Current Affairs

Everything Has Changed Overnight

The Democratic primary is no longer over. This is a historic crisis requiring nothing less than FDR-style ambition and leadership. We’ve got just the guy.

We do not live in the same country that we did a month or two ago. It may look the same superficially. But everything has turned upside down: The stock market suffered a more sudden crash than in 1929, millions of people have lost their jobs overnight, and the healthcare system is being strained to the brink by a devastating global pandemic that has the potential to kill people in horrifying numbers. Americans are being advised to shelter in their homes for an indefinite length of time. The chart of new unemployment claims on the front page of today’s paper is astonishing:

from the New York Times

In this topsy turvy world, there is only one issue on everybody’s minds: the virus, along with its consequences. Nearly every news story is about it; everything else is set aside for now. We know that without an indefinite lockdown, the virus could run rampant with devastating consequences, but without a strong social safety net in place, an indefinite lockdown will lead to massive income loss.

Donald Trump is about the last person you’d want in charge during a crisis, and his behavior has been downright criminal. He lied to the public repeatedly, implying the virus’s seriousness was being exaggerated for political reasons, suggesting it was no worse than the flu and promising that “like a miracle—it will disappear.” He has lied to people about whether they could be tested. (“Anybody that needs a test, gets a test.”) Against the opinions of both public health experts and economists, he has told the public he wants to have the churches open for Easter services and suggested that lockdowns are doing more harm than good. As people begged Trump to invoke the power of the state to compel ventilator production, he instead opting for protracted haggling over prices with private companies, and said that hospitals were asking for far more ventilators  than they really needed. He has even reportedly denied medical supplies to states based on petty grudges.

With Trump’s incompetence already having caused needless deaths—and probably about to be responsible for many more—and his administration having made it clear that their main interest is in protecting corporate profit, not American lives, he should be hated. His approval rating should have tanked. And yet: it hasn’t. It’s actually risen, and most Americans approve of the way he has handled the crisis. Since he has handled the crisis in an objectively abysmal fashion and is killing people’s loved ones, you may find this puzzling. But it isn’t really: Trump has been on television every day talking to the American people, bragging about things he hasn’t actually done, promising that everything is under control, touting “beautiful” new tests and miracle cures, and promising that everything will be alright. He has—brilliantly—slapped his name on some coronavirus advice and then mailed it to everyone in the country. If people just turn on the television or check the mail (and they can do little else right now), they’ll see a president who seems to be in command. 

It’s all an illusion, but in order to show people it’s an illusion, you’d need an effective, on-message Democratic opposition, exposing Trump and offering a clear plan of their own. Unfortunately, Democrats for the most part have failed utterly. Their messaging has been muddy, with an early Democratic relief proposal being so unambitious that some Republicans were able to paint it as stingy, and Nancy Pelosi originally defended a provision that would have denied paid sick leave to most people, and then scaled it back even further. As Ryan Cooper notes, at a time when Congressional Democrats should have been “hammering Trump at every moment of the day,” they were silent. 

There is a total leadership vacuum on the Democratic side. We hear a lot about the “bipartisan” relief package that just passed, but Democrats need to show that they are in command at a time when Trump is flailing. This they have not done. In part, this is because the party’s frontrunner for the presidential nomination, Joe Biden, was completely missing in action as the worst part of the crisis escalated. Biden declined to do television appearances or speak to the public, giving the unlikely excuse that he was waiting until construction on a TV studio in his home had finished. Biden’s silence meant that Donald Trump was the only national leader people were hearing from; no wonder his approval rating shot up. In fact, that may have been intentional, with Politico reporting that Biden was afraid of being “too political” and criticizing the president during a crisis. “I don’t think the public wants to hear criticism of Donald Trump right now,” said a Biden adviser. This is indefensible: It’s like declining to criticize George W. Bush over Hurricane Katrina. Trump is directly causing people to die in large numbers and then lying about it. It’s the worst thing he’s ever done. But let’s not get “too political”? Why on earth would you not get political? 

