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The likely Bernie Sanders campaign for president offers a boost and a challenge to progressives. From the outset, the campaign’s strength would largely depend on how much synergy develops with social movements on the ground. Much more than the presidency is at stake. A powerful mix of grassroots activism and electoral work could transform the country’s political landscape.
A 2020 Sanders campaign would mostly pick up where it left off in 2016. Contrary to widespread media spin, the fact that Bernie would be facing dozens of contenders for the Democratic nomination this time doesn’t change the reality of his unique approach to economic power relations. Whether it’s called democratic socialism, progressive populism or something else, that approach sets him apart from the other candidates, even including Elizabeth Warren.
Sanders has been willing and able to use a national stage for public education and agitation about inherently anti-democratic and destructive aspects of corporate capitalism. That explains why, in political and media realms, so many knives are again being sharpened against him.
Attacks on Sanders have come from many directions, but they largely spring from his detractors’ zeal to defend corporate power as a driving force that propels and steers the US government as well as the Democratic Party. Efforts to undermine the Sanders 2020 primary campaign would span from mainstream media to liberal and centrist forces aligned with competitors for the Democratic nomination.
But relations between electoral campaigns and social movements are frequently difficult, and tensions are bound to develop. “Bringing the vibrancy and democracy of activist movement culture to a political campaign is necessary but complicated,” Tori Osborn, a longtime progressive organizer who eventually ran for political office, told me. “Activist protest culture is spontaneous, often angry and wildly uncontrollable. Campaigns have to be rigorously disciplined and controllable.”
While conflicts between election-focused campaigns and issue-focused activism may be inevitable, there’s great potential to make such tensions creative rather than destructive. During this decade, the trajectories of progressive election campaigns and progressive organizing have become more intertwined.
The Occupy movement that began in autumn 2011 put income inequality — and class analysis of “the 1 percent” vs. “the 99 percent” — in the national spotlight. The movement notably altered public discourse and helped clear a runway for the launch of the Sanders presidential campaign in 2015.
Since then, activism has propelled an array of movements that have compelled more and more Democratic politicians to respond seriously — on such issues as mass incarceration, a $15-an-hour minimum wage, enhanced Medicare for All and free college tuition.
On the subject of institutional racism, Sanders had sometimes fallen short. However, some activists have been encouraged by his ability to listen, learn and change after he was confronted by Black Lives Matter activists in 2015. More slowly, he has begun to address US militarism and Pentagon spending after critiques of his positions began in summer 2015 and continued through late 2018.
Far more than any of his prospective opponents for the 2020 nomination, Sanders has always viewed himself as part of progressive movements. As much as anything else, that’s what separates him from the competition.
Yet conflicts are sure to arise as some activists find fault with Sanders on various issues. When he makes missteps, he should be criticized. That’s how he and his campaign can learn to rectify shortcomings and build better relations with progressive groups that are apt to support his presidential race.
Along the way, the potential effects of a Bernie 2020 campaign go way beyond the prospect of electing a democratic socialist as president. They extend to nonpartisan races in cities and counties across the country. Starting nearly four years ago, the Sanders campaign encouraged and uplifted progressive candidates for offices ranging from school boards and state legislatures to federal office. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is only the most famous of many hundreds of examples. For 2020, a Sanders campaign holds enormous promise to do more of the same — on a much larger scale.
Routine media coverage about “a blue wave” has obscured the deeper opportunities for “a progressive wave” that could drastically extend the boundaries of public discussion and political power. The default position for mass media is to define electoral conflicts in partisan Democrat-vs.-Republican terms, but a key task for grassroots progressive leadership in election battles is to develop community-based power to replace corporate power.
Overall, a Sanders 2020 campaign could be a powerful catalyst for creating a new political culture that nurtures activism as a year-long, every-year way of life for millions of people across boundaries of race, class and region. For a future of democracy instead of oligarchy, that political culture has got to include and transcend electoral work.
We are now at a decisive fork in the road that Justice Louis Brandeis identified long ago: “We must make our choice. We may have democracy, or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we can’t have both.”
The two hands with the most wealth concentrated in them now belong to Amazon owner Jeff Bezos. Not coincidentally, his newspaper, The Washington Post, has been among the influential media outlets most antagonistic toward Sanders. In early March 2016, at a pivotal moment during the primary campaign, FAIR analyst Adam Johnson pointed out that The Post “ran 16 negative stories on Bernie Sanders in 16 hours … a window that includes the crucial Democratic debate in Flint, Michigan, and the next morning’s spin.” The day after that onslaught ended, Sanders stunned the elite media by winning the Michigan primary.
As progressives weigh involvement in the Sanders campaign and many other 2020 races, the Democratic Party should be approached much like we approach the government itself — an entity capable of inflicting great harm on a systemic basis, while also capable of mitigating systemic harm and doing profound good in response to social movements.
Meanwhile, we should expect an escalating corporate media assault — in tandem with methodical attacks from establishment Democrats — against Sanders. While on the surface aimed at one individual, such an assault is actually an ideological war against the vision of government aligned with social justice. Not only Bernie Sanders but, in effect, all genuine progressives will be in the crosshairs.