Berned Out for 2024

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The rise and seeming decline of the Democratic Socialist movement in the US is, in many ways, proof that moving the “Overton Window” through executive candidate runs may have a natural limit. After all, according to New Majority, “DSA stands at 67,000 Members-in-Good-Standing, with 25,000 expired members. This means DSA’s total membership is down by two-thousand from the 94,000 announced prior to the 2021 National Convention.” While the absolute loss of two-thousand members is not immediately troubling, the 25,000 expired membership should be. Indeed, even in “left-wing” strongholds like New York State, the DSA would only get two of its six possible candidates in NYC’s city council. So, even if the Overton Window has been smashed, the pieces aren’t falling in favor of the socialist alliance.


This, however, should not be surprising. Joe Biden’s Presidency has been a Herbert Hoover-level public relations disaster and with good reason: record inflation, an inability to tackle covid, a failure to handle what is likely to be a public debt crisis, the highest Medicare premium hike in recent history, a seemingly botched withdrawal from an unpopular war, a Democratic Congress unable or unwilling to pass even the basics of Biden’s agenda, and the conservatives on the Supreme Court poised to undo a half-century of legal precedent with the Democrats seemingly powerless to do anything about it. Since the DSA is wedded to the Democratic Party with no sign of striking out along an independent political path or even launching significant primary challenges outside of progressive strongholds, it seems the pink tide is about to roll back out to sea with the breaking of the blue wave.


Run Bernie Run?


At Jacobin magazine, Branko Marcetic seems to think he sees a way to cut against the losses that will be suffered by the Democrats: a third presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders. The deep unpopularity of Joe Biden is only surprising to well-off Democratic party backers isolated from the financial shocks that keep coming. Furthermore, as unpopular as both President Biden and former President Trump are, the Democratic party – as a whole – is, as Marcetic points out, “toxically unpopular.”


Marcetic’s case is a simple one: Bernie Sanders remains one of the most popular national-level politicians in the United States. Even though he will be 82 by 2024, Sanders would be primarying the most unpopular US President in modern history and would be likely running against the second most unpopular one. Sanders could also stem the tide of loss of working-class support from the Democratic Party, Marcetic argues.


Yet the problems here are manifold and they are not just about Sanders’ age. Indeed, Marcetic’s invocation of the case of Reagan actually indicates part of the problem: “It took Ronald Reagan three tries to win the Republican nomination, and that third time, he too was plagued by doubts about his age. Yet he won the nomination and served two terms as a transformational president, shifting culture and the elite political consensus away from the New Deal era and into the neoliberal one.”


The analogy makes clearer the problems of Marcetic’s argument than he seems to realize. The first issue is that Reagan was not the originator of the Conservative movement but was a successor to Goldwater. Secondly, Reagan’s conservatism was a broad coalition that had been building local power in places not traditionally held by the Republican Party, such as the Deep South. Despite his ideological competitors within the GOP beginning the Southern Strategy, it was Reagan who began the local level disempowerment of the Dixiecrats in ways that Richard Nixon had been unable to. Thirdly, Reagan had a coalition of factions within the GOP: the John Birch Society, the Libertarians willing to remain within the GOP, the foreign policy hawks that would become the neoconservatives, and the evangelicals. Fourthly, Reagan codified and expanded the “neoliberal” economic policy, but he did not initiate it. Democratic President Jimmy Carter took more than a few of the first steps away from the Keynesian consensus. Indeed, it was Carter’s appointee to the Federal Reserve, Paul Volcker, who drove the policy turn towards “neoliberalism” with the raising of interest rates.


By laying out the comparison to Reagan, the problems with the Sanders campaign become clear. Marcetic admits that Sanders has no clear heir. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was often deemed to be the likely successor and the leader of the Squad, but her national profile is polarizing and even Jacobin magazine has had to admit that her popularity amongst the Left itself has been more precarious. The failure to build viable coalitions outside of progressive strongholds such as San Francisco and New York means that Bernie Sanders’ own tactics from Vermont have not been learned by either the progressive Democrats or their popular front activist allies in the DSA. Indeed, who are the DSA’s allies outside of the conventional progressive left of the Democratic Party? While there have been new unionization victories with both Starbucks and Amazon, there is no evidence that said victories have reversed the overall steep decline of organized labor that occurred during COVID. Furthermore, neither the DSA nor any socialist left has been able to hold candidates accountable as the Jamaal Bowman affair made very obvious. Sanders cannot be the movement and, insomuch as he is, it shows a movement that is out of ideas.


There are those who will argue that the effects of a Sanders 2024 campaign would be positive even with a loss. Indeed, I have seen many defend Marcetic’s piececiting the Starbucks and Amazon union victories as proof that Bernie Sanders has made labor stronger. Sadly, there is no evidence for this. Moreover, it seems patronizing to argue that service and logistics workers would not have been able to realize their own labor interests without a failed Sanders presidential run. More broadly, the logic behind the political benefits of a third Sanders run seems faulty to say the least. While pro-Sanders 2024 arguments posit the idea socialists need a presidential run to bring attention to the need for a labor movement and forward socialist electoral politics, if socialists continue to lose and tie themselves to a toxic political brand (Democrats) that clearly does not vote for or enact policies in workers’ interests, is that really inspiring? A long-shot campaign may have been motivational in 2016 but can only be seen as demoralizing now.


What Now?


While two decades of horizontalism and four decades of NGO activism seemed to have taught leftists and socialists that local community building and single-issue advocacy were not particularly effective, the last decade seems to have taught socialists to believe that national-level executive campaigns are the only positive political project worth advocating for, despite mounting contrary evidence.


Meanwhile, some “socialist” opportunists have tried to link up with the national conservative movement which seems to be trying to bring a Catholic integralist-inspired Red Toryism to America as it becomes clear that the socialist popular front with the Democrats was the same devil’s pact it was in the post-New Deal era. Instead of learning from the tactics of the right, who use local power and school boards in a coordinated way that fits national interests, part of the left seems to think mimicking culture war tactics and “owning the libs” will be a panacea. Not only will this not work, but it is also not doing what needs to be done, namely offering a real and viable workers-led alternative to our imbroglio.


The problems with all these lines of thinking are not just opportunism and overcorrecting to a different type of opportunism when the brand goes bad. Despite Bernie Sanders’ nominal independence and his popularity, he has been incorporated into the Democratic Party and been rewarded with a Chair of the Senate Budget Committee. He simply cannot shake off this linkage, particularly when neither he nor any other electoral socialists of significant size, have pursued institutional independence. How might such independence be achieved? This is an open question, but one could learn much from the tactics of the right—as they have even taken over city councils, sheriffs, and school boards in small towns in Democratic-run states like California. The barriers to entry are lower and building up working-class could faith is easier. Yet, it seems that for many socialists – to repurpose a turn of phrase from Frederic Jameson – “it is easier to imagine the end of the world, than for socialists to build independent power.”