From the beginning of his first campaign Bernie Sanders was dead set on reverse engineering a movement. By reverse engineering I mean he intended to take hold of the modern apparatus of party politics and media by commandeering the Democratic Party primary process in service of fostering a bottom up people’s movement and organizing capable of actually seizing the presidency.
In ideal circumstances the movement would choose the candidate and the organization would build in search of working class power, in many instances removed from electoral campaigns and electoral politics altogether. The movement would build a presidential campaign as an outgrowth of other important organizing work, not the other way around where a presidential campaign served as a center for that organizing work to begin and to funnel people into the cause. It was hugely important and grew the left tremendously, but it also has created our current circumstance where large swaths of the left are listless and without organization or direction.
Bernie Had it All Backwards
There is still hugely important work to be done, and to be sure, people are doing it. It’s also the case that there are millions of people who were activated by the Bernie Sanders campaigns who are hungry for movement politics and the change it can bring, but were not directed to anything that gives them much to do with their time now outside of waiting for the next would-be-Bernie-Sanders who may or may not be waiting in the wings. And frankly there isn’t a clear electoral vehicle or candidate for the left to coalesce behind.
Which in some ways is good as it might be the impetus for a political understanding more in line with the kind of organizing required to actually transform this country. Maybe we can’t short circuit the system and skip all the steps landing Bernie Sanders in the White House would have been skipping. Maybe we still can, but maybe we shouldn’t even want to. Because without the movement, what was to prevent the left from becoming similarly listless, resting on their laurels, celebrating a Bernie Sanders presidency and forgetting the bottom up people’s mentality that would have won that victory to begin with.
Bernie likely wouldn’t have demobilized his base the same way Obama did, but the post Bernie-left is in some segments, in a funk of sorts that inherently begs the question, would the organizing have continued had Bernie won, or was it bound to slow simply because it was too wedded to electoral politics to begin with? That seems to be a fundamental question that must be answered if the left is going to move beyond Bernie Sanders and towards non-electoral organizing (and continued electoral organizing for that matter) in a constructive way.
But He Still Brought It All Together
The Bernie Sanders campaign served as the glue that held together very disparate parts of the would be movement, from “dumb-dumb left” Tulsi Gabbard and barely center left Elizabeth Warren stans to principled socialists, anarchists, and communists, Bernie Sanders at certain points in his two campaigns, was able to build an astoninshgly broad coalition considering how consistent and principled his campaigns were. That glue is gone now and intra-left infighting over everything from the efficacy of electoral politics to begin with, to Force the Vote and inherently electoral strategic questions, the left is fighting about everything again. And it should, and movements always do, but Bernie Sanders provided a momentum and direction that we need to recreate.
Democratic Socialism is the Way Forward
In theory that might be pretty easy, but in practice it’s historically incredibly difficult to get leftists to coalesce. Which is why the coalitions Bernie Sanders put together were so stunning and important. But underlying Bernie Sanders as a figure is a set of principles and policy goals that can be abstracted as Democratic Socialism and sold to the public just as effectively as Bernie Sanders was able to do it. And in my humble opinion groups like Democratic Socialists of America are already doing that important work and sketching out practical applications of those principles and building the power to bring them to reality.
The Democratic Socialists of America are also a source of the very infighting I just discussed. Not everyone agrees with my assessment and some view it as something close to the irreconcilable ramblings of a “soc dem sheepherding leftists into the Democratic Party” and while I disagree with that paraphrased characterization of part of the left, it comes from very real growing pains. The left is powerful enough to make a show of force, to fuel an electoral movement that came very close to winning, but it isn’t powerful or organized enough to outright win yet. That will come and harnessing the power of the political principles that propelled Bernie Sanders outside the context of his campaigns is how we reach that point.
Not everyone agrees with what that looks like or which organization or electoral vehicle to use and hashing that out is important. Regardless of where people fall on that issue, those principles that brought us all together in the first place are still there and they are still worth fighting for. And at the end of the day with a little good faith the movement can build beyond Bernie and maybe, put the horse before the cart, build the movement before the presidential campaign, in a way that Bernie Sanders simply was never going to be able to do.