Eventually, after #WhereIsJoe began trending on Twitter and party donors were “perplexed” and asking the campaign why Biden was bungling so badly, he agreed to appear in public. Biden’s first national address came on Monday. It quickly showed why advisers had wanted to keep Biden off camera; Biden read listlessly off the teleprompter, the most memorable moment coming when the teleprompter malfunctioned and Biden struggled to speak without a script. Further TV appearances did not go well. Asked about Trump’s belief that the “cure would be worse than the disease,” Biden gave the confusing reply: “We have to take care of the cure. That will make the problem worse no matter what. No matter what.” (If we assume “take care” means “prioritize” and “that” means “Trump’s approach,” the answer makes sense, but when you watch it you go “Huh?” and right now we do not want a candidate who merely has “plausible non-nonsensical interpretations of their speech.”) At one point, Biden even said that he had experienced no symptoms of coronavirus before coughing repeatedly (and not into his elbow, leading to an awkward exchange with Jake Tapper). After the first “daily briefing” on Monday, Biden’s Tuesday briefing was canceled

It became very plain, then, why the campaign had kept Joe Biden from doing video appearances. Those of us who had begged him to show up more on television so that Trump would have an effective opposition immediately realized we had made a huge mistake. Biden looked weak, unfocused, and sometimes confused. He had very little to say beyond vacuous “pull together and beat this thing” platitudes and a few requests that the president be more honest. He looked above all, like a man who is going to lose this election.

I have to say, it’s actually a little surprising, because even those of us who had long thought Biden was a weak candidate had to admit he did fairly well in his debate against Bernie Sanders. Biden was energetic and aggressive, even if completely full of shit. What happened? 

The crisis happened. The candidates were faced with a real-world leadership test, a moment that would show how, as president, they would handle a massive national emergency. And Joe Biden revealed that he could not possibly lead. In fact, Politico reported that Biden was deliberately “deferring to party leaders” by keeping quiet. But he’s supposed to be the party leader! During a critical week, Biden’s direct communication with the public amounted to little more than a single thumbs-up emoji posted on Instagram. And the messaging from his campaign on what needs to be done could not be emptier: “forming a task force” and “bringing leaders together.” 

Now, to be fair to Biden, if you watch the full interviews he ultimately did, when he got around to them, he is coherent the majority of the time. In fact, when Joe Biden is on form, as he was during the debate, he is lively, garrulous, and can even be quite compelling. The problem is that he’s incredibly hit-and-miss, and when he’s not on form, which is often, he’s a mess. And those, of course, are the clips Trump will air.

In fact, we had already known that Biden was unfocused, a poor manager, and a weak figurehead for the party. Barack Obama infamously tried to discourage him from running, and Biden’s campaign has, for the most part, been badly-run. New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, no Sanders fan, said Biden was “well past his prime… His campaigning pace is languid, his debate performances unsettling.” (Chait concluded that Biden’s “2020 campaign is going to end in a disaster for the whole party.”) Biden was only able to achieve his upset victories over Sanders by having other candidates drop out at the last minute and rally behind him, because the centrists had no other plausible nominee. But it’s hard to believe they thought Biden was actually an effective candidate. 

Meanwhile, I feel compelled to point out, Bernie Sanders has been doing something quite different. His campaign has pivoted to becoming a coronavirus relief effort. He raised $2 million from his supporters to fund coronavirus charities. He has savaged the president over Trump’s dangerous lies, holding nothing  back. Sanders has seized the opportunity to fight hard to relieve the suffering of ordinary working people, supporting strikers who refuse to work in dangerous conditions, crusading against corporations that put their workers in danger, having supporters phone bank to organize mutual aid efforts, and doing regular livestreamed events to speak to the public about what is happening and what we can do. With the Sanders campaign’s ability to hold rallies and knock on doors eliminated by the crisis, much of this necessarily takes place online, but Sanders has long had a formidable digital operation well primed for the moment. Biden’s team have excused his inaction in part by saying that it’s because he doesn’t currently hold office and has no formal authority. But none of this stuff requires a title.

