You Say You Want a Revolution

You Say You Want a Revolution

To achieve real change, progressives must mobilize beyond one election cycle. 

May 27, 2016

Political revolution”—it’s the notable phrase of campaign 2016. For those who are for it, and feel like they’re in it, it’s worth the effort to get clear what it means and how it might be achieved.

Credit goes to Bernie Sanders for popularizing it. (It’s so compelling a concept that even Carl Palladino, Donald Trump’s New York state chair, uses the words.) To both it means an upheaval, pushing out those in power. To Sanders, the strategic core of the revolution is the suppression of the influence of the rich and big business by limiting big money in politics. That would facilitate substantive change in such areas as banking, health insurance, college affordability, and prescription drug pricing.

But Sanders underscores that any of this requires not just getting big money out, but getting people in.

He describes the method of the political revolution as electoral victory followed by pressure from the grassroots. Millions must mobilize, he says, to make change achievable.

There is indeed a strategic path to the kind of win that animates millions of progressives, a win not just to preserve the gains they have made for equal rights and justice, but real change for economic equality and opportunity, for the climate, for the positive role of government, for unions. That’s what a political revolution would yield.

But here’s the rub. The kind of electoral victory required to realize Sanders’s or any progressive vision has to be big, big as the victories of 1932 and ‘34, and 1964. Big and sustained, in contrast to the victories of 2008 and 2012, which were followed by the reversals of 2010 and 2014. In our federal system, with its checks and balances, that means winning a partisan majority that’s big enough to control the White House and Congress, and governorships and state legislatures. And robust in other ways, which I will explain.


“Revolution.” The word usually suggests violent upheaval, though not exclusively. Whether violence is part of the picture depends more on the means used to block change than the intentions of movements for change. We had an armed revolution in 1776. Armed struggles, including guerrilla wars as in Cuba, and civil wars and insurrections like those in Algeria and South Africa, are one of the three main avenues for revolution.

But that’s not what today’s “political revolutionaries” have in mind.

Mass protest rebellions are a second type, recently including Iran (1979) and the Arab Spring (2011). “Color revolutions” go back to the Carnation Revolution (Portugal 1974), the Yellow Revolution (Philippines 1986) and many others in the former Soviet bloc. These typically include political general strikes. The transfer of power can be nonviolent if the old regime, having lost legitimacy, cedes it—as did the Shah, Hosni Mubarak, Marcelo Caetano, and Ferdinand Marcos. It’s what Phil Ochs sang about in “Ringing of Revolution.”

Today’s America is not congenial to either type of upheaval. 

So “political revolution” means power struggle by electoral means. That’s the third type.

It has been done before, here and elsewhere.

The Swedish Social Democratic Workers Party came to power in an election following a general strike that protested of the use of the military as strikebreakers in the Ådalen Valley in 1931. Its successes, as well as those of the New Deal and the French Popular Front (1936) followed election victories in the wake of the Great Depression’s wage cuts, unemployment, and general dislocations. After World War II, Britons were eager for social change, and voters ousted Winston Churchill’s Tories in favor of Clement Attlee’s Labour Party. In 1972, Australians, reacting against the governing Conservatives failed economic policies and their and their continued involvement in the Vietnam War, elected their first Labour government under Gough Whitlam. And the Brazilian PT (Partido dos Trabalhadores) came to power in 2003 after years of dictatorship and several electoral rounds.

Each of these governments enjoyed, at least initially, a robust majority mandate. It was sustained for decades in Sweden, but for only three years in France and Australia, and less than ten in the U.K. Majorities vary in depth and breadth; our own New Deal majority was undercut in the late ‘40s and ‘50s, but was renewed and extended by the civil rights movement. 

Each of these regimes faced entrenched opponents who did their utmost to undermine them, both constitutionally and extra-constitutionally. Whitlam was dismissed from office by act of the Governor General, in cahoots with the foreign offices of the U.K. and U.S. Brazilian President Dilma Rousseff is now facing impeachment, though no one has even alleged she’s committed any financial improprieties or exceeded the constitutional limits of her office.

Ollie Atkins/White House/Public Domain

Since the success of Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, the Republican coalition has been led by the rich and big business, a small minority group. Nixon in Philadelphia during his 1968 presidential campaign. 


