What did the “Bernie Coalition” really look like? And what does it tell socialists about the way forward for organizing a mass force for socialism? Ben Davis breaks down the data on the democratic socialist constituency and what it means for the tasks ahead.
The 2020 presidential election has become a disappointment in the public consciousness of the socialist left. Senator Bernie Sanders emerged victorious in the first three primary states and seemed poised to win the Democratic Party nomination; a little more than one month later, he suspended his campaign, making former Vice President Joe Biden the presumptive nominee. The recriminations have been swift: the Sanders campaign failed to go negative enough, it was too confrontational, his messaging leaned too far into identity politics. So too were the questions about what Sanders’s loss implied for the broader socialist left: is participation in bourgeois elections a dead end? Should Sanders form a new party? Should the left have instead consolidated around the more compromise-oriented, left-liberal candidate Elizabeth Warren? The Sanders campaign and socialist engagement with electoral politics have been successful in mobilizing a new base for left politics, but the structural barriers are enormous, and the path ahead must rely on building mass working-class institutions and continuing to engage in electoral politics aimed at a mass base. This piece aims to present a sober-minded analysis of the campaign, its successes and shortcomings, and the path forward for the socialist left, focusing less on the specific tactical decisions of the campaign and more on the broader strategic orientation of the left toward electoral politics.
The electoral left in the United States boasts its strongest position in at least a century, if not ever, due in large part to the Sanders campaign. Sanders’s successes and failures illuminate a clear path toward mobilizing a majoritarian working-class coalition to shift the balance of power between capital and labor. The past five years have achieved vastly more electoral success for the left than a century of attempts at building a competitive third party or achieving realignment. An unprecedented number of Americans—25 to 30 percent of the major left-of-center party—mobilized around a message and program of class-struggle. The Sanders campaign was able to define politics on class terms: society is divided between workers who labor, the “99 percent,” and the “1 percent” who profit off the labor of workers. There are, however, huge structural barriers against the left. The 2020 campaign revealed the depth of this opposition and the tactics the capitalist class will use to ensure the left’s defeat. This analysis finds that these structural barriers were primarily responsible for the fate of the Sanders campaign, to the extent that tactical decisions alone would have been unlikely to have changed the outcome. But it does not follow that electoral politics are a dead end—quite the opposite. It means the work of building a mass movement for socialism requires patience and dedication and must be built in a variety of arenas. The idea of end-running institutions—left power in the elected bodies of the state and in organized labor—and taking the presidency was a worthy investment and not an implausible outcome. Sanders benefited from an initially fractured primary field, but the organized left was ultimately not in a position to win majoritarian support without sufficiently durable working-class institutions capable of confronting capital at the scale necessary to take power.
Broadly, the electoral orientation of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), the Sanders campaign, and other groups toward what could be characterized as the Ackerman model of party-building—which is to say, tactical engagement with the Democratic ballot line—has been a clear success for the socialist left. The Sanders campaign and the campaigns of other socialist candidates since 2016 have succeeded in building a demonstrable base among the working-class. The organized left must carefully analyze this moment and act decisively while this base is still mobilized. The path forward must begin with a consolidation of gains, a vigorously renewed commitment to electoral organizing, and a clear focus on building real working-class institutions.
2016 and 2020
Bernie Sanders has, as of this writing with around 58 percent of delegates allocated, won 7,719,341 votes or caucus final preferences, or approximately 31 percent of total votes cast. The 2016 campaign amassed 13,210,550 votes, or 43 percent of the total. It is likely that, if voter turnout and the primary schedule had been unaffected by the COVID-19 pandemic and were Sanders to participate in all remaining contests, the 2020 campaign would have won more raw votes than the 2016 effort. The dynamics of these campaigns were drastically different, and while the 2020 campaign did some things better and some worse, it shows a far clearer picture of the viability of the socialist electoral project and the ability of electoral campaigns to build a mass base for socialism.
