The future of the movement is in Bernie’s hands… Uh-oh.
It’s been said many times before (mostly with questionable motive), but this time around it looks to be genuinely true. Despite recent wins in Indiana and West Virginia — with over three quarters of the primaries over, a sizable albeit proportionally diminished Clinton lead, and the recent decision by the Sanders campaign to lay off roughly two thirds of its paid staff, the Democratic presidential candidacy has floated just out of the reach of Bernie Sanders.
This has prompted an intensification of the once gently-roaring debate among Bernie supporters about what to do in the instance of a Hillary nomination — or, as seems all but certain with the news of the suspension of the Ted Cruz and John Kasich campaigns, Hillary and Trump nominations.
One side, dubbed the “Bernie or Bust” movement by its doubters, insists that a vote for Hillary is a vote against what the Bernie candidacy has stood for, and it calls Bernie supporters to either abstain from voting, vote for an independent leftist candidate like the Green Party’s Jill Stein, or collectively call Bernie to abandon the Democratic Party and run on a pre-existing independent ticket.
The other side, dubbed the epitome of “Lesser-Evilism” by its loathers, insists that a Democratic victory is crucial to protect the country from the extraordinary political disaster taking place on the Republican side of the race, and that Bernie supporters who would refuse to back a Hillary candidacy would be acting as “spoilers,” stealing votes from the Democrats and jeopardizing the sociopolitical safety of certain vulnerable populations.
For the sake of brevity, let me condense the usual dialogue between members of the two sides of this debate:
Lesser-Evilists: A Trump presidency would be disastrous for this country.
Bernie-or-Busters: There are very few significant differences between Hillary and a mild-mannered Republican.
LE: I assume that most Bernie-or-Busters are straight, white males, and their privilege prevents them from seeing what a crucial moment this is for women’s reproductive rights, the rights of LGBT people, etc.
BB: Speaking of privilege, hawkish Hillary foreign policy is responsible for the poverty and death of millions of people.
LE: Shut up. This is how the democratic process works. Stop huffing and puffing that your candidate didn’t win.
BB: No, you shut up. The democratic process is rigged. Going along with the corporate-backed establishment would just proliferate a corrupt and unjust system.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
Bernie Sanders himself has said that he will back Hillary Clinton in the event of her nomination (although he hasn’t reaffirmed that recently). And, although that seems like a win for lesser-evilism, proponents of Bernie or bust have used that as fuel for their call to continue the “political revolution.”
The fact of the matter is, although most mainstream commentators will only see it in hindsight, Bernie’s next decisive step — as well as his supporters’ response — will be what determines whether or not his “revolutionary” (in quotations for de-emphasis) movement lives past the primaries.
Incessantly since last summer, pundits have loved to overanalyze the “anti-establishment mood” that has been personified in Trump on the right and Sanders on the left. The conclusion of their collective amnesiac expertise is that something big and crazy and new is going to happen in American politics, but what they fail to recognize is that the “liberal establishment” is perfectly positioned to counter the growing movement against it.
Although pop history remembers conservatism as the most visible force in squashing radical movements, both major parties have been consistently guilty of actively reinforcing status quo politics. And now with red fear’s effects on the oxymoronic American political ethos finally starting to wear off, the Democratic Party — whose intimacy with corporate America is currently at its apex — is trying to bring about a new age of fear-mongering. Via co-optation of the legitimate fear of Trump, the new ruling class strategy involves hollowing the fruits of any pro-democracy, anti-corporate action, and lesser-evilism is its tool. Thinking in this vein, no matter what Clinton supporters may say about the Republican Party, the absurdity of Trump’s inevitable primary victory is the best thing to happen to her campaign this election season.
The immediate political chatter post-Cruz and post-Kasich has made it clear that an unthinkable proportion of to-be Hillary general election voters are voting more against Trump than they are for Hillary. Thus, in a post-Sanders race, the healthy amount of concern regarding Hillary’s corporate ties, her imperialistic tendencies, etc. is likely to go out the window in favor of questions concerning whether or not she is able to unite the working class to vote against its own interests better than Trump. She will, in essence, be escaping the accountability that the rising left has pushed on her.
In a way, it’s unfortunate that the US puts so much emphasis on presidential politics. It’s incredibly unconducive to a movement’s popular autonomy for it to be so tightly tied to a single electoral candidate. But that’s currently the way it is, and for Bernie supporters to continue their political revolution past the Democratic convention and past presidential politics, Bernie himself is going to have to make some decisive moves.
For one, Sanders needs to publicly ally himself with true revolutionaries, not just actors and not just Elizabeth Warren, whose reluctance to endorse a Democratic candidate has proven her to be nothing more than a positive voice for symbolic liberalism. If Sanders is worried about becoming too much of a figure of the academic left that he turns off his support base of newly politicized people, there are many figures outside of the journal-contributing, Marx-quoting, intellectualized crowd with already popular messages to which he can turn. There’s the aforementioned Jill Stein; Lawrence Lessig, the Harvard professor and former presidential candidate vowing to get money out of politics; and Kshama Sawant, the former Occupy organizer and current socialist city council member in Seattle, just to name a few. There is evidence of private correspondences between Bernie and many of these types of figures, but Bernie’s obvious yet unspoken fear of offending Democratic voters has prevented any meaningful public alliances, and thus in turn has stifled the development of Bernie’s own movement by denying these likely allies access to his publicity.
As much as it makes some of his supporters nervous, Bernie must also, at the very least, publicly acknowledge the very passionate faction of his bloc that is calling him to take back his promise to support the eventual Democratic nominee. Pushing a corporate candidate “further left” is in no way revolutionary, and settling on that as his campaign’s final victory would be an unforgivable disappointment.
To the dismay of those who are reinvigorated and ready for a truly revolutionary movement — a rank-and-file movement that, as Bernie is so fond of saying, is of, by, and for the people — the short-term energy of the left is in the hands of the Vermont senator and his army of newly politicized workers and young people. With the Republican primary quickly turning into a Trump coronation, the Sanders campaign is slated to face an avalanche of renewed pressure to throw his weight behind Clinton. And with the hopes of his Democratic candidacy dwindling, Bernie’s next move will answer the crucial question: Is his campaign as revolutionary as he says it is, or will he turn out to be nothing more than an agent in the march of tyranny?