Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Exit, Voice, or Loyalty: Thoughts on the Sanders Movement

The 2016 primary election season has seen the greatest widespread dissatisfaction and defection from the two-party duopoly in modern times. For both the Democrats and the Republicans, members have challenged the party establishment and promoted insurgent candidates.  How will this all play out through the general election and beyond?  We can consider the case of the Sanders supporters.

One way to approach this question is to take Albert O. Hirschman’s brilliant conceptual triad designed to analyze the options available to those who are dissatisfied with a particular organization, institution, or situation.  The model offers three course of action – exit, voice, or loyalty.  Under the “exit” option one simply leaves or takes their business elsewhere.  This is regarded as the market-based solution.  Alternatively, one can exercise “voice” through the organization of like-minded others and demand change, so that the organization can be transformed into something more satisfactory. Hirschman associates this option with democratic activism. Finally, there is the default option of “loyalty” where one can continue to faithfully support, or remain. in the organization.

Hirschman’s scheme is conceptually elegant, and it can be applied to a wide variety of situations, but fails to consider fully the contextual factors that might constrain the seemingly “free choices” or options facing the social actor.  For example, in the case of a disgruntled employee, “exit” may be highly desirable but not feasible under poor labor market conditions of high unemployment.  Similarly, “voice” may seem an attractive option but there may be few opportunities or the consequences of exercising voice may be dismissal from the job.  What then appears, after considering and rejecting these options, as “loyalty” is in fact really a situation of highly restricted and constrained choice, or no choice at all. 

How do the three options of the Hirschman model currently apply in the short-run to the Sanders supporter? Many may choose to exercise the “exit” option. This could mean not supporting Clinton and either voting for another political party or abstaining all together.  “Voice” could involve working to change the Democratic Party from within so that it more closely aligns with the principles and policies of the Sanders movement. “Loyalty” would entail the strong partisan commitment of supporting whatever nominee emerges from the Democratic Party nominating process.

In the case of the Sanders supporter, there are also contextual constraints that limit easy choices.  One of these contextual factors is the political dynamic generated by a two-party system. As it applies to the exit option, under a two-party system failure to turn out for the Democratic Party, or casting a ballot for a third party, may serve to benefit the Republicans. One is then cast, no matter how unfairly, as somehow responsible for an outcome that may be the least desirable – in this case a Trump victory. 

Some variant of the “voice” option was incorporated into the platform drafting procedures with the appointment of Sanders’ representatives to participate in that process.  Voice can, in the short run, be further exercised through protests and demonstrations at the national convention.  But there are obvious constraints given the fact that the Democratic Party is a corporate dominated party institutionally devoted more toward defending the establishment status quo than promoting radical structural changes that would challenge the balance of social class power. 

Further, the very foundation of the Sanders campaign – as a “political revolution” dependent upon a long-term mass social movement – requires a non-institutionally regulated, sometimes-cacophonous, overture that will disrupt and agitate for substantive social change.   

For this reason, the post-Bernie led movement is best advised, over the post-election long-run, to combine “exit” -- from the shackles of the two party system (which has been the graveyard of social movements) -- with the “voice” of the various movements and existing organizations sharing common ground in seeking justice, equality, and democracy.  

Of course, this will require some level of organization to be most effective. Last night Bernie Sanders communicated the following to those supporting his campaign and movement:

“Our work will continue in the form of a new group called Our Revolution. The goal of this organization will be no different from the goal of our campaign: we must transform American politics to make our political and economic systems once again responsive to the needs of working families.

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