Bernie Sanders, California Democratic Party Convention, 2019. Photo: Gage Skidmore Bernie Sanders, California Democratic Party Convention, 2019. Photo: Gage Skidmore

The pressure on Sanders to withdraw is intense. He must stay, and fight the long game, argues Kate O’Neil

In following the Bernie Sanders’s campaign for president over the past several months, I have put a great deal of thought into the factors that would prevent a socialist from assuming the highest office of the world’s most powerful country. The treachery of the Democratic Party establishment, slander from the liberal media, and outspending by corporate-backed competitors have all been studied at length. Never did I, or any of us, imagine that one of the greatest obstacles would be a global pandemic.

To be sure, early hopes that Sanders would clinch the Democratic Party nomination had already been frustrated by Joe Biden’s rash of primary victories even before the corona outbreak took major effect in the US. On March 11, the day WHO characterised COVID-19 as a pandemic and Trump announced his travel restrictions with Europe, a chorus of mainstream commentators were already calling for Sanders to drop out of the race. Since then, a few more primaries have quietly perpetuated Biden’s winning streak, and Biden now has 60% of the delegates he needs to win the nomination, while Sanders has 44%.

This is a wide gap, but in normal times it could be bridged. Twenty-seven primaries are yet to be held, and there would still be much to play for in major states like Ohio, Pennsylvania, and New York. These are not normal times, however, and the Sanders campaign’s principal methods of reaching out to voters at the grassroots level are impossible to carry out in the context of social distancing. As one columnist for the Washington Post wrote recently:

Were it not for the novel coronavirus, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) would be barnstorming the country. He’d be traveling from one state to the next, holding rallies, doing interviews — and explaining, over and over, why despite Joe Biden’s all but insurmountable delegate lead, there was still a good reason for him to stay in the race. But now Sanders is trapped like the rest of us, his campaign in a kind of suspended animation…You can’t mount a canvassing effort to knock on thousands of doors in the middle of a pandemic.

Furthermore, the Sanders campaign has relied heavily on bringing new, traditionally marginalised voters out to cast ballots. But this would be impossible to orchestrate now. As most remaining primary states postpone elections to this summer, switch to postal balloting or both, we can only expect it to be harder for marginalised groups to vote. In my home state of Wisconsin, where the next primary will take place on 7 April, the Republican-controlled state legislature has shamefully decided to run elections as normal, and the effect will undoubtedly be widespread disenfranchisement. Already, 7000 poll workers have said they will not report to polling stations, forcing many to close. Milwaukee, the largest and by far most racially diverse city in the state, projects it will operate only 12 of its 180 polling stations.

The biggest factor working in Biden’s favour, however, may be the fact that people are just not thinking about the election right now. According to Wisconsin’s Democratic Party Chairman Ben Wikler

It doesn’t feel like we’re in the middle of a presidential campaign here. People are trying to figure out how to get groceries safely and checking their mail for absentee ballots.

Wisconsin is a key swing state that Sanders won in 2016, where he had built a strong campaign presence and where he was expected to win as of February. In that month, polls predicted Sanders would beat Biden by 14 percentage points. Now he trails by 28 percentage points.

This shift is certainly not due to the fact that Biden has suddenly become more popular than Sanders, either personally or politically. John Nichols, a long-time commentator on Wisconsin politics, has concluded the following about the brand of campaign that is required to win the state in the general election. Wisconsin is

a place where progressive populist messages work—Sanders won 71 of 72 counties in his 2016 primary fight with Clinton—and where even Republicans frame their policy agendas, however cynically, as attacks on elite privilege… The Democratic nominee has to talk about how a Democratic administration would transform the jobs of today and tomorrow…into the high-paying jobs of the future. And it can’t just be feel-good talk. It has to focus on balancing the power in the economy between the boss class and the working class.

Needless to say, corporate-backed Biden is not running that kind of campaign. It is more likely that his solid lead going into the crisis, and support from official party channels, will make him the candidate of easy default at a time when people are thinking about more immediate concerns.

This is not to assert that the coronavirus is the main force working against the Sanders campaign at this time. A brief look at polling data across the past year shows that, although Sanders sparked high hopes for a nomination when he took the early lead in February, this was actually a brief blip in the course of the primaries. From December 2018 to the Iowa Primary this February, Biden held a consistent lead over Sanders, and this lead was restored overnight in early March, after Biden’s comeback victory in the multi-state Super Tuesday primaries. As ideologically weak, out of touch and unpopular as they are, establishment moderates still hold sway in the Democratic Party. Now that they have regained their footing with the Biden candidacy, they are using all measures at their disposal to ensure his nomination.

And one of their main tasks at this juncture is dumping the Sanders campaign. Biden is already posturing for victory by starting his selection process for a vice-president and cabinet, and hosts of liberal newspapers are calling for Sanders to drop out. A particularly outrageous example of this was an article on which argued that Sanders should step down ‘for the health of the nation’ because further voting would require people to congregate in large groups. 

Harassment on televised interviews has also hurt the campaign’s ability to get its message out through mainstream media. A guest appearance by Sanders a few days ago on actress Whoopi Goldberg’s programme The View demonstrated this. He had come on the show to discuss his campaign’s response to the coronavirus epidemic, but Goldberg and another interviewer interrupted him repeatedly to ask why he was still running against Biden if he had no path to victory. Sanders eventually had to fire back

Last I heard, people in a democracy have a right to vote. And they have a right to vote for the agenda that they think can work for America, especially in this very, very difficult moment.

Sanders could not have made the point better. And it is for this reason that he should stay in the race through the course of the primaries.

