by Ray McCoy
Truly transformative social movements usually complete cycles. They start with a crisis, build momentum, organize, gain power, and then institutionalize. The French Revolution combined intellectuals, peasants, and convicts into a force that the mighty King Louis XVI and his professional army could not stop. Their effort culminated with the king’s execution on the guillotine in 1793.
After this, the various revolutionaries had to face the question of which vision of that revolution would be imposed. Many of them did not survive that stage of their revolution. Like their former king, many of them were guillotined and, eventually, all of the elements they detested about the monarchy were restored under Napoleon Bonaparte.
This cycle isn’t unique to the history of France and, indeed, it’s the template for most “revolutions.”
What American progressives have learned through their own bitter experience but seem to forget every time is that their revolutionary program is incompatible with the organizational interests of the Democratic Party. Nevertheless, the 2020 version of Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) dutifully endorsing the approved DNC candidate—predetermined as it was—may have sounded the death knell for his movement.
The legions of bright-eyed and bushy-tailed youth who knocked on doors and phone banked for Sanders in 2016 will be eight years older in 2024, regardless of who wins this year. The candidate himself will be 82 years old during that coming election cycle, having already undergone heart surgery once during this past campaign. Worse yet, his strategy of appeasing his Democratic colleagues has prevented any viable alternative from developing and there is no figure capable of being his successor.
Radicalism: Farm to Table
After withdrawing from the race in 2016, Bernie Sanders started a political action organization known as Our Revolution, based on the title of his book (also coincidentally a 1905 book collection of essays by future Bolshevik Leon Trotsky). This was supposed to be the foundation for supporting progressive organizing across the nation, headed initially by Bernie’s veteran adviser Jeff Weaver.
Bernie’s 2016 staffers objected to Weaver’s leadership on the grounds that his strategies for television-based publicity were outdated. By 2017 Weaver was booted out in favor of Nina Turner, a former state senator from Ohio. Turner was more popular among the Bernie base than Weaver due to her frontline appearance as his surrogate, but in substance the group was neither revolutionary nor populist in its structure.
The chairman of Our Revolution was Larry Cohen, a former union boss from the Communications Workers of America (CWA). Besides Turner, other Democratic ex-politicians on the board included Jim Hightower and Lucy Flores. In 2018 Flores and fellow Hispanic activist Catalina Velasquez departed Our Revolution over a rift with Turner and adviser Tezlyn Figaro over support for the DREAM Act. Flores would also later accuse Biden of touching and kissing her inappropriately during an appearance during her run for lieutenant governor in Nevada.
With total revenue each year from 2016 and 2017 approaching $3.4 million it would be expected that Our Revolution made a massive splash, but its 2017 federal 990 tax disclosure listed salaries and wages as accounting for $1 million in expenses, more than any other category. The only candidate who was a direct recipient of funds in 2017 was Justin Fairfax, who would be elected Lt. Governor of Virginia and is best known for being accused of sexual assault during Virginia’s political crisis in February 2019.
Our Revolution also made $100,000 in grants to the Progressive Change Campaign Committee—a PAC that, rather than support Sanders or his fellow progressive Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in 2016, had decided to urge frontrunner Hillary Clinton to “adopt” Warren’s policies. Most of Our Revolution’s grants, however, went to branches of the organization in Texas, Wisconsin, and other states with almost $250,000 going to the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe.
Then in 2018, the year of its first midterm election, Our Revolution PAC had the chance to change the Democratic Party and nudge it to the left. Yet according to public records, their expenditures amounted to a paltry $10,254 on five candidates—all in red-state congressional districts, and all of whom were defeated—compared to the $100,000 paid to the PCCC and over $187,000 in total compensation for Turner. This is in contrast to the more well-known group, Justice Democrats, that cultivated successful Democratic challengers such as Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez of New York and Ilhan Omar of Minnesota.
Another often ignored node of the senator’s web of organizations is the Sanders Institute, a nonprofit think tank headed by his step-son David Driscoll, who earned $110,006 in salary in 2018. Yet this think tank publishes hardly any content at all, with much of the “Research and Reports” section occupied by Homeland Security and Veterans Affairs department reports from the late years of the Obama administration and archived documents from the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC) and Center for Economic and Policy Research (CEPR).
It has a booklist that functions as advertising space for books by Sanders and supporters like Cornel West and Bill McKibben as well as various mediocre Democratic politicians like Rep. Rosa DeLaura (D-Conn.). Like the CEPR and the Real News Network, the Sanders Institute has Hollywood actor Danny Glover on its board of directors.
