What Makes Bernie Run?

What Makes Bernie Run?

Biden’s momentum is clear, and the question before Sanders is becoming clearer by the day: Will staying in help build the movement or hurt it?


The votes in Joe Biden’s stunning comeback on Super Tuesday weren’t even counted before the braying began that it’s time for Bernie Sanders to pack it up and get out of the race. After winning less than half of the delegates needed for the nomination, the Biden campaign released a memo concluding that “it will be nearly impossible for Sanders to recoup his current delegate disadvantage.”

South Carolina Representative James Clyburn, the single most important contributor to Biden’s revival, called on the DNC to “shut this primary down.” Gun for hire James Carville echoed him, saying the “voters” want to “shut this thing down.”

Biden’s momentum is clear, and now, with the country wracked by the coronavirus calamity, primaries postponed, and rallies verboten, the campaign will get less attention. Every other contender has “suspended” his or her campaign. And Sanders, having recently survived a heart attack, has every personal reason to call it a day. As this is being written, Sanders and his wife, Jane, have repaired to Vermont to consider the path forward. So what would possibly make Bernie continue the run?

There is no mystery here. Since Sanders first announced his long-shot challenge to Hillary Clinton in 2016, he has been clear that he is running not only to win but also to build a movement that could effect the “political revolution” needed to transform this country.

Traditional candidates withdraw hoping to gain favor with the nominee, perhaps secure an appointment, while retaining the respect of deep-pocket donors and the party establishment. The calculus of a movement candidate is totally different.

Sanders is building that movement. His vision and agenda have begun to drag the Democratic Party his way. He has inspired a growing following—notably the young in 2016 and Latinos this year. He has demonstrated that small donors can make a movement candidacy financially competitive, upending the Big Money politics that so corrupts our elections. He has inspired community organizers, grassroots networks, and movement activists to bring their energy into electoral politics and into the Democratic Party.

Continuing to run, even when he has little or no chance to win, gives Sanders a platform to educate more people on his agenda, enlist more into the movement, give organizers more experience, while expanding his donor base—now nearly 2 million individual donors—and building his independent communications and social media capacity. That offers a potentially powerful resource to future insurgent candidates up and down the ticket and to the push for fundamental reforms.

By continuing to run, Sanders can continue to win delegates—even if not as many as Biden—who will not only be rewarded for their commitment but also gain invaluable experience and visibility. Having more delegates will give his campaign greater influence in the debate over the party platform and in the inevitable battles over the party structures.

After 2016, Sanders created Our Revolution, an independent organization devoted to recruiting and supporting candidates, driving reforms at the local and state level, and pushing to transform the Democratic Party from local committees to the DNC. Continuing the campaign will help build that.

This independent capacity is essential because, for all its talk of unity, the Democratic Party establishment is still hostile to the movement for change. Biden may tell the new generation “I hear you,” but he consistently dismisses the notion of fundamental reform as impossible. Even as his campaign was advertising its embrace of Sanders’s supporters, his chief strategist, Anita Dunn, a longtime party operative and PR consultant, was more transparent, scorning Sanders as an outside agitator, “the kind of protester who often shows up at campaign events on live television.”

DNC Chair Tom Peres has systematically cut supporters of the populist wing of the party out of key party committees. The fight isn’t simply over lucrative contracts for the grifters and hangers-on; it concerns what candidates the party recruits and supports, what coalition it is trying to build.

Nancy Pelosi is the most progressive House speaker in memory, but she is committed to supporting any Democratic incumbent no matter how retrograde, and on recruiting “moderate” candidates—often those with deep pockets or, increasingly, with national security state credentials. Thus, Cheri Bustos, her choice to head the DCCC, promised to blacklist any political vendor—pollster, consultant, campaign operative—who worked for an insurgent challenging an incumbent Democrat. Pelosi herself underlined the point by traveling to Texas to help Henry Cueller, a pro-NRA, Koch-backed DINO who voted with Trump 70 percent of the time in his first two years, narrowly escape defeat by a compelling progressive, Jessica Cisneros.

Independent capacity—Our Revolution, Justice Democrats, the multi-issue operations like Moveon.org, People’s Action, a revived and progressive union movement, and others—is vital if the Democratic Party is to become the party of working people once more.

Moreover, the stale arguments against staying in are largely specious. Biden, supporters suggest, needs to focus on Trump, not Sanders, but he can and should be doing that already. By criticizing Biden’s record, we’re told, Sanders opens him up for attacks by Trump. But if anything, Sanders’s rather courtly challenges are giving Biden a mild practice run for the savage assault he will get from Trump.

Continuing to run, it is suggested, will make it harder to unite Sanders supporters behind Biden. But Trump unifies Democrats and progressives. Sanders has repeatedly warned his supporters about Trump and made it clear that he would stump for whoever wins the nomination. In 2016, many Democrats put off or uninspired by Hillary Clinton didn’t feel the need to vote for her because everyone knew she would win. No one will make that mistake in 2020. And for all the garment-rending about Sanders driving voters to third parties, the reality is that Sanders is bringing progressive activists into the electoral process and into the Democratic Party, not driving them away.

The coronavirus calamity obviously impacts this calculus going forward. The crisis consumes the media. The attention provided by the campaign is diminished, particularly with the cancellation of Sanders’s signature rallies and the suspension of door-to-door canvassing. Calls for national unity gain force. “It’s frozen the campaign,” argues Mark Longabaugh, a senior adviser to Sanders during his 2016 campaign. “and I don’t see how you cut through this life-or-death coverage that we’ve got.… It just kind of closes it down.” If small-donor support for the campaign flags and Sanders continues to lose primaries, there is more reason to shut the campaign down.

Yet the coronavirus crisis also argues for staying in. The campaign has no choice but to focus more attention and creativity on social media and independent communications, from virtual town halls to frequent podcasts, building capacity that is too often neglected.

Sanders can use his pulpit—as he did Tuesday night after suffering primary defeats in Illinois, Florida, and Arizona—to lay out a bold agenda for responding to the crisis. The risibly inadequate early responses of the Trump administration, the House, and the Senate demonstrate the need for that. And while both Trump and Biden focus on the immediate future, suggesting that any public provision is temporary and targeted for the emergency, Sanders has a unique opportunity to show how the crisis reveals the imperative of fundamental structural reforms.

Moreover, as Naomi Klein warns, the coronavirus will provide a classic opening for disaster profiteering and for shock doctrine politics, using the crisis to pass a wish list of unpopular policies—from subsidies for big banks and oil and gas companies to hitting working people with the bill for the bailout afterward, including cuts to Social Security and Medicare. Already, companies are lobbying hard for subsidies without conditions or a requirement that any bailout include long-needed corporate reforms. With a live campaign, Sanders has greater opportunity to expose the rip-offs, to lay out the alternatives in the midst of the crisis, and push Biden to a bolder position.

The price of a continuing campaign is more likely to be paid by Sanders and his aides than by Biden. The clamor for Sanders to get out will grow louder. The scorn of punditry and mainstream media will be unremitting. Having been made a part of the leadership team in the Senate after 2016, Sanders could well find himself isolated. And if he suspended the campaign, Sanders would still have his Senate seat, which affords him the chance to impact the debate, as Elizabeth Warren has demonstrated since she withdrew. For Sanders and for his allies, however, the basic question will stay the same: Will staying in help build the movement or hurt it? The answer to that will decide his course.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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