The Philippines’ Bernie Sanders
“The lesson of this moment is that winning politics is grassroots politics,”said the firebrand US Sen. Bernie Sanders, reflecting on his unlikely political success in an interview with The New York Times.
Confined to the fringes of American politics throughout his youth, which was marked by radical activism and unabashed socialist advocacies, Sanders found an improbable political lifeline in one of America’s most rural, conservative states. A Jewish-born New Yorker, Sanders burst into electoral politics by moving to Vermont in the 1970s. For an entire decade, he became a serial loser, twice running for the Senate and once for the state’s gubernatorial position. His numbers hardly cracked into the double digits.
The following decade, however, marked a dramatic turn in his fortunes. In one of the most iconic electoral shocks of the era, Sanders became one of the first openly socialist American mayors at the height of the Cold War. In 1981, the tall, lanky activist found himself at the helm of Burlington, besting veteran mayor Gordon “Gordie” Paquette. Against all odds, including active sabotage by the establishment-infested city council, Sanders managed to secure several reelections throughout the 1980s before heading to Capitol Hill and, later, becoming the longest-running independent senator in American history.
In 2016, he almost pulled off another electoral tsunami against the Democratic establishment. The latest polls show that Sanders can still beat Donald Trump were he to be picked as the Democratic presidential nominee today.
His secret to political success, as Sanders put it, is simple: “[W]inning politics is developing coalitions of working people, of low-income people, of women, of environmentalists. So the coalition is, we do it from the bottom on up, and we ended up in my years as mayor taking on everybody.”
Through nonstop political organization, and astute populist initiatives such as a local television show called “Bernie Speaks With the Community,”Sanders mobilized a whole new constituency, which sustained him in office throughout decades of progressive advocacy.
Throughout the world, the rise of right-wing populists such as Donald Trump has opened up the space for their polar opposites — progressive populists such as Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Their rallying cry is an end to American oligarchy in favor of the middle classes, for, as Sanders explained, the likes of “Ronald Reagan and his billionaire friends do not represent America, but we do.”
Fortunately, we also have our own versions of Sanders. On top of my mind is professor Walden Bello, a world-renowned scholar and activist, among Princeton University’s most distinguished alumni, and a former progressive congressman who became the first-ever statesman to voluntarily resign his office out of sheer conviction.
I had the privilege of knowing and working with him about a decade earlier as his consultant on foreign affairs. He is unquestionably an indefatigable soul, a passionate advocate and arguably the best mentor one could ask for. While no socialist or communist, I always appreciated Bello’s genuine passion for social justice. True, his bid for the oligarchic Senate failed to bear fruit, but he has been a consistent advocate for political reform and human rights in the Philippines. And despite unimaginable difficulties, including personal tragedy, he recently managed to finish not one, but two books almost simultaneously.
The first, as discussed in an earlier column, is “Counterrevolution,”tracing the global rise of right-wing populism. “I would say that Duterte is a counterrevolutionary” Bello argues, since ”he challenges the whole liberal democratic project”without offering a true progressive alternative.
His latest book is “Paper Dragons: China and the Next Crash,” which analyzes the structural vulnerabilities of the Chinese economy and its dangerous implications for the global economy. More fundamentally, it skillfully traces the contours of the existing international order and the perilous direction of Sino-American rivalry.
Bello makes two crucial arguments. First, he rightly criticizes both the United States and China for their imperialist mindset and behavior, while arguing that Beijing’s foreign policy is far from predetermined.
Through a combination of diplomacy, engagement and tough bargaining, Bello believes that smaller countries such as the Philippines have some agency in shaping the rise of China. Moreover, he downplays fears of a Chinese “debt trap,” instead focusing on an even more troubling phenomenon. For Bello, Chinese investments bring about a “20th-century [top-down] model of economic development, [with] tremendous negative impact on the environment” of its beneficiaries. Like Sanders, Bello believes in participatory grassroots politics as the best countermeasure against both imperialism and right-wing populism.
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