The Bernie Sanders Moment



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You often hear people saying "I agree with Bernie Sanders in terms of his policies, but I just don't think he has a broad enough coalition to win - and besides, I can't stand a lot of his supporters."  In my long tradition of maximum contrarianism, burning all bridges and pissing everyone off, I'm going to stake out the exact opposite position.

I actually disagree with a lot of Bernie Sanders's policies.  But his greatest strength is, well, very little to do with him at all: it is, precisely, his coalition.

What's so great about this coalition?

First of all, it's so big. Of all the candidates in 2020, Bernie has, by far, the biggest, most solid base.  No one else really had much of a base.  The rest of the 27(!) candidates were splitting up constituencies that would flit from one flavor of the month to another, according to whatever media currents were blowing on that day, but Bernie's 30% or so has remained - and remains - calm, determined, and steadfast.  We haven't had a huge socialist movement like this in the United States since the 1930s. And they won't budge.

Second, it's mostly women.  Despite the myth of the "Bernie Bro" that the media was constantly trying to push, women under 45 were Sanders's biggest constituency, significantly outnumbering men under 45, his 2nd largest group.

And it's so diverse.  Sanders was far and away winning the Latinx vote, as has been well publicized - and this was no accident: he worked hard to gain their trust.  He also did very well among Native Americans, though there haven't been a lot of reliable polls.  And he polled the best among Asian-Americans and Pacific Islander Americans.  Warren, Buttigieg, Bloomberg and Klobuchar all had much whiter constituencies.  True, Biden won some decisive victories among Black voters, and this seems to have turned the tide in his favor.  Bernie acknowledged this problem right from the beginning of his campaign, and spent a lot of money trying to win over Black voters.  As recently as Jan 16th, he and Biden seemed to be tied for African-American votes, but as in so many other categories, it was largely younger Black people that skewed toward Bernie and older Black people that skewed toward Biden, and the older people have showed up so far to vote in primaries in higher numbers (no doubt in part due to voter suppression, but that's another story).

What's most important about Bernie Sanders, of course, is that he has such working class support.  The donor lists made it unmistakable: Sanders won the most support from teachers, nurses, electricians, truck drivers, etc., etc., etc... and it wasn't even close.  This is so well-known, and seems so obvious, that we risk ignoring how extremely unusual and remarkable it is.  Anyone who has been around any organizations of socialists, communists, anarchists, or even liberals knows that almost everyone in almost every single org is a young member of what is sometimes called the "professional-managerial class" - or from even higher social strata.  It's usually college students.  Sanders is the first American to call himself a socialist in my lifetime with actual working class support - and Sanders, as a candidate, polled very well among people with no college education.  His movement is the first in a long time that could in any way plausibly be considered an attempt at the self-emancipation of the industrial working class.  (This, of course, partly explains why he was popular among women, who have been industrial workers since well before the days of the Triangle Shirtwaist Company and who have been a growing proportion of working class workers in recent decades - and twice as many women work for wages below the poverty line than men do.  Also, Latinos are the fastest growing proportion of the working class.  See here (Demos's statistical data about the working class) for all this information and much more - click on that, it's fascinating.)

But what I find most exciting about the Sanders movement is how savvy it is.  The press likes to portray Sanders supporters as wide-eyed idealists, and to nag that Bernie won't be able to deliver on his many of his promises such as free college tuition and the cancellation of student debt.  I'm sure there are some pollyannas in the movement; there are in just about every campaign. But anecdotally, I've never spoken to any.  The Bernie Sanders supporters I meet, if anything, probably tend to err on the side of pessimism. But usually they are neither optimists nor pessimists; they are instead highly sophisticated, hard-nosed realists and pragmatists, with a view to the long game, who have gained circumspection and wisdom from a history of experience in political activism. 

