Life Comes At You Fast: The Stunning End of the Bernie Sanders Campaign

The surprising announcement by Bernie Sanders this week that he will end his 2020 Democratic Party presidential primary bid offers us a critical moment to reflect on the strategic moment we face – especially given the dramatic economic and social crisis of Covid-19 that continues to unfold.

This piece critically assesses the core claims of pro-Sanders writers associated with Jacobin magazine and the “class struggle election” strategy put forward by the Bread & Roses Caucus within DSA. While we don’t share the optimism of the author that the hard questions raised will force these voices to rethink or renounce their assumptions around power, movements, and electoral politics – we do think others may.

By Jason E. Smith

On March 3, a full two weeks before its scheduled meeting on March 17–18, the Federal Reserve announced a surprise interest rate cut of half a percent, down to 1.25 percent. It was the first emergency rate cut since October 2008, in the midst of the worst economic crisis since the 1930s. The markets were caught off-guard, and far from reassured. Equities indexes tumbled in response, and have continued to do so ever since, at a rate more precipitous than 2008, even. Just over two weeks later, on a Sunday afternoon, the Fed slashed rates still again, essentially setting them at the zero lower bound. Once again, the move triggered a massive sell-off the following day, as the Dow plunged almost 13 percent in a single session.

As I write this, the Dow has lost almost a third of the “value” it had at recent all-time highs. The bottom is nowhere in sight. As recently as March 16, China gave the world the first glimpse of what happens to a functioning economy during a severe public health crisis. In January and February, industrial production was down 14 percent; retail sales, 21. Analysts summed up the findings: “devastating.” The worst is yet to come. As the prospect of hundreds of thousands, even millions, of coronavirus–related deaths dawns on American politicians, many have begun to use the term “depression” to describe the anticipated economic fallout, as entire sectors shut down and tens of millions of workers are let go.

Life Comes At You Fast

Given this dire and ongoing deterioration of the situation on the public health and economic fronts, it makes perfect sense that the stunning and definitive defeat of the Bernie Sanders campaign has been demoted to an afterthought for most, as actual historical events have upstaged the carefully plotted drama of the primary season. As the saying goes, life comes at you fast.

The Sanders campaign will continue to fade in interest and importance as people’s lives and livelihoods are put at risk. Who knows where we’ll be in a month? Chance would have it that Fed Chairman Jerome Powell’s rate cut would happen on and overshadow the most important day of the Democratic primary, March 3, when Sanders’ fate was sealed. Biden’s earlier commanding performance in South Carolina was the writing on the wall, but Super Tuesday, the fatal blow. (Michigan? The nail in the coffin.) Politics, like American football, is a game of inches. The arcane machinations of electoral politics provide endless opportunity to play “What if?” (What if the Iowa caucus results hadn’t been bungled? What if Warren had dropped out and endorsed Sanders before March 3?, and so on.) One thing is for certain, however: the Sanders campaign is finished, for good. The millions of voters who looked to him for direction, and as a transformative force of the American scene, will have to look elsewhere. Most likely, in the mirror.

There is an irreducible gap or hiatus between the different and often conflicting forms of power exercised by mass movements—mass direct action—and power set in motion by the state. So, too, a world of difference between throwing oneself into a popular mobilization and attempting to win a state-sanctioned election.

In fact, the Sanders campaign had any number of advantages in the primary contest. It was much better-funded than other campaigns, with a broad base of donors no other candidate could match; it ran a well-organized, innovative campaign that took advantage of their candidate’s particular appeal [1]; it was able to mobilize an enormous and highly energized army of volunteers to canvas and phone bank across the nation; it demonstrated unprecedented strength among young and Latino voters. Sanders’s persona is also unusually compelling and charismatic. Despite having held public office for the past four decades, he could credibly present himself as an outsider, even an activist, something other than a political hack.

