The importance of being Bernie Sanders; U.S. Presidential Campaign gets leftward shift 

Bernie Sanders, who has declared his candidature for Democratic Party’s nomination for 2020 US-Presidential Elections, has given a socialist turn to the elections

Photo Courtesy: Twitter
Photo Courtesy: Twitter

Meagan Day

“Bernie! Bernie!” the crowd chanted in Council Bluffs, Iowa on the campaign trail last week. But Bernie Sanders demurred. “It ain’t Bernie, it’s you. It’s not me, it is us.” The crowd responded with a new chant: “Not me, us! Not me, us!”

A similar exchange took place at each of the two campaign kick-off rallies the previous weekend, first in Brooklyn and then in Chicago. In Iowa, Bernie gave a rationale for his response. “The truth is that the powers that be,” he said, “they are so powerful, they have so much money, that no one person, not the best president in the world, can take them on alone. The only way we transform America is when millions of people together stand up and fight back.” No viable presidential campaign has ever been so encouraging of agitation from below.

Bernie who has declared his candidature for Democratic Party’s nomination for 2020 Presidential elections, often compared to Franklin D. Roosevelt, but while Roosevelt inveighed eloquently against inequality, he was nowhere near as consistent in calling for for mass political activity from below. It was his contemporary, the socialist leader Eugene Debs, who spoke of the power of working people to change the world despite the considerable political advantages of elites.

“Employers, who are the beneficiaries of the wrong, have hitherto been able to crush, in most of the states, all remedial legislation,” Debs wrote, but “labor may be induced to unify, and taking the aggressive in politics, bring about the reform required.”

The language is old-fashioned, but the formulation is almost identical to Bernie’s in Iowa: an acknowledgement of the ruling class’s formidable power, paired with an insistence that ordinary people can break that power by uniting and fighting back.

In the few weeks since he announced his 2020 run, Bernie has made it clear that he plans to emphasize the importance of political activity outside the established channels of state power.

At his Chicago rally, the first speaker to appear before the crowd was Destiny Harris, an eighteen-year-old local Black Lives Matter activist. Harris is active with the No Cop Academy campaign, which aims to prevent the construction of a $95 million law enforcement training center on Chicago’s West Side, arguing that the city already spends far too much on policing and should spend that money on youth and community services instead.

But the project is strongly backed by Mayor Rahm Emanuel and the rest of the city’s political class. Opposition from elected leaders has become nearly unthinkable in Chicago — so much so that local alderman and Democratic Socialists of America member Carlos Ramirez-Rosa was expelled from the city council’s Latino Caucus as a result of his lone votes against the academy. Few local elected officials will touch the No Cop Academy campaign, yet Bernie chose a No Cop Academy activist to open up his rally.

Bernie then spoke about traveling in 1963 to Washington, DC to attend the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr Martin Luther King — one of Bernie’s two biggest personal heroes, the other being Eugene Debs — gave his most famous speech

Joining Harris on the bill was Ashley Galvan Ramos, a twenty-one-year-old anti-gentrification activist in Chicago’s Logan Square, a formerly working-class, Latino neighborhood that has gentrified in recent years at rapid speed. By inviting Harris and Ramos to the stage to make their cases to a captive audience of over twelve thousand people, Bernie was lending his platform to the construction of extra-parliamentary political movements. Chicago’s local movements against over-policing and gentrification were stronger when he left than when he arrived.

When he took the podium, Bernie gave a new speech, this one centering on racial injustice and detailing his own early political history. He focused on a time before he became a mayor, a congressman, a senator, or a potential president — when he was an activist with no formal state power. He spoke about coordinating a sit-in to protest racially segregated housing owned by the University of Chicago, where he was a leader of the campus chapter of the Congress on Racial Equality (CORE). And he also spoke about being arrested by police and bailed out by the NAACP after a civil disobedience action protesting racial discrimination in the Chicago education system.

“My activities here in Chicago taught me a very important lesson that I have never forgotten,” he said. “Real change never takes place from the top on down. It always takes place from the bottom on up.”

Bernie then spoke about traveling in 1963 to Washington, DC to attend the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom, where Dr Martin Luther King — one of Bernie’s two biggest personal heroes, the other being Eugene Debs — gave his most famous speech.

Many Americans remember the line from that speech about not judging people by the color of their skin but instead by the content of their hearts. Few remember that King praised the “marvelous new militancy which has engulfed the Negro community” and warned that “the whirlwinds of revolt will continue to shake the foundations of our nation until the bright days of justice emerge.”

Because Bernie’s politics were forged in that era of mass protest, it comes as little surprise that he values extra-parliamentary politics on principle. But there’s a very good strategic reason for him to value grassroots left-wing and working-class movements as well. If he becomes president, he will need them to accomplish anything ambitious.

In a different, perhaps more ideal scenario, an openly socialist presidential candidacy would be the culmination of an intensive decades-long political project. The candidate would rise organically through the ranks of a dynamic and powerful organized Left. That Left would consist of, among other things, strong left-wing unions, innumerable community groups knitted into tight coalitions, and a mass political party with a democratic membership structure and credible means of candidate discipline. The candidate would emerge as the leader of a substantial movement made up of rock-solid working-class institutions.

But that’s not how things have played out. Instead, the socialist idea morphed in the late twentieth century from a powerful taboo to a tacit impossibility, unions were hollowed out and hamstrung, and the organized Left was placed on the back foot. Without a unified mass movement to represent, Bernie marched to the beat of his own drum for decades.

But in that time, stagnating wages and rising living costs have tested millions of people’s patience with the status quo. The 2008 financial crisis, Occupy Wall Street, and Black Lives Matter further eroded popular tolerance for business as usual, creating new openings for left-wing politics. In a happy historical coincidence, Bernie Sanders happened to have stayed politically consistent, to be in good health, and to be personally willing to provide electoral leadership to a movement getting back on its feet.

When Bernie says that he can’t deliver the needed reforms by himself, that he needs help from millions of people who themselves have no formal power, he’s not just flattering us. He’s insisting that extra-parliamentary movements are the key to political success. This is the underlying meaning of the slogan he has revived for his 2020 campaign: “Not Me, Us.” Bernie has imparted a definitive leftaving shift in the attitude of the Democratic Party supporters. That is a big gain for left in America.

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