Is the US election actually a revolution? Lessons from Thomas Paine and Antonio Gramsci

Unlike plenty of violent revolutionaries from the past, American presidential hopefuls Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump are not seeking to overthrow a monarchy, topple an oppressive dictator, or send their enemies to the guillotine. But few witnesses would disagree that they are revolutionizing US politics by mobilizing popular support against what they perceive as inadequacies in the current system.

Despite technological advances and increased productivity, Americans are working longer hours than they ever have. Additionally, due to a rising cost of living, stagnant wages, and underemployment, many workers are struggling to make ends meet. Sanders’ and Trump’s supporters find little consolation in the fact that the unemployment rate and fuel prices are now lower than they’ve been in years.

In short, while Wall Street is booming, most ordinary Americans don’t see the economic benefits that President Obama talks about when he reflects on the success achieved during his eight-year presidency. Rather, these voters are angry, and concerned about their future economic security.

Could it be possible that two politicians sitting on opposite sides of the political spectrum have the same overarching goals for US society? And what warnings can two of history’s greatest political thinkers—Thomas Paine and Antonio Gramsci—give us about the effect that their modern approaches will have on American society and the future of American politics?


What do we mean by “revolution”?

For centuries, great minds have debated the meaning of the term “revolution.” Scholars from Aristotle to Tocqueville to Marx to Gramsci have offered different interpretations. Despite their differences, these thinkers have agreed that all revolutions entail both mass mobilization and change.

Most scholars identify the American and French revolutions as the beginning of modernity. These landmark 18th-century events, which built on the progress of the English Revolution, challenged longstanding aristocratic privilege and replaced it with a more democratic system.

Alexis de Tocqueville, one of the scholars who has attempted to define the term “revolution”

Since that time, a number of other revolutions have taken place—the European revolutions of 1848, the Russian Revolution of 1917, the Chinese Revolution of 1949, the Cuban Revolution of 1953-9, and the Iranian Revolution of 1979 are a handful of examples. More recently, the Arab Spring has altered the landscape of the Middle East and North Africa.

This shows that there are different methods and ideologies that seek to bring about major change, and the term “revolution” can apply to either a bloody overthrow of a regime (like the American and French Revolutions) or a more peaceful modification of an existing system.


How different are Sanders’ and Trump’s “revolutionary” messages?

Sanders’ and Trump’s messages are clearly very different, yet they have one very important thing in common.

Sanders’ message addresses the fact that corporate greed and growing inequalities have corrupted American democracy, whereas Trump believes that poor political leadership and government pandering to special interests have led to America’s decline.

One of these positions is social democratic, the other is authoritarian populist, but, ultimately, they both advocate rebuilding (but not replacing) what they perceive as a broken system, and so far, angry, white, working-class voters have driven the success of both campaigns.

Bernie Sanders

Image credit: David Garten,

Sanders’ appeal stems from his fiery criticisms of “the rigged economy,” “Wall Street oligarchs,” and “corrupt campaign financing.” Trump supporters are attracted to his politically incorrect criticism of Washington politicians and “outsiders,” such as immigrants and foreign businesses who he simplistically claims are stealing Americans’ jobs and resources. To market himself, Trump frequently pumps up the Beatles’ song Revolution at his campaign speeches and victory parties, and uses the motto Trump: Make America Great Again.

Sanders and Trump are both reaching voters who are deeply frustrated because they have been unable to achieve the “American Dream.” These voters share the view that greedy elites and special interests have hijacked the system and have left them behind.

As Sanders recently put it: “I am angry and the American people are angry.” Trump echoed a similar remark: “I am very angry because our country is being run horribly and I will gladly accept the mantle of anger.”

Donald Trump

Image credit: Gage Skidmore

Another important cross-over message is that both Sanders and Trump believe that the Super Pac system of unlimited political donations has corrupted American democracy.

In a recent Democratic Party debate, Sanders said: “I am very proud to be the only candidate up here who does not have a Super Pac, who is not raising huge sums of money from Wall Street or special interests.” So far, he has financed his campaign with an average contribution of $27 from his supporters.

Trump, a billionaire who finances his own campaign, made a similar remark during a recent Republican Party debate: “I don’t want their money. I don’t need their money, and I’m the only one up here that can say that.”

This rhetoric is winning the hearts (and votes) of many disgruntled Americans, but is radical change actually needed?


Thomas Paine in brief: a transatlantic radical

Over two centuries ago, Thomas Paine made a big stir on both sides of the Atlantic. His radical political writings helped inspire the American and French revolutions.

In 1776, Paine wrote Common Sense, in which he urged the Thirteen Colonies in America to declare their independence from what he believed was an abusive and corrupt British monarchy.