Above all, the campaign had one decisive edge over all others: having never stopped campaigning after 2016, Sanders had a four-year head start to develop his fundraising networks, refine and expand its organizational structure, win over voting blocs that stayed away in 2016, and add new wrinkles to its platform (most dramatically, the so-called Green New Deal). It didn’t matter. By midnight, March 3, the campaign had been bested by easily the worst candidate on the field in recent memory. Biden had never won a primary and, after stinging defeats in early caucuses and primaries, was a dead man walking. He couldn’t raise money and his organization was laughable. A train wreck on the microphone and an irrepressible plagiarist and groper—no one took the longtime also-ran seriously. And yet, by the time the Michigan primary results came in, Biden was the favorite among Black voters by a margin of forty percent—a blowout—and he had the nomination in the bag. A strange turn of events for the party of Hillary Clinton, and the era of #MeToo.

Crashing the Electoral Stage

I have no interest, in these few lines, in criticizing the Sanders campaign itself or figuring out “what went wrong.” My intention is not to criticize those who participated in the campaign. (My wife and 12-year-old son both canvassed and phone-banked for Sanders; I did not.) My concerns are more narrow, even parochial. I want to look briefly at how the “socialist” left in the US has approached this campaign, and where it is likely to go from here.

The gravity of the situation currently unfolding has, understandably, left little room for leftists involved in the Sanders campaign to digest just how devastating a loss this was. Despite the advantages he brought into the 2020 campaign, the defeat this time around was more cut-and-dried than four years ago, against a much weaker adversary. Socialists do not yet seem ready to reckon with these results. Now is the time of palliatives, of moral victories and consolation prizes. “We won the war of ideas,” one hears in places; “five million people voted for socialism,” in others. In retrospect, the electoral process, which has consumed so much energy and time over the past four years, has been transformed into an opportunity for the promotion of a social democratic program, the Democratic Party primary a platform to win hearts and minds. [2] 

The losses at the polls can be chalked up, these voices suggest, to the uneven development of the socialist insurgency, the lag between winning over millions to a platform featuring bold ideas like Medicare for All, debt forgiveness, and a wealth tax on the richest Americans, and the dismal science of convincing voters, district-by-district, to pull the appropriate lever. It is nevertheless the case that Sanders’s defeat this time around means more than the end of his campaign. After four years in which the electoral process has been the only game in town for the socialist left, there is no plausible argument for continuing down the same path.

The end of the Sanders campaign also means the demise of this current’s overarching political strategy, which has relied almost exclusively on the prospect of a Sanders nomination as the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate, and eventual victory over Trump, to bring about its social democratic vision (national health insurance, large-scale Keynesian fiscal initiatives, a modest wealth redistribution program, and so on). After Corbyn, after Sanders, the electoral path to 21st-century social democracy is dead. If we have at most a decade, as Daniel Denvir recently wrote, “to stave off climate catastrophe,” we certainly do not have four years to waste waiting for the next election cycle. [3]

This rhetorical device that casts the Sanders campaign in the rearview mirror, as a socialist crashing of the electoral stage—part of a broader, longer-term offensive to reshape common sense—was anticipated all along, in fact, by a slightly different hedging technique used by socialists during the campaign itself. Knowing full well that Sanders’s path to victory was narrow at best, and with a healthy if apparently repressed distrust in the electoral process to begin with, this discursive stratagem had the function of situating the self-identified socialists backing Bernie both in and outside the political process, so as to have it both ways. The rhetoric took, in turn, two slightly different forms.

Two Rhetorical Turns

Throughout the campaign, it was not unusual to hear, in the casual give-and-take within the socialist milieu, and especially on social media, leftists argue that the “grassroots” dynamism of the campaign, its micro-donations, newly mobilized voters, and wave of enthusiastic volunteers was testimony to the fact that Sanderism, broadly speaking, was not merely an electoral campaign but a mass movement whose objectives extended well beyond the circumscribed aim of winning political office. Typical in this regard was this claim made by one prominent Sanders advocate as recently as March 2, a day before Super Tuesday: “The movement that’s organized around Bernie Sanders right now is unlike anything that’s been seen in modern electoral history…We have a mass…movement to…elect [Sanders].” [4] 

