David McWil­liams

Present at the birth of Bernie Sanders’s new po­lit­i­cal move­ment

The Irish Times - Weekend Review - - NEWS REVIEW -

Burling­ton, Ver­mont is cold. Huge mounds of re­cently cleared snow at­test to the com­ing of win­ter, which in this part of the world, just be­low the Cana­dian bor­der and far from the warm­ing in­flu­ence of the oceans, is long, dark and freez­ing.

The shops of Church Street are do­ing a brisk busi­ness in quilted jack­ets, boots and woolly hats. With its open log fires, law-abid­ing cit­i­zens and re­us­able cof­fee mugs, there’s a touch of a lit­tle Den­mark in North Amer­ica about this place. That is un­til you see the row upon row of F-16 fighter jets in the air­port ter­mi­nal.

This is def­i­nitely Amer­ica; but it’s not the Amer­ica we have come to ex­pect in the era of Trump. Ver­mont is a tol­er­ant, wealthy, al­most Trudeauesque cor­ner of the US. It was the first state to abol­ish slav­ery, is home to the hippy ice cream moguls Ben and Jerry, and has re­turned Bernie Sanders to the Se­nate for the past two decades.

Last year, Sanders came to the Dalkey Book Fes­ti­val (of which I am co-cu­ra­tor) and lit up a ca­pac­ity au­di­ence at the Bord Gáis En­ergy Theatre with his lively rhetoric, bound­less en­ergy and re­lent­less op­ti­mism.

This week I am in Ver­mont to chair a dis­cus­sion with him at what could be some­thing of a dry run for his po­ten­tial bid for the 2020 US pres­i­den­tial elec­tion. The Sanders In­sti­tute has or­gan­ised a two-day think-in of lib­eral Democrats from across the US with a few for­eign in­ter­lop­ers thrown in, to tease out the is­sues upon which a pro­gres­sive pres­i­den­tial can­di­date might run.

An ar­ray of po­lit­i­cal thinkers, ac­tivists and house­hold names have gath­ered to cre­ate not just a po­lit­i­cal party but some­thing more akin to a move­ment that aims to re­po­si­tion the Democrats away from the Clin­ton axis of Wall Street, Hol­ly­wood and Sil­i­con Val­ley and in favour of the work­ing, blue-col­lar Amer­i­cans that built the Demo­cratic Party in the first place.

Sanders wants to speak to the peo­ple who voted for Trump – the De­plorables – as well as those who voted for Hil­lary Clin­ton, win­ning her the pop­u­lar vote.

Sanders’s peo­ple are as much the dis­en­fran­chised white swing vot­ers who vouched for Trump, as the tra­di­tional so­cial lib­er­als who backed him in Ver­mont from the start.

There is no point where a politi­cian can de­clare vic­tory, be­cause there is no ref­eree who will blow a whis­tle and say that the game is over

He is try­ing to cre­ate a broad coali­tion against Trump. En­deav­our­ing to do this from the left is much trick­ier than build­ing from the right; the left’s abil­ity to foster schisms, dis­sent and di­vorce is leg­endary. While move­ments on the right start out look­ing for con­verts, move­ments on the left start out look­ing for traitors.

If he wants to suc­ceed, Sanders has to forge an al­liance among his own side be­fore look­ing to per­suade oth­ers.

In this re­gard, it was in­ter­est­ing to lis­ten to the author Si­mon Sinek, whose Ted Talk is the third most watched. Sinek spoke about how to cre­ate an on­go­ing po­lit­i­cal move­ment rather than an or­gan­i­sa­tion fo­cused on one event – let’s say a ref­er­en­dum or a gen­eral elec­tion.

He touched on is­sues I re­ferred to in this col­umn last week sur­round­ing the con­stant com­mer­cial churn in the econ­omy, which economists call “cre­ative de­struc­tion”, whereby com­pa­nies are con­stantly out­smart­ing each other, in­tro­duc­ing new in­no­va­tions and jostling for po­si­tion. Sinek refers to the re­lent­less churn of busi­ness and the econ­omy as the “in­fi­nite game”, where there is no end.

The end­less game of pol­i­tics is sim­i­lar. There is no point where a politi­cian can de­clare vic­tory, be­cause there is no ref­eree who will blow a whis­tle and say that the game is over. Even if you win an elec­tion, you are on to the next cam­paign. This is why build­ing a move­ment of shared val­ues, on top of an elec­tion cru­sade of spe­cific ob­jec­tives, is crit­i­cal to chang­ing the po­lit­i­cal cul­ture of a coun­try.

The dif­fer­ence be­tween the in­fi­nite game and the fi­nite game is enor­mous. The fi­nite game is one where you have rules, time frames and spe­cific at­tain­able goals. This pro­duces win­ners and de­ploys the lan­guage we hear used all the time in busi­ness, eco­nom­ics and pol­i­tics.

Such a score card is great for soc­cer, but does it hold for so­ci­ety? Are there al­ways clear win­ners? Is there a tar­get that once achieved, we can de­clare the game is over and we all go home? Not re­ally.

The ex­am­ple of the Viet­nam war was in­voked to ex­plain the dif­fer­ence be­tween the in­fi­nite and the fi­nite mind­set. In 1968, the North Viet­namese launched the Tet Of­fen­sive, a mass sur­prise upris­ing against the Amer­i­cans in more than 200 lo­ca­tions, or­gan­ised for Tet, the Viet­namese new year, tra­di­tion­ally a day of peace.

The North Viet­namese be­lieved this would swing the stale­mate but it didn’t. The Amer­i­cans fought vig­or­ously, push­ing the Viet Cong back, ex­haust­ing their en­emy. Yet de­spite win­ning on the field, even­tu­ally the Amer­i­cans lost the war.

The rea­son may have been that the Amer­i­cans had a fi­nite mind­set, which had goals like de­feat­ing com­mu­nism in Viet­nam, in­stalling a new gov­ern­ment, spend­ing as much money as was avail­able and get­ting out. The Viet­namese in con­trast had an in­fi­nite mind­set which was to fight for their lives; there was no par­tial vic­tory for them, no pullout, no end.

All there was for the Viet­namese was the in­fi­nite game, one that had no ref­eree blow­ing time. They sim­ply had a just cause – the most pow­er­ful mo­tive of all.

Build­ing a move­ment is sim­i­lar. It goes on and on, but to suc­ceed it must have a cause.

Watch­ing Sanders ca­jol­ing his troops, emot­ing his fol­low­ers and lead­ing them again, it is clear that what un­der­lies his move­ment and gives him en­ergy is the cause. The ob­jec­tive is to give more peo­ple ac­cess to some of the enor­mous wealth of this ex­tra­or­di­nary coun­try.

The way he was talk­ing, you’d be mad to rule out an­other pres­i­den­tial bid in 2020. The United States will be far the richer if he does throw his hat in the ring again.

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