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Initial thoughts on Bernie dropping out

Very sad but also fired up knowing that the next chapter of our lives is going to be even more important and more challenging than anything I’ve lived through before. Here’s a few initial, sleep-deprived thoughts on Bernie dropping out and some lessons we have learned over the campaign.

 

1. Bernie’s two presidential campaigns transformed politics in this country. I think the right word people are using is “catalyzed”: Bernie did not create the conditions that people are angry about, nor did he single-handedly create the movements of people responding to those conditions. But Bernie’s campaigns catalyzed a much larger, more unified, clearer, and more effective reaction than otherwise would have happened, in the same way that one small amount of one chemical added to a mixture catalyzes a violent reaction involving two other chemicals that were sitting alongside each other peacefully up until that point.

 

2. Assuming his whole campaign infrastructure disappears by tomorrow morning (which I hope it won’t), we’re still left with enormous advances over pre-2020 or pre-2016 Left and working class organization and consciousness. Exactly what that residue looks like and what potential lies therein for future struggles should be the study of socialist writers in the coming weeks. But a couple things are clear. Directly or indirectly, in small or large ways, Bernie’s campaigns helped inspire strikes starting in 2018 that brought us from the lowest recorded number of workers participating in large strikes in 2017 (25,000 workers) to the highest number in almost 40 years (485,000 in 2018 and 425,000 in 2019). While there was incredible energy among young activists, sometimes in large numbers, in Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and environmental protests, the number of young people participating directly in marches, school
strikes, and more skyrocketed starting in 2017. These young activists not only now know how to organize and take action into their own hands, but their peers support Bernie and his agenda sometimes 70% or more and will become the core of our political culture for decades to come.

Now not only do a majority of Americans support Medicare for All and $15 minimum wage, but millions of ordinary working people have direct or observed experience with strikes and direct action. I think we can be optimistic that out of these struggles and Bernie’s two campaigns, not to mention the horrifically clear barbarism of the coronavirus crisis in the US, a new sense of class consciousness is growing among a large section of the US working class.

 

3. Bernie lost because his campaign and the movements supporting his demands are simply not big enough yet. No amount of perfecting messaging, tactics, being nice or mean to ElizabethWarren could have compensated for the fact that our opponents — the billionaires and corporations, the politicians and parties and media outlets they own, and the many organizations and institutions that are loyal to them — are massive and extremely well resourced, and our institutions and organizations and candidates are relatively few, tiny, disorganized, and poor.

I canvassed and phonebanked hundreds of people for Bernie over the last year and the biggest challenge in my experience was not that people are constitutionally or ideologically against Bernie and/or his ideas, but that they know very little about them and most of what most people know comes from the corporate-owned mainstream media or anti-Bernie ads. Many conversations went like this:

Me: What are the issues that you care about most in this election?
Them: Healthcare and student debt.
Me: Do you know about Bernie Sanders and his plans for Medicare for All and student debt cancellation?
Them: A little bit. Isn’t he the one that wants to take away our health insurance with his overly expensive plan?

And then I would explain what Medicare for All actually means, and that Bernie wants to cancel all student debt, and I don’t remember a single person after such a conversation who didn’t then support Medicare for All and were either going to vote for Bernie or strongly considering it. The problem is that there are millions of voters, and only so many people volunteering to call voters.

If we had 5 million phonebankers and canvassers every day for twelve months, we could
probably talk to every single voter and then, even if we didn’t win every election, every voter would at least know what Medicare for All is and what Bernie actually stands for before they vote against him.

 

4. A related problem: turnout. A shocking and little discussed fact in US politics is that less than 30% of eligible adults take part in the primary process about half for Democratic primaries and half for Republican. Coronavirus will probably completely decimate the turnout numbers for any states after March 10 Second Super Tuesday. But for the states that voted March 10 or earlier, the turnout is, as usual, depressingly low — about 25% for both Republican and Democratic primaries. (Numbers are here:
http://www.electproject.org/home/voter-turnout/voter-turnout-data, with analysis on changes since 2008-2016 here: https://fivethirtyeight.com/features/historic-turnout-in-2020-not-so-far/)

We can do more analysis of who voted in higher or lower rates and where, but obviously the turnout patterns for general elections hold in primaries, except more exaggerated. Rich people vote in relatively large numbers, poor people, young people, people of color, immigrants — i.e. the groups of Democratic voters who supported Bernie Sanders the most — vote far lower than the average % for whole population. I made a map of turnout as % of registered voters by precinct (much higher than as % of all eligible voters, which I don’t know how to get by precinct) in the 2016 primary in the East Bay, attached as a picture here. You can see the pattern clearly if you know the Bay Area: In Oakland/Piedmont, the rich and white hills voted in large numbers,the flats voted way less. The further out into the diverse working-class exurbs of Southern
Alameda County (San Leandro, Hayward), the lower the turnout.