This claim was shadowed, however, by another, more sophisticated theory advanced by many of the campaign’s most visible supporters online, but also by the campaign itself. Since the social and political landscape in the US—in contrast with, say, France (the Gilets Jaunes) or Hong Kong (the anti-extradition movement)—has produced no sizable mass movements in recent years, it would take the election of Sanders to the presidency to launch them. In a notable interview at a high point in the campaign, Sanders himself claimed that as president he would not simply be commander-in-chief, head of the state apparatus, but more importantly, “organizer-in-chief,” able to call into being broad-based social movements that would take to the streets to pressure recalcitrant legislators from both parties to line up behind his sweeping policy reforms. [5] 

This interpretation of the campaign does not claim that the electoral machine Sanders has put in place is itself a mass movement; it argues instead that a successful political campaign alone will provide the impetus and energy required for the rebirth of a new wave of mass struggles, picking up from where the Occupy movement, or Black Lives Matter, left off, though now reoriented toward the implementation of Sanders’s agenda.

In a January article published in In These Times, Daniel Denvir imagines a Sanders presidency whose governing effectiveness would rely on a positive “feedback” loop between mass movements and what he calls, following Frances Fox Piven, a Sanders-aligned “electoral bloc.” The vision here is of a friction-less dynamic in which the forms of power wielded by movements and the state mutually reinforce and replenish one another, as they take on a host of enemies across American society (fossil fuel companies, say) and within the state itself (the non-Sanders-aligned electoral bloc: i.e. almost everyone outside a few junior congresswomen). [6] 

A similar scenario is put forth by Meagan Day, whom I cited above as equating the Sanders fine-tuned political apparatus with a broad-based mass movement. In a piece written a year ago, before the primary season got underway, Day, like Denvir, notes that Sanders both “values extra-parliamentary politics on principle” and “insist[s] that extra-parliamentary movements are the key to political success.” But where Denvir’s friction-less feedback loop assumes the existence of both a Sanders presidency and autonomous mass movements, Day assumes the risk of predicting that these mass movements will not emerge on their own, with their own motivations and objectives, but will have to be convoked by the organizer-in-chief who, with his enormous personal charisma, can call them into existence. The inherent tensions lurking in this claim are highlighted by Day’s own formulation, as when she envisions a head of the US state who “call[s] for mass political activity from below.” [7]

Bernie, Movements and Momentum

The title of Day’s piece, “Bernie Sanders Wants You to Fight,” encapsulates a line of thinking running through these pieces, which are ubiquitous on the pro-Sanders socialist left, not to mention endorsed by Sanders himself. Rather than having confidence in the “masses” to take up their own fight, on their own terms, this vision imagines them waiting to be called into action; rather than imagining these movements putting forth their own objectives and demands, some of which might come into conflict with Sanders’s program, these arguments anticipate these movements’ own, autonomous demands obediently subordinated to the initiatives of the US state, or at the very least the head of its executive branch. Any inkling that these movements might have a politics of their own, one at times at odds with the social-democratic platform put forth by Sanders, and that would disturb the positive feedback loops between state and movement this current within the socialist left takes for granted, is left unstated.

This pattern of thought, which assimilates divergent categories of political experience, or folds them into a seamless continuity by subjecting mass movements to the state or its benevolent leader, finds its blueprint or parallel in similar approaches to the Corbyn campaign in the UK. In an article published as far back as March 2016, some months after Corbyn was unexpectedly elected Labour leader, Hilary Wainwright, editor of Red Pepper magazine and well-known socialist feminist, published a programmatic essay, “The Making of Jeremy Corbyn,” which predicated his success on what she rightly called a “revers[al] of the traditional logic of electoral politics.” Corbyn’s politics are a “new politics” insofar as they depend not on the translation, in political and statist terms, of movement demands, but instead on “using the platform of the state to empower popular forces.” [8]

Wainwright’s claim regarding the newness of Corbyn’s politics echoed the founding manifesto of Momentum, a self-styled “grass-roots” organization established in the aftermath of Corbyn’s ascension to Labour leader, whose full title was “Momentum: A New Kind of Politics.” The group’s name explicitly likens its activity to a movement rather than a political organization; its clear organizational separation from the Labour Party underlines its desire to “build grassroots power now” and develop new forms of “participatory democracy,” of the kind practiced by mass movements (and not, precisely, by political parties). [9] 

