Bernie Sanders Has Redefined What's Possible in American Politics

The authors of the new book, "How We Go from the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism," explain what is so vital about the "Not Me Us" mantra of Bernie Sanders' presidential campaign and why the politics of democratic socialism have a serious foothold in the United States after nearly a century of dormancy. (Image: Cover detail / Verso Books)

Bernie Sanders Has Redefined What's Possible in American Politics

The movement surrounding Sanders has never been just about getting one man elected to the White House. It's about building a movement of millions that can long outlive and outperform any single electoral campaign.

The following excerpt is adapted from the introduction of the forthcoming book, Bigger than Bernie: How We Go from the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism (Verso 2020), and appears at Common Dreams with permission of the publisher.

The United States has long been thought to be a fundamentally conservative country, one where large numbers of people would never go for that scary, supposedly foreign "socialism." Pundits and historians have proposed many reasons why. Americans have had it too good, bought off by the overflowing abundance of this country. Socialist utopias have run aground "on the shoals of roast beef and apple pie," as Werner Sombart famously wrote in 1906. Or, when the point is raised that many Americans have always been poor and overworked and exploited and oppressed, observers have speculated that there's just something unique and undefinable about the American soul that makes us allergic to socialism. We're too competitive, too individualistic; cooperation just isn't in our nature. Not content with these explanations, leftists often focus on the singularly ferocious repression of labor and leftist organizing throughout US history and the successful division of the American working class through racism, sexism, xenophobia, and other forms of bigotry and oppression.

Whatever the reason, it's true that no socialist party has played a notable role in US politics for the better part of a century. Even after the 2008 financial crash, so clearly the result of a financialized capitalist system that drove the entire economy into the ground in reckless pursuit of profit, it was not the Left but the Right, in the form of the anti-taxation Tea Party, that saw an immediate resurgence. Eventually there was Occupy Wall Street, yet even at those left-wing protests, the concept of socialism remained on the margins. In the dominant culture, the principal use of the word "socialist" was as an absurd but powerful epithet thrown at decidedly non-socialist liberals like President Barack Obama. A mass socialist movement remained out of reach.

Bernie Sanders helped change that. He showed that there was actually a hunger in American life for a critique of capitalism when it was attached to a bold and credible policy agenda for wealth redistribution and working-class empowerment. He called his politics "democratic socialism." Americans were supposed to be repelled by politicians like him who railed against millionaires and billionaires, and immune to exhortations to unite and fight along class lines. Yet here was a presidential candidate vying for the nomination of a major US political party, giving the party elite a run for their money, and putting class politics back on the map in the United States.

We owe Sanders a great deal for insisting and then proving that a different kind of politics in the United States was possible. That contribution alone will likely reshape the US political landscape for decades to come, putting long-dormant left-wing ideas back into play. But as important as Bernie's politics and policy proposals are, they won't change the country and the world on their own. And they may not even be the most significant part of his legacy as a political figure.

What matters even more than Sanders's vision of socialism is the movement Sanders has helped set in motion. Sanders doesn't only argue for free public health care and college or a Green New Deal. He says we need a political revolution in this country to achieve those policies. The Sanders presidential campaigns have never been just about getting one man elected to the White House. They're about building a movement of millions that can long outlive and outperform any single electoral campaign.

So those of us who support Sanders and are inspired by his call for political revolution--and by the rise of other democratic socialist politicians like Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the recent teachers' strike wave, the surge in the organized socialist movement, and everything else that has taken us all by surprise over the last few years--have to ask: What lessons should we draw from the Bernie Sanders moment? And how can we take all the energy that his candidacies have generated to build a movement that is bigger than a presidential candidate, bigger than a few dozen newly elected socialist representatives, and bigger than anything the US Left has seen in decades?

Not Me, Us

During one Democratic Party primary debate in June 2019, Bernie Sanders acknowledged that his opponents had some good ideas. Yet despite a preponderance of well-meaning plans, he asked, "How come nothing really changes? How come for the last 45 years wages have been stagnant for the middle class? How come we have the highest rate of childhood poverty? How come 45 million people still have student debt? How come three people own more wealth than the bottom half of America?"

