Bernie and Progressive Dems Can’t Succeed Without Mobilizing Their Supporters

The negotiations around the Build Back Better Act have consisted of one concession to moderates after another. The pattern won’t change without a strategy that plays to the progressive movement’s strengths.

Bernie Sanders speaks with reporters as he leaves the US Capitol Building following a vote on October 21, 2021 in Washington, DC. (Anna Moneymaker / Getty Images)

To everyone’s chagrin, negotiations drag on among Democrats on the Build Back Better Act, Joe Biden’s signature social spending bill. While we don’t yet know what the final bill will contain, the media has reported, blow-by-blow, as one progressive proposal after another has been cut, in a drawn out and seemingly futile effort to appease conservative Democratic senators Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Kyrsten Sinema of Arizona.

It didn’t have to be this way.

The bill started as a $6 trillion social spending proposal from Bernie Sanders, what he called “the most consequential piece of legislation for working families since the 1930s.” Days later, Democrats announced they would spend no more than $3.5 trillion, but there was still a lot for progressives and working-class people to like: tuition-free community college; expanding Medicare to cover dental, hearing, and vision care; lowering Medicare eligibility to age sixty; paid family leave for new parents; and subsidies for childcare.

Now, virtually all of that is off the table, and the spending is down to $1.75 trillion. It seems all but certain that whatever new programs make it to Biden’s desk for his signature will be minimal, temporary, means-tested, difficult to explain, and even harder to access — and will still lag far behind every other highly developed country.

Because they had to appease two conservative senators, Democrats missed a critical chance to instead develop the kind of highly visible, popular programs that create deep-seated voter loyalty. More important, millions of people have been robbed of the sorely needed relief Biden campaigned on.

How progressive Democrats will respond to the gutted legislation remains to be seen. For his part, Sanders’s messaging has toggled between acceptance and rejection. It is still possible for progressives to put up a fight, but there’s a good chance they’ll do what progressive Democrats often do: first, emphasize the improvements the bill makes (which, while not sufficient, are not imaginary), and second, repeat well-worn phrases about the necessity of compromise in the legislative process.

Neither of these points is wrong, exactly. But if the discussion ends there, without any critical reflection on the relationship between progressive politicians and their support bases, politicians like Bernie and the Squad will never translate their class-struggle rhetoric into significant material change.

What Was

Manchin and Sinema are the two people most responsible by far for gutting the bill. With a constant barrage of bad faith negotiating tactics and simple refusal to go along with Biden’s agenda, Manchin and Sinema got the rest of the Democratic Party to negotiate against itself. Over the past several months, Biden has repeatedly cut social spending proposals from the bill, only to find that the two holdouts were still not satisfied. In these internal negotiations, it was always the progressives, never Manchin and Sinema, who gave something up.

There has been almost no discussion of the fact that Manchin and Sinema come from the two states where, only three years ago, the two largest political strikes against government austerity in a generation took place. How were Democrats from these states allowed to do so much damage to a bill whose original purpose was to begin to undo decades of federal austerity? Given recent events in their states, why were they entirely unafraid of any repercussions?

The short answer is that Sanders, the Squad, and progressives in general did not use their biggest strength. Specifically, they made no significant effort to mobilize their large, energetic base of supporters behind the legislation and against those trying to destroy it. Nor were they able to meaningfully rally to their side mass membership organizations like those unions that recently supported their campaigns. For that matter, beyond some rude press releases, they made little effort to get Manchin and Sinema to pay any price at all.

To be clear, Sanders and the Squad have fought harder than almost anyone to create new social benefits that millions of people desperately need. No one can doubt the sincerity of their commitment. But in this month’s negotiations, we have seen in stark relief the limits of a strategy — one, ironically, for which Sanders has often criticized Barack Obama — that demobilizes supporters and overemphasizes fitting in as good members of the broader Democratic congressional caucus. The defeat came not in the last few days but as a result of decisions made months and years ago.

What Wasn’t

Imagine for a moment a counterfactual world in which Sanders keeps significant pieces of his campaign organization intact after the 2020 elections. Perhaps this would have happened, were it not for the COVID-19 pandemic, or perhaps not. But let’s pretend it did.

Sanders knows that the country’s most powerful industries “are spending hundreds and hundreds of billions of dollars to prevent us from doing what the American people want.” He funds organizers either through a PAC, another independent political organization, or through his congressional office. Perhaps citing historical precedent, he convinces progressive unions and other grassroots groups, like Democratic Socialists of America, who heavily backed his campaign to invest some portion of their resources in this effort. Members of the Squad contribute resources to the organization or create parallel efforts of their own.