The manifesto even summons the image of 19th-century anarchism, promising to conduct itself according to the “the principle of mutual aid, empathy and collective action.” But the ultimate purpose of this cultivated grassroots power is, according to the manifesto’s authors, to “help Labour become the transformative governing party of the 21st century.” On the one hand, its authors “want, in particular, to encourage a diverse range of people to join the Labour Party”; on the other hand, they want to cultivate “a new politics of bottom-up, participatory democracy.” They are straightforward about the source of this new politics: “Corbyn put forward a new politics of bottom-up, participatory democracy.” “Corbyn,” they conclude, “personally and politically, represented something different.” It is not simply that he put forward a new politics, around which a proper movement might be formed. He alone, it is implied, could bring about this new politics, whose horizon remains, however, a new Labour party, primed for state power. [10]

In a certain sense, the confusions and reversals I am tracking here have still deeper roots, extending as far back as the 1984 Jesse Jackson campaign for the Democratic nomination (he would lose, of course, to Democratic party insider and standard-bearer, Walter Mondale.) The Jackson campaign enlisted any number of veterans of the mass movements of the 1960s and 1970s who, as those movements broke apart and decomposed, found different avenues for their politics (others found academia, non-profits, the Green movement, and so on). Those who came out of the women’s and black power movements, for example, increasingly gravitated around electoral campaigns and, as one observer noted at the time, “justified this tactic either by claiming to use these campaigns to organize mass struggles, or simply by construing the campaigns themselves as mass movements.” [11] 

To be sure, earlier 20th-century mass movements, first in the 1930s, then in the 1960s, brought about significant political reforms in their aftermath. But these reforms, as Robert Brenner has argued, were forced upon Democratic Party politicians by means of “mass direct action” by the working class, in an uncertain process of translation required by the structural incompatibility between the types of activities undertaken by movements and the range of action available to elected officials working within the framework of state power.

If the Sanders campaign echoes the 1984 Jackson campaign, at least in the way some socialists understand their own participation in it, the differences are just as stark. After all, the Sanders campaign follows upon a decade in which a rebirth of mass movements indeed took place, but only on a modest scale, relative to what occurred in the US in the 1960s and 1970s, or even in Greece and Spain during and after the 2011 squares movement.

Indeed, one of the defining features of the Sanders campaign, beginning as far back as late 2015, is that its prominence coincides with the receding of the movements that occurred in the first half of the decade, in rapid if uncertain succession: emblematically, the Occupy movement, then Black Lives Matter. It could be that the rise of Sanderism just after the withering away of those earlier movements is what makes the connection, in the minds of many, between the movements and his campaign so vivid, so strong. But if it is argued as much by Sanders himself as his advocates that the success of a Sanders presidency would have depended on his being able to “call for mass political activity from below,” it can also be wagered that the fortunes of his campaigns in 2016 and 2020 depended on the absence of vibrant mass movements from the American scene; even worse, that the enormous resources mobilized for the campaign siphoned off precious resources—money, time, energy, morale—that could have been used more effectively elsewhere, like mass organizing in communities, in workplaces and in the streets.

Conflicting Forms of Power

There is an irreducible gap or hiatus between the different and often conflicting forms of power exercised by mass movements—mass direct action—and power set in motion by the state. So, too, a world of difference between throwing oneself into a popular mobilization and attempting to win a state-sanctioned election.

The latter’s constraints are clear enough: win over 51 percent of voters, by any means necessary, and get them to the polls. The logic of mass movements is shaped by the fact that, though they bring thousands and even millions of people into struggle, they are almost always minoritarian in nature, at least for most of their often short lives. Their fundamental principle and ethos is the refusal of delegation or representation—no one will call them into being—and, consequently, the activation of the power people have when they act collectively to take their lives into their own hands.