He answered his own question. "Nothing will change unless we have the guts to take on Wall Street, the insurance industry, the pharmaceutical industry, the military-industrial complex, and the fossil fuel industry. If we don't have the guts to take them on, we'll continue to have plans, we'll continue to have talk, and the rich will get richer, and everybody else will be struggling." Sanders was arguing that the missing ingredient is class struggle. It's the only way to actually realize plans that improve life for the majority of people at the expense of the tiny minority who currently run the show. Sanders doesn't talk explicitly about what socialism means all that much. But it's clear from his advocacy of class struggle that he shares the broad outlines of a socialist analysis of what's wrong with capitalism. Capitalism is an economic system in which a small group of people own things like factories, companies, and money itself, and everyone else has to sell their labor to them in exchange for a wage, which they use to buy what they need to survive. Through their labor, workers create a surplus that is funneled into the bosses' pockets as profits rather than being used for the good of everyone.

The problem is that all of the capitalists' decisions are driven by profit. If they don't make enough of it, their enterprises collapse. And the easiest ways to maximize profit are to pay workers less, make them work harder, avoid regulations, skimp on taxes, and expand into new markets by doing things like privatizing public goods, all of which are bad for the working class. So these two classes are locked in struggle--and since the capitalist class is more powerful, the working class always gets the short end of the stick.

Under capitalism, the nation's (and the world's) tiny minority of economic elites has grown unfathomably rich by soaking up the wealth generated by working people while those working people's wages have remained stagnant and their lives have worsened. Those economic elites will not give up their power without a fight. The fight must be waged by millions of ordinary people, taking action at their jobs and at the ballot box, in the chambers, and in the streets. Sanders's 2020 campaign slogan, "Not Me, Us," signals his intention to use his campaign to incorporate people into that fight, rather than merely convince them to vote for him on the basis that he's competent and morally upstanding.

"Elites will not give up their power without a fight. The fight must be waged by millions of ordinary people, taking action at their jobs and at the ballot box, in the chambers, and in the streets."

At that same June primary debate, candidates were asked which single policy they would make a legislative priority if elected president. At that point Sanders already had a number of detailed flagship proposals, but he nonetheless rejected the premise of the question, saying, "We need a political revolution."

A political revolution is a tall order. But it's one we have some ideas about--ideas that have come from watching the massive groundswell of support for policies like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal; interviewing organizers and newly elected officials who aren't afraid to embrace those policies and use electoral campaigns to build the kind of bottom-up movements that Sanders has called for; seeing the surge in strikes and other kinds of militant labor organizing by workers across the country; witnessing the emergence of robust movements against the racism, sexism, and xenophobia that have been stoked by Trump but existed long before him; and participating ourselves in the new American socialist movement as members of the Democratic Socialists of America and staffers for the socialist magazine Jacobin.

Nobody saw it coming, but the Sanders campaign has given us all a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to transform our grotesquely unequal and unfair society, which is teetering on the brink of irreversible climate catastrophe. If we're going to seize that opening we'll need to build a mass, multiracial, working-class movement--one that's bigger, and more radical, than Bernie.

When we say that nobody anticipated the political transformations of the last few years in the United States, we include ourselves in the ranks of those taken by surprise. We've both had our ideas about what's politically possible in America radically transformed by the Sanders campaign-- Meagan by becoming a socialist in the first place, Micah by realizing that socialism can actually become popular in America, the stuff of mass politics.

Sanders has showed us that socialist ideas don't have to remain fringe. If we talk about them the right way, millions of people will support them. In fact, given how miserable the status quo has become for so many, and given how dissatisfied so many people are with tepid, center-left solutions to our collective problems, huge numbers of people could be interested in socialism precisely because it is such a bold ideology. Maybe, we're at a moment when people are actually hungry for bold, uncompromising ideas from the Left--not terrified of them. And not only have we learned that there is an appetite for Sanders's robust political program and an openness to his "democratic socialist" label, we've also learned that the alternative-- advancing a feeble, centrist political program against a vigorous hard-right populism--doesn't work.

