How Do We Keep It Berning?

Kate Raphael
Mar 25 · 7 min read

I started working on this piece three weeks ago. I didn’t want to post it while my friends were still working on Bernie’s campaign. Now I wonder if it’s the right thing to be writing about. I’m not sure what people have bandwidth for, and I know some people are still holding out hope that Bernie will rise from the ashes. I don’t want to be a wet blanket, but I also don’t want to lose the momentum of the campaign season as we transition to crisis intervention. So here are some thoughts — take them as you will, read them or don’t read them, respond or don’t respond, argue or don’t argue. I welcome debate — not only is that how I refine my thinking, but it’s how I stay entertained and engaged in a time when I feel increasingly discouraged.

As a Warren/Sanders supporter, I was disappointed in Elizabeth Warren when she didn’t endorse Bernie. And Julián Castro and Andrew Yang and my Facebook friends who disparaged Bernie. I know some of you were disappointed in me for preferring Warren to Bernie.

Ultimately, none of that does any good. Warren isn’t the reason Bernie lost. I won’t say her support in the first days after Super Tuesday might not have breathed new life into Sanders’ campaign, because maybe it could have. But the writing was pretty well on the wall the minute Klobuchar and Buttigieg dropped out because, all along, Bernie and Warren together did not have majority support. And especially, they did not have strength among African American voters.

Voters. As Rev. William Barber and Keeanga-Yamatta Taylor point out, the majority of Black people and the majority of poor people, didn’t vote this year, just as they have not voted in all recent elections.

You can’t blame that on Warren, or even on Biden. You are welcome to blame it on “the Democrats,” but what does that mean and who are those Democrats? Ultimately, it’s on us. The broad “us” who want to see a better society and a better country and a better world. No matter whom we supported, or whether we participated in the campaigns, no matter what labels we use for our beliefs, no matter what kind of work we prioritize, we KNOW it requires organizing the unorganized. And despite the tremendous efforts of so many people, we failed to accomplish that. Again.

Bernie’s campaign was an experiment. It was an experiment in bringing the tools of grassroots radical organizing to mainstream national electoral politics. It was an experiment in talking openly about socialism in the post-Cold War era. We’re usually taught about science in the same way we are taught about history, as a series of great discoveries by great men (and a very few women) accomplished out of thin air — poof, someone puts some mold in a test tube of polio virus and penicillin is discovered (it was actually staph, BTW). But we know that’s not what happens. Experiments provide data, which then are used to create new tests, which provide more data, which eventually yield results that are then refined into a method which is used until it fails and then we analyze that failure and generate more data.

If the Bernie Experiment is going to help move us toward a more humane society, we need to analyze what actually happened, rather than spinning it into what we thought was happening or wanted to be happening.

Elections can be brutal. But they are also the best way we have to assess our strength. My recent musings led me back to a book I wasn’t so sure I liked when I first read it, No Shortcuts, by Jane McAlevey. McAlevey, a union organizer and political consultant, uses a number of examples to support an argument that nothing is as effective in changing social policy as a traditional union drive. She’s dismissive, in ways I find sometimes overstated, of “mobilizing” tactics like rallies, protest, and social media. She says it’s basically irrelevant how many Twitter followers you have, or how many people come to your rallies, if they don’t vote yes when it counts. I argue that it’s not irrelevant, that those other forms of activity count in other ways and we need all different types of strategy and tactics. But as this election has gone on, I have thought frequently about her emphasis on “the yes/no question,” as people argued, against the evidence of election days, that Bernie really was winning based on turnout for his rallies. (Full disclosure, on March 11, McAlevey wrote that Sanders is the only one who can beat Trump and can still win the nomination. Not sure how she sees that happening.)

Unfortunately, our political system doesn’t count the people who turn out for rallies. It counts the votes cast at the polls. It might not be fair, but it’s probably fairer than counting attendees at rallies. In some states — such as Virginia, where turnout jumped nearly 70% over 2016 — senior and disabled voters could vote online until 7 pm on election day. I would call that more inclusive than having to show up at a particular time on a particular day and stand in line to get into a stadium or fairgrounds.

Though the larger field enabled mainstream media to proclaim that Sanders’ support dropped dramatically from 2016, closer examination belies that conclusion. In many contests, he increased his support, but not enough to counter the heightened enthusiasm of the “Beat Trump” Democratic base. He started with somewhere around 20% of Democrats in January 2019, and ended with about 30% in March 2020. His gains with Latinx and young voters were unprecedented, and bode well for the future since those are the two fastest-growing sectors. But he also lost some supporters he had in 2016: for every Cynthia Nixon, there was a Symone Sanders.

The Sanders campaign clearly had a huge impact on the terms of debate. Policies that were seen as fringe a few years ago now have wide mainstream support and are (or were, before COVID) already starting to be enacted, from $15+ minimum wage to free college to pro-unionization legislation. One path forward for leftists is to focus on those kinds of issue-oriented campaigns and take a step back from candidate races that can too easily get reduced to “likability,” “charisma,” love by association, and simple name recognition. I would urge people to do that, as Jamelle Bouie does, rather than what might be tempting: hoping Biden lives up to our direst predictions.

This is a good time and a bad time to be transitioning. On one hand, every single thing we knew about politics may be about to change. For sure, we are about to find out just how badly capitalism handles a prolonged climate-caused disaster. Already, the right wing is promoting some policies they were sneering at two months ago — universal basic income? Paid sick leave and free child care for every worker?. It remains to be seen what actually happens, and I’m certainly not expecting them to actually reach people who right now can’t even get a tube of toothpaste or a bag lunch, but we should be thinking about how we respond if some positive things do come along with martial law. Can we find a way to separate the baby from the bath water? Should we?

Before COVIDapocalypse, I would have said that every local organizer with the Bernie campaign should immediately plan a follow-up event no more than two weeks after they wrap up their campaign, whenever that turns out to be. I would have said we should call and text everyone who worked on Bernie’s campaign locally to invite them to our closing event, send reminder texts and emails, and at those events, get people signed up for some new campaign — protecting historic tenants, pushing for universal health care in our states, electing a progressive slate to city or county council, flipping a Congressional seat or supporting a progressive who beat out a conservative incumbent.

Now, I honestly don’t know. I don’t believe we can just substitute online events for real-world ones. Online meetings are good for sharing information or keeping in touch with people you already know, but I don’t see them building community among disparate people. On the other hand, even Facebook can build community when it’s used properly. And without a lot of flexibility and creative use of new media tools, the possibility of democracy could be the #1 casualty of this pandemic.

The big advantage is that capital and the right wing don’t know how to navigate these waters either. That shows in the way they are changing course every day and claiming our ideas as theirs. They have more money (a lot more) but we have the digital natives who are really comfortable with online organizing. I think we need to be flexible enough not to reject out of hand good things that bad people do, while figuring out creative ways to focus attention on the nefarious underside of their schemes. (I wrote that before they started promoting death panels; not hard to get ears on that!)

The People’s Bailout, a broad framework for comprehensive and equitable relief, put forth by a coalition of progressive, liberal and radical organizations, seems like a great first step. And this is a wonderful way to publicize it:

People’s Bailout Demands as a five-story banner
People’s Bailout Demands as a five-story banner

But I also think that for many of us, the political frameworks we grew up on not only aren’t made for pandemics, they weren’t made for the political realities of the last forty years. The current collapse just makes that more obvious. For those of us not in a position to help create structures to meet the immediate needs of our communities, this is a good opportunity for a regenerative, measured think break. It’s a good time to read, reflect and strategize with each other about what it will really take to turn this sick world around.

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