There is a very good reason that no mass movement has emerged that advocates for this or that feature of Sanders’ social-democratic political program, like Medicare for All or a “Green New Deal.” The demands put forth by mass movements are most often negative, even destructive, in nature. They do not propose legislation, or enter into the details of policy. They call, instead, for the immediate end of this or that feature of the prevailing order: the end of Jim Crow and segregation, the abolition of prisons and the police, US forces out of Vietnam, the withdrawal of an extradition bill. Because mass movements are not organized—they swarm with competing organizations, as well as informal groupings and tendencies—their unity can only be won by the establishment of a clear and unequivocal objective, often formalized in a simple slogan: “the people want the regime to fall,” “I can’t breathe,” “if we burn, you burn with us.” Their strategic and theoretical poverty is compensated for by extraordinary innovations in tactics, which easily spread across geographic distance and national or cultural divisions. Above all, mass movements find themselves confronted with the necessity to test their strength against the forces of the state; they operate, by their very nature, on the edges of legality, and will be challenged with state violence at some point in their development.

All of these features distinguish the logic of mass movements from the mechanics of electoral politics. Thinking the relation between them requires keeping them separate, and posing the question of their translation. This translation is always uncertain. Far from meshing together in a seamless continuity, or mutually reinforcing one another in friction-less feedback, socialists in the US (and the UK) will have to start again, this time from the structural and radical incompatibility or contradiction between these two forms of power.

With the defeat of Sanders (and Corbyn), and with the necessary historical and strategic considerations that such defeats compel, they will most likely have to renounce the assumptions that permitted their participation in these failed electoral campaigns to begin with. These campaigns did not bring into being a “new politics,” one that reversed the order of historical effectivity, subordinating movements initiated by broad masses of people to the call and command of elected politicians. Reforms brought about in the political sphere will be imposed on the state by years and even decades of confrontations with movements that are willing to fight for themselves: at their own initiative, for objectives they themselves formulate. The current course of events, disturbing as it is, will provide ample opportunity for such efforts.

Jason E. Smith lives in Los Angeles and writes primarily about contemporary politics, art, and philosophy. This piece was originally published by Brooklyn Rail under the title “Life Comes At Your Fast” and has been lightly edited for formatting.

If you enjoyed this piece we recommend our more in depth reader on left electoralism which includes fourteen articles with contemporary and international analysis, “Socialist Faces in High Places: Elections & the Left.”


1. Media stories on the Sanders campaign emphasized, for example, its use of so-called “distributed organizing.” See, for example, Ryan Grim, “How Bernie Sanders Accidentally Built a Groundbreaking Organizing Movement,” The Intercept, May 28, 2019. 

2. In the early years of Social Democracy, of course, elections were treated solely as platforms to promote socialist ideas. Social Democratic parties understood themselves as “propaganda parties,” “whose main objective [was] the dissemination of information about Social Democracy…since participation in elections is a good vehicle for agitation, the Congress recommends participation.” Cf. Adam Przeworski, Capitalism and Social Democracy (Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 9. This book’s first chapter is a devastating historical account of social democracy in power.

3. Daniel Denvir, “What a Bernie Sanders Presidency would look like,” In These Times, January 7, 2020.

4. “The Future of Left Politics: An Interview with Meagan Day,” Harvard Political Review, March 2, 2020.

5. See the interview Sanders gave, alongside Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to The Intercept, published October 20, 2019:

6. “What a Bernie Sanders Presidency would look like.” The article is tantalizing subtitled “the possibilities of an ‘organizer-in-chief.’”

7. Meagan Day, “Bernie Sanders Wants You to Fight,” Jacobin, March 12, 2019. My emphasis.

8. Hilary Wainwright, “The Making of Jeremy Corbyn,” Jacobin, March 9, 2016.

9. Wainwright herself, in conversation with The Economist, asserted (in the magazine’s paraphrase) that “Momentum is more like an organism than a machine: it grows from the bottom up and constantly evolves in new directions.” “An evening with Momentum at the Labour Party conference.” September 26, 2017;

10. “Momentum, a new kind of politics.” To be clear, I am not arguing that this is in fact what Momentum was, or how it conducted itself per se. I am simply noting the claims made for it by the manifesto’s authors, Adam Klug, Emma Rees, and James Schneider.

11. Robert Brenner, “The Paradox of Social Democracy: The American Case,” first published in 1985.