By Peter Frase
I swore I wasn’t going to do this, but here I go joining in with the endless commentaries on Bernie Sanders, who has at long last announced his candidacy for a Presidential election almost two years away.
To get one thing out of the way: I support Bernie Sanders. I will vote for him in the primaries. I will canvass for him. I still have a Bernie Sanders sign in front of my house, just waiting for me to take a marker and scrawl “2020” across it. None of the other candidates are remotely a match to Bernie; they range from obvious frauds and hacks like Cory Booker and Amy Klobuchar, to plausibly left liberal but non-socialist options like Elizabeth Warren.
For even social democracy, let alone socialism, it’s still Bernie. I still wish there was another option, someone a bit fresher, a bit less of a lone-wolf survivor politician. But it’s clear that the rising generation, the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez generation, isn’t quite ready for the Presidency. So Bernie it is.
What I’m concerned with however, is less Bernie’s campaign than its effect on the left in general, and on my organization, the Democratic Socialists of America, in particular. Already, the National Political Committee is contemplating a formal endorsement, and a number of local chapters have already committed to going all in on Bernie 2020.
It’s obvious why this is tempting. Bernie 2016 was both a huge surprise and an enormous boon to the left, and there’s no way DSA would be pushing past 50,000 members without Bernie-mania and the attendant newfound interest in “democratic socialism” among a newly activated layer of young and old activists.
Some among DSA’s current leadership clearly see a renewed Bernie campaign as a recipe for more of the same: get people out for Bernie, and then recruit them into DSA to continue the struggle. And no doubt this will be true to some extent. But it seems unlikely that there is another huge pool of people left to be activated in this way; more likely, we will mostly see a re-activation of the same people who were Bernie die-hards in 2016. That’s reflected in the hundreds of thousands of people who rushed to give him their small donations yesterday. Certainly that’s what’s been happening in my social media environment, for whatever that’s worth. And of course he is also reactivating the small core of liberals and leftists who are heavily invested in resenting Bernie and his fans.
Moreover, the expectations and potential impact of Bernie’s candidacy are completely different this time around. In 2016, he came out of nowhere and offered, for the first time in many years, a clear alternative to a field that was still stuck in the doldrums of 1990s-vintage Clintonian centrism. For 2020, he will be competing against savvy opponents who realize that they need to co-opt his positions; witness the embrace of “Medicare for All” by figures who would have dismissed it out of hand a few years ago.
But even if the 2020 campaign isn’t going to have the same payoff in terms of new socialists or DSA members, it might still be worth it. And I think it’s inevitable, and probably wise, that a lot of DSA energy, nationally and locally, ends up going into the Bernie campaign at some point. There are, however, some costs to creating a too-close identification between DSA the organization, democratic socialism the ideology, and Bernie Sanders the person, whose own idiosyncratic “democratic socialism” doesn’t necessarily match mine, Michael Harrington’s, or anybody else’s.
The short term problem with identifying DSA as the party of Bernie (who may still not even be a member, and certainly is neither a leader of DSA nor accountable to it), is that we end up forced to either defend or repudiate his less enlightened positions.
I’m not even talking about the vague insinuations that Bernie is racist, or sexist, or that his followers are all a bunch of harassment-crazed Bernie Bros. Off social media, I think these charges are neither very compelling nor very effective. And given the makeup of his staff, I anticipate less awkward missteps this time around, even if the candidate himself is sometimes still prone to awkward “color-blind” rhetoric.
What’s more concerning are substantive political stances that are, to me at least, inconsistent with emancipatory socialist politics, of which two leap immediately to mind. First is the legislation called FOSTA-SESTA. These bills are promoted as remedies to sex trafficking, but sex workers have repeatedly warned that their real impact is to make their work and their lives more difficult and dangerous. Bernie was far from the only progressive to support these bills, but that’s all the more reason to stake out an independent left standpoint from which to critique him on this.
Another example speaks to Bernie’s overall weakness on foreign policy, which has been a consistent shortcoming throughout his time in the spotlight. When right wing opposition leader Juan Guaído attempted to seize power in a coup in Venezuela, Sanders released a tepid statement that, while not endorsing the coup, led with a denunciation of the elected Maduro government and its alleged “violent crackdown on Venezuelan civil society.” While Maduro certainly deserves criticism, this is hardly an adequate response.
One could also mention, in this vein, the response to the bogus controversy over Rep. Ilhan Omar’s “anti-semitic” criticism of AIPAC. It’s nice that Bernie eventually called to offer her his support, and nothing he said about it was particularly bad. But in a situation where Bernie is treated as the mascot for American socialism, even an inadequate response can look like a bad one.
All of this makes the case for both diversifying our figureheads and maintaining some critical distance from any elected politician. And it’s possible that DSA will succeed in doing that even if it gives Bernie an early endorsement, as seems likely. But I’m also concerned about the ramifications for DSA in the aftermath of the campaign, whatever its outcome. So let’s run through the possibilities.
First, Bernie could lose in the primaries. This, of course, is what happened last time, and it led directly to a huge surge in DSA members and chapters. But there’s no reason to think this phenomenon would repeat itself. Recall that both the near-success of Bernie and the election of Trump came as big surprises to most people who experienced them. Thus Bernie’s loss felt like a win relative to expectations, while Trump felt like an unexpected defeat that could be attributed to the weakness of Clinton and her ideology.
None of that will be true this time. “Bernie would have won” has already turned into “Bernie will win,” and any other outcome will be demoralizing and demobilizing. Moreover, it will lead to a period of recriminations over whether and how to support the Democratic nominee, who will, superficially and at the level of rhetoric, appear far more appealing to the left than Hillary Clinton. This does not strike me as a recipe for building socialism.
The second possibility is that Bernie wins the primary and loses the general election. This might be marginally better for the left, as it would at least feel like progress, and some sort of victory. But that would likely be outweighed by the immense demoralization caused by four more years of Trump (or Pence, or whoever), an outcome that liberals will rush to pin on Sanders and his supporters. In the aftermath, we will be asked to fall in line with liberals and centrists in the name of a popular front against fascism or some such.
The third and best case scenario, of course, is that Bernie Sanders becomes President of the United States. The problem with this scenario, however, is that now Bernie Sanders is President of the United States. Even with a favorable congress, he is unlikely to be able to pass a lot of his agenda, and so we will begin to see what compromises a President Sanders is actually willing to make.
That will be fine as long as we get that thing we’re always promised when the left goes into electoral work: a mobilized mass base to hold those damn politicians accountable! This is going to be hard to pull off, though, if a big chunk of the left, including DSA, has gone even farther down the road of a personality cult around Daddy Bernie. If Bernie is equated with socialism, then criticizing him—much less protesting him—must be a betrayal of the political revolution. That’s not to say we’ll end up totally demobilized the way the Obama movement was after 2008, if only because Sanders has much better politics and is unlikely to actively work against an independent left the way Obama did. But all of this will be easier if we clearly separate the socialist movement from the Sanders campaign.
I’ll add one final caveat to all of this. The impact of the Bernie 2020 campaign on local organizations, DSA and otherwise, will greatly depend on the viability of local socialist candidates—one, two, many AOCs and Julia Salazars. In any of the three scenarios outlined above, it will be possible to declare victory based on local struggles even if Bernie is a bust. Which brings me back to the In These Times editorial I linked at the outset: local base-building and cultivating successful local candidates is still the key task. Bernie-related energy will hopefully provide a boost to that work, but hopefully that can happen without conflating the movement for socialism and the movement for Bernie.
Peter Frase is a member of Hudson Valley Democratic Socialists of America.