What Did Bernie Do?

Looking back at the Sanders campaign and the struggles to come.

Bernie Sanders in Des Moines, IA on January 11, 2016. Phil Roeder

Socialism in the United States

The Bernie Sanders campaign had success on a level no one could have predicted, winning tens of millions of supporters. To what do you credit this?

Cedric Johnson

The ground was softened over the past two decades for him. There have been some really dark times going back to the Bush years, but through it all we’ve seen social struggles that have illuminated the way forward. Sanders benefited from that. He was the beneficiary of organizing around the Labor Party, antiglobalization struggles, antiwar protests, fights to save collective bargaining in places like Wisconsin and Ohio, Occupy Wall Street, and the demonstrations against police violence. I think people were ready, different constituencies that have come into being in a way that didn’t exist a decade or two ago.

Jen Roesch

The struggles over the last two decades — especially the last eight years — are enormously important and paved the way for Sanders’s success. It’s almost a time-delayed “Occupy goes to the polls” kind of expression.

The material basis — for both those struggles and the success of Sanders’s campaign — is the growing and dramatic levels of social inequality in this country. Sanders managed to tap into antiestablishment sentiment. He spoke to a discontent that people have with politics as usual, with the Democratic Party, with disappointed expectations of Obama. Sanders was able to give expression to a politics to the left of the Democratic Party mainstream which could provide a left populist answer to people’s discontent — in the inverse way that Trump is tapping into that discontent.

Matt Karp

The scale of Bernie’s success is staggering. This was the most successful left-wing primary campaign in US history. The only analogues are Jesse Jackson in 1988 and Ted Kennedy in 1980, but Sanders won many more votes, delegates, and primaries than either of them.

What made Bernie different? A major factor was Sanders’s embrace of a social-democratic platform. The campaign focused on simple, broad solutions like national health care and free college — universal goods that speak to people’s everyday problems, and have been consistently shown to be popular. But politicians in both parties have studiously avoided talking about them for decades.

Sanders also mobilized a direct class politics in his rhetoric. He was not afraid to name names, like the Walton family or Goldman Sachs, rather than just talking generally about opportunity or inequality. And he expanded his critique beyond individual wrongdoing: these are not just bad people, but they are in an inherently exploitative class position, the billionaire class. American politicians don’t ever talk this way, but it resonated.

For us, Sanders’s popularity was all the more exciting for his embrace of the “socialist” label. But how big of a role did Sanders’s socialism really play in his public perception?

Cedric Johnson

It’s remarkable that he was even able to run as an openly democratic-socialist candidate and not be marginalized. Clinton tried to attack him on that, but he was able to weather those criticisms. It didn’t really stick in the way it would have a decade or two ago.

Jen Roesch

The important thing is that Sanders’s socialism wasn’t a barrier to him getting millions of votes. When I came of political age, the Soviet Union was just falling. Socialism was associated with Stalinism. People told you to go back to Russia. Twenty-five years later, more than thirteen million people voted for someone who calls himself a socialist. That’s a certain kind of barrier coming down, that’s incredibly important for the socialist left.

Matt Karp

There is a paradoxical effect when the word socialism gets abused — particularly the way the right wing has abused it, calling Obama socialist, calling Obamacare socialist, all this crazy stuff.

So the word “socialism” gets watered down, but it also expresses a real truth. The polling on socialism says that this younger generation contains a large of group of people interested in something beyond liberal reform. Maybe they don’t know what it is, exactly, but they’re open to it and they’re going to keep exploring and I think it’s our job to keep pushing them.

Jen Roesch

Matt is hitting on an important point. Sanders opened up a discussion about what socialism is. At various points throughout his campaign he started out with a broader conception, talking about Eugene Debs and then at other times would describe having a military — or anything that’s owned by the state — as socialist. It’s incumbent on socialists to continue a discussion about what kind of socialism we want to fight for. That space has really opened up for us.

Cedric Johnson

It is important that Sanders was able to do what he did as a socialist candidate, but we need to think carefully about what brought people to his side. It wasn’t the label, but the attraction of specific policy platforms. Free higher education, single-payer health care, calls for regulating the banks, as well as things like postal banking . . . Unless you’re over fifty, most people don’t even remember those things as a possibility or a reality. Sanders’s success had more to do with, as Matt pointed out, the resonance of his critique of class power and, as Jen noted, the harsh conditions that people are living through.

In all elections, people’s votes are an expression of a temporal preference, not necessarily a full-throated acceptance of all things that a candidate represents. We should be excited about Sanders’s popularity, but we should also be somewhat cautious in how we think about what motivated people to support him.

