On March 2, 2019, when Bernie Sanders officially relaunched his presidential campaign, there was good reason to take seriously a political movement based around his electoral ambitions. Sanders had surprised many observers with his success in the 2016 Democratic primary, and several candidates backed by his movement and energy had won House races in the interim. Yet despite early optimism and a short period after the Nevada caucuses when Sanders was the obvious favorite, the campaign failed. Now that the left has rediscovered its pessimism about presidential politics, it is a good time to explore the ideology of the most impressive national leftist campaign in living memory. We can call this ideology—or the part of it that is not a twitchy updating of familiar social-democratic policies—Sandersism.
As background it is worth recalling that, since the 1970s, American leftists had been shambling through innumerable rallies and marches, more often than not to no apparent effect. The largest mass protests in world history, on February 15, 2003 against the Iraq War, achieved nothing. Even after Occupy Wall Street jolted the national attention onto inequality, the gilding of our age seemed simply to accelerate.
And then Bernie ran for president in 2016. An angry, wild-haired old socialist with a tense but warm smile had the microphone and was transmitting a fierce and honest diagnosis of our country’s ills. For the first time in many of our lives, one of the most important political leaders of our day was flatly criticizing America. At the heart of this diagnosis was the insight that America is an utter wreckage. The cause? Capitalism. The preeminent capitalist society, he told us, was twisted by injustice into a ruin of mass suffering.
This diagnosis of the American condition is Sandersism’s core. It is also an explicit inversion of the traditional form of American exceptionalism. America is not a shining city on the hill, a beacon to the world. It is instead a trash heap whose subterranean flames glumly flicker and yet whose fumes somehow manage to pollute the globe. America is not merely fallen; it is the devil itself. (“God damn America!”) If America is exceptional, according to Sandersism, it is exceptionally bad.
Only once we accept this premise does Sanders’s tireless barrage of policy proposals make sense: it’s not just that something has to be done, it’s that everything has to be done. Only once we accept this premise can we account for Sanders’s repeated, irked invocations of a “political revolution” in response to requests for how he would execute his policy proposals as president. If America is exceptionally evil, then parliamentary compromises are insufficient; the only solution is revolutionary transformation.
This is also why Sandersism requires a mass movement of people hacking away at this wasteland of a country, slowly willing a principle of equality into hard, geographical existence. This was the logic behind the campaign’s most well-known slogan, “Not Me, Us.” Don’t ask what a President Sanders could accomplish legislatively or administratively. Ask instead what the mass movement unleashed by the election of a President Sanders could accomplish.
This principle guided those slogging months in Iowa when Sanders rallies became forums in which people told their own stories. It was revelatory for a prominent presidential candidate to use his platform to amplify the hidden ordinary: a veteran with Huntington’s Disease who lost his health insurance, the home health aide who works sixty hours a week and still struggles to get by, barely covering the cost of gas and car maintenance. This was also the style of many of his canvassers, some of whom drew out marginalized immigrant workers to vote, nearly winning him the caucus. Not me, us… or rather, not me, but you and your story, and you and your story, and you and yours. Here. Right now. Let us all listen.
In eliciting these tragic chronicles, which gave bracing specificity to the American catastrophe, Sanders recognized the dignity and authority of each individual’s narrative. Unlike any other recent leading politician, he elevated the personal to the political. And yet the role of the personal in the movement was, too often, aesthetic or therapeutic, rather than, properly speaking, political. The portraits that emerged at the meetings became a part of Sandersism’s Boschian panorama of American life. Yes, they transformed a few people into radical political agents. But their political effect must be judged, ultimately, as disappointing. Sanders effectively tied with former management consultant Pete Buttigieg in the February caucuses. There was not even a hint of a political revolution. Within six weeks, the Sanders campaign had collapsed.
We lack a unified theory of revolution from which we can deduce necessary and sufficient conditions for mass political action. A plausible condition for a successful democratic social movement, however, is that the people involved learn to think beyond the familiar political possibilities: they no longer view the existing social, economic or political order as natural. Instead, the alternative that seemed impossible (or was even unthinkable) becomes just another social or political arrangement.
But for a democratic social movement to succeed in actually constructing this fresh alternative, participants must be willing to do more than merely imagine new systems. They must work together to overthrow the old systems and establish a new order. This requires a willingness to take risks, both individually and collectively. At the most prosaic level, this means sacrificing time with families for the sake of the revolution. But that is not all. Some may lose their jobs for the sake of the struggle. Others will lose health care or become ill. Some may suffer even worse. There were, after all, many martyrs during the rise of industrial unionism in the 1930s and the civil rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, to say nothing of those who sacrificed careers, health or family ties. If we take Sandersism seriously as a revolutionary ideology (and not merely as an electoral campaign), then we must expect it to motivate people to take the sorts of risks that have been taken in other revolutions. We must expect it to produce in people, in Sanders’s own words, “the courage to take on the powerful corporate interests whose greed is destroying the social and economic fabric of our country.”
