A World to Make: Eleven Theses for the Bernie Sanders Generation

Bernie Sanders supporters at a rally in Phoenix, Arizona, March 15 (Gage Skidmore / Flickr)

The Sanders campaign has always been about more than Bernie Sanders. It has also been about more than winning states and delegates (although it has turned out to be an serious and remarkably effective effort at exactly that). The larger potential of the campaign is that a rising political generation has come to see it as a vehicle for doing something that, a few years ago, seemed impossible: advancing a vision of democratic political and economic life much more radical than that advanced by the Democratic Party of the 1990s and perhaps as expansive as the programs of the 1930s.

But while it has become increasingly clear this election season that there is a growing constituency for creating a more democratic Democratic Party, the truth is that we’re all still trying to figure out what this would really mean. The impetus for the new radicalism starts from many sources. Partly, it comes out of a response to crises: economic inequality, financial instability, structural racism, the ominous portent of environmental catastrophe. Partly, we’re asserting hopes that had fallen silent in mainstream politics: for stronger democracy and greater economic security and freedom. The mainstream politics that we inherited doesn’t do enough to combat the problems that anger and frighten us, nor does it answer our wish to live together in better ways. The unexpected, sometimes astonishing strength of the Sanders campaign is that it represents a call for a politics that takes both crisis and hope more seriously. In this way, the campaign is utterly realistic, and in quite a different way from the superficial “realism” of anti-Sanders commentators.

Rapt attention to the fight for delegates has distracted attention from these deeper stakes—ones about the direction of American democratic politics. The personalities and histories of presidential candidates always take on distorted and distorting significance, as anyone knows who has watched their social media populated by memes knocking the other candidate as old, embarrassing, and ineffective. This is more or less inevitable, and also distracting. After the New York primary, which was both another testament to the strength of Generation Sanders—exit polls showed him with majorities of voters under forty-five and, as usual, big wins among the youngest—and a confirmation of Clinton’s tactical advantages this year, it’s time to take stock of what this rising politics might stand for, beyond the Sanders campaign.

So here’s a start: Eleven Theses for the Bernie Generation.

1. The Economy is About Power

If you studied economics anytime from the Reagan years forward, you learned that it’s all about efficiency. Self-interested parties bargain for their personal benefit, and the invisible hand of the market makes everyone better off. This was always a thinner reed than its scientific-sounding apparatus suggested.

But now we are squarely back in a world many of us had known only through black-and-white photographs, of strikes and marches, clashes between workers and bosses. Our world is one in which the invisible hand is clearly not doing its job—one in need of more directed and democratic control. A few companies control large shares of their industries, and their big profits and pressure on suppliers and consumers reflect their power to set the terms for everyone. A few banks are too big to fail and set the terms of bailout and regulation. If workers want a living wage, they have to fight for it, in the workplace and in politics, in the Fight for 15 and in unionization drives. That’s why it’s so important to see Sanders and down-ballot candidates like New York’s Congressional District 19 Democrat Zephyr Teachout on the picket line: economic policy is about the struggle for power.

2. Expertise Is Not Legitimacy

The flap over whether Clinton is “qualified” to be president was unfortunately swept into the tactical politics of the New York primary. The real question, buried in accusation and counter-accusation, was what it means to be qualified to govern. The Democrats make a fetish of training and expertise. They are consummately the party of experts, economics PhDs and Yale Law School graduates. They are the party of meritocrats who do their homework—not just the required reading, but the recommended as well.

This is a good thing, as far as it goes, but our party of experts often forget that expertise is a tool. It helps you to get where you want to go. Politics is also about goals and worldviews. It isn’t enough to be smart and trained. The first question for politicians is the old union question: which side are you on?

3. You’re Allowed to Want Economic Security

If you’re in your early forties or younger, you’ve spent your whole life hearing about the value of “disruption,” the need for “flexibility” and “reinvention,” the whole Silicon Valley/venture capital/management consultant mantra. But, while this is very nice if you’re one of the lucky few who can treat economic ups and downs as the backdrop of a first-person-shooter video game, for most people, “disruption” is a nightmare.

