The Uncharted Territory of Bernie Sanders and the Movement Behind Him

The Bernie Sanders campaign is beholden to no one in high places, has no affiliated elites to please or negotiate with, and has helped unleash new working-class militancy in America. The question now is, how can we sustain this extraordinary left turn in American public life to transform society?

Senator Bernie Sanders makes a point as he and former US vice president Joe Biden take part in the 11th Democratic Party 2020 presidential debate in a CNN Washington Bureau studio in Washington, DC on March 15, 2020. Mandel Ngan / AFP via Getty

Does the movement behind Bernie Sanders foreshadow a reincarnation of the New Deal? For many, the answer to this question would seem to be a clear yes. History doesn’t repeat itself, however, and the better answer is no.

Spokespeople for Bernie’s campaign, including the candidate himself, make frequent references to the New Deal. Its landmark accomplishments in social welfare, labor rights, public works, and industrial and financial regulation echo through Sanders’s campaign literature and stump speeches. Indeed, a key plank in the Sanders platform, the Green New Deal, memorializes that epoch of deep structural reform.

For many, restoring some version of the New Deal is the defining task of the moment, the far horizon of the possible. Images of the “forgotten man” and a third of a nation “ill-housed, ill-clothed, and ill-fed” travel well from the United States of the Great Depression to depictions of America after the Great Recession. Likewise, Sanders speaks of the homeless, of the immigrant poor and persecuted, of exploited workers, of the medically deprived and destitute.

A moral vocabulary of economic and social justice, one that pits profiteers and predators against the working people of the country, resonates across the decades separating the two periods of upheaval. Sanders welcomes the hatred of billionaires with the same relish that FDR greeted the vitriol directed at him by the “economic royalists” of his day.

Sanders and the movement behind him are not a mere repetition of the New Deal coalition, however. Times have changed. The Green New Deal is the most obvious example of a program designed to address a critical problem that didn’t exist a century ago. Other programmatic elements of the campaign tackle issues that the New Deal either avoided (racial justice) or only hinted at (universal health care) or, like climate change, were invisible to the naked eye (precarious labor, mass immigration, childcare, college education). Some of what the Sanders movement proposes is reminiscent of New Deal reforms but goes beyond them, as for example the call for joint labor-management control of industry.

Nonetheless, the Sanders movement arguably remains within the horizon of political and economic reform first established by Roosevelt and the New Deal. Both aim at civilizing a barbaric free market capitalism that, left to its own devices, hollows out democracy and scandalizes the nation’s putative commitment to equality.

One sometimes encounters personal likenesses drawn between Bernie and FDR. These may be tactical comparisons by Sanders partisans anxious to anesthetize the sting of the senator’s democratic socialism. But they also contain a sentimental truth. In the immemorial battle between wealth and commonwealth, both men, we are persuaded, knew which side they were on.

An Origin Story

FDR and Bernie Sanders came from starkly different social circumstances. The Roosevelts, here for centuries, were part of the Anglo-Dutch Knickerbocker aristocracy. FDR was to that manner born, a member in good standing of the Hudson River elite that was landed, wealthy, and influential. The Sanders family were Jews from Galicia (then part of the Austro-Hungarian empire), victimized, poor, powerless, and then largely exterminated in the Holocaust. Bernie’s father was a paint salesman in Brooklyn. The family struggled through hard times. Bernie depended on his native intelligence as well as New York City’s formerly tuition-free higher education system to move on to college and a modest rise in his social station.

So what? It would be the height of simple-mindedness to conclude that social upbringing determines political fate. Many, perhaps most people born into wealth stay on the manor, in body and spirit. Roosevelt was exceptional in that regard, but not unique. Humble origins, on the other hand, are claimed by crowds of politicians whose sole commitment is to the almighty dollar and to those who have it. The reason to even bring up this obvious contrast in family background is to open up a window on just how different these two political break-points really are despite their evident similarities.

