When we started filming Waking the Sleeping Giant a year ago, our plan for a documentary film was based on a straightforward premise: there is something really important and potentially monumental happening out there across the country, a deep frustration at the way the game is rigged in favor of the wealthy and at the expense of ordinary working Americans.
When we started filming, the most exciting opportunities for movement building seemed to be around a growing economic populism on both sides of aisle. The left wing version was readily apparently in the political energy around people like Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, but it was quite apparent on the right as well. Minimum wage ballot measures passing in red states and Republican presidential candidates opposing the Trans Pacific Partnership and rallying against the economic elite were just two of the most visible signs.
And there are people across the country that recognize the potential to build a new political movement rooted in this widespread political anger and love, to borrow a phrase from Zephyr Teachout. Bernie Sanders, for instance, explicitly called out the opportunity to create a political revolution by building alliances with strange bedfellows … working people on both sides of the partisan divide who understand how the billionaire class has taken over the political process and the American economy.
But a couple of interesting things happened on the way to the revolution. First, the terrorism/national security narrative has almost completely drowned out the economic fairness narrative on the right. GOP presidential candidates are saying very little now about these issues, and if there ever was the opportunity to transcend party lines with an appeal to taking on the billionaire and corporate class it is less clear now.
Second, a well-organized and highly motivated race-focused movement ran headlong into the class-focused campaigns of the left-wing standard bearers like Bernie. #Blacklivesmatter activists aggressively disrupted campaign Clinton, Sanders, and O’Malley events, protests against police violence have forcefully intruded into the politics of large cities and of Democratic politics writ large, and now all three Democratic candidates are aggressively incorporating racism into their political critique and policy positions.
Bernie’s campaign has offered an object lesson in the success of race-focused activists to force a shift in priorities. Although Bernie has always taken strong pro-civil rights positions, his most consistent and vigorous prescription for tackling inequity of all kinds had been focused on jobs and economic fairness. In the face of intense pressure from #BlackLivesMatter and other race-focused activists, Bernie now explicitly acknowledges that job creation, stimulating the economy, and reducing the power of corporate America are insufficient; his political agenda now overtly and prominently includes a broad range of attacks on structural racism and race-based violence.
Although our film has from the beginning been a story about the effort to build a 21st century movement built around economic and political fairness, over the span of a nearly 2-year production schedule (not to mention the nine months prior in pre-production) the story itself is changing. It’s exhilarating and slightly terrifying at the same time. Something important is happening out there – a rejuvenated political movement is afoot – and we’ll follow it wherever the story takes us.