American Illusions: Reflecting on the Sanders Campaign

Progressives across America are grappling with the suspension of Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. The announcement comes after weeks of Senator Sanders focusing on the COVID-19 crisis instead of campaigning. His withdrawal represents a turning point in the 2020 election, one that reflects the shallowness of American imagination. We are a nation living in deep illusion about our circumstances. This way of thinking that imprisons us in an election of no alternatives.


As a local community organizer and a Bernie campaign volunteer, I have mixed emotions about the decision. On the one hand, it’s disappointing, on another it’s awe-inspiring. Bernie’s leadership is shining the brightest in our nation’s darkest times. In some ways, he has beaten the system, which he set out to do. A fast-growing progressive movement is expanding in the United States, one that is learning hard lessons about electoral politics in the United States.   


Bernie’s campaign policies weren’t radical, and I think that’s what hurts the most. They were reformative in a time of exponential change. Despite his departure, Bernie Sanders has done more for American class consciousness than any president since FDR. His exit denies us an opportunity to break free of a stagnating model of society, limiting us to a single choice expressing itself in two forms.  


Reflecting on the Bernie Sanders campaign has me asking a lot of questions. Why is it that so many Americans are so resistant to change that places a priority on the human being? What is it about our society that keeps so many subscribing to ways of living crumbling before our eyes? Does anyone believe that Joe Biden presents a valid challenge to Donald Trump? Do progressives planning on abstaining from voting recognize how much worse it can get?  


Many factors may influence resistance to change, such as economic class, education levels, or mythos subscription. It’s unsurprising; rapid shifts in technological progress widened the gap in what we presently consider skilled and unskilled labor, decimating entire industries in the process. Perhaps more importantly, our expansion has shattered lifelong narratives that have crafted universes. They reject systemic reform using the same logic that they may reject new technology—it’s unfamiliar, so why change? Denying change in an era of exponential technological growth is an act of ignorance, whether willful or unwillful. The willing embrace the illusion out of fear or greed, unaware or ignoring trends of consciousness. We cannot blame the unwilling; they are a reminder that localized education funding is a failed experiment.  


The progressive agenda is multifaceted, but the central theme is higher degrees of humanity. Policies and programs that lift entire people, raising the floor to expand collective potential. Some believe that while the current system is not perfect, it’s working for them. The truth is that security in an age of crisis is an illusion. Maybe not in this immediate moment, but denying trends doesn’t make them less likely. Being secure relies on institutional infrastructures and the people that follow them. Before COVID-19, over 50 million Americans had no health insurance. In the past few weeks, over 16 million people applied for unemployment benefits. It seems naive to believe that those without access to healthcare and employment during a crisis will continue to behave as they would during the status quo.   


Maybe the question is much deeper than our present moment. A significant portion of our population embraces a dogmatic vision of American exceptionalism. It’s an ideology deeply rooted in American imperialism and subjugation, one that stems from the religious notion of manifest destiny. We’re a nation of winners who take what we want, except that we’re not. The United States is consistently declining in international rankings for education, health care, happiness, and others. American exceptionalism is an illusion, which is why a return to ways of doing things before Trump is just a retreat into known decline.


Now millions of Americans who are fighting for a vision of systemic reform will likely have two options in the presidential race. There is Donald Trump, who is the most corrupt president in our national history. Currently, he is using the crisis to enrich himself and his inner circle while simultaneously cutting funding for coronavirus testing and support. Trump’s policies have proven grossly inadequate to address the pandemic, and hundreds of thousands will die because of it. Giving Trump’s increasingly authoritative track record, you would think that any candidate would have a strong chance against the sitting president. Our present moment indicates that idea is an illusion.


The most likely nominee is now Joe Biden, and the fact is that he is a lousy candidate. He’s been on the wrong side of history too many times to attract many of the nation’s progressives. His policies are uninspiring and unimaginative, making his efforts less attractive to the growing progressive movement in the United States. During a global pandemic, Biden has assured us he will veto Medicare for All, the most direct option for saving lives in the crisis. There’s also the dismissive smugness he’s demonstrated, criticizing millennials and Gen Z for frustrations surrounding their struggles. Millennials are now entering a second major depression during what is historically formative years for developing mastery, career, and wealth. Uniting the party around a single nominee will be extremely difficult without significant policy changes. 


Joe Biden and Donald Trump are certainly not the same, but they do serve the same people. Both are part of a more significant effort to maintain and exacerbate existing class structures, puppets of global elites uninterested in genuine systemic reform. Maybe in the past, Americans could embrace the illusion of choice. Today it’s just ignoring the fact that every president since Nixon has used policy to funnel money upwards in society. We must name corporate candidates for what they are, agents in an aggressive concentration of wealth and power.   


