Democracy after Sanders

Building a progressive alternative, beyond social media and mass rallies.

Vito Laterza
26 May 2016
open Movements

The openMovements series invites leading social scientists to share their research results and perspectives on contemporary social struggles.


Bernie Sanders podium. Flickr/Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.

The US presidential primaries have shown that there are important similarities and convergences in methods and tactics between Donald Trump’s followers and sections of Bernie Sanders' mass support. Even though the two movements have radically different goals, the politics of feeling and the use of social media and mass rallies to campaign for utopian change are closer than one might imagine. But while social media activism and mass rallies can act as a catalyst to spread a vision, they cannot on their own deliver the desired change.

Hillary Clinton’s recent victories in big states like New York and Pennsylvania consolidated her lead over Bernie Sanders. She is likely to be the Democratic candidate in the November presidential contest. Clinton’s opponent on the Republican side will probably be Donald Trump. Sanders, however, is far from defeated. He has won several states and mobilized millions of voters, with a particularly strong appeal among the youth, traditionally disillusioned with mainstream politics. Most of all, he has succeeded in shifting the axis of American – and Democratic – politics to the left, with a focus on strong public services and wealth redistribution.

The Sanders’ campaign has remained on the whole anchored on key policy issues – free university education, free universal healthcare, redistribution of wealth by taxing the rich and financial capital, among others. The tone between the two Democratic contenders has become increasingly bitter, but Sanders made it clear that, despite the big differences, he would support Clinton if she becomes the Democratic nominee. But will his supporters follow him? Various polls show that in November a significant section of Sanders’ electorate will not vote for Clinton – and a smaller proportion might even vote for Trump.

In the last months, a parallel spontaneous campaign on social media expressed similar sentiments. The message is clear: Clinton embodies the worst of the US establishment. She should be held responsible for the atrocious acts conducted by the American military complex in recent years – especially Libya and Syria. She is in the pockets of corporations who pay her exorbitant speaker fees. She is a promoter of anti-poor measures, and conveniently adjusts her policy stances to appease her audience. The conclusion is that Clinton is no better than Trump, and it would be wrong to support her as the “lesser evil” against him.

Some went further. Far left intellectual John Pilger argued that Trump would be a better president than Clinton. According to him, he would be an anti-establishment president, less interested in waging wars abroad than Hillary Clinton. Hollywood actress Susan Sarandon said that, while she supports Sanders, she thinks that voting Trump might not be a bad idea. Her argument is an extreme version of Marxist revolutionary theory: a candidate like Trump would bring all the contradictions of the system to the fore, a prelude to the “inevitable” collapse that will give way to a new, and presumably better, world order.

How is it possible that sectors of the far left committed to anti-racism, anti-imperialism, gender equality and human rights, are basically endorsing a candidate like Donald Trump who is overtly racist, sexist, xenophobic, supports the use of torture, and openly instigates his supporters to violence?

Far left and far right converge

There are a number of factors that explain this paradoxical situation and the mounting wave of anti-Clinton sentiments. Sexism plays a role: if Clinton does pretty much what most other American establishment politicians have done, why do the same actions all of a sudden encounter such a furious reaction? Race is another issue: there is a tendency among white leftists to underestimate the scourge of white supremacy and its dangers. After all, they are much more palpable for people of color and migrants than for whites. There is a utopian charge in these demands that cannot be ignored. People are calling for a new world order to deliver them from the evils and injustices of the current dispensation.

Some of these positions are also informed by a good deal of left vanguardism: Trump could either bring down the establishment with his far-fetched anti-establishment policies, or escalate ongoing global conflict to a point of no return – thus allegedly opening the way for radical change that far left groups could harness in the “right” direction. In this view, Clinton is just another pawn of the system, and her liberalism would slow down this process of irreversible decline.

But there seems to be a closer convergence between the far left and the far right – or to put it more simply, between many of Sanders’ supporters and Trump’s fans. The visions that drive the two groups are radically different. Sanders’ socialist democrat ideas call for a market regulated by the state via taxation and state-led redistribution, emphasize free goods available to all like health and education, and uphold principles of equality and human rights based on an anti-imperialist internationalism.

