Graphic courtesy of Tidewater Solidarity Center.
NATE LEMEN | OPINION EDITOR | firstname.lastname@example.org
The news that Bernie Sanders was suspending his presidential campaign, announced on April 8, was not a shock. It was a few weeks in the making; after a string of underwhelming performances in primaries and an unprecedented eleventh-hour centralization around Joe Biden by the rest of the Democratic Party establishment, Bernie lost the majority of his momentum from the early primaries. What filled the gap left by the grim expectation was instead a heady mix of emotions that existed contradictorily within me: sadness, yes, but fury too, and exhaustion and resolve.
I was — I am — furious that Bernie’s campaign, which had the broadest coalition of support and the most progressive policy agenda of certainly any presidential campaign of the last two decades, wasn’t enough to fight against the rote system which continues to marginalize and punish the majority of Americans.
The ailments which afflict our country are not hard to spot and, at this point, are overly familiar: the federal minimum wage is unlivable, healthcare costs are ruinous, nonviolent offenders are losing contact with their families and stripped of their humanity. It is exhausting to see these problems with such clarity and to come so close to electing a candidate who could have actually worked to fix them, only to come up short once again.
There’s a lot that can be said about Bernie’s campaign: about the hope he brought people, about the passion he ignited, about the role he played in bringing to the forefront policy discussions which have been considered idealist pipedreams for decades. But to write about this loss in that manner then portrays the loss as a eulogy, an agreement that the things he fought for are dead and the shot we had at seeing a more just country has passed. If we look back at Bernie’s campaign in that way, we devalue the legitimacy of everything we’ve worked toward together.
It is easy, as a Bernie supporter, to fall victim to one of two modes of emotional coping. The first is to rest on our laurels and say we did all the necessary work and to find blame with any-and-every thing that isn’t in the control of Bernie’s campaign, forgoing any internal reflection on the shortcomings of why this messaging wasn’t as effective as it needed to be. The second method is to become defeated and disaffected, which is also effectively giving up.
Bernie ran a great campaign that was built on the work of outstanding, brave organizers and on a policy bedrock that working-class Americans dream of. But his campaign came, once again, just shy of bringing the hopes and dreams of the American working class across the finish line.
There is some level of tangible blame that can be found in those outside his campaign — for example, a Democratic establishment that benefits from the status quo, or a media apparatus that at first refused to take Bernie’s proposals seriously and then often acted in bad faith. Yet allowing these factors to let all the people who worked so hard to get Bernie elected become jaded does our movement more of a disservice than anything else.
What we need to accept is that even in this loss there is solidarity, and it doesn’t negate the value or necessity of the polices we’ve been fighting for. The causes this campaign lifted up aren’t dead; they’re not pipe dreams, and they’re not unattainable.
The system we live in postures as a democracy, but we know it’s not. We know it is skewed toward those with more money, who can buy elections and candidates, whose lives are insulated from the struggle of the vast majority of Americans. Our country is plagued by greed and corruption, and everything — our economy, our judicial system, our laws — is stacked against everyone outside the oligarchy.
From where we stand now, in the wake of Bernie’s campaign suspension, we have two options: we keep up the fight, clear-eyed and determined, or we agree to play by the rules made with the express purpose of keeping the playing field uneven.
Allow me to make a brief discursion. The philosophers and cultural critics Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer once wrote — in witnessing world decimated by the horrors of World War II — that “it is the nature of the calamitous situation existing today that even the most honorable reformer who recommends renewal in threadbare language reinforces the existing order he seeks to break by taking over its worn-out categorial apparatus and the pernicious power-philosophy lying behind it.”
Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s reflections were made in the context of their lives, but the kernel at the heart of what they say is just as true today. The story of America has always been one of dissonance between those who are in charge and their constituents. No matter what horror we face, the same system has, by design, always been maintained.
So let’s apply Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s cause to a contemporary scene: with Bernie ending all new campaign efforts, Biden will be the Democratic nominee. Even if Biden is more liberal than Trump, there will be no shift to the status quo because Biden will be operating within what they call a “worn-out categorial apparatus” of the party establishment.
We’ve seen this already: within a day of Bernie announcing the suspension of his campaign, Biden proposed lowering the minimum age to qualify for Medicare from 65 to 60, a policy platform taken almost directly from Hillary Clinton’s losing 2016 campaign. Somehow, though, this is an even worse policy than Clinton’s: she, at least, moved the age down to 55. In the context of a race in which healthcare was perhaps the most prominent topic — driven by the countless horror stories of people’s lives being ruined by untenable healthcare costs — this concession is negligible and a preemptive sign of the continuation of an exclusionary society.
Beneath the immediate textual analysis of Adorno’s and Horkheimer’s philosophy lies a directive for the future. Bernie is done: what comes next? There is time to grieve, of course, and lament the ignorance and malice of the professional media class that let Biden and Trump lie, repeatedly, and misinform voters, and to foster a justified anger toward a system that seems to harbor no favor for the perpetually marginalized. But Bernie, as inspiring as his unabashed support of and tooth-and-nail scrappiness for the most disenfranchised members of our society is, is one person.
His campaign, with the slogan “not me, us,” did a good job emphasizing this — the responsibility is now on us to fight against the instinct to think of Bernie as a martyr. Any political movement which organizes itself around a central figure and props that individual up as the solution to a widespread malaise misunderstands the fight for inclusion. That sort of movement can never prevail.
The mission for those of us who supported Sanders, who believed in him and wanted our movement to find a mainstream home, is to continue the fight for the causes in which we believe. We need to support candidates at a local level who advocate for the same issues, and we need to work to hold our elected representatives — especially the ones who work toward their own interests to stay within the existing system — accountable and work as hard as we can to push them in a more progressive direction.
Our current system, and the power-philosophy which fuels it, is not tenable. It is also the only system we have right now. The only solution — no matter how long it takes, no matter how much work we have to put in, no matter how insufficient our options are — is to change the system. We must keep up the fight. Just because electoralism failed this campaign does not mean the solution is to become more insular as a movement.
We must work to elect people across the board into positions of power that will work to change our political institutions. The policies which formed the bedrock of Bernie’s campaign — Medicare for All, a livable minimum wage, free tuition — are popular policies, and they are all policies which will tangibly improve the lives of Americans.
There needs to be a union between the electoralism that provides the framework of our current political economy and a mode of organizing that extends beyond the confines therein. It’s about making the decision to seek out and foster solidarity with all those fighting the good fight, about building as vast a coalition as possible.
Whether it’s joining a union, organizing get-togethers to discuss the most pressing issues facing our communities, or running for office ourselves, there needs to be deliberate action to one day be able to completely shuck the system that’s screwed over so many for so long. It’s about waking up every day and making the decision to fight for someone you don’t know. The possibility of change dies when we decide to stop working toward it.
Bernie’s personal fight is over. Ours cannot be; it’s not about him, or me, or you. It’s about us.