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Bernie Sanders Isn’t Winning Local Elections for the Left

As social democrats break through in "red" places like Birmingham, the national media is getting the story all wrong.

Courtesy of Randall Woodfin for Mayor

One of the few bright spots of the Trump era thus far has been a new wave of electoral wins for candidates with decidedly left-of-center views. The victories have come in municipal and state-legislative races—most notably in places like Alabama, Mississippi, and Long Island, where the left isn’t “supposed” to have a chance to win anything. In some cases, like last week’s mayoral victory of Randall Woodfin in Birmingham, left-wing Democrats are unseating centrist, Chamber-of-Commerce-style Democrats. In others, longtime left-wing activists are successfully challenging Republicans in places where centrist Democrats have long failed.

These breakthroughs are bringing fresh ideas and new faces into the foundational layers of the political system, where conservatives have been ascendant for years. But the national media, which actively misunderstands both the South and the rest of “red” America, has decided to cover these stories only as triumphs of the “Bernie Sanders left,” as though all politics were not (in the famous phrase) “local” anymore; instead, national reporters and pundits increasingly, misleadingly, see all local politics as national.

“Bernie Wins Birmingham” is convenient shorthand for those who have no idea what actually goes on in Birmingham. But Bernie Sanders and the group his 2016 campaign inspired, Our Revolution, are not winning elections in places like Birmingham or Jackson, Mississippi, which in June elected a mayor who’s promised, “I’ll make Jackson the most radical city on the planet.” Activists in Birmingham and Jackson and Albuquerque and Long Island are winning them—left-wing activists who’ve toiled for years in the trenches, working with a new wave of organizers from Black Lives Matter and other insurgent groups, who bring social-media savvy and fired-up young voters into the mix.

Of course, it’s a great thing that groups like Our Revolution, which sprung out of Sanders’s 2016 presidential campaign, are bringing money, volunteers, and national attention to candidates like Woodfin. But the top-down narrative misses a lot about what is happening on the ground around the country. For starters, it misses the movements that shifted politics to the point where someone like Sanders could run for president and win state after state in the first place. More important, it misses the specifics—the ideas, the tactics, the challenges to existing political hegemonies—that have made these campaigns successful. And telling the story wrong lessens the chances that these unlikely wins can be replicated elsewhere.

In the wake of Woodfin’s victory in Birmingham, political scientist Vince Gawronski of Birmingham-Southern College commented that while Sanders’s endorsement helped with young people, “No one I talked to said they were voting for Woodfin because Bernie Sanders told them.”  

Woodfin was given a boost by Our Revolution, which provided phone-banking and texting support, and had on-the-ground help from the Working Families Party as well. But it was an army of Birmingham volunteers running a door-to-door canvass that made the difference. And it was Woodfin’s proposals—some of them straight from community movements—that spoke to the city’s frustration with unequal “revitalization” efforts that leave too many neighborhoods behind. The mayor-elect proposed, among other things, a youth jobs program inspired by a black mayor whose community programs are largely forgotten by the national media—Marion Barry of Washington, D.C.

The “Bernie left” stories also obscure the fact that Birmingham, despite the stereotypes pinned on it and other Southern cities by the northern media, has a recent history of electing progressives—including the first openly gay state legislator in Alabama, Patricia Todd. Woodfin’s win wasn’t a “red-to-blue” shift; it was a center-to-left shift—and there’s a whole different kind of moral to that story. 

This is, perhaps, where the “Sanders-left” frame does apply—in cases where activists are knocking off more moderate Democrats and nudging the party leftward, the way Sanders did nationally in 2016. Yet the wave of left-leaning victories has also included the likes of Christine Pellegrino, a teacher and opt-out movement leader who swung a heavily Republican district on Long Island nearly 40 points from Trump’s total just a few months earlier.

