Skip to main content

How Social Change Happens; Mass Support Because You Agree with Bernie Sanders

Change comes precisely when you do change hearts -- and once that change has come, then the laws and the "allocation of resources," and the "way systems operate" follow pretty easily. Large majorities of Americans are, like Sanders, "democratic socialists." Sanders favors private ownership and markets, but with rules that protect little people from abuses and uncertainties. Even substantial majorities of Republicans support much of the Sanders economic plan.

printer friendly  
Bernie Sanders and just some of the 28,000 that attended Portland, Oregon campaign rally (August 9, 2015), photo credit: Troy Wayrynen/AP // Christian Science Monitor
By Bill McKibben
February 9, 2016
In the mounting, panicky attempts of elites to derail the Sanders candidacy, one strand dominates.
You find it woven through every sage piece from the old-school pundits of the Times and the hip insider websites like Vox. Yes, they say, he's saying some useful things. But he can't really make them happen. He's talking "puppies and rainbows." Real "reform is hard." The Times editors, in their endorsement of Hillary Clinton, managed a matchless condescension: His ideas about breaking up the banks or guaranteeing health care for everyone, they intoned, "have earned him support among alienated middle-class voters and young people. But his plans for achieving them aren't realistic." Wait 'til you're older and richer like us, and then you'll understand how change happens.
In fact, these pundits couldn't be more wrong about where change comes from. And neither could Hillary Clinton. Here's how she put it a few months ago, backstage at a tense and fascinating little confrontation with Black Lives Matter activists:
"I don't believe you change hearts. I believe you change laws, you change allocation of resources, you change the way systems operate." 
That sounds sensible, grown-up, wise. It's what Washington pundits always say -- they said it over and over again when we launched, say, the fight to stop the Keystone pipeline. But in fact it's completely backwards.
Change comes precisely when you do change hearts -- and once that change has come, then the laws and the "allocation of resources," and the "way systems operate" follow pretty easily.
Look, for instance, at gay marriage, which I'm pretty sure that President Obama will be holding up as one of the accomplishments that happened on his watch. And it did, but not much thanks to him. It came from a big, impassioned movement that cleverly changed the zeitgeist: that introduced Americans to their gay neighbors, that won a few court cases and then used that progress to show that the world wouldn't fall apart with gay marriage, that argued in a series of referendum votes for the new right. By the time that Obama (and Clinton) came on board (a decade or two after Sanders), the battle was mostly won. There was mopping up to do, but the change had come, and it had come from changing hearts.
Or look further back in American history. LBJ's the favorite example for this "effectiveness" argument, and indeed he was the legislator that twisted the final arms to get landmark civil rights legislation in place. But it was only because people had spent a generation building a movement that he had an opening. The hard, desperate part was changing the zeitgeist, which involved changing enough hearts. The Voting Rights Act didn't propel the civil rights movement; it was the other way round.
By this token, Bernie Sanders has already changed the world more than Hillary Clinton, despite all her vaunted years of experience. She manages process, but he moves the argument. Because of him there's a reasonable chance now that the TPP trade agreement will fail (he's already moved one of its authors, Hillary, into opposition). He's made it necessary to take inequality seriously -- he's the next stage, after Occupy, in moving the issue to the center of the stage, and the longer he lasts and the better he does the more attention it will get.
No, none of his plans will pass Congress intact. (Nor hers -- see, for instance, her badly mismanaged effort at health care reform in the first Clinton administration). As the Prussian chief of staff once remarked, "no plan survives contact with the enemy." Instead, what survives is momentum, trajectory. Movement. If Sanders can keep building a movement, then he has a far better chance of changing history than she does. Hillary promises constantly that "I'll be there every day, fighting for you." Bernie's slogan is #NotMeUs. There's all the difference in the world.
Now, you could argue that a manager is better suited to the presidency. We've had one the last eight years, and he's done a good job of cleaning up after the mess he inherited; the country, by and large, has been well run. So if you think that there's already enough momentum around issues like inequality and climate change, then it makes sense to elect another manager president. Washington pundits like the world pretty much as it is; it's working pretty well for them.
But younger people and poorer people may not see the world the same way. They may sense an urgent need for change. I mean, we've just broken the planet's temperature record two years in a row. If you think that we need a leader who will push to change the way we see the world then it makes perfect sense to imagine Bernie as the realistic candidate, the one who will get things done.
My guess is that the establishment pundits actually understand that, and I think they fear it a little. The polls in Iowa showed that rich people were backing Hillary while poorer people -- who can't endure much more of the status quo -- came out for Bernie. That should make you think.
