The progressive movements that ended slavery; secured a woman’s right to vote; vanquished Jim Crow; and legalized marriage equality were neither led nor organized by nationally elected politicians. Those victories were made possible by activists, everyday Americans frustrated by immorality and injustice. In America, activists and nationally elected politicians do not travel in the same circles until it is election season. Activists have the freedom to make their cause their life’s mission. They do not have to speak the language of compromise or middle ground, because activists are only beholden to the members of their movement. In contrast, nationally elected politicians are horse traders of the highest caliber with one eye on the polls and the other eye on re-election. They exist in a world where everything is negotiable and success is defined by leaving those political poker tables with at least 51 percent of what they asked for. This is why activists and nationally elected politicians always find themselves in a lovers’ quarrel. Nationally elected politicians view activists’ demands as unreasonable while activists view the efforts of nationally elected politicians as unsatisfactory. But for some reason, people of all ages and backgrounds believe that Sen. Bernie Sanders will bridge the chasm between activists and nationally elected politicians. These Sanders acolytes have convinced themselves that he is a new breed of politician. They are mistaken.
Let’s get something straight: Senator Bernie Sanders was an activist. The grainy, black-and-white newsreel footage of a young Sanders protesting in Chicago and marching in Selma, Alabama, with Dr. King validates his activist bona fides. But that was then. For the past twenty-five years, Senator Sanders has worked in Washington, D.C., and even though he should be applauded for bringing issues such as income inequality, affordable college tuition and restructuring the banking system to the forefront of the campaign trail this election season, the question must be asked: What has he done to solve any of those issues from his seat in the United States Congress the last quarter century? While Secretary Hillary Clinton’s extensive legislative record has been drawn and quartered for public consumption, it seems as if activists and pundits have paid more attention to Sen. Sanders’ campaign trail promises and speeches than his scant legislative record. This blunt assessment of Sanders is not an indictment of his political acumen; it is an indictment of his Bernie or bust activists who have either disregarded or minimized the difficulty of successfully navigating legislation through D.C’s political labyrinth. These Bernie or bust types will become politically disillusioned when the politician they have pledged their support to is not able to deliver. And more often than not, nationally elected politicians do not deliver.
Activists make change; politicians make deals. Activists, not politicians, are America’s moral compass. Marginalized citizens trust activists to articulate their needs to politicians. This is why activists must be very careful with the type of relationship they cultivate with politicians. An activist’s priorities are people and principles and that can cause problems for politicians. The relationship between President Johnson and Dr. King illustrates this problem. President Johnson and Dr. King went from smiling and shaking hands at the signing of the Civil Rights Act to President Johnson feeling betrayed by Dr. King’s opposition to the Vietnam War. Dr. King’s loyalty was to his people and principles; President Johnson’s loyalty was to politics. Activists and politicians must learn to co-exist, but activists must never place a politician on a pedestal because that is where an activist’s principles should be.