What a Bernie Sanders Presidency Would Look Like
The possibilities of an “organizer-in-chief.”
What a Bernie Sanders Presidency Would Look Like
The possibilities of an “organizer-in-chief.”
January 7 | January 2020 Issue
This is one of two cover stories of our dual-sided January issue. For a complementary perspective, read the alternate cover feature, ”What an Elizabeth Warren Presidency Would Look Like,“ by Kathleen Geier.
We have a decade to transform the U.S. economy to stave off climate catastrophe, and Bernie Sanders has the only agenda to do so and the only mobilization strategy to get it done. No plan for a better future is worthwhile if environmental crisis renders our future unimaginably bleak.
As Naomi Klein notes, this planetary emergency “entered mainstream consciousness” in the 1980s as the Right and big business launched an “ideological war … on the very idea of the collective sphere.” To take the collective action needed to phase out fossil fuels, our next president must build a foreign policy of radical cooperation alongside a new domestic politics of inclusion—or else witness a racist, nationalist, far-right politics expand its divisive power.
Sanders is the only presidential candidate who has put forward a genuine Green New Deal, a plan to radically remake the economy to serve ordinary people rather than just “greening” the economic system that threatens to end human society as we know it. His Green New Deal would dismantle the fossil fuel industry and put a renewable energy system under democratic control, working with governments around the world to achieve what the science demands.
Sanders’ proposals go beyond piecemeal liberal solutions by targeting the unjust economic system that fuels climate change and pushing an agenda that simultaneously empowers workers and saves the planet. This agenda would help millions of workers join unions, give workers an ownership stake in major corporations, provide universal healthcare and tuition-free higher education, build millions of affordable homes and protect (rather than target) immigrants.
Though President Sanders could execute parts of this agenda on his own, much of it would require Congress. How could it pass, given Republican extremism and likely pushback from even a Democrat-controlled House and Senate? The question poses a serious problem for any program that meets our challenge. And it is one Sanders is uniquely positioned to solve.
Sanders understands that change at this scale will require mass movements to pressure Congress and every level of government—and to change their composition. Americans isolated and atomized by cutthroat capitalism must engage in massive collective action. His political program isn’t just about policy, then, but about the capacity of ordinary people to participate in democracy. This disruption includes, critically, his plans to facilitate direct participation in decisions from our workplaces to our energy systems, shifting the balance of power in our society. No one contends that Sanders alone will spark, let alone be, a mass movement. The Sanders campaign slogan, “Not Me. Us.,” conveys precisely that. Sanders, as he puts it, is “gonna be organizer-in-chief.”
Sanders’ Green New Deal plan, which builds on the resolution introduced by Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-N.Y.) and Sen. Ed Markey (D-Mass.), will take massive organization to make a reality. His plan alone among Democratic candidates takes seriously the massive public spending ($16.3 trillion, to be exact, much more than Sen. Elizabeth Warren proposes) needed to reach 100% renewable electricity and transportation by 2030 with full decarbonization by 2050, a reorientation of public priorities (diverting $1.215 trillion from “military spending on protecting the global oil supply”), the creation of 20 million jobs, and unprecedented levels of public-sector coordination and social mobilization. Sanders is the only candidate who identifies the private ownership of energy as a core problem, calling out the “greed” in our for-profit system, from investor-owned utilities like California’s Pacific Gas and Electric Co. to the fossil fuel companies that collect billions in federal subsidies while contaminating the planet. Saving the planet is impossible without heightening class conflict.
Sanders’ critics who say he would never be able to get much done simply haven’t been paying attention: Sanders’ record of connecting to mass mobilizations and dramatically reshaping public debates sets him apart. Before he ran in 2016, for example, Medicare for All was deemed a pipe dream; now, it’s a center of attention. Unlike Warren, who in her constant equivocation has managed to elicit criticism from all directions, Sanders pledges to introduce Medicare for All legislation during his first week in office. And he has responded to the mainstreaming of Medicare for All by pushing politics in yet more radical directions.
The fight of this generation depends not only on putting forth good policies but on a powerful revival of collective politics. With control of the White House, Sanders and the movements rallied around him could do huge things.
