Analysis Politics United States

Sanders Backs Biden: Whither the Left?

By Lance Selfa

In what was likely the most predictable event in the Democratic Party primary season, Sen. Bernie Sanders on April 13 endorsed former Vice President Joe Biden as the Democratic nominee to go up against President Trump in November. No one should have been surprised that the Sanders campaign ended this way. From the beginning, Sanders has told his supporters that if he did not win the nomination, he would endorse and work to elect the nominee against the “most dangerous president in modern America history.”

But Sanders didn’t just announce a pro-forma endorsement for his “friend” Biden. His senior campaign officials are in discussions to merge their organization with Biden’s—on the promise that Biden might announce more “progressive” positions on a number of issues. And Sanders put his name to a Democratic National Committee (DNC) fundraising email that insists: “The DNC is the only official party committee that works to elect Democrats at all levels of government across the country. That’s important. Because change always happens from the bottom up, and when we mobilize record numbers of people to get involved in the political process, we can create a government that works for all of us and not just the one percent.”

In contrast to Sanders’ support for Biden, many former Bernie volunteers and voters are unenthusiastic about supporting Biden, as the New York Times showed in a set of interviews published April 18. But Bernie has already told his supporters that those who are thinking of not voting for Biden are “irresponsible.” With that tone, Sanders almost sounds like the 66 septuagenarian ex-Students for Democratic Society members wagging their fingers at today’s activists, likening those who would withhold support from Biden to Stalinists in the early 1930s who refused to unite with the Left against Hitler.

While the Sanders campaign had a predictable end, its end was also swift. In the space of about 10 days from the Nevada caucuses to the South Carolina primary, Sanders went from being “of course, the favorite to win at the convention in Milwaukee,” to heading a flatlining campaign. Sanders’ victories in California and Colorado offered some solace in an otherwise Super Tuesday sweep for Biden on March 3. But Sanders’ landslide loss in Michigan on March 10 snuffed out his already slim chances. For all the unprecedented amount of money he raised, the organization of volunteers he had and the overwhelming support from the existing left and activist circles, the Sanders campaign will end up with a bigger defeat than it suffered in 2016.

How did that happen? Some might try to explain Sanders’ collapse as a by-product of the COVID-19 crisis. Yet that doesn’t tell us why the campaign—whose signature policy was Medicare for All—would lose in the face of the greatest health crisis in a century. Moreover, long before COVID-19 came to dominate all political questions, the Sanders campaign itself knew that Biden, based on his support from older African American voters, was a stronger adversary than he appeared in the first primaries. And even Sean McElwee, the Sandernista credited with coining the slogan “Abolish ICE,” noted that the Sanders campaign misunderstood the Democratic electorate and thus was based on a flawed theory of how it would win the nomination.

In general, Sanders looked stronger than he really was because the so-called “moderate” field was split between multiple candidates. And Biden, who had led the polls for more than a year before the primaries began in February, tanked in the first three states’ primaries. While many Sandernista post-mortems have insisted that “no one said it would be easy,” many of them fell victim to wishful thinking and planning for a Sanders administration at a time when not even 4 percent of the Democratic delegates had been chosen.

Nevertheless, in accomplishing what was certainly the most remarkable resurrection from the dead in modern mainstream electoral politics, the Democratic Party (DP) establishment coalesced behind Biden, and prevailed on other candidates to end their campaigns and to endorse Biden. Biden went from addled also-ran to unchallenged frontrunner in the space of a few days. And this wasn’t just an elite conspiracy to push Sanders out of the race: the Democratic primary electorate delivered a string of landslide victories to Biden when the nomination was reduced essentially to a two-candidate race.

For years, socialists who have argued for a “strategic” exploitation of the Democratic Party ballot line have characterized the Democratic Party as a “non-party” that can be captured and used to spread socialist ideas. Others insisted that the rise of candidates like Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez showed that the Democratic Party is an unstable formation whose internal tensions could explode it. The incredible discipline with which the Democratic political infrastructure moved to marginalize Sanders and to promote Biden is yet another example of how the DP is still a formidable instrument operating to make U.S. politics hospitable to capitalist interests. It’s much more than just a “ballot line.”

Some on the left analogized the role of progressives or democratic socialists in the Democratic Party to that of the “tea party” in the Republican Party. Others saw in Trump’s win over a fractured Republican establishment a path to victory for Sanders. But the makeup of both capitalist parties and their respective roles in the U.S. political system should challenge these analogies.

In some ways, the GOP is the perfect top-down, “internally mobilized” party, where big business backs politicians to look out for its interests, and helps the politicians to find constituencies to keep them in power. As long as business gets its tax cuts and deregulation, it can live with various forms of right-wing extremism that the “tea party,” anti-abortionists, and the rest promote. A conservative Tea Party or Trump challenge can unsettle the cosmopolitan ruling class, but it’s pushing on an open door when it looks to expand its influence in the Republican Party.

The Democrats, on the other hand, depend on the mobilization of organizations among its base voters who more often find themselves at loggerheads with the sections of the U.S. capitalist class that backs the party. The Democrats’ role in the current U.S. political system is to contain and blunt fundamental demands of its base, or to reshape them so that they are acceptable to the capitalist class. It is the “lesser evil” party par excellence.

Opinion surveys show that the majority of Democratic Party voters support “Medicare for All,” but that is poison to Democratic donors from the U.S. medical industrial insurance complex. The result is party support for neoliberal reforms like Obamacare and the “public option,” and the rejection of aspirants like Sanders in favor or more “realistic” choices like Biden. Even the seemingly widespread support of “Medicare for All” among a range of Democratic presidential candidates hid the degree to which each of them had their own gradualist interpretation of it, designed not to offend key Democratic Party interests. Even democratic socialist AOC seemed to accept a stagist road to Medicare for All starting with adding a “public option” to Obamacare.

