Back in July 2019, while in Michigan for one of the early Democratic Party presidential debates, I was invited to a small dinner with Bernie Sanders. Towards the end of the meal, those who remained at the table included actor/activist Danny Glover, Dr Cornel West, former Mayor Gus Newport, Jane Sanders and a few key campaign staffers. What ensued was a free-flowing discussion of the agents of social and political change, sprinkled with personal recollections of and lessons learned from historical figures, many of whom had been known by my dinner companions.
I came away from that evening seeing Bernie Sanders in a different light. He was, and still is, a candidate for the presidency of the United States. At the same time, he must also be seen as a transformative figure in modern American political history.
From his 2016 campaign to the present, he has been able to galvanise a progressive political movement and give it organisation and direction. He has elevated issues like healthcare, education and a decent living wage as fundamental human rights. And he has created the momentum that helped elect hundreds of like-minded individuals to posts in Congress, state and local government, and party leadership. As a result, he has arrested the rightward drift of the Democratic Party which had, over the past four decades, become shy of asserting the role of government as an agent of economic change. Owing to the momentum created by Sanders, other Democrats have felt compelled to embrace his progressive agenda.
And so that night, as I looked at the candidates standing behind the 10 podiums on the debate stage, it occurred to me that a decade from now if I were to ask Americans to name the Democrats who ran in this year’s contest, most wouldn’t be able to name more than two. Of those who could, Bernie most certainly would be high on their list. (I had the same feeling about Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988. And, sure enough, when I asked people a decade later, most respondents couldn’t name two of the candidates. Jackson, however, was remembered.)
I tell this story because it is important to understand Sanders, who he is and the role he plays, in order to make sense out of this year’s contest. In all, there were over two dozen individuals who entered the 2020 race. Among them were a half dozen senators, a few governors, members of Congress, mayors and billionaires. Along the way, some had their moments, when they generated media attention, rose in the polls, and raised some money. Then, just as quickly as their balloons inflated, they lost air and fell to the ground.
In the end, we are left with former vice president Joe Biden and Sanders. Biden’s trajectory to the top was a function of two factors. In the first place, he is a known and liked commodity with key Democratic constituencies – in particular, African Americans and unions. More importantly, to the party establishment and its donor base, he’s not Bernie.
From the beginning of this election, nothing frightened the establishment more than the prospect of a Sanders victory. Early on, there had been a spate of editorials and television commentaries warning about Sanders. Soon after he won the plurality of votes in the first three contests (Iowa, New Hampshire and Nevada), the hysteria grew into an unprecedented avalanche of attacks. In the four decades in which I’ve been active in party politics, I’ve never seen anything quite like it.
In addition to paid attack ads sponsored by “dark money” Super PACs, Democratic elected officials and party leaders and a host of TV commentators and editorial writers joined in what, at times, appeared to be an organised chorus of opposition. Some of the themes were: if Bernie wins, Trump will win; if Bernie wins, Democrats will lose the House of Representatives and never regain control of the Senate; if Bernie wins, he’ll destroy the Democratic Party. Others were: Bernie’s a socialist; Bernie is a left-wing version of Trump; Bernie will bankrupt the government; and, for good measure, he’s too old and he’s sick. One of the “liberal” networks was such a consistent and vigorous participant in this all-out negative onslaught that it appeared to be more an “anti-Bernie Super PAC” than a television news channel.
Biden, whose campaign after Nevada was limping along, short of funds and poorly situated to win nationally, was the beneficiary of this solid week of paid and free negative media campaigning. After decisively winning South Carolina, which he was expected to do, other moderate Democratic candidates started to withdraw from the race, throwing their support his way.
The establishment now had their standard bearer to confront the threat posed by Sanders. And in the contests that followed a week later, Biden won most quite handily, with polls showing that while a majority of voters supported Sanders’ agenda, they were clearly influenced by the attacks on his candidacy. What voters told pollsters was that they wanted to win in November and were afraid that the “socialist” couldn’t win, despite polls showing that Sanders’ margin for victory over Trump was the same as that of Biden.
Now with the havoc created by the coronavirus, the rest of this campaign season is in limbo. There will be no more rallies and no more door-to-door campaigning. And after miserable voter turnouts in last week’s contests, some states are now seeking to postpone their voting altogether.
We are now entering uncharted waters, with no one knowing how the rest of this election will unfold. Calls are growing, from the same establishment political figures, urging Bernie Sanders to end his campaign in order to provide Joe Biden with a clear path to victory.
Whether or not Sanders withdraws, what’s clear is the lesson I learned at that dinner in Detroit. This isn’t just another candidate and just another campaign. It is a political movement for change that must be reckoned with. The challenge that progressives pose to the moderate wing of the party is real and will not end. They will continue to assert that government has a positive and decisive role to play in challenging income inequality, guaranteeing the right to healthcare and education, and insuring racial, social, political and environmental justice for all.
The moderates may win this skirmish, but to build the majoritarian movement that will ensure victory in November they will need to accommodate party’s progressives. There is no other way forward.
The writer is president of the Arab American Institute.
*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 March, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly