In Central Pennsylvania, the Bernie Campaign Was the Beginning, Not the End
For organizers in Central Pennsylvania, the Bernie Sanders campaign was an opportunity to build social-democratic politics in conservative territory. As Pennsylvanians go to the polls today, those organizers emphasize that Sanders’s unprecedented campaign was a success in putting left politics on the map in rural regions like theirs.
- Interview by
- Jonah Walters
Pennsylvania’s Democratic primary, originally scheduled for April 28, will instead take place today, June 2. This year, Pennsylvania never had the chance to become the pitched battleground that it was four years ago. In 2016, the insurgent Sanders campaign swept a number of counties in rural and de-industrialized parts of the state before ultimately losing to Hilary Clinton, thanks in large part to her command over more affluent Democratic voting blocs in and around large cities like Philadelphia and Pittsburgh.
Sanders won some of his most significant victories in Central Pennsylvania, where generations of extractive industry and state neglect have left hundreds of thousands of people poor and jobless. Trump swept the state during the general election that year, easily carrying Central Pennsylvania and violating the “Blue Wall” that Democratic elites felt certain would deliver the White House to Clinton.
In anticipation of the 2020 general election, elite Democrats in Pennsylvania rallied around the slogan “Vote Blue No Matter Who,” and even prominent progressives like Lieutenant Governor John Fetterman (who broke ranks with other state Democrats to endorse Sanders in 2016, and who Sanders stumped for in 2018) declined to voice support for the democratic socialist. For organizers on the ground, however, the Sanders campaign represented a precious opportunity to continue building progressive, social-democratic politics in a part of the country that now skews heavily conservative, but was once a hotbed for labor militancy.
Jacobin’s Jonah Walters spoke with three organizers in Central Pennsylvania about politics and poverty in the region, the suspension of the Sanders campaign, and the primary that could have been.
We were picking up good steam: we had a huge group, we were screen-printing shirts and totes, we were even selling out of t-shirts. Then, of course, the coronavirus crisis happened, and then the loss in Wisconsin. One thing led to another. All of my on-the-ground campaigning stopped right as it was beginning to take off.
When Bernie announced his candidacy in 2016, I thought it was going to be like Dennis Kucinich in 2004: 2 to 6 percent of the vote, a couple Hollywood endorsements, and that’ll be that. But really quickly, it emerged that Bernie was going to be a contender. My living room was full of people who wanted to do stuff for Bernie in 2016. That was incredible and exciting.
But this time around, at least among the people I’m surrounded by, it was much more of a divided landscape, to be sure. It felt less coherent. It’s hard to imagine the Democratic Party as disciplined, but they can be strangely in lockstep when it comes to heading the wrong direction.
Big-name Pennsylvania progressives like lieutenant governor John Fetterman declined to endorse Bernie this time around. [Fetterman endorsed Sanders in 2016 when he was mayor of Braddock, Pennsylvania.] Among people who identify as liberals or progressives in this area, there was a lot of interest in candidates like Pete Buttigeig and Amy Klobuchar — folks who identify in some way as progressive and yet their politics are reactionary.
What it all boils down to, I think, is that those folks [self-identified liberals or progressives who vote in Democratic primary contests] tend to be more comfortable. They’re largely middle class. Capitalism has by and large been alright for them. Maybe it hasn’t delivered everything they want, but they’re not suffering the same way a lot of other folks in the area are. They’re not in the same precarious position.
Years back, I was an organizer for Put People First Pennsylvania, trying to organize for universal health care in the state. We were talking about health care as a human right well before the 2016 campaign, when it became a presidential issue.
We went into towns where I think other people might be too scared to door-knock — places that are very poor, kind of decrepit. But honestly, talking about universal health care was easy. Nearly everybody could relate.
In all the coal towns, and in all the rural areas too, the population is really aging. There aren’t a lot of hospitals around. We have super old housing, frequent fires, a lot of poverty.
