With no realistic avenue to win the Democratic nomination for President and in the face of the horrific Coronavirus Pandemic, I was delighted to see Senator Bernie Sanders convene a nationwide conference call with his campaign staffers and supporters to announce he was suspending his campaign. This was no doubt deeply disappointing to some of Bernie’s most fervent supporters who were hoping he would soldier on to press the cause in the face of virtually impossible odds. But, as the late great Kenny Rogers sang in his hit tune The Gambler, “you got to know when to hold them and know when to fold them.” It was definitely time to “fold them.” I had been in conversations with friends, progressives, who have admired Bernie for decades, discussing the urgent need for him to make a statesman-like stance by suspending the campaign. I say urgent, because we feared that Bernie would do serious damage to his reputation and role as a leader/spokesperson for the left, when clearly there was no realistic path to victory. And, he was confronting the cold reality of a powerful convergence of “defeat Trump” sentiment by Democratic voters, even among those who were supportive of many, if not all, of his progressive policies. To soldier on under these conditions would have been highly problematic.
Though we had no real access or influence with the campaign, our advice was that Bernie would gain considerable respect among erstwhile detractors and even some of his supporters if he suspended his campaign; claimed victory because of the public’s embrace of policy positions which were considered outside the mainstream when he launched his first campaign in 2016; declared that the movement was/is more important than the campaign and would continue no matter who wins the 2020 presidential election; leverage the strength of the movement and the delegates amassed to pressure Biden to embrace as many of the campaigns policy positions as possible; and, pledge to rally his supporters to defeat, what he himself has called one of the “most dangerous” presidents in American history. To our surprise and delight, on April 8th, Bernie Sanders did just about all of that!
In 2016 I wrote an essay, which appears in my book (Still on this Journey: The Vision and Mission of Dr. Ron Daniels) entitled Why Bernie Sanders Campaign Matters. In that essay I confessed to be a firm believer in that “vision thing:” the importance of dreams, inspiration and hope to galvanize people to create a better future. For decades the Democratic Party was captive to a politics of emulation and capitulation to conservative Republican policy prescriptions like ending welfare as the “practical” way of winning elections; a politics ushered in by the Democratic Leadership Conference led by Bill Clinton. There was a kind of pent-up frustration on the left with the acquiescence to this mind-numbing, dream deferring gradualism. Then, along came life-long progressive activist and political leader Bernie Sanders with a “radical” vision of what America should become, calling for a movement, a “revolution” of working people to take on “the billionaire class” to create a society that “works for all of us.”
A living wage of $15 an hour; Medicare-for-All as the logical extension of healthcare as a human right; cancellation of student debt; free public education for every aspiring person in this country; immigration reform with a pathway to citizenship for the millions of undocumented residents in this country; ending the domination of the fossil fuel industry by advancing a “green agenda” to halt and reverse climate change, these were among the “radical” ideas that inspired millions of ordinary people, including young people, to donate to and join the revolution led by a Democratic Socialist! Without a doubt, it was one of the most influential and impactful presidential campaigns in the history of this country!
Nearly four years later, when Bernie decided to make another run for president, these “radical” ideas had become the grist of mainstream political discourse, vindicating my long-held proposition that the “mainstream,” the so called “center,” is not static. The content of public pronouncements and decisions on policy shifts towards the progressive or conservative end of the political pendulum in response to movements. It stands to reason that the goal of the 2020 campaign was to achieve what the previous campaign had failed to do, win the office of President as a pulpit to implement a progressive policy agenda. And, for a brief moment in time, the improbable absolutely seemed probable; a Democratic Socialist could win the Democratic nomination and according to every credible poll, challenge and defeat the “Orange man” to become President of the United States!
But it was just for a brief moment. After narrow but momentous victories in the overwhelmingly White states of Iowa and New Hampshire, Bernie scored an impressive win in Nevada, a more diverse state, where he demonstrated reach across constituencies, especially with young people and Latinos. He was now the unquestioned front-runner. Then on February 29th, after a testy and less than stellar debate, Bernie crashed into Joe Biden’s long-touted “firewall” in South Carolina: a wall comprised mostly of African American older and probable voters with whom Biden had cultivated relationships over many years including as President Obama’s Vice-President. And, most of all, a wall of pragmatic voters who were searching for the candidate who, in their minds, could achieve the most important objective of the 2020 presidential election, DEFEAT TRUMP!
The “wall” spoke loud and clear on February 29th, delivering a resounding victory to Biden and compelling Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar and Tom Steyer to suspend their campaigns in the face of their inability, like Bernie, to penetrate the “wall,” Black voters. Apparently griped by fear of a down-ballot drubbing in the general election that would cost the Democrats control of the House while failing to win the presidency or the Senate, Mayor Pete and Klobuchar raced to Texas on the eve of Super-Tuesday to join former candidate Beto O’Rourke to endorse Biden. March 3rd Bernie suffered another bruising defeat on Super-Tuesday as Democratic voters, even some who were supportive of his policy positions, emphatically sent a message — Biden is the one who can defeat the Orange man. Undeterred, Bernie was determined to soldier on confident that his firewall, the Michigan Primary, would stem the tide. On March 10th the Biden tide overwhelmed the “Bern,” for all intents and purposes sweeping it off the stage of the 2020 Democratic Primary. This was the most “unkindest cut” of them all.
