Bernie Sanders Believes in Mass Politics — Something the New York Times Can’t Wrap Their Minds Around

The recent questioning of Bernie Sanders by the New York Times editorial board revealed that they see no difference between right-wing populism and democratic socialism. But Bernie wants to mobilize people to discipline the power of big business, not scapegoat the oppressed.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks to guests during a campaign stop at Berg Middle School on January 11, 2020 in Newton, Iowa. Scott Olson / Getty

Earlier this week, the New York Times editorial board published the transcript of its questioning of Bernie Sanders, conducted in advance of its official endorsement. Nobody expects the famously establishment-friendly New York Times editorial board to endorse Bernie Sanders, so naturally the ride was a bit bumpy.

One of the first questions the board asked Bernie was how he planned to get his ambitious agenda past a Mitch McConnell–led Senate. Bernie gave his standard answer to this line of inquiry:

What my administration is about is not sitting with Mitch in the Oval Office or wherever it is, negotiating something. It is rallying the American people around an agenda that they already support. All right? This is, I think, what makes me a little bit different than other candidates, and that is not only will I be commander in chief, I will be organizer in chief.

He added that “one of my first stops, by the way, will be in Kentucky,” meaning that, as president, he would hold rallies in the backyards of recalcitrant Republican politicians like McConnell, raising hell in their districts and exerting pressure on them from their own constituents.

A little while later, this exchange occurred:

Nick Fox: Can I just follow up on that one question? Given what we’ve gone through over the last three years when Democrats hear about the president flying around the country holding rallies, they might cringe. And I’m wondering how you flying around the country in 2021 rallying the people would be different than what Donald Trump has been doing?

Bernie Sanders: Well, I don’t know if I should be insulted by that question. I’ve spent my life fighting against everything that Donald Trump stands for.

In this era of resurgent left electoral activity, the conflation of left and right populism is one of the preferred tactics of the elite political center. As Luke Savage observed in Jacobin in 2016, the ultimate function of the shallow comparison is to “neutralize the Sanders insurgency and others like it. In affixing the same [populist] label to both the far right and the Left, liberals and centrists are able, in a single maneuver, to inoculate themselves against challenges from the latter.” This tactic was on full display in the editorial board’s line of questioning.

In the end, Bernie acquitted himself well. But if his professed intention to use the presidency to inspire popular mobilizations leaves him open to this kind of disingenuous criticism, why is Bernie so insistent upon it?

None of the other Democratic presidential candidates are. In one way or another, they all reliably communicate the message, “Elect me and I’ll take it from there.” Bernie is alone in candidly saying that he will rely on the active participation of the masses to govern.

The late Marxist sociologist Erik Olin Wright offered a schema that’s useful for understanding Bernie’s thinking here. In his book How to Be an Anti-Capitalist in the Twenty-First Century, Wright proposed that every economic system consists of three types of power: economic power, state power, and social power. These are pretty self-explanatory, except perhaps for social power, which Wright defines as “the power to mobilize people for cooperative, voluntary collective actions.”

In a capitalist society like the United States, Wright explains, state power is heavily subordinated to economic power. While there are some hard-won exceptions, the American government’s default is to behave, as Marx and Engels put it, as a “committee for managing the common affairs of the whole bourgeoisie,” habitually placing the needs of capitalists and their firms above the needs of ordinary people.

As a result of the subordination of state power to economic power — largely uncontested over the last fifty years — our nation’s wealth has become concentrated in the hands of a tiny minority, while the majority works longer hours for less money, pays more for basic necessities, and increasingly struggles to make ends meet.

Garden-variety neoliberal politicians like Pete Buttigieg and Joe Biden at most pay lip service to the notion that this arrangement needs to change at all. Their policy ideas skew heavily pro-corporate, and if either of them was to win the presidency, we could expect state power to continue to take a back seat to economic power.

Elizabeth Warren is a little different. By all accounts, she wants to take measures to subordinate economic power to state power somewhat, while leaving the overall capitalist structure of the economy intact. To that end, she’s keen to implement and enforce strict regulations that will rein in some of the worst excesses of capitalism.

Sanders agrees with Warren on the need for rules and regulations in bringing economic power to heel. But there are some major differences between the two candidates. One is that, unlike Warren, Sanders doesn’t limit his goals to creating “markets with rules”: he’s more interested in taking the things people need out of capitalist markets altogether.

The other major difference is how they propose to curb economic power. Warren speaks mainly of harnessing state power through the use of expert planning and savvy negotiating. But Sanders, appearing to view this theory of change as implausible or naive, adds something else into the mix.

It’s clear from his rhetoric that Bernie believes the existing state is subservient to capital, that this is a problem, and that it will be difficult to make it behave otherwise. That’s why he insists on trying to tap into a powerful force outside the state that can bend it in the right direction, against its nature. To put it in Wright’s terms, Bernie proposes to use social power to compel state power to discipline economic power. That’s what all the rallies are intended to accomplish.

Bernie’s promise to encourage mass mobilizations is heartening: it means he understands the obstacles to reform he’ll face if he wins. If he does win, expect him to take every opportunity to impress upon ordinary people that they’ve been cast in the leading role. The question, then, will be whether people are ready and willing to take the stage, and to fundamentally transform the balance of power in society.