BOOK REVIEW: Bernie Sanders’ “Guide to Political Revolution” is more textbook than revolutionary

Someone—I don’t remember now who—described the major difference in American politics to be that the Left fetishizes being correct where the Right reserves that obsession for power.

For that reason, Republicans have been willing to abandon all previously stated principles so long as they can expect to have a warm body capable of signing regressive tax bills into law and who will nominate judges to protect conservative orthodoxies.

And it’s why a year and a half later, Democrats still get into fights about whether they supported Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders in the 2015-16 primary. It’s why many of us on the Left continue, inexorably, viewing contemporary events as a chance to re-litigate that contest and who was right.

So just to say, “Bernie Sanders: Guide to Political Revolution is for teenagers,” will invite cheap jokes along those lines, and merely by existing, it reinvigorates the conversation about who actually had the better fire extinguisher a year and a half ago, even as the grease fire continues to spread.

Let’s be clear: If you like Bernie Sanders and progressive but not radical policies, you’ll like this book. But you probably won’t enjoy actually reading it unless you’re a precocious 10-year-old to late-awakening 20-year-old. That’s its intended audience, and it’s a solid “textbook” of ideals and policies for teens to start with assuming they come to it with general agreement.

Hey, if Sanders actually can make tax policy, averting global climate catastrophe, and Wall Street reform exciting to the next generation of not-yet voters, that’s a laudatory accomplishment in itself. Any criticism of this book should go no further than its aims as a political-overview textbook for progressive teens.

But on that basis, it has its problems, including, yes, some inherited from its credited author.

First, it’s intentionally designed like a textbook and peppered with the summarizing design features teenagers supposedly need to ingest and enjoy reading beyond one smartphone-screen length. Some infographics, like average CEO pay or the Greenhouse Gas effect, are effective and communicate their information well. Others, like how many hours Americans work compared to other countries or higher education costs, are extraordinarily bad. If the e-book version has them all in color, that could help some, but as it is, these graphics have a poor hit-or-miss ratio.

Second, I’m not sure how much fresh work went into this. It definitely reflects the “Bernie Sanders voice” down to cadences when talking about wealth inequality, banks, and raising the minimum wage. They might be entirely new. Other portions, such as criminal justice reform, are literally taken word-for-word from his campaign site, although they did take the trouble to update the book with subsequent victims of extrajudicial police executions. The rehashed versions of his well-worn anecdotes are similarly word-for-word: “My father came to this country from Poland at the age of 17 without a nickel (sometimes penny) in his pocket (sometimes plus ‘little education’).”

U.S. Senators are busy people; I understand that. But I question how much involvement Sanders had with this project, even originally. The uncharacteristic phrase “Communist totalitarian state of China” regarding prison reform is what sent me looking for where Sanders had used it elsewhere, and it appears to only be part of his campaign writings, likely written by a staffer before being readapted here. Sanders is an effective brand, but outside of his core message of wealth inequality, I’m not convinced the other issues are more than obligatory ways to avoid criticism or are something he involves himself much in.

More fundamentally, with the possible exception of raising the minimum wage for federal contractors by executive order, none of these “we should” statements included in Guide to Political Revolution would actually occur had Bernie Sanders won the Democratic nomination and presidency.

That remains, for me, the most frustrating aspect of Sanders’ campaign and continued cultural relevancy. There is still a Republican Congress; Republican-dominated legislatures still have great power in most states. I appreciated the book devoting pages to a Mobilize section—how young people could get involved with nonprofits, mainly—but it never offered the scaffolding of what governmental power already exists and would need changed to effect these policies.

I make that criticism as someone who regards his policies as good ones. In particular, his proposal to return U.S. Post Offices to include banking services would be hugely, positively transformative to the daily lives of marginalized Americans in both urban and rural areas, therefore plausibly non-partisan and doable. Smart, state-directed efforts done for the common weal are viscerally exciting to me. But Sanders, or his ghostwriter, never goes so far as to clarify why we ought to support any of these “we shoulds”—why guarantee $15 per hour minimum wage and not $20, or why that instead of Universal Basic Income or investing in public housing.

That’s not to say Sanders must believe in those things or advocate for them, but nowhere does he offer a coherent worldview, or organizing idea, or policy framework for his list of “we shoulds” to fit into, which means his teen readers also lack that framework.

Income inequality, wealth inequality, investing in universal healthcare and paid family leave—these are attractive ideas!

But, for example, he covers college becoming more expensive than he does public primary and secondary schools varying greatly in quality depending on Zipcode and wealth (thus being functionally resegregated). He spends time on paid family leave without saying anything about access to reproductive autonomy. Being silent on these things may make them more attractive to some people, but they definitely make it less likely for everyone to reap the full benefits of greater wealth fairness, should that actually come.

People shouldn’t go into debt in order to have a family, but people should be in full control of when they have a family, as well. Free college tuition is good, but having quality reading, math, science, and history fundamentals are necessary to take advantage of that. Taking these things for granted betrays who Sanders’ message is most attractive for.

Is Guide to Political Revolution really that? Of course not. It’s a publisher’s title. Is it sufficient on its own? Of course not. It’s full of the Sanders movement’s blindspots.

But it’s a good starting point for thinking about facile economic issues, and if paired with, say, Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me and Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “We Should All Be Feminists,” is a solid foundation for anyone starting to think about the world of politics and what a teen should strive to have changed by the time they’re an octogenarian.

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