One of the most significant political stories of the year is the meteoric rise of a little-known, seventy-four year old, self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” senator from the small state of Vermont. Although he may win many of the remaining contests, it seems extremely unlikely that Bernie Sanders will clinch the Democratic nomination. Nevertheless, his bid for the presidency has dramatically, perhaps irreversibly, changed the political landscape in this country. At this point, the question for socialists is not whether or not to support Bernie’s campaign, but rather: what do we do now? What, if any political possibilities have emerged, and how can we seize these opportunities to advance revolutionary politics? To answer that, we first need to determine exactly how Bernie has changed the political situation in the United States.
The Sanders campaign did not emerge from nowhere. All movements exist within wider microsystems of struggle, and the complex entanglement and overlapping of recent social movements made his campaign possible. Without Occupy, Black Lives Matter, the Fight for 15, the mobilization of teachers and nurses, immigrant movements, and many other struggles, there would never have been a Sanders campaign. He has benefited enormously from the hard work of these earlier struggles. He has tapped into existing networks to raise an army of volunteers. He has, for better or worse, adopted much of the political language of these other movements. No one in these movements foresaw Bernie’s spectacular rise, but they all prepared it.
While Sanders has in some ways channeled these movements, he has not facilitated their “recuperation,” as many socialists originally feared. Instead of defusing and containing radical ideas, his campaign has helped proliferate them. Radical activists, many of whom often appeared antagonistic to both his campaign and the entire electoral process, not only pushed Sanders to the left, but forced him to use his candidacy as a tribune to popularize and combine many preexisting, seemingly separate demands: a fifteen dollar minimum wage, an end to mass incarceration, universal healthcare, free healthcare, free education, decriminalizing marijuana, legalizing thousands of immigrants, and banning fracking, to name only a few. These pressures also led him to issue a whole spate of political statements that no Presidential candidate would dare to utter in the United States. He publicly denounced the history of American imperialism on national television. He advocated for the rights of Palestinians in a country where almost no one in public office would even use the word “Palestine.” Like the Black Panthers, he has called the police an “occupying army.”
To be sure, most of these ideas are commonplace for most on the far left, and they do not on their own constitute socialism in any recognizable sense of the term. Indeed, Sanders himself is not a socialist. He never refers to the vibrant history of socialist struggles in this country, even though he once made a documentary about Eugene V. Debs. When he does speak of socialism, he points to Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal or modern Denmark. Like all social democrats, he wants a more equitable and robust social welfare state, not the abolition of the capitalist mode of production. All that said, in proliferating the messages of radical movements, even if articulating them in a social democratic framework, his campaign has had an undeniable impact on millions of Americans, above all young Americans, who were unfamiliar with such ideas, too afraid to embrace them, or had dismissed them as impossible. A recent Harvard Poll showed that young people’s political attitudes have already changed considerably just over the past year, and the polling director, John Della Volpe, has pinpointed Sanders as one of the primary causes. “He’s not moving a party to the left,” he concluded, he’s “moving a generation to the left.”
In addition, Sanders has helped draw lines of demarcation. Although most of his usual targets, such as “billionaires” or “Wall Street,” remain either terribly obvious or hopelessly vague, he has publicly named the “capitalists” as an enemy class, identified “capitalism” as the problem, and advocated “political revolution” as the solution. He has argued, before millions who are only now beginning to seriously think about things like “capitalism,” that problems in this society are not personal or isolated, but systemic, and that the only way forward is to radically and collectively overhaul that system. On its own, this argument is banal, but the fact that it’s resonating with millions is remarkable. The same Harvard University poll revealed, for example, that 51% of Americans between the ages of 18 and 29 do not support capitalism. Of course, it’s not clear what respondents understand by the word “capitalism,” but it’s a very good start, especially in a country like the United States.
At the same time, the completely unexpected success of the Sanders campaign has forced many people, organizations, and institutions to drop their veneer of neutrality to savagely attack him. But their assaults, increasingly wild and extreme, have in turn allowed millions of Americans to see them for what they really are. Although most Americans have not trusted the mainstream media for some time – a recent poll revealed that only 6% of Americans have confidence in the press – the media’s overt bias has prompted many people, above all the youth, to politicize their distrust, with many now regarding much of the mainstream media, especially seemingly objective newspapers, like the Washington Post or the New York Times, as little more than the propaganda arm of the ruling class. Seemingly progressive and reliable political figures and pundits have now outed themselves as reactionaries. At the same time, the Democratic Party has revealed itself to be one of the most significant impediments to meaningful social change in this country.
Even more important than circulating radical ideas, calling for systematic transformation, and revealing enemies, the Sanders campaign has triggered a kind of mass mobilization. Millions of Americans, many of whom have never voted before, are now attending rallies, joining marches, donating to the campaign, making telephone calls, knocking on doors, leading grassroots teams. While commitment to a bourgeois election is in itself no sign of radicalism, it does have the potential to create future opportunities for socialist politics. In mobilizing people, especially younger people, in this way, the campaign has helped connect activists from different movements, draw newcomers into existing political networks, and train a new generation of potential organizers.
