Astra Taylor: Bernie Sanders’ Exit Is an Indictment of Our Broken System—Not His Campaign

Voter suppression was stronger than Bernie Sanders’ voter turnout plan. And the pandemic has made things worse.

Astra Taylor April 9, 2020

Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) speaks to a crowd gathered for a campaign rally on March 7, in Chicago. (Photo by Scott Olson/Getty Images)

It sucks liv­ing through a pan­dem­ic, espe­cial­ly a crim­i­nal­ly mis­man­aged one. It also sucks to live through an epochal polit­i­cal mis­take. Should the stars have aligned dif­fer­ent­ly, Bernie Sanders might have been pres­i­dent. It would have been amaz­ing for a vari­ety of rea­sons. A Sanders vic­to­ry, for exam­ple, would have total­ly upend­ed the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Party’s nar­ra­tive that it is the Repub­li­cans who stand in the way of pro­gres­sive and humane social pol­i­cy. Cen­trists Democ­rats want to play resis­tance” to Don­ald Trump, not a prin­ci­pled left wing, and many of them are no doubt breath­ing a big sigh of relief.

Sanders’ cam­paign was remark­able, in part, because he was try­ing to do two things at once: win the Demo­c­ra­t­ic nom­i­na­tion and strength­en social move­ments. Left­ists have long talked about inside and out­side strate­gies as though they were in oppo­si­tion, but the Sanders cam­paign made the argu­ment that they can and must be unit­ed, dif­fi­cult though this process may be. The ener­gy and rad­i­cal­ism of the streets needs to be brought to bear on elec­toral pol­i­tics and into the halls of pow­er. That remains the nee­dle the Left has to thread.

I’m pret­ty sure his­to­ri­ans will look back kind­ly on Sanders. He is the rare hon­est pub­lic ser­vant, and one who ran a cam­paign cen­ter­ing human dig­ni­ty. While self-brand­ed as rad­i­cal,” in real­i­ty his pro­pos­als were mere­ly aligned with Euro­pean social democ­ra­cy. But giv­en decades of anti-gov­ern­ment pro­pa­gan­da and neolib­er­al eco­nom­ic doc­trine, that align­ment alone was trans­for­ma­tive. Sanders has done more than any­one else to pop­u­lar­ize poli­cies includ­ing uni­ver­sal health­care, a liv­ing wage, stu­dent debt can­cel­la­tion cou­pled with free col­lege, a wealth tax, work­place democ­ra­cy and a Green New Deal. This has put the Left on stronger foot­ing than it has ever been in my life­time, even if we are not yet where we want to be.

In its own bizarre way, the cur­rent pan­dem­ic has only bol­stered Sanders’ case. The virtue of his core propo­si­tion — that work­ing Amer­i­cans deserve an equi­table and func­tion­ing wel­fare state — is becom­ing more appar­ent by the day. Real­i­ty has endorsed Bernie Sanders, as Keean­ga-Yamaht­ta Tay­lor has argued, though sad­ly the endorse­ment came a cou­ple months too late. His slo­gan — Not me, us,” — rings even more true in a peri­od of pathogen-induced social dis­tanc­ing. We are only as safe from dis­ease as our most vul­ner­a­ble neigh­bors and even those who are priv­i­leged enough to shel­ter in place are depen­dent on front­line work­ers for their sur­vival. Our inter­de­pen­dence is undeniable.

If the tim­ing had been bet­ter, COVID-19 might have strength­ened Sanders’ hand at the bal­lot box. Instead, it dis­rupt­ed and delayed pri­maries across the coun­try, putting vot­ers in a ter­ri­ble bind — go to the polls and risk catch­ing (or unwit­ting­ly spread­ing) a dead­ly ill­ness, or don’t vote at all. (Last year I put out a book called Democ­ra­cy May Not Exist, but We’ll Miss It When It’s Gone—I had no idea how deeply the title would even­tu­al­ly resonate.)

In the end, Sanders did the hon­or­able thing by bow­ing out and spar­ing vot­ers such an ago­niz­ing choice. The fact that he was forced to make that deci­sion is an indict­ment of our bro­ken sys­tem, which claims to enable one per­son, one vote” while sup­press­ing vot­er turnout at every oppor­tu­ni­ty. Our country’s long lines at polling sta­tions, espe­cial­ly in poor and racial­ly diverse com­mu­ni­ties, have long been sym­bols of injus­tice. Now they take on a new, ghast­ly hue. This elec­tion cycle needs to push left­ists to engage in vot­ing issues and push the con­ver­sa­tion beyond stan­dard lib­er­al talk­ing points like vot­ing-by-mail, auto­mat­ic vot­er reg­is­tra­tion and an end to ger­ry­man­der­ing. We need to talk about safe and secure online vot­ing, turn­ing elec­tion day into elec­tion month, and more sys­temic reforms includ­ing ranked choice vot­ing, mak­ing vot­ing manda­to­ry (as it is in many oth­er devel­oped coun­tries) and exper­i­ment­ing with the use of sor­ti­tion (ran­dom selec­tion of polit­i­cal offi­cials) and cit­i­zens’ assem­blies.

