A Look Back at Bigger Than Bernie: Can the Democratic Party Be Reformed From Within?

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

This moment, leading to the doom that awaits Democrats in the midterm elections six months from now, seems as good as any to revisit my argument against hoping for democratic change from within the Democratic Party, which was the whole basis of the two Sanders campaigns endorsed by Jacobin magazine and allied millennial “socialists.” Since Biden’s election, not a single one of Sanders’s legislative priorities has come close to becoming reality, while House progressives recently spurned Nina Turner herself, almost the avatar of who their ideal candidate should be, to endorse her corporate Democratic opponent. Rather than the Democratic Party showing the slightest inclination to shift leftward on debt, housing, or wages, we are rapidly moving toward the familiar policy rostrum of deficit reduction, fighting inflation by hurting workers, and protecting Wall Street elites at the cost of everyone else, the agenda faithfully duplicated in the Carter/Volcker, Clinton/Rubin, and Obama/Geithner presidencies. The hipster socialists’ predictable response to the latest ignominy, the potential erasure of Roe v. Wade, is entirely along the lines of the fatalism enumerated in this essay, quickly accepting the fait accompli and moving on to notions of activism that take the absurd reality as given: “Going forward, we will be more reliant on self-managed abortion and sending abortion pills by mail. As for surgical abortion services, we will need to support organizations that help people traveling to abortion-friendly states to receive care. Find your local abortion fund and donate what you can, and share info on local funds with your friends and followers.”

* * *

The progressive movement  laid all its eggs in one basket, the Democratic Party, rather than looking to create any alternative means of translating ideas into action. Or rather, not the progressive movement but a small band of self-proclaimed “socialists,” often young and urban and hip, many of them offspring of the Occupy movement, who found a convenient sheltering place in Bernie Sanders’s latest campaign, which they succeeded in reshaping toward their own ideological ends, utilizing forms of flattery and hero-worship the wily old campaigner from Vermont should have been more wary of. Anyway, the inevitable denouement—i.e., the crashing and burning of Sanders’s second Quixotic charge—has already transpired, the encouragement of the Sanders faithful to get in line behind the neoliberal candidate of the moment is in full flourish, and the question that begs to be answered, in the wake of the catastrophe, is this: Can the Democratic Party be reformed? Can it serve as an agency for “socialist” (read progressive) policy changes? Should activists and thought leaders spend time and energy working to reinvent the party, or should they look for new outlets?

Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht, staff writer and managing editor respectively for Jacobin magazine (which since 2015 has been a major Sanders propaganda medium), insist in Bigger Than Bernie: How We Go from the Sanders Campaign to Democratic Socialism (April 28, Verso) that there is a democratic road to socialism and that it lies straight through the heart of the Democratic Party. Though they wrote their book in the months preceding the conclusion of the primary, they’ve composed it in a manner that the inevitable cataclysm at the end can fit into their broadly flexible thesis that the Democratic Party is the only possible apparatus for social change at this moment. Indeed, the same absence of self-criticism evident in the book has been obvious in various recent interviews given by the authors, not to mention editorials at the magazine where they continue to put the most optimistic spin on the manifest recent failure of their thesis.

Just so I’m not fighting a strawman, let me lay out the gist of their argument, which is that: “We need to make good use of the democratic structure and processes available to us (and to improve and expand them) in order to advance our cause.” What they mean by this is to deploy the existing Democratic Party structure in order to give what they call a “class-struggle character” to electoral fights. Another way to characterize it is as “the dirty break,” meaning going through the two-party system rather than around it, as opposed to what would be “the clean break” (advocated by others but not the particular ideological clique latched on to Sanders as the savior), meaning leaving the Democratic Party altogether. The dirty break, in the last five years of “socialist” discourse in America, has also been called “the inside-outside strategy” and counts on sharpening the contradictions between workers and the Democratic Party elites.