I know plenty of people who, in 2016, would have gone for Bernie, but went for Trump [in the general election]. I know when you try to figure it out with political science or whatever, it doesn’t make any sense. But from where I’m standing, it makes total sense. Even if Trump is lying and disingenuous, he calls out real problems. Of course, he calls out real problems and then blames them on immigrants — which is a tactic we’ve grown very used to in this part of the country, and which I think people are beginning to see through.
It’s outrageous that Joe Biden was sold as the electable candidate. This area’s fairly conservative, to put it mildly. But we can find overlap with some of those folks — people who might be concerned about health care, for example, or are upset about the amount of money that’s being spent on endless wars abroad, that sort of thing.
My point is that, with Bernie in the race, there were conversations to be had. And some of my “conservative” neighbors, at least the ones that are disaffected by Trump, might have been willing to vote for Bernie. They will never vote for somebody like Joe Biden. Like Clinton, he has a decades-long record as part of the establishment.
There’s an independent streak, to some extent, in Pennsylvania — people who are pissed off, who know that their lives are not good, that their infrastructure is crumbling, that they don’t have health care. They may be drawing the wrong conclusions — they might be concerned about immigrants, for example — but they’re certainly identifying Joe Biden as a part of the problem. He’s the status quo.
Bernie provided an explanation for real problems that was much more practical than what people like Trump can offer. Like, “Look, here’s like a direct line from the problem to the solution: we need more money, so we take it from the billionaires.” That would have been a great conversation to have with people.
Electoral organizing doesn’t need to be an end in itself, but it’s so clear from the last six years that it’s synergetic with other organizing. If Amazon workers had tried to organize years back, for example, they wouldn’t have had shit for support. But now unions and strikes are starting to be popular again.
Of course, I have no idea what comes next. There’s no promise it’ll be good, and there’s no promise it’ll be bad. But we’re definitely in a different political climate than we were just five years ago.
I’m eager to get involved with some of the anti-fracking organizing happening here now. I don’t know too many Pennsylvanians who have jobs with fracking — it’s a lot of Texans, people from out-of-town working at those drilling sites. But I do know multiple Pennsylvanians who have had their land rights taken away.
I wish people would talk about this more: the history of various industries totally abandoning Pennsylvanians. Fracking is another industry that will leave the state with pollution and sickness, and the jobs will disappear. (Many have already disappeared, in fact.) The state will be back where it started again.
I see the trauma in places like Shamokin — and Centralia, of course — that comes from being abandoned. We need a political movement capable of speaking empathetically to those people: “You’ve been abandoned, I understand that. We’re not trying to take away the jobs you’ve been given because they pollute; we’re trying to make sure that you have better jobs and better lives.”
That’s the promise of the Green New Deal and sustainable energy — once those jobs are here, they’re here to stay. They don’t dry up.
The Bernie campaign was not guaranteed to win. It wasn’t even likely to win. Viewed from that angle, everything that we accomplished was a success.
Sure, some people feel betrayed. Some of my friends feel that way: like they trusted this thing called a campaign — they engaged in a process — and it didn’t work.
But everything’s a gamble. Not just collectively; individually, too — you don’t get anything without taking risks, right? I’m not surprised that Bernie lost. It’s not like I expected him to lose either — I worked hard to try to make him win. But it’s not a shock.
The whole campaign and everything we’ve done has been unprecedented. Let’s not forget that.
I think it’s worthwhile to continue to push within the Democratic Party. But I think as a movement, we also need to be thinking critically about the utility of a strategy that requires us to whittle away at an entrenched party establishment.
It puts me in mind of Jack London’s novel The Iron Heel, which he wrote around 1907. It’s fiction, but it mirrors, to an extent, what was really going on in the world at the time — the rise of the Chicago Commune, and also the rise of the Socialist Party, which was experiencing exponential gains at the ballot box but would ultimately be crushed. (Jack London includes footnotes from the imaginary socialist editors of the future, who are always adding comments like, “Yes, this was a terrible defeat. But …”)
The insight of the novel is that the ruling class is never going to hand over power. Even if you prevail at the ballot box, you’re going to have to keep pushing. And I think that’s applicable even beyond winning at the ballot box — we can draw a similar conclusion about winning within the Democratic Party. We’ve seen that they [establishment Democrats] are not going to turn over power; they’re going to stick the boot on our face.
