When we comment on a political movement, we should avoid depicting it either as destined for victory—a noble upswelling of the common people against the forces of evil—or as destined for failure—doomed either by its own limitations, or by the strength of the enemy, who is moved to destroy it out of hatred of its very nobility. Such depictions are inevitably oversimplified and therefore biased: as George Orwell once noted, “The more one is conscious of one’s political bias, the more chance one has of acting politically without sacrificing one’s … intellectual integrity.” Moreover, although such depictions make good storytelling, they don’t help people understand the nuts-and-bolts organizing techniques that enable modern political movements to move from the local to the national stage.
Contra the high-sounding theories proffered by left-wing commentators such as Gilles Deleuze, Alain Badiou and Kimberlé Crenshaw, the success of a political movement often depends as much on making sure protestors are supplied with coffee and rideshares as on the content of speeches and the size of marches. Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht’s 2020 book, Bigger than Bernie: How We Can Win Democratic Socialism for our Time, is a pleasure to read partly because it is suffused with a deep awareness of these unglamorous but all-too-human realities. Day and Uetricht are former Jacobin Magazine writers with many years of experience as political activists, and they were heavily involved in Bernie Sanders’ 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns. Their book, now out in paperback, provides an insiders’ account of the achievements and limitations of those campaigns, and offers an exceptionally helpful and inspiring argument for how progressives can do better next time. As their book’s title suggests, Day and Uetricht are proud of what the Sanders campaign accomplished but also aware of how much remains to be done to build a viable economic left in the United States. Anyone with an interest in recent American politics, or in democratic socialism generally, should read it—and then recommend it to a friend.
Day and Uetricht’s book opens with a history of the American left, from the early activism of democratic socialists like Eugene Debs, through the mid-twentieth-century New Deal period, to Sanders’ campaigns for president, which came at what I have argued elsewhere was the tail end of the neoliberal era. The authors present this history as one of noble intentions and significant achievements, but also many significant defeats. They express measured admiration for the New Deal era’s welfare programmes and increased labour-union activity, but they also emphasise that progressives failed to meaningfully check the power of economic elites, and that this left the era’s relatively modest welfare programmes vulnerable to erosion when the political tide turned and neoliberalism became ascendent. They express tremendous appreciation for the civil rights movement—particularly its efforts to rein in the power of big business and raise living standards for the poor—but they also acknowledge that the movement ran out of steam. As Hunter S. Thompson memorably puts it in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas (first published in 1971), the “sense of inevitable victory over the forces of Old and Evil” that had been so characteristic of the height of the Civil Rights era had given way, so that “[now], you can go up on a steep hill in Las Vegas and look West, and with the right kind of eyes you can almost see the high water mark—that place where the wave finally broke, and rolled back.”
By the early 1980s, materialism had clearly supplanted liberal idealism as the dominant gestalt, and by the end of that decade, many were convinced that the economic left had been knocked flat by the political steamroller of Reaganism and finished off by the collapse of totalitarian communism in the Soviet Union. Day and Uetricht don’t sugar-coat the challenges of this period; they note that there was little the left could have realistically done at the time to hold back the tide of change. Much of Bigger than Bernie focuses on Sanders’ experience as an almost lone warrior for democratic socialism during this period—and one who was often described as something of an oddity in American politics. But in the wake of the Great Recession of 2009, economic precariousness, increased wealth inequality—and anger at what many saw as the increasingly visible dominance of plutocrats in American politics—contributed to Sanders’ shockingly quick and steep rise in popularity. At the same time, several other high-profile self-identified democratic socialists were elected to Congress—most notably Alexandria Ocasio Cortez. The early days of Sanders’ 2020 campaign, during the primary season, proved to be the highwater mark of progressives’ popularity, when for a brief time he became the Democratic front runner, despite a lack of big donors and only scattered support from mainstream media outlets: his most significant endorsements came from the Detroit Metro Times and the San Francisco Bay Guardian. However, he was not the front runner for long: Elizabeth Warren stayed in the primary race, splitting the progressive vote, and there were several other Democratic candidates. Democrats united around the Biden candidacy, and Sanders’ second place finish on Super Tuesday put an end to his run. Since he’s now 80 years old and has already had one heart attack, he is highly unlikely to run for president again. This puts the left in the awkward position of having achieved a level of prominence in American society at a time when it lacks a clear leader.
