Can a President Lead a Revolution?

I love Bernie Sanders’ latest ad.

In discussing this ad, Greg Sargent got it right when he compares it to the Obama 2008 campaign. He quotes what Sanders said in a Vox interview about how he would realize his goals.

The real way that change takes place — and that’s always been the case in this country — is when people on the bottom begin to stand up and say enough is enough. That’s true of the civil rights movement, it is true of the women’s movement, it’s true of the environmental movement, of the gay movement. Millions of people begin to stand up and say, ‘We need change. Current situations are intolerable.’ That is when change takes place….The United States Congress is going to start listening to us and not to a handful of wealthy campaign contributors.

But then Sanders also said this:

The major political, strategic difference I have with Obama, is it’s too late to do anything inside the Beltway. You gotta take your case to the American people, mobilize them, and organize them at the grassroots level in a way that we have never done before.

One has to wonder if Sanders missed the whole, “Yes We Can” theme of Obama’s campaign that was predicated on this:

So what happened? Did Barack Obama fail to deliver the change he promised? Was he disingenuous when he made those kinds of claims? Did he abandon the movement in order to focus his efforts “inside the Beltway?” Perhaps. A lot of people have offered informed critiques about that. Here is one from Marshall Ganz who is our country’s leading expert on community organizing and is responsible for the efforts of Camp Obama in 2008.

Abandoning the “transformational” model of his presidential campaign, Obama has tried to govern as a “transactional” leader. These terms were coined by political scientist James MacGregor Burns 30 years ago. “Transformational” leadership engages followers in the risky and often exhilarating work of changing the world, work that often changes the activists themselves. Its sources are shared values that become wellsprings of the courage, creativity and hope needed to open new pathways to success. “Transactional” leadership, on the other hand, is about horse-trading, operating within the routine, and it is practiced to maintain, rather than change, the status quo.

I am reminded of what Michelle Obama said about her husband back when he was still the U.S. Senator from Illinois.

Barack is not a politician first and foremost. He’s a community activist exploring the viability of politics to make change.

So there are a couple of things we might learn from Barack Obama’s exploration of what it means to go from community activist to politics. First of all, it is helpful to remember the context of that quote in the image above.

We know the battle ahead will be long, but always remember that no matter what obstacles stand in our way, nothing can withstand the power of millions of voices calling for change.

When Sanders reminds us of things like the civil rights and women’s rights movements, it is helpful to remember that those battles were also long. For example, from the Montgomery Bus Boycott until passage of the Civil Rights Act, there were nine long years of struggle. It’s clearly not as simple as “elect me and you’re done.”

But I think it is also worth asking whether or not a president of the United States can actually lead a revolution. That is the dilemma Howard Dean identified when he talked about the need to make the turn from insurgent to establishment.

Mark Engler and Paul Engler recently reminded us that Martin Luther King, Jr. rejected calls to run for political office.

But King had a very different perspective, one consistent with the field now known as “civil resistance.” Drawing from the work of theorists such as Gene Sharp, scholars in this field argue that power is more widely distributed than is typically believed — and that CEOs, generals and senators do not hold all the cards. Even entrenched dictators rely on the compliance of the people in order to maintain power. If a sufficient number of people choose not to cooperate with an existing order, the standing of these leaders crumbles.

Civil resistance movements can look beyond a “transactional” model of politics that attempts to exact small gains based on conventional wisdom about what is feasible within Washington. Instead, through disruptive and dramatic protest, they alter the political climate and create new possibilities for change – turning impractical demands into urgent priorities.

While the Engler’s provide us with that important history, their suggestion is that Sanders understands this model of change. But they fail to address the fact that King saw it as incompatible with being president.

It would be fascinating to hear a discussion with Bernie Sanders about how he views the possibility of combing the roles of president and revolutionary. That’s because I continue to be fascinated with this question of how a community activist explores the viability of politics to make change.

Nancy LeTourneau

Nancy LeTourneau is a contributing writer for the Washington Monthly.