Bernie Sanders, Joe Biden and the progressive movement: A winter of discontent

Sanders has shaped history, and at this point isn't inclined to battle Biden. Time for others to pick up the torch

By Norman Solomon

Contributing Writer

Published December 16, 2020 7:00AM (EST)

Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)
Joe Biden and Bernie Sanders (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images)

Bernie Sanders is not in a good political position right now. Yes, he continues to speak vital truths to — and about — power. His ability to reach a national audience with progressive wisdom and specific proposals is unmatched. And during the last several decades, no one has done more to move the nation's discourse leftward. But now, Sanders is in a political box. 

After a summer and fall dominated by the imperative of defeating Donald Trump, progressive forces are entering a winter of discontent. Joe Biden has offered them little on the list of top personnel being named to his administration. While Sanders wants to maintain a cordial relationship with the incoming president, he doesn't like what he's seeing.

"The progressive movement deserves a number of seats — important seats — in the Biden administration," Sanders said last week. "Have I seen that at this point? I have not."

Sanders foreshadowed the current situation back in mid-November, when he told the Associated Press: "It seems to me pretty clear that progressive views need to be expressed within a Biden administration. It would be, for example, enormously insulting if Biden put together a 'team of rivals' — and there's some discussion that that's what he intends to do — which might include Republicans and conservative Democrats — but which ignored the progressive community. I think that would be very, very unfortunate."

At this point, Sanders and avid supporters of the Bernie 2020 campaign have ample reasons to feel frustrated, even "enormously" insulted. It's small comfort that Biden's picks so far are purportedly "not as bad as Obama's" were 12 years ago. That's a low bar, especially to those who understand that Barack Obama heavily corporatized his presidency from the outset. And given the past decade's leftward political migration among Democrats and independents at the grassroots, Biden's selections have been even more out of step with the party's base.

Reporting on Biden's overall selections as this week began, the Washington Post found that "about 80 percent of the White House and agency officials he's announced have the word 'Obama' on their résumé from previous White House or Obama campaign jobs."

Biden conveyed notable disregard for Sanders by nominating a budget director with a long record of publicly expressing antagonism toward him. The Post reported that "the transition team never reached out to" Sanders about "Biden's decision to tap Neera Tanden as director of the Office of Management and Budget, according to a person familiar with the lack of communication, despite Sanders's role as the top Democrat on one of the committees that will hold Tanden's confirmation hearings."

Away from Capitol Hill, many progressive organizations are regrouping while "the Bernie movement" evaporates. Coalescing in its place are a range of resilient, overlapping movements that owe much of their emergent long-term power to his visionary leadership.

Nationally, Sanders became a shaper of history in unprecedented ways. Unlike almost every other major candidate for president in our lifetimes, he has always been part of social movements. For 30 years, Sanders not only continued to have one foot in the streets and one foot in the halls of Congress; somehow, he often seemed to be relentlessly in both places with both feet.

Bernie Sanders has fulfilled what the legendary progressive activist and theoretician Saul Alinsky described as a key goal of political organizers — to work themselves out of a job — so that other activists will become ready, willing and able to carry on.

At this juncture, while Sanders is ill-positioned and disinclined to push back very hard against the evident trajectory of Biden's decisions, many progressives are starting to throw down gauntlets against the corporate and militaristic aspects of the incoming presidency. While the lunacy of the Trumpian GOP is nonstop and corporate Democrats have control of party top-down power levers, the broad democratic left is now stronger, better-funded and better-networked than it has been in many decades, with greatly enhanced electoral capacities as well as vitality of its social movements.

Those electoral capacities and social movements have long been intertwined with the tireless work of Bernie Sanders. But a crucial dynamic going forward into 2021 and beyond will be the resolve of progressives to methodically challenge the Biden administration. Sen. Sanders is unlikely to have the leverage or inclination to lead the fight.

Sanders has tried to call in some political chits, but Biden — probably figuring that Sanders won't really go to the mat — does not seem to care much. Days ago, Sanders said in an interview with Axios: "I've told the Biden people: The progressive movement is 35-40 percent of the Democratic coalition. Without a lot of other enormously hard work on the part of grassroots activists and progressives, Joe would not have won the election."

Bernie Sanders was the catalyst for galvanizing the grassroots progressive power that propelled his 2016 and 2020 presidential campaigns. His deep analysis, tenacity, eloquence and bold actions created new pathways. As this century enters its third decade, the torch needs to be grasped by others to lead the way.

By Norman Solomon

Norman Solomon is co-founder of RootsAction and founding director of the Institute for Public Accuracy. He is the author of many books, including "War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death." His latest book, "War Made Invisible: How America Hides the Human Toll of Its Military Machine," was published in June 2023.

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