Compositionally, these radicalized Sanders supporters are a very diverse group. In many contests, especially open ones, Sanders has split or won the female vote. In fact, although the mainstream media would never make mention of this, Bernie’s strongest support seems to come from young women. In Iowa, for example, 84% of women under 30 voted for Sanders. In terms of racial diversity, he remains the favored candidate among Native, Arab, and Asian Americans. Nationally, some polls indicate he splits the support of Latin@ voters with Hillary. He won Hawaii, the most diverse state in the country, by a landslide.
The major exception, of course, is older African Americans, and especially older black women. Even if Sanders is favored by many blacks, especially black youth, he consistently wins far fewer votes than Hillary Clinton. The reasons are very complex, and I can only indicate a few elements of an answer here: the destruction of autonomous radical black organizations since the 1970s, the subsequent absorption of blacks into the Democratic Party, the rise of a black bourgeoisie whose quarrel is not with the system but with access to the system, the close connection between the black leadership class and the Democratic Party, the role of the black church, the legacy of Bill Clinton and the power of the Clinton brand, high abstention rates among poor blacks, the fact that in some places one out of four black men are disenfranchised, and the justified fear of racist terror, especially in the South, which led many to vote for the most “electable” candidate. Another factor might be lack of exposure, or more precisely, differential access to information – a 2014 study found that only 45% of senior blacks are internet users and just 30% have broadband at home, significantly less than whites with a similar demographic profile. In failing to win the support of many African Americans, especially black workers, the Sanders campaign has highlighted probably the greatest strategic question for all radicals today: determining the political class composition of African Americans at a time when the first black President prepares to leave office.
Bernie’s base is the working class and youth. With a few notable exceptions, most importantly the above-mentioned older black workers, Sanders has successfully pulled together a number of distinct sectors of the U.S. working class: those with college degrees and those without, rural and urban, unionized and non-unionized, white and nonwhite. While many workers – from coal miners to computer programmers, nurses to transportation workers, teachers to fast food workers – have temporarily lined up behind the democratic socialist from Vermont, those under 35 have offered the deepest support, not only casting ballots, but throwing themselves headlong into campaign organizing.
In fact, youth support extends even beyond the working class. Indeed, it seems that age, more than any other factor, determines one’s political proclivities today. In a number of states, for example, over 80% of voters under the age of 30 support Sanders. By the same token, the majority distrusts Hillary Clinton. In fact, Clinton’s single most reliable base of support comes from voters over 50. There are a number of reasons why seniors, both black and white, dislike Sanders, even though he’s promised to dramatically expand social security, but I wonder again if lack of connectivity, an inability to navigate the internet, and an over-reliance on mass media – which is strongly biased against Sanders – may play a greater role than is often acknowledged.
This kind of mass political polarization along sharp generational lines has not existed since the 1960s and 1970s. But while the youth mobilization of the 1960s was in part made possible by a self-conscious “youth movement” mediated by music, sex, drugs, consumerism, and a belief in the allegedly inherent emancipatory potential of youth, if young people today have banded together around radical ideas, it’s not because of some “youth culture.” It’s because young people lived through an era of fictitious economic growth, then a devastating crisis that dispelled all illusions, leaving them nothing but staggeringly high debt, unemployment, and no future. For them, politics is no fad; it’s become a question of life and death – especially when one recognizes that we are dealing with the first generation to fully recognize the immediacy of ecological disaster, which many are increasingly, and correctly, linking to capitalism.
What we have emerging, then, is a new, diverse cohort of predominantly young people, the majority of whom belong to the working class or a collapsing “middle class,” now open to socialist ideas, clamoring for systematic change, and who are increasingly networked, trained, and experienced in organizing. The vast majority of these people are, like Bernie, not socialists in any specific historical sense, but they are willing to fight for major changes. The potential here is enormous, and for this, we have to thank the Sanders campaign, whether or not we like Bernie’s social democratic politics.
The major question, of course, is what happens next. It’s very possible that these young, politicized Sanders supporters will be incorporated into the Democratic Party. If Bernie wins the nomination, the risks are enormous. But even if he doesn’t, which seems far more likely now, he may produce the same effect if he throws his weight behind Clinton at the Convention in July. Or possibly, if Hillary emerges victorious, she may tap someone like Elizabeth Warren to serve as Vice President as part of some calculated strategy to win over Bernie’s supporters. It is also safe to assume that the Democratic Party will itself try to make the most of this opportunity by organizing many of these young people into its ranks. All this highlights the great contradiction of Bernie’s campaign: he would not have reached – and radicalized – such a vast audience if he did not run as a Democrat, but in working within the Democratic Party, he has potentially wedded this new audience to perhaps the greatest counter-revolutionary force in the United States.