Even given these differences between the GOP and Democratic Party establishments, that’s no guarantee that Democratic voters would pull the lever for the establishment’s choice. But the establishment had a powerful ally on its side: a cult of “electability” merging with the overwhelming “anyone but Trump” sentiment among Democratic voters.

This sentiment has been apparent since the first days of the Trump administration, when some of the largest demonstrations in U.S. history protested Trump’s inauguration. The Women’s Marches, the movement of youth against mass shootings, climate justice protests, the protests against Trump’s imprisoning of migrant children in cages at the border…all morphed from protest movements into electoral mobilizations. And while the Sanders campaign also provided an electoral outlet for grassroots opposition to Trump, it ultimately succumbed to “anyone but Trump” as well. As I recently wrote,

Sanders’ continuous assurances that defeating Trump is his highest priority have reinforced [“anyone but Trump”]. Rather than emerging in force in the general election between a non-Sanders Democrat and Trump, it asserted itself strongly in the Democratic primaries on the March 3 Super Tuesday elections. Fairly or not, Democratic primary voters—albeit with a lot of prodding from the Democratic establishment—concluded that former Vice President Joe Biden would be the best candidate to defeat Trump. The result has been landslide victories for Biden and what appears, at the time of writing (March 15), to be an extinguishing of Sanders’ hopes.

With the Sanders campaign at an end and with the COVID-19 crisis rightly dominating U.S. politics now, what balance sheet can we draw of the Sanders campaign for the left? Most of the U.S. left looked to the Sanders campaign for inspiration, including those who abandoned previous political commitments to campaign for a candidate for the Democratic presidential nomination (for example, here or here or here). So we have to ask if the left is stronger for the Sanders campaign or not?

To answer that question, it’s important to define the terms of debate and what’s meant by “the left”. At a basic level, if we judge the Sanders campaign for introducing into public dialog “left” policies like “Medicare for All” or the “Green New Deal,” this might be judged as a success, at least on the level of ideology. However, any attribution to the Sanders campaign itself should be tempered. Popular support for universal health care long preceded the Sanders campaign, and the original “Green New Deal”—in a much more radical incarnation than Sanders or AOC proposed— came from the Green Party and the activist group Science for the People.

What about the forces of “socialism”? Again, this depends on how you define “socialism.” If “socialism” is essentially understood as a reincarnation of the 1930s-1940s New Deal—as Sanders explicitly defined it—then one could say that “socialism” gained support in 2016 and 2020, and the growth of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) affirms it. But if you define socialism as workers’ control, internationalism, and mass democracy—and breaking with capitalist politics—the Sanders campaign didn’t lead on those fronts. And, at least for now, neither have Sanders’ supporters.

High profile articles in Jacobin, the unofficial ideological mouthpiece of the most coherent “Marxist” currents inside the DSA, are telling. Two by Dustin Guastella and co-authors (here and here) have made a clear case: real politics is electoral politics around “bread and butter issues,” rather than “fringe” left demands (like “Abolish ICE”), and electoral politics must only take place within the Democratic Party. Third party politics is a road to irrelevance, Guastella argues. Another contribution from former ISO member Paul Heideman explicitly counterposes electoral politics as “mass politics” to social movements (or “movementism”), arguing that the left should embrace the former and reject the latter. And electoral politics to Heideman means Democratic Party politics, justified with a specious comparison of capitalist politics to working-class activism: “After all, if there is anywhere employers have more power than the Democratic Party, it is surely the workplace, and the Left isn’t about to write off struggle in that field.”

These aren’t just random articles in the magazine, but key contributions by leading figures in the Jacobin/Catalyst enterprise. Add these to Branko Marcetic’s article purporting to offer advice to the Biden campaign, and you have an outlook that uses Marxist and socialist rhetoric to redefine “serious” politics as politics carried out through the Democratic Party, and even measured by how much radicals help to realign the DP itself. All of these writers conclude that the left doesn’t have the forces or influence to set the national political agenda (a true statement, for sure), but deploy that observation in support of continuing to pursue elections on the Democratic Party ballot line.

While written specifically about the question of Palestine in relation to the Sanders campaign, Steven Salaita’s “postmortem” on the Sanders campaign is applicable to many activists and socialists who put their eggs in Sanders’ basket, too.

You have no cause to be angry with Sanders. Not now. He hasn’t broken a single pledge. He never hid his intentions. There was plenty of reason for concern when he kept repeating liberal Zionist platitudes. It was you, not Sanders, who folded Palestine into a campaign that always promised to maintain the status quo. The outcome was easy to predict because it has many decades of precedent. Palestinians, victim of a million betrayals, should know this better than anyone. We also know that struggle has no easy trajectory. Mass movements predicated on voting make for attractive sources of relief. Then they go up in smoke and you’re left to find the next shiny figure to exploit, the next fount of excitement and pageantry and social capital. This isn’t a serious politics. It’s terminal naivete, or industrial self-promotion.

In COVID-19, the left now faces the biggest challenge in all of our lifetimes since the Depression and the Second World War. Its success, to quote Salaita, will be judged on how it is able to mobilize “the ignominious, the surplus, the unbeloved,” to assert their own demands. We have seen the beginnings of a profound—even desperate—class struggle around life-and-death matters. More, and bigger, struggles lie ahead. The left’s fate will depend more on the results of those struggles than on dozens of campaigns for socialists running as Democrats.

Courtesy International Socialism Project

Lance Selfa is the author of The Democrats: A Critical History (Haymarket, 2012) and editor of U.S. Politics in an Age of Uncertainty: Essays on a New Reality (Haymarket, 2017).