However, Bernie has also been using his position in the Senate to help. When Republican senators tried to stop a critical unemployment measure in the relief bill, Sanders took to the floor of the senate to denounce their opposition. (Worth noting that as a member of the vulnerable age group, Sanders probably should not be hanging around the virus-ridden senate, but he’s got priorities.) To the Republican fear that some unemployed workers might earn $600 more a month in unemployment benefits than they had at their badly underpaid jobs, Sanders thundered“How absurd and wrong is that? What kind of value system is that?” 

Standing alone, he threatened to block the entire bill unless the Republicans gave in. They folded. The unemployment benefits stayed. Poor people will get more money thanks to Sanders, and we now see headlines like “Why Everyone Is Thanking Bernie Sanders Right Now—Even His Critics.” So much for those saying Sanders can’t “get anything through the Senate.” In fact, as has been true his entire career but has simply been ignored, Sanders is a pragmatic legislator who gets things done. They call him “the Amendment King” for a reason.

So two candidates, one leadership test, two very different responses: hiding away and then stumbling versus springing into action. But so what? “The Democratic primary is over. Biden won. It’s nice that Sanders is helping, but he still lost.”

The Democratic primary is not over. And Sanders supporters need to immediately recognize that it isn’t over. It was over. But it’s back on. And Sanders needs to be in it to win it, because the consequences of putting Joe Biden up against Donald Trump during this kind of historic calamity are unthinkable.

Let’s just remember where things stand with the primary, though it all seems like far distant history now: Sanders won the most votes in the early states, first Iowa and New Hampshire and then a blowout victory in Nevada. But then Joe Biden bounced back with a big South Carolina victory, and the centrist candidates lined up behind Biden before super Tuesday while progressives were still split between Sanders and Elizabeth Warren. Biden developed unstoppable “momentum” as Democratic voters deemed him the “safe, responsible, pragmatic” choice, as opposed to the “radical” Bernie with his popular proposals for free healthcare, generous paid family leave, a Green New Deal, etc. Biden beat Bernie in Michigan, a state Bernie had won in 2016, which was the beginning of the end. By the time Biden won Florida and Illinois (in states with already depressed turnout due to coronavirus), people were barely paying attention to the primary. It was done.

I thought it was done myself. After Michigan I concluded privately: “It’s over. Unless something huge happens, like, I don’t know, a giant national economic collapse requiring a New Deal style intervention that vindicates all of Bernie’s arguments, the rest of the primaries are irrelevant.” And then, um…

Let’s remember: The primary was declared over well before it was actually over. 1,991 delegates are needed to win. Biden currently has 1,217 delegates (40 percent of the total), Bernie 914 (30 percent of the total). And there are some big states left to vote, like New York and Pennsylvania. The primary was declared over not because it was mathematically impossible for Bernie to win—note that every story about it contains the caveat “nearly insurmountable”—but because the momentum of public opinion was trending so strongly in Biden’s favor that it was hard to imagine any obvious factor that would reverse the trend. If such a factor came along, and suddenly there was a reason why people might consider Bernie anew, the whole picture would look different. 

Now, Biden’s lead is still very significant even though it may not look it from raw numbers. In order for Bernie to pull ahead, he would have to start beating Biden by the kind of margins that Biden has recently been beating Bernie by. Things would have to turn completely upside down.

But things have indeed turned completely upside down. All of the arguments that made Biden so compelling before have collapsed. It used to be that Biden’s incrementalism and disdain for bold federal action seemed “safe.” He would keep things mostly as they were, be a caretaker who did little but harmed nothing. Now, the state of “things as they are” is disastrous, and doing nothing is deadly. Democrats admit that Joe Biden is basically just a warm body—the Atlantic ran an article saying that all Joe needs to do is stay alive, probably the lowest bar ever for a candidate, but one he seems barely even able to clear. They just want a “not Trump” name on the ballot in November.

