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Requiem for a (Social Democratic) Dream

Just a month ago, many socialists were claiming Bernie Sanders could win the Democratic nomination and the U.S. presidency. Today, he suspended his campaign. What next?

Sybil Davis

April 8, 2020
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Erin Schaff/The New York Times

As the United States reaches 12,000 deaths from coronavirus and tens of millions are unemployed, Bernie Sanders has dropped out of the Democratic primaries. 

Sanders mobilized a stunning amount of support, raising $180 million — more than all other Democratic primary candidates combined  — with small donations from working-class people: teachers, nurses, Amazon workers, and more. He got endorsements from key unions and had massive support among young people. His campaign represented a huge leftward shift by the masses that allowed a self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” to receive widespread support. 

Countless people struggling in low-wage jobs and without health insurance placed their hopes in Sanders. All of that came crashing down today.

Bernie Sanders has dropped out of the race.

This comes after he lost ten states on Super Tuesday, as well all a drumbeat in the mainstream media demanding that Sanders drop out and fall in line behind Joe Biden. This election cycle it looked like Sanders might win the Democratic nomination. His proposals like Medicare for All and free public university were at the center of the Democratic Party’s debates. Many of his policies had consistently high ratings. It seemed that the Democratic Party establishment had to shift left — at least in rhetoric — to keep up with Sanders. After Sanders’ Nevada landslide, he looked unstoppable. Jacobin magazine claimed in a headline: “It’s Bernie’s Party Now.”

But now, we are in the midst of a pandemic. Prospects look bleak as people die of COVID-19 and many are struggling to put food on the table, let alone pay rent, due to mass unemployment. People who had put their hopes in Sanders are likely experiencing despair and heartbreak. But in this crisis, we cannot despair: we have to learn from it in order to fight for socialism.

The Democratic Party v. Bernie Sanders 

Many criticized Sanders for not dropping out earlier, arguing that people were asked to risk their health in order to vote in primaries in Wisconsin, as well as Florida and other states. Ohio and New York have moved back their primary election dates. This criticism was repeated on multiple cable news stations — cable news has long been an adversary of Sanders. The political establishment and Supreme Court were happy to run elections, putting a massive pressure on Sanders to drop out.  

The writing had been on the wall since Super Tuesday, when, following the withdrawal and endorsement of all other establishment candidates, Joe Biden won commanding victories in ten states. Following Super Tuesday, Elizabeth Warren, the only other progressive candidate in the race, dropped out and did not endorse Sanders. Many suspect that if Warren had dropped out prior to Super Tuesday, the outcome might have been very different. But Warren showed herself to be a loyal spoiler for the Democratic Party establishment. 

That this all happened in quick succession is not an accident. There were weeks of media attacks against Sanders, and reports show that former president Barack Obama and others contacted candidates and encouraged them to endorse Biden. In many ways, the fix was in for Biden. The establishment very clearly collaborated to promote Biden and kill Sanders’ prospect of becoming the nominee, as they did in 2016. 

Yet, Sanders won “on the issues.” His proposals were popular — in many states more so than he was — and he set the conversation for the rest of the field. During Sander’s candidacy, polls showed that roughly 39% of people supported the idea of socialism and around 50% of people supported Medicare for All.

Biden = Capitalist “Stability”

Joe Biden does not possess any solutions for this crisis. Far from it — he has hardly been seen since the outbreak. However, for many people Biden represents a return to the “stability” of Barack Obama’s presidency. But stability will be impossible to come by in the midst of the pandemic and recession.

While Donald Trump’s bizarre tweets and chaotic press conferences were not a feature of life under Obama, the Obama-Biden administration was not the utopia that many — including Joe Biden — would have you believe. Their record was far from  progressive. Obama deported more people than any president before him, launched airstrikes in at least seven countries, and passed a healthcare plan that helped insurance companies without so much as a “public option.”

Rather than “stability,” Biden represents the neoliberal politics that laid the groundwork for the current economic and health crisis. Thousands will die in prisons as a result of COVID-19. It was Biden who helped put them there with the Crime Bill of 1994. Thousands of immigrants and refugees will die in concentration camps which Biden built up as part of ICE’s infrastructure. Even during this pandemic, Biden has been resolute in his opposition to Medicare for All.

In this context, it was stunning that Sanders didn’t express any anger towards Joe Biden and the Democratic Party establishment in his speech pulling out of the race. Quite the opposite: “I congratulate Joe Biden, a very decent man, who I will work with to move our progressive ideas forward.”

Joe Biden is an enemy of the working class — the very people who supported Sanders, donated money to his campaign, and attended his rallies. He stands firmly on the side of the capitalists, disgustingly opposing universal health care in the midst of the pandemic. And yet, as Bernie Sanders promised throughout his campaign, he will campaign for Biden — which will surely break the hearts of millions of Sanders supporters.