Matt Karp

There were some people on the Left who were worried Sanders watered down the term, that he would make socialism meaningless, or turn socialism into liberalism. But even if there were some distortions, I’m glad we are having this conversation. I’d rather have millions of people talking about socialism than have millions of people not talking about socialism.

Cedric Johnson

If something opens up the possibility for a different kind of conversation, a popular critique of capitalism, then I’m all for it. I don’t think we have to wait for the perfect set of conditions to arise to make things happen. As we see the potential for power, there’s a need for us to shift gears from the kind of pristine conversations we have within activist circles and accept the fact of politics, that the process itself is not always pretty. Things don’t always line up the way we want them to, but we shouldn’t be discouraged by that.

Jen Roesch

I was sitting in a meeting of students on campus and an eighteen-year-old said, “I was against all of these different things and I was angry about all of these different issues, and then Sanders came along and gave it a name and it made me want to start understanding what socialism is and learning more about it.”

That’s a minority of people who voted for Sanders, but it’s a minority that far outstrips the current capacity of the Left to bring those people into activity.

Race, Class, and Struggle

As Sanders increasingly posed a threat to Hillary Clinton’s nomination bid, all sorts of charges were leveled against him. The red-baiting stuff was a flop, but there was more success when Sanders was accused of paying insufficient attention to race. Were these complaints warranted?

Cedric Johnson

I think that’s a wrong view of things. Sanders is committed to antidiscrimination along racial and gender lines. A lot of the criticisms lobbed at him were calling for him to adopt a typical kind of patron-client approach to the elections — to engage with particular brokers of this or that identity group. Throughout the primary I heard, “If only Sanders had adopted a reparations plank” or “If only Sanders had taken a stronger position on Black Lives Matter, then he could have taken away the black vote from Clinton and he could have won the primary and the Democratic nomination.”

I think that’s just a wrongheaded view of how politics works. It assumes that most of this is about messaging and if you just offer the right message to people, then they’ll rally by your side. There’s also an oversimplified view of black political life at work here. Clinton made all sorts of missteps which should have damaged her support from blacks, like the instance in South Carolina during that pricey fundraiser where she shut down a Black Lives Matter protester. Some might think that that would have eroded her black support, but it really didn’t because her “superpredators” comment was not the only thing people were thinking about when they were deciding whether to support Clinton’s nomination.

Jen Roesch

Sanders’s positions on racism had nothing to do with why he didn’t win the black vote. He is far to the left of Clinton on racism, from his social policies to his opposition to mass incarceration, to his programs to address broad inequality.

One of the central liberal critiques of Sanders on racism was that he focused too much on class. But his economic policies — emphasizing jobs programs and broad policies of redistribution — would be a huge advance in addressing inequality and improving the lives of millions of black and brown people.

I am heartened to see similar calls today, for example, in the platform for the Movement for Black Lives. Their seven demands don’t just focus on racist policing and mass incarceration, but speak to the entire experience of racism in this country. Sanders’s ideas clearly resonated with people coming of age right now.

But there were also limitations to Sanders’s approach to race — not so much from the electoral calculus, but from the perspective of building a new left. He gave some amazing speeches in front of black audiences, but he didn’t incorporate it into his stump speech and did not highlight issues of racism when he spoke in front of primarily white, working-class audiences.

Sanders brought class politics into the discussion of the fight against racism, but did not do enough to bring the issue of racism into the struggle against class inequality.

Matt Karp

I agree with Cedric and Jen about black voters and the Sanders campaign. But I do think this is an important issue going forward. There’s no question that for the center and for the right of the Democratic Party, an appeal to individual identity is at the heart of a strategy to splinter and destroy any broad-based, universalistic politics of solidarity.

I’m not so worried about the clumsier iterations of this, like when Clinton said “breaking up the big banks won’t end racism.” I don’t think that really plays anywhere except maybe with a small group of white liberals who want to signal their virtue. But the more significant manifestations — when we saw leaders like John Lewis slam Bernie on civil rights — that was really powerful, and it’s going to remain on the agenda.

The Democratic Party’s institutional ties to communities of color and its ability to mobilize certain forms of rhetoric to undermine universalistic politics is something that we have to reckon with. We can’t just fight it with ironic tweets. We need a vocabulary and a strategy that goes beyond calling out the hypocrisy of neoliberal antiracism. We need to develop something that addresses specific historical oppressions, and builds rather than undermines solidarity based on those oppressions.

Cedric Johnson

What Sanders did was put in front of us a clear, progressive left agenda and he appealed to blacks as he did to all other voters. There was some movement in different states, where over time, he was able to build his base of black support, not by pandering in the way that Clinton did, but by actually presenting people with ideas that resonated with their experiences and seemed to connect with their needs and interests.

