Kate O’Neil spoke with three Bernie campaigners about 'What's next?'
The Bernie Sanders campaign for president was a watershed for the socialist movement in the United States. So now that he has dropped out of the race, where does that leave the American left? Kate O’Neil spoke with three Bernie campaigners from across the country to find out what they have learned and what they think needs to be done next.
Thomas J. Adams reports from New Orleans, where he has resided for more than 20 years. He is a Senior Lecturer in History and American Studies at the University of Sydney, specialising in American labour history.
Marianne Reddan reports from the San Francisco Bay Area. She is a researcher in neuroscience at Stanford University, an activist in the labour movement and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA).
Kenzo Shibata reports from Chicago. He is a member of the executive board of the Chicago Teachers Union, president of the Illinois Chapter of the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance, and sits on Chicago DSA's Executive Committee. He is also host of Class Time, a podcast on teaching and politics.
It has been 100 years since Eugene Debs ran the last major socialist campaign for president. We have seen other left-wing campaigns for president more recently, such as Ralph Nader’s 2000 run on the Green Party ticket, but Nader won only 2 million votes. Sanders, on a explicitly socialist platform, was able to win over 13 million votes in the Democratic Party primary in 2016, and for a short time this year looked poised to win the Democratic nomination. Clearly something has changed in American politics. Why has Bernie been so successful and why now?
Thomas: His message and his person are both part of it. Sanders revived the language in the Democratic Party and mass politics of universal rights, the right to healthcare, the right to higher education, the right to living wages, stuff that was central to a flank of American politics, going back to the New Deal and long before. One of the great gifts that Sanders left us is the simplicity of how easy that message works. That you’re an American, you deserve the right to healthcare, you deserve the right to childcare, you deserve the right to —if you put in a hard week’s work—a decent life no matter what you do. Sanders’s politics is a clear class politics. It’s the first class politics at a national level in America we’ve had in at least a generation. Call it socialism, call it a bologna sandwich.
He also had to have a real chance. I think that’s an important part of how you organise in America is actually having a chance. And then in terms of the person himself, it’s the authenticity. There’s a general feeling that politicians are opportunistic and will sell you out, and poll after poll shows that most Americans believe—whether they like him or hate him—that Bernie believes what he says. And that’s very powerful. I don’t think the now is that important. But the recovery of 2008-- whom it benefitted and whom it did not-- certainly aids his rhetorical effectiveness.
Marianne: Bernie’s campaign actively sought the engagement of working people in the United States. We went door to door, not to read off some stump speech, but to listen to people’s concerns and learn what solutions looked like for them. Bernie engaged the disengaged. Non-voters were not disregarded, but treated with dignity. I felt honoured to have been able to inform someone who was recently incarcerated that they even had the right to vote in Reno’s primary. At a very human-level, going door to door, I think, makes people feel cared for. It lets them know something is going on and that they can be a part of it. You can’t get that from a commercial, no matter how many commercials you spam the media with.
So why now? Most Americans are living month to month and unable to afford housing or health care. The victory of President Trump and Co really shook people’s trust in the US political system – it exposed who’s been running the show (the billionaires) in the most vulgar way. Furthermore, the mounting pressure of climate change puts a deadline on revolution. If we don’t change now, we might not survive. People are beginning to realize that their personal well-being is determined by a political system that does not operate in their interest and is out of their control.
Kenzo: Bernie’s campaign for the 2020 Democratic nomination came at a critical political moment where the Democratic Party has moved so far from its base that few see themselves as being represented in it. The GOP has become the openly fascist party and the Democrats are still operating as if the political landscape hasn’t shifted since 1992. People who were either pushed out or merely excluded joined the Bernie movement and learned how to organize. It was a campaign that grew exponentially until the Coronavirus pandemic.
What kind of response have you gotten to the campaign in your area? In particular, what kind of headway was the campaign able to make in Black and Latino communities?
Thomas: In New Orleans the campaign never really got off the ground due to the corona crisis. But generally for a variety of reasons the South had been a tough nut for him to crack. Southern Democratic Party politics tends to be very transactional, which means that there are all kinds of levels of networks, resources, graft, patronage up and down the ladder. One has to meet people where they’re at in the South in particular. You want to give people some sort of ‘permission structure’ in which to follow their instincts. And people’s instincts are--in polls as we’ve seen throughout the US--that people support Medicare for All, people support living wages, people support universal higher education. But when their congressperson, down to their city councilperson, down to their preacher are saying we’ve got to go with the guy we know, Joe Biden, you need to get into those networks somehow and give the new guy a competing voice. The campaign in South Carolina tried really hard to do that, and I think if we’d had another couple months, we’d have had enough maybe not to win here but enough to at least make a dent. Not to say that there is any singularity in Black politics across the South.