If November is nothing more than a plebiscite on Trump, though, Trump will win overwhelmingly, because people like crisis presidents if they look like they’re doing their best, and Trump is working hard to look like he’s doing something even as he does nothing. Unless someone exposes the lie and offers an alternative path and better leadership, people will remember the president’s daily press conferences and nothing else.

What is the argument for Joe Biden in a crisis? Biden’s plan for healthcare, even at its most ambitious, would leave 3 million people without health insurance. Now, people are dying from COVID-19 because they don’t have health insurance. Under Biden, even after the years-long process of getting some minor improvements to the insurance system through, for many people a pandemic would inflict exactly the same kind of financial distress on people that it’s doing now.

The case for universal free healthcare just got about 1,000x stronger. Biden used the opportunity of the last debate to trash single-payer healthcare, saying that it hasn’t saved Italians. But it has saved Italians from having financial ruin go along with a pandemic. The point of a social safety net is not to cure coronavirus, but to make sure that something like coronavirus doesn’t also leave people destitute. We’re seeing now the human consequences of having health insurance tied to employment: As staggering record numbers of people are thrown out of work, they will also lose their health insurance. This was always Bernie’s point in response to those who touted their “good private insurance” or said that Medicare For All would “take away” people’s insurance. In fact, Medicare For All would make sure you always got to keep your good insurance, no matter what happened with your job, while under our current system, millions can find themselves uninsured overnight.

The things Bernie has been shouting about for the entire campaign are suddenly becoming far more obvious. If corporations own the government, and congresspeople are bought and paid for by lobbyists, then even in a pandemic the priority of the government will not be to save the lives of working people but to protect corporate profits and the stock market. Healthcare that operates for profit is not going to plan for or tend to the needs of those people whose illnesses are not profitable. Once people were scared of “government healthcare.” Now they’re all desperately wondering: Why isn’t there any government healthcare? Where are the free public hospitals? Why isn’t the federal government doing something? And the answer, in part, is because there has long been a bipartisan consensus around government austerity, believing that the private sector will solve problems as if by magic through the divine protection of an Invisible Hand that hovers above us all. (Yes, capitalism is a religion.) Actually, problems only get solved because people roll up their sleeves and do shit, and government is the collective coordinating apparatus that helps us know what shit needs to get done and who needs to do it. 

Bernie Sanders has a coronavirus plan, and it’s a good one. Free healthcare indefinitely, not just for coronavirus, because coronavirus is going to cause many other conditions to worsen. Paid leave, a moratorium on evictions and foreclosures, expanding food stamps (which the Trump administration tried to cut during the pandemic). But most importantly: Bernie can lead people. He can organize. This campaign has shown that he can do what Biden is hopeless at: build an army of activists ready to go out and work (or, during a pandemic, stay online and work). Bernie has always been very clear about what is necessary, and he has a long record of fighting for working people. He’s fighting for them even now, while Biden’s team spend a few more days adjusting the lighting in his home studio in the hopes it disguises the fact that Joe Biden is Joe Biden.

This really should be Bernie’s moment. A looming Second Great Depression in a country governed by a 21st century Herbert Hoover (this is woefully unfair to Hoover, actually, and I’m sorry) requires a new FDR. Bernie Sanders is very clearly the closest we have, and as I have written 10 billion times before, he is very effective against Donald Trump. This crisis demands a particular kind of person. We are fortunate enough to have the person waiting and ready to take charge.

Why You Need To Change Your Mind About The Primary Immediately

If you are a Bernie Sanders supporter, you have been demoralized. You might be working on virus relief, but you have lost hope that Sanders can be the nominee. But you are operating as if the world hasn’t changed. The world has changed. Bold actions like the ones Bernie has proposed on healthcare once looked risky. Now the risk is that we won’t implement them quickly enough. There are already signs that people’s minds might be open to being changed in a way they weren’t just recently. I see people like Ezra Klein posting things like “radical times require radical responses,” MSNBC’s Joy Ann Reid seems critical of employer-based healthcare, and weird stuff is happening. Did you think you’d see Britney Spears calling for strikes and wealth redistribution? (Fran Drescher is also attacking capitalism and calling for a general strike, though she may have been a long-time comrade.) At the very least, it is a newly uncertain moment, and one during which we cannot afford to give up but must redouble our energy. People are hurting more than ever, and the progressive agenda is about relieving suffering and giving everyone better lives. We are ready for this.

