The Democratic National Convention kicked off with a bang that was quickly drowned out by the sound of Sanders supporters booing multiple speakers, including the guy they came to support. This sparked a new wave of frustration and dismay from more moderate liberals who are happy with Hillary Clinton as the democratic nominee. I've seen the words “anarchist” and “radical” hurled around like insults by many different people.
Anyone who has been following my work knows my opinion of BernieBros. They're loud, disruptive and far too willing to step over the limits of good taste—and sometimes good judgment—in the service of their cause. Before I say anything, let me assure those more moderate liberals that I share their frustration. However, it's time to stop using the words “anarchist” and “radical” as synonyms for “someone who wants to set the world on fire.” Doing so makes about as much sense as using the word “feminist” as a synonym for “man-hater.”
Anarchism is the philosophy that authority is never self-justifying. The burden of proof is on anyone in a position of authority to justify why their authority is legitimate, not on everyone else to fall in line simply because authority exists. You might say that anarchism is one of the bedrock principles of any democracy. I am an anarchist. I don't scream at my political opponents; I give well-researched talks on a variety of topics from environmentalism to the inherent contradictions of market economics.
Incidentally, anarchism is the reason that I support feminism, Black Lives Matter, the LGBTQ community and a host of other social justice causes. To be an anarchist is to reject all invalid forms of hierarchy, and hierarchies based on race, gender, orientation or ability are inherently invalid.
So what about radicalism?
The word “radical” is often used as an insult—in most cases, a synonym for “extremist”—but it shouldn't be. A radical is simply someone who wants to see large-scale social change. Martin Luther King was a radical, and so was Susan B. Anthony. The radicals that our parents denounced often become the heroes that our children celebrate.
Radicals are often contrasted with incrementalists, who—in many cases—also want large-scale social change, but who are willing to accept a more gradual transition. In fact, the two philosophies are not polar opposites so much as they are points on a spectrum, and mostly everyone falls somewhere between the two.
For instance, I'm a radical on the issue of climate action primarily because I believe we have no other choice. In my opinion, the window to pursue an incremental strategy to wean ourselves off fossil fuels closed at some point in the mid 1990s, and now we must take decisive action as quickly as possible if we want our grandchildren to grow up on a habitable planet. You should understand that my views are not the product of fear or anger or any other strong emotion; they are the product of years and years and years of research. Radical does not mean “irrational,” and it's time we disabused ourselves of that misconception.
This is more personal observation than anything else, but in my experience, the biggest difference between radicals and incrementalists is that radicals embrace a philosophy that says social change never happens in the absence of external pressure. To simplify that: white people never woke up one morning and said, “You know, we should really end segregation.” Black people had to fight for inclusion. They were outsiders, marginalized in terms of political power, and they fought for a voice.
People who have found a comfortable position in any social hierarchy—be it government or business or any other structured organization—have very little motivation to challenge the moral failings of that hierarchy. That's why radicals are skeptical whenever someone tells us that we need to work within the system. We generally believe that “change from within” is something of a paradox.
The only way to gain enough influence to change the system from within is to become so inculcated with the values of that system that change is no longer desirable. For example, you need a lot of money if you want to make things better for poor people, but most people who gain enough money to do that lose interest in helping the poor.
That's not just my opinion; there's plenty of research to illustrate the ways in which material wealth changes our values. I'd be remiss if I didn't point out that money doesn't have to change your values, but if you're rich and you want to avoid that fate, you have to make a conscious effort to embrace empathy.
Radicals believe that it takes an outsider with significant populist appeal to effect change. Bernie Sanders' campaign wasn't a failure; it was a resounding success! A success that wouldn't have been possible if Bernie wasn't an outsider who was willing to challenge the party orthodoxy. He shook the Democrats out of their complacency. He made them realize that—as Laurie Penny so aptly puts it—a strategy of “vote for us because we're the lesser evil” no longer resonates with large sections of the American public.
You shouldn't decry radicals. Radicals are absolutely essential if you want anything to get better. But you know what? So are incrementalists!
Radicals provide the impetus for change, but incrementalists are the wonderful people who provide the necessary structure that transforms a shiny new idea into a workable plan. They know how and when to compromise with their detractors, and unlike radicals, who—let's be honest—have a very rigid concept of what a just society looks like, incrementalists tend to see things in more fluid terms. Which means they're better at incorporating diverse perspectives. If you want things to get better, someone has to work within the system, and someone else has to put pressure on it from the outside. You need both of those things to have any hope of real change; neither one is sufficient on its own.
And remember, it's a spectrum. Every activist has a bit of radical in them and a bit of incrementalist as well. It's just a question of proportion.
Bernie Sanders was smart enough to realize the need for both philosophies. Endorsing Hillary Clinton wasn't selling out; it was recognition of the fact that he has a better chance of accomplishing his goals by working with her.
Having established all that, I would like to say something to the Sanders supporters who insisted on screaming at every speaker that walked on stage Monday night. You won! Your movement is responsible for creating real change. Maybe not as much change as you would like, but this is where radicals need to take a cue from incrementalists. You pushed the Democratic Party into adopting a more progressive agenda. Call that a win, and let them have their four days of meaningless feel-good platitudes delivered by B-list celebrities.
There's a wonderful line from Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series: “When your terms are accepted, hold to them, or no one will trust you.”
You may not realize this, but when Hillary adopted a more progressive platform, that was her way of offering you an olive branch. If you spit in her face now, the only thing you'll have proved is that trying to work with you is pointless. Good luck getting anything done that way. Bernie was the radical who made the Democratic Party embrace a new vision; give Hillary a chance to be the incrementalist who makes that vision a reality.
Follow Rich on Twitter, @Rich_Penney