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Build Your Own Machine

The electoral left went from the verge of victory to barely alive. How can we make it stop?

In 2016, I was in Columbia covering the final days of the South Carolina primary. The previous day, I had visited a room full of passionate Bernie Sanders volunteers near Greenville, and joined one of the most passionate as she canvassed suburban neighborhoods asking people to vote for Sanders. The next day, as I waited for the inevitable Hillary Clinton victory party, the polls had been closed for a whopping five seconds before the winner was announced. Sanders hadn’t even cracked 30% of the vote.

Four years later, it took roughly an equal amount of time for the networks to call the 2020 South Carolina race  for Joe Biden. Three days later, he dominated Super Tuesday and the Democratic presidential primary was all but over. In the end, it was obvious that three key endorsements of Biden — from Jim Clyburn, Amy Klobuchar, and Pete Buttigieg — made that happen.

Throughout the last four years of Donald Trump, it felt at times like all of the enthusiasm and intellectual momentum was on the left — if not the emerging new socialist left led by Sanders and an army of DSA-affiliated volunteers, then the broader progressive movement as a whole. So how did three well-timed phone calls from the most lackluster Democratic nominee since Michael Dukakis derail it all?

All of the post-mortems of the Sanders campaign appear to come down to three competing theories: that the Sanders campaign didn’t chase traditional Democratic constituencies hard enough and was at times outright hostile towards them; that the Sanders campaign didn’t go hard enough after Joe Biden; and the favorite of liberals, that the left was a paper tiger which vastly overestimated Sanders’ 2016 strength.

So many things went wrong in 2020 that it’s hard to go all-in on just one theory. But despite the biggest setback it’s faced in ages, the left is still the strongest it’s been in decades. It took a former secretary of state and then a popular former vice president to keep an independent socialist who flatly refused to ever actually join the Democratic Party from winning its nomination.

And as unsatisfying as it may be, the defeat of Bernie Sanders and everything we’ve seen since — not the least of which was the utter disappearance of congressional progressives, including Sanders, in the fight over the coronavirus aid bills — is a reminder that a movement to challenge the behemoth of corporate neoliberal hegemony can’t be built from the top. It must start from the bottom. And after Bernie Sanders, that’s exactly where we find ourselves.

First, the bad news.

The Sanders campaign once again failed in the South, and more particularly with older black voters. If there’s any lesson to be learned from 2016 and 2020, it’s that you cannot get crushed with the Democratic Party’s most reliable working class constituencies, even if you run up the numbers with young voters.

There’s been a lot of speculation for why Sanders again couldn’t win over older black voters; Adam Harris’ piece in the Atlantic does a good job outlining some of the most common (and persuasive) arguments, such as Sanders being undone by fears over his electability.

One argument, made implicitly by Jackson, MS mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba, is that some of the people who’d be helped most by a socialist or even progressive platform have been so purposefully detached from politics (through anti-union organizing, anti-voting laws, etc. and more), that they can’t even conceive of a deeper level of inclusion in the process.

Speaking about a mock “people’s caucus” in which representatives from various campaigns came to Jackson to speak to a crowd of around 100 Jacksonians, Lumumba told the Atlantic: “That was a small sample size of the city in an atypical situation not only for Jackson to get to experience, but that most other southern states don’t get to experience.” 

After Super Tuesday, when it became obvious Sanders would need a win in Michigan to stay viable, Sanders canceled a rally in Jackson with Lumumba. Sanders ended up getting an even smaller share of the vote in Mississippi in 2020 than he did in 2016. 

Another issue is that the Democratic Party is still very much machine-oriented, particularly in places like South Carolina and Mississippi where black Democrats make up a larger share of the party’s base and the party’s power is essentially non-existent outside of a few key population centers. 

Jim Clyburn, for all intents and purposes, is the Democratic kingmaker in South Carolina. There’s a reason why the summer before the presidential election, everyone who believes they have a prayer of winning the Democratic primary the following February flocks to Charleston to eat fried fish. It’s not because the fish is that great; it’s because Clyburn’s endorsement carries a ton of weight, as was borne out in 2020.

Beyond Sanders’ struggles with older black voters, his campaign struggled mightily in rural areas, with both white voters and black voters, after performing strongly there in 2016.

There are a few different theories for why that is. One is that Hillary Clinton was just so unpopular in rural America that Sanders won a lot of votes by default. Another compelling theory is that the divide between rural and urban (and suburban) America was already happening in 2016, but at this point there’s basically been a clear break, and so some people who voted for Sanders in the 2016 primary are just full-on Trump voters now.

It’s probably some combination of the two, but either way, Sanders’ performance this time around was a wake-up call for the left: organizing in rural communities is, at the very least, a generational project. Given the protracted declines in rural populations around the country, it may never happen.

There is some good news. Even with a field of two dozen people, all of whom were younger than Sanders, his message still resonated loudest with millennials and Generation Z across all demographics. He also expanded his coalition by bringing in more Latino voters (before the coronavirus hit the U.S. in full force and it became clear Joe Biden would win, anyway), winning Nevada comfortably and taking California, by far the biggest prize in the entire campaign, despite the momentum Biden had going into Super Tuesday that helped him sweep most of the eastern half of the country.

