In his speech announcing his campaign’s suspension last week, Bernie Sanders noted that “over the course of the past five years, our movement has won the ideological struggle.” It’s true: a $15 minimum wage, health care as a human right, ending our energy dependence on fossil fuels, and free public college for all have become commonsense ideas in the United States.
A presidential campaign is an incredible opportunity for mass political education. This idea has often been rejected by the Left in recent decades, but the Sanders campaign showed it was true. Despite a media environment that was outright hostile, the campaign was able to successfully popularize universal social policy demands and lay out a foreign policy program far more opposed to US imperialism than any other Democrat’s.
This movement secured the support of two segments of American society that are key to the Left’s future: young people and broad swaths of Latino, Arab, and Asian immigrants, in places as far-flung as Iowa, Nevada, California, Texas, and Massachusetts. Bernie did so by articulating a vision that guaranteed healthy bodies, a decent living, and dignified lives unfettered by debt and free of endless means testing. And his promise of a just foreign policy that reflected a global view of humanity was deeply appealing, especially to those of us who still have close family and friends in countries that bear the brunt of US military attacks and unfair trade policies.
My own Muslim community has made huge strides since we first heard about “Amo Bernie” and his commitment to these ideas five years ago. In 2016, he won the Arab neighborhoods of South and East Dearborn, Michigan by a two-to-one margin; this year, Bernie got nearly 90 percent of their vote. By letting us build a multigenerational force with his support and his campaign’s resources, he showed us we need not be afraid of becoming an unabashedly progressive political force, rather than clinging to old, conservatizing notions of the model minority.
In Bay Ridge, Brooklyn, where I was born, 2016 Bernie voters were the seed of our voter outreach list in the historic Khader El-Yateem race for New York City Council in 2017. We lost that race but ended up flipping our Republican congressional seat to a Democrat a year later and building multiple new political organizations like Yalla Brooklyn, a progressive Arab and Muslim-led political club, and the South Brooklyn branch of New York City Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Now we are running Tahanie Aboushi, a progressive candidate for Manhattan’s district attorney, who is dedicated to pushing back against two decades of racist government surveillance against Muslims in particular, in the election this fall.
Bernie unlocked a lot of that possibility for us by articulating the beliefs we hold in common — beliefs that typical nonprofit outreach to our communities often don’t speak to. These groups’ reliance on large foundations and wealthy donors means that reforms related to economic justice, tax revenues, or universal health care usually go unmentioned. Bernie, with his independent small-donor funding structure, was able to raise these kinds of issues with huge audiences.
Personally, I learned that the fear and rage and commitment to keeping my family safe that welled up in the aftermath of Trump’s election was something that was shared by thousands of other people — people I did not know, who nonetheless would fight for me. And I learned that I didn’t have to do it all alone, as I found a movement home in DSA. Like many, I decided to dedicate myself to building a mass socialist organization, and I soon began to take on formal leadership roles: first, my neighborhood’s organizing committee, then co-chair of New York City DSA, then serving on the National Political Committee, DSA’s national elected leadership body.
A lot of the work that DSA has done since Bernie’s first campaign — fighting Amazon from moving into Queens and displacing enormous numbers of working-class New Yorkers while snatching billions in public money, demanding increased affordable housing, calling for publicly owned electrical utilities to fight climate change, campaigning for Medicare for All — has been a learning process. We have been serious about building power and connecting with working-class people to discover what they need, deserve, and can win for themselves.
But we’ve also struggled. DSA remains disproportionately white. People of color and working-class people in this movement like me bring lots of organizing skills and experience into these leftist spaces, but we often have to weave back and forth between the communities we come from and DSA, even though we’ve seen that both can share core political values.
But DSA is growing and becoming a more integrated socialist movement. Over the course of the 2020 campaign, because of Bernie’s broad appeal, DSA came together with national leaders in black and brown organizations like Dream Defenders and Mijente, who fight for prison abolition and immigrant justice, respectively, and locally with groups like the Muslim Democratic Club of New York.
Of course, Sanders didn’t win the election, and our actual power is still incredibly weak. While Latino, Muslim, and Asian support for Bernie was through the roof across all ages, among black and white voters, our success was entirely with young people. To remedy this, we will need to work side by side with our new movement allies on campaigns to improve people’s lives, taking the political insights as well as the rich trove of data about donors, volunteers, and voters from the Bernie campaign to build a true, interconnected movement infrastructure.
COVID-19 has taken every crisis that already existed before the pandemic to extremes, killing black people, the elderly, the poor, and front-line workers by the thousands. The pandemic serves as another critical point for political education and a refocusing of DSA’s ongoing collective work, from organizing around Medicare for All to fighting for good jobs through a Green New Deal to lifting international sanctions on countries like Iran and Venezuela, and elevates the necessity of other fights around ending mass incarceration, abolishing ICE, protecting our unions, and fighting austerity.
The people the Bernie campaign activated know that there is no returning to the world we were in. So how will this new crisis be radicalizing? How will we build lasting institutions? We will do it by fighting for somebody we don’t know, alongside those we do.