How People’s Movements Fueled the Sanders Candidacy

Prof. Frances Fox Piven says movements bring up issues that politicians left to themselves would ignore – and it’s the movements like Fight for 15 and Black Lives Matter that make Bernie Sanders a credible candidate

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Story Transcript

JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.

On Thursday night, Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders was put in the hot seat by Chris Matthews of MSNBC. They discussed foreign policy, the Black Lives Matter movement, and income inequality. Let’s take a look.

BERNIE SANDERS: You and I look at the world differently. You look at it inside the beltway. I’m not an inside the beltway guy. I am an outside the beltway guy.

CHRIS MATTHEWS: But the people who vote on taxes are inside the beltway.

SANDERS: And those people are going to vote the right way when millions of people demand that they vote the right way. On this issue I have no doubt that as president of the United States I can rally young people and their parents to say that if Germany does it, Scandinavia does it, countries around the world do it, we can do it. And yes, we bailed out Wall Street. It is Wall Street’s time to help the middle class.

DESVARIEUX: Now joining us to give us her take on last night’s discussion is Frances Fox Piven. She’s a distinguished professor of political science in sociology at the graduate center of City University of New York, and the author of many books, including Poor Peoples’ Movements, and Why Americans Don’t Vote, and Why Politicians Like It That Way. Thank you so much for joining us, Frances.

FRANCES PIVEN: [Talk] to you, Jessica.

DESVARIEUX: So Frances, in the clip we just saw Chris Matthews was questioning Bernie Sanders on whether or not his goals are realistic, we often hear that term, asking him to name senators who would vote in favor of his policies. Do you think of Sanders is elected his hands will be tied to make real reforms once he’s in the White House?

PIVEN: Well, yes. People will try, insiders in the Beltway, certainly the Congress of the United States, will try to block his initiatives, because he is, as he says he is, he’s challenging the tycoons of the American political economy.

But what Sanders is saying in response to Chris Matthews is that people are going to rise in protest at the effort to make gridlock the tune of the day. And that because people will be rising, they’ll be marching, they’ll be striking, they’ll be clamoring, that the opposition in the Beltway will have to give way. And that may be true.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. If people are going to rise up, the question always is why haven’t se seen them do it already? I mean, there are protests, but usually they’re in the hundreds, thousands, maybe. But we’re not really seeing hundreds of thousands of people out there in the streets. What would you suggest? You’ve worked with a lot of movements, and grassroots organizations. How do people take that energy, who might become politically conscious during this election cycle, and really transform that into a movement?

PIVEN: Well, I think there are movements that are unfolding right now in the United States and elsewhere in the world. You know, neoliberal capitalist economics is not good for people. It breaks the promises that they’ve come to expect. And so people are rising up in protest. We’re in a protest era, actually. Again with Wisconsin, remember all of the students and workers occupying the state capital. It spread to Occupy. Occupy took place in hundreds of cities across the United States, and it had tremendous impact on the way Americans discuss politics. And then there was Black Lives Matter which, again, has sprung up in city after city, and the Fight for $15. The Fight for $15 is a movement, and it’s unfolding among workers in retail and fast food establishments everywhere.

So I don’t know what you think a movement is, but it’s not like an army. It isn’t all coalesced. People are not marching in battalions. It springs up here and there, and people rally for it.

DESVARIEUX: How do you get more people, though, in the mix, though? I mean, the numbers are significant, but they could be more. I mean, if you compare it to the ’60s and those kind of eras of protests, how do you reach that tipping point where it’s really a mass, mass movement?

PIVEN: The movements are going to enlarge. And partly they will enlarge because they get a kind of encouragement from the election campaign itself, and particularly Sanders’ contribution to the election campaign. I don’t think that if it had been Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley that we would have the same kind of intensity about the election, and that spreads to the movements. The movements here are a kind of echo of their own grievances in the voices of national politicians. I mean, notice how Sanders has pushed Hillary to the left. She may not stay there if she actually wins the nomination. But she has so far been pushed to the left.

So I think movements energize electoral politics. They bring up issues that politicians left to themselves would ignore. And it’s the movements, in a way, that make Bernie Sanders a credible candidate. Sanders didn’t do it by himself, as the Congressman and then the senator from Vermont. He’s been around for a very long time. And now certainly he’s blossoming, he’s become a kind of national hero. And that’s partly due to the way the movements are at his back. They’re pushing him and they’re also energizing him, and they’re creating a kind of audience for the issues he is raising.