[Bill McKibben is the author of a dozen books, including The End of Nature and Deep Economy: The Wealth of Communities and the Durable Future. A former staff writer for The New Yorker, he writes regularly for Harper's, The Atlantic Monthly, and The New York Review of Books, among other publications. In April 2007, he organized the Step It Up National Day of Climate Action, one of the largest global warming protests to date. Most recently, he was co-founder of, an international grassroots campaign that aims to mobilize a global climate movement united by a common call to action. He is a scholar-in-residence at Middlebury College, and lives in Vermont with his wife, the writer Sue Halpern, and their daughter.]
By David Cay Johnston 
February 7, 2016
The zeal of Bernie Sanders supporters is a mystery to many people, especially those who cringe at the word "socialist."
How, can a geriatric Brooklyn-born Jew who speaks in long, complex sentences, his hands providing the punctuation, draw bigger crowds than Donald Trump, despite claiming a tiny fraction of the mogul's TV news coverage? How could he battle Hillary Clinton to a virtual tie in Iowa, with a good chance of beating her Tuesday in New Hampshire? How could he be closing the gap with her in national polls?
The answer is that large majorities of Americans are, like Sanders, "democratic socialists."
Sanders is not a socialist. He is a "democratic socialist." That one word makes for a world of difference. Sanders favors private ownership and markets, but with rules that protect little people from abuses and uncertainties.
Survey after poll after focus group shows that substantial majorities of Republicans support much of the Sanders economic plan. Many of those Republicans currently support Donald Trump, with his vague promises to stick it to the rich, improve the lot of working class Americans and protect Social Security.
So what are those Americans who support Sanders' policies but not Sanders missing? Why don't they understand the huge differences between socialism and democratic socialism?
One issue is the disconnect between what politicians promise and what they could deliver. Sanders would need to win in a sweep election that gave Democrats strong majorities in Congress to get his policies enacted into law.
But there's a deeper issue with how we engage with our elections. You don't have to be a Sanders supporter to recognize that America's political reporters are good at covering the horse race, but terrible at explaining policies of the candidates.
One reason for that flaw is that viewers, and the voters among them, often want personality rather than substance. While there are insightful articles about policy proposals, they don't resonate. Think about a song so it plays in your mind. Now try to recall anything written by a music critic. Same problem with politics: We recall the rhyme; the reason, not so much.
Compounding this is the terrible job our education system does teaching young people about economic and political philosophies, to distinguish between the -isms. I've learned that you can have a more informed conversation about politics and economics with the average waiter or petty merchant in Europe or Canada than with the executive sitting next to you on a domestic flight.
So let's go back to square one and explain what Sanders is and is not.
Sanders' economic platform is built on the idea that investors and markets are the best at deciding where to put their money. But he wants strong rules to protect the vast majority from economic abuse.
He wants to use the power of government to insulate working people from economic upheavals on Wall Street, not bail bankers out. He wants investment bankers and others held accountable for their mistakes. He wants the people who were able to get rich because they live in America to bear a larger burden in supporting the government from which they benefitted.
And when hard times come, he wants government to first take care of the little people, not the political donor class, as both Presidents George W. Bush and Barack Obama have done. Sanders also wants universal health care, paid for with tax money.
Those who call such ideas radical or outside the mainstream - including Hillary Clinton, who asserts Sanders push for universal health care would mean dismantling Obamacare - are stretching.
His plans, if smartly put into law, would actually make the economy more efficient, saving taxpayers huge sums in some areas, while costing more in others. In my book "Divided: The Perils of Our Growing Inequality," and in Newsweek and Reuters, I have shown from official data that a smart single-payer system would save so much money it would be the equivalent of eliminating the income tax for 99% of Americans.
Universal health care paid with taxes is an idea akin to Social Security, which now pays benefits to about 60 million people. It is the best-funded government program - with a huge surplus and a dedicated revenue stream - yet many people wrongly believe it is going broke.
More than 80% of Americans support raising taxes if necessary to permanently maintain Social Security, with strong majority support among Republicans, according to surveys by the National Academy of Social Insurance, Social Security Works and others.
This is essentially Sanders' stance. What's so radical about that?
Sanders also wants to invest in the future of America by making public universities free again. The money would come from a tax on Wall Street speculators who buy and resell stocks in less than a second.
The Sanders campaign notes that "last year, Germany eliminated tuition because they believed that charging students $1,300 per year was discouraging Germans from going to college" and that the Nordic countries and many others provide college free because it spurs economic growth.