These contradictions played out in real time in the last five years to a greater extent than anyone might have imagined possible. And what exactly happened after the eye-opening in which Day and Uetricht place so much faith? Could there be anything more eye-opening than the Democratic Party’s open rebellion against Sanders’s limited social democratic proposals in 2015, and its preference to double down on the neoliberal ideology that had lent Trump credence in his first presidential campaign? And could there be anything more eye-opening than the Democratic Party anointing (it’s called “consolidation” in polite party-speak) the last neoliberal vice president in the middle of a health care and unemployment crisis that all but begs for the kinds of social welfare policies socialists are demanding? Biden “won” his last set of primaries while decrying Medicare for All and explicitly rejecting any of the universal programs the authors of this book rightly characterize as the essence of social progress.

How much more clarity can there be? How much more intensification of the contradictions can we sustain? How much more conflict can be exposed between the interests of workers (suffering from mass unemployment in the midst of a pandemic) and the Democratic Party elites (who offered them crumbs in a so-called “stimulus” bill while gifting trillions to undeserving oligarchs)?

What Day and Uetricht, and fellow believers within their narrow ideological band, never address is what comes after the eye-opening. At the moment, with a greater Wall Street bailout than the one in 2008 having been approved (with no real dissension, or even withholding of votes, by the same avatars of “socialism” the book’s authors uphold as idols), the movement’s leader is busy encouraging everyone who supported his “socialism” to get in line behind a reactionary opponent who couldn’t possibly be a greater antithesis of socialism, as evidenced by half a century of political action. If the book wants us to imagine that there might be something more robust than the mere opening of eyes (some sort of street rebellion? Strikes and direct action to demand wage continuation, and rent, mortgage, utilities and debt cancellation?), anything other than voting for the right candidates, then there’s no evidence of it.

And let’s be clear about another confusion that has beset this particular segment of opinion-makers on the left recently. They’re not even claiming that the candidates they want you to devote energy to are actual socialists. They could be progressives, loosely defined, but then the term becomes so ill-used that anyone to the left of any competitor could be understood as a relative progressive and therefore worthy of our vote. This problem of definition is greatly compounded by their own ignorance (or willful naïveté) toward the term socialism, which is nowhere used in its classic understanding of workers owning the means of production. Socialism has suddenly, over the last five years, become the precinct of glamorous video talk show hosts who presume to speak for the “working class”—and not just for New Deal reformism maintaining capitalism in its essential outline but for some ill-defined “political revolution.” The messenger bearing the message does indeed matter, and it is worth noting in retrospect how glamorous a candidate—compared to, say, Howie Hawkins of the Green Party—Sanders really was. An entire spectrum of commentators on the left seems to have become infected with this flamboyance, the language of “socialism” coming as easily to them as identity politics might have come in an earlier period.

In fact, the “socialism” expounded in this book resembles nothing so much as market socialism in certain Eastern European countries before the fall of communism. Such “mixed economies” were a staple of admiration among progressive economists until the end of the 1980s, and shared features with the more explicitly capitalist Scandinavian countries, until they too began to retreat from collective ownership. Mostly, however, when it comes to worker ownership, Bigger Than Bernie doesn’t even go so far as the extinct Balkan mixed economies, espousing nothing more stringent than some of the New Deal safety net orientations we had in place until three or four decades ago.

The aspect of the book that bothers me the most is the pretense that what is being suggested is new and revolutionary and unheard of in America, when it is really just a reprise of what most Americans took for granted until first Reagan, and then Clinton, ended it in an onslaught of neoliberalism. Free college, a living wage, affordable housing, health care that didn’t bankrupt the beneficiary, and of course the absence of crushing student or other debt were all more or less realities as late as the 1970s and for much of the 1980s. It all seems to be a shocked millennial’s discovery of ills that are being propagated as unprecedented but in fact are not. And why does this matter? Because to accept that until very recently the political economy accommodated these basic requirements of a dignified life makes the charismatic association with a socialist revolution unnecessary. The things that are lately being withheld from us, such as a more or less debt-free university education, are well within the capacity of the economic system to provide, and their lack is an entirely artificial construct.