In sum, the people who have not only a disproportionate but potentially decisive share of the vote in the Democratic Primaries are rich, white, and/or old. In combination with the information problems discussed above, wherein many non-rich/white/old people are convinced to vote against Bernie on the basis of false narratives from media or Dem establishment, it is no surprise that Bernie lost and in fact shocking that he did so well.
Why turnout among working-class people is so low, and how we can change that, are therefore central problems for any Left strategy that is concerned with running viable candidates.

 

5. One condition that makes working-class organizing difficult is that the working class is very disorganized, fragmented, and isolated. Most people are not in unions, and fewer people participate in religious communities or other affinity groups or large networks than ever before. This means that when we are winning people over to our cause, it mostly has to be by ones and twos, instead of by winning over whole constituencies (unions, churches, or neighborhood associations) at once. And in practice, this means that the majority of the hundred-plus million US workers and their families remain mostly atomized and disengaged from any politics let alone from our particular political movement.

The Bernie campaign confronted the disorganization of the working class as preexisting condition, and did its best to overcome it to get as many votes as possible, including by helping ordinary people self-organize through the exciting distributed organizing and constituency-based (students, union members, muslims for
Bernie, etc.) organizing programs. However, if we are going to win anything close to a majority of workers in this country to our cause in the future, we have to hope that one way or another the working class becomes much more organized again, either in putatively apolitical networks like religious communities or in unions or membership-based political organizations/parties.

 

6. Related to this: Bernie’s two campaigns would have been nowhere near as substantial
without the power of social media. It’s the one way to break through the atomization and reach millions of people relatively cheaply on a daily basis (versus having to deliver physical literature to the same number of people) without relying on the mainstream media. It also relied effectively on the power of self-activating social networks on social media and sites like reddit. The role that social media played in Bernie 2016 and 2020 deserves a lot more study for the strategies and tactics of the Left.

 

7. Bernie was effectively independent from the Democratic Party establish, and our movements must retain this independence going forward. Some socialists criticized Bernie and even abstained from supporting his campaign for the principled but, I’d argue, mistaken reason that because he was running in the Democratic Party primary as opposed to, like Nader before him, as an independent or Green candidate. I think however that Bernie’s independent fundraising, and his complete intransigence on any and all issues and policies, his independent media, data, and organizing infrastructures, and his brand as an independent democratic socialist not as a Democrat meant that he has been able to achieve a large amount of independence from much of the Democratic establishment and their corporate backers.

This is what allows him to resist the pull of the center that I believe smothered Warren and tanked her campaign. And it has politicized and even radicalized hundreds of thousands or millions of Bernie’s supporters on the basis of the ambitious demands as opposed to “pragmatic” (but self-defeating) compromise, the identity of “working-class” as opposed to Democrat, and the participatory and bottom-up strategy of “Not me, us” as opposed to expert-driven and top-down, managerial style of Warren not to mention most other Democrats. These ideas and the actual relationships, organizations, and skills that have been built out of the campaign are achievements of Bernie’s independence in his two presidential campaigns, not to mention his decades in Congress.

And he achieved all of this while many unions and other “progressive” organizations have practiced a more or less sycophantic strategy of “transactional” or “pragmatic” subservience to the Democratic Party establishment and the billionaires they serve. What this means is that you have unions donating millions of dollars and pledging millions of votes to Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden (and generations of their predecessors before them), while corporations and billionaires donate billions of dollars over the same period to secure a majority share, so to speak, in the Democratic Party. It is no surprise that the “transaction” is actually only one way — from union members’ pockets to Democrats’ campaigns, with nothing substantial in return — and anything
but pragmatic. It also is therefore no surprise that overall US union density, the % of union members voting for Democrats (as opposed to GOP), and the % of union members voting at all declined terribly for 50+ years. These are the fruits of dependence on the Democratic Party establishment, and why Marxists advocate for a strategy of political independence, based on the analysis that bosses and workers have opposed and mutually exclusive interests and the interests of workers can only be advanced by workers themselves.

