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Bernie’s Broad Vision: Democracy is Revolutionary

Bernie Sanders has repeatedly called for a “political revolution.” This essay explains its dynamics and scope as well as the reasons why it is necessary.

Democracy is Revolutionary

When asked by Michael Moore during the filming of Sicko why the U.K., whose National Health Service has delivered quality healthcare to all of its citizens free-of-charge since 1948, has not turned to a profit-driven private insurance system, former British MP Tony Benn’s short answer was democracy.  “The people wouldn’t stand for it.” 

This led to a fascinating colloquy:

Tony Benn:  I think democracy is the most revolutionary thing in the world, more powerful than socialist ideas or anybody else’s ideas, because if you have power, you use it to meet the needs of you and your community.  And this idea of choice, which capital talks about all the time: you’ve got to have a choice. Choice always depends on the freedom to choose.  And if you’re shackled with debt, you don’t have the freedom to choose.

Michael Moore:  It seems it benefits the system to have people shackled in debt.

Tony Benn: You see, people in debt become hopeless and hopeless people don’t vote. They always say everyone should vote, but I think that if the poor in the United States and Britain turned out and voted for people who represented their interests, it would be a real democratic revolution.  And so, they don’t want it to happen… .

I think there are two ways in which people are controlled.  First of all, frighten people, and secondly, demoralize them. An educated, confident and healthy nation is harder to govern.  And I think there is an element in the thinking of some people, we don’t want people to be healthy, educated and confident because they will get out of control.

The top one percent of the world’s population owns 80% of the world’s wealth.  It’s incredible that the people put up with it.  But, they’re poor, they’re demoralized, they’re frightened, and therefore they think perhaps the safest thing to do is to take orders and hope for the best.

In an oligarchy, the wealthy strive to assure that the people fear their government.  In a democracy, it is the elected “representatives” who must fear the wrath of an informed electorate.

Hillary v Bernie: Status Quo vs. Revolutionary Transformation

If there had been any remaining doubts, they were eliminated during the January 17 Democratic presidential debate.

Hillary Clinton seeks to perpetuate the status quo, offering only “slivers” of “incremental” progressive change, which she contends can only be achieved on those very rare instances where an accord is reached with a sufficient number of Congressional Republicans.

By contrast, Bernie Sanders calls for a fundamental “transformation” of what former President Jimmy Carter described as an “oligarchy with unlimited political bribery” into a vibrant democracy. Bernie acknowledges that neither he nor any other president can, by themselves, accomplish that radical transformation.  Instead, as he reiterated during the debate, it will require a “political revolution” that would bring “millions of young people and working people into the political process.”

Mired in the status quo, Hillary’s vision is myopic.  She cannot see beyond the current gridlocked, GOP-controlled Congress that is made up mostly of millionaires, who are beholden to their major corporate and billionaire donors.

Bernie has a much broader vision.  He foresees the awesome power of an aroused and enlightened electorate, one that could not only place him in the White House but send shivers down the spine of every bought-and-paid-for politician who serves the oligarchy.  Bernie may not be able to transform Congress into a progressive and democratic institution in just one election, but with millions of informed and aroused Americans at his back, he will be positioned to deliver to the devotees of inequality an offer they can’t refuse.  Those who stand in the way risk being driven from office by an enraged electorate at the next mid-term election.

Why Revolution?

There can be little doubt but that the Obama administration averted an economic catastrophe in the form of a total collapse of the world’s financial system.  And certainly, when measured against a variety of statistics, matters have improved significantly, though that really doesn’t say all that much given the wreckage left behind by the previous administration.

During George W. Bush’s last year in office American jobs were “hemorrhaging…at a record pace.” Between September 2008 and January 2009, 1.9 million American jobs simply vanished.  By contrast, between mid-2009 (the end of the Great Recession) and November 2015, our nation added “more than 12.8 million private sector jobs.  State and local governments, however, experienced a 567,000 public sector job loss.

