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Current Affairs

A Magazine of Politics and Culture

The Bernie Sanders Movement is Achieving Things We Thought Impossible

We are on the brink of something truly historic.

The media and Democratic Party elite have been doing everything they can to stop Bernie. The press spent months ignoring the Sanders campaign, during the infamous Bernie blackout. Once it became clear that Sanders had a chance of winning, the media unloaded a barrage of attacks, including repeatedly and baselessly comparing Bernie to Donald Trump, suggesting that adopting similar policies to those of Germany or France would somehow bankrupt the nation, and endlessly repeating the unfounded prediction that Sanders would lose to Trump, despite the substantial evidence to the contrary. (Even Trump himself is apparently worried about Bernie Sanders.) None other than Barack Obama had quotes circulated in the press saying he would intervene to stop Sanders. John Kerry was overheard saying he would jump into the race to stop Sanders, and Hillary Clinton (alongside other sore losers like 2016 campaign-flop Martin O’Malley) have launched downright vicious attacks against Sanders. 

Yet none of this has stopped Bernie.

Given the incredible power of the mainstream media and the wealthy in this country, it is impressive, to say the least, that Sanders remains in reach of victory. In spite of the suspicious suppression of the historically influential Des Moines Register poll at the behest of the Pete Buttigieg campaign, which could have fed Sanders’ momentum, Bernie scored a decisive victory in Iowa, winning the popular vote by over 6,000 votes and the realignment vote by over 2,600. Despite Pete Buttigieg’s brazen attempt to claim victory before any results were reported, he ended up losing both the popular and realigned votes, and with the “state delegate equivalents” (SDEs) within a fraction of a percent, the Associated Press declared that odd metric too close to call

Now, Sanders currently leads in the polls in New Hampshire, California, is nearly tied in Nevada and has been gaining nationwide. FiveThirtyEight has him as the No. 1 favorite to win the nomination, beating Joe Biden in all but two states. Sanders’ strong showing among immigrant voters and voters of color in Iowa—he reportedly won 43 percent of nonwhite voters compared to Biden’s 13 percent—bodes well for Sanders’ chance in more diverse states. Bernie Sanders could be the first left candidate, the first candidate of the working class, to ever capture a major party nomination. And if he is nominated, both head-to-head polling and other factors give us reason to believe he is in a strong position to defeat Donald Trump and capture the presidency. Sanders is especially equipped to defeat Trump in the key states of Michigan, Wisconsin, and Pennsylvania.

This Campaign And The Movement Behind It Is Truly Unprecedented

The Bernie Sanders 2020 campaign has achieved a number of firsts. Never before in modern American history has a political movement been funded virtually entirely and directly by the working class. The Civil Rights movement, which was mostly powered by volunteers, still depended on support from powerful organizations like the United Auto Workers and even wealthy donors. With the exception of unions, poor and working people’s movements have again and again lacked the resources to sustain themselves financially. This is why Bernie Sanders’ contributions are so incredible. Bernie has the most contributions of any candidate in 46 states, the most contributions ever by any presidential candidate at this point in the race, the most contributions from forklift drivers, from bartenders and waitresses, from teachers and nurses, and from active duty military, as well as the most contributions by far of any candidate overall. The largest employers of his contributors are low-wage mega-employers Walmart and Amazon. Sanders has actually out-fundraised all the billionaire-backed candidates, something many predicted confidently was impossible to achieve in U.S. politics. And financial contributions from poor and working people signal something important—they are “putting their money where their mouth is” and demonstrating a depth of support and enthusiasm. Many working Americans are in debt or don’t have much money to spare. It means something when they give what they can because they believe in the movement. 

Donald Trump, in his 2016 campaign, was lavished with $2 billion in free media by the corporate press. The truism that “all media is good media” was proven tenfold in the race, as the negative posturing in coverage was less important than sheer hours of air-time. The president of CBS notoriously said of the enormous attention given to Donald Trump (and the ratings it produced) “it may not be good for America, but it’s damn good for CBS.” And while much of the coverage trended negative, Trump was often given a platform completely unchallenged, while enjoying the eventual embrace of FOX News and the substantial right-wing media apparatus which commands millions of viewers.

