So to those on Wall Street who may be listening to my remarks, and I’m sure there are many of them (laughter from the crowd), let me be very clear. Greed is not good. In fact the greed of Wall Street and corporate America is destroying the very fabric of our nation. And here is a New Year’s Resolution that I will keep if elected president. And that is, if Wall Street does not end its greed, we will end it for them.
Bernie Sanders recently gave a speech on Wall Street Reform and Financial Policy. Watching the speech it struck me how often Bernie uses the word “we” where another candidate might choose to use the word “I.”
My opponent says that, as a senator, she told bankers to “cut it out” and end their destructive behavior. But, in my view, establishment politicians are the ones who need to “cut it out.” The reality is that Congress does not regulate Wall Street…(crowd interrupts and chants “Wall Street regulates Congress!”) You got it! And you know what, as President we’re gonna end that reality.
As President we’re gonna end that reality. For more than a decade my political advisor and I have been talking about a paradigm shift in which the United States Presidency could be seen as something more than a singular office occupied by an individual decider. Our dialogue explored the possibility of electing a President who understood the potential of shared governance in addressing the challenges we face. This went far beyond the President seeking counsel from his cabinet on individual issues. I was working on the 2004 Kucinich campaign at the time and our emphasis on volunteer participation got me thinking about what it might be like to have a President who swept into office surrounded not by crony capitalist politicians looking for payback on their electoral investment, but by a group of the nation’s most brilliant minds from disciplines across the spectrum. At the time I was satisfied to imagine this group topping out at around 100 people, a sort of council of elders if you will, but without the minimum age requirement.
This kind of thinking goes way back for me. Growing up watching campaign after campaign, I could simply not believe that the chosen candidates were the best we could come up with (in a nation of over 200 million). I remember wondering why there were not more people who wanted the job? I was not yet aware of all the political machinations that figured into the process of selecting a candidate, but even then it was fairly obvious to me that running for President was a risky proposition. The vicious character attacks made on candidates could quickly and quite definitively end a political career. So then why put all your eggs in one basket to begin with? If one candidate was so terribly fallible, then why not expand the process, not just to multiple candidates, but to multiple people running to hold the office together?
Crazy idea? Maybe – but it gets at something that seems central to me: do we really need a patriarchal savior to keep the whole enterprise going, or can the American people govern themselves? Is our “leader” more qualified to represent our interests than we are? The more I hear candidates try and tap into our passions and frustrations, calling for peoples’ mobilizations and the like, the more I wonder if this hierarchical system we use to funnel our ideas up to our selected leader may itself be creating a lot of the conflict narrative scripts that keep us stuck. The duality of the two party system, the overt opposition to the President himself, etc. If the point of these structures is to be representative of the will of the people then why doesn’t the government actually do what the majority of us want?
But let me rephrase your question because I think, in all due respect, your expression, in all due respect, you’re missing the main point. And the main point in the Congress it’s not that Republicans and Democrats hate each other – that’s a mythology from the media. The real issue is that Congress is owned by big money and refuses to do what the American people want them to do.
The real issue is that in area after area, raising the minimum wage to 15 bucks an hour, the American people want it. Rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure, creating 13 million jobs, the American people want it. Pay equity for women, the American people want it. Demanding that the wealthy start paying their fair share of taxes, the American people want it. The point is, we have gotta make Congress respond to the needs of the people, not big money interests.
Since the fourth democratic debate (which the above Bernie quote is from), I have read a spate of articles from the mainstream media, who it would seem have only now suddenly become aware that a Senator named Bernie Sanders is running for President. Many of these articles question the viability of running a campaign that aims to mobilize the public beyond the immediate objective of voting for President toward a sustainable involvement in the political process. Perhaps I am being generous here in my phrasing, so consider this quote from one such recent article:
Sanders’s version involves the mobilization of a mass grassroots volunteer army that can depose the special interests. “The major political, strategic difference I have with Obama is it’s too late to do anything inside the Beltway,” he told Andrew Prokop. “You gotta take your case to the American people, mobilize them, and organize them at the grassroots level in a way that we have never done before.” But Obama did organize passionate volunteers on a massive scale — far broader than anything Sanders has done — and tried to keep his volunteers engaged throughout his presidency. Why would Sanders’s grassroots campaign succeed where Obama’s far larger one failed?
When I wrote my conflict narrative piece I considered including a section about the “polarization” narrative. This is a self-supporting narrative that claims our government is so evenly split on two sides of each and every issue that no matter what the intention, the outcome is and will always be gridlock. The quote above, and the article it is quoted from, start with a tacit acceptance of this narrative.
I don’t buy it.
First, adherence to the polarization narrative is at its essence an argument against the viability of democracy itself. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy. Why should I vote for a candidate who can’t win? Why should I support proposals that have no possibility of becoming law? The people rise up and nothing changes, so why should I bother to get involved? Well, the short answer is: because that is how democracy works. The more people who show up and take action, the more representative our democracy is. Congress is not supposed to be a permanent residency. If our representatives don’t represent our interests, then it is up to us to replace them with representatives that do.
Second, drawing this kind of false equivalency between the mobilization around Obama’s campaign and the mobilization inspired by Bernie’s campaign fails to take several things into account.
It presumes that the Obama administration actually had the intention of mobilizing their 13 million volunteers to do more than fund raise and voice generalized support for ‘reform,’ taking their failure to do so as proof that all such mobilizations are ineffectual. It doesn’t consider the impact the demobilzation of OFA (Obama for America / Organizing for America) had on their disillusioned “army” of millennial volunteers, and how that decision relates to the rise of Occupy Wall Street. It certainly doesn’t consider the possibility that OFA (Organizing for Action, as it is called today) may be little more than a marketing campaign to keep us engaged, keep us busy, keep us quiet.
Perhaps most importantly it gives no thought to the clarity of language and purpose that makes the Bernie Sanders mobilization different from what we saw in 2008. During the run up to that election (and even long after), the rallying cry of “hope” and “change” had all but consumed the specific policy positions of Barrack Obama, leaving many of his supporters unclear what they were actually voting for beyond the President himself. This appears quite different from the policy positions that Bernie is happy to discuss at every possible opportunity, specific positions that actually resonate with his supporters because they share them with him.
And that brings me to the third thing: this guy Bernie himself appears quite different than what we have seen before. He calls for a “political revolution” (if you are not quite sure what he means by that – here is a good video to watch) citing specific goals that go beyond winning the Presidency. His unassuming, plain speaking, policy wonk legislative style provides us with a preview of what’s to come. He seems to be a truth teller, utterly disinterested in spinning the media to support any view point that runs counter to the good of the people. He’s got a record of finding common ground and moving legislation forward without giving away the house we all live in to do it. He knows he can’t do it by himself and he’s asking for our help.
That 100 person council of elders I mentioned earlier has expanded over the years, no longer restricted to a few representative experts or exceptional individuals, it encompasses something that sounds kinda like this political revolution that Sanders speaks of. Now, I’m not harboring any illusions that the Presidency is suddenly going to subvert its hierarchical structure in favor of a horizontal organizing model, but I do think it is important to recognize the opportunity here. Populism is perennial in politics, and using the Presidency as a bully pulpit to mobilize the American people in response to a particular policy is not new strategy. What is new here is that this particular mobilization may actually elect a President that is responsive to the mobilization as well...
If you haven’t yet seen Killer Mike’s six part interview with Bernie – it is brilliant!