But these raw job numbers tell you nothing about how many Americans have been relegated to what Bernie Sanders describes as a “starvation” minimum wage of $7.25/hour.  They do not address the dangerous acceleration of wealth inequality that we’ve witnessed during the Obama years.

The context of the word “dangerous” can be found in historian Kevin Phillips’s scholarly work, Wealth and Democracy.  Quoting the renowned political scientist, Samuel Huntington, Phillips observed:

“Money becomes evil not when it is used to buy goods but when it is used to buy power…Economic inequalities become evil when they are translated into political inequalities.”  Political inequality, in turn, leads to more dangerous economic inequality.

Consider the case of Charles and David Koch, whose Orwellian concept of “liberty” is a 21st century feudalism consisting of corporate masters and pliant worker serfs.  Between 1967, when the Koch brothers inherited what became Koch Industries, and Obama’s 2009 inaugural, Charles and David had amassed a combined personal net worth of $32 billion ($16 billion each).  But during the first seven years of the Obama administration, the two men added more money ($50 billion) to their combined personal fortunes than they had amassed during the preceding 42 years.  By 2015 their combined net worth was $82 billion ($41 billion each).

The Koch brothers wasted no time in seeking to use a portion of their enhanced wealth to consolidate oligarchic control of our political system.  The $407 million they spent on the 2012 election and the “staggering $889 million” they intend to spend during the 2016 election represent the very “evil” that Huntington and Phillips warned us about.  And, according to Nobel laureate Joseph Stiglitz, in the end, extreme concentration of wealth and power in private hands damages the economy as well as democracy.

The acceleration of income inequality is by no means limited to the Koch brothers.  Since July 2009 “95% of all new income has gone to the top one percent.”  And a newly released report reveals that the world’s 62 richest people own as much wealth as the combined wealth of the 3.6 billion people who make up the poorer half of every human being now living on the planet.

Structural inequality has been decades in the making.  As observed by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), in “1994 the top six banks held assets equal to 17% of the GDP.  By 2010 their combined assets were equal to 63% of the GDP.”  To this, Bernie adds that the big six “control 95% of all derivatives and hold more than 40% of all bank deposits in the United States.”  They’ve been treated as “too big to fail” and “too big to jail.” As Bernie would have it, they’re too big to exist.

The post-Great Recession “reforms” did not adequately alter unregulated and fraudulent Wall Street excesses.  We remain at at risk of a second global financial meltdown,

In short, Hillary’s “incremental slivers” of change is woefully inadequate and likely to lead both to a consolidation of oligarchic power and economic catastrophe.  The only rational course is a massive uprising, a political revolution in which we the people demand meaningful change.

Think Big

Both the scope and rationale behind the Bernie Sanders-led political revolution can be found in our own Declaration of Independence:

We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, –That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it. (Emphasis added).

During his landmark Georgetown University address, Bernie did much more than explain the meaning of “democratic socialism.”  Quoting both Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and President Franklin D. Roosevelt, Bernie openly recognized that there can be no “liberty” without “economic security” — the very thing that has been denied to millions of Americans by an increasingly oppressive oligarchy. Our political revolution is the answer to a system that denies liberty to so many.

The dimensions of our political revolution are not confined to electing Bernie Sanders to serve as the next President of these United States.  Bernie is but the lightening rod of our revolution.  We are the lighting.  We must strike at the oligarchy and at its bought-and-paid-for “representatives” at every level — local, state and federal.  We veterans, in particular, must make it clear that we did not place our lives on the line elsewhere only to sit by idly and watch a handful of domestic billionaires destroy our constitutional form of representative democracy, our liberty and our economy.


Ernest A. Canning is a retired attorney, author, Vietnam Veteran (4th Infantry, Central Highlands 1968) and a Senior Advisor to Veterans For Bernie.  He has been a member of the California state bar since 1977.  In addition to a juris doctor, he has received both undergraduate and graduate degrees in political science.  Follow him on twitter: @cann4ing