Let me get this preface out of the way: Bernie Sanders isn’t perfect. He’s arguably not even good. Democratic Socialism can be a dangerous thing, a thing that enables the worst of capitalism and a thing that normalizes class predation. This isn’t a piece about “Saint Bernard,” but instead a piece about how bucking popular narratives is important, and should be considered in politics going forward if we want to see progressive victories.
The Hero’s Journey
In 1949, Joseph Campbell wrote The Hero With A Thousand Faces. If you’re not familiar with it, it takes a broad look at world mythology and storytelling, in an attempt to identify similarities in narrative arcs. If someone’s ever told you that there are no original stories, their completely unoriginal assessment of stories is predicated on Campbell’s work (which is predicated on others’). Campbell’s work came into popular public attention thanks to George Lucas, who explicitly used Campbell’s model, his “monomyth,” as the foundation for Star Wars.
The basic monomyth details a hero’s call to adventure, reacting to that call, receiving supernatural aid, overcoming gatekeepers, overcoming temptations, facing and returning from devastation, transforming, atoning, and returning having made a change. This is all super loosely defined, and if you consider any story hard enough, you can probably force the story into this mold. That’s kind of the point; if you squint hard enough, all stories look the same. Or at least, conveniently ignoring the ones that don’t.
Now, there’s plenty of criticism about Campbell’s model and for a lot of good reasons. But what matters here is, that model is considered a standard, a template for modern Western storytelling. It’s so pervasive that it comes up in almost every intro-level college writing class. In high school creative writing, I was literally told it’s the model of every popular story. Which of course is nonsense and very much centered on European thinking. It doesn’t matter whether or not Campbell’s narrative arc is correct, but instead that it’s deeply rooted in our concept of popular storytelling.
Our Love Of Heroes
We love heroes. Culturally, we exalt individuals like Elon Musk and Steve Jobs and assign them almost mythological traits. In popular fiction, we love our completely made up, larger-than-life individuals who change the world, from Harry Potter to Luke Skywalker to Alexander Hamilton (I kid). While it’s good to put a face on a story, often this emphasis ignores the value of supporting actors in these stories. Do you think Steve Jobs could actually build and program an iPhone? Of course, he couldn’t. So why is he the name on everyone’s tongue? Ultimately, this thinking comes down to Great Man Theory. Great Man Theory makes for interesting stories, sure, but it breaks down when you start devaluing the work of many to exalt the few.
This idea of promoting the few at the expense of many is one of the fundamental issues with Lean-In Feminism, which benefits the few women at the top while doing little or nothing for the many at the bottom. This brand of feminism, of course, was core to the Clinton campaign. Don’t we all remember about that special place in hell women would go to for not supporting Hillary Clinton, even if she wasn’t supporting them back?
But Bernie’s One Man
He is. And certainly, some people really felt that he resonated with them as an individual. There are some people that looked at that 74-year-old New Englander and thought, “Damn. This is such a cool guy. I want to see him win!” There are some people that felt that way first and foremost. They were rare. They perhaps got disproportionate attention, but if you actually sit down and listen to most Sanders supporters, that’s not what they were in for.
It was never really about Bernie. Most people wanted to see Bernie succeed not because they wanted to see him in office. They weren’t thinking about one Great Man. They were thinking of the masses. They were thinking of the rallies. They were thinking of the people in need, the people without healthcare. It was never about His Turn.
The People Back Home
The thing about the Hero’s Journey is, it’s about the hero. It’s about the one person who leaves the village and goes to change the world. It’s always about that chosen, special one. Growing up, I’ve always been fascinated with the villagers, the people back home. I know that when the hero leaves when the camera stops focusing on the village, their struggles don’t just disappear. I want to know about those people, about those communities. I want to know how they work together and stay alive. I want to know about their folklore. I want to know about their unique cultures. I, frankly, don’t give a shit about the hero. I don’t feel that I’m alone in this.
