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You Can’t Dismiss Bernie’s ‘Political Revolution’

Bernie Sanders

Not that she’d ever vote for Donald Trump, but when famous Bernie Sanders supporter Susan Sarandon said last month that she might never bring herself to vote for Hillary Clinton, the liberal world went wild with dismay.

“You know, some people feel that Donald Trump will bring the revolution immediately,” Sarandon told MSNBC’s Chris Hayes. “If he gets in, then things will really explode.”

Sarandon is probably right about Americans’ gag reflex. We in the LGBT movement know that when our opponents display their hateful views, large swaths of people don’t see themselves reflected in bigoted comments. The blatant hate actually helps people move our way. 

We ought to agree that Sarandon would be culpable to sit things out and let Trump win (if he's indeed the Republican nominee). After all, we know how hard it is to undo damage done by previous presidents. Look how long it took to repeal the “don’t ask, don’t tell” policy or to overturn the Defense of Marriage Act. Staying home in November means you’re for the long-lasting, harmful effects to women, to immigrants, and to those maligned by The Donald.

Underneath all of the outrage over Sarandon’s comments, though, is a condescension from some about “the revolution” she’s referencing, and that Sanders talks about a lot — to some, it’s ad nauseam.

Democratic debate moderator Karen Tumulty’s reaction to a question she asked about climate change has been turned into a gif for its emblematic dismissiveness of “political revolution” as a credible answer to any problem facing our country. 

Then there was that New York Daily News interview that everyone is talking about, in which reporters couldn’t get Sanders to outline exactly how he’d break up the big banks, and during which, the harshest critics say, the editorial board turned Bernie Sanders into Sarah Palin — who was so superficially prepared she couldn’t answer a detailed policy question with a coherent sentence. 

Underneath some of that interview, though, is a sense from the questioners that “political revolution” isn’t a solution, and that Sanders ought to start outlining a “real” path toward getting things done.

“You're promising a political revolution,” one Daily News journalist said, “but if nothing changes in the Senate and in the House of Representatives, how are you going to be able to get anything done? I mean, the real issue to me seems to be, what happens in the Senate, and what happens in the House of Representatives.”

That question is an example of what the media believes it knows about politics — and why they’ve been wrong from the start about the prospects for both Trump and Sanders.

No, it doesn’t matter what’s happening in the House and Senate. Because nothing is happening there. 

The fact that we have same-sex marriage in 50 states has nothing to do with Congress. They didn’t lift a finger, except to try to stop it. 

What we have in Congress is gridlock, and while voters understand that, and are frustrated, the media remains constrained by antiquated ways of getting things done. What matters, the only thing that matters now, is who wins an election, and which politician is worried about losing the next election. 

I worked in the so-called Beltway media, as online managing editor for National Journal magazine, during President Obama’s first term in office. My staff covered the rise of the Tea Party back when no one thought it was significant, and now look. Every Republican is so afraid of their base that the party had to beg Paul Ryan to take the top job in the House of Representatives. 

The Tea Party is a pretty good example of “political revolution” dramatically affecting a political party and Congress, just not for the better.

The most cynical thing I learned while in Washington is that those of us in the media were churning out thoughtful policy analysis, perhaps with the hope that a striking insight could change someone’s mind, only to discover that information is being handled like a weapon. And the arms dealers are every journalist at Politico or National Journal or CQ/Roll Call or Bloomberg Government or The Hill. 

Each side reads the painstakingly objective analysis churned out by Beltway media and then cherry-picks whatever facts and insights will make it easier for them to win. Few of our elected officials reads with an open mind. Just the opposite: They’re scanning for the factoid that can be wielded against the other side when arguing on the radio, or cable news, or on the floor of Congress. They need to score political points more than ever because now it matters only which side gets elected.

So don’t tell me that “political revolution” isn’t a real solution. And don’t tell me political revolution is some fantastic idea. It’s an LGBT idea. We’ve been there, done that. 

Drilling down into polls shows one of the fastest changes in attitude ever recorded. Nearly 70 percent of respondents now tell Gallup that same-sex relationships should be legal. That number was at 33 percent amid the AIDS crisis in 1986. The shift is most pronounced among millennials.

After winning a Wisconsin victory, in his victory speech on Tuesday from Laramie, Wyo., of all places, Sanders launched a vigorous defense of political movements. Among the evidence he presented that movements matter is passage of marriage equality in all 50 states — a prospect many activists were told, once upon a time, was too much, too soon.

“What momentum is about,” Sanders said, “is that all across this country the American people are looking around them and they understand that real change in our country’s history — whether it is the trade union movement, whether it is the civil rights movement, whether it is the women’s movement, whether it is the gay rights movement — they understand that real change never, ever takes place from the top on down. It always takes place from the bottom on up.”

No matter from where in our history as an LGBT rights movement you start examining this idea, it’s true that change started in the grass roots, far outside of Washington. Stonewall’s an obvious one. But we're examining a speech in Laramie, so take passage of the hate-crimes bill, which was only possible after Matthew Shepard’s murder transformed public opinion. The groundswell for that law did not start in Washington.

The truth is that almost nothing Bernie Sanders talks about will happen without a transformation of public opinion. We’re not going to have free public college, that’s for sure, without a lot of people changing their minds. If it happens, I guarantee the first people to evolve on the issue won’t be in Washington. 

Among the biggest problems that Hillary Clinton has identified so far in the primary with a Sanders candidacy is that it’s seemingly “one-issue.” The Daily News interview fed that characterization when Sanders, asked how he’d handle enemy combatants who get captured, said they could come to the U.S. or remain where captured, but that, “Actually I haven't thought about it a whole lot.”

Let’s concur that Sanders has surely stuck to a theme, and like it or not, that theme is “political revolution.” And on that prospect, he’s given it a lot more thought than the people asking the questions.

“My point is that yes we can change the status quo when we think big and when we have a vision,” he told people in Wyoming on Tuesday, in a speech that seemed to strike a nerve with others who were also giving that idea some real examination. These folks aren’t inherently simpletons, Sanders argued. 

“Now, I am not naive,” he told them, before listing obstacles to getting anything done, such as “the power of Wall Street and their endless supplies of money” or billionaires who are “funding candidates whose job it is to represent the wealthy and the powerful.” 

Those are some of the usual culprits on his list, and maybe it’s sounding tiresome by now, or oversimplified. Then to drive home his point, Sanders named a few times when American movements had overcome political opponents of all stripes by changing hearts and minds. 

“I know about all of that,” he said of the challenges, “but this is what I also know: I know that what history is about is that when people stand up and they say the status quo is not acceptable, we will not have children working in factories, we will not have working people on the job who have no power over those jobs, we will not continue to have segregation or racism or bigotry, we will not have women unable to vote or go to the schools they want or do the work they want, we will pass gay marriage in 50 states in this country.”

Sanders would do well to acknowledge these fights are ongoing, in big and small ways. But I see his point, and while there’s a lot to criticize Sanders about when it comes to his single-mindedness, for any LGBT person to say political revolution doesn’t result in more equality denies our history.

Say what you mean, which is perhaps that these problems Sanders talks about don’t strike you as meriting a political movement. Maybe you're saying a revolution isn’t needed. A revolution isn’t worth it, in other words. Many might even agree that incremental change would be a more effective solution for our problems.

But don’t tell me a revolution can't happen.

LUCAS GRINDLEY is editorial director for Here Media. Contact him on Twitter @lucasgrindley.

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