In midtown Manhattan, I find myself in a busy beer hall full of holiday revelers. From off in the back, a raucous and cacophonous cheer suddenly rises up from a group of rabble rousers. "Bernie!" they yell, tipping their large mugs in honor of Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, a politician who galvanized many during his failed bid to capture the Democratic nomination. But this party, which is a farewell "swan song" of sorts, is the last of its kind to bring together long-time political veterans of "Team Bernie." There's an air of nostalgia in the room, but also a degree of uncertainty since it's by no means clear what lies ahead for the local activist set.
Earlier in the day, some party revelers had attended a conference held by New York Progressive Action Network, a statewide group which is trying to find its political footing. Does NYPAN have "legs," as a possible successor network to the Bernie Sanders campaign, or will it come and go like many other New York groups on the liberal circuit? It's difficult to say, since Bernie himself hasn't really stepped up to the plate when it comes to forming a coherent, post-electoral political movement, and this shifts the burden over to volunteers themselves, who must figure out not only the overall aims but also structure of any new group.
Bernie's failure to perpetuate his "political revolution" is befuddling and disappointing. Over the course of the campaign, Sanders vowed that he would never make the mistake of other politicians by demobilizing followers in the post-electoral season. But either through sheer ineptitude or lack of long-term vision, he and his inner circle have done precisely that, allowing the vital energy and independent spirit of the campaign to slowly dissipate. These days, Bernie talks of collaborating with Donald Trump on issues of mutual concern, or seeks to promote his new book. Particularly disappointing is the failure to capitalize on an impressive voter database of pro-Sanders sympathizers and volunteers which was diligently tabulated and collected over the course of the campaign.
Acquiring the Correct Diagnosis
But even if it were possible to develop a network along the lines of NYPAN, for instance, is this necessarily the most desirable or tactical strategy? In the aftermath of Trump's electoral victory, it's important to come up with a proper diagnosis of the past if the aim is to develop a promising road map in future. The implication from many so-called leftist experts is that if Bernie had just spent more time with minorities and others, or developed a more promising messaging campaign, then the outcome might have been different. No doubt, many activists will seek to pursue such a strategy, that is to say simply try harder and do more of the same, i.e. more electoral politics either at the presidential, state or even city level, with even more systematic canvassing in an effort to get through to disadvantaged and marginalized communities.
All things being equal, trying to sway different constituencies to one's electoral point of view is certainly defensible, but is this really the best use of resources at this point? In Brooklyn, volunteers organized throughout the borough for a full year before the "official campaign" even showed up and opened an office. What's particularly difficult and jarring to accept is that even after countless hours logged on Bernie's campaign, volunteers have nothing tangible to show for it (though to be sure the intangible of personal networks and friendships may be of use in the political future). Yet when pressed about the need to put down more permanent roots in the community, say by establishing a political headquarters, volunteers typically reply that such a venture would require "too much effort."
To be sure, plugging in to a presidential campaign has its own internal logic and structure, whereas creating an independent political center doesn't answer to any official rule book. Despite this, the failure or unwillingness to establish greater links to the community must be seen as a longstanding liability on the New York activist scene. One might hark back all the way to Hurricane Sandy and its aftermath, for instance, as a missed opportunity to capitalize on the environmental moment and the legacy of Occupy Wall Street (more recently, my own Facebook page and online petition requesting Bernie to keep his Brooklyn political headquarters open to volunteers in the post-campaign season failed to garner much support).
Within volunteer circles, there's a certain belief that setting up a more permanent presence, particularly if money and rent is involved, is somehow considered a "cop-out" which could betray the underlying principles of a so-called "loose network of activists." Moreover, what would be the purpose of such an independent political center? Rallying behind a politician is one thing, but agreeing to an underlying core mission, philosophy or set of goals outside of the official parameters of a campaign is quite another. However, the answer to this conundrum is lying right under their noses if activists would only step back and reflect.
Already, two interlocking pieces of the puzzle are coming into focus, namely economic cooperatives and the burgeoning immigrant rights movement. By combining both elements at the local level, Bernie activists and others might regain their footing for the coming months and even years ahead, establishing a permanent base in the community as opposed to ephemeral campaigns which come and go while sapping valuable time and energy. Most importantly, if pursued correctly such a potent movement could hark back to the best of Occupy Wall Street including the latter's decidedly anti-authoritarian and anti-capitalist tendencies.
