NPI's Cascadia Advocate

Offering commentary and analysis from Washington, Oregon, and Idaho, The Cascadia Advocate is the Northwest Progressive Institute's unconventional perspective on world, national, and local politics.

Sunday, October 29th, 2017

Book Review: Bernie Sanders’ “Guide to Political Revolution” aims to be teen resource

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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