In terms of electoral results, things have not gone well for Bernie Sanders’s presidential campaign as of late. This is ironic because even as Bernie's path to the Democratic nomination is becoming more difficult, his bold ideas are increasingly popular and more necessary than ever to minimize death and misery in the wake of the diffusion of COVID-19. In recent weeks, many have been forced to acknowledge how a lack of national healthcare and paid leave policy has hindered the nation's capacity to cope with the unfolding health crisis. Unlike his political opponents who have fought for the types of austerity measures that make the U.S. more vulnerable to disasters, Sanders has consistently advocated for the kinds of policies, such as Medicare for All and more substantial rights for working people, that would have left the U.S. better prepared to confront the coronavirus pandemic.
And while most politicians' vision of economic crisis management is limited to a no-strings-attached rescue of the private sector, Bernie has been critical of proposals to bail out corporations as usual and has insisted that public financial assistance come with stipulations that empower the working class. Sanders' ideas for how to respond to the coronavirus health crisis and corresponding recession have been based on a progressive commitment to simultaneously reduce suffering and put the U.S. on a path toward a more egalitarian and democratic economy.
"The Trump administration's dysfunctionality made everything worse, but make no mistake, our very indecent normal (i.e. a fifty-year bipartisan commitment to neoliberalization) lies at the root of this mess. It is time to construct a new normal that is truly decent—one that is characterized by social and economic democracy." Recent arguments in favor of rapidly expanding medical capacity through an emergency mobilization of resources—including by repurposing infrastructure, factories, and labor power to generate more hospital space and manufacture desperately needed supplies and technologies like ICU beds, ventilators, masks, etc.—highlight the wisdom of organizing production and distribution to meet pressing social needs, which is precisely the logic of the Green New Deal.
Regardless of whether Bernie Sanders wins the nomination, recent events have overwhelmingly broadcast the urgent need for us to keep pushing for the transformative changes that Sanders epitomizes.
The Wisdom of Bernie Sanders
Bernie Sanders is the only presidential candidate who has consistently advocated for the kinds of policies that the U.S. so desperately required before the coronavirus pandemic, and that it needs now more than ever. While Biden has blamed everything on Trump without acknowledging the underlying injustices that have exacerbated the crisis, continued to waffle on the merits of Medicare for All (except in the specific context of the COVID-19 emergency where his selective compassion enables him to see the advantages of universal coverage and free services), and praised the recently passed legislation that guarantees paid sick leave "only to about 20 percent of workers," the surreal chaos of the past several days has vindicated everything that Bernie has been saying for years about the moral imperative of single-payer healthcare, workers' rights, and the role that a revitalized public sector can play in improving the common good so that we are less vulnerable in the first place.
The Enigma of Biden's Rise
Just over a month ago, in the wake of Biden's surge in the Democratic presidential primary on Super Tuesday, a paradox emerged that required explanation. Exit poll after exit poll indicated that a majority of voters agreed with key elements of Sanders' political program, including Medicare for All and other policies that would result in a downward redistribution of income, and yet, many of those same voters cast ballots for Biden rather than Bernie. How could it be that so many voters whose concerns aligned more closely with the ambitious platform of Sanders opted for the candidate who is comparatively conservative on the issues that most people are worried about?
In a Common Dreams essay last month, Adolph Reed Jr. and Willie Legette provided a perceptive analysis of the disconnect between voters' policy preferences and their behavior at the polls, which is subject—as Cedric Johnson has also argued—to elite manipulation of presumed interests. As the Democratic Party's rapid consolidation around Biden created an aura of inevitability, the mainstream media amplified the anti-Sanders signals and manufactured consent regarding the highly suspect notion that Biden is more electable than Sanders. Bernie communicated with supporters that his campaign was winning the ideological and generational debates, but that it needed to start winning the electability debate.
Different Ball Game, Same Malarkey
Fast forward to mid-March, and it appeared that COVID-19 might (and should) change the electoral calculus. As time progresses, Biden's centrism, which made him the candidate who was perceived to be the "safe bet" against the threat of a second term for Trump, may well become a liability in the face of a profound and worsening health and economic crisis. Meanwhile, it looks even more like a winning strategy to run Bernie—the embodiment of Medicare for All and bailing out the 99%—against a Trump administration that has bungled the response to the coronavirus pandemic.
