Mass Rallies & Political Illusion (The Sanders Campaign)


The Sanders campaign was and remains for the rest of its duration a remarkable amalgam of social realism and social criticism, on the one hand, plus imagination and fantasy, on the other hand. About fantasy I don’t mean this or that policy proposal or whether the numbers added up or not, because clearly the campaign caught fire in ways that no one last year could ever have expected, garnering votes, money, and enthusiasm. And by fantasy I don’t mean the very real and urgent frustration of people, especially among young people, up against a rigged free market economy, massive amounts of personal debt, and a dying middle class. These are the economic engines driving both the Sanders and Trump campaigns in such diametrically opposite directions.

The fantasy component to the campaign had more to do with the idea of a “political revolution.” It was powered by the powerful illusion generated by large rallies of four thousand people, six thousand people, twenty-thousand people all brought together by the charismatic spell of an unlikely political hero ready to speak truth to power. It was there that the Sanders campaign came together and was sensed as momentum, as youth culture, as energy, as a genuine mass social movement, as “political revolution.” People interested in politics should consider the importance of the mass rally coupled with social media, both about what these things represent and what they can and cannot actually accomplish. Critical to the mass rally is the spell created by the physical presence and proximity of large numbers of like-minded citizens gathered together in the physical microcosm created by the architectural frame of a concert hall, sports stadium, or the confines of a public park.

Notwithstanding the justifiable suspicion that the bigger illusion is representative democracy, why call the Sanders political revolution an illusion? Like the Occupy Movement, there’s every reason to assume that the Sanders campaign will have a medium and long term ripple effect that carries real-world change into American political life. That depends upon creating sustained and sustaining networks built upon political relations outside the confined space of the mass rally. But for the immediate moment, there was insufficient critical mass behind the mass rally. The insight, ideas, and enthusiasm coalesced into insufficient votes, particularly in the congested sprawl of heavily populated urban areas up and down the entire eastern seaboard, across the south and southwest, and up the long Californian coast where Sanders lost the Democratic base by large numbers.

About zjb

Zachary Braiterman is Professor of Religion in the Department of Religion at Syracuse University. His specialization is modern Jewish thought and philosophical aesthetics.
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