This collective, democratic risk-taking for the sake of the common good requires a profound form of solidarity. It requires the mass discovery that the stranger is not strange, that we all share something specific and real. It involves a kind of call and response, a mutual recognition. Most of all, it requires a willingness to become newly vulnerable to significant loss and betrayal.
At his massive rally in Queens in September, Sanders asked, “Are you willing to fight for that person who you don’t even know as much as you’re willing to fight for yourself?” This oft-repeated incantation to fight for the person you don’t know expresses a beautiful ethic. But it is not enough. The sort of solidarity that elevates people to unify and sacrifice must involve more than the constant calculation and recalculation that this instance of collective action will benefit me. Instead, solidarity seems to involve a kind of plural perspective: seeing and caring as a “we” instead of as an “I.” How can this kind of solidarity be created?
According to some socialist intellectuals, this “we” can be created by the awareness of objective class interests, reliably the primary determinant of one’s political point of view. In some recent discussions of the now downwardly mobile professional-managerial class—sometimes referred to as the “PMC”—it has been suggested that such awareness is the key to the creation of a unified mass movement. The problem is that becoming aware of shared class interests does not reliably lead to the formation of mass political agency. Merely knowing that others have (at least some of) the same interests as you does not on its own generate a commitment to work collectively, much less to make personal and collective sacrifices for a shared vision of the possible. (To be clear: it might sometimes yield cohesive voting blocs, but we are talking about political revolution).
What is shared then must be more than agreement about the American hellscape. Sandersism’s constant invocations of mass immiseration offered, at best, endlessly looped visions of individual terror. This is not a vision of collective capacity. Even if enough people buy into a Hobbesian dread of living in brutish America, this will only discipline them to act collectively through the selfish desire for self-preservation. To overturn the political order and replace it with something better, we must believe we have the capacity to unify, to struggle and to succeed in the face of horrible opposition. What is required is a mass will to believe in this collective capacity, a faith that together we will succeed in transforming the country.
The stories often told in the intimate settings of Sanders campaign events brought together the true believers in the movement and moved many of them to sacrifice for the cause. But mass movements require hundreds of thousands or even millions of people thinking from the first-person plural—and to achieve this, the stories need to be shared far beyond these campaign events. They should therefore be stories of the roads we walked, where the “we” is understood in a way that constructs a broad but determinate community. Instead of being formal calls for mass politics (think of repeated invocations of “the working class” rising up), they must have what the literary critic Frederic Jameson called “concrete existential density”: temporal and geographical specificity, recognizable characters, a detail in which each person can find themselves. A politics of hope and solidarity has to enable us to say to ourselves, “Look at this part of our past, look at this history of our power: Can they really stop us? No. We are like those exceptional others who overcame. They could be us. We could be exceptional.”
The most successful American politician since the 1980s—Barack Obama—built his campaign around people coming to see specific stories of America’s redemption as their own. (“We are the ones we’ve been waiting for. We are the change that we seek.”) He understood that, in America, a campaign for change or liberation will work best if it draws on American stories, since these are the stories most likely to resonate with the millions of political actors that will bring about the change. Those of us on the left who seek justice and not domination must be careful in taking a lesson from Obama’s campaign. So the stories should not be stories of military conquest or the imperial projections of American power. Nor can they be the anodyne stories of progressing toward a “more perfect union” that were so dear to Obama and his followers.
But this does not mean the cupboard is bare. We can tell the stories of the Greensboro lunch counter sit-ins and ACT UP, of the United Farm Workers’s grape boycott and the Flint sit-down strike in the 1930s. Our heroes can be Frederick Douglass and Elizabeth Cady Stanton, Ida B. Wells and Fred Hampton. Welcome to America, home not only to anguish and desolation, but also to rebellion and revolution. These are the roads we’ve walked.
To identify with American stories of liberation and American liberatory heroes is not to sanitize America’s past and present moral disasters. To celebrate César Chávez and the UFW is at once to be outraged at the conditions that workers, and especially migrant workers, face in the U.S., and to be inspired by the capacity of both those workers and their supporters to join together and improve those conditions.