Leftist Experts Go Awry
I'll get into the particulars of what this strategy might look like in a moment, but what concerns me in the meantime is the tendency among so-called left experts to draw false conclusions based on stereotypes and urban myths about the Bernie campaign. What we need is a "real left," Naomi Klein remarks in the Guardian, one which demonstrates true commitment toward building lasting coalitions with disadvantaged minorities. Klein seems to point the finger at Bernie, whose campaign for the Democratic nomination failed "to connect with older black and Latino voters...That failure prevented the campaign from reaching its full potential."
Unlike Klein, who lives in Canada and seems a little out of touch with Sanders supporters on the ground, I live in Brooklyn, New York, which was the epicenter of Bernie's campaign in the state and arguably set an exemplary example for the Vermont Senator's nation-wide efforts. Indeed, long before the "official" campaign parachuted into Brooklyn, Bernie volunteers set up vital campaign infrastructure and, most crucially, created informational voter databases. For more than a year, I campaigned for Bernie throughout Brooklyn and even spent a week canvassing for Sanders in South Carolina in advance of the state's democratic primary. In addition, I also wrote nine lengthy articles over the course of the campaign which sought to encourage a discussion about the nature of "political revolution" within the wider campaign.
Now more than ever, it's important to develop a proper tactical diagnosis which is grounded in reality and direct experience, rather than relying on armchair interpretations about Bernie's political revolution and the nature of failure. Klein is factually correct that Bernie failed to garner sufficient votes from blacks and Latinos, but what is the ultimate takeaway and conclusion here? The fact is that Sanders volunteers went to great lengths to court black and Latino voters, though the response from both was disappointing and that is putting it mildly.
South Carolina and African Americans
In Charleston, South Carolina, I campaigned both in poor housing projects and in mixed white and black suburbs. On another occasion, I drove out to remote rural areas far from the city itself. Almost without exception, African American voters proved to be enormously cordial and hospitable, though not particularly forthcoming. Having previously campaigned for desegregation during the 1960s, Bernie had a pretty good personal track record on civil rights. What is more, Sanders brought in well known African American actor Danny Glover to campaign on his behalf. Despite this, blacks did not make up the majority at the Charleston headquarters: indeed, most volunteers were white and Latino and came from out of state. Some even hailed from abroad and as far away as Europe.
While canvassing door to door in Charleston, I did not pick up on a huge groundswell of support for Hillary Clinton though some African Americans replied that they intended to vote for Bernie's challenger without spelling out why. Others had not heard of Bernie but said they might consider him. I recall one conversation with a middle aged gentleman who said he intended to vote for Bernie but who nevertheless insisted on arguing with me about the necessity of nominating a candidate who could defeat the Republicans come November.
I didn't expect Bernie to win South Carolina, but nevertheless watching the electoral returns back in New York proved to be a sobering experience, with Sanders getting walloped after garnering only 26% of the vote in contrast to 74% for Hillary. Though Bernie did well with millennial voters in the state, he fared quite poorly with the older generation, a pattern which persisted throughout the campaign. In particular, Bernie performed miserably with African Americans and only managed to eke out 14% to Clinton's 86%.
Despite the lackluster performance in South Carolina and the rest of the South, Bernie volunteers persisted in trying to shore up the African American community in New York in advance of the state's primary. Unfortunately, Sanders once again went down to stinging defeat which dealt a mortal blow to the campaign. In the aftermath of Bernie's loss, I attended a political meeting in Brooklyn where some African Americans, most of whom I had never seen before during the course of the actual campaign, berated Sanders for "not getting on the same wavelength" as blacks. Later, a graduate student who had apparently fallen under the sway of trendy post-modern philosophy remarked that if I had showed up on his doorstep in South Carolina, he personally would have slammed the door in my face since I am white.
I realize that my comments may come off as slightly haughty and these types of issues can be touchy. I fully admit to having little direct experience with African American struggle in South Carolina, let alone historic oppression inflicted upon the black community. In fact, prior to my week campaigning for Bernie in South Carolina, I had never even been to the state or engaged in political work in the area for that matter. To think that an outsider can simply "parachute" in, carpetbagger- style, and hope to immediately understand the local community is certainly an uphill challenge. That said, I do not feel from my own observation that volunteers were patronizing or condescending toward local people in Charleston. Indeed, rather than preach from an outsider perspective, many volunteers sought to engage the community on residents' local concerns while being sure to mention Bernie's fundamental message of economic fairness, as well as his commitment to prison and justice reform.