Trump’s worldview flirts dangerously with white supremacy and asserts the primacy of the needs of disgruntled whites, who are seen as the only true Americans, threatened by “Mexican migrants” and Muslims. A dislike of big government and an emphasis on individual freedom have more of a currency among his supporters.

But there is something that unites people on both sides: they are tired and angry with the current system that is threatening their economic base and the possibility of a dignified existence. The crowds calling for change have experienced the negative effects of the withdrawal of state support, which funded decent public education at all levels, grants to cushion unemployment and mitigate work poverty, and vital social spaces like public libraries and community centers. The concurring changes in the economy, which drove real wages down and made everybody precarious, destroyed any sense of workers’ wellbeing and stability, broke unions and diminished workers’ solidarity. Big corporations killed the local grocery stores where owners had friendly relations with their customers and neighbors. The growth of material insecurity has gone hand in hand with the drastic erosion of social bonds and a sense of community.

The very fabric that holds communities together is now under threat, with the visible effects of a dramatic increase in alienation and anxiety, and the disappearance of face-to-face regular contact with other fellow citizens. Families, neighborhoods and civic associations have been weakened by the increasing control of big corporations over all aspects of life. Government bureaucracies are more interested in policing citizens, than providing them with essential social services. In the midst of this crisis, social media have taken over as the main public space for the disaffected majority to express grievances, alongside their innermost hopes and fears.

The process hit hardest those who were already suffering from structural discrimination: people of color, women, low-income migrants and people with disabilities, to name a few. But the middle classes have also been affected and experienced a huge reversal of the fortunes built up in the post-war boom. Nor are these trends confined to the United States: they are spreading in most areas of the world, to differing extents and in significantly different socio-economic contexts.

Trump and Sanders are able to draw support from the same broad social base that went through this crisis – even though they offer radically different remedies to it. There are also similarities in the organizing tools and methods used to make political demands and call for solutions. People on both sides have a powerful weapon in their hands: a politics of emotions that is hard to dismiss. They shout back at power their frustrations and suffering caused by a system that does not listen to them. These emotionally charged statements are used to mobilize support in social media and gather crowds at rallies. They help masses of isolated and disenfranchised individuals to connect with each other and foster new solidarities.

But exactly because their actions are driven by a sense of exasperation and disillusionment with traditional politics, these movements do not want to carry on with the conventional mechanisms of representative democracy. Sanders and Trump’s supporters are asking their leaders to do away with the ills of the system all at once, and to avoid at all cost compromising with those that would stand in their way – mainstream politicians, bankers and corporations are the main enemies. There is a utopian charge in these demands that cannot be ignored. People are calling for a new world order to deliver them from the evils and injustices of the current dispensation. Gradualist approaches to reform are perceived as ineffective and ultimately serving the interests of the powerful.

Social democracy and broad consensus

This is not new. Movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter, again with very different agendas and goals, have developed over the years similar methods and ways of making political claims. But their rejection of representative democratic structures has been more extreme: they have stayed away for the most part from electoral politics, and favored horizontal participation and leaderless structures. There is no doubt that, despite the challenges, the tradition of grassroots organizing and long-term community projects is alive and well in America.

This is different in the case of Sanders and Trump. Supporters have chosen a leader to bring about change. Trump’s case is easier to understand. He is able to manipulate and appease his crowds. His narcissistic personality leaves no doubts about the leadership style: he portrays himself as an authoritarian figure that will deliver what the crowds demand, all they have to do is place their trust in him.

As for Sanders, there is a fundamental tension between the kind of mass support he is drawing and his own politics. Sanders is an old-school social democrat. The media label him a “radical” only because the cultural hegemony of neoliberalism has made it taboo to advocate for policies like free education and higher taxes for the rich.

