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Bernie’s Campaign: What Good Is It?

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September 2, 2015

A Conversation About Leftwing Electoral Campaigns

between Mitchell Abidor and Nicholas Jahr

Bernie and HillaryMITCHELL ABIDOR: So I support Bernie and you're considerably less enamored of him than I. Let me tell you why I think he needs to be supported. In the first place, there's never been nor will there be a candidate whose platform is so perfectly in tune with what the Left has fought for and will continue to fight for. Then there's the fact that he speaks as a socialist, which no one has done for... well, forever, at least in the Democratic Party. Finally, dead and bankrupt as the Left is in this country, he's a candidate who is bringing leftwing ideas and programs to a mass audience, shorn of the stigmas and dogmas of the Left.

Nicholas Jahr: I should make clear at the outset that I like Bernie just fine. There are probably a few issues on which he and I are on different pages, but as elected politicians go, he's as good as they come. If he lasts until the New York primary on April 19th, I'll probably be voting for him. I just don't expect him to last that long. And that's the crux of my dissatisfaction with his campaign, and what it represents.

MA: What I would need to add is how disappointed I am with the Sanders campaign. They're totally disorganized, send emails asking for volunteers to whom they don’t respond, have no operation in New York — and, as I was told at a meeting last night, the speculation is that it's not worthwhile to have one since Clinton is a New Yorker and this is Clinton country. So why volunteer? And who said Clinton was a New Yorker?

NJ: I can't say I'm surprised, though I find their decision to cede New York specifically predictable and understandable. As far as I can tell, he's relatively understaffed (one decent consultant could probably have steered him through this Black Lives Matter mess), and despite having raised more than $15 million I'm not getting the sense they've been bringing people on board. I've just never thought this was a serious bid. I think presidential politics under current conditions is a dead end for the Left.

MA: It's a dead end because it's based on providential figures who arise every four years, and when they're defeated they vanish, leaving nothing behind them. The model should be that of our greatest progressive: Huey P. Long. The Kingfish set up Share our Wealth clubs across the country that would spread the word for his campaign against income inequality and against the 1 percent (and he even used those terms 80 years ago!), even when he wasn't actually a candidate. This way, between campaigns the ideas remained alive.

At Bernie gatherings there's much boasting about the large-scale events that are such huge hits, and that was given as the reason for not doing anything with the volunteers. I mean, if what distinguishes a campaign is its steady stream of emails begging for small contributions rather than active work, then as an organizing tool it's in no way different from any other campaign. What kind of grassroots campaign is it that ignores the grassroots? That said, the central campaign being as worthless as tits on a bull, local groups are doing interesting stuff on their own.

NJ: It's not a grassroots campaign! (Whatever their rhetoric.) Never was. I mean, did I miss something? It's not as if there was some groundswell calling on him to enter the race. Campaigns and organizations, particularly on the Left, always invoke the grassroots for legitimacy, but just saying the word doesn't make it so.

The boasting is disappointing; it echoes the error made by the Dean campaign in '04, when they seemed to have confused their small donor base with boots on the ground in the early states. Jackson, Nader, Bradley, Dean — we've heard the claims about the rallies over and over again. Back in 2000, when Nader made his more serious run at the presidency, the press was all about his "super-rallies." The American Prospect: "Crowds of 5,000 to 10,000 people, sometimes more, are gathering in large arenas." Two separate articles in the Village Voice touted the 10,000 people who came out to see him in Portland (so did The Progressive). The National Review: "He's drawn some of the largest crowds of the political season, such as the 12,000 who showed up at a rally in Boston on October 1.” Marc Cooper, in The Nation: “A few days before, Nader had drawn 12,000 paying supporters to a Minneapolis rally that the Los Angeles Times had conceded was the single biggest event of any candidates' campaign this year." He also reported almost 10,000 people had turned out to see Nader at Seattle's Key Arena. The ostensible goal was to pull down 5 percent of the vote, thereby qualifying the Greens for federal matching funds. As you might recall, Nader didn't even manage 3 percent.