It is also possible that this energy will dissipate in the following few months. A Clinton victory – or more accurately a vote against Donald Trump – may demoralize a generation already deeply suspicious of the “rigged” political process. And if by some chance Bernie wins but then fails to realize crucial aspects of his vision, that, too, will result in disillusionment, just as Obama disappointed his supporters (though it should be noted that this did not lead them to drop out of politics, but to rally around Bernie). Instead of empowering young people to overthrow the system, the campaign may ultimately lead many to resign themselves to its inevitability.
These possible outcomes have been discussed before. But nothing is predetermined. The far left can have a hand in how all of this plays out, which leads to a third possibility: uniting all of these new socialists into an autonomous revolutionary organization.
Unfortunately, while there is much talk on the matter, including a “People’s Summit” in Chicago and preparations for a far more radical socialist convergence in July with representatives from many of the existing far left currents in the United States, radicals have not yet devised a coherent strategy. As it stands, the de facto approach has been for organizations to “recruit” young Sanders supporters – or more precisely, wait for these supporters to magically fall into their lap. To my mind, this seems doomed to failure. Even if existing socialist organizations succeed in funneling some Bernie supporters into their ranks, we can’t move forward by dividing this new mass of politicized young people into tiny groups that have outlived their historical conditions. While they might try to rebrand themselves for the twenty-first century, inherited organizations do not, and in fact cannot, speak to the needs of a new cycle of struggle.
We need new forms of organization that are appropriate to our historical conjuncture. While we should certainly foster a diverse constellation of organizations for different situations, it’s becoming clear that we need some kind of binding element to link these distinct initiatives, campaigns, struggles, and movements. The symbolic figure of Sanders may have tenuously and unevenly drawn different segments together, but only an autonomous, radical organization tailored to present conditions can make sure their encounter not only takes hold, but continues to develop in potentially revolutionary directions.
I therefore suggest that if American radicals really care about making the most of this upsurge, they should consider dissolving their existing formations to create the nucleus of a new kind of organization capable of playing this role. Such a call may seem presumptuous, but let us recall that the most successful organizational forms of the past, that is to say, those organizations most attuned to the needs of their time, themselves emerged from the liquidation, radical recombination, and subsequent transformation of the elements of existing groups, networks, and collectives.
Normally, I oppose such calls for “Left Unity” since they usually amount to nothing more than purely abstract and rhetorical statements of solidarity between groups with no real connection to mass struggles. But in this case, we are faced with what is in many respects a kind of a mass movement, even if it’s passing under the guise of an election campaign. Most importantly, this movement is intricately intertwined with other vibrant, more militant struggles in which the far left is in fact closely involved. This radical ecosystem is the condition of possibility for a new organization. Unity will come, therefore, not from any shared ideological platform, but through common struggle.
Our chances for such a qualitative leap are more propitious than they have been in decades. The established political configuration in the United States hasn’t been this vulnerable since the 1970s. The Republican Party is undergoing a profound structural transformation, and Trump’s impending nomination has provoked defections and a potential mutiny. The Democratic Party is being pulled in two directions and may be headed for a contested convention. Record numbers of Americans are leaving both parties – 43% now identify as Independents, as opposed to 30% as Democrats and only 26% as Republican. Across the board tens of millions of Americans are rejecting “establishment politics,” turning to either Trump or Sanders.
We should also be encouraged by the fact that many of these newly radicalized Sanders supporters may already be prepared to break with the logic of the political system – according to one poll, for instance, one third of Sanders supporters say they won’t vote for Clinton in the general election. But without a viable alternative in the form of an organizational presence, we won’t be able to transform this inchoate #BernieOrBust sentiment into revolutionary politics. And if, against all odds, Sanders wins, it is very likely that only a unified, alternative organization embedded in today’s many ongoing struggles can prevent radicalized Sanders supporters from integrating into a fundamentally unreformable Democratic Party. In short, we need an organization to fuse together the millions of enthusiastic people who may otherwise disperse or find themselves subsumed and then disorganized by the state apparatuses.
With such exceptionally high stakes, the far left, usually so minuscule and ineffectual in this country, needs to devise a shared, coherent organizational strategy. Now, more than ever, we need an organization to continue radicalizing newer generations, keep people engaged in contemporary struggles, unite disparate movements, articulate different sectors of the working class, preserve continuity between waves of struggles, fashion a common project, and, above all, seize power – by which I do not mean simply winning a couple seats in Congress as some purely electoral party, but overthrowing capitalism through a mass revolutionary upheaval that unfolds both against and within the state apparatuses. There hasn’t been this much interest in radical change, nor this much anger against capitalism in the United States since the 1970s. If we, as committed socialists, miss this moment, the future will never forgive us.
A shorter version of this article appears as part of the symposium, “Welcome Back Mr. Socialism,” hosted by Commonware.