Since the 1970s, American politics has been stunted by neoliberal governance, which invokes “free markets” to protect capital from democratic control and grind down the unions that once checked corporate power. Many came to believe change is impossible, even as capitalism’s costs shifted onto ordinary people and exploited their social bonds to keep the broken system from going off the rails. Young people must borrow for education against their future and their parents’ assets; women can be trapped in abusive relationships because of expensive childcare, low wages and high rents.
Sanders takes neoliberalism’s atomizing points of domination and transforms them into a set of demands for collective freedom, with policies like Medicare for All, free public higher education, universal childcare and pre-K, and the abolition of student and medical debt. These policies would help break the cycle of privatized financial burden and, in doing so, free people to engage in more radicalized struggle.
Sanders’ homes guarantee and Green New Deal for Public Housing, introduced with Ocasio-Cortez, would deliver direct economic benefits while empowering the working class and cutting carbon emissions. Real estate assets, as of 2017, were worth an estimated $228 trillion, “a more valuable asset class than all stocks, shares and securitized debt combined,” according to Savills World Research. As such, they have been a key driver of inequality and household indebtedness. Real estate speculation also, of course, helped spark the global financial crash of 2008.
Building 10 million permanently affordable homes, investing in shared equity homeownership models like community land trusts, enacting nationwide rent control, and upgrading and expanding public housing with local renewable energy would be revolutionary in a country where more than 500,000 people are homeless on any given night, tens of millions pay more than a third or even half their income in rent, and poor people live under the continual threat of eviction. Making housing affordable would make people less urgently dependent on their paychecks. Sanders also pledges to attack the residential segregation and gentrification that consign poor, racialized communities to second-class schools, insecure housing and subpar public services.
Our economic system is protected by racist repression, which divides ordinary people and scapegoats people of color, foreigners and, increasingly since the 9/11 attacks, Muslims. Sanders’ programs break down these barriers and defend immigrant labor rights against boss abuses. His core universal social programs, Medicare for All and College for All, are truly universal, available regardless of immigration status.
“Bernie’s immigration plan is revolutionary,” Sanders’ Latino Press Secretary Belén Sisa says, because it identifies undocumented immigrants as us rather than them. Sanders denounces exploitative corporations as enemies of all workers, foreign and U.S.-born alike, a rejection of nativist politics long organized around the demonization of immigrants as a threat to jobs and welfare benefits.
Sanders’ legislative priorities include expanding immigration visas to reunite families and providing citizenship to the overwhelming majority of undocumented Americans. Critically, Sanders rejects the immigration reform model of the George W. Bush and Obama years, in which establishment politicians increased deportations and militarized the border in a bid to garner right-wing support for a path to citizenship that never passed.
In fact, Sanders has said he would use executive actions to reverse this trend, no congressional approval necessary—by placing a moratorium on deportations, offering permanent protection to many undocumented immigrants and raising the refugee cap—ending the long-standing bipartisan war on “illegal immigrants” that mainstreamed nativism. Notably, his legislative agenda includes a bold new program for climate refugees.
Sanders’ immigration politics reflects his movement’s maximally expansive definition of the American people. His pledge to finally protect LGBTQ people from discrimination in housing, the workplace and public accommodations does the same. Another example is his pledge to not only support abortion as a legal right but make it freely available through Medicare for All.
Sanders’ universalism extends to the fight against the mass social death imposed by mass incarceration. Policing and prisons have been used to discipline, control and warehouse poor people, especially communities of color, pushed to the margins under neoliberalism. The majority of prisoners are incarcerated at the state level, so what a president can do is limited. But Sanders can still make change, including by reforming the federal system. While Sanders should do better and shift his position to support sex work decriminalization, his plans are solid: He seeks to end mandatory minimum sentences, withhold money from states that refuse to end cash bail (which incarcerates people for being poor), grant voting rights to prisoners and triple spending on indigent defense. Importantly, he pledges to end programs like 287(g) and Secure Communities that have turned local law enforcement into proxy ICE agents. Sanders’ agenda is comprehensively about our freedom from bosses, debt, landlords, ICE and prisons—and from fossil-fueled catastrophe, which is the freedom that guarantees all others.
