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  • Supporters of Bernie Sanders cheer at a rally in New Hampshire.

    Supporters of Bernie Sanders cheer at a rally in New Hampshire. | Photo: Reuters

Published 23 March 2016
Sanders campaign has drawn millions to his version of socialism, but organizing them into a movement is harder than it looks.

Bernie Sanders supporters can point to many positive results of his campaign.

He scrubbed much of the historical stain off socialism and stripped the progressive veneer off Hillary Clinton’s pro-Wall Street record.

He amplified the voices of millions shafted by a rigged economy and lifted expectations, especially among youth, that single-payer healthcare, breaking up the big banks, and tuition-free college education is possible.

He marshalled a principled opposition to neoliberalism in contrast to the racist one spewed by Donald Trump. He wrenched the Democratic Party debate to the left, forcing Clinton to play catch-up and complicating plans for new free trade deals if she wins the presidency.

He built a people-powered campaign fueled by millions of small donations and bursting with thousands of volunteers who led his campaign to improbable heights. For these reasons many historiansreporters, and Sanders supporterscontend his campaign is a movement. Others dispute that his campaign is a movement, but is not an academic question.

OPINION: Keeping Bernie Honest: Support for Sanders Has to Be Critical

The answers indicate what to expect going forward, opportunities potentially lost, and other strategies for how to relate to elections. The case for the Sanders campaign as a movement is thin. What movement has an expiration date—the Democratic National Convention in July—or originates from and is centered on one individual? Some call it a movement because Sanders volunteers are self-organizing to phone bank, canvas, leaflet, rally, and fundraise. That is not independent organizing, however; it’s mobilizing voters to advance Sanders in a process controlled by Democrats. Once that ends the groups will unravel because they’ve lost their common bond (unless the members have a pre-existing political relationship). It’s similar to how Occupy Wall Street disintegrated after groups were evicted from the physical camps that glued them together. If the Sanders campaign were a movement, leaders would be emerging with their own strategies, networks of support, and organizations as they have in movements from immigrant Dreamers and climate justice to Occupy and Black Lives Matter.

Ironically, some leftists and Democrats agree it’s inherently mistaken to look to a presidential campaign to build movements. One Democratic Party stalwart who has managed congressional campaigns says, “A presidential race is all about the system. Asking it to uproot the system at the same time is unrealistic. Successful organizing starts at the grassroots, not at the top.”

Movements are unpredictable, but presidential campaigns are highly scripted.

Sanders’s dynamic, like all other candidates, is just that: top-down. His campaign picks issues based on what they think motivates key voting blocs, contrasts with other candidates, and stands out in a cluttered media universe. Voters and volunteers have no mechanism to add their concerns to the table. As such, Sanders has paid less attention to climate change, the most pressing issue facing humanity, than to his healthcare and college plans. He ducks mentioning the Pentagon’s huge budget and says little about what may be the most dire economic crisis—soaring housing costs. The one instance when Sanders changed his tune, on race and criminal justice, was after BLM smashed through the fourth wall of campaigns with its protests.

Movements are unpredictable, but presidential campaigns are highly scripted. While Trump has shredded the Republican playbook, once Sanders threw his hat into the ring it was possible to describe last summer how, when, and why the Clintonian juggernaut would steamroller him.

Movements also ripple outward. After Occupy Wall Street burst into existence, it buoyed labor campaigns in New York City and Philadelphia. It spawned Occupy Our Homes, an anti-home foreclosure movement, and Strike Debt, a debtor’s movement. And it blazed the path for the union-led “Fight for $15” low-wage workers campaign, Sanders candidacy, and a revival of militant protests.

The same is true of Black Lives Matter and pre-existing organizations affiliated with it. They were instrumental in booting out pro-cop prosecutors in Chicago and Cleveland, pressured Obama to ban some military equipment transfers to police, spurred a five-fold increase in cops indicted for murder, and influenced policies to limit broken-windows policing, liberal use-of-force policies, and civil asset forfeiture.

Now, Larry Cohen, former president of the 700,000-member Communications Workers of America now serving as a top advisor to Sanders, says there is positive spillover from the campaign. He says Sanders has provided support to embattled workers in Cedar Rapids, Chicago, and Brooklyn, and his campaign has helped “reform movements within labor become more consolidated than ever.” But they still rely on Sanders’s star power.

That is an undervalued aspect of Sanders’s campaign. Undoubtedly, he draws wide support for policies that would repair decades of damage to American society. But just as enticing is the thrill of mass rallies, being swept up in a historical wave, and the catchy slogan, “political revolution.” Sanders also has celebrity appeal: SNL homages, Bernie Sanders’s Dank Meme Stash, Hollywood endorsements, “Bernie,” a one-name superstar like Beyonce, and anti-celebrity cool: a loud, wild-haired Brooklyn Jew.

