Updated: Jul 30, 2020
Lessons can be learned from the loss of the Sanders campaign by examining it through the lens of a workplace campaign against the boss.
A trending sentiment passing among socialists is that the defeat of the Bernie Sanders campaign for president is a defeat in name only, as his electoral strategy actually won many victories, primary among them the battle over hearts and minds. In a general sense I recognize this claim is true. Sure, certain socialist ideas, like healthcare ought to be a social enterprise, seem to now be more solidly endorsed. But, if we are to believe the goal wasn’t to win the presidency and was instead to accomplish something like popularize Medicare for All, then the reality that we are not anywhere closer to universal healthcare in the United States surely exposes how this goal has also not been achieved.
Paul Heideman’s rushed opinions on the matter are stark evidence of the problems in adopting the above sentiment. The most telling vagueness over his strategic advice comes when Heideman clumsily draws a parallel to the challenges in organizing workplaces with the challenges of winning in the electoral arena, suggesting that since we haven’t abandoned the former neither should we abandon the latter. A weak analogy, but ironically Heideman sets up an opportunity to take a workplace organizing view of why the electoral strategy failed.
The Sanders campaign was a ‘boss fight’ where the boss was the Democratic Party establishment, and its organizers vastly underestimated the boss’s power. They were not able to move a larger base of people past their fear (euphemistically called “electability” by mainstream pundits), and this is because they did not bring forward the needed tactics or produce a methodical plan of action that could contend with the instruments of repression and sabotage utilized by all bosses. For instance, the coup d'etat orchestrated by the DNC immediately prior to Super Tuesday, where they coordinated the likes of Elizabeth Warren, Pete Buttigieg, and Amy Klobuchar to fall in line, should have been predictable for Sanders' organizers. Any workplace campaign knows the lesson that the boss disciplines their middle-managers and maintains a company line with rigid authority. You won't likely find a manager going against the boss, as these are a cadre who rarely (if ever) are willing to bite the hand that feeds them, and a workplace organizing view of the campaign would have known all along that a tactic like the one pulled on Super Tuesday was coming and would be swift and effective.
Amid the current plague and uprisings in the streets, this commentary likely seems trivial as more pressing matters are at hand. But the strategic content animating our politics has significant consequences, and variations of the electoral strategy to socialism continue to seek influence over the left in general. Pieces such as Heideman’s encourage a spin on the Sanders loss as a “productive defeat” in order to goad progressive and leftist organizing towards the electoral arena and imagine it as the only place where “mass politics” can be advanced. Quite frankly nothing shatters Heideman’s argument more forcefully than the mass rebellions in the streets sparked by an uprising in Minneapolis over systemic racist policing and the murder of George Floyd. Already it’s been demonstrated that riots accomplish results too, and these current uprisings are not fixed to any electoral campaign or specific ruling political party. Reading Paul Heideman’s short and shallow take, however, would reasonably lead one to believe that anything outside of electoral politics is simply not politics at all.
At least two general weaknesses in strategy engender views such as Heideman’s. One is an impreciseness around the goals for socialists going ‘all in’ on the Sanders campaign. What was seriously trying to be accomplished, and what plan was generated to realize this goal? The second, and in my view all too common among leftists, is an overcommitment to the belief that ideas and ‘consciousness raising’ are the primary paths to achieving victories.
In not having clearly defined goals, benchmarks for measuring effectiveness become murky, and failed strategies go improperly assessed and repeated without adjustment. A perfect example is Heideman’s strange claim that the electoral arena must become an even larger priority for socialists after a major defeat in this strategy. Assessments become clouded, while historical and political analysis suffers when we do not clearly define our goals from the onset.
To continue with Heideman, he claims Occupy Wall Street is an example of an ineffective “movementism” and finds himself in the position of arguing against social movements in general, while propping up Black Lives Matter and Bernie Sanders campaign advances as evidence of a better way forward. In doing so, he fails to recognize the confluence of forces that went from OWS to BLM, the reality that BLM does not prioritize left electoral strategy, and the obvious fact that Bernie Sanders himself openly embraces the language of OWS (the 1% versus the 99%) in achieving his popularity amongst voters.
Heideman conjures a ridiculous caricature of OWS (apparently Occupy was just hippies having drum-circles) to accomplish bending the reality of its history to fit his polemical narrative. Yet do not be fooled, Bernie Sanders is the symptom, not the cause, of social movements and working-class insurgencies of the past ten years. Occupy was one of many causal factors enabling openings in the political terrain that directly benefited Sanders’ rise to electoral relevance.
An either/or choice between social movements and electoral politics is presented in Heideman’s line of argument. By posing these methods of struggle as dichotomies, Heideman is guilty of reproducing an insular phenomenon on the left where people take on a strategic position as if we’re rooting for one sports team against another. He’s not alone in reproducing this unfortunate situation, ironically, however, this is precisely the thing he claims to be advocating against by characterizing OWS as an inward-facing subculture with no broader societal impact. Not surprising that Heideman would present us these false choices in strategy because when we pull back the layers of his argument we are left to understand that “mass politics” is nothing more than a good campaign slogan. Politics is a corporate campaign. Once the best ideas are presented in the most palatable way possible then those ideas gain primacy and, somehow, win the game.
Certainly some will find this an unfair characterization. Consider, though, his broader argument; electoral campaigns are the true stuff of “mass politics” and political action that does not center its strategy in the electoral arena is participation in an insignificant subculture. An electoral strategy to democratic socialism requires securing many elected government positions, and if those positions are at the national level we would be required to actively persuade enough centrists and liberals to endorse the ideas of one candidate over another to actually win those seats. Electoral campaigns, for all their bumper stickers, robocalls, text messages, yard signs, and awful television debates are the functional equivalent of an “awareness campaign.”
Yes, ideas matter and engaging in political conversations with masses of people is an important complement to a larger strategy for victory. However, ideas and awareness raising are not enough. No working class person is completely satisfied with their lot in life, but moving them to engage in class struggle is not simply a matter of getting people to come to a “consciousness” over their unhappiness or having them express this sentiment in a proper ideological syllogism. Feelings of powerlessness, underpinned by fear, and a sense of futility at fighting back is what keeps most people on the fence.
Moving people to act is a matter of having a credible plan for victory where every individual can see how their participation can help the plan succeed. People’s ideas are challenged, reassessed, and developed through participating in purposeful struggle and through the relationships built during such efforts. Ideas are abundant; what we lack are plans and organizations with the capacity to bring such ideas into being.
The Sanders campaign, for its flaws and limitations, did create ways in which many ordinary people could imagine that their participation was playing a part in broader social change. So did Occupy Wall Street. Choosing between the two is not a real choice that needs to be made. Instead, we should measure these forces on their results and recognize that both failed, for different reasons and in varied ways, in advancing their goals.
Heideman’s proposal that we should pursue more relentlessly the electoral arena while foreclosing other strategic approaches is hopefully not one held by many other socialists. For organizations such as the Democratic Socialists of America, assuming their participants are genuinely trying to locate the “road to socialism,” my comradely critique is that their prior goals in pushing a Sanders campaign were flawed for mistaking a tactic for a strategy. Perhaps if they’d have articulated an agreed upon goal from the onset it would have been clearer that elections better serve as benchmarks for assessing our progress within a larger and more sophisticated strategy.
A strategic plan of action containing accessible entry points, multiple angles of approach, and clearly defined goals can help better equip us to win the boss fights ahead, and move beyond a shallow view where politics is conceived as a matter of winning over the hearts and minds of vast numbers of people to one that recognizes our politics as the activation of class struggle organizations.