Christopher Reed looks at the Democratic primaries amid the pandemic and the departure of Bernie Sanders. He argues that the slogan “Not Me, Us” has never been more important, and that all left wing activists and organizers must pivot to building social movements and working class power now.
Each new day brings more troubling news about the spread of COVID-19 and the massive disruptions of vast segments of the economy, as countries around the world struggle to manage the worst public health crisis in a century. Millions of Americans are confronting the combined anxieties of getting infected with the virus or watching helplessly while friends and family members become infected, alongside the fear losing work (and their employer-sponsored health coverage) as a result of the economic shutdown. The growth in unemployment has been spectacular: the 4.4 million new jobless claims last week brought the five-week total to 26.4 million, more than all of the jobs added since the Great recession of 2008. Millions in the working class still working outside their homes face inadequate protection as they see colleagues getting sick.
The crisis reveals the extent of the Trump administration’s incompetence and cruelty. Early warnings were ignored, and while South Korea and other countries had taken aggressive steps to test hundreds of thousands of people, the Trump administration declined to accept test kits from the World Health Organization that were available in late February. This was an inexplicable decision that, combined with numerous later examples of incompetence and self-serving malfeasance from the Trump administration, has contributed greatly to the spread of the Coronavirus, leading to untold numbers of preventable deaths.
With so much focus on the Coronavirus and the transformation of daily life, it can be easy to forget that the country is still in the middle of a presidential election. The current crisis has thrown into sharp focus the longstanding failures of neoliberal capitalism, which have left millions of people vulnerable to losing their ability to secure a dignified living. For so many, the capitalist establishment in both political parties has left no room for the concerns or priorities as working people, and many have understandably chosen to ignore the political process altogether. Sanders’ recent departure and the prospect of Biden as the Democratic nominee has divided the anti-Trump movement, with some calling on us to ignore Biden’s record altogether and others refusing to campaign or vote for him at all.
The challenge for the Sanders campaign was to reach this group of people with a class conscious message, and provide them with compelling enough reasons to get involved and invest some of their already limited time and resources in his idea of a “political revolution.” There have already been many opinions put forward on what the past year and a half of electoral work has meant and what, if anything, the Sanders campaign could have done differently to break through the establishment’s hostility and reach diverse voter bases. With Biden assured of the nomination (and now with Sanders’ official endorsement) it is time for socialists to reflect on the experience and draw lessons about the Democratic Party in general and the Sanders run in in particular.
Despite widespread condemnation of the Republicans’ deadly insistence on continuing the primaries in Wisconsin at the height of the pandemic, in-person voting in earlier primaries was enforced by the Democratic Party with much less public objection. The Supreme Court’s refusal to extend absentee ballots, the Wisconsin courts’ partisan choice to turn down an election postponement, the racially biased vote-suppressing poll station closures, and the long lines in the rain to vote are all examples of the extremes the Republican establishment now routinely gets away with.
These actions often overshadow other self-serving actions of the Democrats. Democratic party objections to Republican moves seemed motivated more by concerns about the outcome of the vote than for reasons of public health. Before the Wisconsin primary there were public health guidelines about gatherings of more than 50 people ignored by the DNC, risking the health of thousands of voters and volunteer poll workers, many of them elderly people in high-risk categories.
With severely limited testing capacity, and warnings from experts that the virus can be spread by asymptomatic carriers (a message apparently not received by the Biden campaign), the DNC should have pressured the state parties to postpone in-person voting or, following the example from Oregon, switch to mail-in voting. Instead, the DNC warned states that if they postponed their elections after the June 9 deadline they could be penalized by having their delegate totals reduced by half.
Putting states in a position where they are forced to choose between risking public health to hold elections versus seeing their delegates halved is indefensible. It reveals the Democratic Party’s inability to adapt and handle the current crisis, and the lengths the party establishment is willing to go to bring about a hasty end to the primary process and declare Biden the uncontested Democratic nominee.
COVID-19 has exposed the injustices at the heart of for-profit healthcare that Sanders has spoken so powerfully against during his campaign, which makes the recent defeats and sudden consolidation around Biden all the more difficult. The social democratic policies Sanders has pushed for years are more relevant than ever to even begin to address the longstanding public health and economic challenges that have been exacerbated by COVID-19.
Instead, corporate lobbyists have besieged congress, eager to get a piece of an unprecedented and almost unregulated stimulus package. Between the separate coronavirus stimulus packages passed, Congress has now committed almost $3 trillion in emergency spending.
These packages have been justified as battling the economic fallout from the Coronavirus, but the net effect is a massive transfer of wealth from the poor to the rich. The trumpeted $1,200 checks to (some) individuals pale in comparison to the hundreds of billions to corporations, combined with the hidden $4 trillion in Federal Reserve lending. It props up debt-ridden zombie corporations and banks, bailing out 10 years of profit-hoarding and repeating the problems of the 2008 bailout on an even grander scale.
Yet both the March 27 $2.2 trillion package and the recent bill now on Trump’s desk passed with broad bipartisan support. New York’s Alexandria Ocasio Cortez was the sole Democrat who opposed the bill. As all this happens, Biden has become nearly invisible, aside from a few characteristically bumbling video appearances.
Lessons from the Sanders campaign
For socialists hopeful that Sanders would be able to mount a successful campaign against the establishment and bring about a fundamental transformation of the political order, this is a disorientating time. It is also the time to start asking the difficult questions about the Sanders campaign, and how socialists should relate to electoral campaigns generally.
