The end of Bernie 2020 was crushing for anyone invested in the campaign. Not only were we easily smothered under the internal machinations of the Democratic Party brass, but all of the energy, data, and infrastructure of the campaign instantly went up in smoke around April 2020, leaving little trace behind. The demobilizing effect of the pandemic certainly had something to do with this, but it also became clear in the aftermath that Bernie 2020 was never made to last. Top-level staffers added a line to their resumes and moved on with their careers.
In their defense, that’s how most electoral campaigns end. But Bernie’s runs were supposed to be something different. In 2016, there was at least an attempt to translate the campaign into a permanent organization in Our Revolution. For various reasons, including the simple fact that the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) stole its thunder, Our Revolution didn’t pan out, but the basic impulse was a good one: use the electoral cycle to generate data, activists, and strategies that can be carried into a more permanent organization. Indeed, for those who always thought that the Democrats were never going to let Bernie win, this was the only reason to support Bernie’s candidacies. They were an unexpected and marvelous opportunity to organize on a mass scale.
To cut to the chase: recently Jacobin authors have both argued that Bernie should run a third time and also debated the merits of a new political organization. Jeremy Gong and Nick French believe we need a new democratic organization created by Bernie and the Squad, while Jared Abbott and David Duhalde think that first expanding the Left’s working-class base is the key task. While I agree wholeheartedly with the latter’s view that a new organization will likely repeat the faults of existing organizations, given the Left’s current class composition and related lack of mass appeal, I can’t help but think that a third Bernie run, if it’s going to happen at all, nonetheless offers an opportunity to build a new kind of left organization that can overcome current left parochialism. Sanders has an appeal that far transcends the Left’s (not to mention that of left institutions), and institutionally bottling whatever energy is left in the Bernie moment still strikes me as a worthwhile endeavor.
For those with a natural aversion to this thought exercise, I get it: every sentence in this article could start with a conditional phrase. The impetus here is less excited wish-casting than it is a bleaker consideration of the alternative: decades of slow-building work that will inevitably involve impracticable local bids for office by “progressive” candidates undisciplined by any central sphere of left influence. You might not like the outline offered below, but the likely path for the Left in purgatory is difficult to confront as well.
The first conceptual hurdle to overcome here is Abbott and Duhalde’s reminder that Bernie and the Squad have shown little interest in institution building, enough reason to consign this to the realm of fantasy. A third primary run, however, might change the calculations here. The 2020 campaign was a devastating experience for many, and the idea of running it back in more or less the same form might not rouse sufficient enthusiasm. However, if the campaign were conceived from the beginning as not just about 2024 but about what 2024 is going to leave behind, many would view it rather differently. It would be about making a commitment to establishing a durable left counterweight to the duopoly rather than just another quixotic bid within one party of capital.
Bernie should still be aiming to win, of course. You don’t run for office if you don’t intend to win, and in fact the promise of transitioning campaign infrastructure into a left organization bolsters his theory of the case, as an organized constituency would be needed to win any of the reforms President Sanders promises on the campaign trail. This would mean starting a campaign with no intention of demobilizing at the end of the electoral cycle. The idea would certainly rankle Democrats, who would point to his nontraditional campaign as evidence that he is undermining their fight against incipient fascism, but these accusations will be lodged no matter what Bernie’s campaign looks like. They’re going to call him or any other progressive candidate a spoiler as a matter of course.
This, in brief, is the organization-building rationale for a possible Bernie 2024 bid: don’t make it a last hurrah, make it a new beginning.
What about the rationale for the Left? Even though his campaigns failed to reverse the general trend toward working-class non-voting, Bernie’s messaging and policies still resonate with working-class voters better than most left politicians. In addition, the rolls of Bernie 2020 supporters, activists, and super volunteers were filled with people unaffiliated with any left organizations, and the mobilization of that infrastructure once again would, if done intentionally and strategically, bring lots of new people to the Left.
This doesn’t fully address the need to expand our working-class base, but starting with a full list of all Bernie activists and voters seems at least like a good way to begin this process. Again, there was no attempt to do this in 2020, and Our Revolution was post hoc and internally disorganized, amongst other things. Bernie 2024 data and infrastructure would make for a powerful organizational beginning, if that data and infrastructure were envisioned from the beginning as more permanent in nature than that of a typical electoral campaign. (An extra bonus for us: such a nontraditional campaign structure would surely keep the Democratic Party operatives away. They’re willing to gamble on an electoral cycle, but building left organizations doesn’t fit their envisioned career arcs.)
Still, challenges would remain, above all the Left’s current class composition and the consequent problems this poses. To my mind, there are two key ways in which to address this overriding issue. The first is organizational: here I would disagree with Gong and French’s emphasis on the need for a new democratic organization. As John-Baptiste Oduor argues here, internal democracy in the absence of a strong working-class base leads to middle-class insulation. We don’t need another organization that demands long, deliberative meetings and over which caucuses and working groups vie for supremacy, most of all because it already exists in the form of DSA.
To my mind, a Bernie 2024 organization-building project should instead look to something similar to La France Insoumise (FI) as a model. The groupes d’appui, the local cells of FI, had some local autonomy in terms of action, but they were defined literally as “support groups” for Jean-Luc Mélenchon’s vision (they were later redefined as groupes d’action, or “action groups”). FI invited membership participation in the drafting of its program, L’Avenir en commun, but under the tight control of FI facilitators and in such a way as to align with Mélenchon’s existing platform. Something similar to the FI structure, “gaseous” (Mélenchon’s description) in one way, but also narrowly oriented and with a leader willing to put their stamp on it, would be appropriate here.
The second key has to do with orientation: the exigencies of the campaign would keep things focused at first, but after 2024, efforts must stick to strategic electoral politics and supporting union organizing efforts and campaigns — essentially, extending Bernie’s current work into the future. To solidify this dual orientation from the beginning, why not kick off the campaign with the first task of being a support organization for the Teamsters as they enter their new contract negotiations with the United Parcel Service (UPS), and for the Amazon Labor Union as they try to wrest a first contract out of Jeff Bezos? It’s great that Bernie is doing pro-labor rallies with Sara Nelson and Sean O’Brien, but these kinds of events could be more than symbolic if they were used to build an organized labor auxiliary in the short term that would transition into something like the Victory Captain program (though with much-needed centralization) closer to 2024.
There are difficult questions about organization building that can’t be tackled here. My point is simply to say that the next Sanders campaign, if it happens at all, could be used to build an organization that helps transcend the Left’s current impasse, so long as a clear understanding of that impasse and strategies for overcoming it are devised.