For much of the twentieth century, mainstream liberal economists understood that security—whether in a union, in job tenure, or in guaranteed health care and other safety nets—was a widespread and perfectly legitimate goal. In fact, it was the first thing anyone should want from an economy, because it was the precondition to feeling—and being—safe enough to go on and take risks, or just enjoy life. We need to give renewed meaning to this argument. For decades, economic security has been derided as the goal of the weak, social sponges who can’t handle lifelong competition. Once again, meritocrats, who excel at a certain kind of competition, have aligned themselves with investors, who profit from it, in advancing the idea that all-in competition makes a good economy. We need to reject the moralism of competition and the charisma of disruption, and say it is right and good to want to be safe.

4. You Are More than Human Capital

A person’s worth is not what they can earn, and “return on investment” is the wrong way to think about living, just as “networking” is the wrong way to think about relationships. These ways of valuing ourselves are cultural and psychic distortions, in which a market culture colonizes the minds of the people living under it. But they are not just mistakes or spiritual failings: they are imposed on us by all-in, all-pervading competition and insecurity. Part of the point of an economy of safety is to let people remember what else and who else they are.

This is part of the meaning of “free college.” It’s about treating learning and growth as part of the purpose of life, something an economy exists to support, not an input to the economy that teaches students to talk, and think, in terms of “return on investment.” The same is true with health care. Sanders’s speech in the Vatican highlighted this, calling for “an economy that defends the common good” by guaranteeing health care and education as social rights, not commodities.

5. Solidarity Is Different from Hope

“Not me, us,” a Sanders slogan that marks a contrast with Clinton’s “I’m with her,” announces another radical idea: politics makes commonality where it wasn’t there before.

There was some of this in Obama’s 2008 campaign. “Yes we can” and “We are the people we’ve been waiting for” were ways of saying this. But Obama’s other slogan, “Hope,” was more about looking forward to a world that is coming. Hope may be shared, but it switches easily to a personal register: your hope, my hope. Solidarity is different: it looks around, and it acts with and for other people, because we are in this thing together. We haven’t had a politics like this for a long time; but the Sanders moment is a recollection of how it feels, and a move toward rebuilding it.

6. Democracy Is More than Voting

Democracy, at least in today’s world, is about the relationship between economic power and political power. It is, in the old slogan, about enabling organized people to grapple and with and dominate organized money. Ultimately, it is about organized people deciding how money should be organized—in financial regulation, say, or campaign finance reform—rather than the other way around.

It’s a hard way back from a political system saturated in money, and a constitutional culture that has embraced money as speech. But we see that it’s the way we need to go.

7. Not Everything Has to Be Earned

Bill Clinton often said that he wanted a fair return for people who “work hard and play by the rules.” And of course working hard and honoring the rules (at least where the rules are fair and legitimate) deserves respect. But the national fixation on people getting what they “deserve,” from meritocratic rewards in higher education to incarceration (“Do the crime, do the time,” the prosecutors say) has gotten out of hand. It locks us into a mutual suspicion of people getting away with something—pocketing some perk or job or government benefit that they didn’t “really earn”—while ignoring the way the whole economy tilts its rewards toward those who already have wealth. A left program should shift the attention from zero-sum questions about who gets what, and at whose expense, to bigger questions about what everyone should get just for being part of the social order: education (including good higher education), health care, safety in their neighborhood, an infrastructure that works.

So, maybe ironically, questions about who gets what should be both less important and more important than they tend to be today. They should be less important in the sense that we should worry less about whether some people are getting things they don’t deserve. And we should care more about what everyone gets as the groundwork of social life and what the big patterns of distribution are.

8. Equal Treatment Is Not Enough

Like the rest of the Democratic Party and elected politicians generally, the Sanders campaign came a bit late to the Black Lives Matter movement. But the younger voters who are overwhelmingly supporting him, and some of the older ones, too, are shaped by a moment in which it’s become inescapable that the twentieth-century civil rights revolution left many forms of racial inequality intact, from wealth inequality to policing practices, from de facto segregation into socially “toxic” neighborhoods to exposure to literal toxins.

Some of this inequality comes from the persistence of personal bigotry and implicit bias. But much of the persistent inequality is not individual but structural. An economy that for forty years has given most of its new wealth to the already wealthy has not offered much to people who were categorically denied paths to wealth across the rest of American history. The economy continued to deny many of its benefits even to those whom, formally speaking, it treated evenhandedly.

