Bernie Sanders' Guide to Political Revolution

Democ­rats still get into argu­ments about the mer­its (or lack there­of) of Hillary Clin­ton’s and Bernie Sanders’ can­di­da­cies for the 2016 Demo­c­ra­t­ic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­na­tion. It’s why many of us on the left con­tin­ue, inex­orably, view­ing con­tem­po­rary events as a chance to re-lit­i­gate that con­test and who was right.

Bernie Sanders' Guide to Political Revolution
Guide to Polit­i­cal Rev­o­lu­tion, by Bernie Sanders (Hard­cov­er, Hen­ry Holt)

To say that Bernie Sanders: Guide to Polit­i­cal Rev­o­lu­tion is just for teenagers will invite cheap jokes.

Mere­ly by exist­ing, it has helped reignite the con­ver­sa­tion about who actu­al­ly had the bet­ter fire extin­guish­er a year and a half ago, even as the grease fire con­tin­ues to spread through­out the house.

So let’s be clear: If you liked Bernie Sanders’ cam­paign and the pol­i­cy direc­tions he empha­sized dur­ing his many stump speech­es, you’ll prob­a­bly like this book.

But you may not enjoy actu­al­ly read­ing it unless you’re in your teens. That is its intend­ed audi­ence, and it’s a sol­id col­lec­tion of ideals and poli­cies for teens to think crit­i­cal­ly about. But it also has its prob­lems, includ­ing some inher­it­ed from its name­sake author.

First, it’s inten­tion­al­ly designed like a text­book and pep­pered with the sum­ma­riz­ing design fea­tures teenagers sup­pos­ed­ly need to ingest and enjoy read­ing beyond one smart­phone-screen length. Some info­graph­ics, like those break­ing down aver­age CEO pay or the green­house gas effect, are effec­tive and com­mu­ni­cate their infor­ma­tion well. Oth­ers, like how many hours Amer­i­cans work com­pared to oth­er coun­tries or high­er edu­ca­tion costs, are extra­or­di­nar­i­ly bad.

If the e‑book ver­sion has them all in col­or, that could help some, but as it is, these graph­ics have a poor hit-or-miss ratio.

Sec­ond, I’m not sure how much fresh work went into this. It’s def­i­nite­ly writ­ten in the voice of Bernie Sanders, seem­ing­ly down to cadences, when talk­ing about wealth inequal­i­ty, break­ing up the big banks, and rais­ing the min­i­mum wage.

Oth­er por­tions, such as crim­i­nal jus­tice reform, are lit­er­al­ly tak­en word-for-word from his cam­paign site — although they did take the trou­ble to update the book with sub­se­quent vic­tims of extra­ju­di­cial police executions.

The rehashed ver­sions of his well-worn anec­dotes are sim­i­lar­ly word-for-word: My father came to this coun­try from Poland at the age of sev­en­teen with­out a nick­el (some­times pen­ny) in his pock­et (some­times plus ‘lit­tle education’).

More impor­tant­ly, with the pos­si­ble excep­tion of rais­ing the min­i­mum wage for fed­er­al con­trac­tors by exec­u­tive order, none of the “we should” state­ments includ­ed in Guide to Polit­i­cal Rev­o­lu­tion are doable through exec­u­tive action alone. Vot­ers would need to elect a pro­gres­sive Con­gress, not just a pres­i­dent like Bernie Sanders, in order for the ideas expressed in this book to be realized.

That remains, for me, the most frus­trat­ing aspect of Sanders’ 2016 cam­paign and con­tin­ued rel­e­van­cy. Sanders inspired pro­gres­sives all over the coun­try with his cam­paign, but there is still a Repub­li­can Con­gress… and Repub­li­cans still con­trol most of the states too. They have tri­fec­tas in near­ly every region of the country.

I appre­ci­at­ed the book devot­ing pages to calls to action under the head­ing Mobi­lize (these calls to action main­ly explain how young peo­ple could get involved with non­prof­its), but it nev­er offered the scaf­fold­ing of what gov­ern­men­tal pow­er already exists, and what would need chang­ing to set the stage for a twen­ty-first cen­tu­ry equiv­a­lent of the Pro­gres­sive Era.

Sanders, or his ghost­writer, nev­er clar­i­fies why we ought to sup­port any of these “we shoulds” — why guar­an­tee a $15 per hour min­i­mum wage and not $20, or why that instead of Uni­ver­sal Basic Income or invest­ing in pub­lic housing?

Nowhere in the text does Sanders offer a coher­ent world­view to under­pin his list of “we shoulds”, which means his teen read­ers aren’t get­ting the ben­e­fit of a primer explain­ing the log­ic of pro­gres­sive val­ues. (Those val­ues are what con­nect all of the pol­i­cy direc­tions and spe­cif­ic poli­cies that pro­gres­sives believe in.)

Good jobs that pay a liv­ing wage, uni­ver­sal health­care, tuition-free col­lege, paid fam­i­ly leave — these are wor­thy ideas. But so is tran­sit for all. So are amply fund­ed K‑12 pub­lic schools in every juris­dic­tion. So are repro­duc­tive rights.

This text is more of a guide to Bernie Sanders’ favorite 2016 cam­paign themes than a com­pre­hen­sive pro­gres­sive man­i­festo, but Bernie Sanders’ Favorite Polit­i­cal Ideas Guide isn’t as allur­ing of a title as Bernie Sanders’ Guide to Polit­i­cal Rev­o­lu­tion.

Flaws aside, this book is a good start­ing point for think­ing about facile socioe­co­nom­ic issues, and if paired with, say, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Chi­ma­man­da Ngozi Adichie’s “We Should All Be Fem­i­nists,” is a sol­id foun­da­tion for any­one start­ing to think about the world of pol­i­tics and what a teen should strive to have changed by the time they’re an octogenarian.

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