Bernie Sanders presumptive loss of the Democratic Party nomination for president demonstrates the limits of electoral politics for the left. I have already seen some pre-postmortems speculating that Sanders simply arrived to soon, that his staggering margins among young voters presage a socialist wave of the future, perhaps a decade or two from now, when the rising left-leaning generations become a majority of the electorate.
This is bad analysis on two fronts. First because it under-credits Sanders’s catalytic impact on the consolidation of a collective political identity for the socialist left. The two decades leading up to Sanders’s 2016 run were marked by a number of powerful and public anti-establishment protests, from the street-fighting of the 1999 WTO protests in Seattle, through the Occupy movement in 2011, both ultimately put down by paramilitary police brutality. But these popular movements never coalesced around an explicit left-socialist program, and there was always the risk that their fringes would spin out into vulgar anarchism or libertarianism, and the rest subsumed into milquetoast Obama-style consensus liberalism.
Sanders, then, was a figure around which some fairly diverse left tendencies could coalesce to form a coherent popular bloc and legitimate mass movement at a time when the inextricably linked phenomena of neoliberal economic austerity and dire social atomization seemed as impregnable as they have ever been. There’s no need to indulge in crass great-man speculation in order to note that Sanders served as a necessary agent in the consolidation of socialist tendencies into an actual socialist movement. If he were not here, now, then it becomes spurious to imagine some future incarnation could capitalize on a political project that no one had organized in the first place. Whatever else it may be, history is contingent.
But the second reason this analysis fails is that it indulges in the same fantasy that has dogged Democratic politics for the last forty years at least, which is a crude demographic determinism that assumes that if we wait long enough, just until today’s youth are a majority, or until the country is “majority-minority,” or until women vote as a single bloc, then historical inevitability will kick in. Yeah, well, remember what I just said about history.
A more dispassionate analysis says that there is no reason to believe that demography is destiny, no reason to believe that a popular movement that reflects—what, a quarter of the country?—will either this year or twenty years hence have the power to wrest control of the state from all of the interests and resources that will continue to be aligned against it.
Nor is it “realistic”—to use the frequently disingenuous bugbear of conservative Democrats—to imagine that this is a simple problem of communication and outreach. If polls are to believed, a majority of Democratic voters and likely voters strongly support Sanders’s policies, from Medicare for All to an at-least-slightly more modest and less militaristic foreign policy, but the evidence is pretty clear at this point: policy agreement did not drive voting choice, certainly not in the numbers necessary. There is at least anecdotal evidence that this was the result of media coverage that obscured and obfuscated the very distinct divergences between Sanders and the rest of the field, and there is polling to suggest that a substantial chunk of voters who ultimately broke for Biden believe that he supports Medicare for All, which he explicitly, aggressively does not. But again, there is no reason to believe that this media landscape will be better or fairer in the future. If present trends in media continue, it will be worse and less fair.
The left may continue to make up marginal ground in legislatures, where campaigns are still run on a smaller scale and the pavement-pounding democracy of knocking on doors in a single district really does have advantages over mass media manipulation. (You can see this in races like the one that brought Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez to office, where the incumbent has effectively decamped permanently to D.C. and has only a kind of absentee-landlord connection to their ostensible home turf.) But if we are being—here is that word again—realistic, then we have got to admit to ourselves that on a national scale, in a country the size of this one, a country with two centuries of imperial inertia and a vast, entangled complex of corporate finance, media, and national security bureaucracy, the prospects of winning a free and fair election is very, very small. (Swings in exit poll data in a number of American states, including Massachusetts, during the current primary season, are already strongly indicative of direct vote manipulation, or would be taken as such if they were observed in any other country but our own.)
All of this leaves a conundrum for which I have no prescriptive answer. Labor organizing is the obvious suggestion, since it seems to present the only path to a locus of non-state power, but that will be a decades-long project at least, given the parlous state of American labor. I could of course, write, optimistically, that there is nothing inherently wrong with a decades-long project, that if the left is going to think in historical terms, it had better get used to the fact that history is rather long by definition. But, of course, the ice caps are melting; Siberia is thawing; the Great Barrier Reef has been bleached white.
But the feel of historical acceleration that we all feel, the sense that the long duration of time is compressing before our eyes, with whole relative eras passing in the cycle of a day’s news, may herald some kind of break, a tectonic juncture in which one plate slips and a few things rattle loose. I don’t hope for catastrophe, but I do think the present COVID-19 outbreak, a symptom of the same forces driving climate change itself, of a metastasizing human civilization bumping in ever closer, weirder ways against the natural world in an age of near-instantaneous travel, heralds . . . something. Maybe the best and only hope for the left is to tighten our grip on the rails and steer the prow into unpredictable times.
Jacob Bacharach is the author of the novels “The Doorposts of Your House and on Your Gates” and “The Bend of the World.” His most recent book is “A Cool Customer: Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking.”…