Obama showed that a charismatic leader with big ideas doesnt automatically bring big change we need people to raise their voices and take to the streets
I was caucusing for Bernie Sanders at Washington States Democratic event last month, but when I stood up to speak to my peers, I found that I wasnt specifically praising Sanders himself.
Rather, I spoke passionately about our need in this country for political imagination and for vibrant grassroots movements. Though Im rooting for a Sanders presidency, its even more important that the ideals spurred by his movement continue, with or without him at the helm.
Political imagination is something that is often missing from the candidate platforms of both major parties. We hear candidates talk about the need to be pragmatic, to meet in the middle or take incremental steps. Its not surprising that many voters, especially young ones, start to tune out. In the face of the enormous social and environmental problems, its not pandering to be visionary about the world we want to live in its absolutely essential.
Bernie Sanders is talking about ambitious, progressive ideas universal healthcare, free college education, expanding social security, dramatically reining in the power of corporations. His ideas about overhauling our healthcare system are particularly attractive for me, since my six-year-old son has a significant physical disability that requires extensive interaction with our failing insurance-based system.
At the same time, its encouraging to see Hillary Clinton tacking left, possibly because of Sanders outspoken liberalism, condemning mass incarceration and speaking strongly in support of large public investment in communities mostly black and brown that have seen historic disinvestment. That real solutions to our countrys deep-seated problems around income inequality, institutional racism and climate change, among other things, are being put forward in the context of a major party nominating process is as surprising as it is profound.
But we cant kid ourselves and think that just because some presidential candidates promise to address an issue that it will come to pass. If Barack Obamas election taught us anything, it is that placing our hopes and dreams in the hands of a charismatic leader is not enough to bring about significant social change; to do that, we need organized people in the streets. We need powerful social movements.
The main critique of Sanders, a constant drumbeat in the mainstream media, is that he wont be able to accomplish what he proposes, that hes all vision with no plan of how to get there. But this critique misses the point. People force change and get things done, not politicians acting alone.
Sanders wont be able to push through any major policy initiatives without mass movements in the streets, in the same way that Clinton will fail if her ideas lack major grassroots support.
As a community organizer I have seen firsthand how movements make change. The campaign for a $15 hourly wage in Seattle, Washington, where I live, is a great recent example of how activists, organizations and coalitions can come together to win a policy that will significantly benefit low-wage workers. Much of my own organizing in recent years has focused on retirement security and the threat of cuts to programs like social security, Medicare and Medicaid. Im proud to have been part of a campaign of state and national organizations that has not only thwarted such cuts, but shifted the debate towards the need to expand social security, our countrys most successful anti-poverty initiative.
In many areas, however, grassroots organizations have not built the power necessary to bring about the changes we were fighting for. We need to hold ourselves accountable and not always blame political leaders for failing to get the job done.
Which brings us back to the nomination battle between Bernie Sanders and Hillary Clinton. Even after Clintons victory in New York on Tuesday, it seems likely that Sanders will take his candidacy right up to the Democratic convention. I, for one, am glad to see a tight race. The longer it goes, the more chance there is for a deepening political conversation about economic and racial justice, and the more people will become politically engaged through the process.
If we put too much faith in elected officials then we sell ourselves short. The real work is continuing to build grassroots movements that can hold whoever is elected accountable, and push for radical change.