Viewpoint: Talkin ‘Bout a Revolution, Part I

Coffee and Politics

As I was sitting across the table from my university friend, nearly 10 years later, I couldn’t help noticing the salt and pepper that started sprinkling his hair. We had been roommates for two years while going to school in Los Angeles. Shortly after graduation, he left for graduate studies on the East Coast, while I eventually moved to Alberta to start a career in the energy and environmental field. Other than a couple brief dinners on my trips out East, we had kept in touch sparingly over the past decade.

Earlier this summer, my friend came to Calgary to visit his new wife’s family. Eager to reconnect, we set aside an afternoon to catch up over coffee, in between his in-law duties. After a few introductory minutes getting up to speed on our work lives and relationships, our conversation quickly turned to politics, as it had so often with our fellow roommates when we were in university.

Dean

The last liberal Vermonter to run for President: Howard Dean.

Back then, I remember often being the initiator of those conversations, and the “true believer” who often tried to convince others of my convictions. I came to university with a strong liberal political worldview, and in my first year, I volunteered for the Howard Dean campaign in the 2004 Democratic primaries (yes, that campaign that reached its apex with the candidate’s infamous “Yeeeaaah!” screech). I remember debates with my other politically-involved, left-of-centre friends who were supporting more moderate Democratic candidates, such as former General Wesley Clark and ultimate nominee John Kerry, out of their belief that they would be better positioned to unseat George W. Bush. Despite my best attempts, I could never quite convince them that Dean was the only candidate who had the conviction to bring the changes needed on issues I thought were important, including healthcare and campaign finance laws.

That’s why it felt like the tables had turned 10 years later, as I was listening to my former roommate talk about his enthusiasm for Bernie Sanders, and his deep antipathy not just for Donald Trump, but also Hillary Clinton. This professional engineer was spending much of his free time with the Sanders campaign, calling random voters in states like Missouri to “defeat the system” by voting for Bernie. While it was clear that Hillary would be the party’s nominee by the time we met, he still lamented Clinton’s ties to Wall Street banks and insider status, and his frustration that nothing in the system would change if she was elected.

Initially, I was surprised by my friend’s evolution from a moderate, academic-prone worldview to the “true believer” activist supporting the Sanders campaign. In many respects, the “feel the Bern” movement is a natural evolution of the Howard Dean campaign 12 years ago: a focus on getting money and the typical power brokers out of politics, fixing inequality through government programs, and generally placing faith in someone portraying himself as an “outsider” (both from Vermont, no less) to shake up the Democratic Party and politics-as-usual.

Political Polarization in America

Yet in this election year, the Sanders campaign failed to reel me in. It’s not for a lack of alignment on most issues; his proposals for a national $15/hour minimum wage and single-payer healthcare sound appealing to me. Rather, I felt a more fundamental discomfort with the language and tone of the campaign – the insistence that “the system” must be torn down and rebuilt from the ground up, and that only an “outsider” candidate (who has nevertheless spent his entire career in politics) could save the system.

More broadly, this campaign and the conversations it has prompted have helped me recognize an evolution in my own worldview over the last decade, from a university student who believed in taking strong moral positions and the urgent need for action on social issues, to a working professional who sees tradeoffs on most issues, and prefers collaboration and cautious, lasting reform over rapid, turbulent transformations.

This evolution shouldn’t be surprising; conventional wisdom holds that most adults moderate their political views after university, as they build up their working and home lives under the current set of rules and institutions that govern our society.

What surprises me is that so many of my friends, particularly in the United States, seem to have shifted the opposite way: Whether it’s on this particular election campaign, or on broader issues such as climate change policy and free trade, I’ve seen friends who enjoyed the back-and-forth of an intellectual debate now acting as advocates, couching their positions on such complex issues in moral absolutes. I’ve heard the morality of a carbon tax compared to that of the anti-slavery movement of the 1800s, and debate on the thousands of pages in the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership free trade agreement reduced to the ethics of whether it will cause a cancer patient’s death due to a lack of affordable medication.

This seems to mirror a broader trend in America. In 2014, the Pew Research Center released an eye-opening study on political polarization in the United States, based on a survey of 10,000 U.S. adults. It found that the views of those who identified as Democrats or Republicans had diverged quite significantly over the last 20 years, with the median Democrat and median Republican views on political values much farther apart in 2014 than in 1994, or even 2004. It’s important to note a subtle counter-argument that this just reflects people becoming more consistent in their views (i.e. less prone to mix liberal and conservative views), rather than the views themselves becoming more radical. But still, the data seems to indicate that Americans are identifying more strongly with an ideologically “pure” worldview, and less receptive to compromise over a shared “middle ground”.

polarization

Data from the Pew Research Center, illustrating how Americans have drifted towards more ideologically pure “poles” over the last 20 years, with less “middle ground” for compromise.

Talkin ‘Bout a Revolution

Bernie TPP

Sanders supporters displaying their opposition to the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a key litmus test of their revolution, at last month’s Democratic National Convention.

Perhaps most notably, I’ve heard one word repeated constantly among friends and commentators in this election cycle: the seemingly broad-based desire for a political “revolution”. It’s a word that Bernie Sanders himself likes to employ; it was mentioned five times in his 40 minute speech at the Democratic National Convention last month, and continues to appear twice in the top banner on his website. And while Sanders’s presidential campaign has come to an end, the appeal of his ideas and rhetoric among a significant subset of the electorate undeniably endure.

