By Blaine Stum
On Dec 17, 2010 a young man by the name of Muhammed Bouazizi set himself on fire in the streets of Sidi Bouzid, Tunisia. After experiencing years of harassment and humiliation at the hands of municipal inspectors while he tried to sell fruit, he lit a fuse that would lead to the crumbling of Ben Ali’s regime. I was vaguely aware of these developments at the time, but did not understand the magnitude of what was unfolding until I was able to talk to my Arabic teacher, a brilliant Tunisian woman at Gonzaga under a Fulbright Scholarship. She went back to Tunisia for holidays and was unable to return to America until after the turmoil subsided.
A year before this, we had heard talk of “revolution” in the United States. Conservative activists, talk show hosts and organizations lashed out at what they saw as corruption and government overreach. Rallies and demonstrations were held, Tea Party Patriot organizations flowered across the country and dominated mass media coverage. They preached a simple but effective message: We had gone too far from the cherished ideals of the Framers by allowing government to intrude into every aspect of our lives. Their remedy? Revolution. But none of that was enough. While they were able to make inroads into positions of power, their revolution never materialized. Perhaps it was due to the fact that they were never grassroots to begin with. Or maybe it was because they were quickly co-opted by party leaders. Whatever the reason, their calls for revolution went largely unheard and unfulfilled.
Fast forward to our current presidential election campaign. Remnants of the Tea Party still exist, but they are not the ones calling for revolution this time. Now, it is a Democratic Presidential candidate and his followers. Much like the Tea Partiers before them, they see corruption throughout our current political system and they are passionate and angry. Unlike the Tea Partiers before them, they see government as not doing enough to live up to the ideals of this country. Where Tea Partiers saw government intrusion into the market on behalf of liberal interests, Sanders and his followers see a lack of action on behalf of government as part of the will of monied interests set on hoarding social, political and economic capital all to themselves; and so the term “political revolution” has become their rallying cry.
It’s too early to say with 100 percent certainty what the fate of these new-found calls for revolution will be, but my best guess would be: They will end up in much the same situation as Tea Partiers are in today, with a slight variation of the norm, but without a revolution. How can it be that one man setting himself on fire for having his fruit confiscated by a government employee ignites a revolution in Tunisia, but a constant string of injustices will result in business as usual in America? Simply put, we are not talking about a true revolution when we use those words. We are too comfortable. We have too much to lose. And perhaps most critically, what we call revolution is reform by another name.
Revolutions that truly alter systems of power rarely take place within those systems for good reason: The system will either crush those inside it trying to make true change, or it will adapt ever-so-slightly enough to placate everyone but the fringe. Whether it achieves this through apathy, co-optation or incremental reform is dependent on the situation, but if it can find a way to defang you it will. This is perhaps the most mystifying aspect of Sanders’ call for “political revolution”: He couches his reforms in the language of revolution, but he acquiesced to the system long ago when he made a decision to work within it.
So what does his so-called revolution look like? Well, a lot like what FDR, Truman and Lyndon Johnson advocated for decades before he stepped foot into Congress, except instead of being driven by wonky technocrats in DC this “revolution” is to be powered by the people. This is a noble vision, of course. Yet, there is something deeply disingenuous about calling this a “revolution.” For suburban America, perhaps it is. If that is the case, however, it says a lot about how far away from any real revolution we truly are.
Blaine Stum is a 30-something-year-old native of the Spokane area who was raised in Spokane Valley. He graduated from Gonzaga University with a bachelor’s degree in political science. He works in the local political arena and has been involved in LGBT non-profit work for several years.