Support Bernie Sanders – But How?

Polls show Sanders creeping up on Clinton in the first primary state, New Hampshire. Even more revealing, Sanders is attracting large, enthusiastic audiences in Iowa and North Carolina.

Simultaneously, many left writers think they shouldn’t personally relate to the Sanders campaign, or even root for it, and that it will be better if others don’t, as well. Other left writers think the opposite: all in for Bernie. And of course, many operate between the two polls.

I understand people’s criticisms of the U.S. electoral system. It is certainly abysmal. I also recognize that candidates typically gravitate toward the center as they increasingly fixate on vote counting and lose touch with movement commitments. But even with these critiques, is the most productive attitude for someone who wants to win a better U.S. to dismiss Bernie Sanders, perhaps calling him a stalking horse or insufficiently radical? Should we tell those excited about his effort that they are turncoats against the left and supporters of the Democratic Party?

There are certainly reasons to look askance at Sanders. He barely addresses international relations. He won’t call the Democratic Party a party of the rich beholden to interests totally contrary to his stated aims. We also don’t know what message his campaign will deliveri. Even more important, we don’t know if Sanders will become so caught up vote counts that his campaign does nothing to build lasting organizational structures that operate past the election.

We do know, however, that the Sanders campaign will be heard by a huge number of people who the rest of the left rarely if ever reaches, and that Sanders is quite capable of compellingly saying important things to that large audience.

To pose the resulting conundrum starkly: One person may anticipate sell-out as the campaign’s likely path. Another person may anticipate informed movement building. They can each make a case for their perception. There is nothing wrong with having views and trying to convey them. The problem starts when either person says I am so obviously right that you have to agree with me or you are destroying left prospects either because you are ignorant of what I know or because you don’t really care about broad long term prospects in the first place, or because you are simply rationalizing your current and past identifications despite contrary evidence and possibilities.

In contrast, here is what seems to me reasonable to assert so far.

Bernie Sanders is certainly not alone, or even via his whole campaign, the whole road to a better future. However, given the reach into America’s homes the campaign will have, Sanders and his campaign workers may contribute some quite a few bricks to such a path. They might counter many lies, spread many positive insights, raise radical desires, and perhaps even contribute materially and socially to movement and organization building – even if they don’t do any of these things perfectly.

Why anyone would be absolutely certain the campaign will do these good things beyond a modest level, I don’t get. It might not. And why anyone would be absolutely certain the campaign will not do these good things, beyond a modest level, I also don’t get. It might.

So should someone hope the campaign does good, and celebrate if it does? Of course. If Sanders and the campaign challenge common beliefs and propose serious changes in front of large and perhaps even huge audiences of normal American citizens, it makes little sense to complain that doing that legitimates elections, or even legitimates the Democratic party. If the campaign contributes to building organization and grassroots movement activism, what reason would there be to denigrate that?

More, isn’t the way to increase widespread understanding of the flaws of the U.S. electoral system to do just that, even while engaging with it, rather than to forgo communicating to the large public involved in electoral activity while maintaining some kind of perfect but largely unheard position?

Okay, but should a committed activist actually work in the campaign? Well, first, a person has to decide, with my particular talents, skills, time and energy, what level of attention should I give to Sanders’ campaign instead of to other activities I already do. Should I watch TV less, read books less, go to classes less, work overtime less, socialize less, and, yes, also do other political work in organizations, campaigns, or whatever else less, making some time for Sanders work?

Isn’t it self evident that there is no right answer to this? The variables typically differ from person to person. And we don’t know where the Sanders campaign will go.

Even after the campaign unfolds, if Sanders miraculously wins the Democratic Party nomination and in doing so sounds like Chomsky, or if he doesn’t win it, but the campaign builds infrastructure for massive new organizations or educates the American populace  at a very high level, nonetheless, there will be no reason to use hindsight to call all those who held off from working for Sanders stupid or uncaring. Likewise, if it all goes to hell in a handcart, with Sanders winning nothing, and the campaign leaving few or no lasting consciousness gains, generating no new organization, and even primarily channeling people into Clintonites,  still, there will be no reason to castigate those who did try to help the campaign do better. Before the fact, all outcomes are conceivable, and no outcome after the fact should be treated as having been inevitable, nor should those on the wrong side of the prediction be deemed less worthy than those on the right side.

It is fine to think it through and argue for what one favors whether that is no support, some support, a lot of support, or even devoting one’s every waking minute to supporting Sanders. But to tell people who are ready to talk to mainstream folks about stuff they could not otherwise raise with them, that they should not do that because doing that is worse than their doing nothing at all, strikes me as incredibly strange. Let’s not fall into that kind of posture.

A more reasonable but I think still questionable posture is, don’t work on the campaign, build grassroots movement activism and organization instead.  The problem is, for many people that seems currently impossible, they aren’t prepared to try it, even, and they think – with considerable reason – that going into mainstream communities and working for Sanders by spreading information and hope and commitment, can in fact be their best means to develop grass roots activism.

In fact, take Sanders himself. Suppose he wants more than anything to help build grassroots organization and activism. Suppose he believes Howard Zinn’s widsom that:

“There’s hardly anything more important that people can learn than the fact that the really critical thing isn’t who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in–in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating – those are the things that determine what happens.”

Okay, given that Sanders can run for president and talk to perhaps millions of people, bringing ideas and sentiments plus hope and desire to them, what else could he do with his energies and talents that would have more chance of advancing grassroots activism?

It follows from all the above that a particularly positive way to support the Sanders campaign, would be to work in it, or alongside it, or even critically of it, but in all three cases seeking to ensure that the campaign instead pushes forward really serious substance, and rather than becoming addicted to vote tallies, the campaign focuses on inspiring and facilitating lasting organization and activism.

If we want these positive results, isn’t our task not to castigate those who are stepping up to work on the campaign and who don’t have exact norms we might prefer, but to instead be happy about their energy and desire and contribute however we can on behalf of those preferred norms?


  1. avatar
    Carl Davidson June 23, 2015 5:46 pm 

    I think you miss a few key points, Michael.

    1. We know what Bernie will run on. He’s put out a 12-point platform and hits most, if not all, of its themes in every speech. It’s basically that of a popular front vs finance capital, war, and the right. He has one point that stretches a little farther, calling for enabling support for the solidarity economy and worker coops. It’s not a socialist campaign, but it’s not anti-socialist, either.

    2. Building a lasting grassroots organization? Probably not, since he and the campaign have their hands full with the campaign itself. But there’s a parallel track with Progressive Democrats of America, the group that persuaded him to run, is developing. They will be engaged every day in trying to double or even triple the size of their organization in all its base communities. Bernie can shake the cherries from the tree, and they can scoop them up in the harvest.

    Other groups could do the same if they put their minds to it.

    The latter task is not so much on Bernie, as it is a ball that’s in our court. The question is whether you see the campaign as an organizing opportunity, of simply as a horse race, where you cheer from the stands, or not, for the long shot.

  2. avatar
    Joel Isaacs June 22, 2015 6:10 pm 

    Thanks, Michael. That’s a helpful perspective on the Sanders campaign.

    I have the thought that you or we can also, as the campaign continues, suggest to activists specifically how they can push his supporters towards the next step in building organization and grassroots movement activism.

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