We Asked about the Bernie Sanders 2020 Campaign: Florin Poenaru

More gutting than Bernie Sander’s ultimate defeat in the Democratic primaries is the paradoxical context in which it happened. He exited the stage just as the policies he so much advocated in the past two electoral cycles, if not his entire career, were badly needed to fight the rampant consequences of the new corona virus. His moment thus came either too early, or definitely too late, to ensure him a solid electoral base in order to achieve the political power needed to implement those policies that could save the lives of millions of Americans.

I am definitely in no position to judge Sander’s campaign and clarify the reasons of its defeat. As many have by now noticed, Sanders lost the electoral battle (again) but won the war of ideas. This is admirable and not a small achievement to be sure. But then again one should nonetheless ask why was that the case? What was the reason that ideas that galvanized millions of people and introduced a new language and mode of doing politics ultimately failed to translate into actual votes? Why the social movement behind Bernie failed so quickly and irremediably, after an initial hopeful start, to translate into electoral politics? More competent analysts will surely elucidate these aspects. Some have already, either by pointing to the machinations of the Democratic elite that coordinated against Sanders, or by underlining Sander’s own failures to attract new voters and expand his base or to attack his direct rival Joe Biden more forcefully.

This, I believe, is the dual legacy of Bernie Sanders, not only of the man himself but of the political movement organized around him and around the principles and policies he stood for. How can a movement be at the same time so successful but at the same time fail so dramatically, not just once, but twice? Leftists everywhere must confront this conundrum head on in the near future.

There can be no doubt that Sander’s political insurrection at the heart of the American establishment has been the most consequential movement of the last decade, if not more. It altered the political landscape, it gave voice and hopes to a different generation, and it promised dignity and a better life to people long forgotten by mainstream politicians and parties. It was a movement that squarely focused on livelihood and social reproduction and the difficulties millions of people face daily in order to ensure just that. Hell, it made at least the name of socialism great again. In short, it was the most articulate political response to the causes and consequence of the 2008 crash. The movement was in fact a post-neoliberal leftist insurrection against the elites that managed to avoid the traps of fascistic populism a la Trump, but also to move beyond the simplistic opposition of the Occupy movement and the 99%. Its ultimate goal was to create a new body politic beyond and despite the divisions the last 40 years of neoliberalism put in place and naturalized. Fundamentally, the movement brought to the fore a practice long forgotten among leftist circles: namely, the power of local grass root organizing, with a clear political purpose in mind.

All these merits notwithstanding, and others I did not bring up here, I always thought that Bernie’s campaign was fighting a rearguard battle, no matter how difficult such a battle is or how important. It was a reaction to neoliberalism and to its most devastating consequences, especially after the crisis it caused. It was a reaction to the avatars of Clintonism and its long history of faux centrism, betrayal of the working classes and intimate collusion with the forces of capital. It was a reaction to years of social and economic devastation. But no matter how tremendously important and politically necessary these reactions are, they cannot constitute the foundation for a different future – the stuff really compelling electoral movements are made of. Sanders diagnosed with surgical precision all the ills of the American society, past and present, and made crystal clear the dire situation we are all in. However, he was much less convincing when presenting his way out, his solution for the future.

Even though I hate it, I must make this point. After all, campaigns are made by and around people, and people are not just political figures and icons of a generation. They are human beings and as human beings they have bodies and much is dependent on that. Let’s remember that there was a moment when we all thought that Bernie was out for good because of his health following his heart attack. Fortunately he wasn’t and his speedy recovery gave the campaign further impetus. But this is not insignificant and against accusations of peddling ageism as a form of argument we must be frank about the fact that Sanders is as much the last affirmation of an old left as the occasion for a nascent one. This other paradox significantly overshadowed his campaign as well.

Finally, here is a personal reaction from somebody who lives a hemisphere away from the US and its politics. Sander’s campaign was consequential not only for the US but for many millions if not billions of people around the world. Precisely because he brought hope to and a new language that centers on the working people and the underprivileged his message was de facto global. Unfortunately he was little, if at all aware of that. His speeches remained very narrowly focused on the US and sometimes with very disappointing nationalistic and workerist undertones – a throwback to a bygone era, instead of an opening towards contemporary relations. This was another unresolved paradox of his campaign and of the movement. 

The global left will have a lot to learn from Sander’s campaign and its legacy will be enduring. The new viral context opens up completely unknown challenges and opportunities and the movement created around Sanders will be in the best position to lead the way.    

Florin Poenaru is an anthropologist and co-editor of CriticAtac. He works on issues of class and post-communism.