What should we take from Bernie Sanders’ campaign?
What should we take from Bernie Sanders’ campaign?

Bernie Sanders will not be the Democratic Party candidate in this year’s United States presidential election. What political takeaways can be drawn from his momentous campaign?

First, Sanders’ self-described democratic socialist messaging clearly shifted the political goalposts in the heart of global capitalism. In the five years since he announced his candidacy in the last presidential primary race, the Vermont senator has played a central role shaping the debate about what sort of society the US should and could become. His disciplined messaging helped to solidify and shape a broad pro-socialist sentiment among a small but significant layer of young and working-class people (“small” being millions in a country of 330 million). It speaks volumes about the growth of this layer since the financial crisis of 2008-09 that the White House’s Council of Economic Advisers in 2018 published a report titled “The opportunity costs of socialism” to counter the rising tide of left-wing consciousness across the country.

This year, exit polls showed that 50 to 60 percent of Democratic primary voters are in favour of “a government [health] plan for all rather than private insurance”. Support for free tuition at public colleges had wider support – three-quarters of respondents in Texas, California, North Carolina and Tennessee; two-thirds in New Hampshire and Virginia. On the question of socialism, 56 percent said they were favourable in Texas, 53 percent in California, 60 percent in Maine, 50 percent in North Carolina and 47 percent in Tennessee. In other states, about half of voters said they believed that the economy needs to be entirely overhauled, rather than just tinkered with.

Sanders’ brand of socialism may be little more than social democracy for America, rather than workers’ power internationally, but the energy that his movement harnessed portends a US in which socialism as an idea is not forever confined to the margins after the collapse of the Stalinist dictatorships that previously and falsely were held up as “really existing socialism”. For people the world over who desire and desperately need an economy run to benefit all of us, rather than just the already wealthy, this should be a welcome development.

A second takeaway is that the Democratic establishment seemed more concerned about the prospect of a Sanders presidency than about the threat of four more years of a Republican White House. For all the shrill cries warning of Donald Trump’s purported danger to “the republic” and his mental unfitness for office, it was stunning how quickly the dropouts and the party machine rallied behind Joe Biden, a corrupt, status-quo-monger and a weak and compromised candidate now facing an accusation of serious sexual assault. That they are backing the man who opposes universal health care at the very moment the coronavirus pandemic is wreaking havoc tells you all you need to know about the political and moral universe they inhabit – hostile to even the basic framework of social welfare that exists in pretty much every developed economy if it means a few tax hikes on the ultra-wealthy.

The level of coordination between almost every established interest in the party to make Biden a lock also shows that, in an era of political disintegration and malaise, the power of “the centre” should not be underestimated. Many in the party’s base lean toward the policies that only Sanders advocates, but the huge campaign within the apparatus to move people behind the “more electable” Biden clearly worked on those who genuinely want Trump gone above all else. The third takeaway, however, is that it wasn’t all a giant establishment conspiracy. To win, Sanders needed to improve on his 2016 numbers. Instead, he went backwards almost everywhere as soon as voters had a choice of other candidates who weren’t Hillary Clinton. And he needed a surge in his key constituency, young people. While he won up to two-thirds of voters aged 18-29, their share of the total vote went down in almost every state contested. Combined with the enduring loyalties built over generations in the southern states, where Sanders was again slaughtered, those numbers ultimately made his campaign an uphill battle.

Where the surges did come, they look to have been concentrated among voters with antipathy toward Sanders and toward progressive economic policies: college-educated high-income voters. Like the party establishment, there is a section among them whose purported progressive values falter at the hurdle of tax increases and social class desegregation. To put it bluntly, many don’t like the idea of Trump’s border wall, but will be damned if they’re going to welcome “undesirables” into their own gated communities and upscale enclaves. The party has spent enormous energy trying to break these people from the Republicans, with significant successes in recent election cycles. As Dave Wasserman, an editor of the Cook Political Report, noted after the Super Tuesday round of 14 state primaries in early March: “There’s a new name for these suburban Republicans who don’t like Trump, and it’s called Democrats”.

If there is reasonable hope that socialism need not be confined to the margins, what now? Sanders’ campaign signed up more than 1 million volunteers within six days of its announcement in February last year. By August, it had organised more than 11,000 events, led predominantly by volunteers. And it has raised more than $130 million, mostly from individual contributions of less than $200, of which there is maybe $15 million still on hand. What will become of the resources, and the energy of Sanders’ base? Can it be galvanised and cohered – in the spirit of the campaign slogan: “Not me, us”?