Roosevelt was an insider. Bernie is an outsider. Roosevelt was a loyal Democrat. He was assistant secretary of the Navy under Woodrow Wilson, became the party’s vice-presidential candidate in 1920, and New York’s governor later in that decade. His nomination as the Democratic presidential candidate in 1932 was the outcome of backroom wheeling and dealing by political kingmakers at the party’s national convention. Sanders is not, first of all, a loyal Democrat, but an independent who even after ascending to the US Senate has mainly lived his political life on the outskirts.

FDR did not come to power at the head of a mass movement. When he took office there was a deep reservoir of disgust with the old regime and hope in the new one and its promise of a “new deal” (Obama’s “yes we can” banalities come to mind). Although there were growing signs of rebellion — demonstrations of the unemployed, farmer insurgencies, the Bonus Army, direct actions to stop evictions, Upton Sinclair’s End Poverty in California campaign, and so on — none of it had any connection to Roosevelt’s candidacy.

In its formative days, the Roosevelt administration awarded key positions to members of the old guard. The new president clung to antiquated orthodoxies about the need for balanced budgets. He had no particular affinity for the labor movement and would periodically stand aloof from it when it suited him. While some legislative initiatives did indeed break new ground (bank and stock market regulation or the Tennessee Valley Authority, for example), others were designed to support the country’s largest corporations.

History is not a morality play. The point in recording the New Deal’s insider beginnings is not to create a rap sheet to taint its accomplishments. But it must be noted that, unlike FDR, if Bernie Sanders becomes president, he will do so not only as an outsider but as the leader of a mass movement.

Sanders’s outlier status would not have much to do with an “alien” or “radical” ideology. He may wear the label of “democratic socialist” proudly, but very little of what he proposes to do as president has much to do with socialism, at least not as it is conventionally understood.

Sanders is the candidate of the invisible America. That’s what alarms the establishment and inspires his supporters. His election to the presidency would be a stunning new departure in the American political landscape. People like Sanders simply don’t ever make it to the White House.

Still, the characterization of the Sanders insurgency as a mass movement may yet be wishful thinking, or an optical illusion. It is occurring entirely within the electoral arena and has little to no organizational base outside of that arena. Sanders invokes the need for a mass movement to get him elected and to push through his agenda once he’s in office. Still, there’s no “there” there except for the campaign organization itself. There are a number of organizations that support his candidacy: local union affiliates, immigrant rights groups, environmental activists, racial justice movements, and so on. They function as vital auxiliaries, but it would be a stretch to consider them part of a coherent mass movement.

William Jennings Bryan and the People’s (Populist) Party come to mind when thinking about the Sanders phenomenon. The Populists were outsiders, yet they operated within the Democratic and Republican parties as well as independently. It was a mass movement spanning the South, the Midwest, the Great Plains, and parts of the West Coast. Populists often gave voice to anticapitalist ideas and sentiments, more explicitly and frequently than the Sanders upheaval.

Even so, anticapitalism lies just beneath the surface of what the senator and his legions decry. Populism was the culmination of more than a decade of mass organizing and institution building, the fruit of a farmer-labor movement that embraced millions before deciding to form a party of its own. Much the same might be said about the Knights of Labor, which was already a formidable labor movement before it entered the political arena.

In the Populist case, mass organization and resistance came first, and the electoral expression followed. The sequence seems to be reversed today.

Can electoral politics really give rise to an enduring mass movement? Should we conceive of the Sanders phenomenon as a kind of political mass strike against the prevailing order of things? Is it the incubator of a mass movement, its beneficiary, or both?

Dozens of ground-level mobilizations zero in on some aspect of the profound disaffection with the way things are, with the serial injustices and inequalities, the imperial callousness and bloodletting, the social ostracism and elite contempt that disfigure American life. They converge in the Sanders campaign, turning it into a movement of a new sort. We are, perhaps, entering uncharted territory.