Many leftists made a leap of logic in assuming Sanders’s favorable talk of socialism would bolster the left.

The power of image over substance lulled supporters into believing that Black celebrities backing Sanders, such as rap star Killer Mike, filmmaker Spike Lee, and author Ta-Nehisi Coates, would dent Clinton’s standing among African-Americans in the South. Similarly, many leftists made a leap of logic in assuming Sanders’s favorable talk of socialism would bolster the left. There’s little evidence Sanders supporters are flocking to the organized left.

Now, why does the organized left matter when it’s so small? Because it punches far above its weight. The International Socialist Organization and Solidarity have been in the thick of important labor struggles in recent decades, involving auto workers, teachers, and  Teamsters. Socialist Alternative has pulled Seattle’s politics to the left through local elections. If ever you’ve been to an antiwar protest, it was probably organized by socialists or communists.

Within the organized left, the main split over Sanders is between Socialist Alternative, which founded the “Movement 4 Bernie,” and the International Socialist Organization, which argues “the Democratic Party cannot be a vehicle for the kind of social change that is attracting people to Bernie Sanders today.” ISO says “socialists should celebrate and engage with the large numbers of people attracted to Sanders’s message, especially his defense of a version of socialism.” But they should avoid entering the Democratic Party, which they claim SA is doing. ISO calls the Movement 4 Bernie an “inside-outside strategy.” (The largest socialist group in name is Democratic Socialists of America, which is reportedly seeing a jump in recruitment by surfing off the Sanders campaign. But it’s a paper organization with little strategic political work beyond electioneering.)

Philip Locker, spokesman for Socialist Alternative, disputes that the group is aiding the Democrats. Referring to the Washington State caucus on March 26, he says, “I would urge people who are Democrats to caucus for Bernie, but I am not a Democrat and I won’t caucus for Bernie.” He says Sanders’s campaign has politicized many youth “who are extremely enthusiastic about joining a movement for socialism.” The Movement 4 Bernie has led to growing numbers for Socialist Alternative, but Locker recognizes as for “organized forces on the ground capitalizing on and building new socialist movements, there is hardly anything in this country.” He says Socialist Alternative “supports the anti-corporate pro-worker policies Sanders is running on” as part of its strategy of “building a party of the 99%.” Since Clinton will almost certainly be the Democratic nominee, Socialist Alternative is pushing Sanders “to run as an independent in the general election.”

“No matter what I do, I will not be a spoiler,” said Bernie Sanders.

Except no one believes that. Sanders has ruled out an independent bid, “No matter what I do, I will not be a spoiler.” That’s causing dissention in Socialist Alternative. One member says, “Many people in Socialist Alternative are furious we are supporting a Democrat. It's putting serious strain on our organization.” Sources say a Socialist Alternative chapter in New Orleans left over the decision to back Sanders. While SA is pouring energy into the Movement 4 Bernie, staging more than 75 rallies, the member says Socialist Alternative has recruited only a few dozen dues-paying members who would not have joined otherwise, and not all are active.

Another Socialist Alternative member says the Sanders campaign “is not a good recruiting ground.” While some people are open to socialist ideas, most are “liberals into Bernie’s cult of personality and not at the level of comprehension of supporting a workers party.”

There are plans to try to build on the Sanders phenomenon. Larry Cohen says hundreds of union activists are gathering in Chicago in early April to organize around local labor issues and against Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Cohen says the discussion will include “pushing for change within the Democratic Party, recruiting more candidates like Bernie at the local level, pushing to get money out of politics, and reversing Citizens United and the gutting of the Voting Rights Act.” There is also talk of holding a conference in Philadelphia during the Democratic National Convention to develop left electoral alternatives.

But the Sanders campaign has seeded little independent organizing as of yet. That will hopefully change, but the other shoe will also drop. When Sanders tells his supporters they need to vote for Clinton because, as he put it in a tweet, “America's first black president cannot and will not be succeeded by a hatemonger who refuses to condemn the KKK,” many will feel betrayed.

Locker says, “Bernie endorsing Hillary Clinton is a sure-fire way to destroy the massive mobilization he has built up behind his campaign.” That may overstate the impact as many supporters know an endorsement is inevitable. But the demoralization and cynicism will make organizing harder, not easier. The upside may be more people realizing that organizing is never easy because it’s not about getting people to flick a different lever in the voting booth. Organizing is about the hard work that transforms minds and society at the same time.

Arun Gupta is a co-founder of The Indypendent and the Occupied Wall Street Journal.
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