The 2016 campaign was, in many ways, a battle of personalities rather than a test of mettle of socialist ideas. To start, the campaign was waged between just two serious candidates as opposed to the field of more than 20 experienced politicians in 2020. The 2020 field also included candidates like Elizabeth Warren who had deep credibility among the activist and small-donor base of the Democratic Party that had powered previous left-of-establishment campaigns, including Sanders’s 2016 run. The 2016 campaign was primarily fought around the strengths and flaws of just one candidate, Hillary Clinton, who was in retrospect a far weaker candidate than had been previously assumed given her stature and unparalleled support from party elites.
According to an analysis by FiveThirtyEight based on the Cooperative Congressional Election Study, at least 24 percent of Sanders’ support in the 2016 primary came from voters more motivated by antipathy to Hillary Clinton than support for Sanders. Much of Sanders’ support came from a whiter, older, more conservative, and more rural section of the electorate comprising communities who had been losing loyalty to the Democratic Party for a generation. Some of this support came from working-class voters, but many were wealthier than conventional wisdom assumes, were never going to vote for a left-of-center candidate, or are not persuadable by a social democratic message.
The 2016 Sanders campaign was able to tap into a long tradition of good-government progressive reformism that has powered candidates including Woodrow Wilson, Franklin Delano Roosevelt, Jimmy Carter, and Barack Obama to victory. This theme of fixing government with experts and anti-corruption measures has been historically far more potent and wide-reaching in U.S. elections than a message of class-struggle and democratic socialism. (Indeed, it was this core message and liberal base that Elizabeth Warren would pursue in her 2020 bid.) This traditional liberal message, along with the universal social democratic demands that would activate the young working class, created a stark contrast on issues such as corruption and foreign policy against Clinton.
While Sanders’ 2016 message resonated with millions and sparked a resurgence in socialist politics, the radically different terrain of the 2020 election meant that the campaign—out of ideology and necessity—shifted its orientation toward building a long-term mass base for democratic socialism. The 2020 Sanders campaign did far more serious organizing on the ground than in 2016; presented a clearer and more ambitious socialist platform; became more embedded in communities; and dramatically increased organizing efforts around issues such as labor and migrant justice. Although Sanders won an overall lower percentage of the vote among rural and suburban white voters in 2020 compared with 2016, his campaign helped cement a growing working-class, left electoral base. For instance, Sanders won a number of important jurisdictions in 2020 that he lost in 2016 including Boston, El Paso, Las Vegas, Los Angeles, San Antonio, San Diego, San Jose, San Francisco, and Seattle. Voters in 2020 were presented with far more candidates—all of whom represented, with few meaningful differences, the hegemonic liberal ideology and reaped the structural advantages this conferred—and millions still chose Sanders and his program of class-struggle.
The Left Base
The Sanders coalitions of 2016 and 2020 are unique in U.S. politics—with the possible exception of the New Deal coalition of 1932-1968—and represent a hugely important base for socialism. That Sanders was able to build a coalition consisting primarily of working-class voters suggests the return of class as a cleavage in American electoral politics and highlights a path toward rebuilding working-class political institutions. Since the 1980s, a debate has raged among political scientists about whether class was a meaningful political divide in Western democracies or a relic that could no longer be activated to mobilize voters. The coalition behind Sanders makes clear, however, that class dealignment in the United States is the result of decades worth of center-left rejection of class politics and capitulation to neoliberalism, as well as changes to how class manifests in the modern economy, rather than the disappearance of class as a meaningful driver of political behavior.
Data from the 2020 election are still fairly sparse: Many states have not yet certified results, more still have not released person vote history, and exit polling remains unreliable at best. To confound matters, nearly all of the data on voting patterns in the United States lack information on class—one’s position as a worker or an employer—instead relying on income and education as proxies. With this in mind, it is still clear that Sanders successfully mobilized a working-class coalition. This is a marked break from previous left or anti-establishment-type electoral campaigns in the Democratic Party, which have tended to receive narrow support from higher-income, higher-educated, and whiter liberal voters. Americans who identify as “very liberal” or have consistently liberal views are more white, educated, and affluent compared with Americans at large. By reintroducing a message of class politics – which identifies the divide between workers and bosses as the core divide in politics and proposes the organization of workers as the solution—the Sanders campaign was able to smash the existing liberal-moderate-conservative axis within the Democratic Party and reorient the lines of political conflict around class.