Unions remain the unrivaled vehicle for building worker power, but Democrats have long failed to deliver for organized labor. Sanders’ commitment would be without precedent: He pledges to double the number of union members during his first term.
Sanders backs neglected Democratic goals like card check—the ability to form unions with a simple majority of workers’ signatures—as well as measures to make labor actions more powerful, like banning the permanent replacement of strikers and allowing “secondary boycotts,” in which workers in a labor dispute pressure other companies to stop doing business with their employer. What makes Sanders unique is his track record and our trust he will actually fight for workers.
Sanders’ labor plan also stands out with measures to bolster worker power broadly. Ending at-will employment would mean that workers could only be fired for just cause, universalizing a cornerstone of union contracts. Instituting wage boards would allow unions to work together to push wages up across an industry, rather than fighting out contracts with individual companies.
Imposing additional taxes on corporations corresponding to their CEO-to-worker pay gap would progressively raise tax revenue while curbing inequality. Giving workers the right to buy a company if it closes, moves abroad or goes up for sale would tame hyper-mobile capital. Ending stock buybacks would redirect capital from investors and CEOs to workers and productive investments. Allocating workers at large companies control of 45% of board seats and 20% of shares would provide labor with new levers over corporate governance and check one of the key drivers of wealth inequality.
In addition to these legislative goals, Sanders pledges to sign an executive order placing a moratorium on all pension cuts and another ending government contracts to companies that take a variety of anti-worker actions. As Sanders told a crowd of union members in Warren, Ohio, near the recently shuttered Lordstown factory that produced the Chevy Cruze: “If entities like General Motors think that they can throw workers out on the street while they’re making billions of profit, and then move to Mexico and pay starvation wages and then line up for federal contracts, they’ve got another thing coming.”
Transformative change often depends on disruptive mass movements: Worker strikes in the 1930s created massive unions and forced the federal government to protect them, the 20th-century Black freedom struggle broke racist Southern politicians’ stranglehold, the gay liberation movement eroded oppressive mores and defended the lives of HIV-positive people, and the immigrant rights movement successfully curbed Obama’s deportations.
Today, young people are coming of age at a moment when neoliberalism’s legitimacy is in tatters from the 2008 crisis. The Great Recession revealed the status quo as fragile and intolerable, and Occupy Wall Street, radical immigrant rights activists and Black Lives Matter demanded a new politics in its place.
One of the most unusual aspects of Sanders’ rhetoric is his willingness to speak about how broken America is for so many: the bills that never end, the debt that accumulates, the corporate intrusion into every facet of life. As Briahna Joy Gray, Sanders’ national press secretary, said on her podcast Hear the Bern, Bernie rallies are so passionate because “Bernie articulates more clearly than any other candidate that the problems facing everyday Americans are not the result of laziness or failure to work hard; it’s because systems have been rigged to benefit the rich at our expense.” Speaking that truth is a prerequisite for transformation.
Generational experience is the motor of this new class politics: With little chance of upward mobility, many young people are hell-bent on something new and better, evidenced by the Democratic Socialists of America becoming the largest and most consequential socialist organization in over half a century. The Left is winning electoral victories, from radical district attorneys in Philadelphia and San Francisco to six socialists on Chicago’s city council. Teachers strikes have soared, and healthcare and hotel workers have walked out in large numbers, too.
“People are always befuddled in the early stages of a movement,” says Frances Fox-Piven, co-author of the classic Poor People’s Movements: Why They Succeed, How They Fail. “They don’t recognize that it’s there. But it is here … teachers, nurses, service workers generally are in strike mode. Whenever there’s a major movement, it, in a sense, is contagious.” Fox-Piven emphasizes how radical movements and politicians need one another:
Disruption doesn’t work unless there is a kind of electoral resonance. A bloc of elected politicians [can] inspire the protesters because it’s scary to be disruptive, dangerous. And it really helps if you have political leaders who are echoing and enlarging the demands of the protesters. That gives morale to the protest movement. They think they can win. It’s also true that the existence of an electoral bloc like that is important in restraining repression. And finally, if the protesters actually win something as a result of the disruption that they cause, they have to have people in positions in government to fashion the concessions. So there’s a constant feedback between the protest movement and their electoral bloc.