The entire argument made by liberals and some progressives in favor of running Hillary Clinton for president against Donald Trump in 2016 was that, while she was perhaps a less than ideal candidate given her long history of equivocation and occasionally outright reactionary politics, she would at least be the safe bet to defeat Trump, who represented a uniquely barbaric threat to the United States and the world. As everyone now knows, this "electability" argument turned out not to be true--the electable candidate was not elected. The Democrats' preference for this "safe" strategy over the years not only culminated in Trump's victory but has resulted in devastation up and down the ballot, from the halls of Congress to state houses and governorships throughout the country.

This failure on the part of the Democratic Party should shape how we approach electoral politics going forward. Americans are not excited by, and thus are not driven to vote for, candidates who defend the status quo. If Americans are going to reject the rabidly racist and xenophobic politics put forward by pro-corporate Republicans, they can't just be offered a slightly nicer, more diverse, less reactionary version by pro-corporate Democrats. They need a bold alternative political vision informed by clear moral principles that stands in stark contrast to what's on offer from Trump and the Right.

Sanders offered that in 2016, and the next generation of left-wing politicians and electoral organizers can offer it going forward, confident that running on a robust and uncompromising left-wing vision is not only morally correct, but strategically shrewd. The rise to prominence of first term Congress members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib is a promising sign that this message is getting through. Not only have they already shown a willingness to use their offices to advocate for the working class, but they have also so far resisted immense pressure to fall in line with the Democratic Party establishment. All three endorsed Sanders for president at the low point of his presidential campaign, when Sanders had suffered a heart attack and pundits rushed to declare that he was finished. If they remain steadfast, they will be anchors in the electoral wing of the movement Sanders started for decades to come. But just as we can't rely on Sanders alone, we can't rely solely on them either. We must take the reins ourselves.

We are convinced of the need for a political revolution in this country, and we think that revolution needs to be a democratic socialist one.

And there are key questions that must be addressed. First: What exactly is so important about Bernie Sanders? We can answer this by briefly tracing the history of socialism and class struggle in the United States, through periods of militancy and retreat, and looking at how Sanders's own political trajectory was shaped by--but also stood outside of--that history. Somehow, through a wild amalgamation of left-wing politicization, a shrewd vision for how to operate independently from and outside the main currents of American politics, a uniquely stubborn personality, and perhaps a sprinkling of dumb luck, Sanders cut a distinct path through the decades, going from student socialist and civil rights activist to longshot third-party candidate to mayor of Burlington to member of Congress to serious presidential contender. His truly singular political perspective and personal attributes made him the perfect--and the only--candidate with the credibility and experience to provide political leadership for a new era of popular awakening and a rebirth of class politics.

A second important question: how should we approach electoral politics? Elections are a major factor behind the current left resurgence, after all. There's a lot to learn from Bernie's presidential campaigns; the campaigns and in-office actions of public officials that have come in his wake, from Ocasio- Cortez in the House of Representatives to local elections like the six Chicago socialists who won election to city council; and even unsuccessful electoral campaigns that you may have never heard of, like the Jovanka Beckles campaign for California State Assembly. These kinds of electoral campaigns are essential to continue building the political revolution.

"Sanders has showed us that socialist ideas don't have to remain fringe. If we talk about them the right way, millions of people will support them."

They are all examples of what we call "class-struggle campaigns," in which candidates openly identify as socialists, aren't afraid to name the enemy, and work to build working-class movements beyond their election--and beyond electoral politics altogether. Candidates who wage successful class-struggle campaigns will probably be in the political minority for the immediate future, but they can wield outsize influence by aggressively using their bully pulpit to promote socialist ideas. Our new book lays out some socialist strategies for punching above our weight.

We also talk about the Democratic Party, which has a monopoly on all electoral politics to the left of the Republicans, despite being an essentially centrist or occasionally center-left party. That monopoly distinguishes the American situation from that of almost every other country on earth--a major boon for the 1 percent and a disaster for the planet and the working class, both at home (under vicious attack by corporate power) and abroad (bearing the brunt of US imperialism).