Bernie Sanders’ campaign has enjoyed no such gifts from the mainstream press. He was almost utterly ignored by the major outlets for the entirety of 2019. Once the campaign’s chance of success became unavoidable in the past weeks, Sanders has been treated to a barrage of disingenuous and outrageous attacks. The first Jewish candidate for President ever to win a presidential primary in U.S. history, a man clearly deeply influenced by his Jewish origins, who spent time living in Israel on a kibbutz, has been absurdly pilloried as an anti-Semite in the media for the crime of recognizing the humanity of the Palestinian people. He has received outrageously racist and antisemitic treatment from the press: The New York Times mocked Bernie’s Jewish New York accent in print: literally spelling out “Doctahs,” “Millionaihs” and “Billionaihs.” The press has repeatedly questioned his Jewishness. CNN once wrote “Though raised Jewish, Sanders says that he is ‘not particularly religious,’” as if being less religious meant Bernie might have somehow stopped being a Jew—a proposition with which anti-Semites would certainly disagree. Outlets such as the Bezos-owned Washington Post have run highly questionable photos such as Sanders’ rubbing his hands to accompany stories about his fundraising hauls, echoing historic anti-Semitic tropes (see also this image from POLITICO, showing Sanders with a money tree). Despite all of the vitriol and hatred of the mainstream press, Sanders may win the nomination. And that in itself would represent something truly historic—when has a presidential candidate ever won a party nomination while being ignored and reviled, in turn, by the entirety of the mainstream press?

Opposition to the Sanders movement by the vast majority of the Democratic Party establishment is also unprecedented in the history of Democratic primaries. Sanders has received scarce few endorsements from Democratic elected officials, amidst widespread reports that senior Democrats are desperate to stop his campaign. Many of the prominent elected officials who have backed Bernie—AOC, Pramila Jayapal, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib—were brought to power in the wake of his groundbreaking 2016 campaign. The president of the centrist democratic group Third Way called Bernie “An Existential Threat.”

The establishment aversion to Sanders may stem in part from the feeling that victory by Bernie would represent a rebuke of the long-running history of Democrats sacrificing the poor, the environment, black and brown people, and others in their drive to secure the support of the wealthy classes—it would tell the nation that none of their foul compromises had really been necessary or efficacious. This would be a tough realization to accept. But regardless of their motivations, the Sanders campaign’s success in the face of both media and party elites is a testament to the power of the organizing work the campaign has been doing on the ground, as well as the appeal of Sanders’ message. If Sanders is able to break past the first few states and claim the frontrunner mantel, the popular energy he could unleash might be enormous. Increased coverage will likely only strengthen him—even full-throated attacks often end up making Bernie’s point for him. And if Trump’s rise is any guide, once Bernie leads the party many one-time enemies within the party will be transformed into loyalists and suck-ups.

It has been at least 96 years since there was a serious left candidate for President in the United States of America. Senator Robert “Fighting Bob” LaFollette led an insurgent campaign with a coalition of small parties in his 1924 Presidential bid. The last memorable campaign by a self-identified socialist was in 1920, when Eugene V. Debs won nearly a million votes while rotting in prison for his opposition to World War I. Having a viable candidate for working people in a presidential race is unprecedented.

In 2016, Bernie Sanders promised to continue to build a popular movement, and since the narrow loss in that race, he hasn’t stopped. He’s helped Amazon workers secure $15 an hour, joined together with Walmart workers fighting for the same, helped Disney service workers win a contract, and has joined and boosted countless labor struggles in the past years. His campaign has helped swell the ranks of the DSA and practically every other left-wing organizing effort in the nation. The organization he helped found, Our Revolution, has since taken on a life of its own and developed a decidedly adversarial relationship with the Democratic elite, backing the most progressive candidates in a slew of races regardless of the political calculus (Our Revolution’s San Francisco Chapter even backed Nancy Pelosi’s challenger from the left in 2018). As Noam Chomsky has rightly pointed out:

“[Sanders] has absolutely infuriated the liberal establishment by committing a major crime. It’s not his policies. His crime was to organize an ongoing political movement that doesn’t just show up at the polls every four years and push a button, but keeps working. That’s no good. The rabble is supposed to stay home. Their job is to watch not to participate.” 

Of course, if Bernie is elected president, progressives must be very clear so as not to identify themselves with the Sanders administration as a sitting government, or become its apologists. Progressives must develop themselves into a much more powerful independent movement on the left. To this end, Bernie’s commitment to support unionizing workers alone—proposing a sweeping overhaul of labor law which would allow workers to form new unions much more quickly, and his commitment to use federal spending to force employers to negotiate with their employees—would provide much-needed leverage in shifting enormous power from the wealthy and into the hands of working people. 