People have stopped thinking about the primary. But they shouldn’t. Especially because, even if the coronavirus pandemic wasn’t happening, Joe Biden can no longer even be the Democratic nominee.

Why Joe Biden Is Done

[Content warning: sexual assault]

I need you to do something. I need you to listen to the latest episode of the Katie Halper Show, which is an interview with former Biden staffer Tara Reade. The full interview is here, and if you have the emotional wherewithal to do so, you should listen to it in full. There’s also a short version here, and a good article covering it can be found here.

In the interview, Reade describes how, when she was working for Biden in the early ’90s, he sexually assaulted her. Her description of the events is precise, brutal, and compelling. She sounds, to me, credible. I have also had several private conversations with her that have left me with no reason to doubt that she is telling the truth. When feminists talk about “believing women” who come forward to talk about sexual assault, it doesn’t mean we believe every word a woman says no matter what; it means that when a woman comes forward with a story of being sexually assaulted, we start from the presumption that she is probably telling the truth. In short, we trust, but verify. Reade claims that, at the time of the assault, she told her brother and a friend. Ryan Grim of the Intercept has spoken to both the brother and the friend, who confirm Reade’s story. That, on top of Reade’s heartbreaking, detailed account on The Katie Halper show and our private conversations, is sufficient verification for me.

Sexual assault is a crime committed behind closed doors, in private; our legal system currently finds these cases difficult to prove even when victims choose to report. Of course, no one can know with absolute certainty if Reade’s story is accurate. But as Biden himself once said, “For a woman to come forward in the glaring lights of focus, nationally, you’ve got to start off with the presumption that at least the essence of what she’s talking about is real.” When women accuse powerful men of sexual assault, the consequences are usually severe and horrific; Christine Blasey Ford had to move four times and keep a security detail due to death threats. We took Blasey Ford seriously (not seriously enough) on the basis of similar verification and compelling testimony. We must take Tara Reade seriously, too. [UPDATE: Tara’s story has now broken into the mainstream press, with a full report in Newsweek.]

In fact, we shouldn’t be surprised at all by Reade’s accusation. Joe Biden has long been considered a MeToo scandal waiting to happen. He had already been accused by seven other women of inappropriately touching them and violating their boundaries. A female Democratic fundraiser told Harper’s last year that Biden “has a bit of a Me Too problem… We never had a talk when he wasn’t stroking my back.” Based on the previous allegations, and Biden’s documented history of sniffing the hair of women and girls, anyone could have thought that a more serious allegation might drop sooner or later. Now it has, and nobody is saying: “Surely not Joe Biden, it seems so out of character.” 

Lucy Flores, who had been a Democratic candidate for lieutenant governor of Nevada, said Biden came behind her, put hands on her, smelled her, and kissed her without her consent. And if that’s what Biden did to a prominent politician in public, is it implausible he would do worse to low-level staffers in private? Powerful men with boundary issues aren’t exactly well-known for stopping at hair-sniffing. They tend to do whatever they feel they can get away with. Lucy Flores, despite being a major state-level Democratic politician, was mocked and ignored, her accusation treated as trivial. 

Tara Reade came forward in April 2019, after she heard people saying things like “well, if what Lucy Flores says is really true, why aren’t any of his former staff members complaining?” At that time, Reade only came forward to confirm what Flores was saying about Biden’s general handsiness. But, after being subjected to online smears, and seeing the media was not taking claims against Biden seriously, she didn’t pursue the matter further or tell her full story. Reade says she approached numerous reporters and prominent people, including Elizabeth Warren (whom she supported at the time), but nobody helped.