Paine’s use of simple yet fiery language conquered the hearts and minds of angry Americans and encouraged them to mobilize for change, just as Sanders and Trump are doing today.

Then, in 1791 and 1792, Paine published his two-part pamphlet Rights of Man, in which he defended the right of the French people to overthrow the Old Regime, claiming that, “There are times that try men’s souls,” and “We have it in our power to begin the world over again.”

Paine’s primary concern was that a rigged system defined by aristocratic privilege created great inequalities and prevented the majority of society from exercising their natural rights of freedom and equality. As he put it, “One extreme produces the other: to make one rich many must be made poor; neither can the system be supported by other means.”

Doesn’t this sound strikingly similar to what politicians are debating today in America and elsewhere?

Antonio Gramsci and the struggle for hegemony

In Prison Notebooks, Antonio Gramsci detailed his seminal concept of hegemony, which is the process by which leaders gain the support of the majority and then maintain legitimacy. In the context of economic depression, class struggle, and the rise of fascism in Italy in the 1930s, he argued that leaders achieve hegemony through a combination of coercion (the use or threat of force) and consent (the manipulation of ideas, beliefs, and values), but that hegemony is always vulnerable.

Antonio Gramsci

Gramsci asserts that the most successful leader is the person who is able to create the most convincing narrative about the economic and political failures of the current system and offer a persuasive alternative that mobilizes the support of the majority. He believed that challenges to the “establishment” take different forms at different times: sometimes they are a violent clash and attempt to overthrow state institutions like the Russian Revolution in 1917—he called this a “war of maneuver.”

In other circumstances, a protracted, ideological struggle takes place in which leaders of mass movements gradually transform the dominant narrative to gain and then keep power—Gramsci called this a war of position. He believed that the latter was necessary to produce meaningful and sustained change. Ultimately, this would create a new “common sense” that would break with and change the unjust status quo.


Lessons from Paine and Gramsci

Although we live in a very different age to those in which Paine and Gramsci did, their teachings contain important lessons.

Paine (building on the work of John Locke) taught us that when the current system is failing the majority, we should use our natural right of freedom to attempt to change it, and mobilize others to do the same; Gramsci taught us that the conjuncture of economic and political failures creates spaces for alternative discourses in the ongoing struggle between groups for hegemony. Movements like Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and the Tea Party have challenged the dominant narrative and have created the conditions for change (a new “common sense”). TV and social media are the platforms through which the struggle for hegemony (power and legitimacy) is being played out. Who will win this (until it’s lost again) remains to be seen.

Both Sanders and Trump portray themselves as “men of destiny” who can rescue the ignored, angry, insecure, and dispossessed. As Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labour in the Clinton administration, puts it: “Something very big has happened, and it’s not due to Bernie Sanders’s magnetism or Donald Trump’s likability. It’s a rebellion against the establishment.” Gramsci describes this phenomenon as a shift “from a state of political passivity to a certain activity.” By this, he means that leaders are effectively penetrating public consciousness and mobilizing ordinary people to pursue change.

This process, which has exposed the deep fault lines in American society and drawn greater attention to class, race, gender, and inequality, is reshaping the US political chessboard. Regardless of who ultimately becomes president, this struggle is likely to continue well into the future.

So far, Sanders, a self-proclaimed socialist, has been closer aligned to Paine and Gramsci’s ideas in that he has sought to create a “new” political language and mobilize a mass movement for greater justice and equality; while this has been very influential, it is unlikely that he will overcome the more mainstream Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton, who is seen by many as a logical successor to President Obama.

Trump, who appears on course to win the Republican nomination, has not in any way mirrored Paine and Gramsci’s vision of progress. Instead, he has come across as an American version of the populist former Italian prime minister Silvio Berlusconi, combining skill, finesse, humor, and media presence with an arrogant, outspoken, and punitive style.


Conclusions: are we in the midst of a revolution?

Economic and political crises in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere have created the conditions for the rise of social and political movements that challenge the “establishment.” These movements will not topple the existing system, as Paine advocated in 18th-century America and France, but they are having a major impact.

Unless mainstream politicians can convince the majority that they can respond to its needs (and thus resolve what Gramsci called “a crisis of hegemony”), populist movements will continue to exert influence and reshape politics. TV and social media are where this power struggle will play out, and different “revolutionaries” will, as Gramsci envisioned, seek to create a new “common sense.”

The problem for America and the world is that much of Donald Trump’s “common sense” lacks precisely that: common sense. Although this right-wing, populist approach has worked well so far in the primaries, time will tell if it will be enough to win the Republican nomination and “trump” Hillary Clinton in the presidential election. As John Lennon put it in his famous song Revolution, “You say you got a real solution…. Well, you know, we’d all love to see the plan.”


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