Sanders’ campaign is also unique in that it attempts to appeal to no major sector of American industry or wealth. Not legal service, not tech, not the media, not banking. None of the traditionally Democratic centers of wealth. It’s just the working class. This appears to me to be an unprecedented political orientation, and it’s working. Bernie Sanders has said so much in his campaign speeches, and in his campaign ads. Speaking in Iowa, the day before the caucus:

“We are taking on the entire political establishment, both the Republican establishment and the Democratic establishment. We are taking on Wall Street and the insurance companies and the drug companies and the fossil fuel industry and the military-industrial complex and the prison-industrial complex and the whole damn 1%.” 

And here, Sanders reflecting on the campaign’s organizing among service workers

“We are running a campaign of the working class, by the working class, and for the working class of this country. When we bring millions of working people, people of color and young people in the political process, there is nothing we cannot accomplish.”

Sanders has made crystal clear which side he is on, “If there is going to be class warfare in this country, it’s about time the working class won that war.” Politicians, even on the left, tend to make tacit alliances with at least some sectors of the wealthy and the powerful. Once unjustifiable compromises and alliances begin, precious credibility among regular people begins to erode. It begins a vicious cycle. Sanders’ unquestionable commitment to fight for the well-being of working people will instead be a powerful tool in reaching the large number of them in economically depressed areas who sat out the 2016 election. He’s going no holds barred in 2020, and that’s exactly what the historical moment demands. 

A Bernie Sanders presidency would also represent a historic break with modern U.S. foreign policy, a departure which could even mean saving hundreds of thousands of lives. Sanders has distinguished himself in foreign affairs with his opposition to deadly sanctions against Iran, his willingness to threaten withdrawal of financial support for Israeli war crimes, and his ongoing campaign to end the disastrous military campaign in Yemen which has claimed more than 100,000 lives. Sanders by no means represents the type of total dissolution of U.S. imperialist policy that many leftists would desire—he supported military action in Kosovo and Afghanistan (the latter he now regrets), and defended Israeli policy for many years. Bernie’s own base will need to be willing to push hard on a potential Sanders administration that will face enormous pressure from the military and foreign policy establishment to continue the status quo. Understanding that, the break from current policy that Sanders represents, over the course of four-to-eight years, could mean multiple nations not bombed, other coups not supported, decisions which determine life and death for many, and could determine the fates of various nations. If we value the lives and dignity of the billions of people beyond our borders, we should be pulling for a Sanders victory.

Cynics and far-left scolds have pooh-poohed the Sanders campaign as a “sheepdog” or otherwise insufficiently opposed to the pro-capitalists who dominate the upper levels of the Democratic Party. The fierceness of the opposition to the Sanders campaign, along with his campaign’s positive impact on labor and left organizing, however, is one of the greatest indications that Sanders presents a real threat to the establishment. 

What We Should Expect Next

The Sanders campaign has already faced major backlash in the media, and we are likely to see that intensify as Sanders continues to gain strength. Sanders supporters should expect unprecedented dishonest attacks in the media. Campaign triumphs, like winning over prominent cultural figures with large Independent and Republican followings, will be turned into some kind of scandal for false outrage. The media will continue to fire off their fear and anger directly at Sanders’ grassroots supporters. It is revealing that Sanders’ opponents attack low-level rank-and-file Sanders backers—they know what the real force is in the campaign. It is the millions of young people, poor people, immigrants, regular working people who are powering the campaign with their donations, their volunteer hours, their voices. The attacks on Bernie supporters as “divisive” are meant to silence these people who were never supposed to have a political voice in the first place. We can’t let that happen.

And while rank-and-file moderate Democrats are highly unlikely to consider moving to Trump, we can expect some wealthier liberals to flirt with the idea. Already, Wall Street democrats have suggested moving donations to the Republican President if Bernie or Warren became the nominee. Others will try to sabotage Bernie even though it will help re-elect Trump. But these impulses will be easy to curb if progressives do the work to organize and apply pressure to corporate liberals who drift in that odious direction. Calling out a so-called “liberal” for explicitly or tacitly backing a Kleptocratic Racist President who rips children from their mothers’ arms is not being “divisive” or an “irrational Bernie Bro.” It is doing our duty as citizens who believe in democracy. Similarly, pointing out that a vote for Biden in the primary is a vote for mass deportations, for theft from working people, and for illegal wars abroad is not excessive. It’s just the truth: The Obama/Biden administration presided over the largest deportation spree in at least eight decades, deporting 3 million people (Obama deported more immigrants than Donald Trump has thus far), Biden has repeatedly sided with bankers and other corporate interests over working people, and helped champion the Iraq war, and other illegal and deadly military adventures. If you have an option to not support those things, it is your duty as a moral person to choose the option which will kill, bankrupt, and tear apart fewer families.

