When I moved to the U.S. three years ago, I got the impression that political apathy was the pastime of American college students. Fresh from the disappointments of Obama’s presidency — failing to close Guantanamo Bay and rein in the worst abuses of the NSA domestic surveillance program — it seemed to me that a finely-honed nihilism toward all things political was standard operating procedure for students who entered university on the tail of the worst financial crisis in a generation. That all changed with Bernie Sanders, the unapologetic democratic socialist whose campaign homepage plainly asks, “ready to start a political revolution?” Here was a presidential run that launched a thousand think-pieces about how millennials weren’t so politically disengaged after all. He was the first candidate in living memory who galvanized youth voters, as Sanders’ rallies were packed to the rafters. Yet his success is unsustainable, and his efforts inevitably won’t create
Sanders’ grassroots movement, despite some unlikely wins in Michigan and Wisconsin, seems unable to beat the Clintonian juggernaut. One should never say never, but it appears that Clinton’s New York primary win is the death knell of the Sanders campaign. As the country gears up for an unlikely showdown between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump, it’s worth looking back at Sanders’ rhetoric and asking if his campaign to boot out the billionaire class was ever likely to succeed.
If Sanders was truly married to the idea of political revolution, I believe he would have started at the bottom and worked his way up. I am unsure how many Sanders supporters at NYU can name their senators, let alone their state representatives.
I’m by no means an expert in electoral politics, but it seems to me that a presidential campaign is the last place to mount a political revolution. Leaving aside Sanders’ missteps regarding the implementation of his own policy in an editorial meeting — he was unable to back up his talking points with concrete policy plans — it is utterly unclear to me how any political revolution can hope to begin at the top and work its way down with a Democratic president who does not enjoy Democratic majorities in either the House or the Senate. Local politicians, state senators and mayors are much closer to the average voter, and have much more political sway in the lives of everyday Americans.
Much of the criticism levied at Sanders is unfair, but this does not mean that Sanders’ campaign is faultless or even on the right track. If Sanders’ supporters want to change the face of U.S. politics, they must abandon presidential aspirations and channel their considerable energies toward local politics. Take back the House; start small. That is how you build a movement.
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A version of this article appeared in the Monday, April 25 print edition. Email Tommy Collison at [email protected]