Jeremy Gong: After Bernie – Sad but fired up

What Bernie did. A short series. Bernie Sanders has suspended his campaign, but his political influence continues to reverberate. While he has endorsed Joe Biden, Sanders clearly aims to extract policy concessions based on growing support for his signature Medicare for All demand, however unlikely this may be given Biden’s track record. More significantly, Sanders has inspired a generation of socialist organizers who are willing to push beyond the limits of the political revolution he popularized. This week, No Borders News will present voices inspired by Sanders’ campaigns — and the social and class struggles that emerged before, during, and afteras well as debates about where socialists go from here.

What Bernie Did begins with a contribution from Jeremy Gong who is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America in California’s East Bay.

Preface by Jeremy Gong. Below were my immediate reflections, edited slightly for clarity, on the end of Bernie Sanders’s 2020 presidential campaign, which I posted to Facebook on April 8. Since then, Bernie endorsed Joe Biden as he had always promised. While as socialist activists we have much to be grateful for — how far we’ve come, how much more we stand to build on the gains made so far — the moment is nevertheless confusing. Despite the advances, the only major socialist organization in the US, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), is still in relative infancy. The US labor movement, while showing signs of life for the first time in decades, is still historically weak. And without a consolidated, powerful, labor-based opposition to the far-right wing Federal Government, Democrats are unable to present real resistance. Most Americans still see little alternative to the barbaric and profiteering policies of both parties in response to the coronavirus crisis.

Without Bernie’s campaign and Bernie’s independence from the Democrats during the coming general election, various left currents might again become somewhat disorganized. But the sheer number of new shoots of organic, working-class resistance springing up, the breadth and diversity of their presentation, has the potential to make up for this disorganization over the next decade. 

Two recent examples bolster this hope. First, more and more workers are organizing for protection and fair compensation during the coronavirus pandemic, many or most of them outside the context of a formal union or any professional organizational support. 

Second, as Bernie endorsed Biden, DSA published a simple statement on social media that went viral: We are not endorsing Joe Biden. This incensed the mainstream liberal establishment, who immediately began denouncing socialists for delivering a second Trump term — despite years of socialists’ warnings that Biden is a weak candidate who could lose to Trump regardless. What followed was more encouraging: scores of social media accounts representing student groups who campaigned for Bernie, such as Utah State for Bernie and UChicago for Bernie, echoed DSA and wrote, “We are not endorsing Biden.” It is these new student and worker activists that can, if things continue on this course, be the basis of a revitalized, independent leftwing movement in the US for years to come.

Initial thoughts on Bernie dropping out

Very sad but also fired up knowing that the next chapter of our lives is going to be even more important and more challenging than anything I’ve lived through before. Here’s a few initial, sleep-deprived thoughts on Bernie dropping out and some lessons we have learned over the campaign. 

But first: everyone who likes Bernie should join DSA. Because I’m in DSA and I know this movement continues permanently, I am not discouraged but ready and excited to fight for more.

1. Bernie’s two presidential campaigns transformed politics in this country. I think the right word people are using is “catalyzed.” Bernie did not create the conditions that people are angry about, nor did he single-handedly create the movements of people responding to those conditions. But Bernie’s campaigns catalyzed a much larger, more unified, clearer, and more effective reaction than otherwise would have happened, in the same way that a small amount of one chemical added to a mixture catalyzes a violent reaction involving two other chemicals that were sitting alongside each other peacefully up until that point. 

2. Assuming his whole campaign infrastructure disappears by tomorrow morning (which I hope it won’t), we’re still left with enormous advances over pre-2020 or pre-2016 left and working class organization and consciousness. Exactly what that residue looks like and what potential lies therein for future struggles should be the study of socialist writers in the coming weeks. But a couple things are clear. Directly or indirectly, in small or large ways, Bernie’s campaigns helped inspire strikes starting in 2018 that brought us from the lowest recorded number of workers participating in large strikes in 2017 (25,000 workers) to the highest number in almost 40 years (485,000 in 2018 and 425,000 in 2019). While there was incredible energy among young activists, sometimes in large numbers, in Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter, and environmental protests, the number of young people participating directly in marches, school strikes, and more skyrocketed starting in 2017. These young activists not only now know how to organize and take action into their own hands, but their peers support Bernie and his agenda — sometimes at a rate of 70 percent or more — and will become the core of our political culture for decades to come. Now not only do a majority of Americans support Medicare for All and $15 minimum wage, but millions of ordinary working people have direct or observed experience with strikes and direct action. I think we can be optimistic that out of these struggles and Bernie’s two campaigns, not to mention the horrifically clear barbarism of the coronavirus crisis in the US, a new sense of class consciousness is growing among a large section of the US working class.

