The Bernie Sanders Campaign is Forging the Way

MAPA Update March 2020

Bernie Sanders on Boston Common, Feb. 29. Craig F. Walker/Boston Globe photo
Bernie Sanders on Boston Common, Feb. 29. Craig F. Walker/Boston Globe photo

by Cole Harrison

Whoever eventually wins the Democratic nomination for president, one thing is clear: The towering achievement of the Bernie Sanders campaign is the tectonic shift it has brought about in the political debate in the United States, the vision it has given millions of people that “another world is possible.”

Many ideas that seemed radical just several years ago have now become mainstream, among them Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and ending the endless wars. We have never seen someone espousing these ideas get this close to the presidency. Whether Sanders wins or not, it’s up to us to continue building the movement that will help him make these ideas a reality.

As the dust settles on the first six weeks of primaries, Joe Biden has taken a commanding lead over Bernie Sanders and is now the clear frontrunner for the Democratic nomination. With 56% of total convention delegates already awarded, Biden has won 53% of those to Sanders’s 39%. He leads Sanders in national polls by19%.   

Yet, the struggle between Sanders’s progressive ideas and Biden’s corporate neoliberalism is far from resolved.

In the first face-to-face debate between Sanders and Biden on March 15, Sanders challenged Biden’s record on a variety of issues, from his cheerleading for the Iraq War, to his attacks on Social Security and Medicare, to his support for the anti-choice Hyde Amendment, the anti-gay Defense of Marriage Act, and terrible trade deals like NAFTA. Indicating that progressives continue to hold the upper ideological hand, Biden did not try to defend any of those stands. Instead, he obfuscated.

Sanders has built a powerful following.  He continues to lead among those under 40 (across racial groups), Latinos, incomes under $50,000, and independents; he has received more than 5 million individual donations, mostly in small amounts. Sanders’s broad base of support means that Biden must make significant concessions to the progressive wing of the party if he is to defeat Trump in the general election. It also forms the basis for an ongoing political current that will impact down-ballot races in 2020 and continue into the years beyond.

Now that coronavirus has gripped the country and recession is imminent, the campaign has entered a new stage. People have urgent fears for their families’ health and financial security. Sanders and Biden have pivoted to presenting their plans to respond, described by Norman Solomon as “a contrast of patchwork fixes vs. profound structural changes…. tepid adjustments vs. truly transformational agendas.”  The virus is the only issue people are talking about. Yet with face-to-face campaigning no longer possible, it’s much harder for politicians to reach and energize voters, or even to gather signatures on nomination forms.

How did we get to this point?

Biden led the polls throughout 2019, presented as the “safe” establishment candidate which the moderate wing of the Democratic party could unite around. Yet moderate leaders were well aware that Sanders posed a serious challenge. They recognized Biden’s well-understood limitations as a candidate. That left room for Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Mike Bloomberg to compete for the moderate mantle. Each of them in turn developed momentum, peaked, crashed, and then dropped out.

Sanders’s support rose steadily from August on, as he broke through the establishment media’s web of distortions and disparagement and reached voters with his popular message and his reputation for consistency and honesty. He took the lead in the campaign in the week before the Iowa caucuses, then proved the lead was real by edging out Buttigieg in Iowa and winning a convincing victory in New Hampshire and a blowout in Nevada.

Biden’s victory in South Carolina induced the establishment leadership, headed by Barack Obama and Harry Reid, to orchestrate the sudden coalescence of all the moderates behind Biden just in time for Super Tuesday. Moderate and liberal voters got behind the winner, and Biden took the majority of states that week and in the following two weeks. 

Elizabeth Warren ran as a pragmatic progressive. Rolling out plan after plan and observing a non-aggression pact with Sanders in the early debates, she led Sanders for much of the fall. But when she hedged her support for Medicare for All, her popularity plummeted.  When she tried to assume a new position as unifier between the progressive and moderate wings, a stance which had not worked for Kamala Harris before her, Warren was sunk by the attempt. Neither the progressive nor the moderate camp wanted to give ground to a unity candidate — rather, each wanted to win. She dropped out after placing third in Massachusetts.

Movement Building Challenges

The inability of the Warren and Sanders sections of the progressive movement to unite, even as the centrists united against them, was a serious setback. The working class, democratic socialist, pro peace Sanders movement built a powerful grassroots campaign, but given its relative lack of well resourced organizations, institutions, think tanks, candidates at all levels, office holders, and communications outlets, a President Sanders would face significant challenges in running the country.  Unless we could build this capacity very, very fast, we would have to govern in coalition with liberal progressives like Warren.  These same limitations are also affecting our ability to reach voters and convince them to vote for a break with the billionaire-dominated system.  Warren’s failure to endorse Sanders shows that, so far, her sector of the progressive middle class has not gotten behind our coalition; for now, they are standing aloof, seeing who is going to win.

Sanders’s weak support among Black voters and older voters also reveals that our movement has more work to do. It’s important not to overstate this and to point out that Sanders has majority support among young Black voters, and that his support among Black voters overall is substantial, outranked only by Biden’s. But also of concern is that while Sanders wins young voters hands down, their turnout so far this primary season, while it increased, did not increase as much as the turnout of older voters. These results show that deep organizing and institution building are needed to build a lasting base for the progressive movement; while a presidential campaign is a critical time to frame the issues and attract attention, it’s also necessary to go beyond that with sustained organizing that builds power.

November and Beyond

Sanders’s issues are popular. Exit polls in Michigan, Missouri and Mississippi showed that a wide majority of Democratic voters backed government-run health care rather than private insurance, even as they voted for Biden.  With a pandemic and recession on top of extreme inequality and climate disaster, there is no turning back on the need for dramatic policy change.  Our challenge is to keep pushing, and to make these goals real and achievable. Let’s step back and look at the basic stakes in this year’s election.

The Trump coalition, led by right-wing billionaires, fossil fuel companies, and the military-industrial complex, represents racism, authoritarianism, and war. If he is re-elected it will mean further entrenchment of an extremely dangerous regime, both nationally and internationally.

The Democratic Party elites and their corporate backers, represented by Joe Biden, propose “neoliberalism with a human face”, where “nothing would fundamentally change”.  Indeed, the progressive agenda is deeply threatening to the health care, insurance, and pharmaceutical industries; Silicon Valley tech companies; developers and real estate profiteers; the military-industrial complex; the Israel lobby; and more.

The Sanders-led progressive movement lifts up the economic demands of the working class, including single payer health care, a Green New Deal, nationwide rent control, a foreign policy of peace and democracy, and FDR’s unfinished campaign for Four Freedoms, an Economic Bill of Rights. This movement is now indisputably a powerful factor in national politics to a degree that was unthinkable five years ago — and it’s much bigger than Bernie the candidate.

The Sanders campaign is now pushing to ensure that progressive ideas and leaders are at the center of the November campaign, whether or not Sanders is the nominee. Biden’s decision to support tuition-free public college is an opening bid in this new struggle.

So far in 2020 we’ve learned that our agenda is incredibly popular, but that the majority within the anti-Trump coalition is not yet ready to trust the Sanders movement with the leadership.  We will be fighting every step of the way to earn the trust of the majority and to maximize the progressive coalition’s influence leading up to November and beyond.

The road to victory isn’t straight but has many twists and turns. We’re just getting started!

—Cole Harrison is the executive director of Massachusetts Peace Action