The Sanders campaign is unlike any of its rivals. This has much more to do with its poetry in motion, its elan, the way it summons the enthusiasm of millions living in domestic exile, its electrifying appeal to the solidarity of strangers, than its programmatic specifics (foundational as they most certainly are). This is what gives the campaign the feel of a mass movement. Other campaigns have their enthusiasts, gather large crowds, compile vast mailing lists, and on rare occasions helicopter into “bad neighborhoods,” places campaigns typically fear to tread. But they bear the imprint of the conventional. None would dream of describing themselves as a mass movement. The notion that they might need to invoke one to achieve their goals is unthinkable for political creatures bred within the prevailing order — in a word, to insiders.

If Bernie Sanders wins the presidency, he will do so not despite the fact that he is an outsider, but because he is one. Contrast that with FDR, who won the White House in 1932 because he was, after all, an acceptable insider.

Not All Capitalisms Are Alike

The New Deal and the Sanders insurgency reflect two very different historical crises. Their respective social composition and momentum call up political responses that may seem alike, but their structural logics travel down different roads.

The New Deal consolidated mass-consumption capitalism as the solution to the Great Depression. Nearly every essential New Deal reform was, in one way or another, aimed at righting the ship by refurbishing it.

Bank and stock market regulation would rein in the self-destructive speculation that had precipitated the 1929 crash. Public works would employ people, making them into active if modest consumers, and provide an outlet for idled pools of investment capital. State development projects like the Tennessee Valley Authority (and smaller facsimiles elsewhere) would bring electricity to impoverished regions and pull them into the orbit of modern capitalism, turning them into new markets for consumer durables and sites of new business enterprises. A wealth tax would redistribute income to support the capacity of ordinary people to buy things.

New federal agencies provided the financial wherewithal for people to hold onto their homes and farms, and in doing so reinvigorated a comatose business in private mortgages. Deficit spending, then still a heretical practice, was nonetheless pursued as a way to restart the economic engine, providing work and thereby spendable income. Above all, Social Security (especially unemployment insurance and pensions), minimum wage laws, and the legalization of unions were all designed, in part and explicitly, to rectify the gross decline in the social wage. Without these measures American capitalism faced a bleak and barbaric future.

Fast forward to today, and one might imagine all this programmatic ingenuity getting dreamed up all at once in a policy atelier run by Elizabeth Warren. In real life, it happened in fits and starts. There were many false beginnings, aborted plans, contradictory impulses.

Naturally, there was opposition. Banks and Wall Street firms balked. Sectors of heavy industry were at first coy and then hostile. So too were regional business and political elites as in the South. Mandarins and machine bosses in both political parties worried about their tenure. Orthodox intellectuals and mythologists of America as the homeland of the self-reliant were scandalized.

Dramatic and romanticized renderings of what happened tend to depict this as a secular Armageddon: the People vs. the Interests, the Many vs. the Few, the Masses vs. the Classes, Democracy vs. Plutocracy. Yet it is important to observe that not all elements of the business and finance worlds were opposed to the New Deal.

Mass consumption–oriented firms and banks as well as high-technology enterprises favored reform, even in the workplace. So too did circles of management-minded social scientists and engineers. Wall Street offered a good deal of opposition, but there were newer firms or firms operating outside the orbit of the long-established white-shoe investment and insurance houses that knew the old regime was kaput. Some of the biggest banks, like Bank of America, which were more oriented to the mass market, also favored New Deal reform.

Still, there is an underlying truth to the romance that appeals to many even now. Millions swore by the New Deal and its wholesale reconfiguration of the economic order because they saw it as the royal road to social justice and equality, a way of righting the balance between wealth and commonwealth, a moral experiment in making capitalism democratic, a kind of emancipation from the absolutism of big business.

Nor were they delusional. Whatever one might say about the putrescence of the National Labor Relations Act today, when it was passed and for years afterwards it invited a real, if limited, form of industrial democracy and dignity at the workplace where there had been none. Poverty with a safety net may still be poverty, but the social-welfare achievements of the New Deal were lifesaving for millions of the elderly, the unemployed, and single mothers. Socializing services like power generation, mass transit, and housing, however restricted in reach, created a palpable sense of the commons, a recognition that the community as a whole should take responsibility for the well-being and flourishing of everyone. Public support of the arts spiritualized that commitment. Legions of working people who for all practical intents and purposes had lived outside and excluded from the political system could now legitimately feel they had a voice.