We will see purported liberal allies betray the movement. We witnessed a variety of so-called progressives, from Dolores Huerta to Paul Krugman, make preposterous arguments in favor of Hillary Clinton in 2016, and we will see ostensibly liberal figures and organizations weaponized again to stop the Sanders movement in 2020. We must recognize these figures as the opportunists that they are, and not allow them to cause us to question the cause we are undertaking. Once an individual reaches a certain status of wealth and influence, once the potential of gaining positions of real power in the near future, their perspective inevitably changes. Mr. Krugman may very well have made a hypothetical Clinton shortlist for Treasury Secretary or Director of the National Economic Council (Huerta’s son was running for Congress as a Democrat, and could have used establishment support). There is a powerful incentive to mold your thinking in favor of the candidate who is likely to reward you with such a position.

Over the course of the past year, Senator Elizabeth Warren has confirmed herself to be an unreliable advocate of progressive causes, lacking credibility as an emissary to working people, and a candidate lacking the political acumen necessary to defeat Donald Trump. Despite her floundering campaign, there are indications that Warren will continue to plod along, pulling off an important segment of professional class progressives who backed Sanders in 2020. Those who want to defeat Donald Trump, who want to defeat the Biden/Bloomberg/Buttigieg corporate wing of the party, must be firm and clear that it is time to unite behind the only candidate positioned to do those things, which is clearly Senator Sanders.

The moment we face is staggering in its implications: In the prospect of a Trump re-election, we face an impending climate catastrophe, the potential for nuclear holocaust if nuclear arsenals are not contained, the potential for mass slaughter with Iran and other nations, the entrenchment of a system of mass surveillance which could usher in a hyper-Orwellian future, and of course the rise of racist neo-fascists and the potential for the substantial decline in what’s left of our democracy. If you find any of these claims hyperbolic, I invite you to investigate them further. I wish we faced fewer disasters, but sadly we don’t. There has hardly been a time at which the stakes of political action have been higher.

What Should We Do Now?

If you have influence, use that influence to push for Bernie. It’s hard to imagine that the campaign would have been this successful without the endorsements from unions, from progressive organizations like the Sunrise Movement, and from individuals like Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and even Michael Moore. I guarantee every endorsement from an organization has resulted in certain members of that organization relentlessly pushing and working to get everyone else on board. Someone stuck their neck out, worked to get others in the organization on board, and pushed past skepticism to get those endorsements. If you’re a member of a union, or part of a progressive organization at your school or in your community, this is your moment. Make a plan to talk to key members one on one, linking the push to what is important to them and what is important to the organization. Figure out who you need to get on board, and how. Push for action even if you don’t think you’ll win. It’s an opportunity to work on your organizing skills. If you know an influential person, start encouraging that person to make a stand. (AOC’s decision to endorse Bernie burned her relationship with the party leadership. That decision probably came in part through conversations with her staff, and I’m grateful to any among them who supported and encouraged her to take a stand.) Of course, the least we can do is donate, volunteer, and talk to friends and family before our state votes.

For those still skeptical of getting enthusiastic about an electoral campaign—you’re right! We should all be skeptical, because we do not live in a truly “democratic” system, and our political system is dominated by two parties with a brutal consensus on a broad range of issues. However, supporting this historic campaign does not mean we need to shed our well-deserved skepticism of presidential-level electoral politics. If no candidate of the left has mounted a serious run in some 100 years, chances are there will not be another race like this for many, many years if Bernie fails. Organizing work such as building unions and independent left-wing organizations is much more valuable than electoral campaigns. But Bernie’s past run has disproved assumptions (based on experience in past races) that a progressive presidential campaign would be a diversion of energy away from the left. Instead it has turned out to be a huge boost, rather than a drain on organizing. (Read my explanation here of how a Sanders’ nomination would be a boon to workers and left-wing organizing everywhere.) And if Sanders does win the presidency, left-wing organizers will have an excellent opportunity to deepen a vision of a truly democratic society where working people own and control the economy and politics, all the while mobilizing behind an agenda which addresses our burning immediate needs.

This election will affect the lives of millions who can’t even vote or donate to the campaign. Given the stakes, we can afford to put our cynicism and dispassion aside. We can’t let the nay-sayers, the dirty tricks, the smears, or the fear of failure hold us back from doing our part. We are on the brink of achieving something historic, and we can’t let them stop us.

Note: Current Affairs magazine has not officially endorsed a presidential candidate and positions of writers on elections should not be taken to represent the formal editorial stance of the magazine.

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