The 2024 Electoral Campaigns

By Paul Fiondella

In his 2016 and 2020 electoral campaigns for President, Bernie Sanders developed his campaigns around class issues. Those issues resonated with voters, working people daily struggling with the neoliberal agenda, an agenda which gives them minimal economic gains and a future of diminishing economic prospects. 

The Sanders campaigns were successful in reaching 30 to 45% of Democratic primary voters and a majority of Democrats under the age of 45, the future potential supporters of the party. The campaigns failed twice to translate that support into an electoral victory or even a persistent political movement, within or outside of the Democratic Party. 

What can young people learn from these campaigns in preparation for the 2024 federal elections?

Sanders gained his support confronting the Democratic Party with its own social democratic past. As Bernie emphasized, his proposals were nothing new: a rise in the minimum wage, a single-payer health insurance system, and free college tuition at public institutions. Those proposals were based upon Franklin Roosevelt’s 1944 State of the Union address in which Roosevelt called for a second Bill of Rights. The rights included; the right to a useful and remunerative job, the right to a livable wage, the right to a decent home, the right to protection from the economic fears of old age, sickness, accident, and unemployment, the right to adequate medical care and the right to a good education. 1  

Unlike Sanders, Roosevelt never viewed these proposals as socialist. Roosevelt  simply hoped that the success of the war effort, in building up the United States’ industrial base, would make it possible for the post-war state to guarantee greater economic prosperity for the workers who supported the New Deal. Roosevelt’s unrealized mid-20th Century promise of real freedom and security for all Americans, not just the wealthiest, was at the heart of the Sanders campaign. 

The underlying economics here are Keynesian. As capitalists accumulate greater and greater wealth, in Keynes’s liberal view,  capitalism can produce enough surplus wealth to end the struggle of labor for subsistence, thus rendering obsolete all of the deeply ingrained human competitive instincts for survival as expressed politically by the Republican Party and their laissez faire capitalist billionaire supporters.2

In Marxist terms this hope runs up against the nature of capitalism, which employs labor to create useful goods only insofar as it can realize value from the exchange of those goods in the market and secure a profit. How labor makes out is none of the capitalist’s concern. Capitalists have no problem making and selling useless goods so long as someone can be  persuaded to buy them, the consequence being ubiquitous environmental pollution.When interest rates are low and capital is cheap, capitalists will buy a viable corporation that is producing useful goods at a low rate of profit, unsustainably mortgage it, pay themselves back, and then sell off the corporation’s fixed assets, realizing a higher rate of return through parasitic speculation without anything of value being produced. If a profit can be made it will be made. Nevertheless, most electoral campaigns based upon issues that resonate with workers HOPE, like Keynes, for a liberal social democratic outcome to capitalism. 

After two extraordinary ‘class based issue’ electoral campaigns raising hope, why have they failed to leave anything behind? 

In their seminal book “Rules for Revolutionaries”, Becky Bond and Zack Exley the ‘go for broker irregulars’ who were senior advisors in the 2016 campaign outlined a strategy for progressive electoral campaigns. If you have the issues which resonate with the working class, and Sanders did, substitute motivated volunteers for professional campaign workers. Let them knock on doors and make telephone calls with the campaign message. This gives the candidate a  reach that they otherwise could not get without tons of money.

Bond and Exley were careful to point out that their strategy was to turn out voters on election day, not to build mass movements. In one anecdote they tell of an elderly woman who came to a volunteering event and insisted on discussing an issue, not the mechanics of the campaign, whom they  carefully had to escort out of the building and tell never to come back. Campaigns are about winning elections. When it comes to what happens after an election, Bond and Exley had nothing to offer. Having  converted paid campaign labor into free labor, this exploitation of HOPE when unrealized, results in  volunteer alienation and depression. People drop out of political activity. While new and innovative in 2016, by 2020 every campaign that could come up with a motivating message embraced this small volunteer Jehovah Witness army model. The other innovative model on the Republican side was developed by Cambridge Analytica. Here technology was extensively used. Campaign voter databases had long been used to identify potential supporters. Cambridge Analytica went much further. It used social media profiles and personality characteristics to identify potential voters and bombard them on social media with campaign messaging tailored to their prejudices. 

The problem with a campaign based upon social democratic hope for change through the electoral system is its failure to consider what happens when the candidate loses. There were two campaigns in which the main Democratic Party challenger was articulating  working class issues and was defeated. Once the Sanders campaign left town the crowds disappeared and nothing was left behind, no organization built around campaign issues remained. This mistake shouldn’t be repeated in 2024.

Here the left  needs to take a page from the civil rights movement. That movement never obtained results directly through the electoral process. It did not elect a majority to Congress and thus obtain civil rights legislation. It organized a mass movement, changed the climate of opinion toward segregation, and  exerted enough pressure on the political system to force that system to legislate reforms. All of the  political movements of the 1960s followed a similar path — the gay rights movement, the feminist  movement, the anti-war movement, and the environmental movement, with varying degrees of success. Had the enthusiastic participation of hundreds of thousands of volunteers been channeled into some option other than the electoral option of electing Clinton in 2016 or Biden in 2020, a political movement on the same level might have been born.

What can be done differently in 2024?

1: Start with the Bernie Issues-don’t reinvent the wheel. Don’t support a candidate that promises to pick up on populist rhetoric. Pick a candidate articulating a set of pro working class issues  that will resonate at the local level and that will actually benefit local workers if realized. 

2: Join an organization that will participate in the campaign independently. Share with and monitor the progress of other similar organizations via a network using  available cloud resources. Work with experienced union organizers and organizations that support  unionizing workers and with workers themselves just trying to understand their situation. Raise consciousness.

3: Establish a policy research committee that will avoid the dead end of getting behind the  wrong issues. Subject each policy to a Marxist analysis. For example, should we advocate for a  minimum wage or a livable wage? 

4: Use technology to find compatible individuals and get them together. In December of 2015 I asked the Sanders campaign the following question: “When the NH Primary is over and many of us have left the State,  what grassroots organization will we have organized, if any? For those of us involved in technology, how effectively are we using IT resources to build that grassroots movement?”  In March 2019 I asked a similar question:  “How are we talking about building a grassroots movement without having an actual  plan?” Needless to say I never received a response from anyone. During the campaign I worked on computerized voter lists. With those lists we were able to  identify specific groups of voters and sometimes the issues that concerned them. We also put into the database all the names, telephone numbers, and email addresses of Sander’s specific supporters. All the vast databases of names, post campaign, were turned over to every Democratic Party candidate in the country seeking to raise funds, spamming Bernie supporters with pleas for campaign contributions for years. They were not used to build a mass movement or a progressive grassroots working class organization for political change. 

My advice here, to paraphrase Abbie Hoffman, “steal that list.”

Approaching 2024 the problem of building a grassroots organization and a mass movement  around working class issues through or after an electoral campaign remains. Progressive organizations that place all their efforts into electing candidates must rethink their approach based upon the reality of the US electoral system and relearn the lessons of the Civil Rights Movement. It is possible to build a mass movement out of an electoral campaign using the technical tools that we have and pressure the system.Finally, will capitalism follow the social democratic path outlined by Sanders and Roosevelt? Only when capitalists are faced with the prospect of no political support for their policies of economic exploitation.


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