That also makes intuitive sense. A host of American scientists, artists, intellectuals and others, including me, owe their success in large part to having come of age when a public college education cost little to nothing. Today it costs more than $6,400 in tuition and fees to attend City University of New York and almost $12,000 at State University of New York campuses. If I were 18 today and in the same circumstances as 1967, I simply would not have a college education. Because I do, the increased income generated taxes far in excess of the expense that older taxpayers bore so I could attend college.
At the same time, Sanders would ease the burden of student debt, which yokes young strivers to the treadmill of paying what they've owed until their hair grays. Paying off high-interest loans means they cannot spend money on buying homes, furnishing them and otherwise spending in ways that creates jobs.
He would cut the interest rate on existing student debt to 2.37%, roughly the rate of inflation and just above the federal government's average interest rate on the national debt. That means the principle would be repaid with no loss of value and also without a profit.
It's on tax policy that his ideas are most fiercely resisted by defenders of the economic status quo. But again, Americans are broadly behind him. Two-thirds of Americans think the wealthy pay too little in federal taxes.
Sanders would make the best-off pay higher income tax rates and close loopholes that let executives, movie stars and hedge fund managers earn now, but pay taxes by-and-by. Clinton has plans along these lines too, but they are more cautious.
But the point is, both their plans are in the mainstream; it's those who resist any tax hikes who are outside it.
Lowering the top marginal tax rates from 91% under Presidents Dwight Eisenhower and John Kennedy to about half that today has had two corrosive effects. One has been to encourage business owners to withdraw capital from their businesses to buy multiple mansions, yachts and private jets. When capital is withdrawn, it means, overall, fewer jobs.
The other has been to allow or encourage so much income and wealth to pile up at the top, and grow like a snowball rolling downhill thanks to low tax rates, that the top tenth of one percent have more money than they can possibly spend in a lifetime, while the 90% struggle to get by.
This gets us to the core of Sanders' appeal - and why all the histrionic labels in the world have not diminished it. Sanders is essentially saying the system stole your lunch, and he will get it back.
The average income reported on tax returns by the bottom 90% of Americans in 2014 was virtually the same as it was in 1967, once inflation is taken into account. The $30,068 average was up just $328, or 1%, more after nearly 50 years.
Count that $328 as one inch. By that standard the richest 16,000 households have seen their income soar more than a mile.
Almost as bad, the median wage - half make more, half less - in 2014 was only a dollar a working day more than it was back in 1999. Because the median wage has been stuck at less than $550 a week for so many years, large numbers of workers are worse off now than they were in the last century.
Virtually no one, except Donald Trump, says that American wages are too high, showing another area where most people are with Sanders whether they realize it or not.
Nearly two-thirds of Americans say wealth and income distribution are unfair. More than half believe that government should redistribute wealth "by heavy taxes on the rich." Yes, it's true that all the candidates talk about this problem. But only Sanders puts it in practically every sentence.
At the same time, only he is committed to breaking up the too-big-to-fail banks and restoring Glass-Steagall, the Depression-era law that required banks where you deposit your paycheck not to also engage in the risky businesses of marketing stocks and bonds or insurance. The Wall Street crowd has shown its colors by gifting Clinton with big speaking fees and donations to her campaign.
Meantime, Sanders would restore the ability of workers to form unions and bargain jointly. The decline in average American incomes tracks almost perfectly with the decline of unions, which enabled corporations to subtly reduce wages over the years.
And contrary to what anti-union forces may tell you, most of our major economic competitors are heavily unionized. Japan has unions because Gen. Douglas MacArthur required them in the Constitution we imposed after World War II.
Yes, it's true that India, China and similar countries have far lower wages and fewer job protections. But there's no way to compete with them without disastrously racing to the bottom. Sanders favors trade rules that protect Americans workers and make it harder for companies to outsource work to China and other low-wage countries.
In none of these areas is Sanders anti-capitalist. Rather, he is arguing for actual competitive markets, not the ones corporate America has rigged over the last 35 years through laws and regulations so complicated they rarely make the news, even as they remake the economy.
Sanders' biggest obstacle to the White House, then, is the lack of public understanding of what "democratic socialist" means. You can be sure that the big-money forces he attacks will do their best to sow confusion over that term, especially by only using the word "socialist."
If Sanders wins the Democratic Party nomination, we can expect all sorts of television commercials wrongly describing him, as Trump has done, as a communist.
It's unlikely we will ever get to test that proposition; Hillary Clinton remains the heavy favorite in the primary, for a host of reasons. But what we do know for sure is that our current elected federal leaders are not pursuing the economic policies that most Americans, including most Republicans, favor.
And those are the policies of the Sanders campaign.
[David Cay Johnston is a Pulitzer Prize-winning investigative reporter on tax and economic issues who teaches at Syracuse University College of Law.]