In the days following the end of Bernie’s initial 2016 campaign, I remember many of us put a lot of hope in Bernie’s plans for building a lasting organization beyond a national electoral campaign. The leftover funds and some of that grassroots energy were eventually directed into Our Revolution, an effort to elect progressive candidates and pursue issues Bernie brought to the forefront of Democratic party politics. Unfortunately, the results of this effort were negligible and underwhelming at best.
Despite the electoral loss in 2016, Bernie’s first campaign was victorious in two very specific and profound ways: pushing the debate on what is possible politically, electorally in this country and as a consequence opening the field for a slew of progressive down ballot candidates (despite the failures of Our Revolution in that endeavor). But these were victories in the field at large, not specific organizational advances within Bernie’s circle. This was one of the reasons for my initial skepticism about Bernie’s plans to run. From the sidelines where I was at the time and in light of his (and our) organizational weakness, it seemed that running another campaign on the same 2016 platform would be a waste of time and effort.
I am glad these initial impressions I had were a testament to my own defeatism rather than to the objective state of the field or the power of Bernie’s organization to galvanize a wide and deep support for his platform.
Key pieces of the puzzle fell into place for me mid-way through the campaign. The first of these indicated the evolution of Bernie’s platform in response to the changing situation on the ground and the second was indicative of the kind of role Bernie envisioned for his presidency in the struggles that lay ahead.
“If there is going to be class warfare in this country, it’s about time the working class won that war.”
Fairly early on in this primary cycle, it became clear that Bernie’s 2016 platform fundamentally transformed the political discourse and the parameters within which the present Democratic Party hopefuls were forced to jockey for position. In short, the 2020 primary became a referendum on Bernie’s 2016 positions on healthcare, public education, student debt, unionization, immigration reform, criminal justice reform, and climate crisis.
But Bernie’s response to this obvious success of the 2016 campaign was not to sit back and bask in what was surely a well-deserved I-told-you-so (though one of the most gratifying moments in those insufferable debates was surely the exasperated Bernie sniping back “I wrote the damn bill!”). Rather, he doubled down on every single position in the platform.
In every single plank relative to his 2016 platform, Bernie took on an even more radical stance. If the primary field adopted debating single payer healthcare, Bernie’s Medicare for All proposal (with even more coverage) was now supplemented by elimination of all medical debt. He moved from carbon tax to Green New Deal; from easing student debt to cancelling it; from immigration reform to disbanding ICE; from pushing for $15 minimum wage and opposing international trade agreements to workplace democracy, card check, and just cause provisions federally. And the list goes on. In every single instance and adding ever more planks to the progressive, social democratic platform, Bernie pushed the political debate further to the left. In ways that seemed insane and beyond our wildest dreams of what is possible in American electoral discourse.
And his campaign events changed too. They featured more working-class people sharing their struggles, sharing stories of utter destitution in late capitalism, from horrific working conditions to crushing medical debt, from lack of health care to racial injustice. All of which went a long way to make our collective and individual suffering the cause for political action rather than personal shame. And Bernie’s role in these events turned ever more into simple enumerations of proposals to rectify these problems. There were fewer and fewer broad sweeping claims about inequality that framed his 2016 speeches and ever more specific and radical proposals to eliminate it for good. Less filler, more substance.
That was the genius of the 2020 campaign for me and for organizers around me. It confirmed, once again, that Bernie was operating strategically, responding to a changing situation on the ground. He understood the potential to push the country further to the left and insert planks of a genuine social democratic platform into the mainstream of American politics. In that, Bernie has been an incredible inspiration: he confirmed what we already know about how to organize (and hopefully taught that lesson to a whole new crop of activists and organizers in the grassroots army he built up around the campaign): once you win battles, you do not sit back and settle for small victories. Instead, you go bigger and bolder. You build power by pushing people out of their comfort zone, using ever bigger “asks” to continually test the commitment of your members, asking them to step up and let go of the fear, building confidence and hope in what can be won.
And that, as you well know, is a whole damn world.
