Bernie Sanders has staked his campaign for the presidency on public disgust and anger over the unconscionable and rapidly growing gap between the richest Americans and most everyone else. He rails against the “billionaire class,” the big banks, and the multiple ways in which the 1% control the government and just about all other institutions. As a result of protests and complaints directed at his bid to win the Democratic nomination, he has been forced to incorporate race, ethnicity, and gender into his stump tirades against the wealthy, but these have not been central to his message.
Sanders’ supporters, especially those with a left-wing political orientation, typically justify their often rabid promotion of the senator with the claim that his candidacy, despite its location inside the odious Democratic Party, represents a movement, one that has the potential to shift political discourse and action decisively in a radical direction. At the least, it can and will generate such a movement even if Sanders does not secure the nomination or prevail in the general election.
Is the Sanders’ phenomenon a radical movement? If not, will it soon give rise to one? There are reasons to be skeptical. First, a traditional political campaign waged within either of the two major parties cannot be a movement, much less a radical one. Both parties are aggressively pro-capitalist, nationalist, and imperialist, a trinity inimical to radical change. Second, all campaigns are now driven by television and social media, both of which devote little time to the serious analysis that might educate us. They feed the public sound bites, over and over, ad nauseam. Third, the tiring and time-consuming nitty-gritty of campaigning, from securing debate venues and coordinating complicated logistics to knocking on doors and making phone calls similarly precludes critical learning, or even much thinking. Every scandal, no matter how small, every damning phrase uttered by a rival in the past, every personnel change is mulled over by pundits and diehard fans of the candidates as if they were discussing the theory of relativity. Nothing remotely resembling a movement comes from any of this.
Finally, what evidence is there that the Sanders’ phenomenon can take any credit for building a movement? Steve Early and Rand Wilson have written the best justification for endorsing Sanders that I have read. He has been a supporter of unions and labor struggles and a champion of pro-labor legislation. And in return, a couple of national unions and many locals have endorsed him and are actively working for him in the primaries. This, in turn, has and will continue to attract more union members into the fold and these could form the basis for a rejuvenated and more radical labor movement and politics. However, might it not be just as reasonable to argue that dedicated activists within the working class, through years of hard and tireless efforts had already built militant, albeit not radical organizations, and it has been these that have energized the Sanders’ campaign and not the other way around? And even if we suppose that it is the candidate who has galvanized the workers, won’t the new recruits be spending their time for the foreseeable future trying to win converts to the election cause? When exactly will the movement building begin?
In his book US Labor in Trouble and Transition, author and former editor of Labor Notes Kim Moody argued, on the basis of much evidence, that organizing came to a halt every four years as unions spent their capital, both money and political, going all-in for the Democratic nominee. Why is anything different this time around? Yes, Sanders is a better choice for president than Hillary Clinton. But he is running as a Democrat, as part of a party that is rotten from top to bottom. It is hostile to the working class and imperialist to its core. Worse, he has promised to support Clinton if she wins the nomination. How productive is it for those on the left to spend inordinate amounts of time on social media and in direct campaigning to try to get Sanders elected?
If Sanders and those who support him were serious about building a radical movement, they would use his campaign to engage in a parallel crusade of critical education. As I said in one of the essays in my new book, The Great Inequality:
Democratic, critical education is essential in all battles for radical social reconstruction. Such education should uncover the relevant facts and also delve deeply into the root causes of the problem at hand. It should conceive every political struggle as an opportunity to change the way we think about our lives and our connections to one another and the larger society. Or, as Henry Giroux said, we must “take seriously the issues of belief and persuasion, and once again give primacy to the symbolic and pedagogical dimensions of struggle as crucial weapons in the fight against neoliberalism and global capitalism.”
