The people are growing tired of Bernie Sanders. If you’re engaged in politics beyond biased online communities, the progressive icon’s status has gone from historic heights in 2018 to critical lows in 2020, recently soiling his so-called political revolution by surrendering the Democratic Primary to former Vice President Joe Biden without demanding unity concessions. As leftists prepare to survive this brave new world, powerless in the face of a global crisis, it appears his ideological offspring like New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez see the movement must move beyond the success or failures of one man.
Last month, Politico released a controversial article describing how AOC was aiming to “lead the left” in this novel post-Bernie world, describing a tactical decision to “work within the system” of Capitol Hill as a savvy political insurgent. These methods include the establishment of her own progressive PAC Courage to Change, the firing of outspoken progressive employees such as her former chief of staff Saikat Chakrabarti and former communications director Corbin Trent, describing House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) as the party’s “mama bear”, as well as neglecting rising activists who are following in her footsteps by primarying Democratic incumbents. Thus far, AOC has only endorsed “safe choices” such as Jessica Cisneros in Texas and Marie Newman in Illinois, two Justice Democrats taking on conservative Democrats who oppose abortion rights. Everyone else, however, just hasn’t caught her political capital.
In fairness, her goal doesn’t seem to be slighting Sanders supporters, but rather the creation of a newly tactical left that can actually enact change. AOC’s PAC has received over 4,600 donations with $15 averages, tweeting this is meant to be a grassroots rival to the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee (DCCC), an establishment fundraising arm of the party notorious for trying to screw leftist candidates, firms, bills, and movements out of gaining influence. Thus far, no dark money ties have been exposed within the AOC camp. “We’re paving a different path,” her campaign wrote in a fundraising email. “The DCCC has been an entrenched tool in a system that blocks working-class candidates from running for office, and protects out of touch incumbents.”
Bernie is also a critic of the DCCC, corruption and big-money PACs, but has been previously caught underpaying his union staff below the famous $15 wage he promises and has his own dark money group, Our Revolution, which raised similar averages but also accumulated undisclosed six-figure sums with “nearly $1 million from donors who gave more than the [legal] limits,” according to tax filings received by the Associated Press. The reason Bernie gets away with Our Revolution’s dealings, while AOC gets scrutiny, is they’re actually a non-profit raising unlimited sums to elect progressives, not a PAC raising limited sums to elect progressives… which is effectively a distinction without a difference (if not worse).
PACs forbid federal officeholders or candidates to “solicit, receive, direct, transfer, or spend funds” for an electoral activity that exceeds the “limitations, prohibitions, and reporting requirements” of the law. It’s currently $2,800 sum per candidate and $5,000 for political action committees. Non-profits, no different than super PACs, have no obligation to disclose their donors and can raise unlimited funds. Paco Fabian, a spokesperson for Our Revolution, clarified the only difference is they use the money for “things like organizing and phone banks and canvassing voters on issues that matter,” not advertisements, which isn’t actually an argument disproving the potentially unethical campaign influence. The same rules of ethics enforcement, even for good political tactics, must apply. To once again steal a quote from Trotsky, “the end may justify the means as long as there is something that justifies the end.”
Furthermore, Bernie is also notorious for withholding his support of leftists and workers in the critical moment, particularly if it affects him personally or incumbents within the party. We can look to his refusal to endorse Tim Canova, the Florida progressive who ran a key 2018 mid-term race against Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, the former DNC chair who resigned in disgrace following biased involvement against Bernie’s campaign during the 2016 primary, as exposed by Wikileaks. He recently withdrew an endorsement for Cenk Uygur, the California progressive pundit turned candidate after baseless smears of “bestiality apologetics”. He fired a gay staffer over leaked jokes mocking candidates on his own private Twitter account. Bernie didn’t even endorse AOC during her own race against former Rep. Joe Crowley, the supposed right-hand man of Pelosi. If there is one man who knows his fair share of political inaction, it’s Bernie Sanders.