In the U.S., the progressive movement that made great strides during Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency was driven back from the high water mark it had reached in the mid-‘40s by its enemies employing every means at their disposal. It took almost 50 years for progressives to bury McCarthyism, and, after almost 80 years, Taft-Hartley still curtails workers’ right to organize.

“Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will,” Frederick Douglass said. Progressives believe their goals are just and aspirations noble. But they do themselves a disservice by underestimating the dangers their enemies pose, and failing to do all the things they must in order to prevail.

The kind of intensity that the Sanders campaign has demonstrated is critical. But it isn’t sufficient for a political revolution. It’s insufficient because of its demographic narrowness.  And insufficient because of its reliance on one election: Progressives need to win in both 2016 and 2018 to have enough power to start to make real change. Winning only in 2016, even if followed by continued mobilization of the Sanders movement, wouldn’t be enough.


The United States has one of the most diverse populations on earth; it is, perhaps, the single most diverse country. We have a two-party system for most of our elections. So the formulas for winning depend on building coalitions, one on the right, one on the left. In the party alignment that has prevailed since the success of Richard Nixon’s Southern Strategy, the Republican coalition has been led by the rich and big business, a small minority group.

The next segment of the coalition consists of middle-class elements drawn from the for-profit business system: business managers, lawyers, engineers, professionals in sales and accounting, real estate and insurance agents, entrepreneurs and investors, including “small” business, and physicians and farmers. 

It also embraces elements in all social strata connected to the military-industrial complex: enlistees, officers, veterans, and workers in defense industries.

The Southern Strategy wasn’t just geographical; racial demagogy, exploiting fears it fanned about quotas, busing, and crime, drove a wedge into the Democrats’ base all over the country. The right expanded its reach by taking on the anti-abortion cause, and then the anti-gay cause, and making the institutional backers of those causes—Catholic and evangelical churches—political partners. The wedge strategy led the right to embrace gun rights and the Sagebrush Rebellion.

All these forces usually see clearly that their long-run interests are better served by Republican Party success, even when particular causes are deferred, and even when it means abandoning Democrats who support those particular causes. Though GOP unity is being sorely tested by Donald Trump’s victory in the 2016 primaries, the widely-shared repugnance to Democrats, Obama and Obamacare, Hillary Clinton, and all they represent, provides a solid foundation for Trump, as it would have for Ted Cruz or any of the Republican field.

In the mid-2000s, this coalition came close to establishing the degree of hegemony that Democrats enjoyed in the FDR years. So close that pundits wrote about a “permanent Republican majority.” After all, they had been working methodically toward that goal since President Nixon and Lee Atwater moved the Southern Strategy and Lewis Powell penned the Powell Memorandum. But they were set back by the anti-Iraq war sentiment in 2006, and then along came Barack Obama, animating a coalition now dubbed the Rising American Electorate or the New American Majority.

The Democrats don’t present a neat parallel, though they, like the Republicans, must find a path to majority control.

First, there is no central guiding force in the Democratic Party that is quite equivalent to big business in the GOP. The Democrats are not a Labor Party; organized labor is but one element under a big tent.

Tim Bekaert/Public Domain

The 2008 election frustrated Republican attempts to create a "permanent Republican majority." Then-candidate Barack Obama speaking in Houston, Texas, on the eve of the state's primaries and caucuses in March 2008. 

Labor would like to see itself in the leading position in the party; it’s the logical counterforce to big business. But the modern period, with its sharply defined polarization between the parties, has also seen the shrinkage of organized labor. Union households are a minority of the Democratic vote, even in states with the highest union density.

African Americans certainly have a case for leading the party. They are by far the most partisan group of voters, and have been so since the partisan realignment triggered by the civil rights movement and the Voting Rights Act. More than any other group, African Americans have invested their aspirations in the Democratic Party. And the party’s success in ‘08 and ‘12 was achieved by rallying behind an African American.

But far from being in a position to plan the party’s majority-making strategy, in most states it is more common for black Democrats to feel they are “being taken for granted” by the Democrats.

