LBJ vs. Bernie Sanders

Long time GFC’ers know of our disdain for whiners who complain about political problems but do nothing to help legislators address those problems. In the same category also fall those who complain that “the system is broken” or “the system is rigged.” Neither statement is true and both express more about the statement-maker than the system.

No one participated in a system in greater need of reform than Lyndon Johnson. As an ambitious Southern member of a Democratic Party controlled by segregationist Southern Democrats, during his first 20 years in Congress Johnson opposed every civil rights measure. But after he accumulated power he pushed through the first civil rights bill since Reconstruction. As Johnson’s biographer Robert Caro explains:

“Johnson always had this true, deep compassion to help poor people and particularly poor people of color, but even stronger than the compassion was his ambition. But when the two aligned, when compassion and ambition finally are pointing in the same direction, then Lyndon Johnson becomes a force for racial justice, unequalled certainly since Lincoln.”

Legislators cannot get anything done without power. Contrast Johnson with (say) Bernie Sanders, who has served in Congress longer than Johnson did but has little to show for it. That’s not because the system is broken or rigged but rather because Sanders has not done the work necessary to make changes happen. That work is exhausting. To get anything done, federal legislators must gain the consent of 268 other legislators, each of whom wants something in exchange. Few succeed — and the only ones who do are tireless workers who accumulate the power necessary to get legislation passed.

It’s no different in state government. To pass a bill, a California state legislator has to gain the consent of 61 other legislators, each of whom wants something in exchange. If you think California’s government isn’t doing what it should be doing, don’t blame the system. Blame yourself if you’re not persistently supporting lawmakers who legislate in the general interest. Your job is to help make them more powerful and protect them from vengeful special interests.

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Originally appeared on Medium, 3/5/20.