These eye-opening wins are bringing attention to social-democratic (and Sanders-backed) candidates on ballots this November. Vincent Fort, a 20-plus-year state senator in Georgia running for mayor of Atlanta, is hoping to succeed his bitter political enemy, business-friendly Democrat Kasim Reed. Fort has ties to labor and local organizing that stretch back throughout his tenure in the legislature. Eric Robertson, political director of Teamsters local 728 in Atlanta, says Fort “has always been there as part of the movement and has always been willing to lend his voice and at times his body to different struggles going on in and around Atlanta.” He’s mobilized alongside anti-eviction activists, fought predatory lending years before the financial crisis. “Now that he’s running for office,” Robertson says, “people see him as the authentic voice of the movement,” rather than “just some person who has never spoken to these groups before, but all of a sudden is an advocate.”

It’s that authentic movement connection, more than a simple national endorsement, that helps candidates galvanize people and win. “All these candidates got elected mainly because they had established a base from the work they have been doing in their communities, or as elected officials,” Robertson says. “What they’re getting from the Bernie campaign is to be able to form a coalition with populist-leaning progressive white folks on a scale that has not been seen for quite a long time.”

Larry Krasner, a civil-rights attorney who won a shocking victory in May’s Democratic primary to be Philadelphia’s district attorney, told The Dig podcast that his work as a lawyer defending movements gave him a campaign army when he decided to run. “I think activists and organizers do politics better than politicians,” he said. “And that means that those of us who have been down with their causes and have supported them for a long time have credibility.”

In some places, newer faces on the scene have established credibility by leading newer movements. Atlanta’s khalid kamau (a Yoruba name, and thus lowercased)—a DSA member and co-founder of Atlanta Black Lives Matter and “fight for $15” stalwart—stunned the local Democrats by winning a city council seat in April.

The more radical demands of the newer movements have shifted the left’s political horizons and sharpened its demands. And its organizing skills and social-media savvy laid a path for activists like Krasner and kamau to move from relative obscurity to national name recognition. “Social movements expand the range of the possible and transform public opinion,” says Joe Dinkin of the WFP. “Larry never could have won had the Black Lives Matter movement not existed these last several years. The Black Lives Matter movement transformed how Americans thought about policing and about mass incarceration.”

Some of the recent wins attributed to the “Bernie left” are the product of decades of planning through what were very dark times for social movements. The victory of Chokwe Antar Lumumba in this year’s Jackson, Mississippi, mayor’s race was the product of decades of work that had first borne fruit in 2013 with the election of Lumumba’s father, also Chokwe Lumumba, to that same office. The first Lumumba’s untimely death in office put the plans the Jackson organizers had made on hold for a while, but they’d been building a movement from the ground up in Jackson since 9/11. That’s when the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement, known nationally for its work calculating how many black people in America are killed by police each year, decided to focus its efforts on transforming Jackson’s economy and governance. They began to build people’s assemblies, and that grassroots work formed the basis for runs for office. “Despite many of our years, if not decades, of studying radical theory and process, we didn’t encounter many who had any serious analysis on how to actually govern,” says Kali Akuno, a leader of what became Cooperation Jackson

Their focus now is building a “solidarity economy” on a local level that can be a model for transforming cities and empowering underserved communities, Lumumba told me recently. Part of that plan is to build cooperatives—with the city’s backing—to create new businesses. It’s a direct contrast to the normal development strategy of city and state governments, which throw tax breaks at big corporations in hopes that they’ll create a few jobs with the handout. “Where we see a void, where we see a need, we can create something for ourselves,” Lumumba says, “so the community can fill its own gaps and at the same time give the people who work the opportunity to dictate what their labor will be and what the fruits of their labor will be.”

There’s something about the fast-moving, ground-shaking political moment we’re in that defies the nomenclature we have, which perhaps explains journalists’ need to reach for a personality—a Bernie—to define what’s happening. Things are changing too quickly for our language to have caught up. “Progressive” feels too vague, too reminiscent, perhaps, of the 2000s-era anti-Bush “netroots” moment, though plenty of the people running today’s left-leaning campaigns cut their teeth in the netroots. For some, “populist” is too easy to confuse with the right-wing, Donald Trump brand. And “social democratic,”  brings the “S-word” into the equation, and risks alienating some of the less-radical left-wingers who’ve just gotten turned on to activism. 

