‘It’s Gotta Be Bernie’: Democracy, Mass Politics and Our Next Organizer-in-Chief

Drawing By Nathaniel St. Clair

Leftists are fighting, as they do, over which member of the Senate Democratic leadership is best prepared to lead them to the holy land (Denmark, basically). It’s important, then, to take a step back and acknowledge what we can: that in fall 2020, the Democratic Party nominee will be facing off against a proto-fascist who would enjoy the support of a third of the United States even if he personally stabbed their grandmother (she pulls through). Whoever that person may be, their promises of change, be they basic and moderate or big and structural, will slam up against republican institutions that deflate the power of a center-left majority — the first one being the Electoral College. Make it past that and it will be on to the rest.

The open question is not whether this vote, if all goes well, will deliver us unto socialism or whatever we’re now calling being more generous with the social welfare spending. Bernie Sanders would admit this. A social democrat running as a New Deal liberal, the independent senator from Vermont has a 2020 slogan, “Not me. Us.,” that speaks to the need for popular engagement. Elizabeth Warren, a social democrat running as a New Deal liberal, also tells her crowds that she’s “building a grassroots movement.”

The differences are subtle, and may amount to little more than branding; time will tell which works with the electorate. It helps, in a world of middling differences, to come up with some big reasons why one of the two just won’t do. In a recent editorial, then, the editors of Jacobin, a magazine for leftists who like Bernie a lot, insist that on the matter of mass politics, something a president can now lead, “Sanders is different.” When he says the words, “He really and truly means it”; in a pleasant gesture toward their subscribers, they add, “so do his supporters.” Numerical differences that rarely exceed a pollster’s margin of error are trotted out to show one camp — defined as it stands, in second or third place, months before a primary election — is rough and tumble and down for the struggle, if it’s led by one guy (a number are inclined to accept Joe Biden as their fallback), while the other just wants to get back to chatting about stuff they heard on NPR over a champagne brunch (sounds lovely).

But this is fan service, little more. While attacking each other’s crowds may be a ritual in any team sport it does not constitute a serious attempt at understanding how a left-of-center president should, or would, interface with the grassroots. As just a matter of bookkeeping, if either Sanders or Warren are relying on a vanguard of 15 to 25 percent of likely Democratic primary voters, per oft-cited polling, to pass their sweeping agendas come 2021 — well, these mass mobilizations aren’t going to be any larger than the crowd at a campaign stop.

That this is even an argument, today, speaks to the diminishing returns on policy, with Bernie more generous on relieving college debt and Warren on upping everyone’s Social Security, the latter prepared to abolish the filibuster to do so and the former seeking to preserve Senate tradition, and both about as likely to pass their full agenda. Arguments about perpetual, everlasting purity also misfire: While Warren was still a registered Republican (BAM!) Sanders was a drug warrior voting for the ‘94 Crime Bill (POW!). Indeed, the similarity on policy has provoked a string of editorials downplaying its importance and stressing the intangible power of Sanders’ campaign slogan.

“Warren’s plans can be presented as the product of elite expertise,” one supporter quoted by The Nation argued. “Bernie’s outward allegiance to popular movements over political elites is a provocation in a way Warren’s appeal to ‘the best policies’ is just not,” her own campaign slogans truncated — her campaign launching with paens to movements at an infamous site of class struggle, the candidate listing all the ways organized workers achieved the impossible — omitted for the sake of a cleaner argument.

The omission was on exhibit in Warren’s remarks at Washington Square Park, the same day she received an endorsement from the Working Families Party. The senator detailed an “inside-out” strategy inspired by Frances Perkins, who served as Secretary of Labor under Roosevelt, after a fire killed 146 people at the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory in Manhattan. “With Frances working the system from the inside,” Warren said, and “the women workers organizing and applying pressure from the outside, they rewrote New York state’s labor laws from top to bottom to protect workers.”

Declaring Sanders uniquely prepared to harness the power of the people riles up and congratulates the home crowd, but Bernie-before-all zealots illustrate the fallacious reasoning behind their argument through the simple process of making it. A top-heavy mass politics, based on a cult of personality — however benevolent, it is real and the more committed have declared it non-transferable — can be corrosive, encouraging demobilization among people who are expecting to be led. And if we’re checking facts: three decades of public service did not see Bernie Sanders, or anyone else, creating an independent left force in Vermont to challenge Republicans and conservative Democrats alike. A relative unknown until 2015, are we sure that what we see at his speeches is a movement, not another campaign?

Maybe it is him and not her, who really means it more. And who really cares? It’s pleasant to hear a person seeking votes acknowledge the power of social movements, and indeed more than one is doing that; it will be useful to cite if any should go on to win and need the reminder. But no movement succeeds when it waits to be led by a politician, cueing for entry to official rallies hosted by a head of state. There’s no comparison to Trump’s base, but there is a window, in his MAGA rallies, into how rallying one’s base works in terms of getting legislation passed by unwilling legislators.

Jacobin’s editorial staff looks to Barack Obama — a competent manager who ran on hope and “change” in the form of gentlemanly, bipartisan concession after Bush’s partisan rancor —  as an example of an organizer-in-chief whose heart wasn’t really into mass politics, but this too feels mistaken: it’s a failure of liberals and leftists, who at some point must quit abdicating all responsibility for the state they are in, that “Tea Party” astroturfing came to be seen as the movement of that era. For all its many faults, it was Occupy Wall Street and its affiliates, organized by no political party but eventually supported by unions and given lip service by elected officials, that reminded all that while the center-left was in the executive branch the left was unhappy and in the streets. Sanders has himself benefited from being pushed by a genuinely grassroots movement, tacking left on immigration over the years — far preferable to the left taking its cues from the senator’s regrettable appearance on Lou Dobbs in the mid-2000s.

If one is inventing reasons, and seeking a leader who will ensure the socialist-minded among us do not stay at home post-election, then the fact that Warren is perceived as less keen on sticking with it is possibly an argument in her favor. People waiting to be betrayed tend to pay closer attention; think of it is a responsible form of accelerationism, one that sees the masses demanding more, not just playing defense and asking for harm reduction.

To even get that far will require a coalition with those who continue to provide the numbers at any major demonstration: liberals, or at least people who do not identify as members of any left-wing sect, not any particular Democrat’s supporters in fall 2019. How to keep them mobilized after Trump, which polls suggest will be in 2021, is a question not for Sanders or Warren, nor a matter of either’s commitment to the issue, but a challenge for those who insist that real and lasting power comes from the bottom up. Do they believe it? If so, this grassroots power can’t wait to be called on, nor can we assume that what we — or its would-be vanguard — sant out of those with state power is what its possessors would prefer to do with it.

Make them do it, even if they don’t like it (and assuming that they won’t), is a healthier means of relating from the left to any would-be commander of a capitalist state. Those to the left of center, while entitled to their preferences, should approach the next Democratic president, inshallah, with a healthy skepticism, fair critique that acknowledges obstacles exist beyond a simple unwillingness to act, and the sort of organizing that doesn’t wait for a head of state to say, “Go!”

Charles Davis is a writer in Los Angeles whose work has aired on public radio and been published by outlets such as Columbia Journalism Review, The Daily Beast, The Guardian and The New Republic. You can follow him on Twitter @charliearchy.