Politico is wrong to frame AOC and Bernie as playing an insider versus outsider game, when it’s rather a shift between adept versus inept strategy to reach a higher goal. After all, if this weren’t the case, it‘d be more apt to say Bernie effectively ran Biden’s campaign more so than his own, propping up Joe’s central message that he’s “a good friend” who “can beat Trump” and bending the knee to his campaign with an unconditional endorsement where unified voters are just “irresponsible”. In contrast, AOC argues “it’s legitimate to discuss” the Biden sexual assault allegations made by Tara Reade, both on moral substance and political praxis, all the while arguing Biden should meet her conditions to gain not only her vote but her actual support. “Unity isn’t a feeling,” AOC said this week on ABC’s The View. “It’s a process and I think that Biden can go further.”
According to The Guardian, Biden is now “considering policy overtures” in order to court necessary progressive leaders like AOC, a highly popular figure known for representing the young, progressive voters of color, which are necessary to win in November. From this, we see that AOC, not Bernie, is willing to wield some of her power against her own party’s nominee to effect meaningful change, even if her efforts are theatrical media games. This argument can be made without falling into the brain-worm cultism of #BernieOrBust, an accelerationist trap where all arguments for Biden are unfalsifiable conjecture and ad hominem attacks made by those unwilling to even meet at the table. Everyone else, on the other hand, is either convinced by a neglectful Biden or demand terms recognized by negotiation. Even if it’s right, being “Not Trump” is just not effective reasoning to get the worried masses to vote.
In this unprecedented moment of turmoil, people are growing desperate for leadership in their institutions. This isn’t to say AOC, representing New York’s communities hardest hit by the coronavirus pandemic, is an angel in this regard. The two progressives share their silence on the highly controversial stimulus package, The CARES Act, which transferred anywhere between $2 to $6 trillion in federal wealth towards corporations and executives. According to Brown University economist Mark Blyth, most of the subsidized industries covered by the bill are known for not actually needing the money or paying federal taxes, such as airlines and cruise ships. Although AOC went on the floor of Congress and accurately described the bill as “one of the largest corporate bailouts, with as few strings as possible, in American history,” she actually withdrew her previous support for delaying the bill if there was no recorded vote, according to her own comments given to CNN.
Keep in mind this anonymous vote was a decision made by Pelosi, not the Republicans, who swept their votes under the rug. Neither AOC or Bernie criticized their party’s speaker for her blatant corporate prostitution, opting to bite their tongue and yield their populist leverage in submission. Reports suggesting the two progressives voted against the bill remain largely unverified, relying solely on statements provided after the fact by their own office staff. Even though both figures have failed on being consistent insurgents on this pivotal decision — which shall be a stain on their record for years to come — there’s no denying the distinctions in their approach across the board. The left is not excused from holding their representatives accountable to their own standards, even if some naturally adhere more than others. And should they fail, of course, it’s time to cut losses and… progress.
From all this, I’m reminded of articles published by Sean Culleton, my colleague at TrigTent who twice predicted that Bernie Sanders was never going to the 2020 Democratic nominee. In his latest piece, discussing how “the future of the left is wide open” for new leadership, we’re given insight into the current autopsies being conducted on his failed presidential bid. We’re given both the liberal narrative of “tactical errors” which lead to alienation among southern Black democratic loyalists and the so-called silent majority who didn’t respond to the political revolution, as well as the progressive narrative of doubling-down on class solidarity in a post-Bernie world. These narratives don’t necessarily contradict one another. They actually coexist in a weird intersectional framework, like two movies playing on the same screen where everyone walks away with a different point of view. The job of the candidate is to somehow piece together the narrative for them, as Trump did through his unfiltered Twitter account.