The pandemic has made this abundantly clear. Although the retreat from some recent concessions is already rapidly in progress, the fact that for a while prisoners were being released, ICE arrests and detentions were being reconsidered, cash bail was overlooked, unoccupied housing was being made available to the homeless, and various fines, fees and payments were being ignored (why should we have to pay for the Internet, for example?), suggests that our forms of bondage are arbitrary in the extreme. We had already reached the status of a post-scarcity society between the 1950s and 1970s to a large extent, as was true of Western Europe as well, and the fact that we have lately succumbed to ideas of bondage that had been removed during the golden age of liberal capitalism does not constitute reason to embark upon a long-term (lasting, say, fifty or a hundred years) campaign of socialist reform from within the established party structures, instead of looking for ways and means to abruptly and unexpectedly force the system to give up these forms of bondage. This abruptness is in fact how most of the post-1980s “revolutions” have occurred, whereas our youthful socialist writers seem to be beholden to a type of mid-20th-century consensus-building recalling the genteel Arthur Schlesinger or Lionel Trilling. In a country where trillions of dollars can instantly be made available to Wall Street, while workers and those who need help the most are left stranded—to the point where many of the immiserated are now out on the streets demanding to be allowed back to work in order to continue a semblance of functioning life, even at the cost of potential contagion and death—the idea that a decades-long project of educating workers about the benefits of socialism needs to be mounted by way of elected representatives who will somehow inject the political party with their continued advocacy of socialist reforms seems nothing less than parasitical.

Every manifestation of defeat becomes a success in the eyes of this ideological cohort because it is seen as intensifying class contradictions and opening up yet more routes for socialist candidates to find electoral traction. Thus, after the Iowa vote-counting debacle, Bhaskar Sunkara, the guru and saint of the Jacobin claque, spun it as something absolutely positive to take cheer from! The same optimistic tendency has tainted their reception of every train wreck of the last four months, including Sanders’s final capitulation, because it somehow strengthens the movement by intensifying the class contradictions—that eye-opening again! At the same time, neither Jacobin magazine and the millennial media ecosphere that works with it, nor Sanders himself, is willing to go anywhere within a hundred miles of the biggest guerilla in the room, namely the instances of voter suppression, if not outright rigging and fraud, that have lately become a staple of American electoral politics. Wouldn’t that be a kind of eye-opening? The most brutal and shocking kind, in fact, since even the working class likes to believe that its votes are sacrosanct in this system. But if we accept Day and Uetricht’s logic in Bigger Than Bernie, the legitimacy of voting and elections, and the entire structure of suppression in which they are embedded, cannot be questioned, because for them the Democratic Party is the vehicle of the socialist revolution, so they can’t possibly question the validity of the rules surrounding its perpetuation.

Day and Uetricht, their fellow Jacobin writers, and their leader Sunkara turn out in fact not to be utopians but realists of the highest order, as befits millennials who came of age after the psychological disorientation following 9/11, the decade of the war on terror, and the last financial collapse which made many of their generation undercompensated peons in thrall to the glamour of social media rhetoric and new forms of public self-justification. In their universe, a movement for a third party has no place, either the existing Green Party and any of the lesser-known entities, or a constellation of the alternative progressive parties mounting a viable challenge to the two-party duopoly. Like Sanders, they don’t want to be marked by the Ralph Nader stain. Not only is the possibility not meaningful to them, Day and Uetricht go out of their way to stress that we must absolutely work within the parameters of the two-party system as it exists. They express no regrets that Sanders did not mount a third-party challenge in 2016, or in the years afterwards, because that is simply not part of their calculation; it stretches the bounds of reality for them to imagine anything beyond the Democratic and Republican parties as they stand. The important point about my deconstruction, based on the last five years of real-time evidence, is to open up the imagination to precisely such a possibility, foreclosed by these writers.

Day and Uetricht’s analysis is deeply flawed because it relies heavily on a small band of fellow Jacobin writers such as Chris Maisano and Eric Blanc (to them, mentors and spiritual guides) who take a particular approach—downright “realistic” and anti-utopian—toward Marxist class analysis. The writers they rely on are not ultimately looking for an actual revolution of any kind but an incremental reform of capitalism from within, and from inside its most compromised bastions no less, accepting each concession as a marvel of activist victory, when, as mentioned earlier, much of this spectrum of concessions existed in reality in the U.S. and most Western countries as late as Reagan, Thatcher, Clinton, Blair, and the neoliberal ascendancy. The very question of why we should give class-struggle character to electoral fights is elided. Does it have to be in the electoral realm? This explains also their peculiar blindness with regard to civil liberties—the most important component of which is the return to electoral integrity, compromised in every election in this country since 2000, with questionable results in 2004, 2016, and most blatantly in the 2020 Democratic primaries. Civil liberties exceed party parameters, they look toward a transcendent condition of liberal authenticity, rooted in the individual’s right to be seen and heard yet protected from invasions of privacy, of which having one’s vote delivered and counted is the most sacred expression. The Sanders movement was never going anywhere without placing the return of civil liberties at the forefront of the insurgency, but the particular interpretation of class struggle held by the Jacobin writers does not allow any room for this perspective.