When Clinton deployed Jim Clyburn and others in South Carolina, they twisted things in ways that I’m still puzzled folks didn’t see straight through. For instance, Clyburn made this argument that “nothing in life is free” as a way to disparage the free higher education proposal. What’s odd about that is that free higher education at public institutions would have had a dramatic effect on the capacities of black people at historically black colleges — like the one I attended, Southern University of Baton Rouge — to complete their education. It would have been the same for South Carolina State, Chicago State, Grambling State University, dozens of public universities across the South, and even in some of the northern states where blacks constitute the majority of the student body.

Those are the institutions that produce the most black graduates, but in front of certain audiences in South Carolina, Clyburn was able to discredit the proposal and present this scenario where free higher education was going to drain students away from the smaller, black liberal arts colleges that he is connected to. I just think there were some dishonest maneuvers, which is always a part of this political process, but there were things that worked effectively for their side that we should have contested more strenuously.

Matt Karp

Just a point of clarification. I do not think ironic tweets are sufficient as a left-wing political strategy, but they are a good thing and I am in favor of ironic tweets.

Building a Bigger Left

In the years leading up to Occupy, the US left seemed influenced by strains of anarchism. Many of these tendencies rejected structural cri­tiques of capitalism and traditional forms of left-wing organization.

It may be safe to say that post-Sanders the general moment is more informed by social democracy. By this we could mean broad support for the welfare state and more people willing to make militant demands of the state: providing free education and health care, ensuring living wages, curbing state violence, and so on. Would you agree with that characterization of a shift?

Cedric Johnson

That’s a fair characterization and it is a welcome shift.

Thinking back to the Katrina disaster, we saw the same sort of sentiment that would later animate Occupy. People were so upset with the government’s failures, corruption, and the pervasive sense in New Orleans was, “Just get out of our way and let us do what we have to do to rebuild.” The prevailing idea was that government was an impediment to rebuilding and in part they had reason to believe that.

But to go back to Jen’s earlier point about that end of the Cold War moment: we both came of age when ideas about socialism were cast in the historical dustbin, that so-called “end of history” moment in the late eighties and early nineties. That sense that you could actually use state power to change people’s material circumstances, to improve livelihoods, was abandoned. Today, we’ve come back around to that view because we can’t really live in complex, urban societies without some centralized planning.

Jen Roesch

I agree and I think it’s one of the most exciting and important developments in the last year. There’s a broad shift away from “anarcho-liberalism” towards a class politics and an openness to political organization.

There are social-democratic elements, but I wouldn’t necessarily narrow it just to that. There are real questions of organization. I agree with Cedric on this. For a lot of people Occupy was the first protest they saw or participated in. And people know that it failed. They know that we were not able to sustain the encampments and that the state was able to shut us down. People see the Black Lives Matter movement and see that it’s gone up and down and there’s a whole range of struggles. There’s a growing awareness that we need something beyond single-issue movements and we need something beyond semi-spontaneous movements that rise and fall without any kind of political or organizational direction.

Matt Karp

The Sanders campaign was also a return of the US left to electoral politics in a serious way, which opens up opportunities and challenges of its own. I’m hoping that Sanders’s surprising success is a reminder that elections are something the Left should take seriously and participate in. I’m not saying that the struggle should be restricted to elections, but it’s hard to imagine any kind of meaningful left victories occurring without an electoral component.

There’s an opening for social-democratic politics at all levels. But at the same time there are many challenges that come with that kind of strategy. How do you enact social democracy on a state or local level? You really can’t. To even win the barest essence of social democracy, like a national health-care system, you can’t do that by winning city council seats. We need to engage in lower-level electoral politics while continuing to build a national movement.

Cedric Johnson

Elections certainly matter. It is remarkable that we saw so many people engaging in this election in a way that we haven’t seen folks on the Left do so in a while. I think the danger, of course, is that we think that elections matter more than they really do. What they do is provide an opportunity to express or demonstrate the amount of power that we might have in a particular district or in a state, but more importantly, they help shape the political arena.

After Sanders ended his campaign and endorsed Clinton, he vowed to keep the fight going by forming Our Revolution — a political organization to further the kind of politics he championed. What do you make that effort so far?

Jen Roesch

Our Revolution, empirically speaking, has not galvanized Sanders’s supporters. It is really a continuing, deepening contradiction because the whole premise is about running down-ballot candidates and trying to reform the Democratic Party from below. It is not the case that thousands and thousands of people who supported Sanders have flowed into this formation and attempted to turn it into some kind of vehicle for building the Left. Our Revolution was never designed to do that.

