Socialist Alternative

Bernie Sanders Betrayed A Generation

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A few years ago, the United States was a country with staggering wealth inequality, everyday exploitation, and a corrupt political system rigged by the billionaire class. Thankfully, since Joe Biden took office, all of that’s been sorted out. 

That’s what you might think if you got your understanding of US society solely from watching Bernie Sanders’ political career. 

How did Sanders go from insurgent fighter against the establishment to serving as, in the words of Cornel West, “window dressing, at worst” for the Democrats? And what, if anything, are we to make of the vacuum of leadership left behind?

How A Vermont Curmudgeon Became The Dark Horse Stalking The DNC

That tens of thousands were showing up en masse to listen to a 70-year-old democratic socialist spout about a political revolution against the millionaires and billionaires caught much of the establishment by surprise back in 2015, and certainly Sanders himself. But it shouldn’t have.

Millennials’ upbringing had been defined by the US invasion of Iraq and by the Great Recession which, for many of us, spelled an end to aspirations of the economic stability enjoyed by much of our parents’ generation. It was like the door was slammed in our face behind them.

What was left to look forward to? Renting with roommates, paying off mountains of student debt with precarious, low-wage, or gig work, all while avoiding the doctor’s office. Obama’s promise of “hope and change” from the Bush years had started two new wars and bailed out the rich while failing to deliver any of his progressive promises, even with a Democratic majority in both houses of Congress. Between Occupy Wall Street in 2011 sparking a revolt against the 1% and the 2013 surprise election of Kshama Sawant to the Seattle City Council as an open Marxist, a political shake-up was coming no matter what.

Crucially, Bernie was a political outsider, as the longest-serving independent in the Senate, although still – mistakenly – caucusing with the Democrats and running in the party’s primary. Nevertheless, seeing Sanders face off against Hillary Clinton on the primary debate stage had an irreversible impact: someone was finally using a national platform to speak the truth about what ordinary people had been putting up with this whole time.

His challenge to Clinton showed just how forcefully the Democratic establishment was willing to openly condemn ideas as obvious as the notion that the richest nation in the history of the world should be able to afford healthcare, paid family leave, and education for its citizens. Sanders called out Democrats’ support for offshoring deals like NAFTA and TPP that devastated working-class communities across the country, their horrific record of waging endless imperialist wars (“I am proud to say Henry Kissinger is not my friend.”), and their reliance on mountains of campaign cash from millionaires and corporate SuperPACs. By contrast, Sanders proudly touted his campaign’s average donation of $27. 

We couldn’t unsee the enthusiasm aroused by demands like Medicare for All and free public college, nor could we unsee the rotten core of the Democratic Party that Sanders’ campaign shone a light on: the party stood firmly on the side of big business and would gladly use every nasty trick in the book, from disingenuous allegations of sexism to rigging with “superdelegates” to stamp out Bernie’s movement. 

Still, even in a general election that Clinton had hand-picked by boosting Trump, anger at the status quo was bound to win out. In November 2016, it was “drain the swamp” Trump who took the reins. 

Second Wind

Four years of Trump showed us firsthand what the Democrats’ strategy of lesser-evilism buys in this economy. 

But Bernie’s second shot, this time at the 2020 election, was shaping up to be different. The aftermath of his 2016 campaign and the continued popularity of demands like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal had awoken a new layer of activists, expressed in the growth of DSA and election of the “Squad” members like AOC to the US House of Representatives. For the first time in decades, we could say there was something of a socialist movement in this country. The slogan “Billionaires should not exist” was Sanders’ most radical yet, and its impact was electric.

There’s no better way to describe the energy of Bernie’s 2020 campaign than magic. One million people signed up to volunteer: they packed buses to New Hampshire and Iowa to knock doors in the snow. This campaign was the broadest national-level example in recent history of how truly invigorating class politics can be; we were not just volunteering for our favorite career politician  for fun, but sacrificing our hard-earned money and our weekends off from work in the spirit of the slogan to “fight for someone you don’t know.” At certain points, even the most cynical among us started to think that maybe he – maybe we  – could win this thing. 

There was a big problem: just as 2016 and the ensuing years had shown the latent potential among working people to unite and mobilize behind Bernie’s pro-working class program, it had also shown the complete intolerance for these same politics within the Democratic Party. Another difference between 2016 and 2020 was that Trump was now in the White House, and in a self-serving way based on right-populism, Trump was also at war with the political establishment, the “deep state,” “fake news,” and other political norms. His term had caused such chaos that the Democratic establishment’s promise of a “return to normal” had real appeal. This was especially true once the pandemic began in the US in earnest. 

