Todd Chretien is an author, translator, and teacher and a member of the Democratic Socialists of America in Maine.
Bernie Sanders announced that he was suspending his campaign* Wednesday afternoon. He ended by asking, “Please stay in this fight with me. Let us go forward together. The struggle continues.” Millions of his supporters are disappointed, but as we pass through these dark days in quarantine, I can only feel gratitude for the role Bernie has played in American politics over the last five years. And not a moment too soon. No one expected the pandemic, but the rise of a new generation of socialists means we were not entirely unprepared.
Tens of thousands of our friends and neighbors will suffer and die from Covid-19 in the United States. Perhaps a million people will die across the world. And the most effective method to fight the plague is social isolation making it the ideal neoliberal pathogen. Working-class solidarity is based on overcoming division in action, by linking arms. The coronavirus targets the heart and soul of the socialist movement and, by all right, the powers that be ought to have been able to blame the “Chinese virus,” as Trump constantly shouts, on immigrants, on foreigners. After all, if Trump has Made America Great Again, there must be some other reason America’s people are among the least-prepared to face the danger.
Anti-Asian racist assaults have skyrocketed. The Stop AAPI Hate website recorded over 1,100 assaults on Asian Americans in just the last two weeks, and the numbers are escalating. Trump is stoking this ugliness to divert attention from his disastrous and deadly duck and cover routine in the White House. Make no mistake, socialists must speak out loud and clear against anti-Asian racism which history teaches us will grow as the pandemic takes more lives. Thankfully, racism has not monopolized the national mood.
Millions of neighbors, families, and friends and church, community, sports, and arts groups have formed small bonds of solidarity to help one another, and the working-class tradition of mutual aid has thrived.
An army of drivers, grocery store, warehouse, and farm workers has kept us fed at great personal risk to themselves. Teachers, ed techs, librarians, secretaries, maintenance crews and custodians, and counselors and administrators have worked to keep their kids safe and maintain a sense of classroom community online. And food service workers are diligently feeding millions of kids during the school closures. All this, even as New York City school workers mourn the Covid-19 deaths of at least 25 of their own.
Meanwhile, health care workers have literally thrown their bodies on the grenade, fighting the contagion’s spread block by block through our cities and towns. Worked to the bone, they are deprived by systematic neoliberal cutbacks of basic Personal Protective Equipment for themselves and medicines and ventilators for their patients. “We’re on a suicide mission,” Bronx nurse Sean Petty told the New York Daily News.
Meanwhile, big corporations continue squeezing profits out their workforce, often with criminal disregard for safety. But workers have refused to obey dangerous orders, launching an enormous wild cat strike wave from fast food to Amazonto Whole Foodsto Instacart. Hundreds of other workplaces have written petitions, made shop-floor demands, and rallied to defend protective gear, safe work rules, and hazard pay. The Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and the United Electrical Workers (UE) have formed a partnership to support and help coordinate these actions.
It would be naïve to expect an uninterrupted growth of working-class militancy and socialist organization in the coming months. After all, Vice President Joe Biden looks set to face off against Trump, and as Biden stumbles along (and a new sexual assault allegation), it is painfully clear that his victory is not a guarantee. Trump must realize he can beat Biden if he dials up just enough fear and scapegoating and this will make him all the more dangerous. The bi-partisan bailout rammed through Congress by Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi and Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell gave away trillions to big corporations. Trump knew it and he was grinning from ear to ear, handing out pens to bankers, after he signed it. The $2 trillion bailout sent a signal that the 1 percent can still look to Trump to get paid. Despite Bernie’s successful fight to significantly raise unemployment benefits, the package will do little to ease the pain of unemployment and impoverishment, eviction and debt which tens of millions will feel in the coming months.
Fifteen or twenty million people, perhaps 20 percent of all workers, lost their jobs in the last three weeks. As the shock of the coronavirus continues to pulse through the nation, a new wave of terror will spread as people realize the New Depression will last much longer than the quarantine. Children will feel hunger. Parents will feel powerless. And unemployment and hopelessness may kill more than Covid-19 in the coming year. That is a recipe for Trump’s particular brand of far-right populist politics… or something worse.
Yet, even if we don’t get a socialist in the White House this time around, Bernie’s five-year campaign has pushed Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and democratic socialism into the heart of American politics. Had Bernie not stepped up to the plate in 2016, millions of ordinary people would still be doing their best to help one another survive the pandemic today. However, Bernie played a particular role in injecting socialist language and principles into today’s outpouring of solidarity and strikes. And there can be no doubt that his alliance with the National Nurses Union catapulted Medicare for All to majority support in the midst of this crisis. Bernie demonstrated that relentlessly attacking “the millionaires and billionaires” was extremely popular, allowing all of us to hear one another’s voices on an unprecedented scale. Bernie helped inspire the 2018-2019 teachers strike wave and used his megaphone to cheer on West Virginia educators who touched off the Red State Rebellion. He may have lost the campaign, but he helped win over the bulk of a whole generation to socialism.
Returning to his “Not me, Us” slogan, Bernie described what we have accomplished,
We have transformed American consciousness as to what kind of country we can become, and have taken this country a major step forward in the never-ending struggle for economic justice, social justice, racial justice and environmental justice.
If we don’t believe that we are entitled to health care as a human right, we will never achieve universal health care.
If we don’t believe that we are entitled to decent wages and working conditions, millions of us will continue to live in poverty.
If we don’t believe that we are entitled to all of the education we require to fulfill our dreams, many of us will leave school saddled with huge debt, or never get the education we need.
If we don’t believe that we are entitled to live in a world that has a clean environment and is not ravaged by climate change, we will continue to see more drought, floods, rising sea levels and an increasingly uninhabitable planet.
If we don’t believe that we are entitled to live in a world of justice, democracy and fairness – without racism, sexism, homophobia, xenophobia or religious bigotry – we will continue to have massive income and wealth inequality, prejudice and hatred, mass incarceration, terrified immigrants and hundreds of thousands of Americans sleeping out on the streets of the richest country on earth.
Bernie couldn’t lead us into the promise land, as his socialist hero Eugene V. Debs once prophesized, we’ll have to get there ourselves. But at least now we know where we’re going. And there are millions of us working together to get there.
In their new book Bigger Than Bernie, Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht sum up what has been won over the last five years. They figured it out long before I did, but I heartily endorse their conclusion, words to live by as we face too much death.
“Win or lose, what Bernie Sanders has accomplished in the last five years can’t be overstated. He has invited hundreds of thousands, perhaps eventually millions of people to join in the fight for a humane and free world, and come to know through their own actions the meaning of solidarity… There has not been a better time to be a socialist in the United States in the last century. There hasn’t been a more urgent time to join the socialist movement, either. So join us.”
*And just in case you missed it, Bernie made it clear that he will keep his campaign’s lights on and continue winning delegates in upcoming primaries just in case history throws a curve ball at the Democratic National Convention whenever, wherever, and however it takes place.