Don’t Endorse Bernie Yet—Make Candidates Compete for the Left Vote

Keep the left lane open.

Sean McElwee

The Left must be open to candidates other than Bernie Sanders for the 2020 presidential election. (Gage Skidmore/Flickr)

For oth­er per­spec­tives on this debate, read Peter Frase and Bri­hana Gray

Bernie Sanders stands out among poten­tial 2020 can­di­dates as hav­ing the strongest and longest-stand­ing com­mit­ment to left prin­ci­ples. But the ques­tion at hand is strat­e­gy. Should left­ist orga­ni­za­tions imme­di­ate­ly endorse Sanders and begin prepar­ing to cam­paign for him? The answer is no. There are strate­gic ben­e­fits to waiting.

All politi­cians are fun­da­men­tal­ly actors bound in a com­plex deci­sion matrix of pow­er and influ­ence. Our first pri­or­i­ty should be to change the matrix rather than pick our favorite actors.

For one, there are rea­sons to believe that endorse­ments don’t cre­ate mean­ing­ful account­abil­i­ty. Look to the Work­ing Fam­i­lies Par­ty (WFP). In both 2010 and 2014, the WFP pro­vid­ed Con­necti­cut Gov. Dan­nel Mal­loy the mar­gin he need­ed to win, but Mal­loy did not gov­ern as a pro­gres­sive. In fact, he chose not to seek re-elec­tion this year because his rela­tion­ship with pro­gres­sives is so bad. In 2003, New York City Coun­cil can­di­date Leti­tia James became the first can­di­date to win a nom­i­na­tion on a WFP line. But in her cur­rent run for attor­ney gen­er­al, she aligned close­ly with Gov. Andrew Cuo­mo and announced she would not seek the WFP line.

To be clear, it is unlike­ly Sanders would aban­don his left ideals. But there are still issues where the Left is pulling him along, such as abol­ish­ing ICE— where he has moved — and sex work­ers’ rights, where he is still behind. Endors­ing ear­ly would not help push him, and would make it less like­ly that oth­er can­di­dates attempt to court the left vote.

A strat­e­gy based around the pow­er and vis­i­bil­i­ty of par­tic­u­lar can­di­dates is dan­ger­ous for oth­er rea­sons. The domes­tic abuse alle­ga­tions sur­round­ing Rep. Kei­th Elli­son make clear the need for a broad bench. 

The Left’s goal should be two-fold: Gain the same access to can­di­dates that cor­po­rate Amer­i­ca now has, and cre­ate an influ­en­tial ide­o­log­i­cal project on the scale of the Koch Brothers’.

The Kochs have data capac­i­ty, build pipelines for can­di­dates and staffers, and gen­er­ate exten­sive pol­i­cy infor­ma­tion and polling data — all of which the Left can repli­cate. It does no good to have 30 pro­gres­sive endorsees win if they’re still rely­ing on the same con­sul­tants, staffers and pol­i­cy briefs as every oth­er Demo­c­ra­t­ic politician. 

The Pro­gres­sive Tal­ent Pipeline, which con­nects pro­gres­sives to leg­isla­tive posi­tions in Wash­ing­ton, D.C., is a pos­i­tive exam­ple of build­ing pol­i­cy capac­i­ty. Think tanks like People’s Pol­i­cy Project and Data for Progress (which I co-found­ed) pro­vide infor­ma­tion that changes pol­i­cy and strate­gic cal­cu­la­tions. In addi­tion, the Left needs to build up capac­i­ties for block-and-tack­le pol­i­tics: run­ning NGP VAN soft­ware, field­ing polls, shoot­ing ads, buy­ing ad time. We need talk­ing points, one-pagers and think tanks that gen­er­ate influ­ence whether our can­di­dates win or lose. For the time being, those capac­i­ties should be avail­able to as broad a group of Democ­rats as pos­si­ble to encour­age all can­di­dates to lend us their ears.

We also need lit­mus tests to pow­er pri­ma­ry chal­lenges. Abol­ish ICE proved to be a flash­point for Alexan­dria Ocasio-Cortez’s cam­paign. In Illinois’s Third Con­gres­sion­al Dis­trict, abor­tion could be that spark against pro-life Demo­c­rat Dan Lip­in­s­ki. Pow­er comes from set­ting these stan­dards and forc­ing can­di­dates to meet them, which is active­ly under­mined by endors­ing early.

The suc­cess of left ideas attests to the real­i­ty that Medicare for All, abol­ish­ing ICE and oth­er goals have weight. If the left lane is open, can­di­dates beyond Sanders will vie for it. The Left must be posi­tioned to wield influence.

Sean McEl­wee is a co-founder of Data for Progress and tweets at @SeanMcElwee.
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