So Bigger Than Bernie bypasses electoral reform, third party viability, ballot access rules, and an end to various forms of voter suppression altogether, in essence seeking Medicare for All and the Green New Deal in the visible presence of a post-constitutional Orwellian state, which does not seem philosophically consistent to me. The most likely long-term result of the coronavirus panic is a strengthening of the oligarchy, and further suppression of individual liberty and workers’ dignity, rather than any movement in the opposite direction, because in the absence of electoral and political reforms that reset the rules, and make the threat of an alternative to the two-party system palpable under strong guarantees of individual liberty, each crisis will be used to weaken whatever the authors of this book understand by socialism, not strengthen it.

A consistently naïve faith in workers coming to their senses once the contradictions are exposed mars this book. In 2016, once Sanders was sidelined, Trump was the beneficiary, not any sustained socialist movement. Many of these voters seem to be permanently lost to Trump, particularly in the Midwest and the South. If we discount election irregularities, it appears that in 2020 many among the rank and file of voters, even in the middle of a public health crisis, broke heavily for the party establishment, in a desperate search for normalcy and order, rather than listen to any hint of a revolution. This evidence is yet another rebuke to the idea of a steady buildup of class consciousness in a post-political society like ours, where it is all too easy to elicit a counterrevolutionary shift among the populace in response to the slightest progressive demands. The more we ask under this system, the less we get. And the less we are trained to expect, which puts the lie to the class consciousness thesis.

Why this should be so has been addressed by a legion of Marxist theorists who understand that under conditions of postmodernism the conventional elements of Marxist class analysis must undergo serious modification or no longer apply. Day and Uetricht believe, however, that universal social welfare programs (rather than their means-tested parodies favored by neoliberalism) should raise class consciousness and ought to be the focus of activist struggle. From the start of the New Deal until 1973, and sometimes even later, we did have universal programs, but the confusions surrounding class positioning often made the beneficiaries of these programs complicit in their own political demise. They succumbed too easily to racist or xenophobic or nationalist appeals, and continue to do so. Who, exactly, are the agents of change, those who absorb class consciousness, in Day and Uetricht’s conception? They lament the loss of labor union membership, but while offering no path forward to resurrecting even that (how would it occur in the postmodern economy anyway, with an end to permanent jobs?), the larger question they skip is what kind of class consciousness can be acquired when one generation is pitted against another across a cultural divide that shows no signs of closing. Universal programs are as likely as not to intensify a desperate class attachment, which is not the sort of self-abridgement Marx (or Sanders at his Oct. 2019 Brooklyn rally) had in mind but an anxious clinging to whatever little you’ve got in the postmodern economy. Being beneficiaries of material social welfare has not exactly translated to being empathetic toward those outside the realm of such benefits.

Rather than legitimizing the current two-party system, and the grossly unjust misappropriations of political power it rests on, voters and activists should perhaps think about ways to delegitimize this system. A large part of Bigger Than Bernie—written before primary voting commenced this year—builds on the expectation that once socialism in this country starts becoming successful, the elites will step in heavy-handedly to tear down the revolutionaries. But it seems to have happened already, preemptively, before allowing Sanders a chance to get anywhere near the presidency, and it is likely to repeat itself with the members of the vaunted “squad,” so beloved of these two writers, and to the rest of the socialists running under the Justice Democrats or Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) banner within the Democratic Party. The merest whiff of success in raising class consciousness results in preemptive tearing down, so that the end result in terms of policy improvements—as the virus reaction amply demonstrates—still amounts to less than nothing. To reduce civic duty to participating in elections as fraught with unfairness as elections in our country are—resting on gaining traction with the hostile media, corporate establishment, and warmongering state—is to turn the meaning of a bottom-up revolution on its head. The two Sanders campaigns were not, despite superficial appearances, bottom-up, but rather top-down, which allowed them to advance as far as they did within a penumbra of acceptability. What has actually happened in the period between 2015 and 2020 is that many potent progressive ideas (let’s not call them socialist, because they’re not that) have become absorbed into Democratic Party discourse, not with a view to realizing them, or even offering weakened alternatives (means-testing, again!), but refuting and marginalizing them. In essence, that’s what the entire 2020 campaign season was, one long denunciation of progressive ideas, which were held to be unaffordable, unrealistic, and frankly lunatic.