Sanders’ big gam­ble was to bank on a boost in turnout among so-called low propen­si­ty” vot­ers — the folks who tend to stay home at elec­tion time. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, though he earned the over­whelm­ing sup­port of young and diverse vot­ers, this wager didn’t pay off the way many of us hoped. We need to reflect on why this strat­e­gy failed while also tak­ing stock of the chal­lenges ahead. In the com­ing months, elec­toral par­tic­i­pa­tion is like­ly to be even low­er than the typ­i­cal­ly abysmal rates — some­thing that suits pow­er­ful incum­bents just fine.

It’s tempt­ing to give up on elec­toral pol­i­tics, but that would be the wrong move and would play into the hands of those (Repub­li­can and Demo­c­rat) eager to see the Left dis­en­gage. The Left needs to con­tin­ue its quest for polit­i­cal pow­er, build­ing on the exam­ple of bold fight­ers like Sen­a­tor Sanders, Con­gress­women Alexan­dria Oca­sio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar and Rashi­da Tlaib, as well as local politi­cians such as Durham, North Carolina’s Jil­lian John­son and Seattle’s Kshama Sawant. In the com­ing months we can still get behind inspir­ing can­di­dates like Nikil Saval who is run­ning for state leg­is­la­ture in Penn­syl­va­nia, Cori Bush who is run­ning for the U.S. House of Rep­re­sen­ta­tives in Mis­souri, Jabari Brisport for New York’s state sen­ate and Sandy Nurse for city coun­cil in New York City. We need these folks to win now more than ever.

Beat­ing Don­ald Trump is, of course, imper­a­tive. But that doesn’t mean we need to treat Joe Biden with kid gloves. He must make con­ces­sions to the Left and earn our votes. An emerg­ing coali­tion of young move­ment lead­ers are already mak­ing demands on the Biden cam­paign, insist­ing that he adopt a range of pro­gres­sive pol­i­cy posi­tions that mat­ter to the younger gen­er­a­tion. Their ini­tia­tive deserves sup­port. The Debt Col­lec­tive, a union for debtors I helped found, will also be push­ing him to com­mit to can­cel­ing all stu­dent debt — a move that makes even more fis­cal sense giv­en the eco­nom­ic dis­as­ter unfold­ing around us. Biden is already mak­ing over­tures in this direc­tion, but has fur­ther to go and must be pres­sured.

Impor­tant as it may be, mak­ing demands of Biden is low hang­ing fruit. The real take­away from this pri­ma­ry is that we need to get orga­nized. Our poli­cies may be broad­ly pop­u­lar, but it doesn’t add up to much if we aren’t act­ing col­lec­tive­ly and strate­gi­cal­ly. As long­time activist Yotam Marom recent­ly wrote, There is no skip­ping ahead. Elec­tions are not how our peo­ple will take pow­er. They will be, when we are strong enough, the expres­sion of the pow­er we have already taken.”

What does that mean in prac­tice? It means we need to band togeth­er around our com­mon inter­ests so we can inter­rupt busi­ness as usu­al and demand con­ces­sions. Join or start a union. Find a local Sun­rise hub. Start or sup­port a rent strike in your city. Sign up for the ongo­ing stu­dent debt strike. Log on to a local Indi­vis­i­ble meet­ing. Start pay­ing dues to the Demo­c­ra­t­ic Social­ists of Amer­i­ca or the Debt Col­lec­tive. Run for office. As the bril­liant labor orga­niz­er Jane McAlevey always says, there are no short­cuts to build­ing pow­er for reg­u­lar peo­ple. This is nit­ty grit­ty work that has to be done rela­tion­ship by rela­tion­ship, day by day.

Like so many oth­ers, I didn’t just want Sanders to change the dis­course” or win the ide­o­log­i­cal war.” I want­ed him to win the elec­tion. But I also knew it was an incred­i­ble long­shot. We’ve made progress, even if we haven’t reached our goal. The fact that his cam­paign got as far as it did sig­nals a mas­sive sea change. A demo­c­ra­t­ic social­ist can win mil­lions of votes in Amer­i­ca. A decade ago I nev­er would have believed such a thing to be pos­si­ble, and that’s our new foun­da­tion to build from.

His­to­ry will look back kind­ly on Sanders. The ques­tion is how gen­er­a­tions to come will look back on the rest of us — the us” of the Sanders campaign’s rous­ing slo­gan. Let’s make the future proud.

Views expressed are the author’s. As a 501©3 non­prof­it, In These Times does not sup­port or oppose any can­di­date for polit­i­cal office.

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