In both contests, Sanders underperformed many notable left-liberal primary candidates in the traditional affluent strongholds of liberalism. He performed worst in the wealthiest areas, and exit poll data show that Sanders’ support was highly correlated with income (see the Michigan and Iowa exit polls and Seattle and San Francisco maps below). However, using a class message has been able to attract an extremely diverse, working-class swath of the electorate that is unreceptive to traditional left-liberal messaging of technocratic plans, trust in government and experts, and cultural contrast with conservatives.
The data demonstrates that the Sanders coalition was strongly correlated with income and residence in working-class communities. Support for Sanders crossed the lines of previous primary coalitions among working-class and lower income voters. Notably, the layer of working-class voters who supported Sanders not only voted for him but also became politically activated as donors and volunteers. This level of activity is not only important for the success of electoral campaigns but also crucial to a vibrant socialist left, which must be based in a politically mobilized working-class. Moving voters to engage in the political process beyond sporadic voting is necessarily the crux of any serious mass movement—and the message and orientation of the Sanders campaign achieved this at a level previously unseen in U.S. politics.
The campaign also helped polarize the Democratic electorate along class lines, severing the bourgeois and managerial elite from a wide swath of the party’s working-class base. It is clear that the class-struggle message was the reason for this working-class voter realignment. The explicitly working-class orientation of his campaign precipitated the class cleavage we see in these election results because the campaign was able to win wide swathes of working-class voters who had not been united around a single candidate in prior elections. A large amount of political science literature shows that differences in redistributive policy choices are a primary driver of class voting, and the return of a class-struggle message was the unique factor in the Sanders campaign compared to previous left-leaning electoral campaigns and the proximate cause for the resurgence of class polarization that had been dormant since previous uses of class as a message in electoral campaigns.
The Sanders coalition is perhaps most notably defined by its extreme skew toward younger voters. This phenomenon has been discussed ad nauseam by both the liberal and left press and election watchers, but how did it actually play out in the 2020 election and how can Sanders’s dominance among young voters translate into growth for the socialist left?
The roots of this phenomenon again lie with class. While there are many working-class older voters, younger voters as a group have very little wealth, an enormous amount of debt, and are extremely aware of their economic precarity. This is true to varying degrees across the imperial core, most notably in the United Kingdom, which has seen a similarly cavernous age gap between the radical left and the rest of the political spectrum. “Generational politics” as an analytical framework is often too imprecise to be useful, but the prevailing ethos of neoliberalism over the past 40 years has left younger generations disproportionately poorer as lifelong victims of austerity. Younger generations are unable to have a high standard of living. Older generations of working-class voters die younger, and the remaining older voters are therefore disproportionately wealthy, white, and conservative.
The Sanders campaign was able to use the message of class-struggle to activate a huge number of young voters that span all other demographic factors. Against the headwinds of a changing Democratic Party that has become older, whiter, and less working-class, the Sanders campaign was able to activate a young, diverse, working-class coalition. Contrary to a common emerging narrative—that the campaign bet on young voters and spectacularly failed to deliver—Sanders did increase youth turnout in 2020. According to an analysis by the Tisch College Center for Information and Research on Civic Learning and Engagement at Tufts University, youth turnout clearly increased compared with prior Democratic presidential primary elections. This is also corroborated by exit polling data and analyses of precinct data. In addition to turning out more young voters, the 2020 Sanders campaign was able to increase its margins among youth voters overall.
