Learning from Bernie’s mistakes: an analysis of “How It All Came Apart for Bernie Sanders”

Fires set by police burn on Backwater Bridge, November 20, 2016

This morning’s NY Times piece, “How It All Came Apart for Bernie Sanders” is a must read for every supporter of the Sanders campaign. It’s not a pleasant article, but learning from mistakes is critical collective work, even when it happens in a painful public way. While the focus of my political work has not been electoral campaigns, I think we have to recognize that the Bernie movement is inextricably tied to electoral politics. So it must, to some extent, submit to measuring itself by that framework, which is the focus on the NY Times piece. It must also grapple with a grasroots movement measuring stick as well given that the campaign claimed that mantle. Alexander Burns and Jonathan Martin do not speak that language and so I will try to do some extrapolation work from their journalism.

Let’s start with the electoral side and Bernie’s inability to go after Biden. There was (and is?) a deep and real conflict between Bernie’s personal integrity and his responsibility to the broader political movement he invokes. Burns and Martin write:

“Mr. Shakir and a second senior aide, Ari Rabin-Havt, took Mr. Sanders’s side and repeatedly reminded other campaign officials that Mr. Sanders was the ultimate decision maker on the campaign. In conversations with associates, both men agreed that it might make sense to criticize Mr. Biden in a sharper way. But they said Mr. Sanders could not be persuaded to do so: He and Jane liked the Bidens personally, and their word was final.”

We white people need to have a conversation about the limits of niceness. While I respect Bernie’s sense of personal integrity and his commitment to his personal relationship, pointing out Biden’s deep deep flaws isn’t personal, it was Bernie’s collective responsibility on behalf of a movement challenging neo-liberalism. He failed us as a movement when he had Biden on the ropes and didn’t finish him. This happened multiple times in the last two months and Bernie’s failure here is a deeply personal one that will reverberate for a long time.

Behind the scenes work

From an electoral politics view, Bernie clearly failed to do the behind the scenes work that was necessary. Believe it or not, this is also part of good grassroots work as well. He’s been a maverick for a long time and still hasn’t gotten used to working well with other people to the extent that is needed in our electoral system. I am in no way endorsing that reality, just making an observation. Again, one could argue that Sander’s deep personal sense of integrity got in the way of his effectiveness as a political operator. The same can not be said of of Jeff Weaver’s excuse to not do the necessary behind the scenes work:

“Arriving in Charleston, S.C., ahead of the Feb. 29 state primary, Mr. Weaver said the campaign had not yet sought a working relationship with figures like the House Speaker Nancy Pelosi because they wanted first to demonstrate the full sweep of their coalition on Super Tuesday three days later. He reached for a Civil War analogy to explain the muscle-flexing strategy. Abraham Lincoln did not issue the Emancipation Proclamation, Mr. Weaver said, until after Union troops had routed the Confederacy at the bloody battle of Antietam.”

This just shows a dangerous level of ignorance about political history in someone doing this level of political work. Weaver should know better. While I have a lot of deep critiques of Lincoln, he was a genius at behind the scenes political work. If you’re curious, I recommend “Team of Rivals”. If Weaver genuinely believed his line about Lincoln’s actions It seems pretty clear that Weaver fell victim to the Peter Principle, which is a problem that only the person at the top can fix.

Bernie Bros

On Bernie (and his core team’s) unwillingness to challenge sexism and misogyny in his movement:

“In the weeks before Super Tuesday, Mr. Sanders had indeed refused to yield to critics who were searching for gestures of accommodation. In Nevada, leaders of the powerful Culinary Workers Union Local 226, were frustrated that Mr. Sanders did not speak out more forcefully when his supporters heaped abuse on predominantly female union leaders over their opposition to ‘Medicare for all.’”

As Culinary officials were deluged with vitriol, including graphic and misogynistic messages, Mr. Sanders placed a phone call to the union’s secretary-treasurer, Geoconda Argüello-Kline, but they never connected.”

This is where Bernie fell down in his responsibility as a movement leader. Perhaps 40 years as en elected official isn’t the best practice for the hard work of movement discipline: challenging your own community when they are out of line. This anecdote is just the tip of the iceberg that has been lurking beneath the surface of the Bernie movement for 5 years. The term “Bernie Bros” is deeply problematic, but it has stuck around because it is partly true. This kind of sexist, bullying behavior didn’t start with Bernie and it won’t end with him. It’s endemic all over online culture. But it was his responsibility to stand up to it and he failed to do that.

There’s a lot of different reasons to do work around diversity and equity. Some of them are very practical and calculating. This is why John Edwards started his 2008 political campaign in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina (credit to Anthony Rogers-Wright for this reference). But there’s also a way to do undoing oppressions work in our organization that challenges the very fabric of white heteropatriarchy and seeks to destroy the binary. Unfortunately Bernie’s campaign doesn’t seem to have been able to do its work well enough with either of these frames: either with the electoral math to challenge the southern strategy or at the much deeper and radical level.

As for his 60 minutes comments on Cuba, I don’t disagree with them, but as a deeply principled person, I know there are also times to just be quiet. This was one of those times where a basic understanding of electoral politics, math and the role of Florida requires discretion and Bernie didn’t have it because he is too principled and note wise enough.

We need a backbone

None of this is an argument for electoral politics as the future of social change. But if you show up to a gun battle with a knife and survive to tell the tale, showing up four years later and not learning from your mistakes is downright suicidal.