But there is not a similar kind of power structure in Latino politics in the West and Southwest. Some of that’s because in Los Angeles Latino politics encompasses many different groups: Salvadoran-American politics, Honduran-American politics, Mexican-American politics of first generation to twelfth generation. So those networks have not been built. Some of it too is that those places tend to have a much stronger footprint of the labour movement themselves and those have a stronger footprint in Latino communities, whether that be in the building trades, in hotel work. Across the board there are already institutions that tend to in their policies align with Sanders, even if they were not outright endorsing him. Finally, some historians and anthropologists have argued that especially among more recent immigrants you’ve got a lot of folks who are leaving countries behind where there are strong labour or socialist traditions in those countries. The class politics of Latin America—without painting too broad a stroke—is a more defined class politics than it is in the United States. And then so much of the modern Latino civil rights movement was Cesar Chavez and the farmworkers stuff which is what we think of as akin to the Martin
Luther King Civil Rights Movement in the American South. King was deeply connected to the labour movement, Chavez’s organisation literally was a farmworkers union.
Marianne: I canvassed for Bernie in the San Francisco Bay Area and also in Reno, Nevada. The response overall was very positive, which was reflected by Bernie’s big wins in both places. In San Jose, the majority of houses I canvassed were Latinx households. I think Bernie resonated with the Latinx community which has been deeply impacted by the brutality of ICE and racism in this country. The Bernie Campaign made an effort to hear them and to reach them by distributing literature in Spanish and connecting Spanish-speaking canvassers with Latinx communities. In San Jose, the local music and art community, which is largely Latinx and Asian, came together to host fundraisers for the Bernie campaign. It was kind of surreal honestly, the energy at one of the local shows at the campaign headquarters. I can’t comment much on reception from the Black community. I was deployed mostly to Latinx communities in San Jose.
In Reno my canvassing territory was evenly White and Latinx households. We had a lot of “Who is Bernie Sanders?” conversations there, and they went really well. We had lifelong registered Republicans writing down the information on how to change their affiliation to go vote in the primary for Bernie. Most communities we canvassed in Sparks and Reno were trailer parks, low income housing, and motels. Well, we met some “Republicans” who couldn’t afford their prescription drugs. After chatting with them about Bernie’s Medicare For All and prescription plan they were on board. One Latino man in Nevada gave us a hug. He was distressed about how right-wing his neighbours had become and he was grateful we were out there. I just hope that the people we energized don’t feel defeated now that Bernie lost.
Kenzo: The response to Bernie in Chicago had been overwhelmingly positive. I feel confident that Bernie would have won the Illinois primary had our Governor postponed the election and moved it to be mail-only. Bernie had the momentum in Illinois but our primary went on as planned, the same day that the Governor closed public buildings, many of which were polling places. People stayed home to stay healthy.
Following Sanders’s success in the 2016 campaign, the DSA, which supported Sanders, exploded in size. Other socialists like Alexandria Ocasio Cortez were elected to office and rose to national prominence, and many key organisers of the teacher strike wave of 2018 have claimed they were inspired to fight by the Sanders campaign. In what ways would you say the campaign has reshaped the American left?
Thomas: It certainly provided energy. It cut a lot of people’s teeth on a lot of things. People will learn a lot from this experience. Understanding the kinds of internal power networks of the Democratic Party, seeing the national media do what it does in these situations, the language of socialism, the language of class politics, the simplicity and the popularity of Sanders’s message I think gives us a pretty good road map forward. To paraphrase Conor Kilpatrick, all things considered, a hundred years later--surprise, surprise-- ‘Peace Bread and Land’ still works, and Sanders has always espoused the very simplistic aspect of that without getting into a deep critique of the way capitalist governance works. People know they’re getting screwed and they know other people aren’t and other people are profiting off them.
Marianne: I’d say in 2016 the campaign got people to sign up, in 2020 the campaign got people to go out and do the work. Volunteering for the Sanders’s campaign taught you valuable organizing skills and showed you how much we can accomplish together. There was (and still is) palpable hope. Canvassing in Reno was one the best things I’ve done in my life. I feel really a part of something bigger than myself. I didn’t feel that way in 2016.
