In the summer of 2019, there was much debate among progressives as to who to support in the Democratic presidential primary. At the time, Elizabeth Warren was surging in the polls, and many took the position that she, while perhaps not as committed to the cause as Bernie Sanders, was the best horse to back, because she had what at the time seemed like a more viable path to the nomination. There are of course a great many reasons why I was never on Team Warren, but now that Bernie has suspended his 2020 campaign, there’s one in particular that’s worth revisiting in this moment.
What made the Bernie campaign unique from day one was not just that it was the most progressive, or that Bernie himself was the most decent and honest candidate in contention, but that it was the only campaign to adopt a mass movement style of politics based on organizing and mobilizing large swaths of the population in order to form a more robust progressive infrastructure that could wield power on its own, regardless of whether or not Bernie himself could successfully lead us into the White House. That, more than anything, made supporting Bernie a no-brainer in this cycle. It’s also reason enough not to despair now that he’s withdrawn from the race.
The organizing that’s been done on behalf of this campaign has been extraordinary. Electoral organizations such as Our Revolution, Justice Democrats, Local Berniecrats, and Brand New Congress were formed as a direct result of Bernie’s 2016 campaign, and their work continued through this cycle. Labor unions such as National Nurses United, the American Postal Workers Union, the United Electrical, Radio, and Machine Workers of America, and dozens of others endorsed Bernie’s 2020 run. Environmental groups like the Sunrise Movement, Vote Climate, Youth Strike for Climate, and The Climate Mobilization were all on board, as were various immigrants’ rights advocacy groups such as Make the Road Action, Mijente!, and United We Dream. The Democratic Socialists of America has seen a swelling membership base, as has the Socialist Alternative party. And the list goes on.
To be disappointed by the result of this primary is not only natural, but necessary. In fact I’d be suspicious of you if you’re not more than a little upset at how this election has turned out. There’s no reason you should deny or suppress those emotions, and there’s no reason you shouldn’t be furious at the Democratic Party establishment that once again proved it would stop at nothing to slam the door in our faces as we tried to bring this populist progressive energy into their corporatist, center-right organization that has time after time asserted its indifference to the material well-being of ordinary people. There’s no reason to feel “positive” right now, as amidst a pandemic, we’re entering our third recession in the past two decades, with a deranged grease-painted rodeo clown for a President, and a demented, addle-brained relic from a bygone era of neoliberal hegemony poised to become his challenger. This isn’t the time for delusional positivity, nor is it the time for false hope.
But it’s not the time for despair either. Conversely, it’s the time for organization and mobilization. And fortunately, because of the transcendent nature of the Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign, the groundwork for such action is already in place. To borrow a phrase from a certain community organizer who used us for our votes and sold us out to Citigroup as soon as he got them, we’re “fired up” and “ready to go.”
The immediate short term goal of the Bernie campaign may not have been realized, but ultimately, this campaign will have been a failure only if we allow it to be. It will have failed if we look back on it as a mere campaign, as opposed to a mass movement built to transcend a negative electoral outcome. It will have failed if we get so bitter, discouraged, and depressed to the point where we disengage from the political process entirely. The establishment’s goal, more than anything else, is to beat us down in this way. Why do you think we’re gaslit so aggressively by the corporate media? Why do you think we’re demonized as an online mob of toxic, hateful agitators? Why is it that the party apparatus is so desperate to thwart us at every turn?
It isn’t simply because our candidate was the furthest left among those running. Every primary has a furthest-left candidate. Howard Dean, Dennis Kucinich, Bill Bradley, etc. But you didn’t see the establishment throw everything but the kitchen sink at those candidates, because they didn’t have a mass movement behind them. The mass movement is what they fear, which is why they go to such lengths to defeat it. Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns were both movement campaigns, and they too got the Bernie treatment from the Democratic power base. The conservative Democratic Leadership Council was formed in the years between Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 campaigns as a barrier to progressive movements like Jackson’s. The DLC then created “Super Tuesday” as a way to stack a set of primaries early in the calendar so that corporate candidates with major financial backing could squash grassroots campaigns with limited resources. The movement-based nature of Bernie’s campaigns, more than anything else, is why they were met with such contempt by the establishment and their corporate media lackeys. It’s also why we can and must press on despite not having achieved our desired electoral outcome.
There are a number of different approaches to continuing the progressive movement. Right now, there seems to be a struggle between those who feel we must #DemExit and start a major new party and those who still feel we can reform the Democratic Party from within by focusing on electing progressives to local and state offices throughout the country. I’m personally of the opinion that, at least in the short term, both are necessary, but insufficient on their own. We can’t abandon the cause of electing progressive Democrats entirely, lest we cede critical space in the halls of power to corporate Democrats and reactionary Republicans. We also cannot go all-in on a strategy of infiltrating and reforming a party whose establishment’s grip on the the media, their primary electorate, and their primary process itself, is as strong as it apparently still is, despite the best efforts of the last two Bernie campaigns and the organizational efforts involved with them.
Right now, it’s imperative that we support as many progressives as possible who attempt to infiltrate the party and reform it from within, while simultaneously organizing to build a new political party, which at the very least, could function in the short term as a pressure group on more established parties and organizations, before building the necessary infrastructure to field their own candidates. Not only can we do both, we must. It would be folly to abandon the efforts by thousands of progressives running throughout the country as Democrats. At the same time, holding out hope that the Democratic Party can be successfully transformed, and putting all of our energy into such an effort, would be equally destructive.
Polling data has indicated for many years that there’s popular demand for a new political party in the US. And now, as the Bernie campaign ends, there are millions of people raring to go in pursuit of this project. So while of course this is a time of disappointment, it cannot be a time of despair, because just as electing Bernie Sanders president was a once in a lifetime opportunity, so is harnessing the energy of the #NotMeUs movement to create a robust independent progressive infrastructure that will wield power for decades to come.
The Bernie campaign all along was structured as a movement built to survive any electoral outcome, even a bruising defeat. The work of doing so starts now.