Left to ourselves

Whatever happens, the Bernie Sanders campaign matters because it's part of a movement.

After the Democratic debate last Sunday, former Vice President Joe Biden’s senior adviser Anita Dunn debriefed with reporters. She offered up a smug characterization of her candidate’s opponent, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. “I think it's fair to say that Vice President Biden showed up to a debate tonight,” she said, “and for two hours graciously dealt with the kind of protester who often shows up at campaign events.” This description of Sanders wasn’t just an abstraction. A few days before, Biden had faced down protesters opposing NAFTA and supporting the Green New Deal at a rally in Detroit. “The Bernie bros are here!” he said. Throughout his campaign, Biden has not met protesters with much sympathy, telling one immigration activist, who criticized the Obama administration’s record on deportations, “you should vote for Trump.”

It’s a stark contrast to Sanders, a Capitol Hill politician for nearly three decades, who is at the same time no stranger to picket lines and marches. His project of “political revolution” and commitment to the principle “not me, us” has always sounded more akin to movement politics than to Beltway oratory. It may have earned him the trust of his supporters, but it garnered the contempt of colleagues and commentators. Dunn’s description was reminiscent of one that longtime MSNBC anchor Chris Matthews gave in early February, before sexual harassment revelations led to his resignation from the network. “These are the guys at the card tables at an antiwar rally,” he said. “Some old guy with some old literature from this socialist party or that, trying to sell it, trying to latch onto the antiwar movement. There’s always guys like that.”

Dunn, a former communications director for the Obama White House, sits in a somewhat exceptional stratum of society — she once offered pro bono legal advice to Harvey Weinstein after he was first accused of serial rape and sexual assault. Her disdain for protesters — citizens availing themselves of our most fundamental civil liberties, those of speech and assembly — takes on a clear class character, one she shares with Biden, Matthews, and their cohort in politics and media. It is both antidemocratic and elitist to delegitimize political protest, but it is also in keeping with our political system, in which there are privileges exclusively available to the administrators of society, ranging from legislative to extralegal. The rest of us are granted only one means of political activity: voting.

Our most recent opportunity took place on Tuesday, carried out in violation of the CDC advisory to limit public gatherings during the coronavirus pandemic. Every state scheduled to hold them, except Ohio, carried on; Florida, Arizona, and Illinois proceeded as planned, with predictably low turnouts. Biden won them all.

But an element of doubt has entered Biden’s winning streak, as his campaign increasingly realizes how many American voters — or potential voters — are being left unclaimed by his march to victory. “Let me say especially to the young voters who have been inspired by Senator Sanders, I hear you,” Biden said in his speech that night. “I know what’s at stake. I know what we have to do.” Where he once scorned Bernie bros, he now offers them a plaintive appeal.

This concern suggests that the so-called Bernie Sanders “theory of the electorate” — that defeating President Donald Trump in the general election would require unprecedented turnout from nonvoters, particularly youth — holds some merit among those who now claim it has been proven wrong. The argument against it elides the distinction between primaries and general elections, presuming an equivalence between two amalgamations of voters vastly different in size and content. In actual fact, the theory has not been tested, and most likely will not be, at least not with Sanders as a nominee. As for the Biden theory of the electorate — that of reaching into the middle, occupying the center — it has been tested ad nauseum, most recently in 2000, 2004, and 2016. It was interrupted by the man Biden likes to refer to as his former boss, the only Democrat in living memory to campaign as a progressive, and who activated youth support. He is the best evidence we have of the Sanders theory, and the evidence favors it.

As John Della Volpe, director of polling at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, told Politico, this may strike some fear into the heart of the Biden campaign and the Democratic National Committee, whether or not they will admit it in public. “It’s not a coincidence that the youth vote crossed or met that 60 percent threshold in each of those campaigns that were successful," he said, noting that Barack Obama managed the feat twice, while Hillary Clinton and John Kerry both failed. The New York Times reports that Obama himself “has grown increasingly anxious over the difficulties of incorporating the Sanders wing of the party into the Biden coalition.”

Any person permitted to attain political power must already appear as such a figure, in a tautology that enables the ongoing reproduction of ideological orthodoxy.

So much for “electability.” The underlying cause of Biden’s appeal epitomizes the capture of American politics within the electoral sphere. Any person permitted to attain political power must already appear as such a figure, in a tautology that enables the ongoing reproduction of ideological orthodoxy. It generates the bizarre outcome that while unique policy platforms of the Sanders campaign hold majority support among Democratic primary voters, those same voters doubt his ability to win the elections they themselves are voting in. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy until it isn’t, which is to say, until the party has to face the entire population in a general election. It’s also a mechanism for exclusion, as New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez told the Times. “It wasn’t just ‘Can a woman win?’ but ‘Can a woman win against Trump in Wisconsin, and Michigan, and Pennsylvania,’” she said. It was the notion of electability that became the pretext for the trajectory of the election. As the Times summarizes, “several of Mr. Biden’s former rivals dropped out and endorsed him, consolidating their ideological support, sending a powerful signal to voters across the country and propelling him to victories on Super Tuesday.”

