Browsing the Bernie Bookshelf: Lessons for Political Outsiders?

For those “feeling the Bern,” this is not the moment to throw another log on the fire, curl up on your couch and immerse yourself in books about the most popular brand to emerge from Vermont since Ben & Jerry’s. In upcoming Democratic primary states, door-knocking, phone banking and voting will likely be a far higher priority – particularly among those newly fired up by Bernie Sanders’ landslide victory in New Hampshire on February 9.

Yet one byproduct of the intensifying Sanders-Clinton contest is a bulging “Bernie bookshelf.” The titles on it include the candidate’s own political memoir, updated with help from The Nation correspondent John Nichols; unauthorized biographies by Washington journalist Harry Jaffe and historian Darcy Richardson; an edited collection of Sanders’ sayings by labor activist Jonathan Tasini; and a comic book account of Bernie’s life and work by syndicated cartoonist Ted Rall.

Rounding out this publishing boomlet are two less Bernie-centric books. They address, in different ways, themerits of campaigning within the Democratic Party versus trying to build a progressive third party movement outside of it. Regardless of how Bernie fares this year on the mainstream terrain he has chosen, both his fans and critics will still be grappling, after November, with problems explored in Tom Gallagher’s The Primary Route (Coast to Coast Publications) and Jonathan Martin’s Empowering Progressive Third Parties in the United States: Defeating Duopoly, Advancing Democracy (Routledge).

For those preoccupied with the short-term challenge of advancing democracy by defeating Clinton, the most inspirational reading is likely to be Bernie’s own lively autobiography. In 1997, Sanders collaborated with his longtime staffer Huck Gutman on Outsider in the House, which chronicled his first few years as a lonely progressive Independent in Congress. Verso’s updated edition of the same book – optimistically retitledOutsider in the White House – reports on Bernie’s move to the Senate eight years ago and rationale for seekingthe White House now.

In an afterword, drawing on Nation interviews with the candidate, John Nichols wonders whether it’s just “a romantic notion” for Sanders to frame his presidential campaign as a “political revolution.” The candidate sets him straight:

What I am referring to is the need to do more than just win the next election. It’s about creating a situation where we are involving millions of people in the process who are not now involved … It’s about helping toeducate people, organize people. If we can do that, we can change the dynamic of politics for years and years tocome.

The Essential Bernie

With current voter education in mind, journalist Jonathan Tasini, former president of the National Writers Union, has compiled a well-organized and carefully annotated collection of Bernie’s public statements. TheEssential Bernie Sanders and His Vision for America (Chelsea Green Press) includes excerpts from articles, press releases, floor speeches and media interviews, interspersed with Tasini’s own “Bernie Facts.” The quoted material covers war and peace, education and the economy, Wall Street and workers, foreign trade and theenvironment, immigration and agriculture, civil rights, personal liberty and the failings of our mainstream media.

Anyone canvassing for Sanders, faced with voter questions about his record, can find most answers here. Unfortunately, Tasini’s index has one untimely omission: “socialism.” Now more than ever, that’s a word that Sanders fans may be asked to explain in the field. As the New York Times reported, “alarmed Clinton supporters” – including Democratic governors, party officials, paid consultants and members of Congress – planto highlight Bernie’s “socialist beliefs to warn that he would be an electoral disaster who would frighten swing voters and send Democrats in tight races to certain defeat.”

Harry Jaffe’s Why Bernie Sanders Matters doesn’t buy that line because his sales will be much bigger if Bernietops the ticket in November. But Jaffe’s hastily-constructed work reflects mainstream media framing of Sanders’ story in other ways. According to Regan Arts, his publisher, Jaffe offers unique insights into Bernie’s personal history as a “Radical. Hippy. Revolutionary. Red Mayor. Pragmatist. Socialist.” That list of labels lost me at ‘hippy.” Bernie Fact: whatever his other sins of omission or commission, real or imagined, now or in thepast, Sanders was never a card carrying member of Vermont’s counterculture in the 1960s.

In Darcy Richardson’s Bernie: A Lifelong Crusade Against Wall Street and Wealth (Sevierville Publishing), we get a much more substantive, well-researched account of Sanders’ career. A former minor party candidate himself and author of several histories of third-party candidate activity in the US, Richardson does a good job of capturing Sanders’ experience as a four-time candidate of Vermont’s Liberty Union Party (LUP), formed in 1970 by local antiwar activists. The LUP peaked in 1976, when Sanders garnered 6 percent of the statewide vote in a race for governor. Unfortunately, the pro-labor party was under-resourced and torn by factionalism. As Richardson reports, Sanders left the group, in part because of his frustration over its failure to “remain active, on a year round basis, in the struggles of working people against the banks and corporations that own and control Vermont…. A serious political party cannot maintain the respect of people if it simply pops up every two years for elections.”