Seven years ago I got to interview Noam Chomsky for the Iconcast podcast. I’ve been a Chomsky fanboy since I read him in high school and so it was a life highlight for me. One of the things we talked about was weakness of the US left since the deep trauma of the McCarthy trials. We are far too episodic and issue based. We lack the deeper long haul spine that the left in other parts of the world has. As Anthony Rogers Wright puts it, Republicans understand legacy building and we don’t.

The end of Bernie’s campaign should be a wake up call for the left in the US that we need to find ways to build our backbone. We can’t just sit around waiting for the next whirlwind moment whether that be Occupy, Standing Rock, Extinction Rebellion or the Bernie campaign. Those moments are exhilerating and powerful and deeply transformative. I got radicalized by one of those moments 20 years ago on April 16, 2000 on the streets of DC. I have enthusiastically participated in all these moments for what they are and all they could be, but they are no longer enough.

On my last day at the Oceti Sakowin camp at Standing Rock I walked around the camp with tears in my eyes because I knew that this sacred moment in time was ephemeral and that the state was going to crush it. Two weeks ago I was talking about this moment with two folks who have extensive experience organizing with movements outside the US. One of them was at Standing Rock too, but talked about the “event based” nature of the left in the US. In that conversation with them, I realized for the first time that I can’t JUST blame the fleetingness of Standing Rock on Trump and the big fossil fuel companies and the violent paramilitary forces they arrayed against us on the bridge on November 20. They are at fault, but they are not the only ones. Those of us working for change in the US have to take responsibility for our own inability (at least in my lifetime) to move beyond episodic and event based organizing. We need to build a disciplined backbone and yes, even a legacy.

On March 8, 2020, Bernie went on ABC’s “This Week” show. Using the term “the establishment” seven different times, he cast blame elsewhere for the decline of his campaign. He is absolutely right that centrist democrats and corporations and liberal elites did everything they could to take down his campaign, but that’s not the whole story. It’s time we learn to learn from our mistakes and build something lasting together. Our future depends on it.

Thanks to Anthony Rogers-Wright for pointing me to this piece this morning and for his feedback, insights and suggested wording choices on this piece.

Photo credit: Tim Nafziger, Backwater bridge, November 20, 2016. The fires in background were lit by tear gas canisters fired by paramilitary units and were later blamed on water protectors and used to justify water cannons that were eventually turned on us.

Comments (3)

  1. Jake Donaldson

    Thanks for sharing this. Overall I think it’s on point. I especially like what you said about Bernie’s unwillingness to be more bold about exposing the vast differences between him and Biden.

    Two additional thoughts:

    First, it hasn’t been easy for me to find a balance between the importance of introspection when it comes to “violent” behavior within the movement (including, as you point out, sexism) and the persistent and focused efforts on the part of the media, including the New York Times, to portray Sanders’ movement as uniquely sexist, etc. – in other words, tone policing. My personal belief is that such violent language was not more prevalent within Sanders’ campaign than in any other campaign, though it was, perhaps, more visible simply due to the fact that his proponents had a *much* larger online presence than those of other candidates. I saw one study out of Harvard that corroborates this belief, in that it found that, as a percentage, Sanders fans had the same proportion of positive, neutral, negative, and very negative comments as any other candidates’.

    I also believed it was important to push back against such portrayals by pointing out the constant barrage of misinformation, smears, etc. directed at Sanders and his campaign coming out of the media itself – far more damaging, in my opinion, than the violence coming from mostly random Twitter followers.

    Again, I hear you on the need for self-analysis, but I personally struggle with it, maybe given my own position in society with respect to privilege/power.

    Second, I definitely agree with your comments on the need for a more robust movement that isn’t just event based. I actually view his movement as particularly weak in that it has been tied so closely to electoral politics, and it’s actually a message that I have been planning to promote as well as this movement slowly disintegrates. On the bright side, one surprising aspect of the movement for me was that it allowed me to connect with a lot of people on Twitter whose values and beliefs I really admire, and I look forward to following all of them as they move onto what’s next.

    I presume you’re familiar with Bill Moyer’s “Movement Action Plan”? I know Mark and Paul Engler have written about it. I wonder if there is some natural ebb and flow of movements in general, with Occupy, Standing Rock, and the Sanders electoral runs being ebbs… and that there are many many people out there doing ground work in between the ebbs to keep things moving. That “in between” work is probably even more important than the much more visible events that catch the public’s eye.

    1. TimN

      Thanks for engaging so deeply with this article, Jake. A couple of thoughts:

      1. I think it is worth distinguishing between “violent” language and oppressive patterns of behavior. I don’t think challenging sexist and misogynist behavior is _automatically_ tone policing. I guess it sometimes can be, but it certainly isn’t always. I think white, straight guys like you and I have a specific responsibility to challenge others in our demographic. That’s not tone policing and if someone calls it tone policing, they are just being mean.

      2. Since we already had a conversation about this, I’ll post the link to the piece that summarizes Bill Moyer’s analysis of the ups and downs of movements that seems like a good footnote to this article: Surviving the Ups and Downs of Social Movements by Mark Engler and Paul Engler

  2. Rick Yoder

    After Bernie’s withdrawal, I think the “perception of failure” described in Moyer’s MAP Model is especially relevant for those of us who put a lot of energy into the movement. Like many others, I just cannot get excited about Biden, even though it’s no brainer that he’s a better option than Trump, and feel my own energy subsiding. Moyer helps put our efforts into a historical perspective and to realize that we have to be in this for the long haul.

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