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Jacobin - June 9, 2020

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 totheseissues 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 considerableelectoralfailures 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. ...
Read full commentary at Jacobin