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The future of the Sanders campaign: Grassroots democracy beyond social media and mass rallies

Vito Laterza is a research fellow at the Centre for African Studies, University of Cape Town. He has contributed to Foreign Affairs and Al Jazeera English and edits the Human Economy Blog. He tweets at @vitolaterza09

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.

In the US presidential primaries, Hillary Clinton’s victories in big states like New York and Pennsylvania in April 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. Bernie Sanders, however, is far from defeated. He won several states and mobilised millions of voters. He has strong appeal among the youth, and has shifted the axis of Democratic politics to the left.

It will not be an easy ride for Clinton. She is under attack from all sides for being an “establishment” candidate. Her close ties to Wall Street and her role in the wars in Libya and Syria have come under heavy scrutiny. Several polls show Sanders would have a better chance of beating Trump than Clinton. Others report that a significant section of Sanders’ electorate will not vote for Clinton in November, and some of them might even vote for Trump. Sanders and Trump have gained popularity as “anti-establishment” figures, even though they are at the opposing ends of the right-left spectrum.

Their visions are radically different. Sanders calls for a market regulated by the state and heavy taxes for the rich. He emphasises free health and education, and is committed to equality, human rights, and anti-imperialism.

Trump’s worldview flirts 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 fans.

Yet there is something that unites supporters on both sides. They are tired and angry with the current system. Their economic survival is under threat. They 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 centres. At the same time, the expansion of big corporations and financial capital pushed real wages down and made everybody precarious.

Increasing material insecurity has gone hand in hand with the drastic erosion of social bonds. Its visible effects are a dramatic increase in alienation and anxiety, and the disappearance of face-to-face regular contact with other fellow citizens. 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 colour, women, low-income migrants and people with disabilities, to name a few. But the middle classes have also been affected and experienced a reversal of the fortunes built up in the post-war boom.

Trump and Sanders appeal to the same broad social base that went through this crisis. Their followers have a powerful weapon in their hands: a politics of emotions that is hard to dismiss. They shout back at the powers that be, expressing their frustrations and suffering. These emotionally charged statements are used to mobilise 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.

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 compromising with those that would stand in their way – mainstream politicians, bankers and corporations. 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 seen as ineffective and ultimately serving the interests of the powerful.

Social democracy and broad consensus

Trump is good at manipulating the desires of his crowds. He portrays himself as an authoritarian figure who will deliver what people 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.

He is an old-school social democrat. He comes from an era when grassroots organising in small tightly knit communities went hand in hand with fighting for a different 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 mobilised citizens to reclaim the waterfront from corporate interests, winning a landmark legal battle in the Supreme Court. He made more affordable housing available, and worked with civic organisations, unions and social welfare agencies to improve citizens’ lives. 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. We rarely hear about Sanders’ grassroots politics in the hype created by his candidacy.

Sanders’ policies were the pillars of social democracy in Europe until recently, and are still current in Nordic countries like Norway and Sweden. There is nothing “radical” in these policies. They were supported – and still are in the Nordics – by a broad consensus that included most political parties from left to right, trade unions, churches, and civil society organisations fighting against various forms of discrimination. Behind social democracy, there were national societies, composed of popular associations that maintained strong ties with their members.

Beyond mass protest

The current structures of US liberal democracy are fundamentally flawed. They exclude most people from decision-making and endorse 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. Many of Sanders’ supporters want community and belonging, the same principles Sanders is fighting for. Yet they struggle to find other avenues for community building beyond social media and mass rallies.

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. To do so, it needs to focus on a grassroots politics aimed at building a broad consensus, give priority to long-term face-to-face projects with physical communities offline, and recruit skilful and principled politicians to connect people to the places where decisions are made.

Meeting with other citizens outside our close circles is good for democracy. However, we should be sceptical 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, and are grounded in local interactions between people in the physical world. New technologies can improve our lives, but ultimately society is made of humans. The kind of human relationships we foster makes all the difference in this world – and the next. DM

Vito Laterza is a research fellow in the Department of Social Anthropology, University of Oslo, and a research associate of the Centre for African Studies, University of Cape Town. He has contributed to Foreign Affairs, Al Jazeera English and Boston Review, and edits the Human Economy Blog. He tweets at @vitolaterza09


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