The worst-case scenario is something approximating the wash-up of Barack Obama’s 2008 presidential campaign victory, when grassroots supporters were almost completely demobilised. The Illinois senator galvanised more than two million volunteers, trained tens of thousands of organisers, collected 13 million email addresses received donations from almost 4 million individuals. Like Sanders, Obama drew crowds of tens of thousands around the country with his promise of hope and change. An example is the speech he gave in Chicago after winning 13 of 23 states in the 5 February Super Tuesday nominating contests against Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic presidential primaries:

“Our time has come. Our movement is real. And change is coming to America … Maybe this year we can finally start doing something about health care we can’t afford. Maybe this year we can start doing something about mortgages we can’t pay. Maybe this year, this time can be different … It’s different not because of me. It’s different because of you – because you are tired of being disappointed and you’re tired of being let down. You’re tired of hearing promises made and plans proposed in the heat of a campaign, only to have nothing change when everyone goes back to Washington …

“It’s a choice between a candidate [Clinton] who’s taken more money from Washington lobbyists than either Republican in this race and a campaign that has not taken a dime of their money because we have been funded by you. You have funded this campaign… I’ll be the president who ends the tax breaks to companies that ship our jobs overseas and start putting them in the pockets of hard-working Americans who deserve them, and struggling home owners who deserve them and seniors who should retire with dignity and respect, and deserve them … We will put a college education within the reach of anyone who wants to go. And instead of just talking about how great our teachers are, we will reward them for their greatness with more pay and better support. And we will … free this nation from the tyranny of oil once and for all. And we will invest in solar and wind and biodiesel, clean energy, green energy that can fuel economic development for generations to come.”

Obama was, however, a different candidate and a different politician. His rhetoric, though lofty in sound, was often the vague fluff of “respect, empower, include” and “Yes We Can” devoid of meaningful policy. Sanders’ non-negotiable demands were concrete and clearly left wing. And where the establishment coalesced against Sanders because he appeared to them too intransigent, it rallied to Obama after he secured the nomination. As the global financial crisis unfolded, Wall Street bankers drowned his campaign in donations – Goldman Sachs, Citi Group and JP Morgan in particular. 

“As Obama entered office a year ago, one of the biggest questions on the minds of political observers was how this massive grassroots force might help Obama shake up Washington”, Micah Sifry wrote at Salon.com in 2010. Expectations were high … On 17 January 2008, when Obama announced the formation of Organizing for America as the successor organization to his campaign, he told would-be supporters, ‘The movement you’ve built is too important to stop growing now’. He promised that ‘volunteers, grassroots leaders and ordinary citizens will continue to drive our organization, helping us bring about the changes we proposed during the campaign’ … Well, those heady days of hope, change and activism are long gone. The (useful) myth of Obama’s grassroots philosophy collided with the reality of his embrace of Wall Street and the political establishment. The Obama movement days are over, perhaps never to return.”

Sanders, of course, has not embraced Wall Street. Indeed, the Dow Jones Industrial Average jumped more than 3 percent on the news of his campaign’s suspension. “Sanders dropping out of the race is obviously very bullish for capitalism”, one CEO said in an ABC News interview this morning. But were there any preparations to salvage something from the defeat? Will the mass organising that has to date focused almost exclusively on fundraising and the electoral arena shift gear and shift focus? No doubt a minority already has, but imagine what could be done with those resources and what could be built if even a fraction of them were put to work in the cause of socialism – hiring and training organisers and educators to build branches and campus chapters around the country, funding alternative socialist media, training trade union activists and so on.

Unfortunately, we already know that Sanders will encourage his supporters to get behind Biden – as he did for the neoliberal warmonger Hillary Clinton in 2016. He has said as much time and again. This is one of the unspoken contradictions of his campaign. Despite the talk of his being an insurgent outsider, much of Sanders’ success has been predicated on a history of playing ball and assurances of being a team player for the party of cosmopolitan capital. He became popular by being pliant as much as he did from being intransigent. His stated project, after all, is to reinvigorate the Democratic Party, not tear it apart. But even that was too ambitious.

What will the US left be able to achieve in the wake of his campaign? Is anyone with an audience going to organise the sentiment for a different type of society into a vehicle that can fight for it, rather than just channel it into the enemy terrain of the Democratic Party, which defeats or co-opts every ballot line challenge? Many won’t get behind Biden, but will there emerge a group with organisers on the ground committed to workers’ power and anti-imperialism, and which provides an alternative to cynicism, confusion, despair and/or endless electoralism? Time will tell.

The US is the largest and most aggressive imperialist power, responsible for the deaths of tens of millions of working-class people all over the world under both Democratic and Republican administrations. Its domestic political events always carry reverberations. That’s another reason why everyone has a stake in what goes on over there – the lessons that the US left draws from Sanders’ campaign will be exported. From afar, we can only hope that those doing the work to capitalise on the Sanders campaign take it in a positive direction, rather than thinking and planning only for the next round of Democratic Party contests.

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