When he was campaigning in New York, Bernie Sanders visited an art gallery in Brooklyn hosting a show dedicated to works that he had inspired. They were, as you’d expect, creative and iconic (see the video here). While Senator Sanders is human, and no doubt humbled and flattered, he should also have been more than a little worried because these artists, like so many of those who have been swept up in his campaign, clearly have lost the plot. The very worst thing that can happen to Sanders’ “Revolution” is exactly what is happening- instead of building a viable political movement, it’s become a hero worshiping cult of personality.
The most surprising thing about Sanders’ astonishing rise to national prominence has been how disciplined he was been on his message, speech and demeanor. Like him or not, you have to be impressed by this, how a man who toiled in almost abject anonymity, and essentially regarded as a crank and a crackpot over a career of fifty odd years suddenly became a media superstar, going from speeches in strip mall parking lots and the back rooms at Denny’s to stadiums filled with tens of thousands of rabid fans. Few of us can even begin to imagine what it’s like to be him right now, which is what makes his ascent and iron discipline all the more incredible. And even the most rabid Hillary Clinton supporter, to say nothing of the Clintons themselves, must know that beyond the network of “the establishment” of the Democratic party, the calendar is their primary weapon. Like a boxer on the ropes who is ahead on points, the sound of the bell can’t come soon enough, and fortunately for Ms. Clinton, it is about to sound.
The real question then for Bernie Sanders is, then what? He has far too much money and momentum to just quit the race, but he is clearly not going to be the Democratic Party’s presidential nominee, and never really had a serious shot at it. Not only has Sanders never been a member of the party, declining its many invitations to join, but Ms. Clinton and her husband have spent twenty five years reshaping the party- and its donors and power networks in their own image. Her success in the southern red states with African American voters, for example, was less about her connection with voters per se than about her long connection with the pastors, churches and local politicians and their get-out-the-vote networks. There are no art galleries doing Hillary Clinton installations.
At some point, Sanders will hopefully realize he really has only one path moving forward and it’s one that is not about him but about the longer term. A third party run is out of the question however tempting it may appear to anyone involved in his campaign. Even the optimistic prospect of draining support equally from Clinton and Trump, still leaves the prospect of none of the candidates getting to 270 electoral votes, which would throw the presidency to the House- and literally Paul Ryan- to decide, which would create a national constitutional crisis. Sanders’ options are further narrowed by having joined and sworn allegiance to the Democratic Party in order to make this run for the party’s nomination. To turn back and bail back out now to start a new party would look opportunistic to put it mildly.
And herein lies the rub with any “revolution”- moving past the revolt stage to creating a functioning establishment of its own, which Sanders had hoped he could do from the OVal Office. Historically this transition has never gone well, as most revolutions tend to end up in totalitarianism, more often than not around the cult of a charismatic leader, from Napoleon onward. Those that lacked charismatic leadership, such as the recent events in Egypt’s Tahrir Square for example, fizzle out.
Sanders not going to be president and has to choose between four bad options. He’s already ruled out a murder-suicide pact third party run, for the White House, so there’s the first down. He’s not just been an outsider from the Democratic Party for his entire career, he’s been at public odds with the party and virtually everything about it. Were he forty-four instead of seventy four, he might have been able to lead a revolution inside the party, but he simply does not have the time to do that even if he could manage the organization that would be required. At 74 years old, Sanders is clearly not going to be that leader if transforming the Democratic Party along the model of his own campaign and ideas- a long and grinding job of sacking the money changers from the temple, even if it were possible- is the goal. There’s number two down. He could turn and back away from the Democratic Party with a Trumpesque declaration of “unfairness” and indeed start a new party and engage in a generation-long war of attrition with the Democrats, which would require all of the nuts and bolts of establishing a party structure. There is option three, but it would be a gargantuan undertaking.
Which brings us back to the Brooklyn art gallery. Bernie Sanders has indeed created a movement, but the reality is that it is not a political revolution, at least not yet. While he has been joined by several organizing groups such as Democracy for America, the big crowds, the Facebook posts, the bumper stickers and yard signs did not translate into actual votes, even accounting for the shortcomings of the primary system- which should not be surprising given he was not just taking on the Clinton machine but was not even a member of the party he’s running in- but it is the case nevertheless. Hillary Clinton will be the Democratic nominee short of an indictment over her email server, and with no third party option or other avenue, Bernie Sanders will assume the loyal role of campaigning for her, and then he will go back to being the senator from Vermont. Most of his supporters will be deflated and probably vote for Clinton to avoid Trump or worse, and the whole “Berniemania” episode will shrink in our national rear view mirror as it will be eagerly encouraged to do as it is trivialized by an entrenched establishment from Washington to Wall Street to the the six major corporations that own the mainstream media. The only question left is will it have made any difference in the long run, and that will be answered by anyone who steps up to continue his Democratic Socialist movement- and his model of direct funding by actual people- and to grow it into a functional political entity, almost certainly a new political party. It would mean new leaders willing, ready and able to reject the system as it currently runs- and reject the many monetary and other offers that will be offered to sabotage them as they emerge- to build it. And it will require Sanders himself stepping up to help in that process.