As a former vice president, Biden also carries the benefit of incumbency, a powerful factor in claims to eligibility for office. His resulting confidence was on display at Sunday’s debate, where even when challenged on his record by Sanders, he was entirely comfortable defending it by lying repeatedly. His support from not only the political but also the corporate establishment — the pharmaceutical industry, super PACs, and the like — protects him from any tangible threats to his position. He is opposed only by the truth, and any protesters who raise it. But they can be swiftly ushered out of the arena.

With all of his former opponents — including Hawaii Rep. Tulsi Gabbard as of yesterday — in his corner, Biden and the DNC have effectively vanquished any threats from the left to his dominance in the 2020 presidential race. Among the early frontrunners, only Sen. Elizabeth Warren has declined to endorse him at this date, though she notably also declined to endorse Sanders, her ostensible ally. In retrospect, it’s unsurprising. The technocratic bent of the Warren campaign, for all its talk of “big structural change,” did not carry the quality of a people’s movement. “I have a plan for that” was always a different principle than “not me, us” — it meant trusting in the expertise of an administrator, in hopes that she shared our values; it did not entail the participation of the electorate beyond the vote. This is what has made the Sanders campaign different. “We’ve been building this movement to exist outside of electoral politics,” one young organizer told Politico. “This campaign is one fight for us, but the bigger battles for social change will go on regardless of what happens with Bernie.”

What no one could have foreseen is that those battles for social change would take place in the shadow of “a fucking global crisis.” In February, a CNN chyron asked, “can either coronavirus or Bernie Sanders be stopped?” Now, no less a publication than the Financial Times offers a recognition of how the coronavirus pandemic has vindicated Sanders. “In a time of contagion,” Janan Ganesh writes, “the case for universal healthcare, at times a fog of detail, has also found painful simplicity: unless everyone has care, no one does.” The management of the crisis finds politicians across the spectrum calling for measures that look uncannily like the Sanders platform. The predictability of punditry, the religious faith in an eternal recurrence of known quantities, is off the table. Regardless of anyone’s intentions, the immediate future is bound to become a deviation from the program; the free market will have to be regulated, and a welfare state will have to be implemented, at least temporarily. We will be living in a different society afterwards, one which may force the historic choice between socialism or barbarism.

The state of the world has been thrown so profoundly off its axis that no one should be making predictions. But at this point, one thing seems clear. The chance for an institutional break from politics as usual — a “political revolution” — will not come to pass in November. The dream of enacting a socialist program through electoral processes is not necessarily over — more and more left candidates have appeared at the local level, some, like Ocasio-Cortez, directly affiliated with both Sanders and groups like the Democratic Socialists of America. In the Financial Times, Ganesh goes on to suggest that this year’s Sanders candidacy is comparable to the failed Goldwater campaign of 1964, which foretold the eventual triumph of neoconservatism with Reagan’s election in 1980. The Washington Post has compared Sanders to Reagan himself, who ran for president twice before that eventual victory.

Sanders, at 78, will not be running again. But for the time being, an infrastructure has developed around his campaign that can dedicate itself to organized labor, mutual aid, legal defense, and public protest. Without giving up the hope for systemic change, it can resist the conventional wisdom that the horizon of human freedom disappears into the vanishing point of the ballot box. Many of the young activists awakened by the Sanders campaigns of 2016 and 2020 will be suffering their first defeat. But for anyone even slightly older, that feeling of disappointment is a familiar one. It is an old friend. Being on the left, as many have pointed out, means being used to losing, and fighting anyway.

In some senses, this year is less an unforeseen defeat than a return to normal. The left is, once again, marginal, without institutional standing or political power, just like it always was. What comes next year is anyone’s guess. Perhaps we will return to the circumstances we lived with during the Bush administration, under a seemingly clumsy authoritarian who speaks for a ruthless syndicate of plutocrats. Or perhaps it will be like the Obama administration, with a charismatic centrist promising the reinstatement of decency and dignity while doing little to alter material conditions for the working people of the country. Either way, the left will find itself outside of institutions of governance. We will have to remember, as we have in the past, that we believe what we believe not because we are guaranteed victory, but because we are right.

But there will be one difference. There will be more of us. Many more, who are younger, angrier, more diverse, and better organized than the American left has been in decades. And we will do more than just vote.