Memo to Bernie: Change The Narrative

Bernie Sanders Rally in Portland Maine

By Bill Fletcher

Every four years, hopefuls announce their presidential ambitions, and that giant sucking sound is people being pulled into different candidates’ campaigns. Some leftists sit it out, others work for the lesser evil. And afterward, we don’t do any electoral work for four years. We miss the midterms and local races. And at no point do we stop and say, not, “Who’s going into the White House?” but “How do we take over Iowa?” This is because the left does not have a national electoral strategy.

The right wing, on the other hand, has a finely developed strategy. In the 1960s, after Barry Goldwater’s defeat, the right was fragmented about what strategy to pursue. Richard Viguerie homed in on George Wallace’s populist appeal. Viguerie and others on the right understood the potential for creating a reactionary populist movement nationally. And they understood it had to be done on three different levels: electoral, legal, and mass. They began a long-term process aimed at reversing the twentieth century. And they’ve almost succeeded.

They concentrated on local elections that many of us thought insignificant: education boards, city councils, sheriff’s departments, etc. And many on the left, like me, abstained from electoral politics, even as the right metastasized. Many of us still think that the real activism is only in the streets. We don’t recognize what the right does, which is that you’ve got to combine these. In the 1970s, the mass movements the right energized—the anti-busing movement, the anti-abortion movement, the pro-gun movement—were successes. In building these movements they made it clear that a person could self-select one over the other. What mattered most was who was at the top directing traffic. At the top was an entire network of right-wing operatives. There is no network of left-wing operatives, nor should there be, but there is also no national strategy.

The left is in a race against time. During economic crises, right-wing populism rises. It is also emerging in response to the progressive victories that have been won over the years, as segments of the white population feel increasingly precarious. Their downward mobility makes them vulnerable to coded (and not so coded) messages that it doesn’t “pay” to be white anymore. Right-wing populists say, “We have to retake America,” and by “we,” they mean people who they believe are being abused by . . . Pick your category: the Eastern establishment; Jews, if there is a financial crisis; black folks; women going crazy, and on and on.

Right-wing populists understand that winning people over involves creating a narrative. Their narrative is absolutely clear and comprehensive. It blames people of color, new immigrants, Muslims, Jews, etc. The left thinks that the facts make up a narrative. If people get the facts, they will understand what’s happening to them. This is not true. People understand stories, and they need to see themselves in the story. Bernie Sanders lacks a story that includes all segments of society, and it is that lack of a clear, comprehensive, and true narrative that is a key problem with the Sanders campaign.

Yes, the Sanders campaign has huge potential, but contrast it with Jesse Jackson’s in 1988. Unlike Sanders, Jackson created a broad narrative into which people could insert themselves. The Sanders narrative is certainly consistent: there are millionaires and now billionaires controlling everything; the political system is corrupt; there is great economic inequality; and working people are being crushed.

That’s not enough to explain what’s going on. Where does police violence fit in? Where does the fact that even as things get worse for the average white worker, they are far worse for those of us of color? And in the international realm, the world has changed. How does the United States become a global partner rather than a global bully? Where does its role fit into the narrative?

The left has to push Sanders to fill out the picture. At this writing, the campaign has resisted doing so. Dizzy with success, they don’t believe it needs adjusting. Yes, there have been some changes, but they have not been integrated into the entire narrative.

This winter, Sanders had an exchange with Ta-Nehisi Coates around slavery reparations in which he said basically that reparations were unrealistic and that his economic program would benefit people who were at a disadvantage because of the legacy of slavery. His response misses the point. The issue is not fundamentally about reparations, but about how white America perceives white supremacy. If I were advising the campaign, I’d say, “Senator, why not phrase it as, “The damage created by hundreds of years of slavery, segregation, and de facto segregation must be repaired. I may not agree with reparations, but I do believe that things need to be done that specifically aim at repairing the damage.’”

This may be semantical, but in such a response, he would acknowledge that there is something in how the system works that will not be resolved by the proverbial rising tide lifting all boats. The maritime metaphor for our situation is the Titanic, on which steerage passengers were the first to die.
That’s how capitalism operates. Some of us are locked in steerage. We may be in the same boat, but people suffer from being in different locations. Some can get off safely. Others can’t.

Instituting mega-economic reforms is not enough for the people in steerage. Every time we talk about a narrative of the United States, we’re talking about both the existence of systemic racist oppression and about capitalist domination and exploitation. Neglecting either part of that narrative at the expense of the other is the principal weakness of the Sanders campaign. Race and gender tend to be his afterthoughts.

Contrast that to the Jackson ’88 campaign. Let me give an example from my personal experience. I was asked to serve as a Jackson surrogate at a campaign rally in Jay, Maine. The audience was completely white. When I was introduced as being from the Jackson campaign, the room went wild. People said Jackson had been there a few weeks before, and he was their champion. That visceral identification with Jackson was common. He would go to Kansas and talk to white farmers, and they loved him. They saw him as their champion, too.

Jackson did not segment his narrative. Yes, he spoke to specific issues faced by various parts of the population, but his overall narrative was about what was happening to working people in the USA. He was discussing the disappearance of hope and the way that what we now call neoliberal globalization was crushing their lives. I have not come across any African American or Latino community that looks at Sanders as a champion, as our champion.

Sanders needs to be walking Native American reservations. He needs to be in San Juan, talking about colonialism and the economic crisis. He needs to be walking through Bedford-Stuyvesant. He needs to be sitting down and talking with community leaders.

He once said that he thought that the problem was that not enough black Americans and Latinos really knew him. The better response is, “It’s my obligation to get into the communities, to meet with the leaders, to listen to what they have to say, and to unite them with the campaign.” If he can’t see that, it’s our job to make sure he does, and to make him and his campaign uncomfortable until they understand what they have to do if they want to win.

Activist and writer Bill Fletcher, Jr. served as a senior staff person in the AFL-CIO and as former president of TransAfrica Forum. He is an editorial board member of This article is adapted from a talk given to the Washington, DC local of Democratic Socialists of America in January 2016. Transcribed by Theresa Alt.

This article originally appeared in the spring 2016 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

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