DESVARIEUX: All right. Let’s switch gears and talk about the upcoming primary in South Carolina. We’re talking about the movement, and him being energized by the movement. But it seems that he’s not really gaining much steam in South Carolina. Clinton is still ahead in the polls. He’s certainly coming closer. But especially amongst black voters in the state, where the majority of the Democratic electorate is black, it seems as if Sanders is unable to connect with black voters. And many are claiming that Clinton is connecting more with black voters, or at least the Democratic machine, like the Congressional Black Caucus PAC which just endorsed her, as well as South Carolina Congressman Jim Clyburn, who is the number three Democratic leader on Capitol Hill. He endorsed Clinton as well.

And I found it interesting. He pointed out that Sanders is talking about free college tuition, but he’s not talking about how that’s going to affect historically black colleges and universities, which many of our viewers know, many of them are in debt. And their fear is that a lot of these students would end up going to state universities where tuition would be free, and then sort of phase out these historically black colleges and universities. So I want to get your take, Frances, here. Do you think Sanders needs to be more specific when it comes to addressing issues within the black community?

PIVEN: I think that that was raised, actually, some weeks ago by Black Lives Matter activists. And it has also been raised by a number of media people, African-American media people, who have signed up with the Sanders campaign. I think he did end up getting made to be more specific about blacks, and black issues, because they’re not the same as the–they’re not simply the issues of economic inequality and insecurity. They include the issues of economic inequality and insecurity, but whatever the issue you pick, the specific issue you pick, blacks are doing much worse.

So yes, he did need to become more specific, but I think he has become more specific. And he will continue to be more specific. I notice, for example, that he has only in the last few days spoken out on the 1996 welfare reform that Bill Clinton signed, and that Hillary Clinton championed, a piece of legislation that had the effect of cutting millions of children and mothers of any kind of cash assistance, and has ultimately resulted in 3 million children living in what is called severe poverty. That means less than $2 a day. Well, that was an important issue for him to raise. He’s now raised it, and I think that he will speak out more forcefully on the crime issue as well.

So yeah, Sanders has also been in a kind of learning process. And you know, he’s, he calls himself a socialist or a democratic socialist. I think he’s a New Deal Democrat. And a good New Deal Democrat. Not an extremely left New Deal Democrat, but a solid New Deal Democrat. But a lot of New Deal Democrats were not as sensitive to the problem of racism and racial disparities as they should have been. And so the movement is teaching Sanders, and that’s a good thing.

DESVARIEUX: Okay. Another major issue in the general election is going to be turnout, of course. Republicans have actually been doing quite well when it comes to turnout. Four of the states that just had their primaries or caucuses, they’ve shattered records when it comes to turnout, but on the Democrats’ side, so far numbers have been down compared to 2008. We have in Iowa 20 percent of voters, has gone down, 13 percent in New Hampshire. And it was down, voter turnout was down 33 percent in Nevada.

So yes, some would argue that this is sort of the Barack Obama phenomenon, and the excitement around having the first black president. But as we all know, we could potentially have the first female president as well, here. Frances, why are we seeing such lower turnouts for Democrats in this election cycle, and why are so many people not voting?

PIVEN: Well, overall in the United States we have for more than a century had very low turnout compared to other electoral democracies. And this is a consequence of two conditions. One is that we have an arcane, complicated system of registration and balloting that is, in fact, designed to make it hard for the sort of socially discontented, the less-educated people, to vote. That’s one reason. The other reason is that because they’re less likely to vote, the campaigns tend not to shape their message toward the habitual non-voter, so that there’s no incentive for them to vote.

I do think that this election is a little bit different from 2008, and maybe even 2012, for the reason you suggested, the first black president. But I also think that there may be a kind of disappointment, because Barack Obama, who campaigned as a movement president, he said we are the ones we’ve been waiting for. He had hope and change rhetoric down very well. But although you could argue that he did accomplish some things, and he did resist some right-wing initiatives, overall he has not transformed America in the way that his rhetoric would have suggested. And I think there’s a certain kind of apathy and discouragement as a result of that. Maybe the movements can help to reverse that, and maybe Sanders as he continues to campaign. And he’s this remarkably gruff, bold, and clear campaign appeal. Maybe they can encourage greater turnout, encourage more people to have some confidence in electoral politics, or in electoral politics as it gets juiced up by the movements.

DESVARIEUX: All right. Frances Fox Piven joining us from New York, thank you so much for being with us.

PIVEN: Thank you.

DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.

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