The Democratic Party is a fundamentally pro-capitalist institution, and that is unlikely to ever change. But in the short and medium term, there are serious barriers to our scrapping the Democrats and creating a new mass party that can actually fight for the vast majority of society. That's why we argue for an approach to the Democrats that is willing to use the party's ballot line, preventing us from being doomed to complete political irrelevance, while laying the foundations for an eventual break with the party to create a future workers' party--what has been called a "dirty break" (as opposed to a "clean break") strategy.

We think that socialist organizations have a special role to play in building an independent working-class movement and eventually a party. They offer invaluable education, a coherent direction and common analysis for organizing around the most pressing issues of the day, a strategic orientation toward the working class, and a deep sense of comradeship and purpose. Right now, there's no better political home for those who want to join the fight than the Democratic Socialists of America, the country's largest socialist organization. Socialists must have an inspiring long-term view of a revolutionized society, but also an actionable short-term agenda.

We argue that there is great value in the struggle for reforms, if those reforms can advance socialist values and erode capitalists' power. Otherwise they're just tinkering around the edges and won't help build a bigger movement that can wage and win more ambitious fights down the line. Finally, we argue that the labor movement is particularly important given the centrality of the working class in making the world function under capitalism, and the power workers can wield when they join together to fight the boss. A strong labor movement is one that is democratic and fights for the common good of all working-class people. The best way to build such a labor movement, as well as close the gap that currently exists between the socialist movement and the working class, is through what's called the "rank-and-file strategy," which places an emphasis on building power at the shop-floor level alongside other workers. In recent decades, some of the most dynamic and transformative fights in the labor movement have emerged because of this type of bottom-up, rank-and-file organization.

At the time of this writing, the fate of Sanders's bid for the presidency is uncertain. If he loses, the old problems remain, and the fight continues. If he wins, the fight is far from over: in fact it dramatically escalates, as the capitalist class will immediately seek to undermine our attempts to remake society. In both scenarios, the ability of the movement that has cohered around Sanders to stand on its own two feet and strategically exercise its power is the ultimate decisive factor. We conceive of our new book as a guide for that movement as it strides into the future.

"At the time of this writing, the fate of Sanders's bid for the presidency is uncertain. If he loses, the old problems remain, and the fight continues. If he wins, the fight is far from over."

We have a once-in-a-lifetime opening to reshape the world for the many, not the few. In particular, given the impending reality of catastrophic climate change, we have no choice but to take advantage of this opening if don't want to live out our days in a dystopian nightmare. Capitalists are not only exploiting the vast majority of people and maintaining an order based on privatization and austerity that engenders needless suffering--they are also driving the planet to the brink of disaster. To pull it back from the precipice, we have to go toe-to-toe with the industries that are destroying the earth, which means our climate politics require a strong dose of class antagonism. If we want a habitable planet and a future for humanity, nothing less than democratic socialism will do.

Liberals are not taking the threats we face seriously enough. They've gotten caught up in sideshow spectacles rather than working to put forward an alternative to the grinding misery of life in America under capitalism. Sanders, meanwhile, showed that we aren't doomed to live in a world of inequality, oppression, and misery--that millions of people really are ready for a critique of the political and economic system we live under, and eager to create a society that's just, sustainable, and gives everyone a chance to flourish as human beings. The movement that his interventions have sparked, which is just beginning to find its footing, is our best hope for winning that society.

People often quote Werner Sombart's remark about the preponderance of "roast beef and apple pie," the incredible abundance that the US working class supposedly has access to, as a way to explain why socialism has not taken root here the way that it has elsewhere. Less quoted, however, is the ending of the 1906 book from which that line comes. Sombart, having given his full explanation for socialism's absence in the US, has this to say:

These are roughly the reasons why there is no Socialism in the United States. However, my present opinion is as follows: all the factors that till now have prevented the development of Socialism in the United States are about to disappear or to be converted into their opposite, with the result that in the next generation socialism in America will very probably experience the greatest possible expansion of its appeal.

Over a century later, these words ring true. We are in a rare, perhaps brief, window of political opportunity. Let's seize it to go beyond the Bernie Sanders campaign and win socialism in our time.

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