“I’m going to run the presidency differently than anyone else. I’m not only going to be commander-in-chief, I’m going to be organizer-in-chief.”
The second intervention here signaled to me that the Bernie campaign was not looking to settle the battle with American capitalism after gaining political power. Instead, what lurked behind galvanizing a variety of working-class and social justice movements into a highly visible form of a national presidential campaign was a plan for a popular front movement after the election. A broad and active coalition of forces coalescing behind his platform that would keep people in the streets until many of these battles will have been won. Or at least until we’ve exhausted ourselves fighting.
And the broad and deep mobilization of a popular front is needed for the most significant confrontation between the working class and US capital that was in the works post-election. Workplace Democracy part of Bernie’s platform was spelling out a strategy for easing the environment for labor organizing and spurring a policy fight in tandem with organizing battles already brewing on the ground.
The history of the labor movement in the US is one of heroic struggles and even more devastating losses. From the martyrdom of Eastern European immigrants during the Homestead Strike of 1892 to the Matewan massacre of 1920 to Reagan’s break of the Air Traffic Controllers’ strike of 1981 to the 2011 confrontation over public employees’ bargaining rights in Wisconsin to our defeat in the absolute last stand for public employees in the 2018 Janus Supreme Court decision – our history is a bloody one. It is no secret that the labor movement has been hemorrhaging members and resources for a very long time here. With the last couple of decades of so-called Right to Work laws being passed across the nation, we have little reason to feel optimistic about our chances of rebuilding union membership anytime soon.
This is not to say that the battle is over, far from it. If anything, an even more recent wave of teachers’ strikes, from LA to Chicago to West Virginia might be indicating the sheer resilience of the workers’ movement, even in this belly of the beast and in these, the darkest of times in recent memory. But, as my long-term comrade in the labor movement has said many a time, quoting Cabral: “Tell no lies, claim no easy victories.” However inspiring, the teachers’ strikes are sparks that might or might not set off a broader firestorm. That depends on us.
In such conditions, the absolute biggest heartbreak in our electoral failure this year is the failure to install Bernie into a leadership position of a popular front; one that would be mobilized behind the pro-union agenda outlined in his platform: card check (majority sign up), first contract provisions (forcing employers to negotiate), restoring rights of public employees to organize, just cause provisions, sectoral bargaining, etc.
What we need to win such a fight, however, is not an electoral victory alone. Far from it. We need a rising labor movement from below, a broad popular front to push through legislative changes, and someone who would know how to coordinate the two. Bernie is the first figure I’ve seen with the potential to make such a thing happen.
And this is not based on Bernie’s policies alone. This was already a practice in his campaign. Not the usual Democratic Party politicking photo-op at the picket line, but actual investment of resources. Bernie used his campaign resources, including targeting his list of supporters to turn them out to support workplace actions, from McDonalds to University of California. The campaign also aided workers at Delta, Wabtec, Amazon, GM, Disney, Nissan, and the LA teachers. And continues to do so right now. This is a new one in American politics. No other American politicians has shared or used his campaign resources, including his list of supporters to directly aid labor organizing.
Much as he was investing campaign resources to back labor organizing, the organizer-in-chief was aiming to invest resources and political capital after the election into a broad pro-union legislative agenda that would ease the draconian conditions for labor organizing in the US. The type and amount of political pressure we would need to exert on the rest of the political establishment to make these legislative changes happen is not something we should take for granted. It would have been an enormously uphill battle. But if there ever was a political figure to coalesce a broad popular front to battle this one out in the streets and in the workplaces, it was Bernie.
The long-term political consequences of winning such a fight are enormous. By creating the maneuvering space to organize under better conditions, the workplace democracy provisions would have given the US labor movement a chance to exponentially increase its ranks. It wouldn’t do the job of organizing, that still rests on us, but there is no doubt it would have made it easier and cheaper to do so. (Though, as a trusted comrade reminds me, I might be looking at this all backwards. For, in order to win policy fights of this kind we need to have a strong labor base in districts where the more recalcitrant right wingers sit. And for that, labor organizing has to happen first. We can’t count on legislative advances being the catalyst for organization.)