Going into 2020 it was clearer than ever that winning any part of Bernie’s program would require a mass movement – there would be no bringing the for-profit healthcare industry or the fossil fuel companies to heel without a fight. This is something Sanders’ campaign seemed to recognize, printing posters and buttons reading “Not Me, Us” and vowing to be the country’s first-ever “organizer-in-chief.” 

Deputy campaign manager Ari Rabin-Havt, in his memoir of the 2020 race The Fighting Soul: On The Road With Bernie Sanders, wrote of Sanders, “He is a rabble-rouser and a street protester, but also someone who respects authority and rarely bucks party leadership.” This fence-sitting was his greatest sin. Building a new political party and mass organizations, the most important step in materializing a movement to win Medicare for All whether under his presidency or not, was the very step he was most hesitant to take. It meant that when faced with sabotage, from the Democrats’ no-holds barred “Anyone But Bernie” flood of boring contenders for the nomination, to using the COVID-19 pandemic to carry out historic voter suppression, he would back down at the very moment the movement most needed his leadership. 

In a pandemic devastating hospitals, with lockdowns financially ruining families, poorly-paid essential workers drafted to the frontlines of the chaos, and everything fundamentally wrong with the system on full display, Sanders’ program was more needed than ever. If Bernie had shown the nerve, he very well could have dramatically affected the situation advancing the struggle for Medicare for All, PPE for workers, paid sick leave, hazard pay, and so much more.

Instead, he caved. Sanders’ donor base of teachers, nurses, and low-wage workers were left to face hell on their own. Young people who had been caught up in the magic of his campaign were going to have the course of their lives changed by the pandemic, without a rudder. 

In dropping out of the race, Sanders promised, despite having surrendered his only leverage, to push Biden left – these were famous last words.

What has this amounted to in practice? Well, every few months, his office issues a press release beginning, “Dear Mr. President”: please don’t gut rail workers’ fight for paid sick leave. Please try to lower the price of life-saving prescription drugs. Would you mind using presidential powers to bypass Republicans on the debt ceiling and avoid a disastrous default? 

No worries if not! He’ll still “do everything I can to see the president is re-elected,” using DNC-approved talking points about Trump’s threat to democracy and a woman’s right to choose – in the alternate version of history where the overturn of Roe didn’t already happen on Democrats’ watch. By the time Sanders came out to attack Cornel West’s independent presidential campaign, Bernie’s transition from threat to loyal opposition to just plain loyal was complete.

“If there is going to be class warfare in this country, it’s time the working class won that war.” 

Bernie may have made his peace, but for the rest of us, the war waged by the billionaire class has only intensified. In the vacuum left by Bernie, the rich have only gotten richer, the working class continues to carry the burdens of capitalist crisis, and US politics have been defined by divisive scapegoating culture wars and conspiracy theories that bring out the worst instincts of ordinary people. 

That doesn’t mean there’s no path forward for united struggle. It is no coincidence that the loss of Bernie as a figurehead was followed by a wave of union organizing, with workers taking matters into their own hands and bringing the fight directly to the bosses for better wages, benefits, and working conditions. For his part, Sanders continues to use his platform to support workplace organizing. But without expression in the political sphere, the aspirations of a reinvigorated labor movement can’t fully be realized, and we won’t have any defense against the disaster of the growth of the right. 

Movements, not individuals, make history. But there are moments when individuals are thrust into a position of leadership, and they will inevitably face tests that have much broader consequences for those movements. We should not mince words that Bernie’s concession to Joe Biden and the Democratic establishment was a criminal abandonment. He bears outsized responsibility for the absence of a left alternative in US politics today.

Bernie Sanders will be remembered for having introduced socialism to millions of workers and young people while offering a glimpse of what a working-class political alternative could look like, and then ripping it away, turning down a historic opportunity to launch a working-class party, leaving us on our own with no real vehicle to continue the political revolution.

Whether that can change depends on whether we can organize based on the lessons of the Bernie phenomenon: that a working-class program can galvanize huge numbers, that every failure of the left is a gift to the right, and that, as Sanders and the Squad have shown, the rat hole of the Democratic Party smears its filth on everyone who tries to clean it from the inside. We need a new party to pull together the millions who supported Sanders’ campaigns; the workers organizing in auto plants, Starbucks stores, and Amazon Air Hubs; communities of color, immigrants, and the LGBTQ community; youth, parents, and teachers; and the broadest possible banner of the multiracial working class to make our own collective mark on history. 

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