What’s sad about reading this book is that, while written in a retrospective mood even before the primary voting got started in 2020, there seems to be no willingness to engage in self-criticism. Bernie Sanders remains, for Day and Uetricht, the messiah who brought us very close to the promised land, both in 2016 and 2020, without asking if the very closeness of this apparent landing contains the essence of the betrayal. The illusion of change within the Democratic Party remains stronger than ever. It ought to compel loss of faith in electoral politics of the kind Day and Uetricht are advocating, but it is in fact reinvigorating for them. In part this explains Sanders’s insistence on calling himself a socialist much more so than he did in 2016, when he sounded more like a traditional progressive reformist, because the 2016 ideas (like campaign finance reform) would have sounded positively acceptable to the corporate mediasphere, whereas in order to maintain a form of brand distinction and even enhanced glamorization the language of socialism espoused by Jacobin magazine and its ilk seemed more appealing.

Day and Uetricht might counter that my interest in seeing them as too attached to a single candidate, despite the title of the book, is misplaced, and they might well respond that the majority of voters strongly supported Medicare for All, for instance, in exit polls throughout the primary states, even if those same voters fell for Biden in large numbers. They would posit this as evidence that class-struggle politics through the Democratic party is working, because this issue now elicits majority rank-and-file approval rather than being on the margins. They would expect us to have faith in AOC, Ilhan Omar, Rashida Tlaib, Sanders himself in the Senate, and any future socialist stars emerging out of the Justice Democrats and DSA designations in the 2020 elections and beyond to continue the fight to validate these issues and to enshrine them into legislation. But does anyone actually believe this? Or is it much more likely that with a potential Trump reelection, these ideas will be pushed farther into the background than ever, and even blamed for wanting to push the electorate too far left and therefore handing Trump the election? Biden probably won’t be elected, but even if he were, does anyone foresee him working for universal programs (which mostly used to be a reality in this country until the hegemony of neoliberalism), or for incremental changes, which in fact cause more damage than good? The kind of electoral politics Day and Uetricht believe in necessarily hinge on idealization of particular candidates—Bernie today, AOC tomorrow—which explains why the electorate might well hold a favorable view of Bernie yet go right ahead and vote for the candidate opposed to any of his policies.

Already, since the book went to print, a number of stories have come out in the media to reveal AOC’s ambivalence toward maintaining her popularity with her young fan base on the one hand and going along with the brute power realities of the party on the other hand. In move after move, she seems to be showing clearly which side she’s leaning toward to maintain her star power, while being no real threat to the oligarchy. AOC was apparently seriously considering endorsing Elizabeth Warren, who does not believe in universal programs but only means-tested ones that flow from a neoliberal ethic. She did not vote against the stimulus bill, Wall Street bailout No. 2 on steroids, though she is keen to maintain her status as oppositional leader. Again, the problem with Day and Uetricht’s entire conceptualization is that the current political fight is seen as legitimate, unprecedented, and worthy of being prolonged, when it is in fact illegitimate, not new at all, and arbitrarily imposed. If this were a hundred years ago in America, when the Progressive movement was running out of steam, and when Eugene Debs was being imprisoned and working-class parties of various stripes were rising in the American heartland, then the case Day and Uetricht are making for the possibility of revolutionary change through electoral politics might have made some sense. But to agree with Sunkara today—that “the route to a more radical socialism will come from the crisis of social democracy our very success initiates,” and that “class-struggle social democracy…isn’t a foe of democratic socialism…[but that the] road to the latter runs through the former”—is to ignore the actual material foundation of the classes that support the Democratic Party and keep it in power.

