Bernie Sanders Channels his Inner Arendt


In the wake of the recent midterm elections, I thought I would share this interview with the Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders (Sanders characterizes himself as a socialist, but in this interview he channels the idea of participatory democracy). The interview is around 25 minutes long, though you can read the transcript if you’d prefer. One key moment in the interview is this:

BILL MOYERS: How do you make the Hillary wing of the Democratic Party pay attention to the power of a populist message unless you’re in the debates in 2016, when most of the public is paying attention to political messages?

BERNIE SANDERS: This has been my political experience. When you rally the grassroots of the country or the city or of your state, when people begin to stand up and say, ‘Enough is enough. We want to do well by our kids. We want to protect the environment. We believe we should join the rest of the world in terms of having health care for all, single-payer health care for all, et cetera, et cetera.’

When people begin to move, the people on top will follow them. So, whether it’s Hillary or anybody else, what we have got to do is mobilize the American people in a way that we have not seen in recent history around a progressive agenda. Bill, every poll that I have seen, when they ask the American people, what is the most important issue that you’re concerned about? You know what they say? Jobs and the economy.

How come we are not investing heavily in rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure. $1 trillion invested in rebuilding roads, bridges, water systems, rail creates 13 million decent-paying jobs. You know what? The American people want us to do that. They want us to raise the minimum wage. So, you need a very strong agenda. You need a mechanism. And you’ve asked a hard question. Easier to say than to do, to rally people around that agenda. And once you do that, things will take care of itself.

BILL MOYERS: This is what Barack Obama did in 2008. He asked people to take over the Democratic Party, progressives and populists, everyday people that you describe in your speech out in Richmond. He asked those people to come in and, elect me and we’ll do just exactly what Bernie Sanders would do if he were president. Hasn’t happened.

BERNIE SANDERS: I have lot of respect for Barack Obama. But, his biggest mistake is that, after running a brilliant campaign in 2008, where millions of people in fact were galvanized, young people, people of color came out and said, ‘Hey, we’re going to make some real change.’ The day after the election he said, okay, thank you very much. Now I’m going to work inside the Beltway and we’re going to start negotiating with Republicans and all that stuff. The simple truth is, in my view, nothing gets done unless millions and millions of people will demand it. Politics is 365 days a year.

BILL MOYERS: Not just voting?

BERNIE SANDERS: Exactly. And anyone, you can have the best person in the world as president of the United States, that person will accomplish nothing unless millions of people are standing behind him or her. Just an example, Bill, everybody, all the young people in this country are worried about student debt. The fact that hundreds of thousands of young people can’t even afford to go to college.

You have a million people, a million young people marching on Washington saying, there’s a vote coming up. And if you vote the wrong way, we know who you are. We actually are paying attention. You aren’t going to get reelected. We will lower the cost of college substantially and deal with the student debt crisis. It will not happen. It will not happen unless millions of people are activated.

The Arendtian notion of power here is quite obvious. There is a tendency, he argues, for people to think that social change occurs primarily through passing laws or getting courts to recognize various rights. In contrast to this, Sanders claims that passing a law is often only the beginning of a political conflict, not its end. Consider the ACA (also known as “Obamacare”). The law as passed in 2010; since then, the Republican party has taken every step it can to get rid of it. They have tried to repeal it and to get the court system to declare it to be illegal. But they have also taken steps to make sure that its implementation is unsuccessful (for instance, states where Republicans have majorities have not enacted the insurance exchanges the law calls for, thus requiring the Federal government to set them up instead; similarly, many Republican-controlled states have refused federal money to extend Medicaid coverage to the poor). In other words, for better or for worse (I make no judgment here), the Republican party has mobilized its supporters to treat the passage of the ACA as the start of an ongoing political battle. Sanders, in effect, is arguing that the Democrats need to do the same thing. If you want more spending to improve infrastructure, create better health care, or increase support for education (thus reducing student loan debt), we cannot wait for political leaders to spontaneously decide to do so. There must instead be the organization and generation of public power.