We need to be competing for power both within and without [the Democratic Party]. We need to figure out a meaningful way to do that. And I’m delighted to see that it feels like there’s a growing awareness of leftist politics on a national level. It’s not just a couple of folks wandering around with acronyms and mumbling to themselves in corners, like it was a couple of decades ago.
I actually started out so anarchist and leftist that I didn’t want to have anything to do with the system. I didn’t think I would ever participate in electoral politics.
I tried so hard to hate that man [Bernie Sanders]. I tried so hard to find something about him that wasn’t right. But I couldn’t. He made me think that maybe we can change something. If that man was able to start out in Vermont, a poor working-class activist like us, and become mayor, then a senator, then almost the President of the United States, maybe we can do this.
One thing that makes me hopeful is that this whole time he’s been saying “Not Me, Us.” I think he was trying to get people like me — people who felt they had no place in the system — involved enough so that we’d know what it is.
I’ve now participated in a campaign twice. I have a better idea how it works now: I know the rules, how primaries work, how to apply to be a delegate, all these things I never would have known before, just being an anarchist. Together, with Bernie, we started building new pathways for people like me to run for office, to be in Congress, to start filling these rooms full of grifters with actual progressives instead.
Bernie could have won, if the Democratic establishment hadn’t consolidated and manufactured consent [around Joe Biden]. The DNC and mainstream media should have actually given us a fair chance. Our campaign was completely held up by regular people. We did that! It was a DIY campaign, and the fact that they did everything they could to squash something that we, like little worker ants, were holding up as hard as we could was so disgusting. If they had given us a chance we could have won.
Bernie has definitely made an impact. Whether you’re for or against Medicare for All, it is now in the atmosphere. Folks are aware of the issue in a way that they weren’t before. People might have concerns about how to pay for it, sure, but they recognize Medicare for All as a viable, legitimate political proposal. A couple of years ago, you never could have found that debate in the pages of the local newspaper. Now you can.
The work remains. I would love to see some kind of a formation in central Pennsylvania. Creating a coherent organization remains a challenge. I haven’t quite figured out how to do that. But I chip away at it.
I also try to create cultural space. I’m aware that, a hundred years ago, there was a socialist culture: You’d go to the socialist bar. You’d go to socialist plays. You’d have your socialist soccer club, or theater troupe, whatever the case might be. There was a whole world on the Left. We need to build something like that. It’s one thing in Brooklyn. It’s another thing if you’re here in Central Pennsylvania.
As much as [the conclusion of Bernie’s campaign] is painful, I still find that there’s plenty of cause for hope. We need to be honest with ourselves, of course. But we can’t afford to just despair.
It feels like people are more disengaged in these old coal region towns than anywhere else I’ve been. In this area, which can feel pretty miserable sometimes, there’s an extreme level of pessimism and distrust in the government. People have endured generations of betrayal here. Centralia, for example, is a living monument to betrayal.
It’s really hard for people here to believe that a politician or a policy or a movement will make their lives better. And of course, Republicans — elites of both parties, really — benefit from low turnout come election day; they benefit from large numbers of people feeling like there’s no point in paying attention. This is nonvoting territory, and there hasn’t been anything to change that in my lifetime.
Bernie Sanders was the first candidate I felt I could promote with a straight face, at least a little bit. He was outside of the political establishment enough that people might actually listen to him. And his politics were direct enough that what he said could actually matter to somebody.
All sorts of people I knew got pretty into Bernie Sanders, independently of me talking to them. It was like, ‘oh, damn, you?’ I’m talking about people I grew up with — some who I thought were apolitical and even some who I thought were conservative. Maybe they were.