The last five years have been, just as the Jacobin magazine writers would have wished it, a showcase of picking intellectual fights with the elites. As Day and Uetricht claim, “Reforms are only the beginning, but marginalized socialists cannot build a mass movement by demanding immediate revolution and rejecting all reforms as inadequate.” They wish to agitate the elites, raise class consciousness by that devious means, and hope that somehow in the end it leads to a political revolution. I would suggest that the chain of transmission is broken at every step of this convoluted thread-the-needle approach and Sanders’s two failed candidacies, taking this philosophy to its maximum power, prove my assertion. Day and Uetricht’s logic in fact leads to acceptance of incrementalist reforms (both policy and political) of the kind Elizabeth Warren was espousing (hence perhaps the magazine’s initial receptivity toward her), which puts the notion of political revolution so far in the rearview mirror that it is not even visible anymore. After all, according to their own definition, which hinges on raising hackles among the party elites, any concession, even the lame ones Biden might perhaps make in a bid to win over millennial socialists, is a victory of sorts, a successful leftward shift within the elites. There is no failure (such as ridiculously partial debt cancellation) which cannot be redefined as success in such a matrix.

Part of the cost of believing in the demonstrably false narrative recorded by Day and Uetricht in this book, and by their ideological consorts, is that the chance to build a genuine third-party alternative to the two fatally compromised parties was lost in both 2016 and 2020. Day and Uetricht do not even consider the possibility that Sanders might have initiated a new third party or joined the existing apparatus of the Green Party in 2016, which shows how committed they are to reforming just the Democratic Party and that alone. They obviously cannot point to any examples in world history of transformative internal change in a dominant liberal party by way of sheer intellectual exertion or voting influence, nor do they seriously try to in the book, except to address the anomaly by way of deflection and not as a crucial failure. Rather, the presumption in Bigger Than Bernie is that somehow we are and have been on a linear trajectory to progress, as young American socialists, steeped in the Great Recession of 2008 and thereafter, continue to make demands that will finally set this country on the road to progress achieved by the Scandinavian countries. This reading of American political economy is patently false, because during the 40-year heyday of the New Deal we had in fact attained most of the social welfare goals Day and Uetricht lay out, and in some cases even exceeded them to the extent that we had become a society oriented toward leisure and the afflictions of affluence, rather than gross serfdom and bondage. But their entire argument for change through electoral politics, and in particular influencing the Democratic Party in a leftward direction, would collapse upon a correct reading of history, which is that the virus of neoliberalism contaminates both parties in equal measure and that the international oligarchy very well understands that withdrawing social welfare concessions is the only way to maintain the dominance of capital. It is not a linear path but one that is circular and loops back, which means that the Democratic Party should not even be a central player in calculations toward socialist progress.

The history of the past 50 years would seem to suggest that both major and minor social concessions weaken rather than strengthen class solidarity. Day and Uetricht take offense at Adbusters magazine (which, ironically, helped birth the very movement from which they and the intellectual journals they became associated with sprang forth) for calling American consumers literal pigs. They are not willing to engage in any form of blame toward the working class. This makes of the working class not something of substance and reality that a Rosa Luxemburg or Antonio Gramsci or György Lukács might have worked with, but an idealized matter immune to self-criticism. The “militant minority” Day and Uetricht postulate is not only not in evidence in America, but is least present among their own circles, since they—like Sanders himself—have explicitly shunned militancy of any kind. When Day and Uetricht write that “We believe that social democracy is tenuous and unstable, but in the United States today it would be a vast improvement,” they ignore the existence of social democracy in this country for several decades before the onset of neoliberalism, which gives rise to the larger point that the Democratic Party or any oligarchy can always arbitrarily reset goals, as in fact they have been doing for almost 50 years now. There is a fundamental mismatch between the artificial resetting of these goals (medical care or college education goes from being basically affordable to unaffordable over the course of a few decades, for example) and the kind of steady electoral competition Day and Uetricht advocate. It is the reason why they and their fellow travelers (again, like Sanders himself) have not only not seen any need to comment on electoral irregularities throughout this campaign season, but not even entertained the thought that this might be theoretically possible. To do so would be to undermine their whole premise, which rests on a naïve belief in the kindness of elites to respond with full intellectual honesty when confronted with mortal threats to their political and economic power—precisely the shoals in which Sanders drowned, and the credibility and leverage of his working-class movement with him. I would suggest, contrary to what I imagine Day and Uetricht would claim, that the working class is worse off for Sanders’s two candidacies, because its theoretical power has been literalized and objectified in the form of a viable candidacy (twice manifested) and handily defeated each time. If you’re playing a game of electoral success, then you cannot then resort to ideological success (in some undefined imaginative sphere) as constituting victory for a leftward drift.