People are looking for alternatives that are bigger than electoral politics. That’s not to say that electoral politics don’t matter and I think the question of building a left alternative to the Democratic Party remains a central question, but that is not going to happen through the slow accretion of electoral victories. I think it’s going to be through much more fundamental breaks within sections of liberal organization, who come to see the need to build an independent party. I think that that’s what we have to have our eyes on if we’re going to talk about having an electoral alternative.

Matt Karp

What Jen is saying about this being a process is dead-on. It’s not just about organizing or appealing to the already-existing left, but about reaching out. That is the promise of Sanders getting over thirteen million votes.

Taking part in struggles in and around the Democratic Party in the short term, even in the medium term, will be essential to this process. I don’t think that requires committing to a naive idea that the Left is on the verge of taking over the Democratic Party, that all we need is 51 percent of the primary votes and then the party is ours. But elections are sites of struggle, opportunities for engagement, and we can’t ignore them.

In a lot of places, the Democratic Party is the only game in town, and we shouldn’t ignore it, either. We can use elections within the party to diffuse ideas and to mobilize people, energize people, push people. Younger Bernie voters are already open to a politics that goes beyond liberal reformism. Engaging them in more electoral struggles can further that process, and I don’t think it demands a rigid fealty to any particular party strategy. We can be agnostic about the future of the Democratic Party for the short term.

Cedric Johnson

Would a third-party candidate have been able to garner the kind of support that Sanders did by operating within the Democratic Party machinery? It is not likely given the way presidential elections work; the process is stacked against third-party candidates. I think we’re stuck with that conundrum. His historic run happened within the Democratic Party and, as Matt points out, in some places, it’s the only game in town.

I’m not against the idea of people trying to work locally. A lot of people at the Labor for Bernie meeting that we had back in the spring were talking about running down-ticket local candidates to challenge incumbent or establishment Democrats. I don’t think that kind of activity necessarily means a commitment to the Democratic Party. It just means working within whatever specific political geography you’re stuck with in certain cities, and in different parts of the country. But, at the same time of course, I think we all agree that there’s a need to build something outside of the parties of capital.

The Sanders campaign carved out a significant base to the left of liberalism. At the same time, Donald Trump represents the rise of a right-wing populism. Over the next five to ten years, which force do you expect will exert more influence nationally?

Cedric Johnson

I’m not convinced Trump’s base is going to remain intact. Some Republican strategists have been arguing for a while now that their traditional base — the people that brought them to power during the Reagan years and really allowed them to consolidate power — is shrinking. The parts of the electorate that are actually expanding in the country right now, they’re not trending towards the Republican Party, for the most part. The base that brought about the Reagan revolution and the Contract with America and that saw us through the Bush years has been on a steady decline. If that decline continues apace in combination with organizing on the left, there’s a possibility to offset the most disastrous impacts of the Trump phenomenon.

Matt Karp

Looking beyond 2016, I’m pretty confident that the Republican Party will be able to co-opt and constrain Trump voters. Trump was a unique figure — a self-funding celebrity billionaire, who entered the GOP primary with an immediate polling lead. He had this massive independent platform for his own style of politics, which combined ethnic nationalism with a rhetorical rejection of right-wing economic orthodoxy. The rhetoric was mostly bogus, but it was also a big part of what made him popular — not just that he said appalling racist things, but that he could humiliate Jeb Bush for being in the pocket of his donors, that he railed against trade deals, etc.

But how many Donald Trumps are there? How many more have emerged this year? The Republican leadership has maintained solid control over the congressional party and the party in the states. Going forward, I think that leadership will be able to rule out Trump-like figures who deviate from right-wing orthodoxy. So you might get more nationalism and even more racism, but I doubt you’re going to get more populism, which is a big part of what made Trump distinctive.

Jen Roesch

I think the right-wing base for Donald Trump is real. A lot of it is incoherent, but there is a hard right-wing core to it. It is extremely racist and xenophobic. I don’t think it’s nearly at the level that we’ve seen, for example, in Europe, with the rise of genuinely far-right, semi-fascist parties and outright fascist parties, like Golden Dawn in Greece. But Donald Trump represents a sign of things potentially to come if we’re not able to put forward a left-wing alternative.

In some ways the question here is really about the Democratic Party and especially Hillary Clinton’s campaign. “America is already great” is not an answer to the discontent that millions of people feel and it is not an answer to the anger that Donald Trump is tapping into with the establishment. It’s critical that we carve out an independent space to the left of that, that is able to pose our own alternatives and say, “It’s not immigrants, it’s not blacks, it’s not Muslims. The reason you’ve seen your living standards decline, the reason that we see a crisis of death rates for the middle-aged white working class and poor Americans is because of the economic devastation that’s been run by both major parties and by Wall Street and the corporations in this country.” Our side needs to pose an alternative and organize around that.