And yet, even if we could not muster such victories legislatively, to have Bernie at the helm of such an effort would have fundamentally changed the public discourse and thus the conditions in which labor organizing happens. It would have pushed the right to unionize to the forefront of American politics and that could not but benefit organizing efforts everywhere.
Workplace democracy proposals, the commitment to lead a popular front to make them reality, and the very real, material support for labor organizing Bernie was offering – this was a big chance to shift the balance of power in favor of workers, in ways that cannot be overestimated.
And with an organized working class, political education, genuine political education becomes a realizable goal. And that leads to a fight for power that would finally resemble something more than the limited horizon of social democracy that we can envision today.
That is by far our greatest loss this year.
But, while despair is not an irrational response, it is one we cannot afford. Neither can we afford the typically intellectual despair at the broad masses who vote against their self-interest. And even less the defeatist throwing up our hands at the futility of electoral politics. These are reactions I expect from the fresh crop of activists and organizers that jumped into Bernie’s organization, engaging probably for the first time in any kind of organizing or political work. But, comrades, socialists, leftists cannot and should not have that luxury.
Before we can assess what remains in the wake of Bernie’s even more radical shift to the left, we cannot bypass the hurdle before us that is the COVID-19 pandemic. We cannot ignore the unprecedented public health crises brought on by COVID-19 and attendant economic shutdowns and collapse. Much of how we approach the question of what is to be done depends on what happens today and tomorrow and how well and how easily we adapt and find new ways to normalize our work in what is at heart, a disaster of epic proportions.
The limitations to organizing in wide-spread lockdowns, the prospect of much longer-lasting changes to how we engage others in a public space, the increasingly feudal segmentation of the labor force, the collapse of the already catastrophically inadequate health care system, the widespread poverty and food insecurity ravaging our communities already – the list of hurdles placed before us is seemingly endless. How do we organize when much of what we do involves one-on-one contact made impossible by our current situation? Telephone and electronic communication cannot supplant real live conversations with people. Similarly, individual work cannot supplant mass action and collective effort.
At a very basic level, the good news is that this won’t last forever. At the same time, our “essential” workers are out there plugging away at their jobs despite and because of this pandemic. Many are reaching out to unions in desperation, as they try to avoid dying on the job. Organizing in these conditions is not easy nor ideal nor should we have any illusions about the dire conditions making this somehow an easier task. Far from it. In conditions where organizers cannot talk to workers at their job, cannot make house visits, cannot be on the ground, how organizing happens will of necessity have to change. For labor organization, salting now becomes an even more dangerous practice of union organizing, but I’m afraid a necessary one. I can’t in good conscience tell anyone else to do it, when I can’t join the ranks, but it seems to me the only viable, serious way around the lockdowns, at least right now.
In the meantime, remote corralling of workers’ discontent is happening and hopefully will coalesce into a good place to start in the months and years to come. The resources Bernie’s campaign has been putting into supporting workers and labor fights will of necessity have to be scaled back now that the campaign is no longer raising funds. But the list, the data collected and organized should be put to good use in these efforts in the meantime. (A union comrade also suggested a good way to use Bernie’s lists is to comb through and map the already existing networks of supporters in key strategic segments of the working class we know backed his candidacy most fervently: teachers, nurses, service workers.)
I won’t spend any time arguing for electoral politics. If what I said above about the significance of Bernie’s campaign for our movement has not convinced you, nothing I say now will. Suffice it to say that electoral politics are but a lever in the confrontation with capital and power that we must use to our advantage, whenever an opportunity presents itself.
The question is now, as it has always been, what can we do better next time? How do we organize better and how do we push back against the incredible powers united against us? Where do we start and who is going to lead it?