Moreover, in light of my own experience I do not feel mainstream African American commentators were particularly accurate in their depictions of the Sanders campaign. Writing in the Washington Post, for example, Janell Ross compared Bernie's supposed blindness toward racial inequities to Fidel Castro's Cuba. Going completely overboard, Ross argues that Castro failed to eliminate the island's "pigmentocracy" by forging socialist programs, and such failures should serve as an "instructive example" to "condescending" white Bernie volunteers. Going even further, Ross lambastes Sanders supporters for supposedly being "patronizing," "paternalistic," and even perpetuating "subtle forms of bigotry."
Chiming in for good measure, Charles Blow of the New York Times writes that the Sanders crowd is guilty of "Bernie-splaining" and treating African Americans as "infantile." Laying it on a bit thick, Blow adds the Bernie campaign displayed a "not-so-subtle, not-so-innocuous savior syndrome and paternalistic patronage." African Americans would do well to avoid the likes of Sanders, Blow writes, because they are likely to be betrayed. "As good as they sound," Blow concludes, "Sanders's proposals can also sound too good to be true. There is a whiff of fancifulness."
While such arguments are fairly predictable from the mainstream, Bernie also got hit from some fellow political travelers. Writing for In These Times, Salim Muwakkil remarks disparagingly that Bernie sought out political supporters in the South who could speak in a "gospel accent." Certain African American surrogates, including Danny Glover, gave the campaign a "bookish, boutique character." Muwakkil meanwhile agrees that African Americans should ignore Sanders because they see Clinton as more likely to defeat the Republicans, a position that was of course later revealed as bogus.
Latinos and White Working Class
Commentators such as Klein also claim the Sanders campaign failed to connect with Latinos, but once again readers of her column might come away with the mistaken impression that Bernie volunteers were somehow lackluster in their efforts when nothing could be farther from the truth. Within the Latino neighborhood of Sunset Park, Brooklyn for example, Sanders supporters canvassed the area for many months. As I noted in a previous column, however, some Latinos on the street voiced their support for Trump as the campaign progressed. Needless to say, very few joined with Sanders forces on the ground during get out the vote drives in Sunset Park. In the end, Hillary cleaned up with the minority vote during the New York primary, including Latinos.
Over at the Guardian meanwhile, the inevitable hand-wringing has continued amidst ongoing discussions about the role of the white working class. Columnist Nick Cohen enjoys being a contrarian but doesn't offer any thought-provoking proscriptions of his own when it comes to the left's political morass. In a recent piece, he claims that "middle class leftists" have failed to give serious consideration to the notion of how to win back the white working class. Going further, the Guardian columnist claims that leftists are smug and patronizing.
"For too many in the poor neighborhoods of the west," he remarks, "middle-class liberals have become like their bosses at work. They tell you what you can and can't think. They warn that you must accept their superiority and you will be in no end of trouble if you do not."
Does any of this really hold up under scrutiny? One wonders whether Cohen, who is English, has any real experience with white working class America and its grievances. Interestingly enough, Sanders did much better with this group than with other minorities, both nationally and in the New York City area. Indeed, Bernie racked up impressive margins in south Brooklyn, including Dyker Heights, Bensonhurst and Bay Ridge, not to mention Staten Island, areas which are home to many in the white working class. Just what were the guiding motivations and underlying psychology of these voters during the primary?
While it would be nice to think that formerly "Reagan Democrats" had turned around and signed up for socialist political revolution, the electoral map raises questions. Indeed, a few months after the New York Democratic primary these same districts voted for Trump in the general election. Perhaps, this voting bloc simply voted for Sanders to spite Hillary. Either way, I don't believe from my own direct observation that the white working class played a substantial role as far as actual political organizing in Brooklyn was concerned. Moreover, in the final waning days of the Sanders campaign, I went to see Bernie speak at a town hall event near Times Square. Looking around the room at the audience, I saw millenials and a smattering of others, the same familiar faces from previous meetings, yet few white folk from south Brooklyn or Staten Island.