3. Bernie lost because his campaign and the movements supporting his demands are simply not big enough yet. No amount of perfecting messaging, tactics, or being nice or mean to Elizabeth Warren could have compensated for the fact that our opponents — the billionaires and corporations, the politicians and parties and media outlets they own, and the many organizations and institutions that are loyal to them — are massive and extremely well resourced, and our institutions and organizations and candidates are relatively few, tiny, disorganized, and poor. 

I canvassed and phonebanked hundreds of people for Bernie over the last year and the biggest challenge in my experience was not that people are constitutionally or ideologically against Bernie and/or his ideas, but that they know very little about them and most of what most people know comes from the corporate-owned mainstream media or anti-Bernie ads. Many conversations went like this: 

Me: What are the issues that you care about most in this election?

Them: Healthcare and student debt.

Me: Do you know about Bernie Sanders and his plans for Medicare for All and student debt cancellation? 

Them: A little bit. Isn’t he the one that wants to take away our health insurance with his overly expensive plan?

And then I would explain what Medicare for All actually means, and that Bernie wants to cancel all student debt, and I don’t remember a single person after such a conversation who didn’t then support Medicare for All and were either going to vote for Bernie or strongly considering it. The problem is that there are millions of voters, and only so many people volunteering to call voters. If we had 5 million phone bankers and canvassers every day for twelve months, we could probably talk to every single voter and then, even if we didn’t win every election, every voter would at least know what Medicare for All is and what Bernie actually stands for before they vote against him.

4. A related problem: turnout. A shocking and little discussed fact in US politics is that less than 30 percent of eligible adults take part in the primary election process, about half for Democratic primaries and half for Republican. Coronavirus will probably completely decimate the turnout numbers. But for the states that voted March 10 or earlier, the turnout is, as usual, depressingly low — about 25 percent for both Republican and Democratic primaries — with some with analysis on changes since 2008-2016 here.

We can do more analysis of who voted in higher or lower rates and where, but obviously the turnout patterns for general elections hold in primaries, except that they are even more exaggerated. Rich people vote in relatively large numbers, poor people, young people, people of color, immigrants — i.e. the groups of Democratic voters who supported Bernie Sanders the most — vote far lower than the average percentage for population as a whole. I made a map of turnout as a percentage of registered voters by precinct (which is a much higher percentage than all eligible voters, which I don’t know how to get by precinct) in the 2016 primary in the East Bay (home to Oakland, Berkeley, Richmond and other towns and cities just east of San Francisco), here:

2016 Primary Election Results, turnout by precinct. Map by Jeremy Gong.

You can see the pattern clearly if you know the Bay Area: In Oakland and Piedmont, the rich and white hills voted in large numbers (in the center of the map), the flatlands (the red swath running from middle top left to the lower right hand corner) voted at significantly lower rates. The further out into the diverse working-class exurbs of Southern Alameda County (San Leandro, Hayward — further down towards the right corner), the lower the turnout. 

In sum, the people who have a disproportionate, and potentially decisive, share of the vote in the Democratic primaries are rich, white, and/or older. In combination with the problem of lack of information discussed above, wherein many non-rich/white/old people are convinced to vote against Bernie on the basis of false narratives from media or Democratic establishment, it is no surprise that Bernie lost, in fact, it is shocking that he did so well. 

Why turnout among working-class people is so low, and how we can change that, are therefore central problems for any left strategy that is concerned with running viable candidates.