We must look at the 2020 defeat in the context of the previous, 2016 one. Just as I hoped then that Our Revolution would be a vehicle for future electoral victories, I hope we do a better job making that continued political, electoral organization a reality this time around, having learned our lessons. But, having witnessed that process once already, I also know victories to be won will not be necessarily just those tied directly to Bernie and his inner circle. One of the great victories of the 2016 campaign was the rise of progressive candidates down ballot. The rise of Justice Democrats, the victories of AOC, Tlaib, Omar – none of these would have happened were it not for the fundamental change in political discourse on the Democratic side ushered by Bernie’s 2016 campaign. But they didn’t happen directly out of Bernie’s campaign infrastructure or Our Revolution. We must capitalize on the 2020 campaign with a similar, broad push for progressive politics from the bottom up, regardless of what Bernie decides to do.
However, looking ahead, I see at least three things that the remnants of Bernie’s campaign could do to help move us along: keep volunteer infrastructure in place; reactivate top volunteer tier into building a registered, activated electorate; and educate and organize future candidates and their staff.
What was outstanding about the campaign this time around was the level of decentralization and reliance on a giant army of volunteers to run on-the-ground operations. The campaign had even given volunteers unprecedented access to turf cutting and volunteer coordination. We must now put that army to use for long-term success.
It is normal that some, maybe even a majority of these folks will fall away now that the excitement around a highly visible presidential campaign is gone. But I have no doubt there will be a good, solid number of folks who will be ready to carry on. Many have remained on-line, on the texting and phone banking systems, mobilizing Bernie supporters to push for a more worker-oriented stimulus package and in support of the striking Amazon workers. That needs to continue and intensify, not fall by the wayside.
Anecdotal evidence from a couple of old-timer organizers and from my own limited work on the ground speaks to a disorganized, disenfranchised, and unregistered electorate. I had one of the most heartbreaking experiences in Arizona for the brief 48 hours I was there on the ground (before the campaign pulled us off because of COVID-19). A young former Yugoslav man stepped up to volunteer in the campaign caucus dedicated to turning out the former Yugoslav community. With less than a week before the election, this committed Bernie supporter did not realize he was not registered to vote. And neither were any of his immediate family and friends, all fervent Bernie supporters. If we don’t have the likes of them registered, what hope do we have of winning an election?
We must, absolutely must put our efforts into this right now. A couple of paid staffers should coordinate the so-called Victory Captains of the campaign – top tier volunteers who were tasked with organizing the volunteers in their local communities – and develop a solid and continuous voter registration drive. We need to hit every door in this country and follow up on every voter registration. If we can get our numbers up, we can win this thing.
Will it be hard without a Bernie presidential campaign to move people? Of course. Doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. But it is also true that this effort does not and should not happen in a vacuum. Pursuing down ballot races and challengers to sitting Democrats can be something concrete on which to hang efforts to organize and register voters.
What will be the equivalent broader impact of Bernie’s campaign this time around is not quite clear just yet. The impact of the present pandemic and accompanying economic collapse is muddling any effort to read past the present moment. But it stands to reason to think that, at the very least, the wave of progressive electoral candidates will swell in the aftermath of this one as well. We must take advantage of that.
A second insight I have is from Sam Smucker, another long-term union organizer from my circle. His observation is simple: Bernie knows how to do an election campaign and that is what he should keep doing. Meaning, the core of Bernie’s staff knows how to run elections and we should not confuse that with other types of organizing out there. (Similarly, let’s not get carried away that the volunteers Bernie mobilized and organized would know how to run or even participate in a different, more proper type of organizing, say, labor or community organizing. That is ok. We don’t need them for that, not right now.) We need them to build a coherent electorate-building organization and support progressive candidates down ballot.
His second point was an even more salient one and the most concrete and best proposal on how to move forward long-term I’ve heard yet: Bernie should set up an electoral organizing institute. Not unlike the labor organizing institute where future labor organizers are trained for the field, this type of operation would prepare both candidates and staff for down-ballot races. They could train them not only in the mechanics of running successful campaigns, but the substance of running on a social democratic platform.
