July 2018

This Revolution Will be Electoral: Bernie Sanders and the Rise of American Democratic Socialism

It is clear by this point that Bernie’s run was not just a flash in the pan—a one-time thing. The long moribund left in the United States clearly has some momentum behind it once again.

What makes a political revolution revolutionary? The term itself conjures up images of large scale violence such as the French or Russian revolutions. However, sometimes revolutions are neither quick nor violent. In the case of Bernie Sanders, who advertised his participation in the 2016 Democratic Party primary as a revolution, it was not even immediately successful. After months of a contentious primary, Democratic Party delegates convened June 25-27 2016 to decide who would be the party’s nominee for the office of president. The convention was the culmination of a long and combative primary that saw former first lady, senator, and secretary of state Hillary Clinton squaring off against Bernie Sanders—a longtime democratic socialist gadfly from Vermont. From the beginning, the election was supposed to be a coronation for Clinton. Since the 2008 election, which saw the upstart young senator Barack Obama defeat Clinton to win the Democratic nomination for president, Clinton’s supporters were preparing for the 2016 election to be Hillary’s year while dismissing criticism and challenges as distractions.

Those further to the left, who were unhappy with the administration of Bill Clinton and the rightward turn of the Democratic Party, had a different idea. After failing to recruit their first choice, Elizabeth Warren, progressives turned to Bernie Sanders in the hopes of pushing Hillary Clinton further to the left. Bernie’s campaign quickly became a major movement in and of itself. The Sanders’ campaign embodied the split between the establishment wing of the Democratic Party and a left wing that felt increasingly marginalized, attacked, and taken for granted during the Obama administration. While Sanders failed to secure the endorsement of the Democratic Party, his campaign helped to pave the way for the growth of the Democratic Socialists of America, and the emergence of electoral movements such as Our Revolution and Dem-Enter.

It is now two years later. In a major upset, right wing authoritarian Donald Trump is now president having won the electoral college while losing the popular vote. The stalwarts of the Democratic Party have taken to attacking Trump using Cold War era anti-Soviet imagery and Trump’s ties to Russia in hopes of galvanizing their base to victory in the 2018 midterm elections. This functions both as an attack on Trump, as well as an attack on the increasingly popular socialist left that has taken the energy from the Bernie Sanders campaign and created a grassroots political movement that is battling against the corporate interests that currently dominate the party.

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Senator Sanders and Candidate Ocasio-Cortez campaign with Kansas Democratic congressional candidate James Thompson. Image courtesy of The Intercept

Progressive candidates have seen success since the 2016 presidential election. The Sanders-backed group “Our Revolution,” which endorses progressive candidates, keeps a record of electoral wins and losses. While progressive candidates do not have a perfect record in elections, returns have been modestly successful. Some of the candidates are cis-white men, an issue that has plagued the Bernie revolution since the 2016 presidential primary. However, many progressive candidates have been upending the stereotype of the white male “Berniebro.” The current talk of the electoral left, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a young Latina woman who defeated incumbent Joseph Crowley in a Democratic Party primary in the Bronxhas proven that progressive candidates are not limited to certain stereotypes. Ocasio-Cortez’s victory has brought a great deal of attention to the emerging split in the Democratic Party between the left, who are increasingly open in their use of the term socialism, and the right, which continues to argue for moderation and appealing to Republicans who are disaffected with the Trump administration—a category of voter that may or may not actually exist outside of the pages of the New York Times.

Ocasio-Cortez is using her newfound fame to help promote other progressives. Interestingly, one of these progressives is Bernie Sanders, who is eyeing a 2020 presidential run. Recently, the two appeared together in Kansas to support a third progressive candidate named James Thompson. The event grew so large that it had to be moved from a convention center that held 1,500 people to one that could accommodate 5,000. In deep red Kansas, which has seen an extreme form of conservative ideology take over, progressive messaging clearly has struck a nerve.

The group that has gained the most notoriety since the Bernie campaign has been the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). The DSA went from around 8,000 members before the election to roughly 47,000 today. While Sanders has never actually been a member of the organization, he has been a long time supporter. The DSA is now the largest socialist group in the United States since World War II. The organization has used their newfound popularity to argue for things like Medicare for Allas well as for more controversial issues such as the abolition of ICE. The DSA also has an electoral strategy; DSA members have won multiple elections across the country, including helping the campaigns of Carter Lee and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez.

While the Bernie Sanders-inspired revolution is an ongoing one, and one that may or may not ultimately prove successful, there are several reasons why it continues two years after Sanders’ loss. Economic inequality continues to rise, as it has been for decades. While Democrats have played lip service to this increasing inequality, they have not done much to alleviate it. By speaking directly about issues impacting the majority of Americans, Sanders’ message resonated with many who felt that neither major political party represented their interests. Additionally, the Democratic Party itself was in prime position to be shaken up. By 2016, the Democrats had isolated themselves socially and geographically. Tom Perez admitted that the Democrats were not a fifty state party before he took over in early 2017. Perez, of course, beat out Keith Ellison from the Bernie wing of the party in a contentious struggle for leader of the Democratic National Committee.

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Public school teachers and staff strike for more equitable wages at the West Virginia state capitol in Charleston. Image courtesy of the Nation

All of this leads us historians to wonder: what will Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign mean for history? Did Bernie spoil Clinton’s run and help to cause the election of Donald Trump? Would Bernie have won against Trump in the general election as many of his supporters claim? Ultimately these questions, which rely on conjecture and counter-factual arguments, are not answerable. What is important historically has been the long-term impacts of Sanders’ run. It is clear by this point that Bernie’s run was not just a flash in the pan—a one-time thing. The long moribund left in the United States clearly has some momentum behind it once again.  

Another question that future historians will likely engage with is how much is one person responsible for the progressive shift that has taken place over the past several years, accelerating since the election of Donald Trump? Anti-austerity activists in red states including Arizona, West Virginia, and Oklahoma successfully protested brutal cuts to public education. These strikes were largely not the product of the teachers themselves and were not the product of any political personalities or top-down efforts. This indicates that, in some ways at least, the Bernie Sanders revolution is as much the product of pent up frustration and feelings of abandonment as it is the appeal of Bernie himself.

Eric Morgenson is a PhD candidate in history at the State University of New York at Albany. His research interests include the intersections of race and class in the United States, the relationship between liberalism and the left in the twentieth century, and American Jewish history. Eric’s dissertation, The Last Step to Whiteness: American Jews and the end of the Civil Rights Coalition argues that allegations of antisemitism made against Black Power groups in the 1960s were part of a larger effort to distance liberal American Jews from the cause of civil rights. The work explores Jewish assimilation in the twentieth century. It emphasizes the impact that Jews becoming “white” i.e. culturally accepted had on the relationship between American Jews and African Americans. He received an MA from the University of Nebraska at Omaha, a BA from Concordia University-Nebraska, and an Associate of Arts from Southeast Community College in Lincoln, NE. Eric was born and raised in Bismarck North Dakota, but really hates cold weather. He currently lives in Connecticut where it is still too cold. He can be reached here.

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