Milbank takes the stand this morning as a witness for the prosecution, testifying that while Bernie Sanders is "no doubt sincere in his long-held beliefs," his "actions are not those of a revolutionary." By "actions," Milbank means only that Sanders has acted the traditional pol, "playing the game and working the system" — not "storming the establishment ramparts." His campaign has run misleading ads, the oldest tactic since Gutenberg; he has employed conventional Democratic strategists, hacks, hired guns and political wiseguys; and he possesses a long, working relationship with the "corrupt" Democratic machine.
To which I would say, So what? As Saul Alinsky commanded his disciples (in Rules for Radicals), the smart revolutionary works within the system. One uses the means available and whichever means are effective; "I start from where the world is, as it is," wrote Alinsky in a more authentic revolutionary time, "not as I would like it to be." If that means joining the sordid ranks of Nixonian publicity and Clintonian ethics and the sniveling establishment's machinery, then so be it. Questionable means to a virtuous end, he reckoned, tend to shed their questionability.
So here — on the matter of Sanders's game-playing and system-working — I would argue that Milbank's testimony is weak. Deploying whatever means are effective and deploying them through cynical operatives constitute no real defrocking of the genuine revolutionary. A man's gotta do what a man's gotta do, Mary Lou; and Sanders, to have any hope of electoral success, has got to exploit the traditional means of political chicanery. There may be a touch of harm in this, but no indictable foul.
I would, however, file a second "anti-revolutionary" count against Sanders, in terms of how Alinsky laid out the rules. The latter, who was using the phrase "political revolution" a half century before it became a presidential campaign slogan, also argued for what he called "radical pragmatism" — and that meant more than merely exploiting the customary tactics of campaign bullshit.
"Effective organization is thwarted by the desire for instant and dramatic change," warned Alinsky; "you can miss the target by shooting too high as well as too low." I'd contend that promising voters free higher education, painless expansions in entitlements, a radically "instant" shift to single-payer and the end of big banking and Wall Street as we know them are, as political targets, a wee bit too high. Alinsky made clear that in any battle he was happy to settle for 10 percent of his 100-percent goals, so that he could then fight for the next 10 percent. His revolutionary program was in reality one of knowing, accepting, incremental change — that which is so disdained by Sanders & Troops.
There lies an immense difference between believing one's own propaganda and laboring knowingly to achieve far less. And this is a difference that seems to be lost on the Sanders campaign, where True Believers prevail.
Which points to yet another difference between the revolutionary rules-giver Saul Alinsky and Bernie Sanders. "I detest and fear dogma," wrote the former, with dogma defined as "exclusive possession of the truth." Alinsky was, at heart, a skeptic: "The human spirit glows from that small inner light of doubt" about our own convictions, he observed. He further observed that old conservative anxiety about dramatic change, cautioning his would-be followers to always remember that for every solution there is a problem — and that today's heroes can be tomorrow's tyrants.
Of course Sen. Sanders has every right to conceive his "political revolution" in any manner he sees fit. Bernie is free to adhere to his own Rules, not Saul's. I would side with Alinsky and contend, however, that Sanders's revolution reaches too far, too soon, too unskeptically — and I'd further predict a result of mass disillusionment among the democratic-socialist troops.