Reflections on Bernie's Loss

Bernie’s movement has strengthened the left. Now, we must build working class institutions to win.

In the wake of Bernie Sanders’ concession to Joe Biden, we in Emerge find ourselves mourning his campaign, despite our sober expectations for the Democratic primaries. We had forecasted more fertile organizing conditions under a President Bernie Sanders committed to a moratorium on deportations, Medicare For All, and a national right to strike. More than that, we supported the mobilization of millions of working class supporters eager for a way to fight against austerity and the political establishment. But our current political and organizing reality, post-Bernie 2020, is one better off for his attempt. What exists now is a newly reinvigorated base, broad appeal for social democratic policies, and many ideas about where “the left” should go from here.

Amidst the multifaceted COVID-19 crisis, and against the backdrop of global uprisings and intensified extra-electoral struggles across the US, we’re optimistic in our assessment that elections are a worthwhile tool, but winning them is not the end-goal.

We saw Sanders’ 2016 campaign build a broad base and spur many into political organization, before ultimately failing to capture the nomination. His 2020 campaign did the same but on a significantly larger scale, briefly positioning him as the favorite, before proving once again that Bernie remains politically outgunned.

Facing stiff opposition from the Democratic Party establishment, hostile corporate media, and bureaucratic union leaders, the Sanders campaign had a vibrant working class base of supporters but insufficient organizational and institutional strength. To win either in the electoral arena, and outside of it, that working class base will need to get organized, expanding existing institutions and building new ones. The DSA is now tasked with pivoting efforts from Bernie’s campaign onto deeper organizing priorities that will pull those activated by his platform (and others) towards building these institutions of working class power.

What fueled Bernie’s campaign?

Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaigns have been credited with reviving the socialist movement in the US, but these campaigns’ popularity did not materialize out of thin air. Sanders rode a rising tide of social movements carried from the anti-globalization protests in Seattle two decades ago and the movement against the Iraq War to Occupy Wall Street, the Movement for Black Lives and Indigenous resistance at Standing Rock. After Sanders’ defeat in 2016, Trump’s election was followed by even more rapid struggle around travel bans, ICE terror, and white supremacist mobilization in Charlottesville.

2018 proved to be a crucial year for the growing socialist movement. After decades of dormancy, organized labor began to strike back. Over 20,000 teachers and other public school workers in West Virginia withheld their labor and not only prevented efforts to cut their healthcare, but also won a wage increase. During the next two years more than half a million educational workers would go on strike all across the country, fighting against privatization and centering community investment and racial justice in their struggle. They built working class power by broadening the political horizons of the entire community and transforming solidarity from an abstraction into a material reality through collective struggle. Socialist organizers took a leading role in unionization drives, especially at universities and in media and tech industries. By the end of 2019, the strike wave had spread to other sectors as autoworkers, nurses, and retail workers took collective action to demand a better life.

Simultaneously, millions of people across the world have challenged the ruling class in remarkable demonstrations of collective action. Workers launched a multi-week long general strike in France to defend the social democratic welfare state. Chileans stormed subways to demand free public transit. Haitians revolted against neoliberal austerity imposed by the international dictatorship of finance capital. Puerto Ricans filled the street to fight back against the deprivations of their colonial status. Hundreds of millions of Indian workers withheld their labor in an effort to undermine Modi’s fascist regime.

It was the rising tide of class struggle in the US and beyond that made the strength of Bernie’s campaign possible. Instead of being the one to push the working class into motion, Bernie was a vehicle for parts of the working class to mount a complex and sometimes contradictory campaign against the ruling class.

Expanding Political Horizons

As insurgent struggles against neoliberal austerity broke out in different sectors around the country, Bernie’s 2020 campaign emerged as a banner under which millions of working class people mobilized against a despised and discredited political establishment. Bernie’s campaign put forth a theory of politics that said real change can only be won through a broad working class movement, challenging the idea that we had to let pundits and politicians define what was politically possible. Unfortunately, this mass movement never attained the necessary strength to overcome the obstacles it faced.

When it looked like Bernie might pull off a surprising electoral coup on Super Tuesday after his crushing victory in the Nevada caucuses, a ruling class meltdown quickly became an all-out assault on the Sanders campaign from every institution of the ruling class. The media deflated his momentum with concerns about his electability, and used his ambivalence on Cuba and his dedicated base of supporters to paint him as an extremist unpalatable to the broader electorate and sure to guarantee four more years of Trump. Meanwhile, a Democratic Party establishment previously characterized by intense strife pulled off a rapid closing of ranks behind Biden that simply outmaneuvered the Sanders campaign. Aided by eager and massive media coverage after his South Carolina win, Biden suddenly became unstoppable with support from every ruling class institution and hardly any on-the-ground organizing.

To overcome the institutional forces that always posed the gravest threat, the Bernie campaign was banking on bringing many new voters to the polls, which didn’t pan out. Exit polls show that in some primaries turnout was way up. And not only that: youth turnout was up too. But older voters hostile to Sanders also turned out heavily, counteracting those gains. And while Biden did receive major support from affluent suburbanites, he did well in many working class communities too, most notably among Southern black voters.