Activating young working-class voters, however, is a monumental task. The state is invested in making it as difficult as possible for young workers to vote, especially in primaries. This takes the form of voting restrictions that make it difficult to vote early or by mail, or voter ID laws that make it difficult for transient or economically precarious people to establish residency. For that reason, in addition to organizing young workers and students directly, socialists engaged in electoral campaigns must also be part of coalitions that work to make voting easier and more accessible through measures such as automatic voter registration, universal vote by mail, and open primaries for state-run ballot lines.
The overwhelming margins among young voters can form the bedrock of the socialist base. Voters generally tend not to change political views over time, and ages 14 through 24 are the most formative years for personal politics. The factors that pushed young voters to adopt left-wing preferences in the first place, such as lower standards of living and a gutted social safety net, cannot be solved without an organized, mass working-class movement. In turn, the factors that may move voters to the political right, such as homeownership or stock ownership, remain out of reach for most young voters. This mobilized, and likely steady, base of young people is perhaps the greatest reason for optimism on the left, and any future strategy must be premised on keeping this group mobilized and deepening the layers of working-class organization within it.
The American working-class has long been divided along racial lines due to the underlying white supremacist structure of American capitalism. Attempts to create a mobilized working-class movement have been hampered by these structures—from Jim Crow laws, to redlining, to segregation in unions and workplaces—which allow the capitalist class to pacify white segments of the working-class at the expense of marginalized groups, as occurred during the New Deal. Sanders—as well as other socialist candidates in New York City, Chicago, Maryland, and elsewhere—has been able to activate a wide swath of people across racial, ethnic, and religious lines. He has been able to win Latinos across ethnicities and regions, Muslims of all backgrounds, Asian American and Pacific Islanders, and indigenous voters by enormous margins. Sanders was able to win Muslim-majority areas in Dearborn, Michigan, with over 80 percent of the vote and many reservations with more than 70 percent. This speaks to an unprecedented multiracial coalition on a national scale, and is due in large part to the campaign’s deep organizing within communities and around issues that affect marginalized communities in specific ways. Sanders had a large constituency outreach program, which was key to winning the Iowa and Nevada caucuses as well as building a base in other states. In addition to making broad, social democratic demands that resonated with many marginalized communities, Sanders had the most comprehensive, specific, and radical plans on issues such as migrant justice, tribal sovereignty, racial justice, rights for Puerto Rico, and more. These plans were bottom-up demands created by and for these communities in conjunction with the campaign. The Sanders campaign represents a model for organizing within communities that socialist organizers must expand on, both within and outside of the electoral sphere.
An enormous part of Sanders’ coalition was Latino voters, the fastest-growing segment of the U.S. electorate. It is important to note that the “Latino vote” does not exist as a homogenous group, and Latinos of different backgrounds, class, and age groups have huge differences in politics. Indeed, Sanders’s performance varied widely across states and among voters of Mexican, Puerto Rican, and Cuban backgrounds as well as between urban and rural Latino voters. Additionally, much of Sanders’ strength with Latino voters comes from its very young skew: Nearly half of Latino voters are under 45. With that in mind, Sanders did extremely well with Latino and Spanish-speaking voters across all other factors. The campaign integrated Latino outreach into every aspect of its organizing. In many places, this marked a huge difference from the 2016 campaign and from left-liberal insurgent campaigns. Majority-Latino areas such as Lawrence, Massachusetts, or Imperial County, California, went from Sanders’ worst localities in their states to his best. Sanders also won commanding majorities in working-class Latino-majority congressional districts in California and won clear victories in the Rio Grande Valley in Texas. Latino voters have also been the backbone of many of the most successful socialist electoral efforts of the past few years, including the campaigns of Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in New York and the DSA slate for the Chicago City Council. Organizing Latino workers must be at the heart of building a socialist movement in the United States.