But that’s about it. And while the future might look bright for the left, there’s no guarantee that anyone else can succeed in the near term even to the extent Sanders did, and assuming that demographics are destiny would be repeating a mistake that’s plagued liberals for more than a decade

Given the ease with which the Democratic establishment dispatched the left this time around — not to mention the complete and total breakdown between the Elizabeth Warren and Sanders camps, which brought proof that an electoral coalition between two people who are actively running against each other is likely impossible — it’s hard to blame anyone for feeling dejected about where we are, or demoralized about the possibility of ever conquering the Democratic Party — let alone being able to replace it with something better.

But at the same time, all of the fundamentals that brought Sanders to the brink of victory twice are still in place. The working class still has no safety net, a fact laid even more bare by the inadequate federal response to the coronavirus pandemic. People still hate Congress and the president and the Democratic nominee. We’re still headed for climate disaster even if nature has reclaimed the Earth for four or five weeks.

No one is happy with the political system, and the primary motivation for many going to the ballot box these days appears to be to make Trump mad, own the libs, spite the left, or some combination of those. How do you break through that and create something new?

Let me start with the caveat that a lot of my assumptions leading into the 2020 primary were wrong. My biggest error was thinking that the Democratic electorate’s desire for fundamental change at least rivaled its desire to beat Trump; even though Sanders had an army of volunteer canvassers and the best-funded operation, the desire to beat Trump and fears about electability boosted Joe Biden (who had no money and barely any campaign presence anywhere except for South Carolina) clear over the finish line.

In retrospect, “Bernie beats Trump” might have been the slogan that said the most about the campaign. Most of the battle lay in convincing people that Bernie Sanders would not lead the Democrats to electoral ruin; in the end, the battle was lost.

But it’s time to shut the book on the presidential campaign. Joe Biden will be the nominee, or he won’t be and someone hated by the left nearly as much by the left will replace him. Biden has a strong chance at winning in November but it’s way too early to predict with confidence what the federal government will look like in January 2021.

If Biden loses or serves only one term,  there is no obvious successor to Sanders in 2024. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez would be just old enough to run for president, but hasn’t expressed interest in doing that at all. Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s ideological and personal disputes with Sanders exploded during the primary, and the emergence of “Warren Democrats” is a signal that there’s probably not a reconciliation between the camps coming anytime soon.

And even beyond Sanders’ socialism — self-described socialist politicians have always existed in America, albeit with limited success — the biggest anomaly about Sanders is that he’s an independent who has a real constituency in a party he’s never even been an official member of.

This doesn’t necessarily mean “giving up” on 2024 and sitting out what’s probably going to be a fight between the center-left and the center-right. But the socialist left and Sanders-supporting liberals have twice now poured a ton of energy into electing the most popular socialist in American history, and it wasn’t enough to overcome the Democratic establishment. It would be foolish to plan anything on the notion that even conditions that favorable will exist four years from now. 

So without anyone able to take the reins at the top, there’s only one other option if you believe electoral politics are an essential part of building power: to build from the bottom up. Anyone with an interest in either building a new socialist party or even moving the Democrats towards social democracy should be looking towards the bottom of the ballot — school board seats, city council races, state legislative races, and so on up to the House of Representatives.

House primary challenges shouldn’t be vanity campaigns run by people looking to boost their Twitter followings, but real, targeted efforts at vulnerable politicians on both the right wing of the caucus (Dan Lipinski, Henry Cuellar) and the obscure middle (Bill Foster). Instead of primarying your local entrenched congressman and struggling to raise money for months on end just to get 15% of the vote, run for something else and wait for them to retire. Take over your local party apparatus, or build an alternative to it. Build your own machine to take out the one that doesn’t work anymore.

This goes beyond electoral politics. While there’s been a promising wave of labor resurgence among workers like teachers and essential workers during the COVID-19 crisis, unions by and large remain in a defensive crouch, more often than not falling in line behind Democrats rather than leading them to the right and just position. Eventually, the dispute between the moderate old guard and the new wave of labor firebrands is going to come to a head; it’s already happening in some places. In some ways, taking control of the unions, whether locally or nationally, is more immediately pressing than winning elections.

Finally, progressives have to unite in some way. Not in the sense of a Sanders-Warren truce, but among the hundreds of groups organizing for racial, social, and economic justice, in order to build a more cohesive movement among people who largely share the same short- and long-term goals. On their own, these groups find themselves competing with each other for the attention of politicians. As a singular unit, they can drag the politicians who need their support towards the right position.

All of this isn’t just about winning elections. It’s about giving working people a voice in the political process, so we don’t have to perpetually point to the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortezes and Barbara Lees of the world as examples of how the left was on the right side of history even when no one else was. Being right is little consolation when it does nothing to avert the course of history.

I’m under no illusion that all of this is easier said than done. But in order for the left — for socialism — to succeed in America, the shortcomings of both the Sanders campaign and progressive infrastructure have to be examined without trashing what momentum the left has right now. Because if the lasting legacy of the Sanders campaigns are that they served as the kindling for a real movement for justice in America, then it’ll be difficult to consider them failures at all.

Image: Sanders rally in St. Paul, Minnesota on March 2 (NSPA & ACP via Flickr)