There’s a soul to this movement now. I think we will see an uptick of new workplace organizing and increased striking in established unions. People are connecting their labour power to politics, and are not afraid to wield that power. Biden’s triumph has frustrated a lot of people. I think people are angry at the Democratic party and long for a viable alternative. There is no faith left in the two-party system. I anticipate the birth of a true workers’ party.
Kenzo: I would actually say that the campaign was shaped by the American Left, and that is what made it nimble. For example, when the Chicago Teachers Union and SEIU local 73 went on strike in Chicago last year, Bernie came to Chicago immediately to rally with the teachers. He adopted our proposals as part of his agenda. The Red State strikers were part of his campaign as were people involved in Occupy, the Madison Uprising in 2011, and the DSA. His staff was composed of many members of the DSA and other activists. It was a campaign of organizers.
Some organisations on the socialist far left did not back the Sanders campaign because he chose to run on the Democratic Party ticket. Can you run over the pros and cons of the ballot line decision and tell us whether, looking back, you think it was the right one?
Thomas: There’s not even a decision. If your goal is to sell a newspaper on a college campus, by all means, don’t run on the Democratic Party ticket. But you have to fight on the landscape you’re on, and the American landscape is a two-party system. Dustin Guastella’s new article in Jacobin is an excellent link on this. The Sanders campaign had an internal premise that one of the best ways to build a movement in the context of a country of more than 300 million people spread out over nearly 4 million square miles with vastly different cultural landscapes across it was to do so in the cultural and media spotlight that only a presidential campaign could attract. A third party candidate is not going to be able to do that. If there was a strong and institutionalised labour movement grounded in key workplaces in the country and that group wanted to come around and say, you know what, as a culmination of our successes we’re going to start contesting political power as a party, that would be cool, right? But you can’t put that cart before the horse.
Marianne: I was a member of one of those organizations on the socialist far left that opposed the Sanders campaign, so I do engage in a fair amount of self-criticism with respect to campaigning for a Democrat. Bernie is the first and the last Democrat I put time and effort into. That being said, I think it was the right decision for the time and I do not regret it. The truth is: there is no viable alternative to the two parties in the United States right now, and a third party candidate would not have gotten any of the media attention Bernie did. Had we decided to go door to door for socialism outside of this campaign we wouldn’t have had the list of houses, the number of volunteers or staff support, and a real reason for an average person to open their door and talk to us. Socialism is an abstract concept. The primary is a concrete event.
I think one of the greatest signs of the Bernie movement’s success is how quickly diehard Bernie canvassers denounced him after he supported Biden. That tells me that it is a true, principled movement. It has never been just about Bernie. That’s something you have to give Bernie a lot of credit for. In my opinion, the test of the success of any political leader is if what they built can survive when they are no longer at the reigns. As for cons, while the seasoned leftists can separate the name “Bernie Sanders” from the movement, it is quite possible that the mass of newly engaged people cannot. They might think the Democratic party shares socialist values.
Kenzo: I think running as a Democrat accomplished more for the movement than would have been possible running as a Green or Independent. We were able to get ballot access and have our views expressed on the national debate stage. We had access to voter databases. We were able to heighten the contradictions in the Democratic Party, by running within it. There was no easy path to victory for Bernie, but I feel that running as a Dem was the best shot we had and I don’t think the
campaign should feel regrets about it.
Do you think Sanders made the correct move in dropping out of the race last week and backing Joe Biden?
Thomas: I’m sure he made the decision for very particular reasons, most of which we as outside commentators don’t have access to. The Wisconsin results were the same kind of thing we’d seen before: 65% for Biden, 35% for Sanders. They would not have dropped out if they had thought those results in Wisconsin would be different. If COVID-19 had struck two weeks earlier, there’s a good chance Sanders might be the presumptive nominee right now. If it had not struck at all, if it had struck four weeks later, he could have had a better chance I think. What they were trying do in terms of online rallies and online educational stuff with nurses and union folks around COVID-19 was great but it just wasn’t going to reach out to the people you need to contest elections.
As for backing Biden, maybe this is a problem of the left and the liberals as well that we tend to see voting as something more than the instrumental act it is. A National Labor Relations Board with Democratic appointees is making labour organising a thousand times easier. And I firmly believe that to actually have a chance of winning power we need a strong institutionalised labour movement in the country. If I lived in a swing state I would probably wake up and vote for Biden on election day, but I don’t pretend that that vote is anything but that instrumental act. It’s not defining my politics.
