Bernie's Revolution Splits Apart: Is It A Campaign Or A Movement?

There needs be a structure, a home, a thing that moves the progressive tradition forward.
08/25/2016 06:23 am ET Updated Aug 25, 2016
ASSOCIATED PRESS

The two wings of the Sanders Machine are snarling at each other. Accusations, resignations, fear and loathing. This isn’t a spat about personalities and power. It’s about the nature of the enterprise, and it matters.

From the get-go the Sanders candidacy had a split personality. It was a presidential campaign and the practical realities of American politics impinged on it. Not just raising money, but what issues to run on, what vocabulary and tactics persuaded voters, all the conventional baggage of running and winning landed hard.

It was also a movement. It took up where Occupy Wall Street left off. It was not about electing a candidate, it was an attempt to recreate American life, where corporations and the 1%-ers were effectively running the country, everyone else be damned. American democracy was standing up to American plutocracy, in a long-term struggle.

Bernie lost. Bernie endorsed Hillary. And then he turned to the task of keeping all this good stuff alive and kicking. There would be an organization. On the one hand it was called “Our Revolution.” On the other it was a fundraising vehicle, supporting candidates.

Now the inherent split has become loudly and embarrassingly public. When Jeff Weaver, the Sanders campaign manager, was named its head, key staff members revolted and resigned. Some of it was the inevitable personality conflicts that arise in every campaign, not surprising or particularly important. But most of it was existential. Was this a conventional interest group raising and spending on TV ads, intended to affect the outcome of elections? Was this a movement less interested in winning elections than in creating a vast, progressive social and political network which would engage politically on its own terms and timetable?

If history is any guide, you need both. But it’s impossible for both to coexist under one umbrella. So we have a struggle for the soul of a political and social movement, and Bernie has to settle it out. Or at least try to settle it out.

The real tragedy would be if nothing arose from the ashes of the Sanders campaign. There needs be a structure, a home, a thing that moves the progressive tradition forward. Otherwise we repeat the feel-good, low-impact era of Occupy.

Personally, the Weaver model seems too limited and a little redundant. There are super-PACs and interest groups aplenty. Another one won’t move the needle much. But a more amorphous network, self-defining and self-directed, could be the counter to Big Money and Movement Conservatism that the country now lacks. In coming to this conclusion I mean no attack on Bernie, or Weaver, or on the Movement Purists. This is a fight worth having, it is the consequence of the unexpected and marvelous Sanders candidacy, and the protagonists are all worthy. It would be nice if we could resolve this genuine conflict of vision without any more casualties.

It will fall on Bernie’s shoulders to sort this out. Vision and criticism come easy. Organization and structure are harder, but they win. Bernie, Weaver and the Movement Purists need to find a way to come together.

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