Bernie Sanders Lost, But He Advanced the Class Struggle

Critics declaring Bernie Sanders’s campaigns a total failure have discounted a basic socialist proposition: our metric for his success should not just be his winning or losing, but the extent to which the working-class movement has advanced.

Sen. Bernie Sanders at a campaign rally at South Hall March 1, 2020, in San Jose, California. Chip Somodevilla / Getty

Two months after Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign for the Democratic nomination, the debate about why he lost and what it means for the American left continues, among those that argue that he catered too much or too little to liberal suburbia; strayed too far from or not far enough from identity politics; battled the Democratic establishment too vociferously or not vociferously enough.

While the country is rocked by mass protests against police murders, and the COVID-19 pandemic continues to ravage the country, hitting working-class people and people of color the hardest, the stakes of building an effective Left couldn’t be higher. Having lost the one candidate who will actually speak to these issues is a tremendous loss. But keeping our sights on building a mass base is all the more critical, and possible, today.

Paul Heideman and I argued in a previous article that the structural obstacles that stood between Sanders and the presidency far outweighed the impact of particular campaign tactics. The Left, no doubt, has a lot to learn about navigating the electoral arena and using it not only as a platform for elevating democratic-socialist ideals but as a means of winning political power. But lest we think that it’s somehow just the “myopia of the activist Left” that’s hobbled our efforts, the mainstream and liberal wings of the Democratic Party have littered modern American history with considerable electoral failures and a near desert of policy reforms. This should probably inspire a bit of humility from Bernie’s liberal critics. Socialists didn’t come out on top this time around, but liberals, on the whole, have also been losing for a long time.

In the months and years ahead, as we grapple with the lessons of Sanders’s campaigns, we should keep our assessments grounded in an understanding of how political change comes about. With rare exception, critics who have declared Bernie’s political revolution a failure have ignored the question of how change comes about and discounted the proposition that our metric for his campaigns’ success or failure should be the extent to which the organizing capacity of a working-class movement has or has not advanced.

Millions supported Bernie because he put forward a vision for a better world. He lost the nomination. But his campaign brought us closer to winning the world we want, not further, by making important gains toward rebuilding that working-class movement.

Not Me, Us

Decades of neoliberalism in the United States have battered and disorganized the working class, destroyed Left institutions, and severed the link between today’s activists and organized labor. In this context, Bernie’s campaigns and the dozens of local democratic-socialist campaigns that he inspired have made significant headway in just five short years.

The gains made by Bernie’s campaigns may be lost on many in the liberal punditry, but anyone who has been on the activist left for any length of time must appreciate the sea change. We went from playing the most marginal of roles to influencing the national discussion and coming closer than anyone could have imagined to having a socialist in the White House. We can now speak of a national political platform around which a growing socialist left can organize.

As Dustin Guastella recently argued:

The Bernie Sanders campaigns forced isolated leftists into real political practice for the first time in a half-century and made us confront questions about political power and organizing that we otherwise would only ever encounter in the abstract. Bernie ran a live experiment on the American polity: what happens when you embrace the kind of bold — but simple — democratic-socialist vision Sanders espoused?

Electoral activity has proven to be an effective means of raising the expectations, political horizons, and organizations of working people. We need to actually win elections, too. But we won’t be able to win, much less use those victories to enact real change, if we do what liberal commentators keep imploring us to do and set aside movement-building goals in favor of tactics that they think will achieve electoral gains.

Movement-building is, in fact, the only way a democratic socialist who champions the working class against the 1 percent can win. Imagine a Bernie Sanders without an army of volunteers or millions of contributions from teachers, baristas, and Walmart workers. Which billionaires would come to his aid? Which media outlets would give him a platform? As long as his platform remained the same — win Medicare for All and liquidate the private insurance industry, pass a Green New Deal, tax the rich, rebuild the labor movement — none.

Bernie Sanders often warned us throughout his campaign that “the wealthy and powerful elite will do all that they can to defend their financial interests, and they have an unlimited amount of money at their disposal.” Instead of vaguely transformational platitudes about how different life will be once he is in office, Bernie’s campaign slogan, “not me, us,” promised even more struggles ahead.

It was an implicit acknowledgment of a sober reality: even from the White House, his policies would stand little chance of passing, much less sticking, without a mass working-class base prepared to fight for them.

As Bernie explained early in his campaign, were he to win the presidency, we would still need to build a mass working-class movement:

The essence of my politics . . . is that we need an ongoing grassroots movement of millions of people to pressure Congress, to pressure the corporate establishment, so that we can bring about the changes that this country desperately needs. So that’s why I have said that I will not only be commander in chief, I’m going to be organizer in chief.

To understand why, consider Bernie’s popular signature policy, Medicare for All. Even with 69 percent voter support — and 88 percent among Democrats — Joe Biden and the rest of the Democratic Party mainstream have barely budged on the question. In a best-case scenario, a socialist in the White House would face stiff resistance from both parties.

