met Bernie Sanders in the late 1980s when he was a visiting fellow at
Harvard University still contemplating his political future. We had
lunch, and I spoke with him about my concern that leftists and
progressives had little in the way of an electoral strategy, and that
it would be useful for someone like him to help convene a gathering to
look at the big picture.
lunch was great. Sanders was interesting and approachable, and we
talked for quite a while. He went on to make history in his own
way, but he never did convene a gathering of leftists for a serious
talk about strategy. After reading Harry Jaffe’s Why Bernie Sanders Matters, I have a clearer sense why.
book is accessible and — leaving aside its liberal orientation and
various glaring mistakes (e.g., suggesting that Stalin formed the USSR
after World War II) — well worth reading.
Sanders as a complicated figure who shies away from discussions about
his personal life or history. This is unfortunate, because it makes it
much more difficult for an outsider to grasp who Sanders is and what
motivates him. But what is very clear, and well demonstrated by Jaffe,
is that Sanders has been relatively consistent in his political message since the beginning of his career.
Sanders describes himself as a “democratic socialist,” Jaffe correctly
characterizes his political practice or reality as more akin to a left
populism. That’s not necessarily a criticism; Sanders’s left-populism
has gotten him through difficult battles and won him some significant
Jaffe’s discussion of Sanders’s campaign for the Burlington mayoralty
and his initial months in office makes the book worth reading all by
itself. There was little expectation of victory; Sanders ran an
unorthodox campaign against a machine; and then won in an atmosphere
where his political opponents wanted to cut his throat.
Sanders persisted and was successful in building what
could be described as a “ruling coalition,” in which he was seen as a
champion of the people. But Sanders was also restless and wanted to
take his political vision to the national stage. He did. Sanders ran
seven successful congressional races, won a Senate seat in 2006, and
was then reelected in 2012.
success of the Sanders presidential campaign in motivating masses of
people has many explanations, but his integrity and consistency of
message are two of the most cited. Sanders is seen as someone who
fights for what he believes in and, as Jaffe points out, in his various
political altercations with Republicans, has come off as a
hard fighter. Yet this hasn’t made his political opponents dismiss
him — even his sometime-friends in the Democratic Party, some of whom
Jaffe says consider Sanders standoffish and unwilling to compromise.
Even they never doubted his principles.
campaign message — particularly about the need for what he calls a
“political revolution” and his emphasis on economic injustice — is also
appealing, but is far from new. He has emphasized these themes time and
again throughout his political career. The only change is that, to
paraphrase his close assistant, Phil Fiermonte, it seems the world has
come to see things as Sanders does.
is a fruitful comparison to be made between Sanders’s campaign and
Jesse Jackson’s presidential campaigns in 1984 and 1988. Like Jackson,
Sanders has positioned himself as the champion of the underdog — the
champion of those being stepped on by the wealthy. But as Jaffe’s
book shows, there are also problems in Sanders’s otherwise inspiring
presidential campaign that can be better understood by looking back at
the Jackson campaigns.
From almost the beginning of his political career, Sanders has surrounded himself with a very small group of associates — including his wife —
who have been described as his “family.” For the most part, these
confidantes are people from or living in Vermont and, as best I can
tell, all white. Jaffe notes that when Sanders started thinking
seriously about his presidential campaign, these confidantes supported
the decision but only if he was running to win. He promised that he was.
point is interesting because the Sanders campaign, at least in the
beginning, did not appear to be running to win at all but rather acting
more like a pressure group focusing largely on one issue (economic
inequality). By comparison, the two Jackson campaigns — which were the
most significant in my lifetime and saw a major role played by the Left
— sought to win from the beginning, even if Jackson had no
expectation of succeeding.
established what can best be described as “base areas” in various
social movements and spoke out on issues specific to those social
movements. As a result, he became an acknowledged champion. Jackson
could speak with white farmers in Kansas, Latino activists in
California, a racially mixed group of auto workers in Missouri, and an
entirely black Christian congregation in Birmingham without missing a
beat or failing to speak to the issues with which they were grappling.
There was a place in the campaign for activists arising out of the
movements of the dispossessed, and the campaign was looking for people
ready and willing to work.
Sanders campaign, by contrast, has focused almost exclusively on its
specific take on economic injustice, and much like the Obama 2008
campaign, gaining entry into the upper or even middle levels of the
campaign for supportive activists is far more difficult than in
Jackson’s 1988 campaign.
also has a laser-like focus and steers most public discussions back to
matters of political corruption and economic inequality. While he can
and will speak about other issues, such as foreign policy, or more
recently race, these are topics with which he seems less comfortable.
He treats them almost as a distraction from the key problems plaguing
has a history with the Civil Rights Movement and is a committed
antiracist at a practical level, but for the most part race (as well as
gender) appear to him matters that will be resolved by addressing
economy injustice. Sanders sees in common economic demands a means to
unify and avoid touching the tripwire of US politics: race. For the
senator, economic reforms that benefit the poor and economically
crushed will, ipso facto, benefit people of color and thus, there is
apparently no need to fixate on them.
is an orientation that resembles the position of many of the old
figures of the early twentieth-century Socialist Party of America that
Sanders admires. But it’s an approach that has been refuted by the
practice of the actual class and democratic struggles in the United
States. Attempting to paper over race simply does not work and
while, admittedly, it is a difficult path in confronting racist
oppression, there is no basis to believe that it can be ignored. In
fact, avoiding race and racist oppression generally results in a
Ta-Nehisi Coates spoke to some of these points in a recent article,
which ended on a telling note: “My hope was to talk to Sanders
directly, before writing this article,” Coates wrote. “I reached out
repeatedly to his campaign over the past three days. The Sanders
campaign did not respond.”
complaint is echoed by Jaffe, who argues that Sanders has difficulty
dealing with people who disagree with him. This, I am afraid, could be
a major flaw. While it is true that we are accustomed to arrogant and
dismissive politicians, it is also the case that we, correctly, set a
higher standard for those who are self-described progressives or
leftists. We assume that they will accept the reality of difference and
will offer a larger tent.
is not clear, after reading Jaffe, that this conclusion can be arrived
at with regard to Senator Sanders. His passionate, intense belief
system might very well be his undoing if it gets in the way of his
willingness to hear alternative points of view that come from beyond
his inner circle.
about these things as I read Jaffe brought me back to my long-ago lunch
with Sanders. When I asked whether he would play a role in convening a
meeting of left and progressive electoral activists to discuss
strategy, he declined. What becomes clear in reading Jaffe is that
Sanders is not the sort of person to convene such a discussion.
is not an organization builder. He is more of a movement
leader. He seeks to speak for the dispossessed but is not someone who
seeks to forge a collective strategy. He wants to be the champion
of those who are being crushed by the juggernaut of capitalism, but
it’s up to others to convene the big gatherings.
a tossup whether Sanders would even attend such a meeting, but through
his campaigns, many — though certainly not all — of the issues that
must be addressed and which speak to masses of people have been
highlighted in a manner rarely seen in US politics.
So we need Sanders. But we also need a social movement that rebuilds the Left much more, a point with which Sanders would —
and has — agreed. The assembly that I requested that Sanders call still
needs to be convened. Even with a Sanders campaign, let alone a Sanders
presidency, without a national progressive electoral strategy committed
to fighting all forms of exploitation and oppression, the Right will
This is our challenge. And we have our work cut out for us.
This commentary was originally published by Jacobin