The blue and red stickers emblazoned with “Bernie” still adorn the back fender of many a car throughout Tompkins County, memorials to the man many feel, with the gift of hindsight, was the only chance to stop the wave that carried now-President Donald Trump to a victory in the 2016 election.
Some of those who carry his logo with them were undoubtedly part of the Bernie or Bust movement, a fierce group of Bernie Sanders supporters who cheered on their underdog candidate with not only victory in mind, but revenge for perceived past sins of the Democratic party.
A new book has been published chronicling the birth of that movement and its outcome from the inside: Bernie or Bust: Pioneers of Electoral Revolt, written by Patrick Walker and another author who, though writing in first-person, identifies themselves as only @BernieOrBust, a still active Twitter account.
Walker is an activist and one of the founders of Revolt Against Plutocracy, a catalyst organization for Bernie or Bust. He makes his home about 150 miles northwest of Ithaca, in Williamsville, New York. The bulk of the book’s purpose is to explain, defend and expound upon the history and mission of the Bernie or Bust movement, a written documentary of sorts that also lays out potential future steps for the movement. “Bernie or Bust,” as a phrase, means that if Sanders did not receive the nomination, these people would be removing themselves from the Democratic party at least for the upcoming election, opting to instead write-in Sanders or otherwise. The middle of the book (Chapters 2-9) deal with more of the inside-story of the movement’s politics, development and interaction with other concurrent political movements, while the beginning and end have more to do with laying out their philosophy and what happens from here.
In terms of 2016 election post-mortems, a genre that perpetually seems five minutes away from being exiled for eternity, this book is refreshingly brusque in its assessment and written with a certain sneer that, while emblematic of the more hardcore Bernie factions, can vacillate between charming and arrogant as the book goes on. The writing style and information provided, though, narrowly save the book from being another in what is sure to be a long line of finger-wagging screeds about how “[The other side] screwed up, now see what happens?!” While certain portions of the book can seem a bit detail-heavy, that critique could be totally moot depending on your level of interest in the movement and its story. Perhaps the correct point is, a certain level of interest in the Bernie phenomenon is necessary for this book’s hook to work, it won’t necessarily draw in the casual observer.
But if that interest is there, it can be an eminently interesting read for those intrigued by the background work of creating something out of a whim that turned into a passion that turned into more. The stretches of aforementioned minute detail are usually paid off by surprising morsels of information that might be unexpected; for instance, the writers acknowledge that at the outset, they were choosing between backing Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders, and considered Warren far more electable and likely to win (a debate rendered meaningless when she declined to campaign). So while the book teeters on tediousness, there’s normally enough highlights to make up for the seemingly frequent trudge.
The ultimate goal of this book is clear: to spread the message. The introduction opens with a plea for readers to, if they find themselves losing interest in the story, pass the book along to others in the event they may pick it up and spark inspiration. To disseminate the message, the authors believe, is to gather support for the long-term goals of the movement and that mission gives the book the tone of a manifesto at parts instead of a historical retelling.
There was plenty of criticism leveled at Sanders and his supporters, particularly as it became clear Clinton would take the nomination, for not falling in line with the party choice and continuing to rabble-rouse about writing in either Sanders or third-party candidate Jill Stein, even as Stein stumbled over grass constantly and Sanders endorsed Clinton. Detractors argued that the continued resistance to Clinton (“A deeply flawed and scandal-ridden candidate”) could result in a much closer election than otherwise, and in a worst case scenario would hand a victory to Trump. We all know what happened after that, though the reasons for Trump’s win can’t solely be placed at the feet of loyal or obstinate (depending on your point of view) Sanders supporters.
By design or not, the book doesn’t do much to quiet the sources of that criticism; of course, it’s unclear if the authors accept it as criticism at all since there really doesn’t appear to be an ounce of self-reflection on that point, opting instead to place nearly all blame on Clinton (there’s a short mathematical analysis of “which states the movement could have cost Hillary” which concludes, through some bizarrely vague and funky math, only Trump’s Michigan victory could be attributed to Bernie or Bust). By all appearances, Trump’s victory is a somewhat uncomfortable dose of comeuppance for the Democratic establishment in the authors’ point of view. It characterizes the “or Bust” threat as exactly that, leverage to achieve a goal and if the 2016 election is the lesson, so be it, and casually referring to their plans as political extortion of the Democratic party in particular. If that mentality makes you uncomfortable or feels gross, you’re surely not alone, but they do a decent job throughout the book of selling their purpose through passion, to the point where that point of view seems less steeped in privilege and more desperate attempt at repairing the disconnect between liberal rhetoric and liberal action. But for those inclined, that more or less plays into the allegations of immaturity and toxic idealism which plagued the Bernie or Bust movement during election season, and the book perpetuates the controversial, but not entirely uncommon, comparison that Clinton’s brand of neoliberalism is just as destructive as Trump’s fascism, if not moreso in Hillary’s savvier hands.
Their conclusions are a tad jumbled, though one point emerges: at least at the time of publication, the movement felt it had enough in the tank, and had made enough of an impression, that they would be a presence in 2020 as well. Since the election of Trump, the group appears to simply have grown more disillusioned with Democratic choices since then, morphing from reforming the party to #DemExit, fleeing to the Green Party. Campaign planks of withdrawal from the Middle East, climate change reform and a spate of other progressive ideals seem to make up their preferred platform. The volatile nature of these bodies could mean the 2016 election is the debut, zenith and finale for the “Or Bust” movement. But if it was, they don’t seem ready to admit it, and look very comfortable returning in an identical form.
“Our record, this potential to demand a major party candidate, is not something I’m inclined to walk away from,” a Facebook post asking for the group’s input on the final chapter reads. “Leverage is our revolutionary strategy.”