5. One condition that makes working-class organizing difficult is that the working class is very disorganized, fragmented, and isolated. Most people are not in unions, and fewer people participate in religious communities or other affinity groups or large networks than ever before. This means that when we are winning people over to our cause, it mostly has to be by ones and twos, instead of winning over whole constituencies (unions, churches, or neighborhood associations) at once. And in practice, this means that the majority of the hundred-plus million US workers and their families remain mostly atomized and disengaged from any politics, let alone from our particular political movement. The Bernie campaign confronted the disorganization of the working class as a preexisting condition, and did its best to overcome it to get as many votes as possible, including by helping ordinary people self-organize through the exciting distributed organizing and constituency-based (students, union members, muslims for Bernie, etc.) organizing programs. However, if we are going to win anything close to a majority of workers in this country to our cause in the future, we have to hope that one way or another the working class becomes much more organized again, either in putatively apolitical networks like religious communities or in unions or membership-based political organizations/parties. 

6. Related to this: Bernie’s two campaigns would have been nowhere near as substantial without the power of social media. It’s the one way to break through the atomization and reach millions of people relatively cheaply on a daily basis (versus having to deliver physical literature to the same number of people) without relying on the mainstream media. It also relied effectively on the power of self-activating social networks on social media and sites like reddit. The role that social media played in Bernie 2016 and 2020 deserves a lot more study for the strategies and tactics of the left.

7. Bernie was effectively independent from the Democratic Party establishment, and our movements must retain this independence going forward. Some socialists criticized Bernie (or even abstained from supporting his campaign) for the principled but, I’d argue, mistaken reason that he was running in the Democratic Party primary as opposed to (as Ralph Nader had done in 2000 and 2004) as an independent or Green candidate. I think, however, that Bernie’s independent fundraising, and his complete intransigence on any and all issues and policies, his independent media, campaign data collection, organizing infrastructures, and his brand as an independent democratic socialist (not simply as a Democrat) meant that he has been able to achieve a large degree of independence from much of the Democratic establishment and their corporate backers. This is what allows him to resist the pull of the center that I believe smothered Warren and tanked her campaign. And it has politicized, and even radicalized, hundreds of thousands or millions of Bernie’s supporters on the basis of his ambitious demands as opposed to “pragmatic” (but self-defeating) compromise. Sanders promoted the identity of “working-class” as opposed to Democrat, and his campaign’s participatory and bottom-up strategy of “Not me, us” — as opposed to expert-driven and top-down, managerial style of Warren, not to mention most other Democrats — set him apart from all other candidates. These ideas and the actual relationships, organizations, and skills that have been built out of the campaign are achievements of Bernie’s independence in his two presidential campaigns, not to mention his decades in Congress. 

And he achieved all of this while many unions and other “progressive” organizations have practiced a more or less sycophantic strategy of “transactional” or “pragmatic” subservience to the Democratic Party establishment and the billionaires they serve. What this means is that you have unions donating millions of dollars and pledging millions of votes to Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden (and generations of their predecessors before them), while corporations and billionaires donate billions of dollars over the same period to secure a majority share, so to speak, in the Democratic Party. It is no surprise that the “transaction” is actually only one way — from union members’ pockets to Democrats’ campaigns, with nothing substantial in return — and anything but pragmatic judged by the political benefits that accrue to the rank and file of these unions and progressive organizations. It also is, therefore, no surprise that overall U.S. union density, the percentage of union members voting for Democrats (as opposed to GOP), and the percentage of union members voting at all declined sharply over the last fifty years. These are the fruits of dependence on the Democratic Party establishment, and why Marxists advocate for a strategy of political independence, based on the analysis that bosses and workers have opposed and mutually exclusive interests and the interests of workers can only be advanced by workers themselves.

6. That said, Bernie’s campaign was not independent enough. I want to think more about this aspect, and see what others say about it, but comrades have been right to point out how absurd it is for Bernie to both be running against the billionaire-bought political establishment, and then say things like “Joe Biden is a very good man and my dear friend” at every debate. Joe Biden represents all the horrible things the Democratic Party has done over 40 plus years, including: racist anti-busing position, promoting racist mass incarceration, attacking the credibility of Anita Hill when she accused Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas of sexually harassing her, loudly backing the Iraq War, selling out our healthcare to the insurance industry (as was done to secure the Affordable Care Act, otherwise known as Obamacare), and helping the financial industry screw over indebted homeowners and students.