The Democratic Party
Any analysis of the results of the Sanders campaign must account for the terrain on which it was fought. The campaign was an attempt to win the Democratic presidential nomination, a process controlled by the Democratic Party. The actual mechanisms of the Democratic nominating contests are a hodge-podge of rules: some run by the state, some by the party; some allowing any adult to vote, some only registered Democrats; some allowing voting by mail, some only in specific polling locations; and so on. While no struggle under capitalism, including electoral contests, is fought on an even playing field, participating in an internal nominating contest controlled by a capitalist establishment poses significant and nearly insurmountable barriers.
The Democratic Party is a specific realm of electoral struggle that is not directly comparable to internal party elections in social democratic parties in other countries, nor directly comparable to elections that take place entirely outside of a party structure. The Democratic Party is far from a “party” as traditionally understood in other countries. It does not have a membership base, a program, real mechanisms for internal democracy, or strong formal party organizations. In this sense, the party is essentially impossible to “take over” at either the local or national levels, but this structure also creates opportunities because the party has little direct control over who participates in and wins its nominating contests. The experience of Labour in the United Kingdom shows the key difference between the Democrats and a more traditional party: The left within Labour was able to take advantage of the fact that the party has real internal democracy to win contests and make reforms at every level of the party, but the power of a formalized party structure itself also allowed for a massive campaign of sabotage by reactionary elements in the party bureaucracy itself. This sabotage is more difficult to achieve in the American political context, where the power of running a general election campaign lies with the winner of the nominating contest, rather than internal party leadership who may be at odds with a left program.
Acknowledging the differences between the Democratic Party and a real membership-based political party, the Democratic Party can then be seen as an overarching structure: a specific form of cartel-party. The party, rather than a formal structure, exists as a constellation of consulting firms and nongovernmental organizations that answer to capital and are isolated from the democratic structures of a traditional political party. The institutions of the party are able to exercise soft power over voters as well as more coercive and direct power over candidates and other political actors who must rely on them.
So, why participate in the Democratic primary in the first place? The U.S. electoral system forecloses third-party participation on several levels, requiring majoritarian, cross-regional support on the levels of the executive branch, upper house, and lower house to effectively govern and making the creation of third parties effectively impossible at the legal level. Efforts to establish a viable third party in the United States have been an abysmal failure, while tactical engagement with the Democratic Party, as shown by the Sanders campaign, has allowed the left to engage with millions. While this strategy is the most effective in the near term for growing the socialist movement, the institutional Democratic Party still holds a great degree of power and a vested interest in making electoral victory difficult for left candidates, especially on the presidential level.
If the 2020 Democratic primary demonstrated one thing, it is the power of the institutions and elites of the Democratic Party—including aligned media—and the lengths they will go to stop a redistributive policy agenda. This became evident with the unprecedented change in the state of the race just before Super Tuesday. With Sanders as a clear favorite for the nomination, in the span of 48 hours, major candidates Tom Steyer, Amy Klobuchar, and Pete Buttigieg dropped out, with Klobuchar and Buttigieg endorsing and headlining a rally for Joe Biden along with prior dropout Beto O’Rourke.
Klobuchar was the clear favorite in the upcoming Minnesota primary. Buttigieg was third in delegates and the popular vote, the delegate winner of the Iowa caucus, had finished in the top four of each of the first four states to vote, and was on track to qualify for a fairly large haul of delegates on Super Tuesday. No previous presidential candidate in Buttigieg’s position had ever dropped out before Super Tuesday. In a similar situation in the Republican primary in 2016, candidates Marco Rubio and John Kasich stayed in the race weeks past Super Tuesday. (A candidate who is considered a weak nominee by the party, of course, generates far less urgency than one who threatens the balance of power between labor and capital.) Sanders ultimately did not underperform the polls and hit the same numbers that one week before would have resulted in a runaway delegate lead. However, Biden was able to scoop up nearly all Buttigieg and Klobuchar voters, and Bloomberg drastically underperformed his polling, with his voters also going directly to Biden. Biden performed 30 points better with votes cast on election day compared with early and absentee votes. Affluent white voters in particular went from one of Biden’s weakest groups to the source of his overwhelming margin. It is clear that establishment consolidation enormously changed the race.