In short, Bernie killed it in this department. He knew how to translate all of our foundational beliefs into rhetoric accessible to the working class and did it consistently and without missing a beat: every rally, every interview, every debate. That is an invaluable skill and should be passed down to the next generation. (And if I can point to one thing that was an absolute success in this campaign – this was it. And as Sam pointed out, this has been a fundamental, tectonic shift in American politics. Decades-long strategy of ideological control by red baiting, relying on the Cold War boogeyman of socialism to shut down working class interests has fallen by the wayside. Medicare for All, Green New Deal, Workplace Democracy, and the rest of Bernie’s platform has garnered overwhelming support in the Democratic base and the country as a whole. He won the ideological fight. It remains on us to win the material one.)
If you’re thinking, this electorate organizing institute sounds an awful lot like a political party school. Right, exactly.
In reality, all three of these efforts going forward would be easier to get off the ground with Bernie’s help or with the remnants of his organization. However, what Bernie and his staff do or don’t do in the months ahead is well beyond our abilities to control. The good news is that only the preservation of existing volunteer infrastructure truly depends on Bernie. We could develop an electorate-building organizing campaign apart from Bernie’s circle, just as someone else (and perhaps even more savvy at running such operations than Bernie’s campaign) could set up the electoral organizing institute. For the latter especially, we’d want Bernie’s participation, as the ideological driving force, but the practicalities may be best left to someone else.
The last electoral politics point I’ll make is about communication. We weren’t surprised by the media onslaught following Bernie’s early victories. I have to admit, it was almost entertaining to watch them struggle to understand how substance rather than rhetoric was moving voters. US mainstream media knows how to analyze rhetoric and surface “ideological” disagreements. What flabbergasts them beyond belief is actual policy. Bernie supporters were not attached to identity politics, not attached to sniping between Democrats and Republicans, and most of all, were not attached to an old, cantankerous Jewish man from Brooklyn. They were, however, attached to Medicare for All. Among other things. (See, for example, the success of the campaign in Nevada, over and against some powerful organized labor hostility to Medicare for All specifically.)
But, however confused the pundits were by all this, they recovered quickly and demolished Bernie, especially in television and newspaper coverage. This is incredibly important in generational terms. Younger people who went overwhelmingly for Bernie do not watch television or read The New York Times. The older folks do. And while still profoundly anecdotal, I’d venture to guess that the mainstream media propaganda had its effect. Phone banking showed some of this, as folks could not quite tell me why they wouldn’t vote for Bernie when they agreed on every single policy, other than to refer to nebulous notions like “electability” – the primary line of attack against Bernie in liberal media.
But rather than bemoan all this, we must organize better. It’s not easy, but it is simple. We have to keep our issues in the news, we have to build a political field where these ideas continue garnering support and we have to defeat the media with one-on-one outreach. We have nothing but numbers on our side in this fight. (Though I must admit, Teen Vogue has turned into the Iskra of our times!)
And the one remaining issue for any future social democratic challenger to the Democratic Party establishment remains: African American vote in the South. Bernie won the Latino vote handily. He got the youth vote. He got the immigrant vote more broadly too. He clearly and overwhelmingly got the working-class vote across the board. And his coalition is incredibly diverse. But he lost the African American vote in the South. I don’t know quite yet what to make of it. We have to learn more. (Smucker attributes this result to the status the Democratic Party enjoys in the Black community as the party of civil rights. Attacking its establishment may run afoul this orthodoxy in the future too. We need a strategy to deal with this problem and ensure support for a campaign that already had the most progressive stance on racial justice to date.)
Aside from these lessons and strategies for further electoral victories, I don’t look to Bernie for some profound changes to what our tasks and what our strategies are. They remain the same: Finding pressure points in the system we can strike that would give us strategic advantage in wresting power from capital.
Will it be harder than it would have been with Bernie in the White House? Absolutely. But not harder than it was before his campaigns. In fact, significantly easier. He’s made many an argument for us already and laid down some basic ideas of what a different, more just, social democratic America would look like. We shouldn’t squander that advantage.
Marina Antić is an Assistant Professor in Slavic at Indiana University Bloomington. Her academic work focuses on 20th-century Yugoslav literature and culture.