Bernie Sanders and the Movement He Started

18/04/2020

When I first heard of Bernie Sanders near the end of 2015, it was rather exciting. My knowledge of politics (in hindsight) was tragic, particularly regarding the US circus, but I knew enough to understand that Sanders was an upheaval to their “business as usual” manner. Since, he’s run for and dropped out of two Presidential campaigns, bringing together probably the most significant grassroots movement in that country’s history. Now, some of his supporters are turning against him.

After dropping out of the Democratic race, Sanders followed the previous candidates in throwing his support behind Joe Biden, quite possibly a worse choice for a candidate to face Trump than Clinton was in 2016. Biden’s record and his corporate, “moderate” politics (which often saw him siding with or providing concessions to the Republican Party) was in great contrast to the, still imperfect, but popular positions of Sanders. Just like in 2016, this has caused a massive shift and split in the Democratic Party, for which the blame is tossed around to everyone’s detriment.

Now, Sanders is backing Biden. Many people have seen this as a betrayal, a shocking backtrack on everything Sanders said he believed in and was fighting for. To a greater extent than 2016, this has a sizeable segment of his base abandoning him, claiming (louder this time) they will refuse to vote, even acknowledging that this “Bernie or bust” stance could lead to another four years of bastardry under Donald Trump. This is a tricky situation, and one that makes me (as I always am) relieved I don’t live in that hellhole.

There are many conflicting angles to consider, and many of them have their own merits and downfalls. Obviously, I can understand peoples’ annoyance (but not entirely the “betrayal” they claim) at Sanders’ endorsement of Biden. In terms of policy and the direction of not only the Democratic Party, but mainstream political discourse in the US, to have this drag back to what makes the establishment happy could be seen as quite demoralising.

It’s also notable that this shows (for lack of a better term) the “left” is not blinded by the cult of personality as other groups have been. As much has their love and support for Sanders was real, it was the dedication to policy and not him that drew them to his base. As a result, when he falters on this commitment (more below), they don’t wistfully follow him and instead maintain their standing.

It is also understandable that the prospect of voting for Biden, as voting for Clinton in 2016 would have been, is something they would decry and refuse. With positions so fundamentally opposed to one’s own convictions, it is difficult to justify lowering your standards, even when the hero figure of “progressive” politics urges you to do so. I have even seen some welcoming the accusation of giving Trump a second term, stating that the Democratic Party should have had a better candidate than Biden that people like them would vote for.

All of that I agree with, to an extent. It is disheartening to see Sanders drop out and back Biden, and if the closest option to my personal politics is Biden then I’d just be slamming my head into a brick wall – at least that would achieve something. But these positions, however justifiable and appealing, lack nuance I feel.

Firstly, Sanders has done something incredible and game changing in the US and the world. Noam Chomsky says Sanders didn’t fail his campaign – he may not have won, but the effects of it will course through any future administration, and could quite dramatically divert a Biden Presidency (relative to establishment opinion). It is important to recognise that Sanders was never going to win, it would never have been allowed to happen regardless of his popularity across the country. And as those who reject the cult of personality prove, this was never about Sanders winning – it was about energising a movement not seen in US history, the closest perhaps being in the 1800’s.

As for the “betrayal” of his values, Sanders has been quite clear on this since the beginning. In 2016, after his campaign dropped, he immediately went into overdrive to support Clinton in opposition to Trump. It is not unprecedented that he would do the same now with Biden, especially after he had already stated he would support whoever the Democratic candidate was. Part of this is, undoubtedly, protecting himself from political suicide – a dash of “damned if you do, damned if you don’t”. The mainstream of US political society would obliterate him if he actually tore the Democrats apart, so sadly he must alienate some of his base to maintain any credibility in the public eye – i.e. the media.

But that is not a betrayal, and anyone who is upset or taken by surprise by this pragmatic move must not have paid much attention to Sanders’ goals. His goal was the movement first, defeating Trump second. If you keep his movement alive, then he has won more than any Presidential candidacy could have done for him. And whether you like Biden or not is irrelevant – Sanders, with good reason, absolutely opposes the Trump administration, and he is at the forefront of any battle to have him removed. And the reality is, a Biden administration will be much better than a continuation of Trump’s recklessness.

In modern history, there is not a single President I have looked to as being decent. From JFK to Obama, every one of them has done things domestically and internationally that is worthy of utter condemnation. As violent and quietly oppressive as the Obama administration was, however, not only did it lead to Trump’s election, it led to Sanders’ movement becoming widespread. It was under a lacklustre Democratic President that real alternatives, as opposed to simply a liberal face on criminality, were able to flourish finally.

Even with that being said, the Trump administration has done things that are unprecedented even by American standards. The rate at which Trump has steamrolled the country and the international arena is terrifying, and puts us in the awkward position of seeing previous administrations as comparably better. A Biden administration, while far from anything that would overhaul the system, would at least have a viable system for grassroots movements to exert pressure. Four more years of Trump, which has seen disaster followed by disaster on every front from health, economic equality, environmental causes, etc. is not sustainable. Chomsky, in a separate interview, took the bleak view that the species may no longer be viable.

Movements like the one Sanders started are redundant when the people running the world are set on human extinction – there needs to some sacrifice to at least form a starting point. My own opinions on this are divided, but the fact a Biden administration would be better than Trump is undeniable. The extent to which pressure can push him to improve the lot of ordinary people the way Sanders would could be debated endlessly, but even on the lower end of the scale it would far outweigh Trump.

I will withhold judgement from those who wish to remain neutral or refuse to vote for Biden, for I cannot say truthfully whether I’d do the same, I don’t know. But, coming from someone whose own political ideals go far beyond Sanders, it seems obvious even the slightest tug away from the current shitshow in the White House would be an improvement for the people the “left” purports to support.

Don’t waste what little say you have in what you call “democracy”, America. It’s all you have left, and it may not be around much longer. Keep the movement alive, and do what you feel you must rebuild the last four years of destruction. Sanders started this, but it’s you who decides its fate.

 

Like this? Read Rethinking the Definition of Radical

Previous piece: Greens to Decide Party Leadership Vote

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