The Inside-Outside Approach to Bernie 2020

Endorse, but play the long game.

Peter FraseOctober 2, 2018

A Medicare for All Rally in Los Angeles, February 2017. (Molly Adams/Flickr)

For oth­er per­spec­tives on this debate, read Briah­na Gray and Sean McEl­wee.

Bernie Sanders played an irre­place­able role in 2016. One of the few left­ists in high nation­al office, he was bet­ter placed than any­one else to cat­alyze a reac­tion that has now pro­duced, among oth­er things, a Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca (DSA) push­ing 50,000 mem­bers and the stun­ning upset vic­to­ry of Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez.

Among the pro­gres­sive base, the mood has shift­ed from acqui­es­cence to Clin­tonite cen­trism to a taste for fiery demands. There’s no bet­ter indi­ca­tion of this than the rush of ambi­tious politi­cians, from Kirsten Gilli­brand to Kamala Har­ris to even Cory Book­er, to endorse pre­vi­ous­ly unthink­able Sanders pri­or­i­ties like Medicare for All. So it was prob­a­bly inevitable that, at some point, the cries of Bernie would have won!” would give way to Bernie 2020!”

Imme­di­ate­ly after the 2016 elec­tions, I very much hoped that this was not where we would end up. There are mul­ti­ple rea­sons to pre­fer some­one oth­er than Bernie as the Left’s next pres­i­den­tial avatar.

First, demo­graph­ics. It’s not that an old white guy can’t lead a young and diverse coali­tion. But the Left should be aim­ing to elect peo­ple who come from the ranks of the ris­ing young move­ment and share their experiences.

More­over, Sanders has some­times seemed inat­ten­tive to anti-racist, social­ist fem­i­nist pol­i­tics. His vot­ing record on these issues is good, but he is less at home on those issues than on some­thing like Medicare for All, as evi­denced by his flus­tered response to Black Lives Mat­ter activists who took the stage while he was speak­ing in 2015.

No doubt Bernie and his team have learned some lessons, and a 2020 cam­paign would run much smoother. But even so, there’s rea­son to pre­fer some­one else — not just because Bernie is an old white guy, but because he’s Bernie. The celebri­ty fan­dom that has sur­round­ed this so un-star-like man is fun­ny, but it can also obscure the need to ground our strug­gles in mass orga­niz­ing and polit­i­cal sub­stance rather than Oba­ma-esque celebri­ty. It encour­ages the new­ly rad­i­cal­ized to short-cir­cuit the debate over just what social­ism” means, by asso­ci­at­ing it with Sanders’ some­what idio­syn­crat­ic update of New Deal lib­er­al­ism rather than explor­ing more rad­i­cal possibilities.

Hav­ing made the case against him, how­ev­er, I still find myself resigned to sup­port­ing the increas­ing­ly prob­a­ble Bernie redux cam­paign. Build­ing up a farm sys­tem of left-wing politi­cians at all lev­els is going to take a while. Kei­th Elli­son once seemed a pos­si­ble pres­i­den­tial can­di­date, but his dis­in­ter­est in that path was prob­a­bly just as well, giv­en the domes­tic abuse alle­ga­tions he now faces. Mean­while, many ris­ing stars like Oca­sio-Cortez haven’t even tak­en office yet and lack the expe­ri­ence (and age) to run for president.

So the most desir­able out­come is, like it or not, Bernie 2020. In their attempts to pan­der to pri­ma­ry vot­ers, oth­er lead­ing can­di­dates may end up look­ing and sound­ing a lot like Bernie. But Sanders has the mer­it of a life­time of stead­fast com­mit­ment to demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist prin­ci­ples, even when that was a recipe for being polit­i­cal­ly mar­gin­al. The Left may be look­ing health­i­er, but we still don’t have the clout or the peo­ple pow­er to ensure that a pres­i­dent fights for our agen­da rather than bow­ing to the pow­er of big mon­ey once cor­po­rate lob­by­ists and donors come knocking. 

So, for now, we need to ral­ly around some­one who, if vic­to­ri­ous, is pret­ty like­ly to do the right thing. Build­ing up an advi­so­ry infra­struc­ture sans can­di­date, as Sean pro­pos­es, is a good idea, but it’s no sub­sti­tute for the mass orga­niz­ing that real­ly holds lead­ers account­able. Even if that infra­struc­ture can be built out rapid­ly (and it’s a big if”), the best staffing and white papers in the world are only going to have an impact if politi­cians feel pop­u­lar pres­sure to pay attention.

If our lack of pow­er is why I’ll sup­port the Bernie cam­paign, it’s also why — once I’ve sub­mit­ted this arti­cle — I’m not going to think or do much about it for a while. Our atten­tion should be focused on grow­ing the Left rather than expect­ing anoth­er high-pro­file cam­paign by a celebri­ty politi­cian to do it for us. So when you’re done read­ing this, go dig up your Bernie 2016 swag and put it on, if that gives you inspi­ra­tion — that’s why there’s still a Bernie lawn sign in front of my house. 

Then go orga­nize your work­place, phone bank for your local left­ist can­di­date, or get more involved in your local DSA, Black Lives Mat­ter, or oth­er local grass­roots orga­niz­ing project. This keeps our move­ment grow­ing between elec­tion cycles and lays the ground­work for a move­ment that wields pow­er in and out of gov­ern­ment. It’s by doing that — not by argu­ing about a pres­i­den­tial elec­tion more than two years away — that we avoid what none of us wants: debat­ing whether the only way to recov­er from Trump’s sec­ond term is Bernie 2024.

Peter Frase is the vice chair of the Hud­son Val­ley chap­ter of the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca, and a mem­ber of the edi­to­r­i­al board at Jacobin mag­a­zine. He is the author of Four Futures: Life After Cap­i­tal­ism (Ver­so, 2016).
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