Bernie’s story was consistently Not About Bernie. His story was about the people back at the village, the people he was fighting for. This wasn’t really about Bernie’s individual accomplishments. I think this was one of the major disconnects and remains one of the major disconnects between the Clinton and Sanders wings of the mainstream left. When the Clinton wing calls out the specific trait of Bernie Sanders, they’re easy to deflect and ignore because It’s Not About Him. Sure, he’s not perfect, but it’s about the movement he represents, not about him specifically. Who cares if he said some stupid thing when he was in college because it’s actually about the people he’s fighting to help, not him. On the other hand, when Clinton is held up as the Chosen One, her supporters have to use mental gymnastics to diminish or ignore legitimate criticisms, often lashing out because her faults ruin their One True Hero narrative. Clearly, she can’t be a villain that opposes minimum wages for people of color, because that’s not what feminist heroes do. If you pay attention to the people back home in the village in Hillary Clinton’s story, she ceases to look like the great hero. You can’t just say it’s not about her, it’s about the masses because she hurts the masses. It has to be about elevating her.
If we want to look at the future as progressives, I’d argue that the most important concept that came out of the 2016 election cycle is “Our Revolution.” That stands in such beautiful and stark contrast to “I’m With Her.” Trump even used that concept; he co-opted it to remarkable success with his “I’m With You” slogan at the Republican National Convention when he gave his acceptance speech. Making it about the people, not about the Great Hero, gives us all personal investment. It makes us the heroes. The Democratic Party of 2017 is making it clearer and clearer every day that it’s about the few of them, not about the many of us.
Resisting The Call Is Privilege
Another of Campbell’s popular observations is about resisting the call to adventure. You’ve seen this in movies: the hero is presented with the conflict. At first, the hero resists. Then, eventually, the hero caves and goes on the quest to save everything. This reluctance to make a change, to boldly go, is a gross form of privilege. It’s coming from a place of comfort, where the chosen one can afford to stand back for a while, as things go to hell.
The popular narrative always has the great chosen one hero resisting the call and only facing the challenge at hand at the last possible moment. Of course, in popular fiction, the hero always wins. Whereas in politics, the hero doesn’t always win and, if the hero loses, we’re stuck with a reality TV star stripping rights from immigrants and LGBT people.
What Democrats Call “Incremental Politics” Is Resisting The Call
Let that sink in. With politicians like Hillary Clinton and, to a lesser extent Barack Obama, doing the right thing is always a matter of waiting until the last possible moment to make a token effort. For example, Hillary Clinton didn’t come out in support of gay marriage, one of the single most easy to support expressions of LGBT solidarity, until well after more than half the country supported it. She resisted the call to adventure. To her fans, her supporters, all that matters is that she’s in the fight now. But to many of the people hurt by that apprehension and pensiveness, it was too little, too late. This isn’t Harry Potter.
This was also the case in the battles for healthcare and minimum wage increases. Pensive, last-minute support is not enough for a lot of Americans. For a lot of people, we needed someone on our side from the get-go, not someone who had and expressed the privilege necessary to hold back and wait until these things were politically expedient. To a lot of us, “We’ll get there when we get there” is simply insufficient and potentially deadly. This is doubly so coming from people who never have never once had to worry about wages or healthcare in their lives.
Bernie was all-in and has always been all-in. He rejects that dangerous, deadly narrative of the pensive hero who resists the call. He never resisted the call. He supported LGBT people in the 1980s, long before it was politically expedient to do so. For those of us who can’t wait for convenience from the privileged, that sort of thing is not just refreshing but relieving.
Politics is all about controlling narratives. And right now, the prevailing, popular narrative simply isn’t working for the left. The prevailing, popular narrative requires powerful, chosen individuals to succeed, regardless of the cost of the many. After all, they die off-camera. But that narrative isn’t working anymore. More and more people are gaining class consciousness, and understanding that they’re not Luke Skywalker, they’re all the people on the planets that get blown up and they can’t wait for the chosen one to save them.
We need to stop pretending we can hold one person on a pedestal to save the world because that’s just not how things work. Devoting all our energy to making one person stronger, richer, and more powerful isn’t going to help the people back home in the village. If progressivism is going to succeed, it’s going to be by organizing a popular groundswell and celebrating the masses. There are no easy outs. There are no saviors.