When considering why Bernie’s base did not turn out enough voters to win, we can partially blame factors like long lines or lack of accessible voting locations. It’s also worth noting that about half of Americans don’t vote. Nonvoters are generally younger, lower income, less educated and disproprotionately people of color. According to Pew Research data, the most common reason for not voting was the feeling that their vote didn’t matter. Meanwhile, Medicare-for-All and other of Bernie’s ideas still proved very popular among Biden voters. Exit polling even showed that the majority of Democratic voters had a positive view of socialism, which would have been unthinkable just a few years ago. But the range of what was considered politically possible got in the way, keeping many voters at home and encouraging many others to cast pragmatic votes for Biden, who built his campaign on his ability to defeat Trump. As in 2016, the establishment won the primary on a platform of “political feasibility.”

We can understand this seemingly contradictory dynamic through the lens of mass depoliticization: an investment in the world as it is, and the lack of belief that it can change. A particularly illuminating case study of depoliticization amongst the working class comes from the last British general election, in which many working class Labour strongholds went for Boris Johnson. There were many reasons Labour lost so decisively: the party’s equivocations on Brexit, constant slander towards Corbyn in the bourgeois press, active subversion from the Labour right, and of course, anti-immigrant xenophobia. But Bue Rübner Hansen, an editor of Viewpoint Magazine, highlights how working class voters in these areas, who for decades had been strong Labour supporters, felt deeply pessimistic about Corbyn’s project. As Hansen argues, it is no surprise that these voters, who had suffered decades of neoliberal austerity, saw a project fundamentally based on solidarity as unrealistic. After all, Hansen writes, “solidarity must be experienced to be believed.” Instead, they broke for a strongman who promised to “get Brexit done.”

Social democratic reforms now seem to have broad support in the US, but winning the ideological battle is only part of the actual political fight to make these reforms possible. Decades of class warfare have shredded the fabric of the US working class, and ruling class institutions like the media determine without opposition the bounds of what is considered politically possible. It wasn’t that Bernie’s campaign wasn’t socialist enough, or that he might’ve won if he’d gone harder, earlier against Biden. The Left doesn't yet have the institutional strength to challenge the dominant narrative that the Democrats' tepid incrementalism is the only alternative to vicious Republican rule. If we want to convince people of the viability of our socialist project, we need to have the infrastructure to make experiences of solidarity and class struggle a vibrant lived reality, both experienced and believed.

Building Fighting, Working Class Institutions

As the largest socialist organization in the US, the DSA is well positioned to translate the support of Bernie’s coalition into active and long-lasting organizing work. There are two hurdles that we must confront. We must work to shift the energy of Bernie's base into sustained organizing practice, one that incorporates strategy in both the electoral and extra-electoral spheres. We must also furnish current struggles with durable, democratic organizations of working class power capable of continuing the fight for the long-term.

For decades, working class power has been dismantled by a capitalist offensive which has eroded everything from union membership to bowling leagues. Filling the vacuum have been board-driven nonprofits that have donors and endless e-mail lists but little in the way of membership organization or internal democracy. These top-down organizations have further demobilized and disorganized our class, making solidarity and class power a memory more than a lived experience. If we want to turn ideological support for Bernie’s policies into a political movement, we will have to rebuild the infrastructure that made working class and socialist movements “cradle to grave” institutions in the past. Instead of mimicking the structure of liberal nonprofits and electoral advocacy groups, we need to build independent participatory mass democratic organizations by and for the working class.

Our working class is composed of not simply current wage laborers, but all those subject to exploitation from capital, whether through their role in social reproduction or their movement in and out of the formal workforce (incarecerated people, unemployed people, undocumented people, gig workers, sex workers, etc.). Capitalism is vulnerable to working class power in the workplace and outside of it, at every point of the productive process, and in every sphere of life. Race, gender, immigration status, and sexuality are among specific modalities in which capitalism is lived, which capital uses to produce hierarchies in our class along which to super-exploit and terrorize. Fighting back against exploitation and oppression means organizing alongside the most vulnerable sectors of our class, in the workplace and in the streets, from the household to the neighborhood to the prison.

Anywhere that capitalism tries to keep us down is a potential site for rebuilding the working class as a class ready to struggle. Some examples that Emerge has identified include projects to organize the unorganized like Amazonians United, logistics workers at Amazon organizing for paid time off and against unsafe working conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic; a transit rider’s union that builds power by fighting neoliberal austeriy directed at our commons, enforced with further criminalization, incarceration, and the dystopian crackdown by police and ICE on subways and buses; a mass strike in the fight to protect reproductive freedom and a renewed and militant socialist feminist movement; mutual aid networks which provide people with groceries, financial help and other needs; and alternative media projects like the Red Wave Collective, organized to prevent the privatization of New York’s community controlled radio station WBAI and to realize the full potential of its broadcasting power to boost the growing left media ecosystem in New York City.

Electoral campaigns can also provide opportunities for deepening working class organization, but this does not happen automatically, with the rhythms of the campaign calendar often serving instead to demobilize us between election cycles. Bernie’s campaign was a vehicle that brought many working class supporters into conflict with many levels of ruling class power. But now that Bernie has endorsed Biden, there’s a real danger that his working class supporters will stand down. To keep up the fight we have to find ways to bring more and more people in, sustaining them in the long term. This means organizing our class in independent, democratic, member-led working class institutions that continue to fight the capitalist class; making politics a part of everyday life and not just election day. A growing ecosystem of working class organizations will give us the strength we need to effectively combat the forces we face, and those outside the socialist movement focused on further electoral success would benefit from joining us. For us whose goal is social revolution, we continue the slow work of rebuilding a working class ready to struggle for power and win.

Correction: May 1, 2020 An earlier version of this piece misstated that Bernie Sanders had "handed over his operation over to Biden" rather than simply endorsing. The change is reflected above.