But in January, Reade tried again, contacting the Time’s Up Legal Defense Fund, which was set up by the National Women’s Law Center to provide legal aid to MeToo victims. And they shooed her away, not because they disbelieved her but because she was accusing Joe Biden. They said they could not handle a claim against a candidate for office because legally they would risk their nonprofit status, a highly dubious assertion. Finally, Reade found her way to left podcaster Katie Halper, the only one who would listen, who interviewed her at length. 

I think the cynical view will be that while Reade’s allegation is serious, it won’t hurt Biden, because the press won’t cover it and no one will care. I have certainly feared that myself, but I think one thing all Democrats need to be pressed to do is listen to Reade’s actual interview in her own words. Because when you hear her, it becomes very difficult to think it’s possible to disregard her testimony. Many Democrats will not want to hear it, because they now believe the fate of their party is tied to propping up Joe Biden’s dismal campaign. But it is hard for me to accept that no one prominent in the post MeToo-era Democratic Party cares enough, that they’re all so invested in Joe Biden, that it is of no interest to them whether he has been accused of a horrific sexual attack. 

Personally, I have long believed Joe Biden is an incredibly weak candidate against Donald Trump. I think that has been proven even more by his handling of the crisis, which is troubling even to people close to his campaign. Some people disagreed with me, thought I was overstating things. I don’t see how they can disagree now, though. After all, Joe Biden’s entire pitch against Trump was his “character.” He wanted to make the election not about what Democrats could do for people, but about what kind of man Trump is and what kind of man Joe Biden is. As the one supposedly without “malarkey.” Biden, it was theorized, would win.

But with Tara Reade’s powerfully persuasive testimony, it’s going to be very difficult to make even the one argument that Biden had left. Reade is a lifelong Democrat who voted for Hillary in the 2016 primary, but Trump will use his hundreds of millions of dollars to play her interviews far and wide, so that every American knows her name. And of course we do not even know whether more women will come forward to accuse Biden of inappropriate behavior—more, that is, than the eight who already have. Trump, of course, has plenty of assault allegations of his own. But do Democrats really want to be put in the position of having to argue that their guy is the one with “character” because slightly fewer women have accused him of sexually assaulting them? How on earth do any of them plan to handle this? They won’t be able to ignore the claims against Biden, because Trump will talk about them constantly. Democratic spokespeople will either have to try to smear and discredit Biden’s accuser (“Reade once wrote a dumb blog post about Russia, ergo she is a Russian spy” is the current best attempt on this front), or say that it somehow means Biden committing an outright sex crime against a staffer doesn’t matter. I would encourage all Democrats to game out how this scenario would go. Let’s be real: Joe Biden is done, and the only question is whether you still want him to get the nomination before it becomes clear just how completely done he is. We can stop Biden now while there’s time to replace him, or we can watch with horror as the general election becomes about whether or not the Democratic candidate raped a staffer. (Tara does not refer to the incident as rape, but if you listen to her description it can be characterized that way, and I do not think Democrats especially want to have a public discussion over whether nonconsensual digital penetration is better characterized as rape or assault.)

Look, you don’t have to do this. You don’t have to run a guy with a dismal record, who has flopped at the moment he most needed to step up and lead, and who now faces a credible assault allegation and other credible allegations of inappropriate behavior. You could run a popular FDR-style social democrat, who has exactly the message and the agenda that this historic crisis needs. Why let Trump be reelected needlessly? Are Democrats so completely committed to destroying the possibility of the progressive agenda Sanders supports that they’d literally commit party suicide if it meant stopping Bernie from increasing unemployment benefits and improving healthcare financing? This has gotten nuts. While they are in lockdown, everyone needs to have a long think about the primary and reevaluate it carefully. We should admit Bernie is clearly right for the moment, and his supporters need to pick up the fight again.

What Next?

It is strange to talk about an election in a pandemic. What is on people’s minds is the immediate crisis and how it touches their lives. But the pandemic is as bad as it is because of the way the 2016 general election went, and we need to make sure that we do not reelect the man who is killing us.