Second, the left (at least parts of it) doesn’t view the Democratic Party the same way the right views the GOP. Senator Sanders himself is a registered independent, as are a large number of those who have voted for him (or would have but for the obstacle of living in a state with a “closed” primary). 

Against these two deficiencies, the Democrats benefit from two trends: the growth of the Hispanic and Asian minorities, and the greater liberalism of millennials. 

Electoral outcomes are determined by a combination of variables: resources, unity, turnout, and the underlying size of the electoral coalitions drawn upon. Occasionally, the coalitions themselves are reshaped by shifting constituencies, like the turn to the GOP of Southern whites or the turn away from it by Latinos.  

Unity isn’t always determinative: Harry Truman won in 1948 despite losing five states to Dixiecrats who’d walked out of the Democratic convention when it adopted a civil rights plank; Ronald Reagan won in 1980 even though John Anderson drew off some moderate Republicans and the Ed Clark/David Koch Libertarians drew 920,000 votes. But Ross Perot damaged George H.W. Bush in 1992, as Ralph Nader did to Al Gore in 2000.

The Obama coalition was broad enough, united enough, and motivated enough to win in 2008 and 2012. The party was just as unified and broad-based in 2010 and 2014, but the turnout sagged. Even if Democrats win in 2016, why should they expect 2018 to be any different from 2010 or 2014?

They should not, unless strategies like those offered below bear fruit:

·      Delivering to the base. The new president will try to deliver on a wide range of subjects of great interest to Democratic voters, both for their intrinsic merits, and in the hope that it would spur turnout in 2018. Though the ACA guarantee of coverage through age 26 didn’t seem to increase youth vote, and the ARRA auto rescue didn’t seem to help in midterm elections in Michigan, Ohio, or Indiana, a Democratic president is sure to try to produce real gains for her supporters. A Jobs Agenda would seem most promising: If voters in 2018 see and feel progress on domestic manufacturing, wages, and infrastructure, and inner-city joblessness, they might credit the Democrats. And perhaps there’s some administrative action on student debt that will pay off; perhaps the courts will leave some leeway for administrative deferral of deportations. 

·      Changing the electoral rules. The Justice Department and the Hillary Clinton campaign have each brought suits against state practices that violate the Voting Rights Act, including practices that go beyond those proscribed by the Supreme Court’s Shelby decision, which curtailed the scope of the Voting Rights Act. Most of that litigation will still be in various stages of appeal in 2017. And the 2016 elections might yield some states in which automatic voter registration, vote by mail, and election-day registration can be expanded or reinstated.

Phil Roeder/Creative Commons

Supporters listen to Bernie Sanders speak at the Des Moines Register's political soapbox at the State Fair in August 2015. 

·      Wedge Number One: Seniors. Most Republicans (though not Donald Trump—at least, today) want to diminish earned benefits: Medicare, Social Security, traditional pensions, veterans’ health care. Seniors, who are a growing fraction of the electorate, particularly in off years, ought to move away from the GOP if these issues are given proper prominence.

·      Wedge Number Two: Women. The Clinton campaign will do its best to bring some Republican women into the Democratic column, and the new administration can do its best to reinforce the campaign's outreach. 

The common thread running through each of these policies is the use of power to build power. They are premised on the clear-headed recognition that the wherewithal for big change, for a “political revolution,” is not in hand, but can be built.

Longer-range strategies toward the same end include creating paths to citizenship for those among us who are currently forced to live in the shadows, and paths to union organizing for workers who want to join unions but are blocked by hostile employers and an unresponsive labor relations system.

The right found a way to rebuild, in the wake of the Johnson-Goldwater landslide of 1964. So can the left. 

Successes now, in ‘16, ’18, and ‘20, could also yield a more equitable set of state redistricting plans.

Success now could wrest the federal judiciary, particularly the Supreme Court, from the right-wing activists who have held sway and used it in a very political way.

A robust, multi-dimensional understanding of majority-building is the necessary catalyst that can turn the desire for a political revolution into a serious strategy for change.

In Obama’s 2008 win, the words were “hope” and “change.” The hopes were valid, but, as progressives learned, it took more than one election to redeem them. For today’s words, “political revolution,” the same is true. Progressives have to win this year, but they also have to do everything that a majority-building strategy requires.

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