The Growing Relevance of Medicare for All and a Green New Deal
Numerous commentators have noted that COVID-19 makes the best case for universal, single-payer healthcare, more generous social policy in general, and refashioning the economy to respond to pressing challenges. It is unsurprising, then, that while Biden has remained silent or offered incoherent nothingburgers, Sanders has responded to the rapidly shifting circumstances by highlighting how the current crisis reveals the pressing need for exactly the kind of the transformative changes that he has been pushing for. As it becomes increasingly clear that Trump and Biden's "hostility to the creation of a real welfare state is unreasonable and literally deadly," Bernie's compassionate and solidaristic politics are exactly what this moment calls for.
"Bernie's seamless pivot from campaigning for the Democratic Party nomination to fighting for a more comprehensive and egalitarian response to the coronavirus crisis exemplifies the point that regardless of who wins upcoming elections, it is more important than ever that we continue to build and advance a movement for emancipatory transformation."
Even if Sanders does not prevail in the quest for the Democratic Party nomination, it is essential, as Jacobin magazine's Meagan Day recently argued, that his candidacy continues through the convention and that the movement for Medicare for All and a Green New Deal persists. Indeed, although there is still a slim chance that Sanders could miraculously surpass Biden, it appears that Bernie is already moving in the direction recommended by Benjamin Y. Fong and Dustin Guastella—a reorientation of campaign resources toward pushing for equitable relief from the ongoing health and economic crises and putting U.S. society on a more progressive trajectory.
In a succession of notable statements and engagements that have been one of the only sources of reassurance in recent weeks, Sanders has tried to inform and comfort the citizenry in a way that is reminiscent of FDR during the Great Depression. Bernie addressed the nation directly on Thursday, March 12th and Friday, March 13th, and these speeches were followed by a fireside chat the following night, just prior to the most recent debate. It is worth quoting Sanders at length because he makes a powerful case for solidarity in this time of crisis. In his first address, he pointed out that:
As people work from home and are directed to quarantine, it will be easy to feel like we are in this alone, or that we must only worry about ourselves and let everyone else fend for themselves. That is a very dangerous mistake. First and foremost, we must remember that we are in this together. Now is the time for solidarity. We must fight with love and compassion for those most vulnerable to the effects of this pandemic. If our neighbor or co-worker gets sick, we have the potential to get sick. If our neighbors lose their jobs, then our local economies suffer, and we may lose our jobs. If doctors and nurses do not have the equipment and staffing capacity they need now, people we know and love may die.
Sanders went on to describe steps that ought to be taken to expand the capacity of the healthcare system and to ensure universal access to medical services. He also explained the need to confront the economic impacts of coronavirus that are unfolding. Sanders advocated for bolstering meal delivery services, providing financial support to businesses to prevent layoffs, and ensuring that precarious employees and “independent contractors” in the restaurant and gig industries in which many workers rely on tips are included in unemployment insurance programs to make up for lost income. In addition, he called for an immediate moratorium on foreclosures, evictions, and utility shutoffs, as well as for rapid construction of shelters to absorb homeless individuals, survivors of domestic violence, and displaced college students.
In another address on Tuesday, March 17th, in which he explained in greater detail the principles of a just response to the coronavirus crisis, Sanders laid out a more specific emergency management plan. He reiterated the necessity of an egalitarian response to the pandemic based on federally funded healthcare coverage for all regardless of income or immigration status. With respect to the coronavirus-driven recession that is already underway, Sanders repeated the call to use federal resources to keep workers on payroll, to provide income assistance to the unemployed, and to enhance food security. He also introduced a demand for direct cash support of $2,000 per month per household and suggested utilizing available hotel rooms to meet growing housing needs. In addition to the moratorium on dislocation and disconnection, Sanders highlighted the immediate need to allocate rental assistance and to suspend payments on mortgage, farm, and student loans while acknowledging the long-term necessity of pursuing debt forgiveness and making higher education free.
Finally, Bernie insisted that "our response to this health and economic crisis cannot be another money-making opportunity for corporate America and Wall Street." He criticized the conventional approach of giving "no-strings-attached handouts" to corporate executives and instead demanded that any taxpayer-funded support of "insolvent companies or industries" be accompanied by public benefits, including requiring the corporate beneficiaries of federal aid to sell equity to the government and put workers on their boards of directors, therefore pointing in the direction of greater social ownership and democratization of the economy.