7. More substantially, Bernie should not have abandoned his lifelong commitment to an independent workers party. In order for Bernie to reach millions of people the way he did, it was a brilliant move to run in the Democratic Party primary for structural or procedural reasons. The political and media establishment have to put him on stage with the mainstream candidates, cover him like a contender (although they did so as little as possible), and contend with his ideas and his movement. A Green party candidate is essentially a sideshow that most people ignore, a Democratic Party primary frontrunner cannot be ignored and, in 2016 and 2020, Bernie used this to great effect.

That said, there’s no reason he couldn’t have taken advantage of the openness of the primary structure while also rhetorically explaining why the working class ultimately will need its own party, even if that “ultimately” isn’t until after eight years of a Sanders presidency. 

Now the worst thing I fear is that Bernie will recommit to supporting Biden against Trump, as he has promised to do and did with Clinton in 2016, while not offering any substantial near-term or long-term alternative to the Democratic Party. This is especially discouraging since Bernie will certainly not be able to run for president again, and no other serious left-wing candidate with his decades-long record and extraordinary political talents will be able to run for president again for at least a decade.

8. Bernie said today (April 8)  that he dropped out because he has no path to winning the nomination by accumulating a majority of delegates, and because a losing campaign distracts from coronavirus response. I think this is a poor explanation. His campaign apparatus, even as it has become clear he can’t win, has already become the best tool we have to fight both Trumpism and neoliberalism, and therefore the best tool we have to organize for a worker-centered Covid-19 bailout. Why? First, this is true because of the enormous amount of ideological and organizational groundwork Bernie’s campaign and the movements who support him have laid for Medicare for All and opposition to austerity and privatization. Second, Bernie has continued to use his platform to agitate for demands around coronavirus while actively fighting for legislation and amendments in Congress like the unemployment benefits he won through a hard fight on the floor of the Senate. It’s unlikely he would have had such success had he not also had such a large movement and well-funded independent political organization (his presidential campaign) backing him. 

And third, speaking of his campaign organization, it’s the only nationwide working-class political organization, funded with millions of dollars by millions of worker-donors, with hundreds of staff and at least tens of thousands of activists, completely independent of the Democratic Party establishment and their hangers-on. Besides Bernie’s 2020 campaign, there is no other organization that can cohere these activists, leftwing unions, prominent leftwing leaders like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Nina Turner, activist organizations like Sunrise Movement, and a long list of celebrity backers like Cardi B and Rob Delaney. And Bernie has been using this massive infrastructure to directly support workplace organizing during the COVID crisis (e.g. demanding workers at Amazon get higher pay) and other movement activism. This organization is the closest thing that the working class has had to its own national mass party in at least several generations. If the disappointing Our Revolution is any hint of what to expect in terms of organization after his campaign organization is dismantled, we will be left without this incredible organization. And by keeping his campaign going, he can still force the political establishment to reckon with his ideas, since he would have yet to have endorsed Biden — and thus given away all his bargaining chips as a left-wing leader. Of course, this leverage has been reduced since the onset of social distancing and a new “Bernie blackout” has started in the media, but it’s still far more than what I fear he will have once he withdraws. Without Bernie’s campaign continuing on as it has, our side will be even weaker as we fight against trillions in bailouts to corporations while thousands of poor people die every day and millions are put out of work.

9. To continue organizing and fighting at the scale and depth necessary, we need Bernie to convert his now-suspended campaign into a permanent national political organization. Socialists, Bernie supporters, leftwing unions, and other organizations and prominent figures that supported Bernie should be calling on Bernie to do this ASAP, before he gives away all his bargaining chips and dismantles this incredible, historic infrastructure for good.

If Bernie himself won’t do this, then the organizations and leaders that comprise the broader movement, including DSA, should come together and quickly begin discussions on how to — to the best of our combined ability — recreate important parts of Bernie’s campaign, including the networks of union members and college students, the incredible media apparatus (Hear the Bern, the video and social media team), and fundraising operations.

3 replies »