Around the time that the first Covid case appeared in Seattle, some friends and I packed a car and drove four hours to Muscatine, Iowa, to campaign for Bernie in the Democratic caucuses. It was January. At a makeshift field office—a detached garage warmed by space heaters—three women volunteers arranged piles of yard signs, canvassing scripts, and clipboards on a plastic folding table. As her mom trained us, a toddler waddled across the cement floor in a blue Bernie onesie and stretched her arms out to us, total strangers. Hours later when, exhausted and frozen, we returned from door-knocking, it was dark. The women were still there, the mom and her baby, too.
That scene, both mundane and remarkable, warmth in the dead of winter, will stick with me forever. It symbolized the depth of commitment and shared connection of ordinary people who joined the campaign in the millions under the banner of “political revolution” and “Not Me. Us.” As the campaign crescendoed, the unity of purpose, the high stakes, and electricity of the campaign made it feel like falling in love for the first time, only with millions of other people.
Love is about reminding us we’re alive. And what was Bernie’s campaign about if not an affirmation of life and human dignity? Bernie’s campaign was fundamentally about feelings—feelings of loss, anger, and insecurity; feelings of being stuck in alienating and undemocratic workplaces and political systems. Better than any other candidate, he grasped working people’s realities, affirmed our frustrations, and channeled those feelings toward a common project and a common enemy: capitalism. The campaign genuinely was about “us” and taking control of our lives.
For once, we felt we were in the driver’s seat, making the road as we sped across it. For my generation, the left had never dreamed of gaining popular support for socialist ideas, let alone coming within arm’s reach of winning with them. The day AOC’s endorsement became public, my boyfriend recorded a video of me with freshly showered hair, wearing his too-big sweatshirt, dancing and singing, “I’m having the time of my life, and I owe it all to AOC.” For the first time in a very long time, the left felt confident.
Then it was over. None of us that night in Iowa could have imagined the rapid spread of Covid over the following weeks, the political and economic crises in its wake, the Democratic Party’s resilience in unifying around Joe Biden, and Bernie’s subsequent drop-out. For those in the campaign, it was like watching a car crash in slow motion. We were powerless to stop it.
To make matters worse, we suffered the loss alone, huddled in our houses. The night Bernie announced the end of his campaign, I listened to Tracy Chapman’s “Talkin’ About a Revolution” on repeat, sobbing at the line “’Cause finally the tables are starting to turn.” We had gotten so close, it seemed, to turning the tables.
But we had to move on, quickly. People were sick and dying. Essential workers were organizing and striking. Mass protests against police killings and racism erupted. There was work to do, and many of us threw ourselves into it. There wasn’t time to take stock and reflect.
Now politics feels different, like falling out of love. Organizers from the campaign told me that afterward they felt numb; some cried. We had “debriefs”; people posted on social media about the campaign; some wrote articles about its lessons; but nothing came close to “closure.” Maybe nothing will. I don’t know. But it feels as if we’re each carrying a box around alone, afraid to open it together for what might come out. Not the lessons or failures, but the emotions that we packed away. The grief. Dealing with what it felt like. I don’t want to carry that unopened box forever.
Before Bernie, the left was like a sleepy Rust Belt town. We organized and marched, but acceptance of dilapidation was a basic part of living there after decades of defeat. After Bernie’s 2016 run, tens of thousands of people came flooding through the doors of the Democratic Socialists of America. Organizing meetings became standing-room-only. The usual faces, now stunned by the explosion of new political energy, were few and far between. The left wasn’t just revived; it was reborn.
After four years of organizing, Bernie’s 2020 campaign became a patchwork quilt of movement struggles. Our coalition in Chicago had more than a dozen grassroots organizations, including Chicago DSA, Sunrise Movement, progressive ward-level organizations, and socialist aldermen. I was repeatedly struck by the level of political unity among so many people I had never worked with before, and by our collective clarity that the campaign was about both electing Bernie and, most important, building a mass working-class movement through the campaign.
We packed away the yard signs a while ago, but my heart still leaps when I see Bernie signs in my neighbors’ windows. The movement continues, but the relative silence on the sheer depth of what we all lost—not just the race but pieces of our lives—makes it hard to reconcile with what we have gained, advances the left hasn’t experienced in decades.
We need to grieve the loss so that we can celebrate what we’ve won: a reborn left whose ideas resonate with millions of people. We’ve built real political will that has forced the establishment to abandon talk of “tough choices” or balancing the budget on workers’ backs amid the current crisis. The point of mourning is to get back to living—to recover the conviction, together, that we can win a better world.
Scenes From a Pandemic is a collaboration between The Nation and Kopkind, a living memorial to radical journalist Andrew Kopkind, who from 1982–94 was the magazine’s chief political writer and analyst. This series of dispatches from Kopkind’s far-flung network of participants, advisers, guests, and friends is edited by Nation contributor and Kopkind program director JoAnn Wypijewski, and appears weekly on thenation.com and kopkind.org.