Bernie Sanders has suspended his campaign. This marks the end not only of his latest run for president, but of a five-year battle for the future of the country.
Consistently, Sanders centered this fight around a call for single-payer health care — the only sane and moral alternative to a system of private-sector insurance profiteering that kills, bankrupts, and leaves untreated millions of Americans. The reforms he called for are taken for granted in most of the industrialized world; they are modest, eminently rational, and consistently popular.
And in recent months, we have seen just how necessary single-payer health care — and the socialist politics that drove the Sanders movement — really are. The United States has proven itself unusually vulnerable to the COVID-19 pandemic sweeping the globe, and the culprit is clear: capitalism. It is capitalism that has driven cuts to government pandemic response programs. It is capitalism that pressures government officials to scale back basic suppression measures and open the company back up to vulnerable workers. It is capitalism that has decimated our country’s capacity to manufacture basic medical equipment and supplies and to keep grocery shelves stocked. And it is capitalism that has left tens of millions of American uninsured, unemployed, and on the cliff of poverty in the face of this pandemic.
The Sanders campaign was the obvious solution to this crisis.
Why Did Bernie Lose?
There will be no dearth of campaign postmortems in the months ahead, and some fraction of the second-guessing may even be plausible, but let us be clear: the Sanders campaign was ultimately destroyed by a political establishment led by capital and marching under the banner of the Democratic Party.
Bernie Sanders lost because our political establishment, having presided over decades of declining hopes and living standards for the poor and working class, has created an electorate that has rightly lost faith in democracy.
Bernie Sanders lost because decades of deliberate propagandizing by the Republican Party, routinely accepted by an inept and complicit Democratic opposition, has entrenched among voters the self-fulfilling conventional wisdom that America is a center-right nation that would never elect even the most moderate democratic socialist.
Bernie Sanders lost because decades of media consolidation has placed our most powerful ideological institutions in the hands of an ever-shrinking faction of oligarchs. And their control of the media, in a million overt and subtle ways, guarantees a basically insurmountable opposition campaign against any politician who steps a millimeter outside of Democratic orthodoxy.
Bernie Sanders lost because the Democratic Party will always — if not deliberately, then at least in effect — be able to wage well-funded, highly sophisticated multicandidate opposition campaigns against insurgents, flanked by a seemingly endless network of NGOs, captured unions, astro-turfed “movements,” celebrity activists, and so on.
Bernie Sanders lost because the institutions and system of neoliberal domination in the twenty-first-century United States, while showing clear signs of dysfunction and decline, have yet to collapse beneath the contradictions of capital; and until they do, no amount of activist enthusiasm or strategic savvy or socialist vision or political ambition is likely to prevail against them.
What the Future Looks Like
Last evening as polls for the Wisconsin Democratic primary closed, Joe Biden — now the party’s presumptive nominee — declared on CNN that his “gut feelings” was that the party should not have proceeded with voting amidst the highly contagious coronavirus pandemic.
Party loyalists will likely find those comments sober and responsible, just another illustration of how Democrats, running against a reckless and unhinged Trump administration, promise to bring adults back into the White House.
But those comments followed weeks of Biden pointedly ignoring pleas to postpone the Wisconsin primary. An increasingly alarmed Sanders campaign had joined those calls: in a public statement, Sanders wrote that “People should not be forced to put their lives on the line to vote.”
Nevertheless, the political calculation from the Biden campaign was clear. Delays might give Bernie Sanders time to turn his campaign around, while proceeding with the campaign — and endangering thousands of voters in the process — would give the critics of Sanders rhetorical leverage to call for him to drop out.
Wisconsin will not be an isolated incident. In the coming months, Joe Biden will put even more lives at risk as he attempts to build support for his presidential campaign. As the first wave of pandemic deaths begins to subside, as savings and welfare checks dry up and businesses ratchet up their pressure to reopen the economy, and as the government begins to relax its quarantine measures, there is every reason to believe that this disease will still be with us. Yale University Dr Nicholas Christakis, for example, predicts a 75 percent chance of a second wave of death to arrive in the fall — right at the peak of the general election.
But voters are not going to risk their lives for this candidate. No one is going to join a rally or knock on doors or stand in line at the polls for a man who will not even guarantee them health care if they get sick. No one is going to risk the economic ruin of unemployment and high hospital deductibles for a man who has spent most of his political career championing austerity.
When Hillary Clinton lost four years ago, I wrote that 2016 was the apathy election. Incredibly, the Democratic establishment has chosen to repeat its mistake. It has overcome Bernie Sanders and the movement he inspired, and set in his place a consummate next-in-line figurehead for the neoliberal plutocracy. No one will fight for this man. No one will risk their lives for this man. In 2020, faced with a raging pandemic on one hand and the hopeless politics of the Democratic Party on the other, voters will once more decide, wisely, to stay at home.