Bernie supporters at a rally in Arizona | Photo by Gage Skidmore
It hurt to watch Bernie Sanders announce that he was suspending his presidential campaign. The Left is no stranger to defeats, but this one has a particular sting to it because our expectations were raised so high.
After Bernie swept Nevada, it felt like we were on the verge of winning. To our collective amazement, a democratic socialist was the frontrunner. And yet within little over a month, our hopes were crushed by the combined weight of a hastily united Democratic establishment, a corporate media shamelessly doing that establishment’s bidding, and a Democratic primary majority that (at least among older voters) ultimately remained unconvinced that Bernie was our best bet to defeat Trump.
Bernie’s concession announcement was difficult to stomach because so many people had invested so much of their time, money, and aspirations into this fight. Millions made these sacrifices because they understood what was at stake.
For the first time in our lives, we had the chance to elect a president who was committed to rerouting the train of US history onto a radically better track. An organizer-in-chief who would fight to make sure every person in this country could have their basic necessities met, so that we could all lead a dignified life. And there’s no sugarcoating it: we were defeated.
But don’t despair. Bernie Sanders has transformed American politics in an incredibly short period. He’s helped revive the socialist movement, inspired dozens of successful electoral campaigns from the local level to the House of Representatives, and helped stoke strikes and on-the-job organizing throughout the country. And not a moment too soon, as we find ourselves in the midst of a brutal pandemic that can only be solved with exactly the kind of policies he has pushed for his entire career.
Bernie opened up an opportunity to remake American politics. It’s now up to us to seize it.
Nobody Said It Would Be Easy
In the wake of any loss, it’s natural for blame to be cast around. Our anger should be firmly directed at those who deserve it most: billionaire-backed political hacks and media pundits who were more interested in smearing Bernie and his agenda than they ever were in beating Trump.
Desperate to stop working people from winning basic human rights guaranteed in many countries of the world, the Democratic Party establishment was forced to take its mask off. We should neither forgive, nor forget. Though we’re not yet strong enough to stop using the Democratic ballot line any time soon, the need for an independent working-class party has never been clearer.
Hot takes about this or that tactical mistake by Bernie miss the forest for the trees. It’s true that the campaign could have gone harder against Biden and that Bernie should have remained in the race longer, to use the leverage of his presidential campaign to further build our movement’s infrastructure and power — which, in the face of the Covid-19 crisis, is more needed than ever.
But there’s no compelling reason to believe that Bernie’s tactical choices could have fundamentally changed the trajectory of the race.
Given the weakness of the labor movement and Left, and the immense economic and political power of the capitalist class, it would have been something akin to a historic accident to have elected Bernie president in 2020. It was not impossible — but given the relationship of forces it very likely would have required that the Democratic Party somehow remain divided until the very end. After forty years in which neoliberalism has systematically decimated labor and lowered working-class expectations, it’s not surprising that our longshot campaign was ultimately not strong enough to overcome the Democratic establishment once they coalesced around a candidate.
Thanks above all to Bernie’s tireless agitation since 2015, democratic socialism has broken into the mainstream of political life. This in itself is a huge leap forward in the struggle for social and economic justice. And while a majority now support policies like Medicare for All, our movement itself is not yet a majority of society. Getting there will take a lot more work and organizing over many years.
The big story of the Bernie campaign is not that he lost the race, but that he came so close to winning — and that we fundamentally transformed US politics in the process.
What We’ve Won
Since our collective expectations were raised so high after Nevada, it’s easy to forget how much we’ve already accomplished in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. As Bernie correctly emphasized in his suspension speech, the campaign has largely won the battle of ideas. And the paralyzing myth that there is no political alternative to the neo-liberal status quo has been shattered.
Despite Bernie’s electoral defeat, the political tide is still turning in our favor, particularly among the younger generations set to politically inherit this country. This ideological sea-change has set the stage for mass movements, militant unions, and insurgent candidates in the coming months and years to demand and eventually win Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and the other core planks of Bernie’s agenda.
No less importantly, Bernie’s campaign, with its bottom-up “Not Me, Us” ethos, gave millions a taste of their collective power and cohered the beginning of a revitalized Left. Bernie not only helped bring together militant unions, community organizations, and the Democratic Socialists of America; he also inspired hundreds of thousands of people to become active fighters for radical social transformation.
Think of your previously apolitical friends or family members who for the first time knocked doors, made calls, or donated a few extra dollars to the political revolution. Think about the countless acts of selflessness you experienced from fellow volunteers. This was a joyous and transformative struggle, at its best more of a movement than a traditional electoral effort. Strangers became comrades.
And though many Bernie supporters may be demoralized right now, the urgency of the political moment — with the world’s unprecedented health, economic, and environmental crises — will make it hard to sit on the sidelines for long.
Faced with the pandemic, workers are striking in unprecedented numbers to protect their lives. The absurdity of our healthcare system has been laid bare, spiking public support for Medicare for All to unprecedented levels. And the looming climate change catastrophe will only continue to pose the urgent necessity of radical change.
One thing is certain: Bernie will certainly keep on fighting. Over the coming months and years, he is going to continue to use his platform — and hopefully his organizational infrastructure — to help lift up movements against the billionaires. The real question is whether his base will succumb to despair or, like Bernie, commit to a lifelong struggle for working-class power and socialism.
We Can’t Give Up Now
Contrary to Joe Hill’s famous slogan — “Don’t mourn, organize!” — it’s fine to mourn after a loss like this. But now is not the time to give up. In fact, there’s never been a more urgent moment to get organized.
Join a union, organize with coworkers or neighbors in response to the pandemic, elect working-class fighters to local and state office across the country, or become a member of the Democratic Socialists of America.
Nobody ever said defeating the ruling class was going to be easy. So Bernie supporters, lick your wounds and then get back to work because we have a world to win. No regrets. No surrender.
Reprinted from Jacobin