Bernie:  Rhetoric vs. reality
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The day following the Iowa caucuses, CNN stated, “Bernie SandersBernard (Bernie) SandersWarren joins Sanders in support of striking McDonald's workers Kavanaugh allegations could be monster storm brewing for midterm elections      Senate approves 4B spending bill MORE’ Improbable Revolution.” Is Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) sparking a political revolution, as the dominant media suggests? Sanders calls for a rejection of Wall St. and for an end to the corrupt corporate effects of globalization.  Sanders’ rhetoric is not unlike the rhetoric of the Zapatistas, an indigenous group on the other side of the NAFTA border, who also called for an anti-establishment political revolution. 

On Jan. 1, 1994, the day of the signing of NAFTA, which Sanders voted against, the Zapatistas presented themselves to the world.  The Zapatistas were, and continue today to represent, the embodiment of an anti-establishment, political revolution—the same categories which Sanders’ invokes in his campaign rhetoric. Today, forty-one years later, this revolutionary, anti-establishment has resulted in six independent land sites, wherein the indigenous peoples form a fully functioning autonomous government body.

Sanders’ rhetoric calls for voters to spark a revolution.  He claims to be a candidate who is anti-establishment:  “We need a political revolution of millions of people in this country who are prepared to stand up and say, 'enough is enough' ... I want to help lead that effort,” and “With your support and the support of millions of people throughout this country, we begin a political revolution to transform our country economically, politically, socially and environmentally.”  Sanders’ discourse effectively taps into the public consciousness pertaining to the Occupy movement, which attacked Wall Street and the one percent.  He wants to be a leader for the people.  The forgotten.  The shrinking middle-class.  The rhetoric is, indeed, persuasive.  But is it revolutionary?

In January of 2006, the Zapatistas embarked on, in response to the Mexican presidential election,  “La Otra Compaña” (the Other Campaign).  The campaign operated outside of the two primary political parties.  The campaign was a call for the rejection of the two-party system, a rejection of corporate interests and corrupt politicians.  Subcomondante Marcos, the spokesperson for the Zapatistas, functioned as anti-establishment, when he stated:  “the goal of the campaign is not to speak or run for office, but to listen to the simple and humble people who struggle.” 

Is Sanders anti-establishment? Unlike Subcomondante Marcos, not running for office as a PRI or PAN candidate, Sanders sits squarely as a part of the mainstream United States political process.  Sanders is a life-long politician, one eschewing the role of an independent in order to embrace and center himself as part of the mainstream Democratic party.  While the Zapatistas called for the masses to reject voting, and create a revolutionary alternative, Sanders wants your vote.  He wants you to continue to participate within the established political system.  In other words, the status quo.

If Sanders were to be elected president, Congress is still there.  Thus, his “revolution” would need to garner enough Democratic seats to overrule a Republican filibuster, or the masses would have to exert so much pressure, from the ground, that the House and Senate would be persuaded to capitulate on issues such as a single-payer healthcare system, taxes, free tuition, etc. Given the ideology of the Republicans and the far right, this does not equate to a mass shift in consciousness, which would be a necessary prerequisite to any revolution.

Whist reflecting on the Zapatistas revolution, in April of 2015, the Zapatistas clarified the distinction:  “Because it’s the same thing among all those who want a political position, regardless of whether they dress up red, or sometimes in blue, or sometimes they put on a new color.  And then they say they are the people and that therefore, the people have to support them.  But they aren’t of the people.  They’re the same bad governments who one day are local representatives, and the next are union leaders, then they are party functionaries . . . bouncing from one position to another, and also from one color to another.”

We are not witnessing a political ant-establishment revolution.  Yes, Sanders has raised a lot of money. Yes, people are “feeling the Bern.”  But they are feeling the “burn” of a traditional established politician, operating within a mainstream political system, with all of the mainstream political constraints for change—not a “burn” of a radical political revolution, which inherently changes the system.   NAFTA will still exist.  Wall St. will still exist. Political revolutions do not stem from $27.13 donations to a mainstream political party candidate.  To witness true revolution, you’d have to visit the Zapatista in Chiapas.

Reich is a former Carnegie fellow and an associate professor in the Communication Studies Department, at Loyola Marymount University.  She teaches classes in rhetoric and social movements.  She has published numerous book chapters and journal articles regarding politics and social change