Book review: ‘Our Revolution – A Future to Believe In’, by Bernie Sanders

Our Revolution – A Future to Believe In is the book written by Bernie Sanders at the end of his campaign to be the 2016 Democratic Party nominee for president of the United States. For his supporters, the months leading up to his eventual loss to Hilary Clinton in July that year were a time of exhilaration and heartbreak. 

As someone whose own election campaign for the presidency of the New Zealand Nurses Organisation was launched just a month before Bernie’s, I count myself among that group. During those rollercoaster months in 2015 and 2016, I was one of the millions around the world who felt a strong connection to Bernie and his “democratic socialist” campaign.

This book is a product of that time. But until there’s a sequel, it remains – like the campaign itself – valuable for the world today. 

Our Revolution is really three books in one. The introduction and chapters 5 and 6 are an account of his bid for the Democratic Party nomination. The excitement and the incredible enduring impact of that bid leapt from the page. For me, a seasoned activist myself, it contained useful tips for anyone running a grassroots campaign. 

Chapters 1 to 4 are a political autobiography. It’s short and inevitably glosses over a lot, but I felt I knew Bernie better for reading it and my convictions were only strengthened as a result. 

But the bulk of the work – the last two thirds or more – comprises Bernie’s detailed manifesto. Titled “An Agenda For a New America”, it was interesting. But with a few exceptions – like the section on “real family values” (pp.235-239), where Bernie’s burning passion shines through – most of it just wasn’t that exciting. 

Part of the problem for me was the proliferation of graphs, tables and long excerpts from old news stories. I got the sense that Bernie understood, in places, that the details of his manifesto wouldn’t be inspiring to most readers. “Let’s face it”, he says while tackling the growing ability of very wealthy people to buy elections, “campaign finance reform is not exactly a sexy issue” (p. 201). 

Another part of the problem was an over-reliance on policy solutions from the past, rather than answering the question, “what is to be done?”, through a rigorous analysis of current conditions. “I know that I’m a bit old fashioned”, he admits (p.346). Bernie also seems too keen to stress that many of these past solutions come from the Republican Party. 

But at a more fundamental level, Bernie’s solutions seem (to this reader in New Zealand) to be very moderate, nationalistic (especially the chapter on higher education, which seems to be mainly about how to make US companies more internationally competitive) and simply not up to the job. 

The issues he describes are huge. And too many of Bernie’s solutions don’t get to the root of the problem. 

“Defeating oligarchy”, he says in chapter 1 of his manifesto, means ending “the power of money”. His key policies to achieve this (p.204) are to limit the amount that an individual or corporation can spend to promote a candidate or party, to make public disclosure of campaign donations mandatory and to make public funding available to finance political campaigns. These are all worthy policies, to be sure. But they would hardly make a dint in “the power of money” in America. 

Bernie acknowledges, in passing, that “the political power of the oligarchs goes well beyond their campaign contributions and ability to influence elections. As a result of their ownership of media, think tanks, university chairs, and political front groups, they influence American public opinion and domestic and foreign policy in ways that few realise” (p.190). But Bernie offers no solutions to this problem. And even this list only scratches the surface of “the power of money”. 

The closest Bernie comes to the root of the problem is in chapter 3. “A handful of billionaires on Wall Street wield extraordinary power over the political and economic life of our country”, he says. “Congress does not regulate Wall Street, it is Wall Street that regulates Congress” (p.297). And yet, Bernie’s very moderate solutions to this problem – disincentivising financial speculation, breaking up monopolies and regulating interest rates – rely entirely on the notion that Congress can regulate Wall Street. 

If Bernie’s “democratic socialism” is to mean anything, it must mean taking back the power over the political and economic life of the country. It means democratising the economic decisions made in boardrooms and on the trading floor, securing that economic and political power in the hands of the majority. 

Bernie really only has one policy to address this issue – expanding the number of worker co-operatives. “These ventures don’t need to be small, niche companies”, he says, but then announces his plan which focuses on “small- and medium-sized businesses” (p.262). With federal assistance he says, an estimated 150,000 to 300,000 SMEs could be sold to the workers who helped build them. 

To put that in perspective, that’s about half the number of SMEs in little New Zealand and less than one percent of the SMEs in America. Even if Wall Street “allowed” Congress to pass Bernie’s plan, which seems unlikely, it would have no effect on the “extraordinary power” of the six huge corporations which he says control 60 percent of America’s GDP. 

I give Our Revolution four stars. Unlike many of the books churned out by politicians, this one clearly wasn’t produced by a ghost-writer. Bernie’s distinctive personal voice comes through, as clear as a bell. It gets a star just for that. I hope that readers of this review will consider picking up and opening this valuable book. 

It loses a star for the weaknesses in Bernie’s manifesto. But what is missing in that latter part of the book is there at the start. The power of “our revolution” to achieve “a future to believe in” comes through the rising up of the majority of the people in collective action. Or in Bernie’s own words (pp.3-4): 

“During the fifteen months of the campaign there was one central point that I made over and over again, and let me repeat it here. This campaign was never just about electing a president of the United States – as enormously important as that was. This campaign was about transforming America. It was about the understanding that real change never takes place from the top on down. It always takes place from the bottom on up. It takes place when ordinary people, by the millions, are prepared to stand up and fight for justice.” 

• Review first published on goodreads.com. Join me there for more.

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