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Building on the Bernie Movement in Coronavirus Time

Sanders won’t let the people who power the movement he started waste their votes.

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Former Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders in Chicago, Kamil Krzaczynski / AFP via Getty Images

Bernie Sanders’s abrupt suspension of his presidential campaign and rapid endorsement of Joe Biden stunned his most ardent supporters. The Twitterverse teemed with expressions of grief and anger. Some, like his campaign press secretary, Briahna Joy Gray, angrily tweeted that they don’t endorse Biden; others that they would just not be involved. Sanders reacted harshly, denouncing as “irresponsible” those who say they would “choose to sit it out and allow the most dangerous president in modern American history to get reelected.”

The unfortunate exchange implies that activists have to choose between embracing Biden and dropping out. But that ignores the opportunity that derives from what Sanders’s campaign has built—and the imperatives of the mission that Sanders himself laid out.

In announcing its suspension, Bernie Sanders proudly recounted his campaign’s major accomplishments. It won the debate on ideas, broke the monopoly of big money on our politics, and mobilized an unprecedented network of volunteers. It captured the future, winning the vast majority of votes from those 30 and under and the plurality of those under 45 while drawing enormous support among Latinx voters, America’s largest minority.

“We have never been just a campaign,’’ Sanders concluded, “We are a grass-roots, multiracial multigenerational movement.… While this campaign is coming to an end, our movement is not.”

How should that movement continue to build in the face of a savage pandemic, a deepening economic depression, and the threat posed by Trump and his race-based right-wing populism, with Joe Biden the Democratic torchbearer in the presidential race?

Trump must be defeated for any progress to be made, but folding Sanders into the Biden campaign as a surrogate isn’t likely to be credible. What’s needed now is to sustain an independent campaign, making the case for bold reform, running not only through the Democratic convention, if there is one, but through the election and beyond. Sanders would be wise not simply to serve as a figurehead for the effort but to use it to help elevate the next generation of leaders to carry on the struggle.

THE UNITY SHUFFLE

The Biden campaign and the Democratic establishment understandably seek a unified party against Trump. Sanders’s early suspension and endorsement have transformed him from “selfish” villain to “selfless” hero. “An American original,” former president Obama intoned, “who has devoted his life to giving voice to working people’s hopes, dreams, and frustrations.”

Biden needs the support of Sanders’s loyal supporters, particularly the multiracial following he inspired among the young. He has paid Sanders the respect of dealing with him almost as if he were the leader of an independent party entering into an electoral alliance.

Biden called for Sanders to help not only in the campaign but also in governing, pledging to create, “with your help, Bernie,” “one of the most progressive administrations since Roosevelt.”

He embraced parts of the Sanders agenda—tuition-free public college, student debt forgiveness (for those earning less than $125,000), extending Medicare coverage to those 60 and over, and the $15 minimum wage.

Sanders and Biden announced the formation of six joint task forces on major domestic issues—the economy, education, immigration, climate change, and criminal justice—that would seek, in Sanders’s words, “to work out real solutions to these very, very important problems.” Biden’s foreign policy advisers reached out to Sanders’s advisers. Negotiations are beginning about the convention, the party platform, party rules, and staffing. And progressives began lobbying for Biden to pick a progressive vice president.

Given the threat posed by Trump, and Sanders’s personal friendship with Biden, Democratic operatives express confidence that unification may go smoothly. Sanders will give a major address endorsing Biden at the convention, such as it will be, and will stump for him as a loyal surrogate in the general election.

There’s just one problem: This isn’t likely to work—if “work” is defined as inspiring Sanders supporters to mobilize in large numbers for Biden in November. The Sanders movement has been built around his ideas. These bold reforms, like Medicare for All, are even more compelling in the current crisis, with 22 million and counting losing their jobs—and their health insurance, if they had any.

Sanders and progressives will push hard to get Biden to adopt a far bolder platform. But Biden’s basic electoral strategy—to run as an experienced centrist who can bring a steady hand to the White House—will limit how far he’s prepared to go. It’s not an accident that his grandest gesture to date—lowering Medicare eligibility to age 60—was seen, as Representative Alexandra Ocasio Cortez noted, as “something of an insult,” given that Hillary was considering lowering it to 50 four years ago.

At age 77, after decades in politics, Biden isn’t going to change his spots.

A mainstream Democratic pol who made the wrong call on major issues—from mass incarceration to deregulating Wall Street to corporate trade deals to the war in Iraq—Biden was unimpressive on the stump and in debates. Cobbling together an anemic campaign short on money and top-heavy with aging Democratic operatives—and with little presence on the ground—Biden had the poorest outreach to progressives of any candidate. Name recognition and his association with Obama gave him an early lead in polls, and he eventually came back from the dead not on the basis of his agenda but because of perceived electability and the loyalty of older African American voters.

He now seems intent on running on competence, like Mike Dukakis, while focusing his attack on Trump’s personal duplicity, corruption, and incompetence, like Hillary Clinton. Like Clinton in 2016, he seeks to make the election more a referendum on Trump, rather than a debate about fundamental change, yet somehow he expects a different result.