Will the Ducklings Follow?
The 2020 primary cycle offered the full range of emotions for Sanders supporters—including the euphoric high following his Nevada victory, the anger at the irregularities and blatant tampering in Iowa, and the incredulity of watching a moderator flout his denial of a sexist remark to Elizabeth Warren to his face.
But with the onset of the coronavirus quarantines freezing the race after Joe Biden’s victories in Florida and Arizona, they were forced to face the inevitable prospect of their candidate withdrawing without the race running its course. The three-year quest to seize the Democratic Party from within was no longer feasible.
Many of the organizations that built their activist strategies for 2020 with the goal of booting retrograde candidates had counted on Sanders or a similarly radical candidate like Warren winning. Just one month ago the Sunrise Movement, an environmental radical group, was “mobilizing to stop Joe Biden.” Their sister movement IfNotNow blockaded Biden’s headquarters before the South Carolina primary. Most famously an activist for the pro-illegal alien group Cosecha was told by Biden to vote for Donald Trump after he demanded deportations end in November 2019.
These three organizations are members of the Momentum Community, a shadowy group of overlapping activist groups centered around the Ayni Institute in Boston. On April 9 a coalition of eight groups, among them IfNotNow and Sunrise, signed a letter to Biden giving a list of demands for their support. Complementing it was an op-ed by Waleed Shahid in The Nation, communications director of the Justice Democrats, the electoral group that had backed Ocasio-Cortez and other insurgent Democrats in 2018. The letter was distributed by NextGen Climate America, another major climate activism group led by billionaire and former Democratic candidate Tom Steyer.
But that very same day Steyer was endorsing Biden while talking about the need for the presumptive nominee to reach out to climate activists like those working for his organization. If NextGen was demanding new concessions from Biden in exchange for an endorsement, why were its president and director simultaneously delivering his? The mixed messages from progressive groups in responding to the Biden endorsement dilemma show a disconnect between the rank and file members and organizational leadership.
While Sunrise’s leader and co-founder Varshini Prakash has stated that it is already “engaging” with the Biden campaign, local chapters tweeted that they were not endorsing the former vice president. While Sanders’ endorsement of Biden is a full-on betrayal, one could argue that Prakash and Sunrise are no better given their past shaming and mockery of rival candidates like Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg for insufficient commitment to their agenda.
Like O’Rourke, Biden has received donations from the fossil fuel industry to the tune of $50,000. While there hasn’t been a total admission of defeat by the letter’s signatories, even Justice Democrats executive director Alexandra Rojas held back from declining to support Biden in an interview with The Hill, saying they were focused on Congress.
The Whinging Wallflowers
The above examples do not necessarily reflect the voting base that supported Sanders in 2020, and currently there appears to be a mutiny among voters and high-profile activists.
Sanders’s former press secretary Briahna Joy Gray has vocally rejected endorsing Biden. Similarly, political activist Shaun King released a five-point demand list for his endorsement that included ones like admitting that Biden is “the architect of mass incarceration.”
Many #NeverBiden voters have coalesced around former Young Turks commentator and comedian Jimmy Dore, who daily vents his disillusion with Bernie Sanders, and there has been a revival of the movement to support a progressive third party such as the Movement for a People’s Party headed by ex-Bernie staffer Nick Brana or the Green Party.
But the clock largely has run out for these efforts in the current election cycle. The hard work needed to create an alternative in the form of gaining ballot access, raising campaign funds, and increasing voter recognition has been neglected in order to focus on entryist campaigns to take control of the Democratic Party. While this has moved the party’s message to the left, the leadership remains completely unchanged.
Biden was first elected to public office in 1970, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) career began in 1976 as a DNC official), and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.) was first elected as a state assemblyman in 1975. Schumer and Pelosi are not threatened by grassroots revolt, because their positions largely are chosen by colleagues, not voters.
For those who consider themselves anti-war, Medicare for All progressives this year will be more than a repeat of past disappointments. The genuflection of Bernie Sanders to the establishment represents the ultimate defeat of his “revolution” and the possible collapse of the progressive movement for the foreseeable future.
The charade of the Democratic primary season is over, and progressive activists and volunteers are waking up to the truth that Bernie Sanders’ endorsement of Joe Biden has deflated their prospects as he runs away with the loot. The years of following their Pied Piper of Vermont have left them with nothing. No accomplishments, no power, and no future.
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Ray McCoy is a freelance journalist from the Midwest.