This is the second installment of a new column by Convergence Editorial Board member Max Elbaum. “It Is Happening Here” will track the MAGA drive toward one-party rule based on a white Christian Nationalist agenda, and discuss strategies to block it while building independent progressive power along the way.
“The last thing this country needs is a Donald Trump or some other right-wing demagogue who is going to try to undermine American democracy or take away a woman’s right to choose, or not address the crisis of gun violence, or racism, sexism, or homophobia. So I’m in to do what I can to make sure the President is re-elected.
What’s the takeaway for the broad Left from Sanders’s and Johnson’s statements?
On the frontlines fighting for political power
It’s not that every organization or individual activist needs to rush out an endorsement of the President. November 2024 is 18 months away. That’s more than enough time for unexpected developments that upend everyone’s political calculations. And the wide range of groups fighting for social justice and radical change don’t occupy the same position in relation to electoral engagement as these two elected officials. Many who agree with every word in Bernie’s message will withhold their endorsement at this time, calculating that will better allow them to pressure Biden on their priority issues.
Still, these endorsements are a big deal. They come from individuals who have been on the frontlines of the day-to-day fight for progressive political power. They deserve to be taken seriously by every part of the Left that aspires to lead a majority coalition that can govern the country.
Bernie Sanders went toe-to-toe with the Democratic Party establishment in two presidential campaigns, and in the process inspired millions to take democratic socialism seriously. The support he garnered was the battering ram that got several progressive items into the Biden administration’s legislative agenda. From his vantage point as chair of the Senate Budget Committee, Sanders has an acute sense of the balance of forces on Capitol Hill. For the last eight years especially, he has proved adept at juggling the interrelated tasks of expanding the base of the social justice movement and working to deliver tangible results to working people.
For his part, Brandon Johnson outfought a reactionary backed by big money, MAGA Republicans, and most of the “Obama Machine” to become Mayor of Chicago. He and his new transition team of battle-hardened fighters now go into the lion’s den. They know what it will take to shift the priorities of a city owned since the Harold Washington years by a business class that winked at some of the most racist “policing” in the country. Johnson defeated the favorite of establishment Democrats in the election, but still sees Biden holding office in Washington as crucial to accomplishing his goal of radical change in the country’s third largest city.
It’s because Sanders’s and Johnson’s endorsements of Biden flow directly from these experiences that the Left has a lot to learn from them. They tell us what hard-nosed progressives who are positioned to make a difference believe is the kind of national governing coalition needed to deliver tangible gains to their current and potential supporters. They are powerful reminders of how great a danger the MAGA-controlled GOP poses to the constituencies the Left cares most about and needs to get much more rooted in. The underscore the importance of the 2024 election (as do the Biden endorsements by Squad members Ilhan Omar and Greg Casar).
Win elections, deliver to your constituents, win more elections
Neither Sanders nor Johnson is putting other battles on hold to simply campaign for Biden. Bernie’s recent priorities include the Pay Teachers Act, which mandates a minimum salary of $60,000 per year for all teachers, and taking on Big Pharma in an effort to lower drug prices. Brandon Johnson is laser-focused on getting his team and base ready for the tough local fights ahead.
Similarly, different progressive organizations and individual activists will (and should) prioritize different issues and types of work in the period ahead. But we can best maximize our effectiveness and grow our base among workers and all oppressed constituencies if each specific effort is fit into an overall power-building strategy.
Pressuring those who currently hold power is an essential part of any such strategy, but it is not enough. We also need leaders who come out of and represent the interests of social justice movements to win seats in the legislative and executive bodies where policy decisions get made. This is the route to starting the kind of political cycle that the MAGA bloc has used to gain the level of strength it now has in state legislatures, governorships, state and federal judicial bodies, and Congress:
Win some elections and begin to hold a share of political power. Use that power to deliver something to your constituents, strengthening your bond with them and attracting new supporters. Use that new strength to win more and higher political offices. Run and repeat, run and repeat again, until you are governing a locality, a state, the country.
Gearing up for 2024
Accomplishing that cannot be done via electoral work alone. Fighting on key issues; crafting a compelling narrative and hammering it home; establishing a pipeline that trains one generation after another of new leaders — all these are essential. Especially important is finding ways to root progressive politics in organizations that encompass, provide community for, and shape the lives of millions. Today white evangelical churches serve that function for MAGA; there is growing — and very welcome — sentiment on the Left that our best shot at a counterpoint to that is to dramatically expand and re-energize the labor movement.
Still, in a country where the electoral arena (even with all the ways it is structurally rigged against us) decides what forces occupy the seats where governing decisions are made, elections are where the coalitions contending for power clash. And to the winner go the spoils.
Donald Trump’s election win in 2016 drove that truth home to everyone across the political spectrum. The intensity and record turnouts of 2018, 2020 and 2022 underscored the point. The 2024 campaign is already well underway. Hundreds of millions of dollars are already flowing into campaign coffers, and Republican front-runner Donald Trump has made the program he is running on crystal clear: “I am your justice, I am your retribution.”
There are a host of battles to be fought between now and November 2024. A good number of them will pit partisans of social justice against others who are opposed to MAGA and the Republican Party. On some — especially those regarding militarism and foreign policy — we will clash directly with Biden. Living in a country filled with conspiracy theorists and awash in guns, with airwaves and social media platforms dominated by right-wing disinformation and mainstream media “both-sidesism,” it is not going to be easy to keep our bearings, our morale, and even something as basic as our mental health.
Keeping Bernie Sanders’s and Brandon Johnson’s endorsements in mind can help us stay in touch with the underlying reality of US politics: The GOP must be beaten, or It Will Happen Again Here.
In These Times is happy to be co-publishing this article with Convergence.
In this new book, longtime organizers and movement educators Mariame Kaba and Kelly Hayes examine the political lessons of the Covid-19 pandemic and its aftermath, including the convergence of mass protest and mass formations of mutual aid. Let This Radicalize You answers the urgent question: What fuels and sustains activism and organizing when it feels like our worlds are collapsing?
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Max Elbaum is a member of the Convergence Magazine editorial board and the author of Revolution in the Air: Sixties Radicals Turn to Lenin, Mao and Che (Verso Books, Third Edition, 2018), a history of the 1970s-‘80s ‘New Communist Movement’ in which he was an active participant. He is also a co-editor, with Linda Burnham and María Poblet, of Power Concedes Nothing: How Grassroots Organizing Wins Elections (OR Books, 2022).