There’s little that Sanders can say and do to alter that reality. Younger voters aren’t likely to vote for Trump. The bigger worry is that many will simply be turned off by electoral politics and not vote at all.

Nor will Sanders fit easily into the role of surrogate. As The New Yorker put it in a headline, Sanders may have lost the nomination, but “reality endorsed Sanders.” While Biden chose to be virtually invisible during the first weeks of the pandemic lockdown, Sanders rolled out the “boldest piece of legislation ever written in modern history” and unleashed a flood of policy proposals, virtual roundtables, and livestreamed events with leaders like Pramila Jayapal, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and other members of the “Squad.” It is simply inconceivable that Sanders would mute his call for change to adhere to Biden’s strategy.

THE STRUGGLE CONTINUES

“In any other country, Joe Biden and I would not be in the same party, but in America, we are,” AOC said in a January article in New York magazine. Now, she argues, we have to unite to defeat Trump, but we can’t ignore our differences.

The sensible alternative is for Sanders and his allies to organize and act as if they really were a party, building a permanent independent campaign around a bold progressive agenda and engaging young people to join an ever-stronger movement for fundamental change. In the short term, Sanders could help enlist his supporters into the vital debate to meet the pandemic crisis at scale. They could be far more aggressive than Biden is likely to be, for example, supporting the worker strikes and protests that are spreading across the country as workers demand workplace safety, sick leave, and decent wages in the midst of the crisis. In the general election, progressive leaders and groups that supported the Sanders’s campaign can continue to press his bold reform agenda and support insurgents up and down the ballot, while making the sensible case that beating Trump is a necessary first step toward those ends.

Certainly, that’s what his core supporters want. When Our Revolution, the outside group created out of the Sanders 2016 campaign, polled its members, 25,000 answered within 24 hours that they wanted the campaign to continue to contest primaries and gather delegates to get over the 15 percent threshold to guarantee representation on platform and rules committees. Ninety-seven percent reaffirmed the commitment to continue to reform the Democratic Party.

After the convention, Sanders could restructure a pared-down campaign into an independent political operation. He could continue to stump for his full reform agenda, while arguing, credibly, that the first step must be to defeat Donald Trump. “This is not an either-or proposition,” Nina Turner, leading Sanders ally, noted. “We need to beat Trump, and we need to build power. We can do both at once.” Representative Ro Khanna, a cochair of the Sanders campaign, is a likely bridge between the Sanders movement and the Biden campaign. He’s more optimistic about the commitments that can be won from Biden; yet he too embraces the need for an independent movement that carries a far broader agenda through the campaign, uniting around the need to defeat Trump.

Sanders hasn’t been clear about his plans, but he may well be headed in this direction. Asked about his base of 2 million small donors, he reported that there have been no discussions about fundraising for Biden and that he planned to seek donations to “elect progressive members of the Congress…and lower-ballot candidates…who are running progressive campaigns.”

He’s already committed to using his unparalleled social media presence to press for major reforms in response to the pandemic and the economic collapse: “We’re going to use our livestreaming capabilities to bring people together, to organize, to educate.” He will not muffle that voice to fit the demands of the Biden campaign.

The form such an independent campaign could take isn’t clear. Sanders’s presidential campaign will be effectively dismantled by May 1. The volunteer networks that engaged over half a million people are already drifting away.

Major social movement groups who supported Sanders and Warren could fill the vacuum. Already core groups—Our Revolution, People’s Action, Center for Public Democracy, Working Families Party, and United We Dream—are discussing coordinating their electoral efforts in the coming months. With the Sanders fundraising capacity, an independent PAC might be created that could raise significant funds, supporting progressive candidates, and fueling the core groups to help coordinate and target volunteer efforts in critical battleground states. If the pandemic subsides, they could help Sanders structure massive rallies, particularly aimed at young people, that highlight the new generation of leaders—like AOC and the Squad, Pramila Jayapal, Ro Khanna, and others.

Although independent expenditure campaigns are now routine, such an effort is likely to draw flak from the Biden campaign for allegedly distracting from Biden’s message, adding fuel to Trump’s jibes about “socialism” taking over the Democratic Party and interfering with Biden’s efforts to win the suburbs and disaffected independents and Republicans.

The criticism, however, would only add to the credibility of the movement as an independent force. And that very credibility would make it a far more potent ally in the effort to defeat Trump than would reducing Sanders to a surrogate for a candidate whose agenda and instincts are too timid for the time.

Sanders has played a historic role in ushering a young generation into electoral politics. If the historic mission that Sanders set out—now so clearly validated by reality—is to be achieved, that independent movement must continue to grow. Trump must be defeated, but it would be truly “irresponsible” to abandon the historic project of building a majority for fundamental change in this country.

Robert L. Borosage TWITTER is a leading progressive writer and activist. He created a range of progressive organizations including most recently the Campaign for America’s Future, ProgressiveMajority, and ProgressiveCongress.org. 

Copyright c 2020 The Nation. Reprinted with permission. May not be reprinted without permission. Distributed by PARS International Corp.

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