“So who are you going to vote for in the primaries?” The question came from my friend, Remi, as we ate dinner in Crossroads dining hall. “Well …” I tried to collect my thoughts, weave them together for the inevitably long explanation that would follow my answer. “I’m not going to vote for any of them.”
When I told my friends this, they were confused. I’m a self-identified socialist, and I’ve always been on the left. Why wouldn’t I vote for Bernie Sanders, at least? Fundamentally, voting for Sanders will not change the world. In the White House, Sanders would be a little better positioned than he is now to enact any of his major policies. Let’s imagine the hurdles that would face just one of his signature policies, Medicare for All. For it to pass, the bill would first need to travel through the House of Representatives, where the Democratic Speaker of the House, Nancy Pelosi, said she’s “not a big fan” of Medicare for All. If Medicare for All is somehow passed in the House, it will have to survive the currently Republican-controlled Senate, where (unless it can get the support of 60 or more senators) it will almost certainly die.
If Medicare for All can survive all of that and arrive on a hypothetical President Sanders’ desk, it will then face a plethora of legal challenges from health care company lawyers. If Medicare for All can survive all the court challenges, even as the Supreme Court is firmly in conservative hands, then we’ll all have health insurance. But even these formidable challenges are purely legal. Insurance, pharmaceutical and hospital corporations will fight tooth and nail to defeat Medicare for All. They can spend billions of dollars on lobbyists and advertisements against the bill (they already spend half a billion dollars a year on lobbying). If they had reason to fear that all this wouldn’t be enough to stop Medicare for All, then as a last-ditch effort, they could launch a capital strike in the U.S. and stop investing, raising the specter of mass unemployment and economic turmoil — a tactic that the similarly radical French President François Mitterrand faced in the 1980s after he was sworn into office.
And this still wouldn’t be all Sanders would face if he were elected. In office, he’d be fighting every stronghold of capitalist power — fossil fuel corporations, banks, health care companies, technology companies, etc. — simultaneously.
Sanders knows this, comes the reply, and that’s why he wants to build a movement of people to fight for his demands. His slogan, after all, is “Not me. Us.” He’s right to recognize that there would need to be massive movements in the streets in order to win any of his policies, but it’s not apparent that voting for him (or volunteering for his campaign) would build that movement. Plenty of Democrats in the past have called for the same thing. In 1984 and 1988, Jesse Jackson ran a campaign calling for a National Rainbow Coalition to sweep him into office and help him enact his radical policies of raising the minimum wage and creating a universal health care system. Even, Barack Obama — a centrist whose term in office saw mass deportations, bailouts of banks, assassinations via drone strikes — said once he was in office, people would need to “hold his feet to the fire.” His campaign slogan was the similarly movement-oriented “Yes, we can.” But none of these campaigns succeeded in creating mass movements. Instead, they led people into organizing to get out the vote for the Democratic Party — trying to get a candidate to set them free.
It’s going to take more than just voting or getting others to vote to transform the world. If we want to see any of Sanders’ policies enacted, if we want to see any of the changes necessary to have a livable future, then we need to organize ourselves. It will take massive movements and workers’ struggles — akin to the mass working-class movement that won the New Deal or the Civil Rights and Black Power movements that forced an end to segregation in the South — to win anything like Medicare for All. Devoting our limited time and energy to getting Sanders elected will, at best, result in attaching ourselves by the hip to a political party with the goal to win office; it won’t transform society and bring about a better world. At worst, it would mean not only attaching ourselves to that party but attaching ourselves to that party even as the Democrats prevent Sanders from winning the nomination and have him endorse a different (moderate) candidate, as he did with Hillary Clinton in 2016.
I’m not against people voting for Sanders as either a lesser evil or a greater good. But if that vote becomes a substitute for self-activity, collective action and organizing ourselves independently of him, then it becomes a problem. The radical change we need in the world will not come from the benevolence of a good candidate, even one who claims to have a vision for a mass movement. It will come only if all of us take action.