Sanders was explicit in pursuing a strategy of reaching out to the large numbers of working class people, many of whom had chosen not to engage in the political process in the past. For many in the grassroots movement surrounding Sanders, the campaign was an attempt to use electoral politics to build a mass movement capable of challenging the established political system and fighting for social democratic reforms. This effort was not realized, in part because of the limitations of the capitalist, and specifically US capitalist, nature of electoral politics.
History provides numerous examples of the limitations of the Sanders campaign’s approach. Even in the cases where progressive reformers were able to successfully take power, it has been proven time after time that in the absence of mass working class organization from below, the forces of capital and the state will use every opportunity to undermine left wing leaders—often intentionally imposing conditions of scarcity—to take back power and reverse whatever progress was made.
Despite a sizable and dedicated following, the campaign did not bring out enough of the new voters who agreed with his social democratic policies and had the social weight and political confidence to cut through the media’s attack on Sanders as “unelectable.” In many states, Sanders polled less votes than when he ran unsuccessfully in 2016. Working class parties do not emerge from above, they emerge as the political expression of working class discontent from below. Although there has been an uptick in class struggle over the last few years, the level of class struggle in the US is, so far, not strong enough to propel a candidate like Sanders into office.
Class struggle first
Decades of neoliberalism and relentless attacks on organized labor have left the US working class thoroughly beaten down. Despite the successes of teachers’ strikes in recent years, and widespread support for the strike at General Motors last year, union membership in the US has hit an all-time low, with just 6.2% of workers in the private sector belonging to a union as of 2019. The fact that under such low levels of working class activity Sanders was able to galvanize the amount of popular support he did, for policies that were unthinkable just a few years ago, should be a source of hope for the left going forward.
Even in states where Biden won the primary by substantial margins, voters expressed strong support for Sanders’ signature policy proposals. Texas Democratic voters agreed with Medicare for All and gave greater support to “socialism” than to “capitalism,” but the majority voted for Biden—presumably because they thought him more likely to beat Trump in a general election.
This shows the difficulty to build a social democratic government, or even FDR-style reforms to capitalism, without building out of a mass movement. The struggles that began or grew during the Sanders campaign—like Medicare for All, free tuition for state colleges, a Green New Deal, and a humane immigration policy—must go forward, whatever the outcome of the elections. Such struggles are important in their own right, winning immediate reforms in people’s lives. But they also help change minds and instil the political confidence that could carry a successful socialist electoral strategy. In fact, these struggles are now more important than ever, as the deaths from COVID-19 and effects of the necessary economic shutdown reveal the brutality of a system that has been so finely calibrated to maximize profit above all else.
Trump, Republican state governors, and their allies in the ruling class are now challenging the advice of public health experts regarding the shutdown of economic activity in the interest of public health. They are showing that if the choice is between the deaths of potentially millions of people on the one hand, and the preservation of the current system and their continued profits on the other hand, they are willing to let millions die.
The kind of power we need to build against these forces cannot be created through an exclusively electoral campaign. It falls to us to move beyond the Sanders campaign and shift the focus toward raising working class consciousness, activity, and building power from the bottom up. The key question for socialists now is how to carry forward the spirit of Sanders’ “Not Me, Us” slogan, in a way that prioritizes building grassroots working class movements, rather than winning the White House.
Up to us
To its credit, before dropping out, the Sanders campaign shifted its focus to supporting organizations providing relief for people affected by the Coronavirus. Just as important, though, was the campaign’s focus on pushing for a response to the crisis that puts the working class first. The most promising signs during the pandemic have been the explosion of coronavirus-related strikes and workplace actions, even if they are not yet a generalized wave of class struggle. Sanders has given important backing to the Amazon workers, but this connection has not been treated as key. It’s up to us to make that connection now.
Biden continues to bumble through interviews. His inability to even deliver scripted remarks during live video conferences shows troubling signs of cognitive decline. Like Clinton before him, Biden’s main selling point is that he isn’t Trump and that he was part of the Obama administration. The Democratic party establishment has argued since 2016 that Trump lacks the temperament and sound judgment to be president. But apparently it is out of the question for them and the mainstream media to seriously ask the same about Biden.
More importantly, Biden is a war-mongering business ally and accused sexual abuser. The moral pressure to “vote blue no matter who” will continue to rise between now and November. Socialists, whether they campaigned for Sanders or not, now need to show in practice what kind of movement we’ll need to defeat Trump—without falling head-first into a campaign for Biden.
For the broader left movement, now is the time to begin fighting back against the growing push from Trump and the ruling class to get back to business as usual. Times of crisis present opportunities to make the contradictions of the system more apparent. This crisis is now showing how much the system has undervalued some of the most essential labor that allows society to function. It has also shown how the reverence to the market is increasingly like a death cult. In this period of massive uncertainty and anxiety for millions of working class people, the socialist movement is well-equipped to provide a message of hope, and a path forward towards a better world.
In neighborhoods around the country, people are engaging in important work around mutual aid, including many of the 60,000 members of the Democratic Socialists of America, showing that working class people are capable of stepping up to take care of one another in difficult moments. While this is an important aspect of the response, mutual aid absent of an explicitly political message demanding more support from the resources of the state, while challenging the priorities of the system, is both inadequate and difficult to sustain.
In addition to these efforts, the left must begin organizing in our workplaces where possible, encouraging other to organize in theirs, and to support and generalize the growing Coronavirus strikes. The pandemic shows how urgently the social democratic reforms popularized by Sanders are, and it also shows that a heavy focus on electoral campaigning is not enough to win once the establishment becomes unified in opposition. Moving towards on-the-ground organizing around more immediate demands for working class people will be critical going forward, for both former Sanders campaigners and everyone else who wants to fight for a better world.