The power of the institutional party is such that it was able to overcome a totally skeletal Biden campaign. Biden had almost no volunteers, donors, on-the-ground presence, organizing infrastructure, or even paid media operations on Super Tuesday but was able to quickly consolidate disciplined partisan Democratic voters through signaling by party elites and overwhelming favorable media coverage. In contrast, the Sanders campaign had an unprecedented base of volunteers and small donors and the largest voter contact operation in the history of presidential primaries. The power of liberal institutions means that, especially at the presidential level, the left must use vastly more resources, including and especially volunteer labor, and be far more efficient allocating these resources. This can only be overcome by building mass left institutions rooted in the working-class, able to finance alternative electoral infrastructure and contact massive numbers of voters—particularly voters in communities already organized between elections.
Many liberal commentators have blamed this result on Sanders’s supposed confrontational nature toward the institutional Democratic Party. Yet history shows that the class interests of elite liberals and institutions will always engender absolute hostility toward a program of class-struggle. The Warren campaign in many ways functioned as an experiment of this conciliatory style of campaign: a redistributive but not radical agenda packaged in loyalty to the institutional Democratic Party and liberal media. But Warren was still met with hostility, and her support remained limited to a small base of affluent liberal voters. At its core, and despite rhetoric to the contrary, the Democratic Party has made clear that it is ideologically and materially opposed to redistribution. There is nothing the Sanders campaign could have done to change this or sufficiently cater to the interests of the party’s elites and institutions: Any left-wing campaign must identify its enemies and force their hand through mass mobilization. A critical lesson from the Sanders campaign, then, is that the left has to take into account the unrelenting opposition it will face from established political and media institutions. The left cannot bet on a fractured opposition because the capitalist class has such an overwhelming incentive to consolidate. Instead, the left must build clear majoritarian support.
The 2020 primary saw an enormous surge of affluent, older, whiter, and more conservative voters, primarily from the suburbs. Concurrently, there was a stagnation or decline in turnout among older working-class Black and rural white voters. The result was a more affluent and economically moderate Democratic primary electorate than ever before. This sudden shift marks the culmination of a 40-year project within the Democratic Party, which also represents the biggest challenge to a majoritarian left faction.
The unprecedented mobilization of a young, socialist current within Democratic politics since Trump’s election has been swamped by a much larger mobilization of affluent suburban voters into the Democratic Party. This was clear in the 2018 primary and general elections and has only grown more pronounced in 2020. There is no reason to believe that these voters will return to their previous state of skipping primaries or voting in Republican primaries. The elites of the Democratic Party have consciously courted this group through both the platform they put forward and the rhetoric they use.
This change in the class composition of the Democratic Party base was a major factor in Sanders’ loss: If the 2020 primary electorate had the same class composition as the 2016 electorate, the election would have been far closer. This change poses a huge challenge for future left attempts to compete for the Democratic ballot line and may foreclose the left from winning primaries in many areas—and potentially at the presidential level—for years. A full-scale realignment of the Democratic Party to a primarily upscale suburban party would be disastrous for the left. It is likely that the growing youth socialist base will overtake the more sudden partisan realignment of current Democratic voters in the near future, but this can only be achieved through continued organization of the existing left base and continued engagement in Democratic primaries.
