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The Revolution Is Not in Bernie’s Hands

As Sarah Jaffe’s new chronicle of American protest culture shows, change is happening—but it’s coming from below.

Spencer Platt/Getty Images

When Bernie Sanders stepped to the stage on Wednesday to announce the launching of “Our Revolution,” a political organization dedicated to keeping the momentum of his presidential campaign going by supporting candidates at all levels of government, he inadvertently admitted that it wouldn’t do much good. “Real change never ever takes place from the top on down. It’s not some guy signing a bill,” Sanders said at the live-streamed launch event. “It always takes place from the bottom up when millions of people come together and demand fundamental change in the country.”

Sanders surely knows that a revolution of the kind he deems necessary isn’t likely to unfold through independent-expenditure TV ads on behalf of down-ballot candidates. In fact, that’s why most of the young organizing staff at Our Revolution quit when they saw Sanders campaign manager Jeff Weaver sliding in as president of the organization, vowing to solicit funds from wealthy contributors. “We’re organizers who believed in Bernie’s call for a political revolution,” former organizing director Claire Sandberg told NBC News. “So we weren’t interested in working for an organization that’s going to raise money from billionaires to spend it all on TV.”

The truth is that what boosted the Sanders campaign from irrelevance to prominence did come from the bottom up—not just from $27 donations, but from millions of moments of personal expression, using tools as old as leaflets and as new as Facebook. A cultural and political transformation brought Sanders, and more precisely his message, to the forefront. And the people who did it don’t need to be told how to continue the mission.

We’re in an era of leaderless political engagement at the street level, where exercising power and expressing outrage frequently mirror one another. People are demanding change not just through the ballot, but through pooling their voices for collective action. And a new book offers the first up-close profile of those who decided to stop waiting for others to fulfill their dreams of a better country—the real revolutionaries of our age.

Sarah Jaffe chronicles the burgeoning power of political protest, from Occupy Wall Street to Black Lives Matter to the Fight for $15, in Necessary Trouble. Jaffe conducts journalism in the book, actually going into communities and talking to people fighting austerity, foreclosures, corporate greed, and bigotry. In doing so, she uncovers a movement that was thriving under our noses, outside of the political arena, and often beyond the eyes of the media, long before Sanders came along. It was so much under the radar, in fact, that Jaffe had trouble finding a publisher at first. “We had the worst time selling this book in the summer of 2014,” Jaffe told me in a phone interview last week. “People were like, shrug. Then Ferguson happened.”

Several connective threads tie together the disparate communities Jaffe visits—from a Tea Party enclave in Atlanta to Moral Monday protests of right-wing government abuses in North Carolina to the student-led fight in Los Angeles against scams perpetrated by for-profit colleges. Not surprisingly, she found the suffering of the Great Recession, and the insular nature of a political class that failed to stem that suffering, had had a catalyzing effect on all these movements, generating a sense of urgency. “Things were steadily getting worse, and then a whole lot worse real quick, and then The Economist writes ‘Capitalism at bay,’” Jaffe says. “It was this moment that opened up space for a lot of conversations.”

These movements didn’t need a charismatic figurehead leading the way—only behind-the-scenes organizers planting seeds, encouraging citizens to emerge and get involved. Years before the Wisconsin uprising and Occupy Wall Street galvanized progressives, activists were trying to stoke the fire, questioning how the economy was leaving so many behind from the opening moments of the collapse. Groups like National People’s Action held rallies and street actions for three years to set the stage for Occupy, in the same way that Occupy set the stage for Sanders.

You can see the story Jaffe tells as one about waves cresting on a shore, each one getting a little bit closer to the destination. The movement participants recognized the similarities of their own struggles, the intersectionality of all forms of oppression. Even people with radically different political beliefs had similar grievances to express and fight back against, and Jaffe doesn’t shy away from presenting all sides. “One of my most interesting interviews was a guy from the Oath Keepers in Missouri,” Jaffe says, referring to a far-right group. “He’s former military and knows fascinating stuff about the technology police departments use. He was talking about a lot of the same stuff I do! His solutions are vastly different but he wasn’t wrong.”

Once you “give outrage a location,” as Jaffe says in describing the origination of Occupy, people create their own modes of manifesting that outrage. She highlights a sign viewed during the Wisconsin protests that summed up the spirit animating this era: “All of the faith that I have lost in the government I have found in the people.”

This leaderless eruption of protest fosters creativity, whether it’s Black Lives Matter protesters shutting down freeways and disrupting brunches in white neighborhoods to raise awareness, OUR Walmart attending the company’s annual shareholder meeting, or the Chicago Teachers Union pulling off something close to a general strike in April. And while all of these groups face resistance from entrenched power—indeed, local police busted up the Occupy encampments the moment they grew weary of them—these movements have scored victories.

The Fight for $15, once a pipe dream, is now reality in two of the biggest states in America (California and New York) and several big cities. Police reforms have fanned out across the country, and national consciousness has been raised about the struggles African-Americans face with the criminal justice system. The Democratic platform includes ideas fought for at the street level that migrated to the ballot box.

I asked Jaffe about Sanders’s role in achieving that last set of advances. “I don’t think the Bernie energy was even about the election,” she said. “It was about, what is the next thing?”

This can be a hard concept to understand: After all, the Sanders campaign did represent collective action to try to elevate a single leader. But Jaffe contends that the ideas, not the man, took prominence. At the Democratic convention, with its unusual spectacle of protest inside the arena, “There was all this handwringing about booing,” Jaffe said. “One of the things was Bernie supporters booed Bernie. That’s great! They shouldn’t be in thrall to Bernie and whatever he says. That’s the cult of personality.”

The point that Jaffe’s book underscores, ultimately, is that “politics” as practiced in America has never been confined to Election Day or a single vote in Congress. Turnout cratered in the 2014 midterms, Jaffe notes, at the same time protest movements expanded nationwide. The activists Jaffe profiles are not bound by the realities of counting votes on Capitol Hill or maximizing donations. They see their goal as envisioning the world they want, and making those in power uncomfortable until they get it. The vehicle for that will not be “Our Revolution” delivered in 30-second ad bites, but a sustained movement, 24 hours a day.

Political observers, even casual ones, can’t help noticing that something is off about this election—something that isn’t just about Donald Trump. That’s because most people haven’t yet come to grips with the forces bubbling under the surface in the country. Only those able to navigate this reinvigorated 21st-century culture of protest can truly understand modern politics. That makes Necessary Trouble required reading.