Of course, the trouble here is that this kind of power cannot (by definition) be fostered or administered from above. Moreover, for various reasons, almost no one has any experience in organizing or developing such power. We don’t even know where to begin, and so we have no “taste” for action, its joys and its obstacles. In this respect, Sanders’ comments might (or might not) be inspiring, but they also seem peculiarly hollow, at least to me. People have been making the point Sanders is articulating here for decades, but it’s still not entirely clear what precisely one could do to foster the kind of action he’s calling for.



4 Responses to “Bernie Sanders Channels his Inner Arendt”

  1. akolot Says:

    Bernie Sanders brings up a saddening point says about the fact about student debt and the state of political activism. He brings up the frightening point that our nation is stricken with apathy – that this generation is doing nothing about their own situation, whereas if we examine the course of events in the 1960s there were world wide student uprisings.
    Furthermore, with the widespread crises that have been going on about sexual harassment/assault investigation at universities along with the rising cost of education in the United States, had people the knowledge/means to generate a public political power/organization, there is a potential for political change not unlike the uprisings in in Paris 1968.

    But why organize together when we have the ultimate escape of responsibilities and the most effective procrastination tool in the world? The young generation is effectively silenced when we’re distracted by social media – internet activism only gives us an excuse to continue to not take action. Undeniably, power in virtual majority has infinite potential – that is, when we are going to fund the world’ most expensive potato salad. []

    It would be interesting to hear Arednt’s ideas on the spread of information via social media as well as internet activism. However something tells me that she would consider this collective guilt and a matter of conscience. Our actions would be considered political inaction because we are not coming together publicly in concert, thus preventing participatory democracy.

  2. gmackin Says:

    Personally, I tend to be rather reticent to make blanket generalizations about what any given generation is like. However, my own view is that there is a lot more reason for optimism about the millennials than any generation I know of. Sure, there’s a lot of stupidity (kickstarter campaigns about potato salad is just scratching the surface). But there has always been a lot of stupidity, so the question is whether there is anything new also emerging. And I think there is: The folks born around around 20-25 years ago (so you all and your colleagues) seem to me to be the first generation no longer consumed with the ideological idiocy that emerged in the conflicts of the 1960s. The conflicts that started in the 1960s between the “silent majority” and the “hippie radicals” no longer has much meaning for you all, at least so far as I can tell. That’s a hopeful sign. (A quick side note to this: One of the most depressing moments in my political life occurred in the 2004 campaign between George W. Bush and John Kerry. They were both baby boomers, and both were scarred by the experiences of the 1960s. And indeed, the campaign basically took the form of a weirdly nightmarish replay of 1960s debates. While we were in the middle of a major foreign policy fiasco in Iraq, the two candidates spent their time debating what John Kerry was or was not doing on a swift boat in Vietnam in 1969. I just kept wanting to shout: “Who cares? Good God, this was decades ago! Get over it!” Alas, no one heard me).

  3. givenarnold Says:

    The concept which Sander’s argues against can also be connected to Foucault and his rejection of the juridico discursive concept of power. Foucault, as well as Arendt, does not see power in the law itself, but rather what is done with and around it. Sanders criticizes Obama by accusing him of focusing solely on the law and not concentrating enough on his actions through the law. In their vigilant efforts to uphold conservative ways, the republicans are actually acting in a sort of civil disobedience regarding Obamacare. Obama might have to study up on Arendt and Foucault if he wants to put up a fight against the republicans and engage in more substantial political action.

    • gmackin Says:

      I think this is quite right. As it happens, it is also an essential part of my own work too; a major theme in my book, for example, is the need to focus not on the “text” of a law or the victory or defeat of this or that legislative outcome, but on the actual life of the law (i.e., the aftermath of victory or defeat). The creation or defeat of a law is not the end of political action (either in the sense of being the goal or the cessation of political action). Rather, law is the site of political action.

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