Bernie’s Missed Opportunity

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Bernie Sanders’ 2020 run for President turned out to be even more enigmatic than his 2016 run for the same office. Let’s take a look back in history to remember when Bernie actually won elections. The year is 1988. Bernie is running for Congress in Vermont. Bernie was widely criticized for running his campaign as an Independent—this, of course, would split the vote and give the seat to a Republican. Lo and behold it did. Nonetheless, Bernie had vigor and resolve and ran again in 1990. Bernie’s popularity was too much and he beat back both the Democrat and the Republican and the rest is history.

In 2016, Jill Stein offered up her spot as the Green Party nominee to Bernie Sanders. If this was too much of a peace agenda for Bernie, he could have still run as an independent and received a lot of votes. Just as he was blamed for Hillary’s loss in 2016 after months of agony campaigning for her wretchedness, Bernie would have been blamed for stopping Hillary this time around. Just as Bernie would have had the whole establishment among the media, politicians and corporations against him if he wholly surrendered to the Democrats, he would have had these same forces against him had he run third party in 2016.

Let’s be clear. Bernie would have faced an uphill battle in 2016, and winning the Presidency over both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump may have been unlikely. But if he got to 10 or 15% of the vote he would have disproved many voter’s fears that such a candidacy simply is impossible. Bernie himself, seemingly without irony, noted that in 2020 his campaign won the war of ideas, but failed the electability argument. Bernie dug his own grave in 2016 in this department when he decided to punt on his own electability despite mass enthusiasm from much of the alienated population who are continually bulldozed by the corporate duopoly.

If Bernie had spent the past four years trailblazing a different path, electability may have been possible for him. After all, it only took him two years to flip Vermont from Republican to democratic socialist. If Bernie had spent the past four years showing that both of the corporate parties were his enemy, and that in fact, both were on the same side, he could have effectively built a broad and united coalition that could defeat a divided duopoly.

What we need to expose is this unity among the supposedly disparate corporate parties. The left is always accused of dividing up the Democrats. This is only because the left continues to try and build itself within the Democratic Party. If a base is built outside of this party then we would see both corporate parties uniting against this base. Rank and file liberals would defect from their corporate party who misled them into the arms of fascist Republicans and reluctantly join forces with the united outside base.

As improbable as this sounds, Bernie did exactly this 30 years ago. Bernie brought many new ideas to the Democratic Party, and we should give him credit for that. However, Bernie’s mistake was to try and bring many new people to the Democratic Party. People are a lot smarter than ideas and wouldn’t fall for it. What happened to old Bernie? It hardly matters. We should look to young Bernie as the blueprint away from the blue tent.

Backed into a self-created corner amidst the deadly coronavirus pandemic, Bernie dropped out of the 2020 race amidst a dead heat with Joe Biden who is severely cognitively impaired. Down just 300 delegates with almost 2,000 to go, Bernie could have simply matched Biden’s first-half performance to tie him overall. But the corrupt media Bernie railed against hammered him with lies about how the race was over and how dangerous it was for him to run amidst the crisis circus. This is all despite Joe Biden and his Republican buddies saying yes to an in-person vote in Wisconsin, with Bernie urging against it. Why on earth Bernie bought the lie that it was he was endangering the American people is anyone’s guess.

Bernie has given up on his own campaign even faster than he did in 2016. Bernie will try to further his own political agenda at the expense of the American people and shutter everyone into Joe Biden’s collapsing coalition. The American people will continue their alienation into other spaces both real and imaginary. This energy will stay unorganized in electoral expression for this particular race.

However, let’s not discount Bernie’s work as entirely unproductive. All work is productive. Amidst this coronavirus crisis we are seeing clarity when it comes to work. I mean work not in the capitalist sense, but in the sense of being productive, whether that is by thinking, doing, or nothing at all. We see that workers create supply and demand and are deemed “essential” which is just code for “you must die for the economy.” Of course, we are seeing the courage of so-called ordinary people but at what cost?

On the other hand, we are seeing that there really is no need for the so-called wealth creators who control the means of production but don’t produce anything for other people. It is these people that the Fed simply prints money for—which by itself lowers the wages of real workers who haven’t seen wages rise in decades despite massive inflation. This again raises questions about assumed constructs. If money can just be printed, why do we accept it as a social code that starves millions? If the economy needs workers, why do we accept billionaires who organize this economy only to take from the top of it? If life can be run well enough locally without globalization and the mass pollution and destruction of nature behind it, why not switch to localized economies?

All of these things do not change overnight, which is why the vision of Bernie Sanders’ miraculous revolution remained frozen in time. The struggle against the corporate rule is not one that is fought fairly, justly or quickly. It is rather a struggle of organized demands of the masses against the authoritarian rule of the few. It is a long and arduous effort. Let us not waste another second. The revolution here is not a war of ideas, parties or personalities, it is a material struggle of class interest.

The revolution is not won by conjuring angels, and it is not lost every time a road block comes in our way. The fact that Bernie Sanders inspired so many road blocks, even if he eventually became one of them goes to show the way his campaign inspired millions into this possibility of radical transformation. Alas, this time around Bernie’s ideas were popular, but people feared his electability. This problem could have been solved last time around with Bernie and Hillary both falling short to Trump, but Bernie surprising many with the popularity of his ideas.

In 2020, people may have been confident enough that others liked the same things they did, and voted Bernie. At the very least, Bernie would have been no less convincing of an option to defeat Trump than a floundering Democratic Party. The need to defeat Trump would have been just as great, and Bernie would have disproved many of the myths the Democrats hold dear. Namely, that they are the only show in town, that their ideas reflect the populist left, and that most people don’t want some version of socialism.

Even in defeat, Bernie can teach us lessons. Capitulation to the Democratic Party is a fruitless endeavor is a fine note to make in each of our Little Red Books.

Nick Pemberton writes and works from Saint Paul, Minnesota. He loves to receive feedback at