I WANT TO FEEL THE BERN SO BADLY it hurts. Bernie Sanders is the only American politician I’ve ever agreed with virtually everything on. Reining in the big banks? Check. Providing a pathway to citizenship for immigrants? Check. Getting the money out of politics? Check. Publicly funding healthcare and higher education? Check, check. This type of political compatibility is nowhere close to what I felt in 2007, when I went I was going on my first dates with Barack Obama. “He seems nice,” I thought, “Let’s see where this goes.”
No. The first dates with Bernie have been explosive. “Oh my god, you want to reinstate Glass-Steagall, too? Wow… so hey, want to come back to my place for a nightcap?”
It’s been like a dream. This is what the great romances are all about. But I can already tell: this star-crossed romance ends in tragedy. Because Bernie, light of my life, political soulmate, is not going to be the miracle he feels like in my heart.
Enter American politics.
If Bernie is the Leo to my Kate, then the American political system is my iceberg, and Bernie is too busy banging me in the back of a car to pay any attention to it.
The American political system is, in my opinion, not a terrible one as far as political systems go: the checks and balances were a smart idea, the Congress for the people by the people was a snazzy touch, and the Bill of Rights? Well, I’m enjoying one-tenth of it at this very moment. Two-tenths, if you count the soldier I just refused to let crash on my couch.
But while the US political system can be relatively responsive to change, it can’t enact major overhauls with just one branch of the government functioning. In short, the President can only do so much. Look at President Obama: he came into office with a sweeping mandate for reform, but in the end, only managed to push through a watered-down healthcare reform bill, which was considered a truly monumental victory. The rest of his time in office has been a series of legislative disappointments: the Congressional shutdowns, the filibusters, the constant Republican blockings of his cabinet nominees, the failing of the comprehensive immigration reform bill, the spawning of Ted Cruz out of a puddle of Rush Limbaugh’s piss.
What progress Obama has been able to make since 2008 has largely been down to what he’s been able to do more or less without Congress: executive orders on carbon emissions, diplomatic treaties on climate and on the Iran nuclear program, his temporary relief programs to young undocumented immigrants. And all of these are at risk of a) being struck down as unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, or b) being dismantled by a later, more conservative president.
Bernie faces the same problem: it’s not likely, if he’s elected, that he’ll get the same supermajority in the Senate that Obama got when he first came into office, and it’s even less likely that he’ll win the House. So all of Bernie’s beautiful promises, his sweet, sweet nothings, are going to face the same hostility that Barack Obama, a much more moderate Democratic President, is now facing. Bernie has chosen too small of a plank for us to float together on over these icy Atlantic waters.
Let’s learn from the Tea Party.
What we progressives should have learned from the Obama years is that there’s no Presidential Messiah. Obama was a huge improvement on George W. Bush, but the change we believe isn’t going to come from above. Trickle-down change is just not a thing. Change has to come from all levels, which means we need to stop thinking just in terms of Presidential politics, and start thinking in terms of legislative politics and state and local politics.
Let’s take the Tea Party for a second (please, am I right?): in a weird, cryptofascist racist backlash to the election of Barack Obama, the Tea Party sprung seemingly out of nowhere in 2009 to become a major player on the national political scene. It did this in part because a) white people were scared, and b) very rich white people were willing to pay tons of money to become less scared.
But the Tea Party didn’t just believe in the power of their movement, as the closest progressive equivalent, Occupy Wall Street did: they also organized. They didn’t select only Presidential candidates, but legislative candidates as well, and they started terrorizing the Republican establishment with the message: “If you’re not far-right enough, we’ll vote you out of office.” Then they did.
As a result, the Tea Party continues to be a major force at the end of Obama’s Presidency, while Occupy Wall Street has receded into memory. Look at the current array of Presidential candidates: this year, the two guys the Republican establishment think are most moderate are George W. Bush’s brother and a dude who thinks abortion should be illegal even in the case of rape. The rest of the candidates in the field — the ones who have a better chance of winning — are literally insane.
All because of the work of the Tea Party.
Revolting though this may be to progressives, we can still learn from it. We can follow the same model. Sure, the right wing has billionaires like the Koch Brothers funding their extremist insurgency, but as we’ve shown in our support for Bernie, crowdsourced political fundraising can be huge. We should spread that wealth around, not just to Bernie, but to other progressive and democratic socialists on all levels of American political life. It’s only when we’re everywhere that we can presume to have any staying power in American politics. And it’s only when we’re everywhere that we can give our Presidential candidates the breathing room to actually get the change we want done.
Ultimately, we need to learn how to survive beyond Bernie. Because if we don’t, once we’re pulled from the wreckage, we’ll go running back to the Billy Zanes of the world, whether it’s Hillary or Cruz or Trump or Bush. And if we want to get out of those abusive relationships, we’re going to have to work even harder than this metaphor.