Left Weakness with Working-Class Black Voters
In both 2016 and 2020, much of the discussion of the flaws of the Sanders campaign and the socialist left more broadly has hinged on the idea of a monolithic “Black vote”: a flawed analysis based on the assumptions and prejudices of an overwhelmingly white political elite. The preferences of Black voters vary widely across age, class, region, and background. Sanders won younger Black voters consistently according to exit polls, and in some states by large margins. He consistently performed far better with Black voters outside of the South in both 2016 and 2020. In Massachusetts, Sanders did better among Black voters than white voters and lost the group by 7 percent; in Minnesota, he captured 43 percent (or 16 percent better than among white voters), and consistently performed better with Black voters across states than in 2016. The Black electorate also skews much older than the Democratic electorate at large. Controlling for age, race has not been one of the most salient predictors of voting behavior in the 2020 Democratic primary: this is true for Black voters favoring Biden but also for Latino voters favoring Sanders. With that in mind, Black Americans are, in all contexts, marginalized because of their race and are far more likely to be working-class. Any working-class political movement, and any political movement supporting liberatory politics, must earn the support of a majority of Black workers. Despite the previously discussed factor of age, the Sanders campaign and socialist left campaigns more broadly must do much better with Black voters of all ages. Indeed, in much of the country, Black-majority areas were some of the few working-class Democratic areas in which Sanders was resoundingly defeated. A serious left coalition will need to build a majoritarian base among Black voters, both in urban areas and the rural South. The Sanders campaign’s failure to invest in large-scale organizing among Black voters—particularly in South Carolina and other areas of the rural South—was a fatal mistake that cannot be repeated.
Though Sanders lost Black voters by a decisive margin, particularly in crucial Southern states, this does not reflect a commitment to centrist liberalism or particular enthusiasm for Joe Biden on the part of Black voters. While Democratic primary turnout in 2020 was generally significantly higher than in 2016—in large part because of the surge of affluent white suburban voters—in many places, Black voter turnout was stagnant or even lower compared with 2016, and according to exit polls, Black voters comprised a lower percentage of the electorate across the board. Additionally, Biden won a consistently lower percentage among Black voters than Clinton’s 2016 primary effort. Biden’s advantage over Clinton’s 2016 performance was driven almost exclusively by the change in the class composition of the electorate on the part of a heavily white segment of voters. Moderate and liberal Democrats should be worried about voter turnout and enthusiasm for their agenda among Black voters. Additionally, Black voters express majority support for policies such as raising the minimum wage or Medicare for All, and high support for the term “socialism.”
The future of the socialist left depends on a demonstrated commitment to being of and for the Black working-class. In the same way the Sanders campaign made Latino outreach a facet of every aspect of their strategy, future electoral campaigns and organizing efforts must do the same for Black Americans. This is, of course, easier said than done, but the foundation for such a coalition is there and it is of absolute necessity for the socialist movement to devote itself to this work.
What of the Warren Democrats?
Beyond the Sanders base and the more clearly moderate-aligned voters, a bloc of voters supported a number of nominally progressive ideas in the form of the Warren campaign. How the socialist left should orient toward the Warren campaign and her supporters has been a subject of much discussion and controversy. A number of progressive organizations, such as the Working Families Party, Our Revolution, Sunrise Organization, RootsAction, Democracy for America, and Justice Democrats signaled support for both Sanders and Warren or supported a coalition of delegates and a nonaggression pact between the candidates. Others believe that the Sanders campaign should have been far more aggressive at drawing distinctions between Sanders’ universal, class-struggle message and Warren’s more technocratic anti-corruption progressivism. Are Warren and Sanders supporters part of the same movement or wing of the party? How should the socialist left attempt to integrate or coalesce with Warren supporters, or should they at all?
It is important to note that the importance of the Warren campaign to the success or failure of the Sanders campaign and the socialist left has been overstated. Neither a more conciliatory nor more aggressive approach would have changed the state of the race, if only because Warren did not have the numbers to meaningfully affect Sanders’ campaign. Adding all Warren voters to Sanders is still just more than 40 percent of the votes cast, and polls and a general analysis of the class composition of Warren supporters show that her supporters likely would have divided more evenly between Sanders and more moderate candidates. Warren’s supporters by definition responded more to her liberal message than the class-struggle message of Sanders and any socialist project. Her support was fairly concentrated in more white, liberal, and wealthy areas, specifically the most affluent areas of Iowa City, Iowa; San Francisco and Berkeley, California; Austin, Texas; Cambridge and Newton, Massachusetts; Minneapolis, Minnesota. These areas have long been the home of left-liberal politics. They represent a hard ceiling for both the progressive movement more broadly and especially for a socialist left rooted in the working-class.
