The Bernie Sanders Campaign Can Help Inspire the US Working Class to Fight for Itself

Forty years of neoliberalism have beaten down and disorganized the US working class. The Bernie Sanders campaign is showing how electoral politics can be used to re-politicize working people — and organize collectively for their class interests.

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders joins striking United Auto Workers union members as they picket at the General Motors Detroit-Hamtramck Assembly Plant on September 25, 2019 in Detroit, Michigan. (Bill Pugliano / Getty Images)

The political and media establishments may claim otherwise, but by any reasonably democratic standard Bernie Sanders won the Iowa caucuses. He won roughly six thousand more votes than runner-up Pete Buttigieg, and it was working-class people of all backgrounds who put him over the top.

While some on the Left are still apprehensive about all-out participation in the Sanders campaign, there is little evidence that this will somehow inhibit extra-electoral mobilization and base-building in the working class. In an environment of profound social fragmentation, it should not be surprising that popular discontent has found expression through the Sanders campaign and the “political revolution” it spearheads. The decline of organized labor and the social disintegration of many working-class communities means that only a relatively small fraction of workers are positioned to pursue effective forms of collective action in their workplaces or communities.

Election campaigns are therefore one of the few channels currently available to engage and politicize a mass working-class audience, reconstitute the working class as a political subject, and create a more favorable environment for workers to organize both inside and outside the electoral arena. The Sanders campaign is priming working people to think of themselves as members of a class with an interest in political revolution. How could this be anything but a boon to the Left and the prospects for labor movement revitalization?

It is certainly the case that typical electoral campaigns serve as substitutes for mass organizing instead of vehicles for it. This is the crux of Robert Brenner’s classic critique of reformist electoralism. But the Sanders campaign has consistently shown itself to be no typical campaign. To begin with, it does not “accept consciousness as it is and try to adapt,” as Brenner argued of electoral activity in general. It is premised on connecting people’s private troubles with public issues, and it raises popular expectations instead of lowering and managing them.

It has also brought techniques and tactics typically employed in labor and community organizing into the day-to-day work of the campaign, which has allowed it to reach more deeply into the working class and impart these skills to an army of volunteers and staffers. They will not forget what they learned when the campaign comes to an end, and the relationships they establish now will likely feed into future organizing efforts both inside and outside the electoral arena.

“This Is a Movement of the Working Class”

This unique approach to campaigning came to fruition early on caucus day, when Sanders won the first contest in the town of Ottumwa, Iowa. Fourteen night-shift slaughterhouse workers, most of them immigrants, turned out to caucus for Bernie after their shift ended. They may not have if it weren’t for the dogged efforts of Sanders supporters, who canvassed workers outside the plant in the dead of night and followed up with them at home like organizers on a union drive. These are not the kinds of voters who campaigns typically target, and these are not the kinds of tactics that are typically used to reach them.

The Sanders campaign also borrowed a key labor organizing technique by recruiting service industry workers as campaign volunteers and staffers. According to one report, campaign field organizers in Iowa included an “Olive Garden server in Iowa City, a Bettendorf brewery worker, a North Liberty Hy-Vee clerk, an Iowa City cashier at Lowe’s, a St. Kilda’s bartender from Des Moines, an Ottumwa security guard, and a records store worker from Sioux City.”

The idea was that these sorts of workers could play a role similar to the organic workplace leaders who are the key to any successful union organizing drive. They are often well-known faces in their communities, can communicate effectively with many different kinds of people, and can mobilize people through their often extensive networks in the service industry. As a waiter and Sanders campaign organizer put it, “I was hired directly out of the working class, because this is a movement of the working class . . . They met me where I was, and I thought, if I’m going to be an organizer, I should do the same.”

The Politics of Class Formation

There is a tendency on the Left to counterpose electoral action and workplace or community organizing, often on the grounds that the latter promotes base-building while the former does not. This was the underlying premise of some Democratic Socialists of America members’ opposition to devoting significant time and resources to backing the Sanders campaign.

While it would be wrong to blur the distinctions between these different modes of organizing and the ways they shape collective action, it is equally wrong to downplay the ways in which they can and do reinforce each other. It is also misguided to pose an abstract sequence these forms of activity should follow (for example, build the base first, then enter the electoral arena), something that held back the development of the promising US Labor Party experiment of the 1990s.

Forty years of neoliberalism have disorganized the working class and pulverized the class solidarities that were built up in earlier periods of mass struggle and organization. Electoral activity should not substitute for other forms of mass organization, but it is difficult to conceive of a path to social reorganization that doesn’t run, at least in part, through intensive participation in electoral politics and representative institutions. The working-class political revolution that Sanders has set in motion will, to a significant extent, have to create its own social base as it contests elections.

It is undoubtedly true that processes like the presidential primaries offer a highly impoverished version of democratic participation. It is also true that representative political institutions contain a tendency to disorganize and fragment people into individual voters, and to incentivize participants to prioritize electoral success over other potential goals. But they also present opportunities for mobilization that generates collective political identities and supports the development of organizing capacities outside the electoral arena.

Electoral politics and representative institutions have historically played a central role in the process of working-class formation. In the words of political sociologist Carmen Sirianni, they have been “the major institutional form for the constitution of the working class as a national political class” because they made possible the establishment of mass working-class and socialist parties. Workplace and community struggles are also crucial to the process of class formation, but these modes of collective action tend to be localized, sporadic, and sectional in nature. To a significant extent, it is political organizations operating through electoral and representative institutions that have organized the working classes, not the other way around.

As E. P. Thompson argued in The Making of the English Working Class, “it is the political context as much as the steam-engine, which had most influence upon the shaping consciousness and institutions of the working class.” Today that context includes the nature of the party system, which in the United States tends to channel — whether we like it or not — working-class political insurgencies into one of the two major parties. It also includes the centrality of the presidential contest, which, in this period of nationalized parties, structures political conflict at every level and provides the most effective platform for disseminating ideas and cohering voters into social and ideological blocs.

Bernie Sanders has given the US left a huge gift by running two effective presidential campaigns, injecting discussions of “democratic socialism” and “political revolution” into mainstream politics, and emphasizing the working-class character of the movement behind his candidacy. In the process, he has worked to displace the culture war as the central dividing line in US politics and replace it with a new one: working-class democracy versus oligarchy.

Given all of this, warnings about overcommitting to the Sanders campaign seem oddly misplaced, like the conventional wisdom of a marginal, pre-2016 left. There’s no doubt a Sanders victory would immediately generate a crisis of “business confidence,” laying siege to a Sanders administration before he could even take the oath of office. Resistance and calumny from the Republican Party, much of the Democratic Party, and the media establishment would be a given. But Sanders has left little doubt that as president, he would use all the powers of his office to rally the working people of America — the Walmart, Starbucks, Target, and postal workers who are powering his campaign —  to organize and strike for dignity on the job, to take charge of their communities and schools, to run for office, and join organizations dedicated to carrying the political revolution forward. As a lifelong leftist, Sanders knows quite well that everything he wants to achieve depends on the reconstitution of the working class as a political subject capable of making history.

Who knows where all of that might lead? But it’s incumbent upon US socialists to do everything we can to have the chance to find out.