Here's how a George McGovern staffer put it in a good oral history compiled for Vanity Fair: “The week before the [1972] election, we had big crowds. From Detroit to Philadelphia to New York. You begin to think, 'Polls? What do they know?' You live in a bubble when you’re out on the road. It just never dawned on me that he could lose.”

What the Left (or what's left of it) fails to understand is that, yes, these campaigns draw those big crowds, but they're appealing to the engaged, active element of the party's base — the sort of people who pay attention to an election six months before the primary — and unfortunately their reach doesn't extend very far beyond that, at least not in terms of the numbers needed for presidential elections (so Nader's 10,000-strong crowd in Seattle translated into just over 100,000 people at the polls, and he still placed third and didn't clear 5 percent in the state). Hillary may only have 2,000 people show up when she's on the stump, but they're standing in for a lot more (Gore won 1.2 million votes in Seattle). That may simply be driven by name recognition, television advertising, etc., but it's still the case.

MA: Well, a grassroots campaign isn't only people calling for you to run: If there was such a thing, it was perhaps about Elizabeth Warren. But once she didn't run, Bernie saw an opening to the left and he took it. He's certainly the most progressive person, the most truly left person, in Washington, so we should just be happy he took the initiative. And as for Clinton, she’s sticking with the standard politician’s method, which is that of rounding up endorsements from elected officials and pretty much ignoring any kind of popular activity. In fact, in her encounter with the Black Lives Matter people she flat out said to leave it all to the politicians. Bernie was right when he said the Democrats need to get people excited, and if they think that Clinton's waving of endorsements from Likud’s representative in the U.S. Senate, Chuck Schumer, or Jeanne Whatever-Her-Name-Is [Shaheen], the senator New Hampshire, is going to get people moving, they’re dead wrong.

If the boasting about crowds is kind of tiresome, the fact that there are crowds for an avowed socialist is an encouraging sign, and though the Times doesn't let up about how his appeal is limited to Portland and Brooklyn, he is taking the word to South Carolina and Texas and many other places you would think were hopeless, and still drawing. So let's not lose sight of how remarkable that is. I mean, I'm out there campaigning for him in Brooklyn and there are certain people, I take one look at them, and I say to myself, "Hell with it, this person's a waste." I would consider the entire Confederacy a waste, but he's going there anyway. He's not going to turn Kansas into the hotbed of progressive activity it once was, but just showing up in flyover country is a positive thing.

NJ: This strikes me as no different from Nader, who assured people he was serious by promising to visit every state. In the end, he still came up 2 million votes short of the high water mark set by LaFollette's outsider campaign in 1924. And the electorate has more than tripled in size since then — we haven't even kept up with the growth in population. I'm not happy Bernie took the initiative to fight a battle we're not ready for.

You could argue that an insider bid is a more appropriate frame of reference: McCarthy, McGovern, Jackson, or Dean. None of these left behind a movement worth speaking of. Are we really surprised, at this point, that these campaigns leave nothing behind? American politics channels all energy into individual politicians, and the presidential contest is the ultimate form of that. Of course, of course, the ad hoc infrastructure that's built (designed to elect an individual) is blown away like sand when the campaign is over.

Really seems to me that underlying all these presidential bids is a white knight complex: We're still waiting for someone to ride in on horseback, build a movement for us, and shepherd a progressive agenda through Washington. This is delusional.

I do think it's worth campaigning in all fifty states — just not for the presidency. I don't think 'the Left' should abandon electoral politics, just that we should take the long view and start campaigning for races in which we can have an impact.

MA: The need to run local races is clear: look at how the Orthodox fucked East Ramapo simply by running in school board elections, but it’s kind of a chicken-and-egg thing: for the most part ideas are only aired in national elections; the rest of it’s a crapshoot, so to think local candidates will be able to get ideas across is kind of hopeful.