The congressional bloc we need is emerging in embryonic form with leaders like Ocasio-Cortez and Reps. Ilhan Omar (D-Minn.) and Rashida Tlaib (D-Mich.), all of whom have endorsed Sanders. Ocasio-Cortez exemplifies how movements can win electoral power and, in turn, strengthen movements: She came to political consciousness because of her experience working in the service industry, volunteering on the 2016 Sanders campaign and supporting indigenous anti-pipeline water protectors at Standing Rock.
“While we have a plan and while we have an agenda to pass a Green New Deal, to pass Medicare for All, to make public colleges tuition-free … the thing is that these policies are not self-enacting,” Ocasio-Cortez told a Sanders rally in Council Bluffs, Iowa. “The only way that we achieve and become an advanced society is not through a technocratic policy proposal, but through a political revolution of working people.”
I asked Fox-Piven if this wouldn’t be rather hard to achieve. “Very difficult,” she confirmed. “The movements have to take on the fossil fuel industry and the financial sector. This should make you gulp because they’re both powerful—and in the case of fossil fuels, desperate—industries. But that’s our only path out of extinction, isn’t it?”
It’s clear that a radical president can shift a party’s center of gravity: Republican public opinion— on immigration, Russia, the FBI—has rapidly moved to align with Trump’s views, and Republican politicians have largely done the same. A Sanders presidency would polarize the national debate in a similar way, pressuring Democratic legislators to side with their leader over the inevitably fanatical Republican opposition.
In fact, Sanders’ movement is already doing just that: No single figure or force aside from Trump has done more to reframe the terms of American politics over the past four years.
Sanders’ political rise emerged from (and accelerated) a crisis of the centrist liberal establishment. Witness the elite panic and personal arrogance that has sent Deval Patrick and Michael Bloomberg rushing in to relieve and replace Joe Biden, their tottering standard-bearer. Still, while the old world is dying, its replacement with something better is not inevitable. A growing number of college-educated white voters, for instance, are turning to Mayor Pete Buttigieg, a former McKinsey consultant whose only consistent belief is in his own greatness. When Sanders insists that “we need to not only defeat Donald Trump, but to take back our democracy from the corporate elite,” he is drawing a line in the sand and indicting the status quo: If Democrats aren’t with the people, then they’re standing against them.
Effective left populism requires a vision of the people and their enemy. This movement’s enemies are the few: a greedy and pathologically destructive billionaire class; the fossil fuel, pharmaceutical, insurance and financial industries. By contrast, the people contains multitudes: a diverse coalition of the working and precarious middle classes. Though powered at present by mass youth appeal, a Sanders victory could rapidly energize skeptical Gen X and Boomer voters whose political horizons have shrunk under the decades-long neoliberal onslaught.
Sanders’ program unifies the interests of working-class people without erasing their differences. His deep support in the Latino community and the remarkable enthusiasm he’s generated among Muslims illuminate the contours of a potential realignment that puts those most demonized by the xenophobic Right at the core of a powerful Left. His October 2019 Queens, N.Y., rally with Ocasio-Cortez emphasized the ethical basis of a political coalition rooted in love and solidarity: “Take a look around you, and find someone you don’t know,” Bernie told the crowd. “Maybe somebody who doesn’t look kind of like you. Are you willing to fight for that person as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself?”
Sanders’ plan to win the general election in red states like West Virginia likewise holds out the possibility that a multiracial working-class coalition can subvert the social divide. When Sanders was asked whether West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin or Montana Sen. Jon Tester, both centrist Democrats, would vote for his programs, his response was blunt. “Damn right they will. You know why? We’re going to go to West Virginia,” Sanders told CNBC. “Your average politician sits around and he or she thinks: ‘Let’s see. If I do this, I’m going to have the big money interests putting 30-second ads against me. So I’d better not do it.’ But now they’re going to have to think, ‘If I don’t support an agenda that works for working people, I’m going to have President Sanders coming to my state and rallying working-class people.’” That’s not fantastical. The working class in West Virginia is restless, with a wildcat teachers strike shaking the state in 2018 and sparking further walkouts in Arizona and Oklahoma. A recent poll shows that a full 69% of West Virginia voters continue to support teachers striking for higher pay. The legislative agenda of any Democratic president depends on a seismic political shift in enough red and purple states that Democrats capture both the House and Senate, and remaking the electoral map requires deepening these movements’ power. Sanders has already used his campaign database to push supporters to the picket lines and could lead a far more massive mobilization from the Oval Office. As sociologist Barry Eidlin notes, FDR’s signing of a 1933 law protecting unions helped spark mass labor organizing in the 1930s, even though the law had no practical enforcement mechanism. Imagine the power of a president using a primetime address to offer his solidarity to a strike wave. It would be historic—and transformative.