I am not in a position to tell the Bernie campaign what it should do, but here is how I can imagine this going, if it is to be successful: The states that have not yet voted need to all push their primaries back to June. Heavy pressure should be put on Wisconsin to push back its April 7 primary, because it would be irresponsible not to. (Florida pressed ahead and, predictably, now poll workers are sick.) All states must become vote-by-mail. This protects voters from contracting coronavirus, and also buys time to make the case and turn public perception around.

The Bernie campaign specializes in online organizing, and since everyone is trapped at home, now is a perfect time. Bernie already has the right idea, which is that right now the campaign needs to be far more about helping people get through the horror of the coronavirus crisis than pushing his presidential agenda. However, he also needs to find a way to once again make the case that people need to vote for him. I think using the Bernie contact network as a way of helping connect people and support them during the crisis is critical. I should be getting texts that say: “Hi, I’m X from Bernie Sanders’ campaign. We want to know whether you need anything and if you are okay. If you need someone to talk to, or there is something we are able to help arrange for you, we are here.” I have not gotten such a text yet, but the scripts are apparently trending in this direction. 

This crisis is not just a health crisis and an economic crisis. It is a social crisis. The Bernie campaign will not be able to get people healthcare or pay their bills. But what it can do is help connect them with others at a time when we are isolated and scared. It is not well-enough understood that right now, many people have effectively been trapped in solitary confinement indefinitely. A 95-year-old friend of mine in a retirement home has become incredibly depressed, because he can receive no visits and go nowhere, and just has to sit alone watching horrible depressing news on the television all day. Old people have been cut off from seeing their spouses, and when you don’t have too many years left, every day is precious. Young people, too, unable to see their friends or coworkers in person, are adjusting to lives of terrible loneliness.

For everyone, the question right now, after taking care of yourself, is how you can support others using the resources you have. The Bernie campaign does not have ventilators or paychecks. What it has is a vast communications network for getting people together. If young Bernie supporters were willing to just chat with older people who have been isolated and are desperately on their own, it would not just be a public service but if done in large numbers might begin to fix the candidate’s “older voter” problem. 

In fact, one thing Sanders needs to do is emphasize the particular needs of senior citizens, which he has rarely done, perhaps out of fear that people will notice he is one himself. Coronavirus is a plague that affects the old most of all, and the right is talking about them in horrible eugenicist language, as if they are expendable. I hear plenty of commentators saying “well, we’ll just isolate the elderly indefinitely, as they are highly at risk, and let the young and healthy out.” They do not understand the kind of mass torture they are talking about inflicting on old people, not to mention the fact that “young and healthy” does not protect you from this plague.

Those who are enduring solitary quarantine  are hurting. It is hard to be alone if you don’t want to be. The Bernie campaign can help pair strangers, especially older ones, to support each other and check in. Millions will do this, because we’re trapped at home. They can help people get through this. And yes, in the process, they need to figure out how to get people to vote for Bernie. But most of all, the Bernie campaign needs to let people know that they are there for them. (It can build upon and support the under-publicized mutual aid work that leftist groups like the DSA are already doing.)

There also needs to be a very clear agenda. Yes, Bernie has a coronavirus plan, but much of it is aspirational. We need a short list of feasible demands to rally around and pressure politicians over. They need to be memorable, like “Medicare for All” is memorable, so that everyone can easily recite the plan. I should know it by heart because I hear about it constantly. Sanders supporter and public health expert Abdul El-Sayed has already explained what he would do to combat coronavirus. Condense it, demand it. 

 I do not know how this will go. But no matter what happens politically, even something like connecting older people with social support will do a whole lot of good in addressing the painful isolation we are now enduring in addition to the virus and the economic crash. We need a strategy for reaching people (and ultimately for getting those mail-in ballots turned in). Because the world has changed, and this is once again a race that might be won.

And it must be won, because Donald Trump must be crushed and the planet must be saved. What is happening right now is unconscionable and should strengthen our resolve to get people free healthcare and a social safety net that keeps anyone from having to make the terrible choice of either losing their job or risking death. Bernie supporters may rightly feel terrified, but they should also get a new burst of energy, because now more than ever is the time to fight for those you do not know. We can still win this thing. 

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