Although some Bernie supporters might deny this, now feels like the right time to begin speaking of the Sanders presidential campaign in the past tense and get some historical perspective on its meaning. First off, we have just witnessed a self-proclaimed socialist win numerous state primaries. That’s incredible; and some writers at the socialist Jacobin magazine have rolled out an explanation for this surprising phenomenon.
Shawn Gude and Matt Karp, in their article “What Bernie Supporters Want,” pored through various statistics and polls to conclude that the Sanders campaign has indeed accomplished something remarkable in American politics: It put “class politics” on the table. In a country whose very creed, in essence, denies the existence of “class” and promotes the “dream” that you can make it no matter your family’s socioeconomic background, the zeal with which his message has been received by such a large number of voters may be more incredible, in and of itself, than the simple fact of a curmudgeonly socialist candidate racking up primary votes.
I’m not a political scientist, and I still haven’t overcome my suspicions of public opinion polling; neither am I qualified to muck about the numbers the authors cite to build their argument. With that said, a historical perspective might call into question whether his campaign truly had the impact the authors hope it did.
To begin with, let’s assume that those voting for Sanders were also voting against Clinton. Gude and Karp argue that Clinton is “one of America’s most famous liberals.” Now, I’m not going to get into a definitional debate here, but it’s pretty clear to me that Clinton didn’t seem so much a “liberal” than a “centrist” in the eyes of many Democratic primary voters. And Sanders didn’t just appear more left-wing than her, but also, due in large part to his ideological steadfastness, as more trustworthy and clearer about about his future goals as President—although perhaps less clear on how he’d accomplish them. Considering that Clinton now moves into the general election with rather high unfavorability ratings, it may be more accurate to understand Sanders’s success as a telling manifestation of his opponent’s weakness, one that isn’t going away, despite the immediate lovefest that victory often sparks.
Second, although Gude and Karp contend that Sanders’s success is more indicative of rising “class consciousness” than of group or racial identities, I am unclear how we might chart the impact of this supposedly nascent “class politics” on American political life. Although they briefly mention Republican voters in their discussion of the Democratic primary, there is no direct mention of Trump voters. That’s telling. The authors want to assure readers that white working class people were won over to Sanders by his policies, not by his “whiteness.” The authors, bizarrely, state the following statistic in support of their argument: “Only 22 percent of white Sanders supporters indicated that ‘being white’ was ‘extremely’ or ‘very important’ to them (compared to 43 percent of white Clinton supporters).” Twenty-two percent is not a negligible amount. Add to this the fact that so many white working class voters—in a throwback to the days of the Reagan Democrat—have swung toward Trump, and the notion that “class-interest” has trumped race becomes even less plausible.
One last thing about the Sanders campaign itself that Gude and Karp gloss over: If a political campaign is to have such a sweeping impact on political life, it would be nice to know how this could be achieved. Whenever I heard Bernie label his campaign a “revolution,” arguing that it wasn’t really about him, and hinting at the emergence of a fledging movement, I raced to my bookshelf and cracked open a particular essay written by the late social democratic intellectual, Richard Rorty, from his book Achieving Our Country. The essay’s called “Movements and Campaigns” and is about drawing distinctions between the two. In this passage, Rorty does just that: “By ‘campaign,’ I mean something finite, something that can be recognized to have succeeded or to have, so far, failed. Movements, by contrast, neither succeed nor fail. They are too big and too amorphous to do anything that simple.” Rorty preferred campaigns to movements: They are both finite and measurable, so to speak.
To speak of movements is to evoke something almost spiritual in nature, beyond any one policy goal, transcending each individual. Rorty wrote: “Membership in a movement requires the ability to see particular campaigns for particular goals as parts of something much bigger, and as having little meaning in themselves.” The Old Left and New Left alike—and Sanders, in many ways, synthesizes both, as exemplified by his past affiliations to socialist causes and to the Civil Rights Movement—embraced this sort of visionary politics, which attacked “bourgeois reformism” as a paltry substitution for truly revolutionary change. Both left movements shared what Rorty termed a “passion of the infinite.” But precisely because movements become amorphous and grandiose in their dreams and aspirations, they don’t translate well into concrete campaigns for achieving specific policies or winning real elections.
Sanders clearly wanted to build a movement out of a campaign, and, in that quest, pursued a dangerous strategy. Consider where we stand now: The votes are in, the delegates counted. Sanders’s campaign—whether he wants to admit it or not—is over. The promise of a “revolution” is dashed. How to make the lingering impact of his candidacy transform into a lasting discussion about economic justice and “class” is much more difficult than some might hope, precisely because a campaign isn’t always translatable into a movement. But here’s to hoping it happens—with a bit of steely realism that it might not.