These autopsies miss the wider point put succinctly by Culleton: “The rise of Trumpian politics is not the dawning of a new era in American politics, but an aberration that must be corrected… the truth is that Americans are scared. We are feeling risk-averse right now. Fear is a powerful motivator, powerful enough to overcome hope, contrary to what Obama would have us believe. Biden, like Trump, is a candidate of fear, and Americans are scared. For all of his grouchiness, Sanders is the candidate of hope right now. That is why he [lost] the race for the Democratic nomination. By labeling Biden the candidate of fear, I meant that he is the candidate that Americans who are afraid of the future will choose… Biden is offering a vision of a recognizable, comfortable, Obama-era normalcy that appeals to vast swathes of the Democratic base as well as many disillusioned conservatives. After 4 years of chaos, Biden is not offering radical change.”
“What certainly will not happen,” Culleton continues, “is what the liberals hope for: that the socialists will retreat back into American subcultural oblivion. Many Democratic party loyalists are breathing sighs of relief because they mistakenly believe this strange socialist monster has been vanquished. They believe this in part because they mistakenly think that Bernie Sanders has built a personality cult around himself that has no substance to it. ‘Cut the rose from its stem and the plant dies,’ is their working theory. But what they do not realize is that Bernie Sanders has already won the future of Leftist politics.”
This can be demonstrated in poll after poll showing Medicare For All is a vastly popular policy, even among Biden’s own voters. Bernie himself used his concession speech to acknowledge “we won the ideological battle, but failed to win on electability”. And it’s not like the warning signs of his poor messaging weren’t there. Since early polls in 2019 to post-game analysis in 2020, it was clear the number one concern among voters, particularly in key states like Michigan, was not who was the most ideologically pure on policy, but who can actually beat Trump and return America to so-called normalcy. As such, leftist values need not change to win such elections; it’s the kind of populism behind them that must adapt to the sentiment of that time, which is why the political revolution of 2016 doesn’t work in the fearful 2020 world craving for an FDR. This flexible appeal is where AOC has modern political know-how beyond Bernie’s ineptitude.
“It’s clear there’s significant Democratic support for a single-payer system,” argues Sean McElwee, the progressive activist who coined AOC’s popular slogan of #AbolishICE. “But voters were voting based on who was perceived as electable, and Medicare for All received significant amounts of negative earned media that made it seem like a problem. I think a candidate who embraced Medicare for All could defeat Trump, because Medicare is popular, and people understand the intuitive goal of expanding it to all Americans. But there was never much effort to explain what exactly it was. Was it an ideal? Was it a plan? What was the theory of the case for how would it be passed and implemented? This was an electability election, defined by competence and the ability to move an agenda, and voters didn’t believe progressives could do that.”
“Again,” he continues, “I think the first thing the left and Biden need to understand is that the progressive agenda isn’t just a mobilization agenda; it can be a persuasion agenda. There are core groups with progressive voters but also persuadable voters. A lot of young independents and Republicans who pulled the lever for Trump in 2016 are worried about core elements of Trump’s agenda, especially climate change. I think a strong climate agenda that emphasizes job creation, as well as equity issues, can be a central element of a persuasion agenda. And remember, not all African Americans and Latinos are Democrats. We need to hit those voters with compelling messages that fit with their lived experiences, and a focus on environmental justice and clean water and clean air can be very persuasive.”
“If you had to boil it down to one problem,” he concludes, “it was the belief the Sanders people articulated early on that in a big field, they could win the nomination with 30 percent of the vote. You know, elections tend to be won with 50 percent of the vote. If you’re not even trying to attract 50 percent to your vision, it leads to this view that you don’t need to persuade anyone, you just need to lock in the base and mobilize new voters. That’s setting yourself up for failure. It’s inspired some very pernicious thinking in the progressive world: ‘Those people who don’t believe what we believe, we can’t win them, so fuck them.’ The Democratic Party is a coalition party with five partners: African American groups, Latino groups, women’s groups, unions, and progressive groups. If you’re only one of five factions, maybe one-fourth of the party, you should only expect to win about one-fourth or one-fifth of the victories. You need to work with other groups in the coalition to achieve political success. Sometimes you’ll win, sometimes you’ll lose, that’s how life works. Ocasio-Cortez has figured that out, but not all progressives have.”