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Sanders’ Legacy After Super Tuesday: The Left Primary Challenge

I don’t know if Howard Zinn would approve this message, but by this standard, Team Sanders is arguably kicking Eugene Debs’ butt.

Presidential candidate Bernie Sanders speaks to a crowd of supporters during a campaign rally in Portland, Oregon. (Photo: Benjamin Kerensa)

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Every American on the left knows that when labor leader Eugene Debs ran for president in 1920 as a socialist, he got a million votes.

I don’t know if Howard Zinn would approve this message, but by this standard, Team Bernie Sanders is arguably kicking Debs’ butt. Sanders has more than a million campaign contributors. A campaign contribution, for an ordinary person of modest means, is like a vote with a little bit of extra blood on it. You mean business. It costs you something. You have skin in the game.

Every member of Team Sanders knows that the average contribution to Sanders is $27. This is a regular theme of Sanders’ speeches. When Sanders says, “…and the average contribution to this campaign is …” the crowd shouts, “Twenty-seven dollars!”

For more original Truthout election coverage, check out our election section, “Beyond the Sound Bites: Election 2016.”

And of course, Eugene Debs did not win New Hampshire, Colorado, Oklahoma, Vermont and Minnesota, like Sanders just did. As a midwest nationalist, I am especially happy about the Minnesota result. Eugene Debs was from Indiana. Emma Goldman is buried in Chicago with the Haymarket martyrs who died fighting for the eight-hour workday. Mother Jones is buried in Mount Olive, Illinois alongside miners who died in the Battle of Virden. People from the midwest know these things.

I went to a Sanders appearance at the Minneapolis Convention Center the day before the caucus. The “warm-up acts” were as impressive as the main speaker. Lisa Bender, a member of the Minneapolis City Council, talked about local issues. Winona LaDuke talked about protecting our environment from corporate greed. Keystone XL isn’t the only oil pipeline we need to stop, she said; we need a government that will build infrastructure for people, not oil companies. Keith Ellison talked about the right to tuition-free public college. If the UK can do it, if Denmark can do it, we can do it too, Ellison said. More than talking about Sanders, each was giving their own version of “The Speech.”

Regardless of what happens at the Democratic convention, Bender, LaDuke and Ellison will still be with us, and this will be Sanders’ lasting legacy, helping to mobilize a wave of progressive activists to engagement and challenge in the political system, and establishing a culture of primary challenges to the establishment on the left like the one that which now exists on the right. The right has more influence in the Republican Party than the left has in the Democratic Party because the right has mastered the weapon of the primary challenge. When the left masters the primary challenge weapon, the left will have more influence.

The establishment hates contested primaries because they hate competition. In the establishment’s ideal election, the establishment would anoint the candidate and everyone else would accept without question the establishment’s choice. But making the establishment happy by avoiding contested primaries is terrible for democracy, and terrible for people who want to talk about issues that the establishment doesn’t want to talk about.

We’re building an army for the long march through the institutions. With the right campaigns, voting and encouraging others to vote can be like Zuccotti Park without the tear gas: occupy Schoolhouse Rock. One, two, three, many Ellisons, as the Argentine doctor might have said.

Just as every American has the right to health care, just as every high school student who applies themselves has the right to tuition-free public college, so every American has the right to participate in this movement, even if they aren’t so fortunate as to live in Minnesota. Count every vote.

The stakes have never been higher (and our need for your support has never been greater).

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