"Now that mortality rates are front and center in the news, some of the same people who were criticizing Sanders' supposedly 'pie-in-the-sky' ideas a few weeks have come to the realization that the issues championed by Bernie and the movement around him are matters of life-and-death."
Sanders' advocacy echoes the points made by Thomas M. Hanna and Carla Santos, who argue that "with some of the key institutions responsible for the climate crisis struggling to keep their business afloat, now is the time to act decisively." Rather than responding in a way that entrenches unsustainable fossil-fueled growth and inequality—as policymakers did over a decade ago when they responded to the 2008 financial crisis by bailing out the banks without reshaping the contours and purposes of the economy—"government interventions backed with public funds could, and should, be used to assert more democratic control over economic decision-making and reshape economic approaches and institutions to respond to pressing public needs…Rescued or subsidized institutions (especially oil companies, airlines, and the banks that finance them) should be put under public control as part of an emergency climate transition plan."
Hanna and Skandier go on to say that "as COVID-19 threatens economic stability across the globe," we may be witnessing a monumental tipping point that provokes "transformative changes in our environmental, economic, and social systems to ensure the continued flourishing of human civilization in the long term…Confronted consciously and strategically, this crisis could become an opportunity to break out from our carbon-dependent economy and create the pillars of an economic system focused on a vision of long-term sustainability and shared prosperity for generations to come."
Recently, there has been a growing chorus of arguments to quickly expand healthcare capacity through an emergency mobilization of resources—including by reformatting infrastructure, plants, and labor power to generate more hospital space and produce desperately needed supplies and technologies like ICU beds, ventilators, masks, etc. These calls illuminate the desirability of reorganizing production and distribution to meet pressing social needs, which is exactly the essence of the Green New Deal.
Fundamental Transformation, Not Temporary Tinkering
In addition to revealing a lot about the structure of society, disasters also have a funny habit of making those who typically articulate opposition to democratic socialism sound a lot like…democratic socialists. Now that mortality rates are front and center in the news, some of the same people who were criticizing Sanders' supposedly "pie-in-the-sky" ideas a few weeks have come to the realization that the issues championed by Bernie and the movement around him are matters of life-and-death. Many erstwhile critics are now accepting the logic that, as Sanders argued, “we are only as safe as the least insured person in America,” and calling for universal healthcare and paid leave.
Enlarged support is welcome, of course, but it is crucial that the measures taken in response to the coronavirus pandemic and the economic recession it has engendered are not seen as singular stopgaps that can eventually be abandoned in favor of returning to, as Biden likes to say, “normalcy” and “decency.” This crisis has exposed the drastic need for fundamental transformation—not temporary tinkering—and presents an opportunity to begin the work of political-economic restructuring in pursuit of a more equitable and just society.
"It is time to construct a new normal that is truly decent—one that is characterized by social and economic democracy." The Trump administration's dysfunctionality made everything worse, but make no mistake, our very indecent normal (i.e. a fifty-year bipartisan commitment to neoliberalization) lies at the root of this mess. It is time to construct a new normal that is truly decent—one that is characterized by social and economic democracy.
Hopefully, recent events have clarified the importance of enacting humane policies—such as universal healthcare and a guaranteed (green/caring sector) job at a living wage (including benefits like paid leave)—with the objective of meeting people’s needs, as Bernie Sanders has long emphasized. Assuming that the procedures for remaining primary elections are modified in order to proceed safely, please take the time to cast a ballot for the one candidate whose politics would improve our preparedness for and responsiveness not only to COVID-19 but also to the twenty-first century’s twin crises of inequality and climate change.
In light of the disrupted logistics of recent and upcoming primary elections, it would be prudent for the DNC to use this moment as an opportunity to work with states to replace in-person voting with a universal mail-in ballot system in order to increase turnout while preserving public health. The need for immediate electoral reform is all the more vital in light of David Harvey’s ominous warning that Donald Trump could use the coronavirus crisis as a pretext to “cancel the elections on an emergency basis and declare the origin of an imperial presidency to save capital and the world from riot and revolution.”
Bernie's seamless pivot from campaigning for the Democratic Party nomination to fighting for a more comprehensive and egalitarian response to the coronavirus crisis exemplifies the point that regardless of who wins upcoming elections, it is more important than ever that we continue to build and advance a movement for emancipatory transformation. Coronavirus "will change the world," and it is in our best interests to make sure that our societies become better rather than worse.