The Sanders Campaign, A Social Movement Disguised As a Presidential Bid

Steve Sherman Apr 12, 2016


I attended the Bernie Sanders rally in Midwood, Brooklyn, on April 8. The rally was held on the block Bernie grew up on, but this is not why I found it moving.

His stump speech, while brief, struck me as quite important. Two things stood out. First, he didn’t use phrases like “President Sanders will never…” “On day one in office I will…” “And I promise you…” The standard phrasing of presidential candidate stump speeches. Instead, he said things like “All major countries guarantee all their citizens access to healthcare. We need to as well, “ and “A college education is like what a high school diploma used to be. So we need to make public higher education free.”

He was not making promises so much as laying out an agenda we could all fight for, including, but by no means only, by voting for him. In fact, he said something like “change always comes from the grassroots. It can’t be top down.” He went on to speak about a number of social movements–workers fighting for unions, civil rights, women’s suffrage and expansion of job opportunities, gay marriage, fight for fifteen.

Although Sanders is often accused, not without some justification, of overemphasizing economic inequality, he in no way suggested that those struggles which might be seen as being struggles against “the millionaires and billionaires” were more important than those which might not be. He simply mentioned each as an example of the power of people to come together and force change. He also used phrasing like “women and their male allies,” “gay people and their straight allies”–in other words, he emphasized that struggles involve building coalitions across the lines that divide us.

His emphasis on grassroots change and social movements was entirely appropriate. In a sense, the Sanders campaign is a social movement disguised as a presidential bid, one which, miraculously has a chance to catapult its leader into the presidency, albeit that at this writing, about a week away from the New York primary, this remain a very long shot.

No matter. If Bernie Sanders were to declare tomorrow that he needed to suspend his campaign due to health reasons, it would still be the case that this social movement has accomplished a great deal, and provides much to build on in the near future.

The Sanders campaign is basically a reassertion of the liberal wing of the Occupy movement, on a much larger scale. The core of Occupy (and, in one city, Oakland, the dominant force) was anarchists, but the larger crowds attracted had a mainly liberal streak–anger that expressed itself in demands like “tax the rich” and “healthcare for all” without necessarilly calling for an end to capitalism. This is the stream of thought that is reasserting itself through the Sanders campaign.

Anarchists are largely absent. I state this only as fact, not to impugn anyone. I think calls for direct democracy remain quite relevant, and I suspect they will reemerge soon enough. But the Sanders campaign is distinguished by the forceful assertion of “liberal” demands to reform capitalism. In fact, his platform might be seen as one response to the inability of Occupy to properly formulate demands.

I remember hearing Ralph Nader estimate that about 350,000 participated in Occupy demonstrations and encampments nationwide. That sounds about right to me. I suspect more people have attended Bernie Sanders’ rallies, since he has held many many rallies over the last year, most seeming to attract at least 3,000, often more like 7 or 8,000. And of course, voting for Sanders is a way to participate in this movement if you can’t make it to a rally. Probably somewhere around 13 million people will do that before this is over. Ironically, labor unions and related groups warmed up to Occupy fairly quickly, notwithstanding the anarchist and sometimes anti-capitalist rhetoric around the movement. By contrast, most unions have avoided the Sanders campaign. I suspect it will be possible to pull many in in the future, as political calculations shift.

Claims that Sanders’ platform would’ve once been that of a mainstream Democrat or even a liberal Republican strike me as largely missing the point. His platform constitutes a dramatic reversal of the political common-sense dominant in the Democratic Party (let alone the Republicans) for at least twenty years. Obama, who in some ways was more recognizably liberal than Bill Clinton, always sought reforms with one eye on his financial backers and another on the sort of consultants who smother all enterprises in the US, public and private, profit and non-profit. Obamacare is precisely the sort of result of this mentality.

Sanders overturns this in favor of a simple reassertion of the potential of a public sphere, not public/private partnerships, market driven solutions, etc. It's a mentality that blasts through the notion that people must be “nudged” with “incentives” to make better judgments. Instead, it insists on the fundamental fairness of sharing the wealth via redistribution. However limited the policy proposals, which I personally think would be a very good start, it is a very different mentality than has been spoken in places like presidential races in a long time, at least by candidates giving the favorite a run for her money.

Many in Occupy believed that the truth of their critique of the 1% would overwhelm existing divisions within the 99%. They were quickly disabused of this notion, at least to some extent, by groups like the People of Color Working Group. There is also a parallel here with the Sanders campaign, when the euphoria of a candidate denouncing the millionaires and billionaires was interrupted by Black Lives Matters, who were unconvinced his platform would be sufficient given the realities of police and other racialized and structural violence they face. Sanders has incorporated a certain amount of anti-racial rhetoric into his speeches since then, although there wasn’t too much in the remarks in Midwood. His statements echoing Black Lives Matters demands to “say her name,” and his highlighting of mass unemployment have been made in front of scores of crowds, usually largely white people, who typically loudly applaud these statements. It is a small, but significant step forward in the constitution of an anti-racist liberal constituency.

Similarly with a number of other issues. He doesn’t want to emphasize foreign policy, obviously, but he, and some of his surrogates like Tulsi Gabbard (who I think has been over hastily trashed by the left, but leave that for another day), have continued to highlight Clinton’s support for the Iraq War as a touchstone in the search for a less war oriented foreign policy. His criticisms of Israel aren’t sufficient for supporters of the BDS movement, and they should continue to fight for their principles, but he is also the first candidate in some time to forcefully denounce illegal settlements and call for justice for the Palestinians. The point here isn’t to lionize him. Instead I would suggest that any thought Bernie Sanders may have entertained that he could ignore such issues or perhaps lean a little right so as to minimize controversy and retain the focus on economics runs into the reality that too much of his base would be angered by such maneuvers.

I still think, barring a miracle, it is unlikely Sanders will win the nomination. Nevertheless, the social movement constituted around his campaign is a magnificent moment in US culture and politics. It is based on a number of factors outside of his (or our) control–the lousy prospects for young people, college educated or not, the demise of the “Silent Majority” into the “Trump Minority” (hope I’m right here!)–but it was the campaign that made it all visible, and made people aware of just how much potential there is in coming together and fighting.


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