Movement builders should listen to Bernie Sanders — focus on mass action, not candidates

Is Bernie Sanders a more progressive presidential candidate than Hillary Clinton? Undoubtedly. Will he single-handedly catalyze a united left front in the United States? Probably not.

Unchallenged, Hillary Clinton is likely to run a campaign chock-full of populist optics, but thin on any real engagement with the issues that make progressives most nervous about her bid: foreign policy, welfare, corporate influence and more. Sanders, a registered independent, who caucuses with Democrats yet identifies as a democratic socialist, has been unafraid to talk about class inequality, even — heaven forbid — capitalism. He’s even started bringing a long-taboo word back into mainstream American political conversation: socialism.

As Ned Resnikoff points out for Al Jazeera, Americans’ stance toward socialism has been thawing since the Cold War. Between Occupy Wall Street, Kshama Sewant’s election to Seattle City Council, and — now — Sanders’ candidacy, it may finally be possible to de-link the “S Word” from the gulags and authoritarianism of the Soviet Union, and re-associate with such basic amenities as healthcare, education and housing. According to a 2011 Gallup poll, 49 percent of 18-29 year olds even have a positive view of socialism. With any hope, this year’s Democratic primary debates will challenge Clinton to choose firm sides on these issues, and maybe even build them into her platform in response to the vocal minority more endeared to Sanders’ populism than Clinton’s smug establishmentarianism.

Likewise, Sanders, with some notable silences, generally espouses views closer to those of activists within today’s emergent movements for social justice. Beyond words, though, what could his candidacy as a Democrat mean for organizers on the ground? While a left-of Clinton Democratic contender may help positively shape the debate going into primary season, electing a progressive into the White House doesn’t mean anything unless there’s a movement infrastructure in place to hold them truly accountable.

Smartly, Elizabeth Warren — maybe in a move to preserve her chances for 2020 or 2024 — has repeatedly declined the left flank of the Democratic Party’s calls for her to run for president. Still, as a recent New Yorker profile of Warren pointed out, Warren’s role is as the Democrats’ squeaky, anti-establishment wheel and a bulldog on Wall Street bankers, Republicans and centrist Democrats alike; there’s also no indication she won’t make a run in the future. By that time, America’s progressives, working together, may be well organized enough to actually put someone into office they can trust — and have enough street heat to make sure they don’t go back on their word.

As Joel Bleifuss aruges over at In These Times, candidates are nothing without grassroots supporters ready and willing to take their candidates to bat should they screw up. Sanders himself told MSNBC that “No president, not Bernie Sanders, not anybody, will succeed [in taking on the oligarchs] unless there is a mass mobilization of millions of people who stand up and say enough is enough.”

Looking towards the 2016 elections, those attempting to build or catalyze transformative movements should take Sanders’s own advice — part of which might mean putting a little less faith in the man himself.

Focusing on candidates themselves, however aligned with a movement’s views, is a flawed way to approach achieving major progressive wins. As Arun Gupta writes for Telesur TV, “go ahead and vote for Sanders and Clinton, but that’s all. Spend the rest of your time, energy and money on building militant grassroots activism.” Rather than stumping for Sanders or some Warrenite specter of Hillary that will never exist, organizers might devote their time to building out movements that won’t just ask for center stage come election time, but make it impossible to imagine candidates who aren’t vying for those movements’ support, even tapping its leaders for their cabinets.

If Barack Obama’s hawkish, hardly “change” filled presidency has been any indication, elected officials are only as valuable as the masses holding their feet to the fire. As a legitimate candidate, Sanders has the potential to claw open conversations that organizers have been pushing for years, creating rare opportunities in the national dialogue that grassroots forces can use to their advantage. It may even make the next administration, Republican or Democratic, less devastating to working families, communities of color and the planet. But on issues as pressing as violent, systemic racism, climate change, and severe economic inequality, good candidates won’t save us. Strong movements will — and they could make the next election cycle one to get truly excited about.