He comes from an era when grassroots organizing in small communities with long-term bonds went hand in hand with fighting for a different national and international economic and political system. His experience as mayor in the small city of Burlington, Vermont, is telling. Elected against all odds in 1981, he was re-elected three times. He mobilized citizens to reclaim the waterfront from corporate interests, winning a landmark legal battle that went all the way up to the Supreme Court. The revitalized waterfront became a successful example of urban renewal, with playgrounds, parks and cycle routes opened to the public. He made more affordable housing available, and worked with civic organizations, unions and social welfare agencies to improve citizens’ welfare. At the same time, he invited intellectuals like Chomsky to public events and condemned US imperialism. Sanders proved to be an effective and visionary administrator, committed to broader social change. His success in Burlington was as much about engaging people in the streets, as it was about conducting long and tiring negotiations with powerful people and institutions.

There is no doubt that, despite the challenges, the tradition of grassroots organizing and long-term community projects is alive and well in America. It is not an accident that Sanders started his presidential campaign in Burlington. But we rarely hear about this kind of politics in the hype created by his candidacy. We hear about his crowdfunding, #FeelTheBern and other hashtags used by his supporters, how many millions of strangers have been reached by catchy campaign ads.

Sanders’ policies were the pillars of social democracy in Europe until recently, and are still current in Nordic countries like Norway and Sweden. Not only there is nothing “radical” in these policies, but they were supported – and still are in the Nordics – by a broad consensus that encompassed most political parties from left to right, trade unions, churches, and civil society organizations fighting against various forms of discrimination.

Sanders’ policies have been effectively implemented by government bureaucrats supported by a large alliance linking people in small communities all the way up to the national levers of power. Of course it would be delusional to think that we can replicate those historical conditions at will. But still, there is a lesson there that is easily forgotten. Behind social democracy, there was a national society, composed of various popular associations that maintained strong and durable bonds between their members, with frequent face-to-face contact. This world has little in common with the Facebook video montages of Sanders’ speeches accompanied by dreamy music and pictures preluding to a “brave new world” that is supposedly just around the corner.


Bernie Sanders supporters. Flickr/Gage Skidmore. Some rights reserved.

Beyond mass protest

The current structures of US liberal democracy are fundamentally flawed. They have become part and parcel of a system that excludes most people from decision-making and endorses policies that actively work against them. Mass protest plays the essential role of signalling to a corrupt and undemocratic establishment that things have to change and soon. But it cannot deliver the changes desired by itself. Contemporary forms of dissent are a response to the loss of community and sense of belonging produced by decades of free market rule. They are also weakened by that very loss: many of Sanders’ supporters want community and belonging, the same principles Sanders is fighting for. But they struggle to find other durable avenues for community building beyond social media and mass rallies.

As we move closer to the end of the Democratic primaries, the Sanders’ campaign has a tremendous opportunity. It can harness the positive power of mass dissent into a durable social movement fighting for a progressive alternative to the current US-dominated world order. The horizon is much longer than the likely presidential contest between Clinton and Trump – even though it should be clear by now that a Trump victory would only do harm to such aspirations.

It is time to start talking seriously again about a grassroots politics that aims to build a broad consensus, give priority to long-term face-to-face projects with physical communities offline, and recruit skillful and honest politicians to connect people to places where decisions are made – Sanders is one of them. We can use social media and the momentum built by his campaign for this, but the main goal should be to harness the unprecedented explosion of anger and hope into political actions that will bring tangible change in people's lives.

We hear a lot about all kinds of experiments to address the democratic deficit in decision-making mechanisms – from direct action to digital democracy and more. But few talk about a more profound crisis: our lives are filled with alienation and isolation, our communities have been broken, and impersonal forms of social interaction are replacing personal ones. Meeting with other citizens outside our close circles is good for democracy. But we should be skeptical of impromptu mass gatherings and social media debates as the only places to make vital decisions that will affect our lives for years to come.

We need to develop democratic spaces that address common national and global challenges, but are grounded in local interactions and foster bonds among people in the physical world. New technologies can hugely improve our lives, but ultimately society is made of humans. The kind of human interactions we foster make all the difference in this world – and the next.

How to cite:
Laterza V.(2016) Democracy after Sanders, Open Democracy / ISA RC-47: Open Movements,17 May. https://opendemocracy.net/vito-laterza/democracy-after-sanders


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