Mass-consumption capitalism was not merely a prescription for economic recovery. It entailed a remaking of the social order, a political program that sought to reconcile capitalism with democracy and update the “Rights of Man” to account for the advent of industrialization and concentrated capital. It was the product of a convergence of business and policy elites with a mass insurgency to form a coherent solution to a profound historical crisis.

That is not what is happening now.

As an economic order, neoliberal capitalism has stayed afloat by force-feeding the credit markets and outlets for speculative investment. This has made it precariously top-heavy in its distribution of income and wealth, debt-ridden, austere for all but the privileged, and crisis prone.

As a political order it has become less and less legitimate, impatient with democracy, more open to demagogic authoritarianism. As it bleeds popular support to the right and the left, it may be holding out for a hero to regather the scattering remnants of the center. Joe Biden, however, is woefully miscast in that role.

In the teeth of this dilemma, there is no discernible alternative on offer from sectors of the business and financial world as there was during the New Deal era. While the Roosevelt administration did indeed go off in all directions at once, thinking about the basic lineaments of mass-consumption capitalism had gone on for years before the Great Depression.

Everything from Social Security and industrial democracy to proto-Keynesian fiscal policy, from innovative analyses of managerial capitalism to under-consumptionist rethinking of the business cycle, had circulated widely among public intellectuals, social scientists, social-welfare reformers, progressive politicians, some trade union leaders, foundation bureaucrats, heterodox financiers, production managers, and corporate innovators. They inhabited what might be called the waiting room to the New Deal and became major elite players when, finally, their time arrived.

Today there is no analogous elite grouping, especially in the ranks of business and finance. There is a current which replicates New Deal approaches to financial reform, social welfare, and what used to be called the “labor question.” But this mainly excites middle-class reformers and what’s left of the national-level trade union bureaucracy.

The Democratic Party establishment finds itself compelled by the threat of the Sanders insurgency to mouth this rhetoric for public consumption. Indeed, as an ideological-rhetorical platform, the Democratic Party has been dragged to the left by the power and threat of the mass movement, pledging to do things about labor reform, health care, and climate change that were unthinkable before the specter of Sanders spooked the system.

But there is little doubt that after Obama’s “yes we can” disappointments, this will all become a thin gruel even if they get the chance to dole it out. These kinds of revived New Deal measures, however worth fighting for, will find little support from those centers of wealth and power that helped make those breakthroughs possible nearly a century ago. The business and financial world has moved on, sitting atop a system that can no longer afford the social wage that made it run.

The Return of the Labor Question

This is what makes the Sanders movement exceptional and unpredictable.

Bernie’s program echoes, in many respects, New Deal restorationist thinking. Some proposals like the Green New Deal explicitly recall the past while venturing beyond it. It is even conceivable that an embrace of a carbon-free economy might emerge among significant sections of the capitalist class. This is already a feature of some Green New Deal formulations, and billionaire activist Tom Steyer’s support for it is suggestive.

The positioning of the Sanders movement outside the circles of established power, however, changes the dynamic. Even if there were a coherent, organized move by business in this direction (which, except for isolated companies, there is not yet), its leverage might be circumscribed by the momentum driving the mass movement. Then again, perhaps not. The urgency of climate change is growing rapidly now and the appetite for business elite–driven solutions may grow with it.

Immunity to compromise of this sort is granted to no one. What makes the Sanders movement less vulnerable, however, is its distinct social chemistry which departs fundamentally from the alchemy of the New Deal.

If the New Deal was the combined outcome of elite reform and an uprising from below, the fulcrum of its popular component was unquestionably the insurgent organized labor movement. It was the magnetic pole around which many other circles orbited: social-welfare reformers, civil rights groups, middle-class intellectuals, defiant artists and writers, liberal religious denominations, anti-fascists, and others looked to the new labor movement for leverage, imagination, and political courage.

