Feeling the Bern Become a Flame
Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara discusses the strategies needed to keep the energy of the Sanders campaign thriving beyond presidential politics
Jacobin founder Bhaskar Sunkara discusses the strategies needed to keep the energy of the Sanders campaign thriving beyond presidential politics
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, TRNN: Welcome to the Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
The mainstream media narrative of the Democratic presidential race is that Bernie Sanders has lost momentum to Hillary Clinton. After he lost Nevada to Clinton by five percentage points, and is entering a tough race in South Carolina where he’s expected to lose as well, many are asking themselves, what is behind the Bern?
Now joining us to discuss all of this is Bhaskar Sunkara. He is the founder of Jacobin magazine, and co-author of the book The Future We Want: Radical Ideas for the New Century. Thanks for joining us, Bhaskar.
BHASKAR SUNKARA: Thanks for having me.
DESVARIEUX: So let’s talk about South Carolina. The average polling is showing that Sanders has about 28 percent of the vote, while Hillary Clinton has closer to 60 percent. So many are pointing to the fact that Sanders is not able to connect with the majority of black Southern voters. What do you think, what is presumably going to be a large defeat in South Carolina, this is attributed to?
SUNKARA: Yes. Well, I think that there’s a few factors at play. But the main one isn’t actually Sanders’ program, the ideas he’s putting forward not resonating with black voters. I think a lot has to do with the fact that Sanders is simply not as much of a known commodity as Hillary Clinton. Clinton has been in the public eye since the ’90s. If you remember just back in late April, early May, when Sanders first announced that he’d be running for president, this is somebody who polled between 1-3 percent, and was largely unknown outside of Vermont.
So Sanders has got a lot more visible, but unfortunately because he lacked the resources and because he was such a fringe candidate early on, a lot of his resources were devoted purely to Iowa and New Hampshire. He didn’t have the ground game in other states. It took him a long time to get a really national campaign going. So I think a lot has to be chalked up to voter identification.
But beyond that, there’s also the pressing fact that people on the left have to grapple with, which is just people are very terrified of the prospect of a Trump presidency, or anyone else, really, from the Republican field. And there’s still a sense, because Hillary Clinton is the most known candidate, because she still has high perceptions of electability, which isn’t actually quite borne out if you look at the, the stats. I actually think that Bernie Sanders is a stronger general election candidate. But because she has that and also deep connections with black professional associations, with churches, with other groups in civil societies, I think it makes it much harder for Sanders. And that has less to do with the fact that supposedly Clinton is better at speaking to, you know, “black issues”. I think a lot of it just has to do with, with these factors stacked against him. Because if you actually look at it on paper, you know, Sanders does have a much better program on criminal justice reform, on mass incarceration, and all these other issues.
DESVARIEUX: But Bhaskar, I mean, we’ve got to look at his strategy, too, because on the ground folks are saying that he’s not necessarily stumping in the barber shops, and where–meeting people where they are. He’s even traveling to Texas on Saturday when there is a primary in the state of South Carolina. So what kind of strategy is that?
SUNKARA: Well, I mean, again, I can’t speak to their on-the-ground strategy. I do know that he has deployed plenty of very talented staffers in South Carolina, and I do think he has devoted resources in the state. I think a lot of times when people talk about, oh, well, Clinton is seen doing this but Sanders is seen doing that, it’s less actually reflective of their strategy on the ground and it’s more reflective on the superior ability of Clinton operatives to stage good photo ops, and things like that. I’m not actually convinced that it reflects, you know, something on, on the ground as far as a lack of commitment to actual, you know, grassroots organizing.
I mean, if you look at someone like Sanders, if you look at his history, if you look at everything he did throughout his life, he’s shown a real commitment to doing that kind of, kind of organizing. And whether or not his campaign is now deploying some resources into Texas and into Super Tuesday states, because they think that maybe whatever could be done was already done in South Carolina, I can’t speak to. But I don’t think that we should read, you know, real political significance from some of those choices or perceptions. Nor do I think we should just reduce–you know, the Sanders campaign and what it means to just the day-to-day horse race politics.
DESVARIEUX: But there’s a real critique here about how he could have mirrored his campaign to look more like Jesse Jackson’s campaign. And as we know, when Jesse Jackson ran for president he took the state of South Carolina. Yes, he’s from there, yes, he’s black. All of these things matter. However, there was a sort of organizing there that was part of the Rainbow Coalition. Do you have a feeling that Sanders could have learned from that a bit more?
SUNKARA: Yes, absolutely. See, that comparison is one that I’m much more apt to make and agree with, comparing Sanders in some respects negatively, to what we saw with the Jackson campaigns as opposed to comparing Sanders with Clinton, because I think they’re very different, different things.
There was a sense, and Bill Fletcher recently wrote about this in Jacobin. Other people have commented on the fact that even though the Sanders campaign is extremely important and inspiring there was a sense that the coalitions that Jackson was building, especially in his 1998 campaign, was much more open to the left. Left groups who were brought in at the planning stages, they were, they felt like they were a part of the campaign, they felt like they were more active in the decision-making process, whereas there is to some degree a lot of those people who are involved in that campaign are saying that the feeling with the Sanders campaign is more, it’s a good thing, but there are more allies supporting it, as opposed to feeling really, you know, engaged with it.
And I think that’s something to be wary of going forward with the Sanders campaign, and try to make sure that it’s as accessible to ordinary people and to activist communities, and also that it’s, that it’s really, you know, making sure that it’s not just mirroring the Clinton campaign and its strategy and operation. I do think that, that being said, if you actually listen to the Sanders rhetoric and all the discourse around his campaign, it’s significantly different than anything we’ve seen in decades, really. It’s overall extremely welcome.
