The Sanders campaign: Not an end
Though Bernie’s run is over, the movement was always what mattered most — and it will go on.
About a year ago, another member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and I were chatting about the prospects of Bernie Sanders’ presidential run. I told him I thought Bernie’s chances looked pretty good, given the crowded field of lackluster contenders, but I still had a hard time imagining him actually getting the nomination.
As a lifelong socialist, I’ve always been pessimistic about electoral politics. This skepticism is rooted in a basic understanding of the relationship between class and political power. The domination of democratic institutions by corporations and the wealthy elites means progress is only allowed insofar as it doesn’t clash with the interests of capital.
Nevertheless, I wholeheartedly supported the DSA’s decision to go all-in for Bernie, because I saw the campaign as a vehicle for socialist ideas. But to me, winning the presidency was always secondary to the larger goal of building a durable movement from the bottom up that could challenge this hegemony effectively.
But a miraculous thing happened: Bernie started winning, and my deep-seated cynicism gave way to guarded optimism. The slogan of the global left in the 21st century is “Another World is Possible,” and for a brief moment, there was a palpable feeling like that world might be just beyond the horizon.
For a few weeks in February it felt as though the stranglehold of corporate America on the levers of power just might be broken. The Democratic establishment seemed weakened to the point where they were powerless to deny the party’s left wing its rightful place at the head of the table.
That feeling was fleeting. Our hopes were dashed almost as quickly as they had been raised when the Party’s center closed ranks around a candidate who, in any rational democratic system would have been eliminated months ago. Despite being one of the worst fundraisers in the race and having a nearly non-existent campaign organization, Joe Biden coasted through the primaries on a wave of endorsements and free press.
In the back of my mind, I had always sort of expected something like this would happen, but it was no less shocking when it did. It was a brilliant, Machiavellian move likely orchestrated by Barack Obama and other Democratic leaders behind the scenes. The Sanders campaign was completely broadsided by the sudden winnowing of the field almost overnight.
Practically every post-mortem about the Sanders campaign tries to detail exactly what it did wrong — as if there were anything that it could have done to overcome the forces that were arrayed against it.
Though Bernie lost the race, it’s incorrect to label his campaign a failure. He succeeded in building a mass-based political movement that posed a credible threat to the establishment. Paradoxically, his loss of the nomination itself is arguably a byproduct of that success.
In light of Biden’s obvious weaknesses as a candidate, the consolidation of moderates behind him can only be seen as an act of desperation intended to blunt Bernie’s momentum.
Only a few weeks prior, superdelegates had told the New York Times that they were seriously considering drafting some random Democrat to be the nominee if Bernie came to the convention with a plurality — even if it meant alienating voters and causing a major rift in the party.
The inescapable conclusion from all of this is that Democratic elites regard Bernie as such an existential threat that they’re willing to risk losing to Trump to stop him.
An election’s outcome is binary — there are winners and losers — but evaluating the contribution of the Sanders campaign to the left’s long-term political project requires a different ruler. What matters is whether Bernie moved the ball forward.
Bernie did something historic. He showed that a new way of doing politics was possible. Instead of waiting for campaign finance reform, he became the change he wanted to see in the world, building a campaign completely funded and powered by ordinary working people.
Bernie developed a massive volunteer organization, with more than a million people across the country phonebanking, texting and canvassing. Volunteers knocked on more than half a million doors in Nevada to deliver his huge victory there.
An appropriate metric of the movement’s success is the establishment’s fear. Its efficacy is measured in sweat — not only that of campaign workers but also the beads that were mopped off the brows of hedge fund managers and D.C. consultants as they watched Bernie’s poll numbers rise.
The proof that the movement is formidable could be seen in Chris Matthews’ pants-shitting histrionics and James Carville’s tinfoil hat ravings about Putin. Every single word of slander hurled at Bernie, his staff or his supporters was a tacit acknowledgement of the movement’s power.
In the end, that power was sadly not enough to defeat the overwhelming strength of the opposition, but that doesn’t diminish it in the slightest.
It’s tempting to retreat into fatalism right now and internalize the scorn heaped on us by those reveling in Bernie’s defeat, but if this campaign has shown us anything, it’s that the masses of working people do have power when they are united by a common goal.
We can’t ruminate on the fact that we lost. Instead, we have to recognize how much work is still ahead of us and steel ourselves for the task.
Taken in isolation, this election seems like a huge setback, but when viewed from a long-term perspective, the progress is obvious. The left has been a non-entity in American politics for more than half a century, and over the past 20 years it has had to be rebuilt practically from scratch.
If you told me back in 2001, when our anti-war group was staging 10-person die-ins on the university mall, that a socialist candidate for president would be packing stadiums and seriously contesting the Democratic nomination, I would have said you were crazy.
The left is still in a process of being reborn. If one surveys the 21st century, you will see the left’s progression from weakness to strength. A seed was planted in anti-globalization and anti-war movements that was nurtured by Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, DAPL, etc. With each struggle, the left grew stronger. An entire alternative media ecosystem developed. New organizations formed and existing ones grew.
Bernie’s campaigns represented a new stage. They gave these various currents an outlet for expression — a focal point for political activity. But all the forces that rallied behind Sanders weren’t sufficient to carry him all the way to the White House.
Now we need to get our bearings and come to the sober realization that we are still much closer to the start than we are to the finish. Fight that voice in your head that tells you it was all for nothing.
Nothing has been wasted. Everything that we built is still in place and forms the foundation of the next phase.
Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene V. Debs is Bernie Sanders’ personal idol and the archetype for his entire political career. Debs was a brilliant public speaker who peppered his addresses with lots of Biblical metaphors.
He once said:
Too long have the workers of the world waited for some Moses to lead them out of bondage. He has not come; he never will come. I would not lead you out if I could; for if you could be led out, you could be led back again. I would have you make up your minds that there is nothing that you cannot do for yourselves
I think about these words a lot, and right now they’re especially apt. What’s important is to not get too hung up on this moment, this election, this candidate. It’s hard to break free of this mindset since we’ve spent the past months constantly reminding ourselves of its all-consuming importance.
If we view this campaign as everything, then all as lost, but if we see it instead as a stepping stone to something greater, then we have the will and determination to dust ourselves off and fight on.
This is not an end. It’s a means. Nor is it the end, but only the beginning of the next chapter.