Ted Rall’s comic book, Bernie, from Seven Stories Press, also mixes the personal and the political in more deft, insightful and entertaining fashion than Jaffe. Using his drawings and the candidate’s own words, Rall depicts Sanders’ working-class roots and early political influences in Brooklyn; his involvement in 1960s politicalradicalism as a university student in Chicago; his Liberty Union campaign defeats; and then his unexpected success as mayor of Burlington, the state’s largest city, between 1981 and 1989. Rall praises Sanders’ “startling steadiness” over a 45-year career in public life. But he doesn’t ignore the criticism of Bernie’s attempt to deal with the Palestinian-Israeli conflict “with more nuance and less passion than he brings to other issues.”

To put Sanders’ current surge in context, Rall takes readers for “a walk down Democratic memory lane” – backto the George McGovern campaign of 1972 and the “centrist counter-revolution” within the Democratic Party that followed it. He describes how poor and working-class people fared under the corporate-friendly policies ofthe Carter, Clinton and Obama administrations. He believes Occupy Wall Street and the 2007-2008 market meltdown that preceded the movement helped create a mass audience for the “progressive economic populism” that Sanders promotes today.

(For another political comic book treatment of Sanders, available only on-line, see Paul Buhle and Gary Dumm’s America With President Bernie Sanders).

In his book, The Primary Route, Tom Gallagher looks further back than Rall. He assesses more than a century worth of political insurgencies inside and outside the Democratic Party by its own dissidents, socialist rivals, labor-backed progressives and Greens. A former Democratic state legislator in Massachusetts and now a Progressive Democrat in San Francisco, Gallagher has written a useful historical guide to the strengths and weaknesses of earlier efforts, like the 20th-century presidential campaign of Eugene Debs and the Socialist Party; the Robert LaFollette and Henry Wallace campaigns of 1924 and 1948, respectively; Democratic primary challenges by Gene McCarthy, Jesse Jackson and Dennis Kucinich; and Ralph Nader’s Green Party candidacy in 2000. Gallagher believes that the 2016 primaries offered a much bigger soapbox for left-wing ideas about taxation, trade, labor rights, campaign finance reform and global warming than Sanders would have had running, Nader-style, as an Independent.

Defeating Duopoly?

In contrast, some contributors to Jonathan Martin’s Empowering Progressive Third Parties are not “feeling theBern” because they favor only third-party runs for the presidency. Nevertheless, all the case studies in Martin’s excellent collection are relevant to future political work by 2016 presidential campaign volunteers, whether they are working for Bernie or rallying around Jill Stein’s second Green Party candidacy. Win or lose, inside or outside the Democratic Party, the real question is: What happens after November 8? How do leftists capitalize on the energy and enthusiasm generated by national campaigns to build local political organization?

As Martin shows, independent political action has been most successful at the municipal and county level. His statistics on that are sobering: less than 170 progressive third-party representatives were serving in such offices in the entire country last year. Out of 7,383 state legislative seats, only 12 are held by “individuals closely associated with these parties.” In “more than 700 campaigns for state representative or an equivalent office” over the last three decades, Green candidates have won only five times.

Both Martin and Terry Bouricius, a former Burlington, Vermont, city council member, describe how Sanders’ four terms in city hall fostered a local progressive coalition that later morphed into the Vermont Progressive Party (VPP). The VPP has become, over the last 15 years, the most successful third-party in the nation; Sanders’ 10 straight victories as an Independent in federal races since 1990 helped pave the way for VPP candidates (many of them his own former staffers or campaign workers) to make their own credible runs forstate or local office.

While a testament to what Bouricius calls Bernie’s “godfather” role in Vermont politics, the VPP’s impressive track record is also a reality check on the rhetoric of “political revolution.” As Sanders knows better than anyone, vehicles for progressive electoral politics don’t get built overnight. They also don’t become stronger and more broad-based just because someone on the left decides every four years to run for president – inside or outside the Democratic Party.

In fact, as Martin documents in his study of state legislative campaigns by third-party candidates throughout New England, it takes “community connectedness” for leftists to win office, as opposed to just running an issue-oriented propaganda campaign. Martin finds that many would-be “duopoly”-busters lose because they “tend to be too politically inexperienced and non-pragmatic (that is, ideologically-driven) to be electorally competitive.” The key to success is putting down local roots, organizing around day-to-day issues, building strong volunteer canvassing operations and doing Sanders-style small-donor fundraising.

Other contributors to Martin’s book – like Patrick Quinlan, who recounts the post-2000 electoral gains of Greens in Maine and Ramy Khalil, who managed Kshama Sawant’s 2013 Seattle City Council campaign – confirm his findings. Khalil’s charismatic candidate has managed to win twice now as an open socialist, but one willing to take “a nonsectarian approach to voters who had not yet fully broken with the Democratic Party” and were “volunteering for Democrats in other races.”

After her re-election last November, Sawant cited the “enormous momentum” that Sanders had helpfully generated among local young people who became more engaged in Seattle politics after being drawn to his national campaign. If “feeling the Bern” has similar reverberations throughout the country, political “outsiders” everywhere stand to gain, whether they felt it themselves or not.

Versions of this article previously appeared at Beyond Chron and Counterpunch.