This may smack of liberal nostalgia, but it is not. For liberal nostalgia aims to obscure the moral disasters of the present by insisting we are separated from past injustice by decades of gauzy “progress.” The narratives described above, on the other hand, treat the liberatory heroes and heroisms of the past as models for overcoming present injustices. The reason to seek an exceptional history of American liberations is to fortify, inspire and prepare us for today’s and tomorrow’s struggles.
Sandersism, though, instead of correcting the imbalance of liberal nostalgia, merely inverts it. It focuses on the moral disaster to such an extent that it seems we have little alternative but to wallow in it. There is hope for a “political revolution,” but how on earth will it emerge? Sanders only knows.
Neither liberal nostalgia nor Sandersism offers us adequate tools to become the agents of our own liberation. That would require showing how that capacity is our capacity and not either the capacity of some Moses figure from the distant past (FDR or MLK) or of some imaginary people of the future (when the readers of Jacobin are more numerous than the viewers of CNN). For a mass American movement today, at least one that has a robust electoral component, the liberatory road is necessarily an American road and hence a road of American exceptionalism. What else could it be?
Sanders, with his repeated invocations of how advanced northern European states are, offered one alternative. “Let’s talk about what goes on in countries like Denmark,” Bernie recommended during debates. But very few in the debate-watching audience have any connection to Denmark or its history. We might see the Danish system as proof that such things as universal health care and free college are possible here in America. But repeated appeals to how they do it over there do not paint a vision of political power here. If anything, it is effective only as a tragic invocation of failure, which leaves us with a sense of our powerlessness and incompetence—of what we could not achieve.
Sandersism seems allergic to funneling historic energy from the past to the present. Its political memory could not travel roads that went further back than that thrilling 2016 campaign, except perhaps to 2011’s Occupy movement. Nor could it attach itself to any political organization or collectivity. Even though Sanders was competing in the Democratic primary, he made the party itself one of his main opponents.
To be sure, today’s Democratic Party offers a target-rich environment for Sandersism. The party elites showed blatant favoritism toward Hillary Clinton in 2016. And, in recent decades, it has too often rushed to assist the rich and dragged its feet to defend the poor. Yet we should not allow this to obscure the party’s capability to do good. Why couldn’t Sanders call on his supporters to find something in the party to love, if not in its present then in its past?
For all their massive failings, both Lyndon B. Johnson and Robert F. Kennedy—men who came from opposite poles of the party—objected loudly to poverty. Both blamed it on structural forces they believed the Democratic Party ought to fight to eliminate. Remarkable Democratic politicians like Shirley Chisholm and Bella Abzug challenged hierarchies, and often won those challenges, before Sanders even began his political career. Democratic members of Congress Barbara Lee and Ron Dellums were at least as much the consciences of the House as Sanders was in the 1990s and early 2000s. These Democratic politicians can all be criticized. They all came up short in myriad ways. But the Sanders campaign’s demand was that we see only imperfections, and so see the Democratic Party as rotten root and branch.
This is not a call for the left to embrace jingoistic patriotism. There are also reasons to be cautious about the fictionalization and hero worship required for mass political agency. Stories of the glorious past have been used to conceal continued injustices or to demobilize the oppressed, and a progressive movement built around a simplistic nationalist mythology risks deteriorating into fascism. Yet a left that insists on static and anonymous narratives—ones with characters that lack any meaning for the people who are supposed to fill the ranks of the movement—is a left that never fully launches itself out of the seminar room. Sandersism’s failure has been, in part, the failure to find a space between cruelly exclusionary narratives and a demobilizing, deracinated ideology.
Perhaps socialism’s theoretical embrace of internationalism—which was rarely put into action when socialists were fighting for actual political power—has made its adherents suspicious of patriotic constructions of “the people.” But the democratic element in democratic socialism points in the other direction. Sandersism is an ideology of national—not international—political revolution. Its primary vehicles, Bernie Sanders the candidate and all the down-ballot Sandersist candidates, needed the votes of Americans, not northern European workers or South African trade unionists.
Ultimately, the democratic movement-building required by Sandersism and whatever follows it depends upon our capacity to cultivate a leftist American exceptionalism. This exceptionalism must be grounded in stories, not browbeating demands that people see the hard material truth. Indeed, the hard material truth is what must be transcended, although not abandoned, through these narratives. Call it ideology, or just call it myth: the goal is to cultivate a reasonable, non-chauvinistic love for America and all Americans—a love capable of establishing commonality across difference, of promoting the patience and honesty required for organizing, of nourishing the tired and encouraging the timid. A robust democratic left, following the death of Sanders’s presidential ambitions, cannot flourish without it.
Image credit: Lorie Schaull (Flickr/CC BY)