What's Left of the Left? Bernie Sanders' 'Our Revolution'

by Megan Volpert

11 January 2017

Why now is the weirdly perfect time to "Feel the Bern".
cover art

Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In

Bernie Sanders

(Thomas Dunne)
US: Nov 2016

More of American history should be written by its “losers”.

Let me start by saying I voted for Hillary Clinton, and every time I meet Bernie Sanders supporters, I thank them for primarying my candidate from the left. I’m a progressive who also likes to win national elections. Most people, including Sanders, believed this book he wrote would be launched into a world where Hillary Clinton is president. Our Revolution spends most of its pages on outlining a progressive agenda—an agenda that, in the world of President Trump, may fall on deaf ears and perhaps even laughing mouths. But I was determined to read the book, anyway.

The left lacks intellectual leaders. One reason we ended up with Clinton as the presumptive nominee was that our bench of players was suddenly, surprisingly, none too deep. Democratic ideals have begun to congeal and in the Venn diagram of political ideology, there’s an increasingly ugly overlap in what things Democrats and Republicans equally take for granted. So Sanders swoops in and says there’s another way, a truly uniting way of going forward. Are the ideas of this book still valid, given the runaway trainwreck of Trumpism? I was skeptical of the value of Our Revolution, but I was also desperate for a way to carry on in political life.

The book is in two parts. Part One is about Sanders running for president, and Part Two is about “how we transform our country”. Part One spends 50 pages on how Sanders became politically active. In his usual straightforward and folksy way, Sanders describes his college education and the lessons to be had in trying to eke out a living in the backwoods of Vermont. We learn that he loves the band Mango Jam, and that he recommends the blueberry pancakes at Denny’s. Many times he got asked to run for a local office, swept up in it, and then lost big-time. There’s a long detailing of his accomplishments in the offices he has held, with special attention paid to programs he established decades ago that are still functioning excellently to this very day.

Then there are about 100 pages outlining his decision to run in 2016 and how he fared until he lost at the Democratic National Convention. Sanders characterizes Clinton as a centrist, establishment Democrat, but gives her three or four compliments for every negative adjective. In fact, Clinton doesn’t even really come up that often. He doesn’t think about her much as he’s considering whether to declare his candidacy. He doesn’t pay much mind to poll numbers while he’s touring the country. This book is not about dirty laundry or sour grapes. To his immense credit, Sanders stays focused on the people he met and is consistently expressing his gratitude for the work that was done on behalf of ideas in which he believes. Local journalists and college kids will be delighted by all the shout-outs. It’s the ultimate “thank you” tour.

This is an unusual political narrative because it persists with a fullness of plural pronouns. “We” have so much suffering to relieve. “Our” mission has to stay focused. There’s no nonsense about Sanders feeling uniquely called or qualified to serve his country, no self-indulgence of personality profiling or glossing of his failures as a candidate. His attitude is constantly: if I don’t do this, who will? That’s the real message of the book and that is actually why Our Revolution feels like the nationwide bookclub reading we need to be doing right now. More of American history should be written by its “losers”. Sanders, however, doesn’t sound like someone who lost at all. The verve, the fight, the common sense, the focus on facts—it’s all still there, it’s not slipping away when his shot at the Oval Office slips away.

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Part Two is 250 pages of information and recommendations that ultimately coalesce into the platform on which Sanders ran. There’s a large number of charts and bar graphs, plus huge amounts of anecdotal evidence conveyed in that plainspoken way Sanders has always possessed. Many chapters begin by laying out simple, objective facts, such as demystifying which corporations control most of American media and who the top ten biggest corporate tax avoiders are. Any smart 11th grader can read this book with ease; indeed, Sanders maintains such a clear, bare-bones style that really a savvy seventh grader could probably understand most of the concepts. That means your uncle who dropped out of high school and ruined his back working at the plant for 40 years might find something in here that makes good sense, “socialism” labels be damned.

Much of Part Two seems culled directly from stump speeches or the candidate’s website. The fact that Our Revolution doesn’t contain any real new information should not be a deterrent. In fact, I think Sanders would argue it’s the book’s finest asset—he’s been saying pretty much the same things over and over again since the ‘70s: say no to oligarchy, protect the middle class, rein in Wall Street, give Medicare to everyone, a college education should be much cheaper, climate change is real and must be curbed, root out racism and corruption in the criminal justice system, immigrants are good people who want to work hard, we have a veteran crisis and a mental health crisis in this county, biased news sources are lulling us into a false sense of complacency toward our rigged system.

Sanders concludes that democracy is not a spectator sport and asks us all to begin doing the intellectual, emotional and actual work of which we, as a nation of fractured but optimistic and reasonable people, are more than capable. The thing about the Sanders campaign is that the vast majority of those outside of it put an enormous emphasis and corresponding scrutiny on the notion of “revolution”. That feels so Sisyphean. However, as this book reveals—and it’s a timeless reminder, no matter who is occupying the White House—the real emphasis needs to stay squarely on the notion of “our”. Trump doesn’t own it. Clinton doesn’t own it. Even Sanders doesn’t own it. “We” is greater than the sum of its parts—as long as each of us does our part.

Our Revolution: A Future to Believe In


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