Forging the Cooperative-Immigrant Alliance
Does any of this necessarily mean that trying to reach out beyond the Bernie millennial base is somehow a "lost cause"? I would say absolutely not, though activists should embrace a more radical mindset outside of the normal parameters of electoral politics while rethinking overall strategy and tactics. The timing may be right for a Bernie Sanders-style cooperative movement which is allied to the local Muslim community. While this concept may seem a little outlandish, the notion isn't as far-fetched as one might think. Indeed, during the run-up to the New York primary, Bernie received political support both in Jackson Heights, Queens and in Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, two key Muslim neighborhoods.
Forging an alliance between the offshoots of the Bernie Sanders movement and the Muslim community can be fruitful but must take place on equal footing. At a recent meeting of the Muslim Democratic Club in Jackson Heights, I asked local leaders what, if anything, they might want from outsiders in the midst of growing apprehension and fear associated with the incoming Trump administration. My sense is that Muslims are still trying to come to grips with new political realities, while some have requested that activists accompany them on morning subway commutes out of sheer concern for personal safety. In light of recent developments, including an alarming attack on an off-duty Muslim policewoman in Bay Ridge, such concerns are not unwarranted.
In the short-term, Sanders supporters can offer support based on local contingencies and conditions but in the long-term progressives need to think about how to politically transform the relationship without being preachy about it. Though some Bernie supporters may not be aware, their Senator was a champion of economic cooperatives. Indeed, Bernie introduced legislation which would promote employee ownership and participation in company-wide decision-making. He has also sponsored a bill which would provide loans and loan guarantees which would allow employees to buy a cooperative or business through a stock ownership plan.
Some former members of the Sanders campaign have already joined forces with Democracy at Work, an organization which seeks to promote cooperatives throughout the area. At the local Brooklyn Commons, New School University economics professor Richard Wolff has spearheaded the new group. Meanwhile, just up the road from Brooklyn Commons lies the Park Slope Food Coop, the largest food cooperative in the country with 17,000 members. If carried out correctly, Bernie folk could help to foster a network of cooperatives designed to assist immigrants along the lines of Exarcheia in Greece (see below). The question really boils down to political will and finding an appropriate space, be it the Brooklyn Commons or some other venue. Former Bernie volunteers should make use of their data base of contacts to identify a suitable space, rather than guardedly hold on to information.
The Activist Gold Standard
Just how could this cooperative-immigrant alliance actually work? One need look no further than Athens, Greece for the ultimate gold standard. There, anarchists have established the so-called Notaria solidarity center in the Exarcheia neighborhood. Eschewing a purely philanthropic approach, Notara asks refugees to attend assembly meetings where decisions are made on a consensus basis. The center, which forms part of a larger refugee network in the area, provides accommodation, clothing, information and medical treatment for newly-arrived migrants. At the health center, anarchists give out medicine donated by local pharmacies and even provide dental service. Exarcheia has devised ingenious methods of funding its activities, including a local anarchist bar, whose proceeds go toward legal expenses for fellow activists, as well as language classes for refugees, food handouts and medical care.
Down the road is another center which provides social services, and around the corner lie a bunch of anarchist-administered dining collectives. EL CHEf, one such collective, feeds hundreds of people every month and participants are all invited to help with the cooking. What is more, refugees from Syria and elsewhere are encouraged to present their own dishes and cuisine. Hardly a mere soup kitchen, EL CHEf seeks to welcome migrants who in turn are urged to plan weekly menus. Anarchists are linked to local farmers, and activists have occupied a mansion where they have turned gardens into a gigantic vegetable patch. Whether Exarcheia is simply a flash in the pan or has real staying power remains to be seen. For now, however, anarchists have certainly demonstrated they are capable of spurring the likes of a "counter-power" to the disappointing leftist Syriza party as well as threatening right wing Golden Dawn.
To be sure, Brooklyn isn't Athens and activists may encounter any number of obstacles if they seek to recreate the Exarcheia model. While it's still unclear what the Muslim community in Brooklyn might seek from outside activists, key alliances will undoubtedly form in response to exigencies of the moment. The only question is what form this alliance may take. It's always tempting to look to a standard bearer politician like Bernie for political meaning, but isn't it time to start jumpstarting a different radical model at the local level? Perhaps this is an opportunity for the Bernie millennial generation, on the one hand, and Muslims, on the other to learn from each other.
Nikolas Kozloff is a New York-based political writer who has long focused on the concept of political revolution.