Day and Uetricht avoid painting too rosy a picture of the Sanders campaign. They acknowledge that he made some foreign policy declarations, such as initially supporting the war in Afghanistan, that hurt him politically on the left, and that the campaign lacked established networks and civil society groups that could have provided more momentum and heft. Many political commentators overlook the importance of such networks and groups and focus solely on party politics and large institutions. This helps explain why some progressives opined that the Sanders campaign failed because the primary system was rigged. Day and Uetricht acknowledge that, although it seems clear that the Democratic party elites didn’t want Sanders as the nominee, this might not have mattered if he’d had even more grass-roots support. And they emphasise that this would have required more established networks and civil society groups. Between elections, such groups help shift public opinion by developing and proposing policies. And during election season, they can be mobilized to help shift margins in the preferred direction.
Thus, it is helpful that the second half of Bigger Than Bernie is focused on how to build—or rebuild—such networks and groups in the twenty-first century. Day and Uetricht focus on the importance of unions and the labour movement in general, which in its heyday included much of the American workforce, and on the impact of the sharp decline in union membership and union power since the early 1980s—which they argue was due in large part to conservative and so-called third way centrist policies. But they also point out, throughout the book, that unions are far from perfect as instruments of progressive politics. For example, they note that plenty of unions have supported right-wing policies when that has been to the advantage of their members, and that, during the 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns, many unions chose to endorse candidates who were less labour-friendly than Sanders.
One development the authors don’t discuss is the Republican party’s recent shift towards soft economic populism rhetoric—examples include Trump’s drain-the-swamp-of-elites trope and Marco Rubio’s embrace of unionization for tech companies. Since Congress, during the last Republican administration, enacted massive tax cuts for the rich and gutted medical funding for the disadvantaged—and since Trump had a habit of saying out loud that he thinks too many people were voting—it’s easy to conclude that right-wing populism has a lot in common with a con. But it is a powerful ideological and rhetorical force in American politics, and it directly competes with Sanders-style democratic socialism, so American progressives should spend more time combatting it.
The way forward for progressives might be found in the sections of the book in which Day and Uetricht describe the forms of activism and outreach that they think are most likely to reach interested supporters and voters. The parts of Bigger than Bernie that I find the most heartening are those that discuss what inspired workers to become active in the Sanders campaigns or to get involved with organisations such as the Democratic Socialists of America. Many of them were people who had been hard done by, and who were eager for a brighter future—but unsure how to bring one about. Day and Uetricht point out that the left’s approach—proposing constructive democratic and egalitarian policies while also articulating criticisms of capitalism—was a potent draw during an era which, for many people, was defined by staggeringly high disparities of wealth. One silver lining of that era has been the dramatic increase in the number of people who support democratic socialism in the United States, and the now-widespread popularity of proposals like Medicare for All. A 2018 Gallup poll showed 51% of young Americans felt positively about the term socialism, and recent Pew data has shown growing support for a single payer health option. Sanders’ key ideological impact has been to shift perceptions of socialism and equality away from the taint of Soviet totalitarianism and towards more positive models like the social democratic Nordic approach.
Of course, it is one thing to build political support for particular policies, and another to translate that support into effective political power. Day and Uetricht argue that this is why progressives need to not only generate popular support but also build networks and civil society groups that can harness people’s enthusiasm and help them get involved in enduring institutions that can have an ongoing impact on electoral politics at every level of government. How to go about doing this is tricky—and varies depending on local circumstances. Day and Uetricht rightly point out that there is no magic formula that applies to every situation—and that imagining there is one would be calamitous.
I would suggest that American progressives look further afield for more insight into what is or isn’t politically viable. For instance, the Corbyn campaign in the UK is often compared to Sanders’: both were left-of-centre campaigns that unexpectedly gained popularity in 2016 and seemed on the cusp of victory by the late 2010s—and both ended up disappointing. A helpful analysis of the Corbyn campaign is Leo Panitch’s and Colin Leys’ recent book, Searching for Socialism: The Project of the Labour New Left from Benn to Corbyn. They point out that Corbyn was handicapped by significant elite hostility from within the Labour party, but also by being unable to attract both the support of Labour voters who were newer to the party (many of whom were highly educated, London-centred and anti-Brexit) and Labour’s historically core voters (many of whom are blue collar, heartland-centred, and pro-Brexit). They also note that this experience exposed a deep divide on the left—between its liberal, internationalist wing (which is often more focused on cultural than economic issues) and its economically egalitarian base, many of whose members hold conservative views on social issues such as national identity and immigration. The American left is handicapped by similar divides (though these are sometimes overstated). So American progressives might gain insights from studying the British example, that could minimise the chance that their leadership could in future experience something like the Corbyn shutout.
That said, Bigger Than Bernie is a comprehensive work. Meagan Day and Micah Uetricht have written a thought-provoking book that is essential reading for progressives. Bernie Sanders’ 2016 campaign was for many of us the first moment of real political hope we’d experienced in our lifetimes. Day and Uetricht show us that it doesn’t have to be the only one.