Bernie and the Movement

Bernie Sanders is a boon to progressive politics. But we need a movement that rebuilds the networks and organizations of the Left.

I met Bernie Sanders in the late 1980s when he was a visiting fellow at Harvard University still contemplating his political future. We had lunch, and I spoke with him about my concern that leftists and progressives had little in the way of an electoral strategy, and that it would be useful for someone like him to help convene a gathering to look at the big picture.

The lunch was great. Sanders was interesting and approachable, and we talked for quite a while. He went on to make history in his own way, but he never did convene a gathering of leftists for a serious talk about strategy. After reading Harry Jaffe’s Why Bernie Sanders Matters, I have a clearer sense why.

Jaffe’s book is accessible and — leaving aside its liberal orientation and various glaring mistakes (e.g., suggesting that Stalin formed the USSR after World War II) — well worth reading.

He paints Sanders as a complicated figure who shies away from discussions about his personal life or history. This is unfortunate, because it makes it much more difficult for an outsider to grasp who Sanders is and what motivates him. But what is very clear, and well demonstrated by Jaffe, is that Sanders has been relatively consistent in his political message since the beginning of his career.

Though Sanders describes himself as a “democratic socialist,” Jaffe correctly characterizes his political practice or reality as more akin to a left populism. That’s not necessarily a criticism; Sanders’s left-populism has gotten him through difficult battles and won him some significant victories.

Indeed, Jaffe’s discussion of Sanders’s campaign for the Burlington mayoralty and his initial months in office makes the book worth reading all by itself. There was little expectation of victory; Sanders ran an unorthodox campaign against a machine; and then won in an atmosphere where his political opponents wanted to cut his throat.

Sanders persisted and was successful in building what could be described as a “ruling coalition,” in which he was seen as a champion of the people. But Sanders was also restless and wanted to take his political vision to the national stage. He did. Sanders ran seven successful congressional races, won a Senate seat in 2006, and was then reelected in 2012.

The success of the Sanders presidential campaign in motivating masses of people has many explanations, but his integrity and consistency of message are two of the most cited. Sanders is seen as someone who fights for what he believes in and, as Jaffe points out, in his various political altercations with Republicans, has come off as a hard fighter. Yet this hasn’t made his political opponents dismiss him — even his sometime-friends in the Democratic Party, some of whom Jaffe says consider Sanders standoffish and unwilling to compromise. Even they never doubted his principles.

Sanders’s campaign message — particularly about the need for what he calls a “political revolution” and his emphasis on economic injustice — is also appealing, but is far from new. He has emphasized these themes time and again throughout his political career. The only change is that, to paraphrase his close assistant, Phil Fiermonte, it seems the world has come to see things as Sanders does.

There is a fruitful comparison to be made between Sanders’s campaign and Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988. Like Jackson, Sanders has positioned himself as the champion of the underdog — the champion of those being stepped on by the wealthy. But as Jaffe’s book shows, there are also problems in Sanders’s otherwise inspiring presidential campaign that can be better understood by looking back at the Jackson campaigns.

From almost the beginning of his political career, Sanders has surrounded himself with a very small group of associates — including his wife — who have been described as his “family.” For the most part, these confidantes are people from or living in Vermont and, as best I can tell, all white. Jaffe notes that when Sanders started thinking seriously about his presidential campaign, these confidantes supported the decision but only if he was running to win. He promised that he was.

This point is interesting because the Sanders campaign, at least in the beginning, did not appear to be running to win at all but rather acting more like a pressure group focusing largely on one issue (economic inequality). By comparison, the two Jackson campaigns — which were the most significant in my lifetime and saw a major role played by the Left — sought to win from the beginning, even if Jackson had no expectation of succeeding.

Jackson established what can best be described as “base areas” in various social movements and spoke out on issues specific to those social movements. As a result, he became an acknowledged champion. Jackson could speak with white farmers in Kansas, Latino activists in California, a racially mixed group of auto workers in Missouri, and an entirely black Christian congregation in Birmingham without missing a beat or failing to speak to the issues with which they were grappling. There was a place in the campaign for activists arising out of the movements of the dispossessed, and the campaign was looking for people ready and willing to work.

The Sanders campaign, by contrast, has focused almost exclusively on its specific take on economic injustice, and much like the Obama 2008 campaign, gaining entry into the upper or even middle levels of the campaign for supportive activists is far more difficult than in Jackson’s 1988 campaign.

Sanders also has a laser-like focus and steers most public discussions back to matters of political corruption and economic inequality. While he can and will speak about other issues, such as foreign policy, or more recently race, these are topics with which he seems less comfortable. He treats them almost as a distraction from the key problems plaguing society.

Sanders has a history with the Civil Rights Movement and is a committed antiracist at a practical level, but for the most part race (as well as gender) appear to him matters that will be resolved by addressing economy injustice. Sanders sees in common economic demands a means to unify and avoid touching the tripwire of US politics: race. For the senator, economic reforms that benefit the poor and economically crushed will, ipso facto, benefit people of color and thus, there is apparently no need to fixate on them.

This is an orientation that resembles the position of many of the old figures of the early twentieth-century Socialist Party of America that Sanders admires. But it’s an approach that has been refuted by the practice of the actual class and democratic struggles in the United States. Attempting to paper over race simply does not work and while, admittedly, it is a difficult path in confronting racist oppression, there is no basis to believe that it can be ignored. In fact, avoiding race and racist oppression generally results in a disaster.

Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke to some of these points in a recent article, which ended on a telling note: “My hope was to talk to Sanders directly, before writing this article,” Coates wrote. “I reached out repeatedly to his campaign over the past three days. The Sanders campaign did not respond.”

Coates’s complaint is echoed by Jaffe, who argues that Sanders has difficulty dealing with people who disagree with him. This, I am afraid, could be a major flaw. While it is true that we are accustomed to arrogant and dismissive politicians, it is also the case that we, correctly, set a higher standard for those who are self-described progressives or leftists. We assume that they will accept the reality of difference and will offer a larger tent.

It is not clear, after reading Jaffe, that this conclusion can be arrived at with regard to Senator Sanders. His passionate, intense belief system might very well be his undoing if it gets in the way of his willingness to hear alternative points of view that come from beyond his inner circle.

Thinking about these things as I read Jaffe brought me back to my long-ago lunch with Sanders. When I asked whether he would play a role in convening a meeting of left and progressive electoral activists to discuss strategy, he declined. What becomes clear in reading Jaffe is that Sanders is not the sort of person to convene such a discussion.

Sanders is not an organization builder. He is more of a movement leader. He seeks to speak for the dispossessed but is not someone who seeks to forge a collective strategy. He wants to be the champion of those who are being crushed by the juggernaut of capitalism, but it’s up to others to convene the big gatherings.

It’s a tossup whether Sanders would even attend such a meeting, but through his campaigns, many — though certainly not all — of the issues that must be addressed and which speak to masses of people have been highlighted in a manner rarely seen in US politics.

So we need Sanders. But we also need a social movement that rebuilds the Left much more, a point with which Sanders would — and has — agreed. The assembly that I requested that Sanders call still needs to be convened. Even with a Sanders campaign, let alone a Sanders presidency, without a national progressive electoral strategy committed to fighting all forms of exploitation and oppression, the Right will still win.

This is our challenge. And we have our work cut out for us.