One of the big stories of 2016 has been the two outsider candidates, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders. They aren’t all that much alike, as it turns out, except in that they diagnose a problem of elite politicians who are out-of-touch with “real Americans.” And there is some validity to that. Still, the fundamental question you would have to answer is how that can be changed.
I am old enough to remember the last time people in the U.S. tossed around the term “revolution” as a solution, which of course was the 1960s. The assassinations, the Vietnam war, the draft, and so on provoked this, but of course this was unrealistic. What actually happened was that the pendulum began to swing back to a more right-wing culture after a fairly long period of liberal ascendancy. This began with Nixon, grew under Reagan, and finally self-immolated with George W. Bush. This opened the door to another swing of the pendulum back towards liberalism (or as the kids say these days, progressivism) that almost got going under Bill Clinton, did really get going under Obama, and will continue under Hillary Clinton.
But change at the top is not how you make a revolution in the 21st Century. And that has been the weakness of the left in this country, and in particular of the young people who made up the Bernie Sanders forces this year. It is great to be inspired by a politician running for President. I get it. I was a McGovern volunteer in my very first Presidential election. And McGovern got the nomination, before being crushed by Nixon. I learned some valuable lessons from that campaign, not least that I should not judge the course of a Presidential election by what I see around me. I lived in the only state McGovern carried, but I was convinced he was going to win because everyone I knew was going to vote for him. But real change starts from the bottom, in your local communities. My cousin Jim, who is a city councilman in Beverly, Massachusetts, could probably give you an inside view, but I think a good way to understand this is with a sports metaphor. You need a good bench to mount a championship run. No baseball team is going to go far without a good bullpen. No football team will make it without depth. And in pretty much any sport you need a deep bench of quality players. Let’s stay with baseball for a moment. The players who will move up to become your bench are developed in the minor leagues, where they hone their skills, and the best of them eventually get called up to the majors. And that is what local politics does, it helps to develop the bench. In your local community there is probably a city council, a school board, a parks commission, and so on. Who are the people that are getting elected to these positions? Do you know? Do they represent your views?
This matters, because at some point the Mayor’s job will open up, a State Representative or State Senator will retire, and guess who will run for those positions? The very same people who started on the City Council, the School Board, or the Parks Commission. They have been building support in the community, collecting political “chits” from local people, and they can leverage that into a run for the higher office. Once they are there, the process repeats. They do the constituent service, they build political support, and eventually a seat in Congress or the Governor’s job opens up, and they are in position to do it again. Rinse, repeat. Do a good job, build your political base, and then you have a shot to move up again. A US Senate seat might open up. Rinse, repeat. And finally you get a shot at running for President. Bernie Sanders’ own history demonstrates this. He initially tried to run for Governor and US Senator in Vermont in the 1970s. And he lost! But then he ran for mayor of Burlington, Vermont in 1981, won that election, and was re-elected three times. Then he ran for U.S. Congress, won and ended up serving 8 terms. From there he ran for U.S. Senate in 2006, and was resoundingly re-elected in 2012 with 71% of the vote. If he had not served those four terms as mayor of Burlington, there would not have been any Bernie Sanders campaign in 2016.
If you don’t make sure there are good people entering the pipeline, you will never have good people to vote for at the highest level, it is as simple as that. At the very least, you should vote. That is how people get into office in this country. Even better is to vote intelligently. And as it happens it is not that hard these days. Most places will have a way to see the ballot before you go to vote. In Michigan, the Secretary of State has a Web site where you can see and print out a sample ballot. Then let Google be your friend. Most candidates will have a Web site these days, and you can get an idea of who is the best candidate in each race. And if you are serious about making a difference, look at doing a spot of volunteering or contributing a few bucks. Every campaign needs that kind of help.
And if you want more information on your state, here is a site for all 50 U.S. states with a series of videos, one per state, and each one is about 2 minutes long, that explains what you need to do. Registration deadlines are coming up, so you need to act, but it is not terribly hard. And really, if you say you want a revolution in this country, this is how you do it.