The campaign had faltered. Why did it falter? The reasons are too numerous to recount and will likely be the subject of analysis for years to come, but I will site several. Bernie’s relentless, uncompromising class-based message exposing the terrible inequality in this country and excoriating the billionaire class as the root cause of this shameful and crippling reality was a strength and a weakness. It won him an army of warriors for the revolution, many of whom were young people; a solid virtually unshakable base that would stand with him through thick and thin. It was a weakness because, like Ralph Nader before him and numerous other left candidates, he adhered to a kind of class-based orthodoxy which seems allergic to “race” as a major factor to incorporate into a progressive policy agenda.
In the essay in my book referenced above I said: “It is important to caution that the progressive ‘revolution,’ which Sanders is inspiring, will fall short of its potential if it does not clearly recognize and emphatically assert that ‘race matters’ in this country; that because of structural racism, the ravishes of inequality and the exploitation and neglect of poor and working people disproportionately afflict Blacks and people of color.” I can say without fear of contradiction that the question of if and how Bernie would incorporate race into his platform was a constant source of conversation and concern by Blacks operating inside the campaign and supporters on the outside in 2016 and 2020.
This is certainly not to say that Bernie did not have positions on issues of importance to Black people. He would occasionally reference criminal justice reform, but I saw no indication that he had a “Black Policy Agenda” as part of his overall Platform. And, if it existed, what I look for as a criteria from any candidate is the degree to which Black issues are explicitly emphasized as part of their standard stump speech or in the presidential debates. For example, what was patently clear to Black voters was that reparations is not Bernie’s cup of tea. He hesitated, vacillated, stumbled and fumbled on this issue several times during the campaign. All he had to consistently say was that he supported HR-40, the Congressional bill that would establish a Commission to study “Reparations proposals for African Americans.” He couldn’t even do that. One might ask why was the onus on Bernie to have a Black Agenda when other candidates didn’t? It is because as a matter of principle this was the correct thing to do and as a practical matter it was critically important that Bernie broaden his base of support among Black voters in order to win the Democratic nomination.
Furthermore, Bernie needed to consciously build relationships with people of African descent in between his campaigns and during the 2020 campaign. Again, there is little visible evidence that he took this task seriously, and if he did, the efforts failed abysmally as we witnessed in the fatal crash against the “wall” in South Carolina. It was a failure of substance and symbolism. African American Policy Advisers and surrogates were severely hampered by his inability or unwillingness to incorporate racial issues into his Platform as well as his ineptitude in handling matters that might have been of symbolic value to Black people. Many of Bernie’s policy proposals could have been wrapped in the vision and work of Dr. Martin Luther King, but he was apparently oblivious to that potential. Black surrogates like Danny Glover, a stanch supporter, were seldom if ever referenced in speeches or debates, though doing so with consistency might have given Bernie more cred in the Black community; though it was suggested that announcing his intent to select an African American woman as his running mate might significantly boost his campaign, Bernie couldn’t bring himself to do so. It was Biden who won the day in the debate prior to the South Carolina Primary by dramatically announcing he would appoint the first African American woman in the history of this country to the Supreme Court.
When African American Advisors finally convinced Bernie to do a major speech on racial justice, he inexplicably decided to do it after rather than before the crucial South Carolina and Super Tuesday Primaries where winning Black voters mattered. Instead, he chose to deliver the speech in Jackson, MS, hosted by the immensely popular Mayor Chokwe Antar Lumumba. With the handwriting on the wall in terms of winning substantial numbers of Black votes in Mississippi, he awkwardly and abruptly cancelled the speech and rushed off to his perceived firewall with White working-class voters in Michigan. He belatedly brought in Rev. Jesse L. Jackson in a desperate effort to save the day (we know how that turned out). And, finally, on the fifty-fifth Anniversary of “Bloody Sunday” in Selma, Bernie Sanders was the only presidential candidate who did not make an appearance. Apparently, Bernie was clueless that symbolic outreach to Black voters can have value.
I have stressed Bernie’s failure to explicitly and effectively address structural/institutional racism and inability to strengthen relationships with the Black community during his campaigns as a lesson and warning to future left/progressive candidates/campaigns. Hopefully it will resonate. However, having made the point, it is important to clearly state that Bernie’s campaign faltered, but as I stated earlier in this presentation, it by no means failed! Mostly everyone concedes that Bernie won the ideological battle for meaningful policy change. He was simply not viewed as the candidate best suited to beat the Orange man. So, Bernie was correct to claim the victory on April 8th and declare that “the struggle continues.” By so doing, his legion of supporters, the revolution, should recognize that movement is bigger than the campaign — and must continue beyond the presidential campaign season to advance a politics of social transformation.
The question is what next? Perhaps, to the chagrin of some of his supporters, five days after suspending the campaign, Bernie has correctly moved quickly to endorse Joe Biden (this occurred today as I was penning this piece) in order to create a united front within the Democratic Party to defeat Trump. Given the outright danger the Orange man poses to democracy, this is the most crucial immediate objective of every political tendency in the Democratic Party. Beyond that, it is essential that the movement continue. To be maximally effective, however, the movement must address the issue of race in the manner I outlined above. And, frankly, the movement should also be viewed as bigger than any one person. History has shown that sometimes the persons who initiate or lead a movement are not the ones who are best equipped to take it to the “promised land.”
For all of his brilliance and accomplishments, Bernie’s flawed approach on race may render him incapable of being more than the titular head of the movement he birthed. Therefore, there is a need for a suitable container for the movement; one that is committed to addressing race as a foundational aspect of its mission and respects the centrality of the leadership of African Americans and other peoples of color. It is no secret that I have great affinity for the Working Families Party in this regard. Perhaps, it’s time to seriously consider the question posed in another essay in my Book: Can the Working Families Party Emerge as the Progressive Third Force in American Politics? Time will tell!