While this segment of affluent, left-liberal voters is a real part of the Democratic electorate that must be grappled with, they cannot and should not be the priority for the socialist left. Many commentators and people engaged with politics tend to focus on this group because of their overrepresentation in media, academia, and the world of think tanks and progressive nonprofits. But a socialist left must be rooted in the working-class and in material demands. There is a far larger group who voted for Biden or did not vote in the primary who support the Sanders agenda but were not persuaded to vote for him this year. The left’s message must be aimed at these people. This group is overwhelmingly working-class and disproportionately non-white. While Warren’s base should be welcomed, leftist Warren supporters will be persuaded by socialist candidates without a huge investment in special targeting and capitalist-aligned Warren supporters would not choose to be part of a working-class socialist movement—and its necessarily confrontational posture towards capitalist institutions—and should be deprioritized in favor of working-class voters.
The Path Forward
Understanding the successes and challenges of the Sanders campaign, what is the path forward for the socialist left? It is clear that:
- The 2016 and 2020 Sanders campaigns have been able to mobilize a large, diverse coalition of working-class Americans around a message of class-struggle and universal social democratic programs.
- Engagement in electoral politics, using the Democratic ballot line, has resulted in massive growth for the socialist left. Participating in electoral politics is a strong tool to build a mass base.
- The structural barriers inherent in electoral politics, especially in the absence of mass working-class institutions, make taking the presidency in the near term a monumental task.
- While engagement with the Democratic Party ballot line has helped build the left, the class composition of the Democratic Party’s general and primary election voters have shifted dramatically away from the working-class.
- The left must focus on building a base within the working-class and building mass organizations in order to take power.
- The left has a long way to go to achieve majoritarian support and must keep the current base engaged while also making inroads with working-class Black Americans in particular.
The left must not retreat into sectarianism or subcultural politics but rather consolidate and expand on its current base and recognize that the strategic orientation of the past five years has been hugely successful for the socialist project, despite the failure to win the presidency. Abandoning electoral politics after this period of unprecedented growth would be a huge mistake, as would attempting to create a new party after the growth provided by tactical engagement with the Democratic ballot line. At the same time, the Democratic Party’s internal structure as well as the recent influx of bourgeois suburban voters makes realignment in the near term extremely unlikely. Instead, the left must build on the current base by organizing in the workplace and within communities. On the electoral front, the Sanders campaign and those of other socialist candidates represent a path forward. Using a message of class-struggle and universal programs, the socialist left can further force an ideological contest between the working-class and managerial-elite wings of the Democratic Party. In local elections, engagement in primaries can demonstrate the contradictory interests within the party coalition and build a base more loyal to socialism than to the Democratic Party. In doing so, the left will be able to win majorities or powerful blocs in a number of jurisdictions, foment class-struggle, build organizationally, demonstrate governing bona fides, and secure significant wins for workers.
Chicago wards won by Bernie Sanders
The urgent task of socialists, therefore, is to build on the base built by the Sanders campaign and the socialist movement over the past five years by organizing within this group and building mass working-class organizations capable of challenging the power of the capitalist class. The left must use a variety of tactics and contest socialist issues on a number of terrains. The only way the left can compete with capitalist power is organization on an enormous scale. DSA must organize the existing left base and mobilize these people around a shared program of working-class demands. DSA and the socialist movement must pursue and expand an electoral program to take governing power where Sanders was able to win a majority. Socialists in the very near future could govern a number of major cities and form a serious legislative bloc on the state and federal levels. The base of workers is there, and they must be organized. The future of the left is a mass organization uniting common struggles across terrains with a clear program of universal working-class demands.
Ben Davis is a former data staffer for the Sanders campaign and a member of Metro DC DSA.