From what I can best infer, when Sanders and his supporters (and to a large extent, Trump followers) refer to “revolution”, they are expressing a desire to change a large political, economic, and societal system that continuously rewards the extremely wealthy in our society, giving them ever more access to wealth, political power, and influence over our social institutions, including the mainstream media and post-secondary education. Meanwhile, most other social classes are becoming more and more locked out of these opportunities, driving a fast-growing inequality gap. (For the record, the United States’ GINI index– a rough measure of inequality where 0 represents perfect equality, and 1 represents extreme inequality – has increased from 38.4 in 1991 to 41.1 in 2013 – though there has been no discernible trend since about 1997.)

GINI

One statistical measure of inequality: The United States’ GINI Index, from 1986-2013. Since approximately 1997, the index has fluctuated up and down, without much of a discernible trend. (Source: World Bank)

Personally, I am sympathetic to the desire of changing these systems to promote a more equal, fairer society. But what I find interesting is the use of the word “revolution” as a tool to bring about this change. What does this term imply, and why is it so powerful as a political narrative?

Among Merriam-Webster’s many definitions of “revolution”, likely the most applicable to this context are:

  • “A sudden, radical, or complete change”
  • “A fundamental change in political organization; especially the overthrow or renunciation of one government or ruler and the substitution of another by the governed”
  • “Activity or movement designed to effect fundamental changes in the socioeconomic situation”

In rallying behind the word “revolution”, Sanders and his supporters are likely uniting around a common frustration over the perceived slow (or non-existent) pace of social change, and the belief that change must happen urgently and completely. In the United States especially, it cleverly harkens back to the American Revolution and the founding of the country, a historical event that is generally viewed in positive terms by the vast majority of Americans.

So, You Want to Start a Revolution? Read This First…

I think a discourse centred around “revolution” – as opposed to “reform” or “change” – also implies a few other unique assumptions. Each assumption below is supported by a quote from Bernie Sanders’ June 16 speech to supporters, shortly after Clinton mathematically clinched the Democratic nomination (italics are mine):

  1. A revolution will achieve the complete, lasting change in the system that its partisans advocate for.

[This campaign] is about ending a campaign finance system which is corrupt and allows billionaires to buy elections. It is about ending the grotesque level of wealth and income inequality that we are experiencing where almost all new wealth and income goes to the people on top…it is about creating an economy that works for all of us, not just the 1 percent.”

 

  1. The actors/institutions that support the existing system cannot be part of changing it.

Real change never takes place from the top down, or in the living rooms of wealthy campaign contributors. It always occurs from the bottom on up – when tens of millions of people say ‘enough is enough’ and become engaged in the fight for justice.”

 

  1. A revolution will have a net benefit for all people it seeks to help, and doesn’t involve morally complex tradeoffs.

[Political and social revolutions] continue every day, every week and every month in the fight to create a nation of social and economic justice. That’s what the trade union movement is about. That’s what the civil rights movement is about. That’s what the women’s movement is about. That’s what the gay rights movement is about. That’s what the environmental movement is about.”

 

  1. A revolution is “morally pure” – participants can take comfort that they are on the “right side of history”.

My hope is that when future historians look back and describe how our country moved forward into reversing the drift towards oligarchy, and created a government which represents all the people and not just the few, they will note that, to a significant degree, that effort began with the political revolution of 2016.”

 

Taken together, these attributes represent a powerful, attractive narrative; it gives participants agency and a sense of mission that is often lacking in traditional, “let’s-make-a-deal” politics. Yet, those assumptions are not always supported by history. Even revolutions that are historically considered relatively successful, such as the American and French Revolutions, demonstrated a lot more ambiguity than what is typically claimed by modern-day revolutionaries.

As an example, take the first assumption around a complete and lasting change. Almost a decade after the end of the American Revolution, the newborn republic held tenuously under the Articles of Confederation, nearly leading to the collapse of the United States, until the adoption of the U.S. Constitution in 1789. And twelve years after French revolutionaries established the French Republic, a counterrevolutionary movement led to the installation of Napoleon as Emperor in 1804.

Those revolutions also involved historically questionable morals, challenging assumption four. The American Constitution, for example, explicitly delayed discussion of abolishing slavery for at least 20 years and enshrined the fugitive slave clause, in order to assemble enough support to unite the colonies – further entrenching an unjust system that would lead to civil war less than 100 years later. Meanwhile, the French Revolution culminated in the excesses of the “Reign of Terror”, in which the guillotine was made famous through the execution of over 40,000 people in a schism between the radical Jacobins and more moderate Girondins. And these are just examples of revolutions ultimately perceived as “successful”, not to mention the aborted revolutions that have only served to further strengthen an existing system (see last month’s attempted coup in Turkey as the most recent example).

To Revolt or Not? Questions To Consider…

This isn’t a categorical argument against revolutions, or even against the Sanders campaign. I do accept that there are times when a system seems so entrenched – the feedback loops reinforcing it so powerful – that only a shock can change it. And to be sure, other mainstream politicians, including Hillary Clinton, create their own rosy narratives that often don’t reflect reality.

But precisely because revolutionary language is so absolute, and claims a special kind of moral authority that often treats any form of compromise as capitulation, those employing it should be held to a higher standard when we think through the intended and unintended consequences of their worldview. Almost by definition, the transformation that revolutionaries seek is irreversible, so it’s imperative that we understand this transformation as fully as possible before embarking on it.

In a future post, I’ll take a more specific look at the system transformations that the Sanders campaign has proposed, and what kind of questions we might want to explore in further detail. But for now, I’d like to end with a set of questions for you, the reader:

  • What comes to mind when you hear Bernie Sanders (or Donald Trump) talk about a revolution?
  • What do you find exciting about the prospects of such a revolution? What do you find uncomfortable?
  • Under what conditions would you find a revolution to be justified?

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