In our hypothetical spring of 2021, working with previously identified Sanders supporters — which surely number in the hundreds of thousands in West Virginia and Arizona alone, in addition to plenty more who’ve already demonstrated they’re willing to cross state lines — this campaign-tested organization of full-timers and volunteers begins to educate, agitate, and organize around the original $6 trillion proposal, perhaps tying it directly to the states’ recent anti-austerity movements. As the two senators’ intransigence comes into focus, they organize escalating, disruptive campaigns to make life hell for Manchin and Sinema and, just as important, their donors.

Bear in mind that this is all in line with Sanders’s own vision for how to effectively handle stubborn opposition. For example, during his 2020 campaign, he vowed to “hold rallies in the backyards of recalcitrant Republican politicians like [Mitch] McConnell, raising hell in their districts and exerting pressure on them from their own constituents” and repeatedly said that as president he would be “organizer in chief.”

It’s true that mobilizing supporters in a meaningful way would have been unorthodox and would have required a significant amount of time, resources, and advanced planning. In fact, creating an organization capable of doing these things would have required an entirely different approach to politics. But this was exactly the kind of organization Sanders had begun to build with his 2020 campaign, one focused on building grassroots organizers’ skills, one-to-one organizing, and uncompromising class struggle rhetoric. Why abandon an approach that had already taken Sanders and the Squad so far?

Building and maintaining an independent organization with real teeth would entail a degree of risk, since other politicians would rightly see it as a threat to their usual closed-doors way of doing business. But would such a risk not have been worth it, in order to pass what progressives were selling as generation-defining legislation? Especially if it meant creating a template for further organizing campaigns and scaring the hell out of intransigent conservatives in the process? Why shouldn’t conservative politicians feel politically threatened, if the stakes are whether democracy can continue to function?

We’ll never know for sure if such a risky and resource-intensive strategy would have applied enough pressure to change either Manchin’s or Sinema’s vote. Direct action and mobilization are certainly no panacea. For every successful West Virginia or Arizona strike, there is an Occupy Wall Street or a Wisconsin State Capitol occupation with no immediate tangible effect. But the pressure of direct action and mobilization are most effective when they (unlike, say, Occupy Wall Street) target specific actors whose mind needs to change when they are actually making a decision. Further, bringing more people into active political organizing is an inherently important thing for the Left, even when we lose a specific campaign.

Regardless of this counterfactual scenario, we know now, from direct evidence, that Sanders’s and progressives’ strategy of trying to be good team players within the Democratic caucus has not worked when it comes to passing core elements of the progressive agenda. This is the case even for programs that Biden vocally supported on the campaign trail and throughout negotiations. Given Manchin’s, Sinema’s, and other Democrats’ history, we could have anticipated this before negotiations started. There is no reason to think the same strategy will work in Congress in the future, nor, for the most part, to think it will go very far in other contexts.

What Could Be

It’s reasonable to ask why all this should fall on elected officials. Isn’t such organizing the task of grassroots organizations? Ideally, yes, and it isn’t as if no one is trying. But the vast majority of grassroots organizations simply don’t have the resources to run a campaign with sufficient size or, more important, speed. Nor do they have the hope of getting such resources anytime soon.

It is an uncomfortable fact of US politics that individual politicians have the resources — supporter contact information, money, organizing staff, name recognition, personal connections, media attention — to mobilize their supporters far more quickly and with greater precision than grassroots organizations do. This is especially true of politicians like Bernie and the Squad who come to power with the strong support of grassroots movements.

For this reason, grassroots organizers and organizations need to make organizing and mobilizing strategy an important demand of those politicians who work in close collaboration with us. Politicians who come to office through grassroots movements have a responsibility to help build those movements further, and the only way to truly build them is to engage continually in active struggle, not just around election time.

No politician, Sanders and the Squad included, can simply turn on a spigot labeled “militancy” and flood the streets with people. It is precisely because such work takes a long time and a lot of effort that we should reflect on its possibilities now and find a way to make such organizing feasible. The alternative is, at best, the constant repetition of the negotiations we just saw — in which one or two conservative legislators backed by essentially infinite capital can undermine progressives’ most popular and transformative proposals with little effort and no negative consequences.

When conservatives within their own party are backed by the most powerful industries in the country, progressive Democrats come to the bargaining table at an extreme disadvantage if they do nothing to activate the source of their power: the people.