September 27, 2016
By Steven Wishnia
New York, NY – Sen. Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination this year was “the most significant left political insurgency in American politics in 50 years,” Bob Masters, political director for Communications Workers of America District One, declared at a forum Sept. 16. “What will become of this incredible mobilization?”
That question was the theme of the forum, held at City University’s Murphy Institute for Labor Studies. What should movements that seek to carry on the themes of his campaign—that wealth and income inequality “is the great moral issue of our time, it is the great economic issue of our time, and it is the great political issue of our time”—do?
Organizations such as Our Revolution have spun off from the Sanders campaign, and there are scores of candidates seeking local office, but most of the discussion focused on what the Vermont senator could have done to reach Afro-American voters better. “Relationships” are key, said longtime Brooklyn community organizer Mark Winston Griffith. The predominantly white progressives who formed the core of Sanders’ base don’t have a “functional relationship” with black progressive groups, he added, and those connections are more important than “dropping in a few more lines about Black Lives Matter” in campaign speeches.
The other two panelists both seconded that. Former Ohio state senator Nina Turner, a key spokesperson and adviser in Sanders’ campaign, said black people would support Sanders’ positions, but didn’t want to break their loyalty to the Clintons. Bill and Hillary Clinton, said Progressive Democrats of America cofounder Steve Cobble, built an extensive “personal-political network” in the black community, and never get credit for cultivating black politicians and ministers “as if they were rich donors.”
Some of these problems, panelists said, were logistical. Unlike Hillary Clinton, Turner said, Sanders “had not been running since 2008. He stepped into a void that no one else had the courage to fill.” One result, Masters noted, was that the Sanders campaign didn’t have infrastructure in many states. It didn’t focus on New York State until beginning of April, less than three weeks before the primary, and didn’t pursue a chance to do a rally at the Apollo Theater in February.
That’s not a fatal problem, the panelists said. “We can bridge the gap,” said Griffith. “We need to change the way we talk about those issues.” The white left often pushes issues in a “clumsy and tone-deaf” way, he added, such as harping on the “TPP” when most people outside activist circles don’t know what the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement is or why it’s important. Don’t just use “the easy talking points,” Turner urged: Income and wealth inequality is “a big deal” to black voters, but they are not monolithically impoverished. Urban voters might respond better to environmental concerns, said Cobble, if they were presented less in terms of reverence for Mother Earth and more about how installing solar panels would create jobs and provide cheap and sustainable energy.
Beyond the immediate goal of defeating Donald Trump, who he calls part of a “worldwide fascist movement that’s getting some legs because of this austerity thing,” Cobble is optimistic. He’s been active in presidential campaigns since he volunteers for George McGovern in 1972, going on to become delegate coordinator for Jesse Jackson in 1988, and feels that the millennials who flocked to Sanders “could power the progressive movement for the next four decades.” “They know what type of future they want to see,” added Turner.
A progressive movement growing out of the Sanders campaign needs “consciousness, commitment, and consequences,” Turner said: consciousness of what is wrong and how the system works, commitment to change that, and the ability to deliver consequences for politicians who betray it.
“You need long-term, state-based infrastructure. There is no substitute,” Masters concluded. And, he noted, the Populist movement of the 1880s and 1890s grew and sustained itself by providing “massive political education.”
While Jesse Jackson’s 1988 campaign emphasized many of the same issues as Sanders did, the historical moment is different now, Masters said. The Jackson campaign was the “final outburst of New Deal constituencies” against the Reagan administration’s destruction of the gains working people won in the New Deal era, while Sanders’s supporters were revolting against the results of more than 30 years living under the Reagan agenda. The chances of building a national movement for economic justice now, he said, are “much better than in 1988… and much better after Sanders.”