Krystal Ball: Is this how Bernie Sanders will break the establishment?

Opinion by: Krystal Ball

Well, Bernie SandersBernie SandersBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet Angst grips America's most liberal city Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire MORE just gave a lengthy and fascinating interview to Michael Barbaro over at the New York Times podcast the daily, written up for print by Alex Burns. They decided to focus in on Bernie's stunning 10 vote victory to become Mayor of Burlington Vermont in 1981. Up to that point he had run a series of protest campaigns, always garnering just a few points, but he caught the entitled incumbent sleeping, built an unprecedented coalition of working-class people, and eked out a stunning victory.

A socialist Mayor coming to power at the height of the Cold War.

The story of the campaign itself is interesting. Burlington was essentially a one-party town. The Democrats had such a lock on city hall and there was so little difference between them and the GOP that the Republicans weren't even fielding a candidate. But Sanders noticed that in his previous quixotic statewide races, he had actually vastly over-performed in the working-class neighborhoods of Burlington. An early indication that fed-up working-class citizens were desperate for a non-mainstream alternative. So he decided to run, figuring out electoral politics on the fly, stunning the political establishment and really the entire nation.

What really fascinated me though was what happened after he was elected. There he was after this stunning upset, as Mayor of Burlington. And all of the powers that be, whether Republican or Democrat decided in Sanders words that he was a fluke. That since they still had control of the board of aldermen, basically their city council, they could just obstruct him completely, keep him from accomplishing absolutely anything and then everything could get back to normal.

In words frequently applied these days to Donald TrumpDonald TrumpTrump PACs brought in over M for the first half of 2021 Chicago owes Trump M tax refund, state's attorney mounts legal challenge Biden hits resistance from unions on vaccine requirement MORE he was an aberration. So, the board of aldermen blocked all of his key appointments. They even blocked his secretary! He was forced to try to run the city with all of his predecessor's obstructionist people. In the interview, Sanders compares this situation to trump having to run the government with all of Obama's cabinet members which of course, is more or less what Trump thinks has happened to him. But while Trump has collapsed into an endless stream of conspiracy-mongering and twitter grievances, Sanders figured out how to get around the obstruction and govern the city according to his values.

So, what did he do? Sanders got together some of his top supporters and formed a shadow government to help craft and execute on ideas. He also relied directly on the people of the city, delegating power to neighborhood councils. Each borough was given its own budget that it could allocate independently to suit the needs of the community.

One year in, seven of the 13 aldermen were up for reelection in what Sanders describes as essentially a referendum on his administration. This was truly a do or die moment for him. Would his political revolution be upheld or rejected in Burlington? Sanders fields his own slate of five candidates. He tells the New York Times that he works harder than he's ever worked in his life knocking on almost literally every door of the city with the candidates by his side. When all the votes are counted, three of Sanders candidates have won outright and two forced the incumbents into runoffs. The remaining Democrats were actually forced to team up with the Republicans to keep control of the board, the Burlington equivalent of Chuck SchumerChuck SchumerSenate infrastructure talks spill over into rare Sunday session Senate holds sleepy Saturday session as negotiators finalize infrastructure deal An August ultimatum: No recess until redistricting reform is done MORE voting for Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellBiden's bipartisan deal faces Senate gauntlet The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - Biden sets new vaccine mandate as COVID-19 cases surge Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire MORE for majority leader!

But perhaps most significantly, in one year's time, Sanders doubled voter turnout, dramatically increasing the level of popular participation and bringing the citizens back into engagement with their city government. Sanders could no longer be written off as a fluke but rather a force in his own right with a base of power independent from any political party. He then went on to win reelection three times including once against a candidate who was backed by both major parties. Because the one thing that brings establishment democrats and republicans together is their commitment to defeating anyone with their own working-class base of support.

He told the New York Times: "What that tells me is that if the government does respond to the needs of working people, they will come out and participate." A simple statement but one at such odds with the suppression, manipulation, caricature, and derision that working people are typically subjected to.

To me, this interview was so revealing because you can see all of the parallels with his political philosophy and theory of change today. He has faith in this idea of a political revolution because he's done it and seen it. Remember this moment recently when John Harwood asked how he would handle someone like Joe ManchinJoe ManchinSunday shows preview: Delta concerns prompt CDC mask update; bipartisan infrastructure bill to face challenges in Senate Democrats warn shrinking Biden's spending plan could backfire Top Democrat: 'A lot of spin' coming from White House on infrastructure MORE opposing Medicare for all?

Take a listen.

John Harwood: "Is Joe Manchin going to vote for your program, is Jon TesterJonathan (Jon) TesterSenate infrastructure talks spill over into rare Sunday session Senate holds sleepy Saturday session as negotiators finalize infrastructure deal Democrats say they have the votes to advance .5T budget measure MORE going to vote for your program?"

Bernie Sanders: "Damn right they will. You know why? And they're friends of mine. We're going to go to West Virginia which is maybe the poorest state -- one of the poorest states in this country -- look what happens right now is your average politician sits around and he or she thinks, 'If I do this, I'm going to have the big money interest putting 30 second ads against me, so I better not do it. But now they're going to have to think, if I don't support an agenda that works for working people, I'm going to have President Sanders come into my state and rally working-class people. You know what, at the end of the day, the one percent is very powerful. No denying that. The 99 percent when they're organized and prepared to stand up and fight, they are far more powerful."

Just as he did in Burlington, Sanders is putting his faith not in some mythical negotiating power as Trump did, or in some fantasy of coming to the table in good faith negotiations with Mitch McConnell as Biden and Obama and Buttigieg do, or even in his ability to jiujitsu the levers of government through superior bureaucratic knowledge as Warren does. He believes, just as he did in Burlington, that the only way to break the back of Congressional gridlock and inertia and neoliberal entrenchment is by putting your faith in the people. In serving as organizer in chief.

Obviously the federal government is a different deal than Burlington Vermont. Way more corrupt lawmakers, lobbyists, and donors sucking at the government teat. An entire national media arrayed against you just looking for damaging leaks and to spin stories to destroy you in every way possible. But you've also got a lot more citizens available to have your back and new modes of communicating to circumvent the elite media, something Sanders has very deliberately cultivated.

And here's the other thing he's counting on, just as he doubled voter participation in Burlington, breaking the back of the establishment lock on city politics, if McConnell and Manchin and Pelosi et al stand in his way and block passage of popular legislation to benefit the working-class citizens, he is counting on a reckoning, a massive show of electoral force that would bring a tidal wave of new voters into the system, creating a new accountability for those who would stand in their way. That's what political revolution looked like in Burlington and that's what he believes it will look like in D.C.