Marianne: I hear and I respect arguments from people on the left defending his choice to drop out. They believe his loss to Biden was already a reality and it was the responsible choice to admit it. I believe that Bernie was concerned about people going to the polls and spreading coronavirus, and that he didn’t want to have that blood on his hands. It was a difficult decision and I am not going to pretend that I would have known how to make it. That being said, I was bummed. I wanted to see it through to the very end, even if he still lost. I wanted the opportunity to make a scene at the convention to expose all the behind-the-scenes collusion that went on to hurt his campaign.
He said he was going to back the nominee if he lost, and he did what he said he would do. I think it was a bad decision and a weak one at that. It’s one thing to lose, it is another thing to roll over. It sends confusing ideological messages to newly engaged people. Biden is not going to support Medicare for All, but he is going to try to rebrand his plan in a way that makes it seem like it is similar to the policies outlined by Bernie. Bernie endorsing Biden will make that easier for him to do. Blurring the lines between neoliberalism and socialism will hurt our movement and it will hurt the American people.
Kenzo: I think Bernie did what he told us he would do, which was back the eventual Democratic nominee. I supported him throughout the campaign, so I would say that I support his backing Biden. I do think he did that way too soon and should have played a little more hardball to extract concessions from the Party, but we also don’t know what happened in backrooms. I think Bernie dropped out because the Democratic Party was basically playing chicken with the primary. Biden would not drop out, but they knew that Bernie was too kind of a man to let the election go on knowing it puts voters at risk for COVID-19. We saw that the moment Bernie dropped out, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo immediately announced New York state would go to a mail ballot. It seems like this was part of a plan.
What do think is the next step for building the left in the US and what should activists do during the elections to make sure Sanders’s class struggle message stays at the forefront of politics?
Thomas: If you’re someone who’s really into political campaigning, go find an upstart congressperson running in a swing state, go work for Rashida Tlaib. You could say ‘I’m not knocking on doors telling people to vote for Biden, I’m knocking on doors telling people to vote for Rashida,’ but if they come out to vote for Rashida they’ll probably check the box next to Biden too. In terms of the longer term stuff, building institutional power is best through the labour movement because you can actually win things for people and make a difference in their lives while growing institutional power. That ups the ante in terms of what politics can be about on other scales. If you can win an extra $4 and hour now, if you can win a better health insurance plan—oh, wait now-- if you get involved in politics you can win national health insurance. In terms of Biden, I don’t think people on the left should stop pointing out the problems of the Democratic Party. It’s important to point out that Biden actually doesn’t stand for the same things as Sanders because the Democratic Party is very good at saying they share the same goals when they don’t.
And as for the current crisis, there’s going to be a lot of horror but also perhaps opportunity from that horror for building stuff. In the end, one of the things that hurt Bernie the most is that he didn’t have enough real institutions supporting him that could mobilise support. Precisely because he was a threat to the Democratic Party he was then shut out of so many of those reliable Democratic networks. Those relationships need to be built, but we also need to create our own ones that can meaningfully exercise power.
Marianne: We need to be unwavering in our opposition to Biden and to the Democratic Party as a whole while giving people a viable alternative through the labour movement. Long-term, I see two interdependent paths forward: building strong strike-ready unions and creating a real worker’s party. Our most powerful bargaining tool is our labour. Once people realize they can strike not just for better working conditions – but for larger social and economic justice causes – it’s on. In the 1960s the longshoreman’s union in San Francisco struck on the docks to end apartheid in South Africa. They wouldn’t unload cargo from there. We need to funnel people’s frustrations, their creativity, and their hopes into the labour movement. There, they can effect change for themselves instead of hoping some politician will change it for them.
We are about to face a terrible unknown. The pandemic is affecting our physical and mental health and our economy in ways we cannot yet comprehend. As climate change escalates we will have more disturbances - more disease, more disasters - to face. As scary as this all is, I find solace in the thought that if the world can change in unimaginable ways, so can we. I think the revolution is already here and that our job right now is to let it in.
Kenzo: Americans who feel that capitalism has given them a raw deal should join the DSA. It’s the largest socialist organization in America by far and we have the most leverage to push American politics left. If DSA’s politics aren’t for you, join another socialist or leftist organization. The time to be radical out in the world, and not just in your head is right now. We need more socialists to build the type of socialism we need, which is small d democratic.
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