Seven Notes on the Sanders Campaign – Jedediah Purdy

Editor’s Note: A longer version of this piece is concurrently appearing in Dissent.

1. Presidential campaigns are flawed vehicles for movements: they’re inherently entangled with personalities (though driven by them to greater or lesser degrees), focus energy on getting one person over the top, and are often ephemeral. And they build up false expectations because of the limits of the President’s power. But if you think it’s hard to get right of the Second Amendment to the Constitution, try repealing Article II (the part where there, you know, a president).

2. Nonetheless, they can bring people into politics, strengthen or link existing movements, and put ideas and programs into play that were absent before (like “socialism”) and the various specific things that Sanders and others mean by that.

3. The question is always whether the interplay of long-term organizing, effort, argument, etc., and the shorter, more idiosyncratic event of the campaign together push things incrementally in the right direction. Candidates and their supporters can’t pick the playing field on which they’ll govern, but they do help shape it.

4. The current field is bad for progressives at many levels – the states, Congress – in ways that are easy to forget in the excitement and bewilderment of this strange campaign. This will limit what any president can do by way of governing, regardless of how he or she ran.

5. To my mind, supporting Sanders means not settling for retrenchment but trying to build a distinctive position (really pretty close to the heart of twentieth-century progressivism or social democracy or whatever you want to call it) that will give us all a sense of what we’re working for, across campaigns and projects and forums, besides trying to slow the pace of inequality and oligarchy.

6. It’s always easy to accuse presidential candidates’ supporters of naivete, or cults of personality, or whatever else, because that’s how we sound when we’re motivated to work for some individual person’s candidacy in the name of ideals. We forget to make caveats in every argument before we say “Vote for X!” But I think this is less dangerous than getting caught up in sophisticated ambivalence about the whole thing and standing back. Enthusiasm is a perfectly legitimate political mood.

7. I have nothing but love and respect for friends and family who are drawn to Hillary (less so the pundits!), but I think nothing in sober political realism or sobriety settles the question.

Jedediah Purdy is a professor of law at Duke University. He is also a prominent cultural, social, religious, and political thinker who is the author of books such as Being America: Liberty, Commerce and Violence in an American World. His modern classic For Common Things: Irony, Trust, and Commitment in America Today has drawn comparisons to Henry David Thoreau. He is a fellow at the New America Foundation.


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