A final point about how a counterclaim on behalf of incremental successes (funny, this, coming from political revolutionaries!) might be used to assail the argument I’ve been making here. Day and Uetricht grant that the gains made through a long struggle mounted by the East Bay DSA (of which Day is a member) were minimal, to say the least, even after a prolonged teachers’ strike. I would interpret the victories as failures, because if all you get after an extended struggle of that nature is crumbs, then there is a danger that people might go away satisfied that something was accomplished when nothing much actually was—or even worse, the existing structure of inequality, after a pro forma struggle blessed by socialists, was legitimized. The enemy was made stronger, not weaker. One could then argue that the “fight continues” (as Clinton and Warren have always asserted, and as, unfortunately, even Sanders is now acquiring a tendency to lapse into after endorsing Biden), but we’ve been hearing that our whole lives, unfolding over the half century of neoliberalism, and when do we ever get to conceptualize what happens in a different phase beyond incrementalism?

I searched everywhere in this book for some realization that it will be more difficult than anywhere else for socialism to make inroads in the U.S., because of the factors complicating class consciousness that are more evident here than in other countries, but I saw no recognition of this blatantly exploited exceptionalism, which has laid waste to the dreams of socialists for more than a century and a half in this country and is about to mete the same treatment to this new generation. Sanders’s victories on behalf of Amazon and Disney workers, much lauded in this book as lodestones of what we should strive for, were very small, and subject to revocation, but more importantly did not extend to the corporate world as a whole. In stark comparison is the change in perception brought about by the coronavirus, though that too will soon be revoked and returned to more familiar grounds by the corporate elites. In the midst of the pandemic, when conditions are ideally ripe for a third-party challenge to the existing duopoly, the writers I have discussed here are more determined than ever to persist in vain hopes that the party can be reformed from the inside, because of the sheer charisma of star candidates or hardworking ones emerging from the bottom up, as they defeat over the long duration a capitalist oligarchy that has risen from the very conditions which the revolutionaries seek to legitimize. What makes us think that any of the problems of assimilation and absorption that have beset Bernie Sanders’s two massive national campaigns won’t apply with even greater force to candidates running for all sorts of elective lower office as Democrats? Wouldn’t the pressures to conform, and ultimately legitimize capitalism, be even greater at the lower levels?

Bernie Sanders ran a more successful campaign in 2016, according to every metric, than in 2020, to the extent that he was perceived as not being part of the Democratic Party apparatus. That explains his attraction to independents, some of whom broke for Trump and have stayed there, and the white working-class voters he lost this time around. Buying into the official party line (Russiagate and impeachment, and Trump as the worst modern president), Sanders lost the part of his appeal that beheld him as a rank outsider not just interested in remaking the Democratic Party but potentially liable to run a third–party candidacy. The paradox is that the less he strayed from that mortal threat of true independence, the more the Democratic party found the arsenal with which to crush left-populist aspirations, even as Sanders tried to play along with the notion that internal reform was possible. The more the compliance, the greater the suppression, which became an endless feedback loop that hasn’t yet ended, as forms of obeisance toward the chosen nominee, Biden, and the desperate campaign to unseat Trump, proceed to their conclusion. The evidence from 2015 to 2020 shows that the greater the apparent success in pursuing class-struggle politics through the Democratic party, the greater will be the setbacks and failures. This is the paradox activists, scholars, and voters in general will have to confront in the future.


Anis Shivani is the author of many critically-acclaimed books of fiction, poetry, and criticism. His recent political books include Why Did Trump Win?, Confronting American Fascism, and A Radical Human Rights Solution to the Immigration Problem.