That is not the case today. The organized labor movement is an anemic relic of what it once was. Its leadership continues to look for friends in Democratic Party power centers despite decades of disappointment. Extraordinary historical openings like the present one scare it rather than attract it.

Sadly, this is true as well of a sliver of middle-class political activists allied with the more progressive-minded elements of the trade union bureaucracy. Rather than join their fate to the Sanders uprising, they elected instead to attach themselves to Elizabeth Warren’s candidacy, even though it was self-evident from the outset that her main constituency was a thin layer of the professional-technical middle class. They backed a campaign that had at best faint support among the working poor and people of color, and ultimately had no objective function but to weaken the Sanders movement, no matter how Warren’s supporters attempted to rationalize it.

Yet if the organized labor movement is either on the sidelines or the wrong side of the civil war within the Democratic Party, the Sanders insurgency is very much about the revival of the “labor question” in public life. This is clear enough in its palpable appeal to the working poor, especially to younger segments of that cohort among all races and ethnicities, to the college-educated precariat, in the endorsements of local trade union affiliates, and in its relentless advocacy of a living wage, universal childcare, debt forgiveness, free college, and more. Perhaps most profoundly if less tangibly, it is found in the campaign’s fearless championing of all those hurting and disrespected in this country.

And this is happening in the midst of militant and ingenious forms of action and organization among workers of all sorts, often outside the precincts of the official labor movement, sometimes among the most desperate of the racially and ethnically stigmatized working poor, in other instances among high-tech and creative workers. In manifold forms, the “labor question” helps power the Sanders movement.

On occasion, this reveals both the irony as well as the limits of trade unionism. Take the case of the Culinary Workers’ Union in Las Vegas. The union’s leadership attacked Sanders as the enemy of the very good health plan it has negotiated with the casino industry. Because that leadership helped create a union of great militancy and social conscience, it also fostered a rank and file ready to defy it when it went astray. So the membership appears to have voted in decisive numbers for Sanders while the leadership found itself captive to its own more parochial stake in the power dynamics of labor relations, narrowly conceived.

For many years, the labor movement has occupied the default leading position in the American progressive political imagination. This is an inheritance from the New Deal which has proved to be a mixed blessing. Without the insurgency of newly organized workers, millions of whom occupied the same despised and invisible place the immigrant and racial minorities that make up the working poor today, the New Deal would not have accomplished what it did, not merely in the realm of labor relations but in every area where it left its mark.

As time went by, the Left grew accustomed to treating the trade unions as the vanguard of social transformation in general. No new political party managed to break the duopoly of the two-party system, so wider political and social objectives had to be pursued through the institutional options that were available.

The unions, however, could not shoulder that burden. Nor should they have been expected to.

Once the new order had consolidated itself, the union movement reverted to what it is under most normal circumstances: a defender of the material interests of its constituent members. To ask or expect it to assume the extraordinary role it had played under extraordinary circumstances was a pious wish bound for disappointment.

If it is apt to liken the Sanders movement to a new kind of political mass strike, then its future is uncertain. Can it reverberate back into the American workplace and inspire organization on a scale far beyond what we have so far witnessed? In turn, can such swelling mobilization outside the electoral arena further empower the new political uprising?

Something quite like that dynamic happened during the New Deal era. FDR never actually said that he wanted the country’s workers to join a union. This was just the tactical rhetorical exaggeration of the labor leadership. But it worked to buoy the confidence of people with a great deal to lose in taking on the industrial autocrats of their era. Conversely, there is little question that the general strikes and other manifestations of working-class militancy in the years leading up the 1936 election helped turn it into a landslide for Roosevelt.

Today, that same feedback loop is more promising and more open-ended than it was during the days of the CIO and the New Deal. That’s because the Sanders movement is beholden to no one in high places, has no affiliated elites to please or negotiate with. The obverse may also be true. The absence of such friends and allies may lead to defeat, at least in the immediate electoral season.

At this writing the powers that be are marshalling all their capacities to drive the movement under. They may succeed. The question then will be how to sustain this extraordinary left turn in American public life.