Bernie Sanders and the revolution of rising expectations

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Senator Bernie Sanders on Comedy Central's "The Nightly Show With Larry Wilmore" on January 5, 2016 in New York City.

Just as I predicted, absolutely nothing happened during my planned 11-day sabbatical from the blog. Unless you insist on counting the American prisoners who were freed by Iran. Or President Obama's State of the Union address. Or another Republican Party debate with a lot of fireworks. Or a deplorable, bona fide act of terrorism right here on the streets of Philadelphia. Or the hiring of a new Eagles coach.

OK, I guess a lot happened. And one other thing happened: The long, slow march of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders as a White House contender to be taken seriously. As Sanders, Hillary Clinton and someone apparently named Martin O'Malley prepared to square Sunday night in Charleston, S.C., for the last of the Democratic Party's notorious "secret debates" ("Watch 'em if you can find 'em!"), polls show Sanders has pulled to roughly neck-and-neck with the presumed frontrunner Clinton in Iowa, holds a considerable lead in New Hampshire, and it starting to gain in some of the remaining states.

Surprising? Yes and no. As someone who spent last fall reporting an e-book "The Bern Identity" on the rise of Sanders, I knew that enthusiasm for a Hillary Clinton presidency hasn't just waned over the last eight years -- among the folks I tend to know, any lingering excitement about her presidency seems to have evaporated. At the same time, I'm aware there have been huge blocs of voters -- older women, especially African-American, for example -- who seems to be nearly 100 percent Ready for Hillary. And maybe they're still there -- Hillary does still lead in the national polls. after all -- but the enthusiasm for Bernie among under-35 voters (including and perhaps especially blacks and Latinos) is a tsunami that could swamp everything else.

The core of Sanders' supporters have made it clear that what they want in 2016 isn't just "change" -- but a radical transformation. His voters wants a new system -- where billionaires can't buy elections, where big banks aren't "too big to fail," and where a living wage and universal-health-care-for-all are fundamental human rights. They want change because they believe America is rigged for the wealthy.

It's a withering critique of American life that resonates -- for me and for millions of other voters. Still, on Tuesday night, I found myself at home watching President Obama's annual State of the Union address, and I was struck by a huge contradiction. To be excited by Bernie Sanders and his call for a "political revolution"...doesn't that make Obama the hapless king to be overthrown by the masses...America's failure-in-chief?

But, to paraphrase Delco's Jim Croce, that's not the way it feels. On the foreign affairs front, I found myself applauding his honest characterization of ISIS as murderers in pick-up trucks, not an existential threat to the United States. On the domestic front, it's impossible not to argue that at least by most traditional metrics the economy hasn't just stabilized but improved since Obama inherited a catastrophe in early 2009. There's certainly been much to criticize, too, but in the reality-based world it's hard to imagine who would have done a better job running things these last seven years.

So why not seek Obama II -- instead of revolutionary change? I believe the answer can be found in a political theory -- "the revolution of rising expectations." To look at a classic example, why didn't African-Americans rise up in the inner cities in the depths of the Jim Crow era but rather wait until the mid-1960s, when incomes were rising and a sympathetic president (LBJ) was in the White House? The answer, according to some academics, is that people don't rise up at the low point; they rise up when things are starting to get better -- but not fast enough for their own liking.

Look at Obama's seven years in office through this prism. While some government policies -- most notably the 2009-10 economic stimulus program -- helped turn the tide in the job market, no force seemed powerful enough to convince corporate CEOs to share more of their record profits with their laborforce, instead of awarding themselves and their cronies massive pay raises. On the record sums of money being dumped into politics (typically from these self-enriching CEOs), Obama ultimately decided that he couldn't beat the system for now, so he joined it. That's simply not good enough. On pressing issues like climate change or gun sanity, the president has done what he can through executive orders -- but these actions are not nearly enough to overcome a reactionary system.

Indeed, the first revolt over the shortcoming of the Obama presidency -- the 2011 Occupy Wall Street movement -- was the result of dashed expectations, as one-time enthusiastic supporters found themselves dismayed at a one-sided budget compromise with congressional right-wingers that summer. The Sanders campaign arises from this general sentiment -- that Obama has been a good, and quite possibly a very good, president, but that America in 2016 needs much, much more than one successful leader.

For the current mood, you couldn't invent a better candidate than Sanders -- the uncompromising bent of his 50-plus years as an activist and as a politician, and the "authenticity" that comes from saying the same things in 1973 that he is saying in 2016. And. conversely, you probably couldn't design a worse candidate than Clinton, with her long track-record of compromising and the ease with which she raises money (and gets paid for speeches) from the wealthy.

None of this answers the question of what happens if Sanders wins the Democratic nomination (he's still the underdog, but it's thinkable), wins the White House (polls show him beating the GOP contenders, and outperforming Clinton) -- and faces the most hostile Congress that a president has ever faced. Sanders himself has said that real change won't happen until everyday people flood the zone of American politics -- badgering Congress and maybe the Supreme Court to do the right thing in a neverending surge. He's probably right -- but such a mass movement is also unprecedented, at least in this country. The revolution won't just need rising expectations -- but a heck of a lot of endurance.

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