North America

Todd Chretien: “What if?” Bernie, Socialism, and Covid-19

The first part of a two part series, “What if?” Bernie, capitalism and Covid-19.Originally published by Rebel News in Ireland. 

Republished here as part of No Borders News ongoing international coronavirus coverage. Todd Chretien is an author, translator, and teacher. He is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America in Maine and the editor of No Borders News. Part 1 is available here

The Covid-19 crisis has dwarfed the a presidential election that was in full swing. The horrors of American capitalism and the sense of social solidarity and fightback that we see seemingly stands in contrast to Sanders’ string of losses to Joe Biden in the Democratic Party primary elections earlier this month, but this can be explained. 

While Sanders’ insistence on Medicare for All (a single-payer system) and his calls to tax the rich, strengthen trade unions, raise wages, and embark on a transformative Green New Deal – all under the banner of democratic socialism – have won enormous sympathy, they have not yet won active majority support in the face of withering (and unified) criticism from the right and the centrists. As noted above, not even the very liberal Elizabeth Warren was willing to endorse Sanders after she withdrew from the race. Thus, so long as the centrists divided support amongst themselves, Sanders managed to win important victories based on his plurality of the votes in Iowa, New Hampshire, and Nevada. Yet once the Democratic leadership culled the herd and united behind Biden, Sanders’ plurality became a minority.

Paradoxically, African American voters – the backbone of Biden’s wins in South Carolina and after – have suffered disproportionately at the hands of the Democratic Party over the last thirty years. And though Obama’s election a signaled a blow against racism, African Americans benefited the least from his neoliberal policies. And if Biden himself inspires little enthusiasm among Black voters, serving as Obama’s vice president still carries weight. However, as Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor argues, Biden’s success amongst Black voters is complex. 

So if before the coronavirus Bernie’s policies had earned the sympathy of majorities, but not yet their active support, what now? Biden’s “expand Obamacare” appears ludicrous as tens of millions of people lose their employer-provided health insurance. And he’s not helping his case by virtually disappearing during the crisis. Pelosi’s “We’re capitalists, that’s just the way it is,” makes even less sense when your boss is telling you to risk infection in order to deliver junk for Amazon without protective gear. And Trump’s “open by Easter” will soon be buried by the crisis. In contrast, Bernie’s proposals now appear as prophecies and there is no doubt that his steadfast gospels of Medicare for All, Green New Deal, and Political Revolution are winning over millions of new disciples. But will it be enough to turn the election?

It is impossible to know what the next two weeks will bring, never mind the next two or four months. On the one hand, there is the real-world problem of how to hold an election during a pandemic. Further, as Biden holds a narrow lead as of now, the Democratic Party leadership will most likely try to shut down, or at least constrain, the remaining primary elections making mounting a comeback all but impossible. Not to mention that the crisis and the bailout will call the Democratic Party elite to stand behind their corporate funders and centrist leadership. In fact, if Biden cannot find a way to present himself as a competent alternative, one can already hear whispers of a campaign to draft New York State Governor Andrew Cuomo to take over (on a river of cash for billionaire Michael Bloomberg) as the party’s candidate. This would be easier said than done and would risk a revolt from Sanders’ army of supporters. 

Fear and solidarity 

Perhaps a bigger obstacle for Sanders is the nature of crisis itself. Millions are enraged, but we are also quarantined, isolated, and soon-to-be unemployed. We cannot mobilize or march, we can’t even knock on doors or go to the voting booths. And worse still, alongside rising anger, there is real (and rational) fear. When faced with disaster, fear on a mass scale often overshadows solidarity. This is not to say that this crisis will not produce a bigger, better-organized, more-rooted, anti-capitalist left. It certainly will. But scale and timing matters when socialist politics moves beyond principles and programs and tries to enter the field of power. And, while we may be proven right, we may not have time to make ourselves strong enough to inspire a working-class upsurge strong enough to push Bernie into the winner’s circle. 

Trotsky once usefully described the dynamics of defeat and confusion under very different circumstances, “The fact that our forecast had proven correct might attract one thousand, five thousand, or even ten thousand new supporters to us. But for the millions, the significant thing was not our forecast, but the fact of the crushing of the Chinese revolution” of 1925-27.

If Trump manages to win re-election in November, he will owe his victory to this dynamic. In fact, Trump’s bet is that he can pour money into the credit system to prevent it from freezing, while claiming just enough credit for the scraps doled out to the population for just long enough to beat the lackluster Biden in the fall. It is not an impossible bet, but there is no guarantee today’s $2 trillion package will stem the tide and things may spin out of control. 

Socialists in Covid-19 America

All we can say for certain is that there is no going back. The next five or ten years will determine whether or not the rage brewing among millions of workers – especially amongst a generation from whom not only their future, but their youth itself, is being robbed – can transform that emotion into action, into organization, and into a political party that puts human need ahead of corporate greed. 

Within that context, the rise of the Democratic Socialists of America looms large. The vast majority of DSA’s 55,000 members joined in the last 3 years and the organization has all the difficulties one might expect with such explosive growth. But it has hundreds of locals and branches and working groups in all 50 states. It is open and democratic and its members have drawn strength from how Sanders and its handful of elected officials – including Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Rashida Tlaib, and Ilhan Omar – have conducted themselves during this crisis. DSA will grow during this crisis, not as an empty vessel into which thousands looking for an alternative will flow, but because thousands of members have thrown themselves into social solidarity in mutual aid campaigns, they are assisting workers taking action on the job, and they do not have it in them to fall instep behind Biden or Cuomo or anyone else. They will keep fighting for Sanders, but as the title of Meagan Day and Micah Uetrich’s new book says, this is “Bigger than Bernie.”

Over the next few weeks and even months, the response to the coronavirus contagion will be dominated on the national scale by the powers that be. Our side will suffer shock after shock and it will be difficult to get our bearings, even as we fight where we can. But as we fight, the socialist and working-class movement must also think and plan and figure out how to unite behind a focused set of demands that allows us to maximize our strength: How do we win Medicare for All rather than temporary subsidies for Covid-19 testing and subsidies for the private insurance companies? How do we win a massive new jobs program under the umbrella of the Green New Deal instead of one-time $1200 checks? How do we include international solidarity in our social solidarity so the Pentagon budget is transferred into no-strings-attached global health investment? 

Socialism will emerge from this crisis as a powerful moral force. Learning how to transform that goodwill in the coming years into concrete victories, large and small, is the difference between life and death. And it is the difference between settling for a socialist movement of dissidents and building a socialist movement with enough social forces behind it to win.