I empathize with my friends who supported Bernie Sanders who have been posting of their disappointment on Facebook. A few weeks ago, I felt the same sadness and disappointment when Elizabeth Warren dropped out of the race. I think that both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren would not want their supporters to give in to despair and give up being involved. Both Sanders and Warren would want their supporters to persist and stay involved in the fight for progressive causes, to keep organizing, attending protests and rallies, registering voters, being allies for marginalized groups. Sanders and Warren are continuing the fight even after they’ve dropped out of the race. Warren has continued to release policy plans even after she ended her candidacy, and is currently advocating for her plan on how this nation can respond to the COVID 19 crisis in ways that will protect workers’ job security, essential workers’ health and childcare needs and small businesses stay viable. Sanders will keep his name on the ballot in the remaining primaries so he can continue to accrue delegates so he can have some leverage in influence the Democratic platform in August.
A look in the history of past progressive candidates like Teddy Roosevelt, Eugene Debs, Henry Wallace, Robert F. Kennedy, Eugene McCarthy, Ted Kennedy and Jesse Jackson could offer a road map for Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren on how they can continue to advocate for progressive causes even after their campaigns end. A look at Jesse Jackson would be instructive because of his emphasis on building grassroots social movements to force political system to change.
In both 1984 and 1988, Jackson modeled his presidential campaigns on building the same type of multiracial coalitions that Martin Luther King Jr.’s Poor People’s Campaign and Robert F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign had built in 1968. Jackson went to the inner cities to listen to poor Black and Hispanic communities talk about the flight of middle class job opportunities and the resulting economic despair. He visited AIDS patients who faced homophobia, lack of access to health insurance, and social isolation. He marched the picket lines with striking workers who were seeing their jobs outsource or lost to automation and seeing their pay and benefits cut. He visited white rural farm communities to help support farmers facing farm foreclosures. Jackson had built a coalition of Black and Hispanic and Asian American voters, white blue collar voters, rural white farmers, LGBTQ voters, and young progressive voters.
Though Jackson lost the nomination to Michael Dukakis, Jackson had a role in gradually influencing a wider segment of the general populace to accept progressive ideas. The proposals of Jesse Jackson that seemed so radical in 1988 that have now been accepted as mainstream political thought: ideas like a two-state solution for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, a boycott of South Africa to pressure the government to give up Apartheid, criticism of mass incarceration and the War on Drugs for the damage that it does to poor African American and Hispanic communities, fighting discrimination against gays and AIDS patients, opposing the outsourcing of blue collar jobs and farm foreclosures, supporting the right to collective bargaining. Jackson’s fight for racial justice and his warnings about the growing economic inequalities are being echoed today in the messages of Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Jackson continued to support grassroots social movements after his last presidential run in 1988. Jackson continues to walk the picket lines to support striking teachers, airline workers, government workers, tech workers, and he continues to support worker efforts to collective bargaining. Jackson continues to support efforts like Farm Aid to help struggling farmers. He continues to advocate for the LGBTQ community. Jackson continues to advocate for all minority communities, especially in the areas of criminal justice reform, economic justice and racial equality.
I read a New Republic article recently urging Sanders supporters to organize and stay involved in grassroots social movements. It is good advice. I think the importance of progressive leaders is not that we should have blind loyalty towards the leader or see them as having all the answers. No leader is perfect and no leader deserves that kind of blind loyalty. Progressives should avoid the kind of cult of personality trap that currently surrounds Donald Trump and handicaps a sane conservative movement. The importance of leaders like Jesse Jackson, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Robert F. Kennedy, Martin Luther King Jr., Eugene Debs, or others is their ability to inspire their supporters to get involved in social movements and the political process. The best leaders inspire communities that had lost hope to believe in themselves again, to find their own voices and fight for their rights.