The lack of “political will” among legislators has almost nothing to do with what voters want but rather with the will of party donors and lobbyists. Hospitals, drug companies, and health insurance companies have flexed their muscles to mobilize against Medicare for All. And as the New York Times conceded, even the meager liberal appeal for a public option is likely doomed by the resistance of the powerful medical-industrial complex:

A public option is at the core of Mr. Biden’s health plan, but it too could prove extremely challenging to enact, depending on how threatening it seemed to insurers and hospitals. Industry groups that are already mobilizing against Medicare for all could also doom public option legislation, as they did in 2010, when supporters of the Affordable Care Act had to drop a relatively modest public option provision to get the law passed.

The billionaire class wields its power through electoral donations, but more important, it holds the entire economy hostage quite apart from election cycles. The vast resources and political connections of capitalists put them squarely and comfortably at the center of every arena of political decision-making. And crucially, they hold economic power through the production and distribution of goods and services. When their positions are threatened, they can retaliate with capital flight, investment strikes, and withholding credit. Remember the tantrum that Amazon threw when Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Queens residents pushed back against the billions of dollars in taxpayer-funded “incentives” the city and state had promised the company?

The health care sector accounts for close to one-fifth of the national gross domestic product (GDP), and health insurance companies make up a trillion-dollar industry within it. They will not go quietly into the night.

A mass working-class insurgency is needed to credibly threaten the political elite — as the upheavals of the 1930s and the 1960s did — into enacting sweeping reform. An overhaul of the health care system will require uprooting billions of dollars from shareholder hands, financing public hospitals through increased fiscal spending, shutting down private insurance companies in such a way that protects the hundreds of thousands of workers employed in the industry, and taxing the rich to fund the transition.

To get anywhere near the kind of mass movement we need to achieve such an overhaul, the first step must combine grassroots efforts that mobilize workers and activists with electoral runs that can provide a platform and knit local efforts into a national campaign.

Bernie’s campaigns brought the movement light-years ahead, taking single-payer health insurance from a fringe demand to a mainstream platform plank around which the rest of the Democratic nominees had to answer. From here, we must construct the institutions that can build on these advances — pushing, for instance, unions to commit resources and organizing capacity behind campaigns like Sanders’s and non-electoral mobilizations and propaganda efforts.

Liberal hot takes on why Bernie lost keep returning to the notion that his supporters must come to grips with a failed political strategy, premised on a failed class analysis of society. But their counteranalysis consistently overestimates the efficacy of their own electoral tactics, and underestimates the power and the will of the billionaire class.

The unprecedented share of the wealth held by the richest 1 percent, and the miserable conditions for the rest of us, are not the result of a few bad policy choices by a few bad politicians — they are the consequence of unrivaled political and economic power. If we think we can battle those interests and walk into the White House by playing the right games or utilizing the correct pollster math, we’ll lose electoral contests badly, at worst; and at best, we’ll somehow win but find ourselves isolated and impotent to enact change.

Political Revolution or Suburban Evolution?

Articulating the necessity of combining electoral movements with a mass working-class base does not erase the difficulties of actually doing so. We face the structural hurdles of a much-better-resourced and organized wealthy elite, a lower turnout among many constituencies that have the most to gain from left-wing policies, and an undemocratic winner-takes-all electoral system, with legislative maps that are biased against the country’s cities. As Eric Levitz recently explained: “America does not lack a robust welfare state because its people are uniquely allergic to redistribution but rather because our electoral institutions systematically diminish the influence of left-wing people.”

Apart from the structures of the US political system, we also have a labor movement and a Left that have been in decline for the last several decades. The fact that immigrants, people of color, and low-income workers are the people who would benefit most from radical, social-democratic reforms does not mean that it’s easy to turn out those voters in large enough numbers to win, nor that there is a one-to-one, automatic relationship between class and political identification. For wide swaths of the population, social-democratic reforms have yet to be proven in practice enough to guarantee their identification with left-wing ideas, much less that they actually get out to vote for them.

The solution to these problems, some argue, is to pivot to middle-class progressive voters in the suburbs, who lean toward left and liberal ideas. In Vox, Zack Beauchamp counterposes Bernie’s political revolution with an incremental approach:

The decline in working-class support for progressive causes is not reversible by means of short-term electoral politics. But it’s possible to imagine candidates who win via the suburbs supporting policies — like ones promoting unionization — that could end up rebuilding a working-class base for left politics down the line. Left-liberal means, socialist ends.

Trying this more indirect route, however, would require the left to more cleanly separate electoral politics from movement-building. They can keep doing the organizing and activism involved in the latter while recognizing that when it comes to the former, strategy needs to be built for the electorate rather than the other way around.

We should, of course, not discount liberal suburban support. We can and should build electoral strategies that garner wider coalitions than on-the-ground activism would on its own. But to center our political hopes on liberal suburbia would fly in the face of recent left-liberal experience.

