Sanders, Clinton, Nevada, and the wages of political despair

History is full of lessons about what happens when people realize the game is rigged against them.

1968 Democratic National Convention, Chicago

Brian has an interesting take on the recent Nevada Democratic caucus dustup, and if you didn’t read it yet you should. Also note the comment section, where the discussion zooms in on the question of whether Sanders responded appropriately to the “violence” from his supporters. (I use quote marks because there is no evidence that violence actually happened.)

I’m intrigued by the discussion because of a debate that’s been raging in my own head for years. In short, is productive change in America possible absent a violent uprising?

The alleged strength of our system is that it affords those with grievances a variety of channels by which they can seek justice and reform. We have peaceful transfers of power, elected representation, checks and balances, you name it. We’re the Greatest Nation on Earth®. If you have a problem with the system, work to elect Congressional reps and a president who share your views and who will work toward change within the structures of the system. Better yet, run for office yourself.

Except – and I hope this doesn’t need a lot of explaining – we all know that this isn’t how America works. Not anymore, anyway, assuming it ever did. Power responds to money, and if the common people find their interests at odds with those of wealthy individuals and corporations, they almost always find the votes swinging against them. Most places in the world this process is called “bribery.” Here it’s called “lobbying.” And the media serves the establishment’s interests because that’s where the profit is.

Let’s see if we can agree on a few posits:

  • Pursuit of power is a given dynamic in any society.
  • Money and power are manifestations of the same dynamic.
  • Wealth and power have a tendency to corrupt.
  • Those who have power seek to retain it.
  • Often, their efforts to retain power lead them to unethical behavior.

If this sounds about right, then we begin to understand why Bernie Sanders and his supporters are suspicious of the potential for meaningful change within the current system. They’re fighting as hard as they can to play by the rules, but the game is clearly rigged against them. If you need evidence, pretty much anything that has been said or done by DNC chief Debbie Wasserman Schultz in the past year should be all the evidence you need.

In the end, how can you effect meaningful change playing by the rules when rule #1 is “the status quo shall be preserved by any means necessary”?

History provides us with many examples of meaningful change effected by one aggrieved segment of the public or another. Most of the ones I’m familiar with have something significant in common, starting with the big one:

End of the road for Nicolai Ceaucescu

End of the road for Nicolai Ceaucescu

  • George Washington, Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, Ben Franklin, and the rest of our sanctified founding fathers did not achieve change by working within the system.
  • The Iron Curtain did not fall because Boris Yeltsin worked within the system.
  • Democracy did not come to France in the late 18th century because reformers worked within the system.
  • The Ceaucescu regime was not set aside because his Romanian opponents worked within the system.
  • While we do not have especially fond feelings toward the ayatollahs, they did not depose the corrupt government of the Shah by working within the system.

See where I’m going with this? I could go on (and on, and on), but hopefully you get the idea. When faced with a situation they cannot tolerate, the public will often attempt to work within the rules to improve their condition. When they are unsuccessful – especially when they fail because the deck is stacked against them and there is no possibility of “lawful” reform – they have two choices: accept it, or revolt against the system.

Peaceful reforms are not unheard of – think Gandhi and MLK (although you might look at our current political economy and fairly ask if King won, after all) – but they are the exception, not the rule.

The Republicans are dealing with their own version of this problem, and no matter where you turn it’s hard not to feel that we’re on the cusp of something. Perhaps something wonderful. Perhaps something explosive and bloody.

It would do Hillary Clinton, Debbie Wasserman Schultz and the rest of the Democratic Party’s entrenched apparatchiks good to ponder the implications of driving a large segment of the population to despair over the hopelessness of playing by the rules.

There has been a lot of talk about possible unrest in streets of Cleveland this summer, but there’s going to be a get-together in Philly, too.

I hate to invoke Chicago 1968, but perhaps someone needs to. As I recall, a malevolently corrupt Republican came to power in the wake of that ugly scene. That’s not a moment in history anyone wants to repeat, right?

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