Early in May, Rachel Maddow interviewed Bernie Sanders in Burlington, Vermont. Maddow asked Sanders how his vast array of support could be marshaled into a political movement after the election. She drew a comparison with Pat Robertson’s candidacy in 1988. Although Pat Robertson failed to win the Republican nomination for President in 1988, he went on to found the Christian Coalition, which would have a profound influence on politics for decades to come.
Could something similar happen with Bernie Sanders’ supporters? My
impression in watching Sanders in that interview was that he had not
thought that far ahead. I could be wrong on that, but it just seemed to
me when I watched that interview that Rachel Maddow had more insights
about how the Bernie Sanders candidacy could become a formidable
political movement than Bernie Sanders cared to contribute.
In this post, I will share my understanding of what the Christian
Coalition did, and evaluate whether the American Left can do something
A. The Christian Coalition’s strategy was to educate Christian
conservative voters so that they would go to the polls and vote for
Christian conservative candidates. One area in which this occurred was
through Christian conservative churches: you would go to a Christian
conservative church and see Christian Coalition voter guides. These
voter guides were technically non-partisan: they simply said where both
candidates stood on issues of importance to Christian conservatives
(i.e., abortion, pornography, same-sex marriage, etc.), without telling
people specifically how to vote. Some of the voter guides recorded how
Senators and representatives voted on these issues, and they would give
the elected leaders a percentage based on how much their voting record
accorded with the Christian Coalition’s stance. Again, these guides
were technically non-partisan, but Christian conservatives could read
them and form their own conclusions about how to vote.
The American left, too, informs like-minded people about elected
officials’ voting record: they do so through the Internet. I get stuff
from Move-on and People for the American Way on a regular basis. But my
impression is that the American Left does not do so as extensively or
as effectively as the Christian Coalition did. You see a Christian
Coalition voter guide, and you know immediately who the good guy is and
who the bad guy is. The American Left does not do this as well. It may
criticize nationally-known right-wingers, but my impression is that it
forgets that so much of politics is local: that leftists need to be
educated, not just about national figures, but also local figures. That
way, progressives can make a decision that accords with their own
values in congressional, Senate, statehouse, etc. races, and in local
referendra. Moreover, while leftists pride themselves on nuance, the
educational outreach needs to be concise rather than complicated,
particularly when it comes to mobilizing people.
The Christian Coalition had a solid social center, namely,
conservative evangelical churches; you have people gathering together
and hanging out with each other who share similar values, and you have a
network that can be informed and mobilized (even if that occurs
unofficially, or outside of the church). The American Left probably
does not have anything that effective in terms of social glue and
mobilization, but hopefully it can capitalize on what it does have.
There are African-American and liberal mainline churches. There are
college campuses (though I would not want professors pressuring students
on how to vote). There are left-wing mailing addresses.
B. To reiterate a point in (A.), so much of politics is local. The
Christian Coalition recognized this. By contrast, its predecessor, the
Moral Majority, reputedly focused more on who would win the Presidency.
Suppose Bernie Sanders does not get the Presidency. What then?
There are politicians who support Bernie Sanders’ ideas who are running
for Congress, for Senate, for the statehouse, for Governor, for city
council, and the list goes on. While I did say in (A.) that the
American left seems to focus on national politics rather than the local,
there is a sense in which it is making progress on the local front.
Consider the cities and states that have raised the minimum wage, or the
states that are considering a single-payer health care system. The
American Left needs to be vigilant in showing up and supporting this.
National personalities come and go. It is who shows up on the local
level who decides things.
C. To build on (C.), the Christian Coalition showed up. You have a
bunch of Christian conservatives showing up at the local G.O.P., and
before you know it they are running the show, getting the important
offices and making important decisions. Bernie supporters: you don’t
want Roberta Lange in charge of any future Nevada Democratic
conventions? You need to become involved in Democratic Party procedure
Some may be intimidated by the mazes of political rules and
procedures. Often, though, it just takes one politically savvy person
to guide others through the process. I one time read about a bunch of
Christian Coalition people going to a political meeting. These
Christian Coalition people had strong values and wanted those values to
be a part of the political process, but they were not always sure how to
advance their interests when it came to voting on procedural matters.
Thus, one of its members would sit up front and wear a hat when the
people were to vote “yes” on a procedural matter, and he would take the
hat off when they were to vote “no.”
Part of the problem is that there may be a lot of people who support
Bernie, but they are working multiple jobs to make ends meet, so they
may not have the time to devote to political activity. But there are
many on the American Left who do have the time. And even those without
much time can do something, however small.