At the moment, the Sanders campaign’s official position is that it is undergoing a period of ‘assessment’. Given the chances of winning, however, it will need to develop not only a new strategy but a new purpose. Trade union organiser Dustin Guastella and Democratic Socialists of America activist Benjamin Fong have outlined what is currently at stake for the campaign and proposed a new direction.

The campaign now faces a harrowing choice. If Sanders drops out, as mainstream media and centrist liberals are urging him to do, Biden and the establishment won’t budge an inch, and a generation of socialists and progressives is demoralized. If Sanders stays in, his campaign is severely limited without the ability to hold big rallies or canvasses because of the pandemic, in addition to the many other enormous hurdles he faces.

There is another option, though: stay in the race, but make a wholesale transition from campaigning for the nomination to campaigning for Bernie’s coronavirus policy — not just redirecting some donations to charity or sending text messages to encourage social distancing, but transforming the entire organizational apparatus of the Bernie campaign into a virus-fighting machine.

The ’virus fighting machine’ would involve a mix of propaganda—a media blitz of Bernie’s social democratic solution to the coronavirus crisis—and relevant socially distanced activism—such as re-deployment of campaign volunteers to do mutual aid work. The strategy would be to ‘outflank’ Biden on the question of the coronavirus, thus pressuring the Democratic Party to adopt Sanders’s plan.

This kind of re-think is clearly needed, and the Sanders campaign has already begun to adopt some of these changes. The day following Trump’s clumsy oval office speech of 11 March, Bernie held a press conference, in which he likened the gravity of the coronavirus crisis to that of a major war and eloquently outlined a necessary course of action for the country. The campaign’s three-point response to COVID-19 calls on the government to:

  1. Empower Medicare (the federal healthcare insurance for the elderly) to lead the response to the health crisis, expanding hospital capacity, implementing free testing and treatment for all, and using the Defense Production Act to force private firms to produce medical equipment and supplies 
  2. Establish a new agency to oversee the economic crisis, including monthly $2000 cash payments to individuals, paid medical leave for all, a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, food delivery services, construction of emergency shelters and waiver of student debt
  3. Create an oversight agency to fight corporate corruption and price-gauging.

Sanders worked overtime in the Senate to get many of these demands included in the $2.2 trillion stimulus package Congress passed last month, and has been one of the most prominent voices opposing its $500 billion bailout for corporations. The campaign has held numerous online meetings, raised millions in funds for charities helping ordinary people to deal with the crisis and organised petition campaigns calling for protections for workers at Walmart, Amazon and elsewhere.  

Retooling the campaign as a ‘virus-fighting machine’ is an exciting prospect and could work well as a general approach.  But there are a few shortcomings worth considering.

If the Sanders campaign is to be successful in keeping the flame burning for socialism through the elections, they will have to make a clear distinction between their programme for working class empowerment in the long-term and the temporary state interventionist measures that moderate and right-wing politicians are agreeing to in Washington today. Though less eloquent and more prone to gaffes, Biden also delivered a rebuttal to Trump in March which included very similar emergency response policies to the ones Bernie put forward. And the electorate will now be confused by media assertions that Bernie’s socialist programme has already been realised through the government’s recent spending spree. As one observer  postulated

We have crossed the Rubicon. When historians record the moment that the U.S. economy transitioned from free-market capitalism to democratic socialism, they will point to this week…For months, the rising influence of big-government liberals such as Sanders, Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) has caused many Democrats to worry that their nominee would be vulnerable to the label “socialist.” They should no longer be concerned. We are all socialists now.

Sanders and the real socialists in Congress should take credit where credit is due, but they will need to make clear that these budget measures are largely a capitalist response to a capitalist crisis that will be inadequate in the long-run. Our movement still needs to prepare for a long-term systemic crisis that the 1% will ultimately try and make the 99% pay for.

The Sanders campaign must also resist pressure to limit its demands to coronavirus-specific questions and continue to advocate for its broad programme of social change, including single-payer healthcare, rights at the workplace, and the Green New Deal. So far, Sanders has done this well. In a recent one-on-one debate between Biden and Sanders, Biden tried to downplay the importance of single-payer healthcare as a political programme. Touting his own stop-gap plan to give free medical care to those being treated for COVID-19, he declared ‘We’re responding. It’s all free. That has nothing to do with whether or not you have an insurance policy.’

Sanders countered by showing that the current health crisis is nothing new. It has been endemic to the private insurance healthcare system for years.

You’re saying ‘in the middle of a crisis’, but you know what? Last year 30,000 people died in America because they didn’t get healthcare when they should.

The campaign needs to continue to draw this big picture. As the COVID-19 crisis unfolds with its many pronged and unforeseen consequences, Sanders will only benefit from having more to offer. Skyrocketing unemployment will make a Green New Deal more relevant, the growing number of workplace disputes across the country will leave people looking for more protection on the job.

Of course if the campaign maintains this broad scope and these far-reaching goals, it cannot expect the second party of the capitalist class to adopt its full programme. It may still be able to shift the Democratic Party on some questions, but this is not the key point. Bernie should stay in the race for exactly the reason he gave Whoopi Goldberg last week: because people have the right to vote for an agenda they believe in. Bernie may not win the Democratic nomination or shift the Democratic Party by continuing the campaign, but his ship can help working people to navigate the rough waters of this crisis and ensure socialist ideas and organisation are more widespread coming out of it. For those who believe change will come through mass movements, that is the most important goal for us now.

The Sanders campaign must stay in the race and retool for the long game.