 

6. That said, Bernie’s campaign was not independent enough. I want to think more about this aspect, and see what others say about it, but comrades have been right to point out how absurd it is for Bernie to both be running against the billionaire-bought political establishment, and then say things like “Joe Biden is a very good man and my dear friend” at every debate. Joe Biden represents all the horrible things the worst elements Democratic Party has done over 40+ years, such as racist anti-busing position, promoting racist mass incarceration, attacking the credibility of Anita Hill, loudly backing the Iraq War, selling out our healthcare to the insurance industry (aka the ACA), and helping the financial industry screw over indebted homeowners and
students.

 

7. More substantially, Bernie should not have abandoned his lifelong commitment to an
independent workers party. In order for Bernie to reach millions of people the way he did, it was a brilliant move to run in the Democratic Party primary for structural or procedural reasons: the political and media establishment have to put him on stage with the mainstream candidates, cover him like a contender (as little as they can), and contend with his ideas and his movement. A Green party candidate is essentially a sideshow that most people ignore; a Democratic Party primary frontrunner cannot be ignored and, in 2016 and 2020, Bernie used this to great effect.

That said, there’s no reason he couldn’t have taken advantage of the openness of the primary structure while also rhetorically explaining why the working class ultimately will need its own party, even if that “ultimately” isn’t until after eight years of a Sanders presidency. Now the worst thing I fear is that Bernie will recommit to supporting Biden against Trump, as he has promised to do and did with Clinton in 2016, while not offering any substantial near term or long term alternative to the Democratic Party. This is especially discouraging since Bernie will certainly not be able to run for president again, and no other serious leftwing candidate with his decades-long record and extraordinary political talents will be able to run for president again for
at least a decade.

 

8. Bernie said today that he dropped out because he has no path to winning the nomination via delegates, and because a losing campaign distracts from coronavirus response. I think this is a poor explanation. His campaign apparatus, even as it has become clear he can’t win, has already become the best tool we have to fight both Trumpism and neoliberalism, and therefore the best tool we have organize for a worker-centered covid bailout. This is first of all because of the enormous amount of ideological and organizational groundwork Bernie’s campaign and the movements who support him have laid for Medicare for All and against austerity and privatization.

Second, Bernie has continued to use his platform to agitate for demands around
coronavirus while actively fighting for legislation and amendments in Congress like the
unemployment benefits he won through a hard fight on the floor. It’s unlikely he would have had such success had he not also had such a large movement and well-funded political organization (his presidential campaign) backing him.

And third, speaking of his campaign organization, it’s the only nationwide working-class political organization, funded with millions of dollars by millions of worker-donors, with hundreds of staff and at least tens of thousands of activists, completely independent of the Democratic Party establishment and their hangers-on. Besides Bernie’s 2020 campaign, there is no other organization that can cohere these activists, leftwing unions, prominent leftwing leaders like AOC and Nina Turner, activist organizations like Sunrise Movement, and a long list of celebrity backers like Cardi B and Rob Delaney. And Bernie has been using this massive infrastructure to directly support workplace organizing during the COVID crisis (e.g. at Amazon) and other
movement activism. This organization is the closest thing that the working class has had to its own national mass party in at least several generations.

If the disappointing Our Revolution is any hint of what to expect in terms of organization after his campaign organization is dismantled, we will be left without this incredible organization. And by keeping his campaign going, he still forces the political establishment to reckon with his ideas, since he would have yet to have endorsed Biden (and thus given away all his bargaining chips as a leftwing leader). (Of course this leverage has been lessened since social distancing and a new “Bernie blackout”
started in the media, but it’s still far more than what I fear he will have once withdrawing.)

Without Bernie’s campaign continuing on as it has, our side will be even weaker as we fightagainst trillions in bailouts to corporations while thousands of poor people die every day and millions are put out of work.

 

9. To continue organizing and fighting at the scale and depth necessary, we need Bernie to convert his now-ending campaign into a permanent national political organization. Socialists, Bernie supporters, leftwing unions and other organizations and prominent figures that supported Bernie should be calling on Bernie to do this ASAP, before he gives away all his bargaining chips and dismantles this incredible, historic infrastructure for good. If Bernie himself won’t do this, then the organizations and leaders that comprise the broader movement, including DSA, should come together and quickly begin discussions on how to, to the best of our combined ability, recreate important parts of Bernie’s campaign, including the networks of union members and college students, the incredible media apparatus (Hear the Bern, the video and social media team), and fundraising operations.

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Writing office

  • Pedro Fuentes
  • Bernardo Corrêa
  • Charles Rosa
  • Clara Baeder