When the Occupy protests in New York and dozens of other cities ended four years ago, the conventional wisdom was that they had failed. After all, no mass movement had sprouted up to turn a spotlighted media event into a sustained challenge to economic injustice. Rent by clashing identities and lacking a program for change, the occupiers scattered to new causes or took a long break from activism.
The Bernie Sanders campaign has hurled that judgment into the trash bin of recent history. For decades, the socialist from Vermont, by way of Flatbush, has been attacking an order rigged against ordinary people. But it took an innovative uprising against the power and privileges of the “one percent” for Americans to prick up their ears and consider voting for someone who promises to do whatever he can to transform a system whose obscenely unequal outcomes have generated equal degrees of cynicism and outrage.
The spirit animating millions of left-wing voters, particularly young ones, is essentially the same as that which inspired a few thousand demonstrators to camp out in parks and sit through endless meetings. “The most enduring aspects of a social movement,” the British historian J.F.C. Harrison wrote about the world’s first socialists, “are not always its institutions but the mental attitudes which inspire it and which are in turn generated by it.” In 2011 and 2012, mayors and the police prevented radicals from turning urban spaces into durable sites for organizing. They are quite powerless to stop the many Americans who were influenced by those protests from occupying the Democratic Party.
But it’s one thing to shake up a political party; it will be far more difficult to occupy the White House. If Sanders does not triumph in 2016, how can those who worked for and thrilled at the prospect of a serious socialist candidate for president keep their movement going? One way would be to recruit and campaign for left Democrats running for executive and legislative offices in states, a majority of which Republicans now control. Another would be to turn the Sanders platform into the agenda for a new, anti-corporate organization—a Tea Party of the left.
In the meantime, the possibility that, this fall, Republicans could take control of all three branches of the federal government and hold them for nearly a decade should alarm every liberal and leftist, both in the United States and around the world. That kind of future is one we should believe in making impossible. Act accordingly.