Sanders shouts and gesticulates against the 1%, against rising inequality, against the big banks, against the way campaigns are financed, and much else. But I have never heard him say why there is so much inequality. What are its causes? Why do the billionaires capture most of the nation’s income growth? And what is true for Sanders appears true of his leftwing enthusiasts. I know a labor union staffperson who forcefully champions Sanders and assails those of us who don’t actively embrace him as ultra-leftists, with an “incorrect approach,” out of touch with the real world and unconcerned with the daily travails of ordinary people. However, his own union does little to educate its members, and what it does do is never radical, critical education. As he busies himself with constructing lists of potential Sanders’ supporters and door knockers, he just continues what we might call “sound bite education,” fleeting conversations that urge people to vote, while handing out fliers and urging them to visit the Sanders’ website for more information.
At best, this puts many persons in contact with one another, so that in the future they can coalesce to fight for progressive programs such as a higher minimum wage, universal healthcare, expansion of Social Security, and so forth. The newly enlivened entrants into politics can be taught the rudiments of organizing, and their numbers might swell. But deeper, radical, revolutionary change cannot be won in this manner.
If Sanders and his “Sandernistas” wanted a “political revolution,” they would use his campaign to begin the long, arduous process of radical education. There would be teach-ins and public meetings in towns large and small. No political event, no protest, no rally would be fail to have an educational component. Sanders’ talking points could be used to deepen understanding, by asking questions and pushing the discussions toward fundamental causes. And connections between inequality and a host of other problems, including the environmental catastrophes that are raining down upon us and threaten the viability of human life itself, could be made. The exploitative and murderous role of the United States in the world could be debated and analyzed. The connections between race and class, and the need to confront racism head-on could be critically examined. When the right questions are asked, it becomes difficult not to begin to grasp that it is capitalism that is the root cause of inequality, the power of the billionaire class, the lack of meaningful employment, the endless wars, the rise of police states, and the utter demise of democracy.
If we did these things, it wouldn’t matter if Bernie Sanders became the Democratic nominee, nor would it matter if he became president. But if they don’t happen, if we say, as we usually do, that now is not the time for them, we have to get out the vote, they will never take place. There will always be nuts-and-bolts politics to deal with, and we must be pragmatic. Or we will take the tack of my union staffer critic and imply by their actions that social democratic struggles—weak ones at that—will somehow pave the way for socialism. First, Obamacare, then single-payer, then fully socialized healthcare. First, a higher minimum wage, then higher union density, and finally worker control of enterprises. First, a rejection of the Trans Pacific Partnership to the end of U.S. imperialism and global working class solidarity to full-blown global communism. A look at history tells us that this line of reasoning is as incorrect as can be imagined. Social Democracy, even in its most highly developed form in the Scandinavian countries, has never and will never lead to a radically transformed society.
Many decades ago, Mother Jones said, “Educate yourselves for the coming conflicts.” When she uttered these words, radicals around the world would have known that the “coming conflicts” were for socialism and not piecemeal liberal changes: for the emancipation of workers and peasants, the abolition of the wage system, the expropriation of capitalist property, radical democracy, and a planned economy with production for use. What socialists believed then must still be what we must believe and fight for, as well as a sustainable environment, which today is the most important struggle of all. Sanders’ brand of “democratic socialism” will never get us anywhere near these goals.
For further reading:
“Bernie has not only urged Vermonters to vote “yes” in union representation elections like CWA’s 1994 campaign among 1,500 telephone company call center workers, he would annually convene meetings of local labor activists to help them develop more successful union-building strategies. To stimulate new rank-and-file thinking, Sanders and his staff invited out-of-state labor speakers who were part of national efforts to revitalize organized labor; he himself became the only member of Congress ever to address a national Labor Notes conference—and donate money to Labor Notes too.”—Steve Early
“The Sanders electoral movement aggregates hundreds of thousands of micro-local struggles and allows expression of the disaffection of millions with class grievances, at no risk or cost (as in loss of job or police repression) to the participants. This is in stark contrast to repression at the workplace or in the urban streets.”—James Petras
“But Bill Fletcher says Sanders declined the historic opportunity to convene “a meeting of left and progressive electoral activists to discuss strategy” and failed to nurture relationships with movements the way Jesse Jackson’s radical presidential campaign did in 1984.”—Arun Gupta