Sanders promises to reshape the global order by exercising U.S. power in pursuit of negotiated geopolitical settlements—above all, on the environment. And nowhere does an American president have more concrete power than in the realm of foreign policy and national security.
Unlike Elizabeth Warren, who has no substantive critique of American empire, Sanders has straightforwardly denounced the military-industrial complex, has long voted no on defense budgets, and stands alone in his consistent support for making the United States a partner to Global South struggles. In the 1980s, Sanders stood in solidarity with Central American revolutionaries against the Reagan administration’s bloody support of oligarchs. Recently, Sanders cheered the release from prison of Lula da Silva, Brazil’s former Workers’ Party president, and quickly denounced the November 2019 coup in Bolivia for what it was.
The potential a president has to unilaterally reorder the global power system has been demonstrated by none other than our current president. His behavior has been so erratic that Saudi Arabia is reported to have quietly reached out to Iran, hedging against the possibility that they might one day be unable to rely on U.S. military protection. Imagine what might be possible if Sanders, a relentless critic of the Saudi royal family and the war it leads against Yemen, pushed for a negotiated settlement among rival regional powers.
Sanders could likewise provide unprecedented hope for tipping the balance in favor of the Palestinian liberation struggle. Though imperfect on the issue, Sanders has broken with the pro-Israel bipartisan consensus more than almost any member of Congress.
U.S. foreign policy has long been driven by national security concerns that in reality reflect not any “national interest” but rather the interests of major corporations and the national security state’s conventional wisdom. In 2015, Obama adviser David Axelrod called Sanders “tin-eared” for his repeated assertion that climate change was the greatest threat to national security. The Wall Street Journal’s Peggy Noonan called him “slightly daffy.” “Some people laughed in 2015 when Bernie said climate change is the most serious national security challenge we face,” says Matt Duss, Sanders’ top foreign policy advisor. “No one’s laughing now.”
As Sanders has stated, “Our endless entanglements in the Middle East have diverted crucial resources and attention” away from addressing climate change. Instead of more war, Sanders pledges $200 billion for the Green Climate Fund to help the Global South adapt to the climate emergency.
U.S. willingness to commit to deep emissions cuts is a prerequisite for convincing other nations to do the same, as international climate negotiations are governed by a logic akin to that of nuclear disarmament: No one wants to go first and be left vulnerable. China must be convinced that a rapid transition will not undermine its economy. Poor countries across the Global South must be assured they will not simply be denied the fruits of fossil-fueled development already enjoyed by the Global North.
Sanders was clear about that at the September 2019 climate town hall: “I think we need a president, hopefully Bernie Sanders, that reaches out to the world—to Russia and China and India, Pakistan, all the countries of the world—and says, ‘Guess what, whether you like it or not, we are all in this together, and if you are concerned about the children in your country and future generations, we’re gonna have to work together. And maybe, just maybe, instead of spending a trillion and a half dollars every single year on weapons of destruction designed to kill each other, maybe we pool those resources, and we work together against our common enemy, which is climate change.”
Neoliberalism has divided us across borders and atomized our personal lives, leading us to blame ourselves for problems caused by a rigged system. This moment demands a new politics that unites us to confront our shared enemies and transform our society. Sanders consistently argues, “Beating Trump is not good enough.” This is an understatement. The world quite literally depends upon a political revolution. And only Sanders has a plan for that.
This story was produced in collaboration with Jacobin.
is author of All-American Nativism (forthcoming from Verso) and host of The Dig on Jacobin Radio.
The views expressed in this piece are the author's own. As a 501(c)3 nonprofit, In These Times does not oppose or endorse candidates for political office.
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