They have no illusions.  They know it will be enormously difficult for Bernie Sanders to deliver everything he's promised in one term.  They know that if, by some miracle, Sanders manages to win the presidency, then the real battle will only just be beginning: it's obvious that Sanders will face enormous opposition, not only from the Republicans that already control the Senate and may capture the House, but perhaps even more so from the Democrats who are already showing signs that they will fight him every step of the way.

But the Bernie Sanders supporters I meet also know something else: that campaign promises are like the opening bid of a negotiation.  Any competent negotiator knows that in your initial offer, you have to demand the absolute maximum of what is possible, plus a little more.  Then, in the process of working out a deal, you can bargain your way down to what is acceptable.  If you start the process by asking for what is merely acceptable, you will be pushed back to what is unacceptable.

And in this age of apocalyptic climate catastrophe, looming mass unemployment, and the collapse of capitalism, this kind of foolish failure of negotiation ending in unacceptable compromise is beyond irresponsible and dangerous - it is downright suicidal.  It forces one to ask: can people like Barack Obama and the rest of the "centrist" Democrats really be as naive as they seem?  Or are they just pretending?

In any case, what all of this demonstrates is that the Bernie Sanders faction is not only the largest and most diverse, but also the toughest and smartest segment of the voting public.  What is astonishing is not Bernie Sanders the candidate (in some ways he's not that impressive, giving the same speech, event after event, year after year, for decades), but the massive, energized crowd around him at every event.  They have the numbers and the momentum to win.

Of course, it partly really is about him.  I hear some self-appointed judges on the left (the Aftermaths of the world, etc.) sniping at him, though he has accomplished far more in his life than they ever will.  And yes, this is in part due to some remarkable personal qualities.  He's incredibly hard working and tenacious - most leftists get into some political activism in their 20s and then drift away; he has been struggling for his entire life without compromise.  At 78, he is by far the hardest working of all of the candidates, doing multiple huge events per day for months without a break.  He's never surrendered to complacency, nihilism, fatalism, or despair (how many leftists can you say that about?).  And he's absolutely incorruptible.  He's made some enormously powerful enemies over the years and they have combed through his past, looking for any kind of dirt they can use against him, and he's come up unbelievably clean.  He also has extraordinary courage, honesty, integrity, and independence of mind.  A Sanders supporter that I know said something that stuck with me: although he had volunteered for many politicians in the past, Sanders is the only politician he had ever volunteered for - indeed, the only politician he'd ever heard of - about whom he could honestly say that the more he learned about him, the more he liked him. 

Some people are saying that Bernie's candidacy is the last, narrow window of opportunity for the left.  I disagree.  Whatever happens this year, Sanders will be a hero to millions.  Even we don't have him at the helm next time, a generation of new leaders has arisen - there is, of course, "the Squad": Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Ayanna Presley, and AOC.  There's also Nina Turner, and a hundred other politicians that have been buoyed to prominence through the Sanders movement.  But more importantly there are thousands of people out there whose names we don't all know yet, people from outside politics - actors, writers, nurses, plumbers, who knows what else.  Don't sell them short.  A generational shift is occurring in America.  Politicians did not create that shift; they merely reflect it.

But... another thing about Bernie Sanders: people keep underestimating him.  And he knows how to use that to his advantage.  People thought he was going nowhere for decades.  People thought it was over several times in 2016.  People thought it was over when he had a heart attack.  I myself have thought it was over for him sometimes.  (Sometimes he himself seems to be surprised by his own resurgence.)  Ever since his first narrow victory as mayor of Burlington, people have been saying, "This is the end of the line for Bernie." They thought he was defeated, or that they could control him or manipulate him. And every time he turns out to be a more canny political operator than they had reckoned him to be - more capable of gaining power, and more capable of wielding power.  He doesn't listen to handlers and advisors that are constantly trying to craft his message, and his political instincts again and again turn out to be far more effective than their small-minded notes. 

The media always says it's over, just when it's beginning.  Well, this may be the end of the moment, but it's the beginning of the movement.

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