Over the past 48 hours, the Bernie Sanders campaign has all but eclipsed its own message. Like the antiwar movement of the 1960s—whence I came—a small group of its activists have themselves become the story, supplanting Sanders’s powerful critique of economic elites and the sway they hold over our politics. The issues that Bernie has so forcefully highlighted have been shunted to the background; the Bros have taken center stage.
We’ve seen this all before. By the late 1960s, most Americans had turned against the Vietnam War, but the extremism of a small share of the antiwar activists, and their proclivity for violent confrontations, turned millions of Americans even more decidedly against the protestors—a backlash that gave the Nixon administration the political space to continue the war for four more years.
This year, Americans have flocked to Sanders’s banner in numbers vastly exceeding any that a radical critic of capitalism has ever been able to claim. His indictment of Wall Street has resonated across the political spectrum; his proposals to break up the big banks, raise the minimum wage to $15, create tuition-free public colleges, and drive a wedge between the financial sector and elected officials have won wide acclaim, and enabled him to secure more than 40 percent of the votes in this year’s Democratic primaries and caucuses.
But now, what is arguably the most successful left campaign in the nation’s history stands in danger of being undone by an infantile fraction of its own supporters. The threats of violence, the shouting down of such lifelong liberals as Barbara Boxer, and the growing desire of some in the campaign, both on its periphery and at its core, to walk away from the real prospect of building left power by refusing to work with allies and potential allies in the Democratic Party—all these now threaten the campaign’s potential to bring lasting change to American politics.
I write this as a strong Sanders supporter (albeit one who never thought he could win the nomination), as a lifelong democratic socialist (indeed, for some years, Bernie and I were probably the two most out-of-the-closet socialists in D.C.) who’s been astounded and thrilled by Sanders’s success so far in pushing the national and Democratic discourse to the left. I write this with the hope that the Sanders legions can come out of this election year with the networks and organizations that can reshape the American economic and political order—bolstering workers’ power, altering corporate governance, diminishing the scope of finance. But to do that effectively, they’ll have to make common cause with progressives who’ve backed Hillary Clinton, most particularly with the unions that have backed her for strategic reasons but also know that their very survival depends on overturning the grotesque economic and political arrangements that have decimated the middle class.
These alliances—and the Sanders Revolution itself—will only be strengthened by a push at the forthcoming Democratic National Convention for platform planks that put the party on record in support of many of Sanders’s proposals. Even more than specific proposals, Sanders delegates and progressive Clinton delegates should also draft an analytical preamble to the platform that states plainly what has happened and what should happen to the American economy: that finance has supplanted industry and suppressed labor, that finance must be radically scaled back, that no one from the world of finance should be invited to serve in a Democratic administration (well, no one but heretics in the cause of democracy).
There’s no way that the Sanderistas can effectively promote their agenda, however, if they don’t work with the progressives in the Democratic Party, who are hardly confined to the ranks of Bernie supporters. Any number of national and state polls this year have shown that the share of voters in the Democratic primaries and caucuses who call themselves socialists substantially exceeds the share that’s voted for Sanders. Absent a long-term united front with those Democrats, the Sanders agenda will languish.
All of which is to say that if the Sanders Revolution is ever to come to fruition, the Bernie Brigades will have to vote for and work for Hillary Clinton’s election in the fall. To stand aside from their progressive allies, particularly in communities of color, will send the cause of American social democracy scuttling back into its accustomed political Siberia. It will render Sanders himself, should he refrain from supporting Clinton, as ineffective in building a left as Ralph Nader was after the 2000 election.
None of this means Sanders’s delegates shouldn’t fight to change party rules at the state and national level, and do all they can to stigmatize the use of super PACs in future campaigns. (Unfortunately, due to Supreme Court decisions, they can’t legally ban them.) In the wake of the debacle of the 1968 election, the young antiwar activists who’d campaigned for Eugene McCarthy, Robert Kennedy, and George McGovern stayed around to fight to change the party’s rules. They succeeded: Whereas only a handful of states had held primaries and caucuses enabling voters to select their party’s presidential nominees before 1972, by the mid-1970s, virtually every state was letting voters decide. The system still has some kinks that Sanders activists can help iron out, but that requires their sticking around to do the ironing.
Those Sanders supporters—they’re a distinct minority—who insist that the difference between Clinton and Donald Trump isn’t great enough to justify their voting for Clinton do themselves, not to mention the nation, an enormous disservice. A Clinton White House would be subject to pressure from the Sanders wing of the party, just as the Sanders campaign plans to pressure it at the upcoming convention. A Trump White House would be subject to no such pressure, and instead of fighting to push the nation’s agenda to the left, Sanders activists would be fighting alongside Clinton supporters to keep the nation from sliding into racist authoritarianism.
To conflate Clinton’s myriad imperfections as equivalent with Trump’s is to repeat the world historic mistake that German Communists, at Stalin’s behest, made in that nation’s 1932 elections, when they campaigned against their left-wing rivals, the Social Democrats, as though they were on a par with the Nazis. “Social Fascists,” the Communists called them, right up until the time that Hitler took power, suppressed both the Social Democrats and the Communists, imprisoned them, killed some, abolished the unions and turned his attention to the Jews. This is not to argue that Trump is Hitlerian, but a man can be a danger to civilization without plumbing Hitlerian depths.
Some of the more frenzied Clintonians assert that most Sanders supporters are driven by little more than misogyny. If they truly believe that more than 40 percent of Democratic voters, including more than half of the young women who have cast Democratic ballots this spring, are driven by hatred of women, their capacity for empirical intake is clearly wanting. The great majority of the Sanders activists have embraced his candidacy out of their concern for economic and social justice, the tocsin that Sanders has sounded more clearly than any presidential candidate in a very long time.
But the Bros seem bent on confirming those Clintonians’ misreading, and undermining all the good work that the Sanders campaign has accomplished to date, all while short-circuiting its potential to evolve into a more permanent left. Threats by texts and by tweets will only cost Bernie votes in California and weaken him going into the convention. The perception that the Sanders campaign itself is indifferent to this kind of idiocy will hurt it even more.
So, Bros—do Bernie a favor. Grow up.