DESVARIEUX: All right, Bhaskar, let’s fast-forward and talk about Super Tuesday, which is going to be happening across the country. Seven states, to be exact. Tennessee, Virginia, Oklahoma, just to name a few. We’re starting to sort of get down to the wire, and see how Sanders will perform in other states. If he can’t win a–if he can’t pull a win here in the majority of states, some folks are saying that it’s looking less likely that he’s going to be the nominee.
But instead of speculating on outcomes, I want to ask you, what do you think the movement is going to look like beyond Super Tuesday? Is the Sanders camp even preparing for what that transition could look like?
SUNKARA: Right. And this is one of the downsides of building a campaign around one person, electoral campaign, as opposed to other forms of organizing, which is that a lot of this is out of our control. We don’t know what’s going to happen to all the lists, all the resources, all the infrastructure that’s been built ad hoc over the last six months around the Sanders campaign. And to a large extent we’re at the mercy of Sanders and his top, you know, advisors, and other people who actually have this control.
I would say that when we think about this moment, people on the left shouldn’t think of this as something that’s going to end in a month or two. I think there’s been a broad new constituency that’s been awakened. Maybe you can call it the Sanders Democrat, or something like that. A group of people who were inspired by Sanders’ message, and have profoundly shifted their politics, and for many of them became engaged in politics for the first time. I think that when the recession hit, so many people were looking at the state of the lives, looking at the fact they were facing unemployment, they had all this economic hardship, they were facing all sorts of things. And they bought the narrative, or at least they were bombarded by a narrative that said that this was somehow their fault, or something they could have avoided. Maybe they needed to work harder to compete in the new economy, or maybe they needed to get retrained or re-skilled. It was very–it was a personalization of all these problems.
I think what Sanders is proposing, and what [inaud.] rash of social movements over the past five, six years have posed, is the idea that these are in fact not individual problems, these are social problems. And the solution to these problems are through, you know, collective organizing and action. And they’re, not only that, Sanders goes one step further, and he’s telling people that there’s a class of people with a vested interest in keeping the status quo. And he’s actually then proposing that people organize against this class, and I think that makes him far more radical than any of the kind of liberal candidates you saw, like Kucinich or other people in past cycles.
So I think with this rhetoric, with just this group of people becoming engaged, if not all of them I think a significant chunk of these people are open to the left reaching out to them and trying to get them involved in other organizing and other campaigns after Sanders. So I think it’s a political window of at least four or five years, not as a window that’s going to be over in a couple months.
DESVARIEUX: All right. Let’s talk a little bit about strategy here, though. All this energy that we’ve discussed, people becoming more politically conscious, at least being introduced to this language. What should the strategy be, then? Should people be looking to work from inside the Democratic party, and seek to sort of realign it to the interests of workers? What should people be doing?
SUNKARA: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s a great, a great question. I think that obviously we’re in a tough situation on the U.S. left, because basically nothing we’ve done has been successful as far, at this level of party politics. We failed to create an independent socialist party that lasted the long haul, we failed to also realign the Democratic party when we tried in the ’60s and ’70s, and onward.
So we have no real answer. I do think that the conditions are not right now, and I think it would be a foolhardy idea to think that we can kind of bums rush the party from within. We could do this, do this through the mechanisms of the Democratic party. I mean, there’s actual structures in the party that makes this almost impossible.
DESVARIEUX: Give me an example.
SUNKARA: I mean, it’s not just something like the superdelegates that people point to. It’s the fact that the party is fragmented in so many different levels. At the local level, at the state level, national platforms don’t seem to mean much. There’s no way to enforce party discipline. The party is fundamentally tied to certain segments of capital that makes it fundamentally different even from center-left parties in Europe that might be adopting a lot of similar politics to the, to the Democratic party but are in fact, at least have some sort of structural tie to the trade union movement, or at least historically roots their activity to the organized working class.
So I think though we can’t, though, immediately jump into the idea that tomorrow, right after the Sanders campaign, we can start a third party and kind of adopt this, you know, if you build it they will come strategy, political strategy. I think the answer lies somewhere in between.
We need to acknowledge that Sanders, I think, made the right decision by choosing to contest within the Democratic party primary process. Socialists can’t actually have the impact that Sanders is having at the national level without using one of the two major parties as a platform. But he’s laid out, he’s used it well, he’s laid out a platform based around talking about socialism, talking about inequality, talking about the social democratic solutions he sees to inequality. And he’s awakened a new constituency that can then be used for other campaigns and movements.
So I think a lot of it is taking advantage of this opportunity to build a movement in civil society that will hopefully contribute to a political change that will make possible third party efforts in the future. But I think for now, the immediate thing isn’t jumping into a third party effort at the national level. I would say that at the local and state level there are plenty of options where it would be viable. So you saw some inspiring campaigns, obviously, in Seattle, in Chicago, in Minneapolis. But even something like Brian Jones’ and Howie Hawkins’ run for lieutenant governor and governor of the New York State ballot against Cuomo showed that their parties can get a real measure of attention and support, and it shows that the road is open in certain areas, especially in areas dominated by one party like, like the Democratic party in a place like New York, for left third party challenges.
So I think we need to use a mix of tactics wherever it’s appropriate. But I definitely do think that at the national level we’re not ready to have a huge impact with a national third party. I really hope we get there soon. But I think we need to think about small steps along that road before we jump in.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. Thinking about small steps. Bhaskar Sunkara, thank you so much for joining us.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on the Real News Network.
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