But here’s the thing, Nick: if American politics channels everything into individual politicians, and this is more or less true, given that the public is totally demobilized, can we afford to pass up this opportunity? LaFollette, Huey Long, William Jennings Bryan, even people like James Vardaman and Tom Watson and Pitchfork Ben Tillman, all of them populists with strong personal followings, did manage to have an effect on the broader politics. Accepting all your caveats, I’ll still be out there leafleting, hoping that instead of just rightwing rage there’ll be leftwing rage, that maybe a few people will be moved by a politics of ideas ('cause you certainly can’t say Bernie is a personality, despite the accent and the hair) and a step in the right direction will have been taken.

NJ: I'm never going to tell anyone to stay home, but yeah, I think we can afford to pass on this opportunity. The history of Left challengers for the presidency is a history of failure. More than a century of experience shows us this is the case. Those early 20th century populists might have affected the broader politics, but their contemporary equivalents can't even make that claim.

Dean had no impact on the Iraq war (I think he doesn't get nearly enough credit for Democratic victories in '06 and '08, but they proved to be a mixed blessing at best). Nader's runs didn't even slow down the consolidation of corporate power, and utterly failed to bolster the Green Party as a credible alternative. Jackson had a surprising amount of traction in the primary (though that was probably at least in part due to Hart's meltdown), but the Rainbow Coalition was a non-entity afterwards, and the New Democrats seized the party. McGovern only won the nomination under highly unique circumstances (the rewriting of the rules of the game after '68), squandered it due to lack of preparation, and inaugurated the party's turn right.

Let's assume Bernie's fundraising holds steady this quarter. Imagine what $30 million would do for progressive House and Senate candidates. Or to build a new organization of some sort (you could have four organizers in every state and pay them each a hundred grand and still have ten mil left over), or to invest in those that already exist. Instead it'll just be flushed down the toilet; this is nowhere close to what's needed to compete in the presidential field these days. (There was a lot of commentary on Nader's fundraising back in 2k, when he came up with almost a million dollars! Which now seems quaint and amusing.)

Last thought: I disagree that ideas are only raised in national elections. I think House, Senate, and gubernatorial elections are also meaningful forums (think Walker; the Left lost, but we can't say it wasn't a battle of ideas), and there are more channels through which to reach the public outside of electoral politics than ever. I was struck recently by a few lines from Victor Serge, which I'm pretty sure you yourself translated: “We wanted to be revolutionaries; we were only rebels. We must become termites, boring obstinately, patiently, all our lives. In the end, the dike will crumble.”

MA: I should maybe clarify what I meant; I mean national as in the sense of election to any national office, and you’re right, governor counts too. But let’s face it: who’s going to fork over money to hire organizers? It’s not like those who give money to Bernie would automatically do that. Not unless we had a modern Share Our Wealth Society that would carry on the work and start preparing for the next election as soon as this one is over (notice I didn’t say “lost”). And that’s why Dean, Nader, Jackson, and all of them left nothing behind: once the knight was brought down there was nothing behind him.

NJ: I will give you this: Bernie has raised some significant money (and it's coming in the right denominations), he has crowds, some of the polls are trending his way. He's hit the trifecta. I'll be glad to be wrong.

MA: Let’s hope you are. Of course, I was wrong about the Rosenbergs (well, half wrong), Cuba, and so many other things, it won’t be a shock if I got it wrong this time, too. In the end, and especially in this rotten country, we have to adopt what Gramsci called for: pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.

Mitchell Abidor, our contributing writer, is the recipient of a Hemingway Grant from the French Ministry of Culture for his new translation of Emmanuel Bove’s A Raskolnikoff. His recent books include an anthology of Victor Serge’s writings, Anarchists Never Surrender, and a translation of A Socialist History of the French Revolution, by Jean Jaurès.

Nicholas Jahr, a member of our editorial board, is a freelance writer based in Brooklyn. Follow him on Twitter @nicholasjahr or read more at his website.