And so, we have to take political conclusions from what looks like such an immense betrayal of everything that Sanders claimed he was fighting for. 

The Graveyard of Movements 

Sanders tapped into a fast-growing phenomenon and was able to bring many new people into politics. However, the leadership of these newly politicized masses — both Sanders himself and his allies in the leadership of the Democratic Socialists of America — chose to dedicate the vast majority of their forces to pushing a capitalist party to the left. Initially, this strategy seemed to be working. DSA members were elected to several state houses and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez won a seat in the House of Representatives. 

Sanders’ failure to win the nomination should send the leadership of the DSA, Jacobin magazine, and all other Sanderist groups into a period of soul-searching. By dedicating all of their forces to a strategy that relied upon bourgeois elections and an imperialist political party to win socialism — or even social reforms — the leadership led an incipient movement into a dead end. 

History is littered with the graves of leftists who tried to reform the Democratic Party. It is a strategy that has universally failed from George McGovern to Jesse Jackson to, now, Bernie Sanders. The Democrats are, as an inherently bourgeois and imperialist party, sworn enemies to socialists and the project of socialism. They cannot be transformed into anything than what they always have been: a party of the capitalists for the capitalists. The orientation of  the DSA leadership to the Democratic Party shows a fundamental failure of leadership and strategy. Socialists should run in elections and use elections to spread their ideas and build their forces, not to build up a capitalist party. 

However, Bernie Sanders is not a socialist. He is a “New Deal liberal,” in his own words. His project was to push the Democratic Party to the left, not bring about the socialist revolution. That is why he voted for the bailout, that is why he supports U.S. imperialism time and time again, and that’s why he’s going to campaign for Joe Biden. Sanders wants people to keep voting for him so that he can head into the convention with as many delegates as possible — in other words, he is still dedicated to pushing the party to the left. This strategy will do little to impact the Democratic Party establishment — it does, however, serve to keep his more radical base from breaking with a capitalist party. 

The tragedy of the Sanders project is that it has drawn a huge swath of socialist activists into a completely discredited party. This shift was orchestrated by a leadership who promised, along the way, that this was in preparation for a “dirty break” from the Democrats, as well as structural reforms under a Sanders Presidency, which would be a stepping stone on the road to socialism.

That didn’t happen.  

Not Me, Us

Sanders’ campaign popularized many important demands that socialists should take up: Medicare For All, student loan forgiveness, free college tuition, and higher taxes on the rich. In the midst of the coronavirus pandemic, Sanders proposed a $2,000 check for each person for every month of the crisis, which would be a life saver for many. 

Throughout his campaign, Sanders assured that substantial reforms could be won  by winning popular support to face down a Congress full of Republicans (and Democrats): “Not me, us,” Sanders said.

However, Sanders failed to organize a single mobilization for his proposals. Sanders had support from a broad sector of workers, students, and several key unions. These forces could have helped push forward the fight for the reforms for which Sanders has been advocating. Imagine if Sanders had called on all the unions that endorsed him to go on strike for Medicare for All? Or if he told all the people who supported him to take to the streets to protest student loan debt? All of these tactics were achievable with the coalition that he had built. Instead of asking them to fight, however, Sanders called on them to … canvass. And phone bank. And donate. Organizations like the DSA followed suit, pouring all of their time and energy into this endeavour. Through this process, an army of canvassers was built — not an army for class struggle.

As Sanders drops out of the race, his failure to build an army of protesters, picketers, and strikers embedded in the working class is glaringly clear now. But in this moment, there is an ever more urgent need to continue the struggle. As workers all over the country organize walkouts and class struggle intensifies, the DSA leadership’s decision to focus on the Sanders campaign must be questioned.

While some say there is no alternative, it is our task as socialists to build a force that can create an alternative that we all desperately need. While Sanders voted for a corporate bailout, nurses are calling for the nationalization of healthcare. Socialism or barbarism is not just a slogan — it’s a reality we see playing out before our eyes.

What Is To Be Done

For many, the defeat of Bernie Sanders will be demoralizing and disheartening. Many may consider turning their back on national politics to instead focus on local organizing. But we should not lose heart and we cannot back away from the struggle for political power on a national and international level.

Working-class people need our own political representation. The healthcare workers, construction workers, and grocery workers who are fighting right now need their own political party: a party of workers independent from the capitalists. 

Bertolt Brecht once wrote that “because things are the way they are, things will not remain the way they are.” Now is a time where the capitalist order is in crisis and we cannot fall into despair. Now is not the time for disillusionment — it is the time to fight. It is the time to organize for the struggles that are just beginning and lay the groundwork for socialist revolution, for the future. Socialists of the DSA and its periphery, like the thousands of people who tweeted #DemExit, should join the combative working class which is already facing this crisis head-on. This unity should be around a new party, a working class alternative independent from the capitalists. The time is now. We have a world to win. 

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Sybil Davis

Sybil is a trans activist, artist, and education worker in New York City.

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