The most popular Democratic politician to emerge in many years was Barack Obama. And he made many promises of the more concrete and vague varieties in 2008, before ratcheting them all down, literally as soon as he was sworn into office. Among the promises that would have advanced working-class institutions by promoting unionization, as Beauchamp rightfully urges would be a concrete step, was the pledge to enact card-check legislation.

This was the labor movement’s top demand, and it would have eased unionization drives tremendously. Yet it was surrendered without a fight by the Obama-Biden administration, despite its widespread popularity, Obama’s clear mandate, and a Democratic majority in both houses.

The reason has everything to do with the entrenched political and economic power of the business elite. A candidate who is not intimately interwoven with a working-class base and Left institutions stands little chance of sticking to policies that favor the working class and mobilizing support to win them.

Obama’s most far-reaching reform, the Affordable Care Act, didn’t just leave us with decidedly unaffordable and meager health insurance options. It also more deeply entrenched and rewarded private health insurance companies, taking us further than ever from the single-payer system we need.

These same principles were also at play in Elizabeth Warren’s eroding support for Medicare for All, which started out relatively strongly but gave way quickly to a supposed strategy of political expediency. As we know now, this politically expedient strategy was not, in fact, politically expedient: voters saw her as neither here nor there on a key policy platform of the election, and she never placed higher than third in a primary.

There is another solution to our so-far too-weak electoral positioning, which does not sacrifice a long-term transformational agenda. We need to continue to build the workers’ organizations, political institutions, and down-ballot electoral campaigns that, combined, can help prove in practice the viability of social-democratic reforms.

Beauchamp’s argument ultimately concedes official politics to middle-class suburbanites, assuming that because we did not succeed in turning out the vote in the way that we needed to, we should postpone the goal of politically activating society’s oppressed and disaffected constituencies. But just because Bernie was unable to activate those constituencies sufficiently this time around doesn’t mean appealing to those constituencies, and the broader view that those constituencies are essential to changing the world, should be scrapped.

A Setback Is Not a Defeat

Despite ultimately failing to win the Democratic nomination, there’s good reason to believe that Bernie’s campaign can play a catalyzing role for movements in the months and years to come.

While most people on the socialist Left, this author included, believed five years ago that a viable democratic-socialist campaign could only come about by riding a crescendo of rising labor and social justice movements, Bernie’s campaign seemingly reversed the process. The campaigns’ popularity certainly had roots in the post-2008 world of heightened economic polarization and austerity, as well as movements such as Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter. But Bernie’s political revolution opened up far greater political and organizational space for the Left and connected us with broader forces than we’ve had contact with in many years.

“For the first time in decades,” Briana Last recently wrote, “the Left now has the chance to build real organizational strength and become a viable force in politics. The majority of people in this country now believe that the economy benefits the rich, not the many, and that this injustice can be remedied by political intervention. Five years ago, the Left couldn’t have even imagined this ideological transformation. Democratic Socialists have Bernie to thank for this head start.”

Bernie’s campaign “broke the spell of capitalist realism” and pierced through the seemingly impenetrable sense that there is no alternative. It’s true that his loss is an indicator of how far we still have to go to break through the DNC-encouraged pessimism, as the party has returned to its familiar argument that we should lower our sights to the bare-minimum goal of defeating Donald Trump’s deadly poison by jumping behind the shit sandwich that is Joe Biden. Yet the undeniable popularity of Bernie’s far-reaching demands has raised the political horizons and the confidence of millions who voted, followed, donated, and volunteered for his campaign.

Throughout Sanders’s campaign, he amplified and encouraged the struggles of regular people. He broke through the neoliberal stranglehold of “personal responsibility” to insist that our struggles are not our fault. He provided platforms for strikes and legitimized class war as a means to win demands, at one point tweeting: “If there’s going to be class warfare in this country, it’s about time the working class won that war.”

And while most politicians simultaneously applaud and sacrifice “essential workers” to the coronavirus pandemic, Bernie has affirmed: “I support workers who strike, conduct a sick-out, or participate in a walk-off to support our collective health and safety amid this pandemic. Period.”

To what extent we are able to translate the ideas, expectations, and networks formed through the campaign into opportunities for collective mobilization is where the rubber will hit the road. The growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) by thousands since Bernie suspended his campaign, and the growth of local organizing efforts, such as the Emergency Workers Organizing Committee, are promising signs.

Bernie’s political revolution has vastly expanded the space for the Left to organize, both inside and outside of the electoral arena. And this opportunity couldn’t come too soon. We are living through bleak times, but also through an age of unrest, in which more uprisings have occurred in the last few years than ever before. The protests rocking the country since George Floyd’s murder are a powerful indication that even a pandemic cannot stop the pent-up rage that racism and inequality have caused. The Left is in the beginning stages of building a mass base to meet the growing unrest. We shouldn’t stop building that base now.