A version of the same point holds for the victories of the women’s movement. Women’s traditional exclusion and subordination gave way to inclusion—into an economy in which working-class and middle-class households were increasingly pressed from all directions. Individual inclusion was better than old-style sexism, but in a world of compressed wages and no affordable child care, entering the workforce produced new strains. Real equality would have meant some social sharing of the costs of raising the next generation, which had been shunted off onto women’s unpaid household labor. Instead, while wealthy avatars of corporate feminism outsourced this work, other families struggled.

It turns out that the American capitalism that long took for granted a subordinated race at work and sex at home will not automatically repair either historical injury. Whether your preferred redress for these problems is anchored in reparations or social democracy (and there are principled and strategic considerations on both sides of that question), what has to happen now to make good on both gender and racial emancipation is change in structures. The structures we have now sometimes secure personally equal treatment; they also produce persistent, predictable, inequitable results. It is these structures that need to change.

9. We Need a Fight to Make Peace with the Planet

The intra-party Democratic debate about fracking divides proudly “realistic” pragmatists from the idealists they love to condescend to: of course it sounds nice to say you’re against fracking, insist the pragmatists, but we need a lower-carbon (than coal or oil) “bridge to renewable energy,” so natural gas it is. But investing in new fossil fuel technologies like the hydro-fracturing techniques that give fracking its name ultimately means more fossil fuels and greater carbon emissions, not fewer. Talk of bridge fuels turns into rationalization for an age of extreme energy, in which energy companies go deeper (not just fracking but mountaintop removal coal-mining) and process more intensely (tar sands) to get their prizes. The bridge becomes a highway.

The so-called pragmatic attitude effectively expects private investment to develop renewable energy technology with bibs and bobs of government support—a tax credit here, a research grant there. Markets will not do this as long as the global commons of the atmosphere is free for carbon dumping—in effect, a huge public subsidy to the fossil-fuel industry and the wealth countries and industries that burn the most gas and coal. The failed comprehensive climate change bill of 2009 and 2010 would have done much to change this, but it was attempted as a technocratic piece of lawmaking with no real movement behind it, which made it vulnerable to both self-interested resistance and political mismanagement. The lesson of its failure is that meaningful climate action needs a willingness to create a political crisis: fossil-fuel divestment campaigns, banning fracking, whatever it takes to underscore that we know the current path is no good and badly need to get on another one.

In short, “peace with the planet” means conflict, with the industries that do best from the current energy economy and with the laws and infrastructure that make all of us, especially in the rich world, part of the problem. The Sanders campaign’s opposition to fracking may be blunt, but it presses toward the conflict we need.

10. We Have in Common What We Decide to Have in Common

This economy is hardest by far on the precarious and displaced: undocumented workers, former factory workers whose industries are shuttered, interns and young piece-workers just out of college and people without college education who are all but out of the labor market. But it is a strange bargain for people up and down the chutes and ladders of wealth, income, and privilege. Meritocratic elites compete all their lives for the prize of competing for more prizes, but who is really happier because they are serving up more deliverables and satisfying all the relevant metrics?

There might be something—not a “grand bargain,” as policy mavens recently liked to say, but maybe an alliance—to take us out of this situation. In 1958, approaching the high-water mark of the social-democratic era in American life, John Kenneth Galbraith argued that “the affluent society” was on its way to an economy of widespread leisure, robust social provision, light workloads, and new frontiers of activity undertaken for its own sake, whether work or play. It was not the most profound vision of human liberation ever forecast, but it described early a possible path from what Marx called the realm of necessity into the realm of freedom. That vision was broken by a combination of free-trade globalization, post-welfarist domestic reform, and the global growth of inequality. Although it may not seem radical today as an end-state, steps toward making it a real and palpable possibility—and not just for a privileged plurality, but really for everyone—would be radical indeed.

11. We Have a World to Make

Previous Democratic political campaigns have worked to navigate this world of inequality, insecurity, and so-called meritocracy, and to humanize it around the edges. The point, however, is to change it.

Some of us call that point democratic socialism.

Jedediah Purdy teaches at Duke and is the author, most recently, of After Nature: A Politics for the Anthropocene (Harvard University Press, 2015).

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