Throughout his bid for the Democratic nomination, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has proclaimed that he wants a revolution, that he wants to change the world.
Unlike John Lennon, Sanders didn’t sing out those lyrics. But Sanders’ ambition, stated in television studios and in speeches before thousands, gained him millions of votes in the Democratic presidential nomination contest and about 45 percent of the delegates from primaries and caucuses.
Although some Democrats have been nervous about a party divided, as The Beatles’ “Revolution,” also declared, “It’s going to be alright.” Sanders is not only saying it’s essential to stop GOP nominee Donald Trump but is also endorsing Hillary Clinton.
Clinton has already attracted Sanders’ supporters. Pew, one of the best pollsters in the United States, found that 85 percent of Sanders backers support Clinton, moving faster to the presumptive nominee this year than Clinton supporters did in 2008, when 69 percent backed then-Sen. Barack Obama at roughly the same time. As Sanders campaigns for Clinton, her electoral strength should grow.
Although this shift toward Clinton in part reflects a strong distaste toward Donald Trump, in truth the policy differences between the Democratic candidates were more family squabbles than massive rifts. In addition, both reached beyond their parties. Sanders won over some libertarians, Greens, and independent centrist working-class men. Clinton attracted support from moderate independent women and high-profile Republicans with a background in diplomacy and national security.
Clinton has a long track record of progressive accomplishments and is a policy wonk with deep commitments to promoting economic empowerment and opportunity for all. Although Sanders didn’t get everything he wanted in the Democratic platform, it bears his imprint in policies on the minimum wage, trade rules, and the cost of college and health care.
After highlighting economic inequality and attracting young voters, the worst outcome for Sanders’ campaign and agenda would be for his voters to become cynical and uninvolved.
As Sanders well knows, change agents need perseverance. Political change doesn’t happen quickly anywhere. Scholar Max Weber compared it to “a strong and slow boring of hard boards.”
Persistence is especially important in the U.S. political system because the pace of transformation can be exasperating. There are moments of political opportunity when a policy window opens and a lot can happen quickly, but in general James Madison and other founders structured our constitutional system to make change difficult.
Big transformations in the United States tend to require winning multiple elections and getting power in more than one institution and often at more than one level of government. Women’s suffrage was discussed at the 1848 women’s rights convention at Seneca Falls, New York. Groups focused on women getting the vote weren’t founded until 1869, and the Nineteenth Amendment wasn’t passed until 1920.
In our two-party system, activists can get involved in a political party and push it in their direction. That’s what happened when evangelicals got involved in the Republican Party in the late 1970s and early 1980s, often starting with local party committees, city councils and school boards.
Sanders has urged his supporters to run for office and get involved in local campaigns. That’s a route followed by numerous Democrats in the early 1970s who were disappointed by a political loss. Bill and Hillary Clinton both worked on the George McGovern campaign in 1972 and later ran for office. In 1974, McGovern supporters won many positions as “Watergate babies” and went on to accomplish much. Henry Waxman of California, for example, was elected to the House of Representatives that year and led the passage of major environmental and health care legislation during his four-decade congressional career.
Many Sanders supporters in Maine know change takes time. After all, there are plenty of Sanders supporters in the state who are longtime activists, elected or former elected officials and candidates. They and Clinton backers can encourage people previously inexperienced in politics to get involved and can teach them more about how the state and local parties work.
Presidential campaigns can motivate participation but state and local government is often where real change begins, and it’s certainly where higher-level officials learn how to be politically effective in tackling problems affecting us all. That, too, takes time.
As Lennon (but not Lenin) sang, “We all want to change the world,” but “you have to wait.”
Carrying out a revolution of the sort Sanders wanted isn’t for the impatient.