The movement that supported Sanders in 2016 was simply too broad to lend itself to easy labeling, ranging as it did from the socialists of DSA to left-leaning Democrats who hadn’t been moved to hit the streets under President Obama. “There’s a much larger scale of people who are open to a left politics that’s a bit more moderate than your average DSA member but to the left of the Democratic party mainstream,” says Robertson. There are also those—like Randall Woodfin himself—who backed Clinton in the primary, but are to the left of the Democratic mainstream and have fought since the inauguration against Trump’s policies. 

“In the age of Trump, most Democrats are in no mood to wait around and make slow progress when so much is under attack—voters want what they believe in and they want it now,” says Dinkin of the Working Families Party. “Trump has been part of awakening a new fervor and even militancy in voters.”

But the national media hates nothing more than “it’s complicated.” And unlike in the past, because of the decline of local newspapers, they don’t have sharp local political reporting to lean on for making sense of particular elections. Instead, narratives get picked up and run with because they are already out there. 

The tendency to reduce the story to the “Sanders left” also exemplifies an ongoing problem of horse-race journalism. Really, though, boxing is a more apt sports metaphor than a horse race, since journalists tend to count every action or sentence from a politician as a jab, cross, or knockdown blow with the relish of a ringside announcer. Sanders, in this framework, is important because he is a once and (presumed) future presidential candidate, and therefore everything that involves him in some way or other is seen through the lens of his rising or falling power within left-of-center politics. 

Take this recent story from Business Insider: “There’s a quiet battle between Bernie Sanders and Kamala Harris.” Ostensibly a news piece about the Atlanta mayor’s race, what it actually does is take the opportunity of a (perceived) 2020 presidential candidate giving a speech in Atlanta to set up a mostly-nonexistent “battle”—not with another wing of the same party or even against a competing ideology, but against another (presumed) 2020 candidate. Sanders has backed Vincent Fort in Atlanta; Kamala Harris said some generic words of praise for the sitting mayor of the city, Reed, when she spoke there. Hardly a “battle.” But there we are.

It is our inability to conceive of politics beyond personalities, in part, that makes such farcical articles tick. But the problem goes beyond a couple of laughably bad takes. To really understand our shifting politics, we need to understand Sanders himself as the symptom of a phenomenon that is in fact global—the failure of the neoliberal center in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, which has resulted in the collapse in country after country of the consensus between a couple of centrist ruling parties, and the rise of popular social movements to fill the vacuum left by politics that is so clearly not up to the task of finding solutions to our problems.

In that time we have seen the rise of not just Sanders but Jeremy Corbyn in Britain, Jean-Luc Mélenchon and La France Insoumise in France, Podemos in Spain and Syriza in Greece, along with right-wing counterparts with similar politics to Donald Trump. In some cases, like Sanders, Corbyn, and Mélenchon, or indeed like Vincent Fort, they are people who have labored below most people’s radar for decades, building a reputation as the elected official you could call to come walk a picket line, to craft a bit of legislation that would sneak through progressive policies or one that might fail but help to move the dial a little bit leftward. In the post-2008 moment of more aggressive social movements and more dramatic shifts, those people are often being turned to by a new generation looking for leadership, while younger leaders also rise from the streets to elected office they perhaps never imagined occupying.

The left-wing surge in local politics, in so many different cities, bears watching in part because these new mayors and council members will be tomorrow’s state-legislative leaders, gubernatorial and senatorial candidates. (Imagine Woodfin occupying Jeff Sessions’s old U.S. Senate seat some day.) But it’s also a sign of a rising tide every bit as important as the Trump movement, which has garnered so much more careful attention. Reducing them to victories for one “side” of the Democratic Party certainly does social movements no favors, either. As Chokwe Antar Lumumba said, “I do not believe electoral politics is the end; it is the means to an end.”