message and agenda. Yes, social media can facilitate the process but nothing beats live discussion of these vital issues.

The Communications Workers or America and Citizens Action New York already have launched such mass economic and social justice training. It could become a model for other unions and community groups to use.

3. A coherent national organization with state and local chapters:
All of us need to belong to something with a common identity --that concretely expresses our movement. Our opponents are strong. A demonstration or two will not remove their iron grip on the economy and the political process. We need to prepare for a ten to twenty year struggle in order to break down their plutocracy. Therefore we need solid organizational structures that can sustain themselves.

We should be able to travel anywhere in the country and join in a local meeting of our new organization and engage in common debate, discussion and political activity.

Building such a structure takes people and money. The Sanders campaign will have a surplus of both. Either in victory or defeat, it will amass millions of small donors and tens of thousands of volunteers and staff who are likely to be willing to build, join and contribute to such a formation.

4. A new movement identity:
This is perhaps the highest hurdle for us to clear. We need to see ourselves as movement builders. We must make our silos more porous. Our identities as enviros, racial justice fighters, labor activists and so on also must include a common movement building identity. Our traditional approach to coalition and alliance building is unlikely to succeed unless we place a much higher value on building a new common movement identity.

None of this will come easy. It cuts hard against the grain of how progressives are organized. Our separate identities give us nourishment and a sense of empowerment. It's also not something our "funders" are likely to embrace because they too have their silos. It will disrupt our to-do lists and put us into strange new organizing space. And there are likely to be rivalries among organizations and individuals who may vie for leadership.

This is tough stuff. Is it possible to imagine that climate justice, Black Lives Matter, the fight for a $15 minimum wage, prison reform, and union organizing could all come together in a common movement? Not easily. But runaway inequality will stifle all of these movements unless we do band together. The elite plutocracy gives us no choice but to try.

Of course, this kind of mass organizing becomes somewhat easier if Sanders is elected. However, win or lose, it is the challenge of our lifetimes -- it is the promise of the Sanders political revolution.


Les Leopold is currently working with unions and community organizations to build the educational infrastructure of a new anti-Wall Street movement. His new book Runaway Inequality: An Activist's Guide to Economic Justice (Oct 2015) is a text for this campaign. All proceeds go to support these educational efforts.

CONVERSATIONS