In early December of last year my friend Becky took me to a Diesel- and Mrs. Dalloway-sponsored “book talk” at Zellerbach Hall at UC Berkeley. The occasion happened to be the release of Bernie Sanders’ latest book, Our Revolution, but it was less of a book talk and more of a muted political rally. “I wrote a book,” Senator Sanders said, “but there are a couple of things I want to talk about first,” and he proceeded to discuss just about everything other than the book. I expected as much. He didn’t read from the book at all, and barely mentioned it (though early ticket buyers — thanks Becky! — received signed copies as part of the price of the ticket), and it’s not often that a writer is constantly interrupted by applause, enough so I lost track of the number of times:
“This is not a time to think small.” [applause]
When asked about how he was able to jump up and get back to work after losing the primaries, he responded dryly, “It is appropriate, when you lose, to take a day or two off.” [even louder applause]
Sanders began by talking about how there were three things on which he — he said “we,” but more about this later — was standing firm, in the face of a Trump administration:
- no compromise on bigotry
- no compromise on the environment
- no compromise on the foundations of democracy (the latter a direct reference to Citizens United and the Koch brothers)
In his talk he kept mentioning “the American people” — a familiar rhetorical device of course, but one he kept employing to good effect. “It’s not about me,” he repeated — thus the pronoun in the title of his book. In “poll after poll” (he didn’t cite them in his talk), “the American people, regardless of whether they voted for Trump or Clinton,” were in agreement that there should be a path to citizenship, America’s incarceration rates are obscene, Citizens United is a travesty, etc.
Some objectives, of course, were mentioned more often than others. Raising the minimum wage and lowering the costs of medicine were two. I, for one, wanted him to talk more explicitly about race. He didn’t, not quite, but it was there, lingering in the background. At least Sanders said nothing about “going beyond” or moving away from “identity-based politics” as he has elsewhere. (My memory is hazy, but I don’t remember any mention of Black Lives Matter, for instance.)*
Sanders may not be the most terribly dynamic speaker, but here he was speaking mostly extemporaneously, his talking points already well-rehearsed. (The only time he pulled notes out was to read statistics about McDowell County in West Virginia, where the average life expectancy for men is 64. I’ll note that the county is 89% white.) Read any excerpt from his speeches and writings of the last decade or two and one will see he doesn’t deviate much. Sanders is quite consistent on what he wants, maybe almost to a fault: raise the minimum wage, create a comprehensive immigration reform plan that creates a path to citizenship, institute free tuition for colleges (perhaps the biggest pie in the sky).
He isn’t humorless, but there’s no question he projects the air of a codger whose irascibility lies just under the surface. He accompanies this, however, with a clear-eyed, no-nonsense way of communicating. He’s not interested in chitchat; he’s here to do business. From where I sat, he seemed to speak with absolute conviction — his repetition of the word “principles” kept garnering applause — even when he confessed he did not know what to do or how to do certain things.** (One might argue that Trump successfully projects that same sense of certainty — even if he’s clearly bullshitting — but Trump wouldn’t admit to ignorance or refer to anything as a challenge.)
Sanders talked about the challenge of broadening and diversifying the Democratic Party base — “something that’s never been done before,” he said a couple of times, “and I’m not sure how to do it.” I doubt the historical accuracy of that statement, but I understood his admission of being unsure as part of a willingness to learn, in the context of a more aggressive outreach to different populations. “I see the elections less as a victory for Trump, and more about the failure of the Democratic Party,” he said to loud applause.
“I appreciate the donations, I really do,” he said. But the Democratic Party, he said, needed to be less a party of “the liberal elite” and become “the party of the working people again.” And the gray-haired white folks in Zellerbach Hall applauded.
So on to the book. (I’m aware here that I’m devoting just as much space to it in this post as Sanders did during his “book talk.”) Alas, you’d be right to lower your expectations, with the book coming out so soon after his loss in the primaries. It isn’t that it’s rushed or poorly-edited. The book was also written before the presidential elections, and so any further wisdom Sanders may have wanted to impart at length about where the Democrats went wrong, or the shape of resistance to Trump in the next four years, would have to be saved for, well, a book talk.
Our Revolution is stuck in that same in-between mode, as it’s two different books in one. The first part is more rote autobiography than exploratory memoir (unlike Barack Obama’s Dreams of My Father — now that was a memoir), comprising of Sanders’ own recounting of his Brooklyn childhood, his college days as a young activist, his work as a producer of film documentaries, and his improbable but successful outsider campaigns in Vermont. A wealth of interesting material, but it’s dispensed with in less than 50 pages.
Any reflection on formative moments of his youth is fairly schematic: name a memory, write of its resonance to the present, and move on to the next. When we get to the sloggiest section, his Presidential campaign, the procession of events becomes even more formulaic: I went here, I met the following inspiring people whom I shall proceed to enumerate one by one, then I went somewhere else. One admires his restraint in settling scores — something seen throughout his campaign — and focusing on the issues that matter, but it makes for dull reading. (One imagines that it’s because he’s conserving his anger for bigger targets; see Part 2, where he gets personal about reforming corporate media.) I wonder if, in effect, he considers this “chitchat.”
