"The Triumph of Bernie Sanders": NEH Lecture with Prof. Adolph Reed
As University of Pennsylvania Professor of Political Science Adolph Reed noted in his opening remarks, fully engaging with the topic of his October 27 lecture has to begin with sorting through the quantitative dissonance inherent in its title, “The Triumph of Bernie Sanders and the Future of the U.S. Left.” Where, one might be led to ask, do we locate success in a campaign that, at least as far as the horse race goes, fell short of its goal?
As Prof. Reed would go on to explain, this question is to some degree built on a false premise. Though Sanders’ candidacy certainly gathered momentum and thus understandably raised expectations, the chances of a victory in the Democratic primary, let alone the general election, were always remote given the herculean task the campaign took on: building a counter-hegemonic movement capable of altering the terms of mainstream political debate and, in this, the terms of the nation’s policy agenda. Though many might wish it otherwise, an outcome of this magnitude, Prof. Reed noted, cannot be achieved without a protracted struggle that unfolds over multiple election cycles.
This in mind, he proposed that the terms of success need to be re-calibrated when it comes to evaluating the Sanders campaign. The question we should be asking, Prof. Reed argued, was whether or not the campaign laid the groundwork necessary to more effectively contest for power going forward. The answer to this question, he contended, is yes. Perhaps most importantly, the efforts to elect Sanders enabled organizers to identify a cadre of supporters disposed to work toward affecting a seismic transformation of the political landscape. In unpacking the nature of this base, Prof. Reed described it as a group capable of congealing into the “serious left” that the nation currently lacks (“There is,” he declared at the beginning of his lecture, “no left to speak of in the U.S”). The serious left that began to form during the Sanders campaign, he further noted, consisted of people driven by class-based, anti-capitalist ideas about issues such as wage scale and urban development; people capable of marshaling a constituency broad enough and energized enough to intervene on behalf of the worker and prevent public interest from being encroached upon by private capital. Though the Sanders campaign may not have been in a position to succeed by conventional metrics in 2015-16, it still allowed us to begin asking the question of what policy would look like if it were actually crafted by individuals acting on behalf of the working class majority.
All this said, Prof. Reed also noted how the gains made over the past year-plus reveal two flaws in particular from which the left still suffers: (1) An inability to conceptualize the need to organize or, conversely, a misguided belief that the correct issue agenda produces votes for itself; and (2) A general unwillingness to engage in cross-ideological discussion. This latter flaw, he concluded, is particularly crippling, as the work of demonstrating how candidates like Sanders are on the right side of issues that most of the people are concerned with most of the time means spanning precisely the partisan boundaries that the left presently shies away from even approaching.
Prof. Reed held a long and lively Q&A with the capacity crowd after the lecture, and he met with graduate students and faculty the following day to continue the discussion of the state of partisan politics in contemporary America. A recap of the event by Missourian staff writer Thomas Friestad can be found here.
The lecture was made possible in part by a major grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities and was conducted in partnership with the Missouri Humanities Council. Any views, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed during or in response to the lecture do not necessarily represent those of the National Endowment for the Humanities.