Let’s not forget that Joe Biden still needs to beat Donald Trump in a head to head election. Given his recent interviews, it is unclear that Joe Biden will be able to maintain his composure in a lengthy debate. To build popular support, establishment democrats will need to mobilize for their candidate to convert those coveted swing voters they are always talking about. While pessimism is not typically my default, to say that I believe Biden’s chances are slim would be an understatement. Perhaps seeing loved ones die due to Donald Trump’s handling of the Coronavirus will be enough to break his support base. Then again, if they still love him after the past three years, it seems unlikely.


The divide in the Democratic party is more apparent now that it ever has been. Anyone with a social media account can see just how many people are fervent about not supporting Joe Biden. To them, the best option is to abstain from voting or to vote for a third-party candidate (a significant gesture, but inadequate effort). To others, this is the ultimate betrayal. It’s a take your ball and go home moment in a time where we need total effort to end Trump’s reign.  


The existing idea is that there’s just too much at stake to abstain: Supreme Court seats, the gutting of public services, racially charged policies, and ending the presidential strategy of strategic lying so often that it dulls the senses. These arguments call to a higher purpose, collective unity in a time of chaos. It is a pragmatic approach, and although history shows us that uniting around a centrist candidate is a losing strategy, it may be our best pathway forward. Progressives would do well to leave the pragmatic voter be, their sense of duty overrides their dread, and that’s not a bad thing.


Pragmatism isn’t wrong, but it’s not enough. The philosophy rings hollow to many of the recently unemployed who have no access to health insurance during the crisis. We observe how the priority for COVID-19 testing directly correlates with wealth, and both presidential options want to keep it that way. Where is our higher purpose in this moment? Why is there no collective outrage from every member of the Democratic party for an immediate Medicare for all solution? If we are unwilling to fight for those who need it most now, then it is an illusion to believe that they will rise together to stop Trump. The pragmatist averts their gaze from the harsh truth that survival will always take priority over unity.  


Now we also have to cope with the increasingly popular public sentiment that it may just be better to let the whole system collapse than to attempt to save it. It’s not an idea to explore lightly. There are grave consequences for many with an empowered Donald Trump entering a second term, especially the economically disenfranchised and non-whites. But is there any other alternative? Corruption is rampant at all levels of government; for much of our history, politics has been an effort in self-enrichment. Does propping up a corporatist like Joe Biden change anything? It certainly does, but whether or not we’re just delaying the inevitable is still up for question. I don’t fault the abstainers, even though it may mean the end of American democracy.


We look at the results from the 2020 primary elections and proclaim that youths failed Bernie by not showing up to vote. That’s true, but it doesn’t cover the entire picture. The Democratic establishment in cooperation with large for-profit media conglomerates and the billionaire class did everything in their power to derail and demean Bernie Sanders. They ignored and demonized the quickly changing consciousness of their younger participants in favor of the established corporate order. It’s an illusion that the Democratic primaries were in any way equally fair to the participants.   


There’s a great irony in our circumstance, those who are most vulnerable to the pandemic have actively worked against their own best interest. We know that COVID-19 disproportionally impacts the elderly. Instead of opting for universal health care, they have chosen a system where COVID-19 testing will cost them thousands. Their staunch resistance to raising the floor through expanding social programs, a form of greater social inheritance, appears foolish given the economic decimation the crisis has caused. How many Americans were finally close to retiring who’s 401ks no longer allow it? There’s no joy in writing it, but many will die as a result of the illusions they hold.


I wonder if we’re holding onto a grander illusion—one where a system built on coercion and corruption can provide any alternative ways of living. As someone who ran for state office, I believe that democracy can save us, but not in the form that it exists today. There should be no illusion that our elections are free, fair, or elevate the best candidate. American democracy supports moneyed interests beyond all else.


COVID-19 makes it easy to forget that we’re neck-deep in a climate crisis that will radically reshape our lives. If we could eliminate the pandemic today, we’d still have corporate-sponsored congressional and state leadership that opposes a green new deal, socialized medicine, and publicly funded elections. It’s difficult to imagine how a return to the status quo will do anything to help Americans avoid the catastrophe at our door.  


American illusions stem from our disbelief in ourselves. Too many of us refuse to acknowledge the severity of our circumstance as a means to avoid personal responsibility. All of us must make sacrifices, but that’s a hard sell when so many are just getting by. If we continue to support leadership that denies and discourages genuine systemic reform, there is no hope of breaking free of the national and global oligarchy. For a brief moment in time the Sanders campaign pierced the veil, giving many a glimpse of the possible. The question remains, will we use the crisis to demand change, or will we return to sleep? If there’s anything that can break us free from American illusions, it’s human imagination.


This election is important, but in the end, it’s just another moment in a long series that makes up our lives. I can say for sure that while we’re witnessing the crisis in real-time, it’s ripple effects have yet to be felt or understood. As you reflect on our circumstances, please think about the next steps for you. If you’ve been a volunteer, you know just how much effort systemic reform requires. There are plenty of ways to continue involvement locally and nationally. As we move forward, there will be many roadblocks towards our shared vision of real systemic change, but that won’t stop the work from continuing. The corporate and class dominance over the majority of Americans cannot continue indefinitely.  

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