Bernie, Biden, and the Game of Thrones
by Dina Frederik
Bernie Sanders endorsed Joe Biden. Bernieworld, however, did not. From the campaign`s press secretary Briahna Joy Gray over left-wing youtuber Kyle Kulinski to the Sunrise movement: Bernieworld is dis-endorsing Biden.
The digital Berniesphere is discussing a whole range of possibilities: still writing Bernie in, voting green, abstaining, and a minority even considers Trump. #NeverBiden is a fiery internet storm.
Just a few figures portray the deepth and scale of the popular anti-Biden insurgency: by April 16th, Briahna`s twitter disendorsement has almost 42,000 likes, and 240,000 of his more than 830,000 subscribers have listened to Kulinski`s two hour assessment of the Bernie campaign.
In an informal, non-representative poll in two different facebook Sanders support groups (one with a membership over 34,000, the other over 100,000), members opt for „no“ by 86% to 93%, one group even adding „hell, no“ to the given options. Apparently, a simple no did not suffice. And a multitude of other youth groups have joined in the Sunrise movement`s revolt.
We do not know if this protest represents a majority of Bernie`s broad, diverse coalition. However, a record number of 2,5 million signed up to volunteer for Bernie at his website. Those individuals and groups feel particularly personally invested. Among this core of committed activists, speculation that the Biden rejection percentage is around 90% might be legitimate.
We do not have hard data yet, but the digital riot within Berniesphere provides hints. What is certain: a large section of Bernieworld is fiercely opposed to Biden`s candidacy. Even if they constitute a minority, it is a sizeable, and ardently vocal opposition.
Politics is Game of Thrones: you win or you die. Politically, of course, not literally. Bernie made three principal strategic mistakes: he abstained from demanding political concessions, he failed to leverage his powerhouse campaign, and he ignores the alternative extra-parliamentary mass politics offers.
First, political negotation in the middle of a global pandemic is no small matter. But even by the standards of electoral politics, Bernie made a terrible mistake. In his widely-watched zoom meeting with Joe Biden, he endorsed his rival – no strings attached. Zero. Zip. None.
He did not demand substantial concessions, neither in terms of policy nor posts. Krystal Ball, host of the popular progressive channel „The Hill“ befittingly named the performance „Bernie bends the knee“.
But how could the left negotiate differently? What could a real progressive advance look like? Here is one option: we ask the DNC to replace Biden with a candidate with realistic success chances (everyone knows they are ogling Cuomo), is at least palatable to our constituency (aka not a rapist), adopt 50% of our program, and pick one of ours as VP.
They have the choice: Bernie himself is on offer, Nina Turner, or any other Bernie-affiliated Democrat aged 35+ (AOC is too young, unfortunately). Additionally, a significant number of cabinet posts will be reserved for the left.
This, dear DNC, is our offer. What is yours? If you want progressive support, you will have to make concessions, including concessions that hurt. We are a mass movement with millions of supporters, and we don`t come cheap. And most importantly, we don`t come for free.
Recycling Obama and making aesthetic, in-name-only concessions to the left is not going to cut it this time. Hillary Clinton did that, but we`re not buying in 2020. 95% of us voted Democrat in 2016, and you blamed us for the orange buffoon anyway.
Second, Bernie failed to leverage the movement to attain substantial concessions. Giving Biden a carte blanche endorsement was not a bad compromise, it was political capitulation. Sometimes, win-it-all is not in the cards – in fact, it disproportionately often is not. In that case, a contender has to leverage all assets and cut the best possible deal.
Bernie could have told the DNC: I am just the spokesperson of a mass movement. I can not make that decision on my own. I have to ask my army of supporters: one person, one vote. Not me, us - remember? We will put that decision to a democratic vote. Right-wing Republicans leveraged the tea party in the same fashion, and with great success. The left needs to be equally cunning, ruthless and strategic.
Third, there is a path apart from focussing on elections: extra-parliamentary mass politics. Historically, thousands of left-wing causes were won by mass movements, not elections. Smashing neo-fascist parties in the UK and Germany the 1990s, the 1970s women`s movement and the struggle for LGBTQ rights, the eight hour day, universal suffrage, anti-colonial struggles from India to South Africa – the list goes on and on. It is long, ancient and global.
Amidst the covid-19 pandemic, this means: re-tool our infrastructure from campaigning for nomination to lead the charge against the virus. Writers in the Jacobin and others have elaborately made this case.
The movement could provide the infrastructure for organizing rent strikes, support wildcat action in the gig economy, continue phone banking to build a nation-wide mutual aid network, raise millions for charity, fight for all strings attached corporate bailouts, a re-enstatement of the Glass-Steagall act, and more.
Noam Chomsky rightfully described Bernie as „not a socialist, but an honest New Dealer“. He is – Bernie is an ambitious reforming (social) democrat, like Theodore Roosevelt, Olof Palme, or Clement Attlee, utilizing political office to implement transformative social change.
But the tradition of Rooseveltian Democrats – and their social democratic counterparts in Europe – also has its fair share of savvy, skillful power brokers. Bernie endorsing the DNC`s choice unconditionally was strategic blunder. He gave away all his political capital, and got nothing consequential in return.
Amy Klobuchar, who never won a single state, is now being discussed as possible VP pick. Even she gained more from endorsing Biden than Bernie – and she does not have a revolutionary army at her back.
I´m sorry Bernie. I still love you, and still believe you started an incredible, inspiring movement with far-reaching, global implications. But you screwed up the negotiations, unless the art of no deal was supposed to be the result. In the real world game of thrones, you chose to be Ned Stark. The left needs a Tyrion Lannister. The question is: who will it be?
I would like to thank Phil Butland, Jason Gold, Candace Aylor, Scott Dakota and Jon Lewis for providing feedback and comments.