Where Our Revolution really shines is, in a sense, saddest of all in terms of its unfulfilled promise. The second larger part of the book is called “An Agenda for a New America: How We Transform Our Country,” and it’s a cogent, and appropriately lengthy, discussion of his campaign platform: health care, immigration reform, higher education, climate change, and criminal justice reform, among other topics.
Again, anyone following Sanders’ career would recognize the consistency of his political agenda. Even the first chapter of this section is boldly titled, “Defeating Oligarchy,” Sanders’ shot across the bow. (But surely it’s worth pointing out what seems to be missing? Try to find anything about defending a woman’s right to choose, for instance.) Any one of its pages is ten times more substantive than the bulleted lists the current President is fond of skimming over. The prose crosses both academic wonkiness with simmering anger, and it succeeds overall as a rallying cry. The tragedy is that we now see a concerted and malicious reversal of any gains the previous administration had achieved in addressing the social issues above.
The temptation is to read Our Revolution as an epitaph for progressive politics in America, a look at what could have been. But as Sanders said in his speech, “Despair is not an option. It hampers our effectiveness in fighting back.” Read it, then, as Sanders means it: a call to action, a call to revolt.
*A little while back I read an article about how minorities should worry — the actual wording may have been “very afraid” — about being abandoned by the Democratic Party after the elections. (It was a rather shoddily-written Voxplanation with, as far as I could tell, no quotes from people of color, consisting of someone else’s analysis of Reconstruction and Bill Clinton’s Sister Souljah controversy.)
Such a shift surely complicates the “we” and the “our” in Our Revolution. I do not discount the dangerous temptation in this because it will end up doing two things: a) ensure that white identity remains as the unmarked category, and b) relegate the issues that disproportionately affect people of color and LGBT persons to the background once more. (If you want to talk about poverty, this site might help.) But this liberal version of colorblindness, however “principled,” is a way of smoothing out — no, let’s try erasing — inequality and difference and the connection between the two.
Sanders did indeed raise the point of “going beyond identity politics” in a Boston speech as quoted in the Vox article: “I think it’s a step forward in America if you have an African American head or CEO or some major corporation. But you know what? If that guy is going to be shipping jobs out of his country and exploiting his workers, [it] doesn’t mean a whole hell of a lot if he’s black or white or Latino.”
On the other hand I see nothing intrinsically wrong about this argument. In my case, just because a person is Filipino doesn’t mean I have to agree with the person’s politics or aesthetics. Sanders has since clarified that he advocates for a two-pronged approach, stressing that “Our rights and economic lives are intertwined. Now, more than ever, we need a Democratic Party that is committed to fulfilling, not eviscerating, Dr. Martin Luther King’s dream of racial, social, and economic justice for all.” We’ll see.
**I’m a “fan” of Sanders, to be sure, but I hesitate to proclaim this in the same manner that I would any of the other people of which I’m a fan. (A random 2017 sampling of a long list: Stevie Wonder, Lydia Davis, Armi Millare, Cillian Murphy, Alan Moore, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, Leila Abdul-Rauf, Doug Martsch.)
Calling a politician “honest” sounds odd and unfamiliar to me, as if I’m suspicious of my own feelings — I underscore “feelings” here — as if it were far easier to ascribe honesty to, I don’t know, George Takei, or Toni Morrison. Vibes aren’t really quantifiable. Charisma isn’t easily measurable. I think my discomfort lies in the flag-waving — a gerund that intrinsically smacks of a kind of insincerity — that accompanies political fandom.
Perhaps it’s naive to ascribe integrity and honesty to a politician, precisely because it’s part of the show. And I think about notions of the political and the artificial and how Hillary was chided for seeming insincere, though her opponent was openly mendacious. (Repeating “Crooked Hillary” till one’s blue in the face doesn’t actually make her so, but it worked, alas.)
Speaking of putting on a show, David Bowie may have been sincere in his art, but his multiple personas — and their mutability, their fluidity — would be contrary to that notion of transparency. But there is far less at stake when dealing with celebrity artists; they’re expected to put on an act, and so, even when they perform honesty, it’s seen as refreshing. (Think of the whole “Unplugged” phenomena of the early ‘90s, one that hasn’t died with YouTube musicians doing acoustic covers of current pop songs.)
For politicians, it’s the other way around. One requires them to be honest, which is paradoxically why they seem so patently insincere. We don’t demand honesty from our artists, but we have the opposite standard when it comes to politicians.
It has to do with the gravity for which politicians stand; I wouldn’t thrill to their writing or acting or looks or singing — and if I did, then it would be for the entirely wrong reasons. Against reason, I might add — it’s how movie stars with little political experience are elected into office, both in the US and in the Philippines.
Any measurement of political belief or preference perhaps ultimately lies in the subjective — a frightening thought, but then politicians have been elected in circumstances that fly against the face of the objective. A politician’s vision resonates with a voter because it’s something they share, and the more correspondences between a political platform and an individual’s spectrum of convictions (albeit varying in degrees), the more likely a person will vote for someone. And that, for me, would be somebody like Bernie Sanders. And yet the discomfort remains.