Bernie Sanders earned my support in last year’s Democratic primary. His ambitious political agenda was, I felt, a necessary rebuttal to the complacency of the Democratic Party, which was riding high on a relatively stable economy and President Obama’s popularity.
As such, I voluntarily entered my name and email address into the form on his campaign’s website, ensuring that I would receive updates from his staff—and calls for donations, which are annoying only when they come from a shady or unpalatable source.
Many others did the same; Sanders earned their trust, and with their trust came access to the sacred inbox.
Having kicked off as a seemingly spontaneous decision by a rather obscure senator from a small state, the Sanders presidential run quickly ballooned into a national phenomenon. Dismissed as foolish early on, Sanders rapidly transcended the “protest candidate” label and became a formidable challenge to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who expected—along with her staff and much of the media—an uncontested high-step into the general election.
Sanders’ populist message struck a nerve; his explicitly class-based critique of the American economic order was a breath of fresh air for millions, as was his inspiring alternative. Whereas a primary role of the entrenched political class is often to lower the expectations of the population, Sanders—and the movements that sprouted up before his campaign and around it—set out to raise them.
And with rising expectations came a staggering email list—and a staggering number of individual contributions.
Soon, the records began to fall. In December 2015, Sanders surpassed Barack Obama’s 2,209,636 donations, and his fundraising apparatus even began to compete with the vaunted Clinton machine, which boasted support from the economic elites against whom Sanders so successfully railed.
By the end, the Vermont senator had amassed over 13 million votes, and he is currently the most popular politician in the United States. Though he fell short in his primary battle with Clinton, Sanders succeeded in his aim to revitalize and radicalize young voters who were—and still are—both dismayed by their economic prospects and repulsed by politics as usual.
And though he lost the election, he has not lost the email list.
Now, despite the fact that they were almost unanimous in their rejection of Sanders’ politics, Democrats badly want access to that list.
Mother Jones recently reported that Democrats are becoming increasingly explicit in their goal of obtaining the trove of names and email addresses that played a crucial role in the Sanders campaign’s efforts to bring to life a political revolution—”Democrats are desperate,” the headline reads.
In the piece, Tom Perez, former labor secretary and current candidate for DNC chair, is quoted expressing his desire “to learn from Senator Sanders about how he did it.”
To witness Democrats wondering aloud how Sanders “did it”—that is, how he created such enthusiasm and converted it into political action—is to gain some insight into why they, themselves, cannot “do it.”
It is impossible, it seems, for many Democrats to comprehend that a simple yet ambitious economic agenda, centered on addressing the nation’s staggering inequality through both redistribution of wealth and a set of universal programs, could garner mass support.
They are also seemingly confused by the notion that blithely accepting money from reactionary mainstays—from Wall Street firms to Big Pharma to oil lobbyists—contributes to the pervasive feeling that Democrats are “lost and elitist.”
And, of course, it’s not just a feeling. The campaign of Hillary Clinton was so committed to recruiting the billionaires defecting from the Republican Party that she couldn’t even muster the political courage to back a $15 minimum wage; she was so enmeshed in the world of galas and celebrity fundraisers that she couldn’t be bothered to campaign hard in Michigan and Wisconsin.
The Democrats’ move away from union halls and into the arms of corporate America has been decades in the making; the Clinton campaign represented the apex of neoliberalism’s hold on “the party of the people,” the results of which have been devastating.
Sanders attempted to break this destructive hold and, for his efforts, he was shunned by the party elite—indeed, he was actively undermined by the fortress liberals committed to maintaining the status quo, even at the expense of a Trump presidency.
And now these same partisans have the audacity to seek access to Sanders’ email list, all the while denying the deep rifts within the Democratic Party that urgently need addressing.
“Maybe it’s more fun to think there’s some deep division,” said Nancy Pelosi dismissively.
But it’s not “fun” to perceive this division—to understand that there are Democrats who, for instance, undermine efforts to lower prescription drug prices and cozy up to Wall Street—it’s just rational.
In recent weeks, high-ranking Democrats have urged unity in the face of Trump. The various factions within the party must lay aside their differences, hold back their legitimate critiques, and coalesce around “shared values,” we are told.
But as Sarah Jones has noted, this approach inevitably “papers over the Democratic Party’s very real weaknesses, both at broad and tactical levels. It essentially defines the party as the anti-Trump party, and nothing more.”
Indeed, Politico reported from a gathering of House Democrats in Baltimore that the party’s “political playbook already seems written, in fact, and it’s pretty simple: We’re not Donald Trump.”
Entirely absent, still, is a vision for the future; Democrats have become the managers of what is, rather than the harbingers of what is to come. They have set their sights on limiting the damage of Trumpism, but they have neglected the organizing work necessary to build a more equitable society.
Bolstered by the Fight for $15 movement among others, Sanders, by contrast, cultivated what the Democratic establishment could not—genuine enthusiasm—because he did what Democrats have, for decades, failed to do: He brought class back to the national stage.
He argued, persuasively, that the wealthiest exert excessive influence on the political system and that, if this is permitted to continue, the United States will “become an oligarchic form of society.”
Now the oligarchy is in plain sight; economic elites who were previously content to influence government from the outside are now grasping the levers of power. The oligarchs no longer merely affect government—they are the government.
The late writer and academic Mark Fisher once observed that “A left that does not have class at its core can only be a liberal pressure group.”
At present, the Democratic Party is that pressure group. They are pledging to resist Trump, to halt his advances, to slow his efforts to steamroll unions and public schools and immigrants and the environment.
But Democrats’ longing for the secret weapon of the Sanders campaign is indicative of their internal confusion, their lack of a way forward. They want the email list without the organizing that made it possible; they want the results, but they don’t want what achieved those results. They want enthusiasm, but they don’t want single-payer healthcare, or aggressive Wall Street regulation, or free public college. They don’t want democratic socialism.
“The revival of class-based politics is as difficult a task as it is a necessary one,” wrote Benjamin Ross in Dissent. And it seems that history’s second-most enthusiastic capitalist party is not, to put it mildly, up to the task.
With the dead weight of neoliberalism on their backs, the Democrats will not be saved by an email list. At present—and surely many others share this view—if an email authored by Democratic Party operatives lands in my inbox, it will be moved quickly to the garbage.
Jake Johnson is a freelance writer. Follow him on Twitter: @johnsonjakep