Early in May, Rachel Maddow interviewed Bernie Sanders in Burlington, Vermont. Maddow asked Sanders how his vast array of support could be marshaled into a political movement after the election. She drew a comparison with Pat Robertson’s candidacy in 1988. Although Pat Robertson failed to win the Republican nomination for President in 1988, he went on to found the Christian Coalition, which would have a profound influence on politics for decades to come.
Could something similar happen with Bernie Sanders’ supporters? My impression in watching Sanders in that interview was that he had not thought that far ahead. I could be wrong on that, but it just seemed to me when I watched that interview that Rachel Maddow had more insights about how the Bernie Sanders candidacy could become a formidable political movement than Bernie Sanders cared to contribute.
In this post, I will share my understanding of what the Christian Coalition did, and evaluate whether the American Left can do something similar.
A. The Christian Coalition’s strategy was to educate Christian conservative voters so that they would go to the polls and vote for Christian conservative candidates. One area in which this occurred was through Christian conservative churches: you would go to a Christian conservative church and see Christian Coalition voter guides. These voter guides were technically non-partisan: they simply said where both candidates stood on issues of importance to Christian conservatives (i.e., abortion, pornography, same-sex marriage, etc.), without telling people specifically how to vote. Some of the voter guides recorded how Senators and representatives voted on these issues, and they would give the elected leaders a percentage based on how much their voting record accorded with the Christian Coalition’s stance. Again, these guides were technically non-partisan, but Christian conservatives could read them and form their own conclusions about how to vote.
The American left, too, informs like-minded people about elected officials’ voting record: they do so through the Internet. I get stuff from Move-on and People for the American Way on a regular basis. But my impression is that the American Left does not do so as extensively or as effectively as the Christian Coalition did. You see a Christian Coalition voter guide, and you know immediately who the good guy is and who the bad guy is. The American Left does not do this as well. It may criticize nationally-known right-wingers, but my impression is that it forgets that so much of politics is local: that leftists need to be educated, not just about national figures, but also local figures. That way, progressives can make a decision that accords with their own values in congressional, Senate, statehouse, etc. races, and in local referendra. Moreover, while leftists pride themselves on nuance, the educational outreach needs to be concise rather than complicated, particularly when it comes to mobilizing people.
The Christian Coalition had a solid social center, namely, conservative evangelical churches; you have people gathering together and hanging out with each other who share similar values, and you have a network that can be informed and mobilized (even if that occurs unofficially, or outside of the church). The American Left probably does not have anything that effective in terms of social glue and mobilization, but hopefully it can capitalize on what it does have. There are African-American and liberal mainline churches. There are college campuses (though I would not want professors pressuring students on how to vote). There are left-wing mailing addresses.
B. To reiterate a point in (A.), so much of politics is local. The Christian Coalition recognized this. By contrast, its predecessor, the Moral Majority, reputedly focused more on who would win the Presidency.
Suppose Bernie Sanders does not get the Presidency. What then? There are politicians who support Bernie Sanders’ ideas who are running for Congress, for Senate, for the statehouse, for Governor, for city council, and the list goes on. While I did say in (A.) that the American left seems to focus on national politics rather than the local, there is a sense in which it is making progress on the local front. Consider the cities and states that have raised the minimum wage, or the states that are considering a single-payer health care system. The American Left needs to be vigilant in showing up and supporting this. National personalities come and go. It is who shows up on the local level who decides things.
C. To build on (C.), the Christian Coalition showed up. You have a bunch of Christian conservatives showing up at the local G.O.P., and before you know it they are running the show, getting the important offices and making important decisions. Bernie supporters: you don’t want Roberta Lange in charge of any future Nevada Democratic conventions? You need to become involved in Democratic Party procedure and politics.
Some may be intimidated by the mazes of political rules and procedures. Often, though, it just takes one politically savvy person to guide others through the process. I one time read about a bunch of Christian Coalition people going to a political meeting. These Christian Coalition people had strong values and wanted those values to be a part of the political process, but they were not always sure how to advance their interests when it came to voting on procedural matters. Thus, one of its members would sit up front and wear a hat when the people were to vote “yes” on a procedural matter, and he would take the hat off when they were to vote “no.”
Part of the problem is that there may be a lot of people who support Bernie, but they are working multiple jobs to make ends meet, so they may not have the time to devote to political activity. But there are many on the American Left who do have the time. And even those without much time can do something, however small.