Not Me, Us
The 2020 campaign and the fight to transform our country
On April 8, 2020, after almost fourteen months of competing for the Democratic presidential nomination, I announced that we were suspending our campaign. The important message in the statement I made that day was “While this campaign is coming to an end, our movement is not.”
Given the growing pandemic, and social distancing requirements that effectively ended in-person campaigning, I made the announcement through a livestream from my home. I was deeply moved that some seven million people ended up viewing it. During my remarks, I chose to focus less on the practicalities of a campaign that had fallen short in the delegate count and more on the historic nature of what we had accomplished.
“I cannot in good conscience continue to mount a campaign that cannot win and which would interfere with the important work required of all of us in this difficult hour,” I explained. “But let me say this very emphatically: As you all know, we have never been just a campaign. We are a grassroots, multiracial, multigenerational movement which has always believed that real change never comes from the top on down but always from the bottom on up.”
Our campaign was like none other in modern American history. Built upon the foundation of a 2016 bid that had proposed a political revolution, we forged a grassroots working-class movement that was national in character, and which sought to overcome the overwhelming barriers to progress in the Democratic Party and the broader politics of the United States.
I ran, as had been the case since my first campaign almost fifty years earlier, as a democratic socialist who was ready and willing to take on the oligarchs, the plutocrats, and the billionaire class that had turned our economic system into their plaything. But this time was different. While my ideas were still dismissed as “radical” by political elites and many in the media, I began the 2020 campaign with a base of supporters that numbered in the millions and was prepared to fight for fundamental change. By the time the campaign was done, we had taken on Wall Street and the enormously powerful economic interests that control not just the economy but the politics of our nation. We had challenged the billionaire class and the corporate elite, their media and their super-PACs. We had taken on the political establishment in both major parties.
From the start, we achieved victories that shocked the pundits. We won the popular vote in the first three primary states on the way to securing almost ten million votes nationwide for a campaign that was suspended before more than two dozen primaries were held. We won California, the most populous state in the country, by more than 450,000 votes. For a time, we led the national polls, not only in the race for the Democratic nomination but in head-to-head matchups against Donald Trump. And we built a movement powered by young people who were prepared to trudge through snow to knock on doors in northern New Hampshire and to sweat through ninety-degree days in South Texas.
We had organized the most ambitious and most successful progressive presidential campaign in a century. Our ideas, which just a few years earlier had been dismissed as too extreme to be politically viable, had become part of the mainstream Democratic Party agenda. Our supporters and allies had begun to be elected to seats in Congress, and to chair state parties. We had expanded political consciousness and gotten millions of Americans to embrace a new understanding of what they had a right to expect from their government.
Most important for the long term, as a result of our campaign, young people were participating in the political process at an unprecedented rate. It turned out that our ideas and our movement were, in fact, the future of the Democratic Party. While poll after poll showed us doing more poorly than we’d hoped with older voters, those same polls showed that we were swamping the other candidates among younger voters—winning overwhelming support from Black, Latino, Asian American, Native American, and white voters under age forty. What was striking was that these young people were not only voting for us; they were the foundation of our grassroots campaign. They were the ones handing out literature, making phone calls, texting, raising small contributions, and volunteering in a hundred different ways.A Campaign Finance Revolution
Our campaign attracted a new generation of voters because we revolutionized modern presidential politics.
At a time when virtually all campaigns were funded by super-PACs and the very rich, we broke that long-established mold and created an entirely new approach to raising sufficiently large sums of money to run a truly national presidential campaign. We did not hold one fundraiser in a billionaire’s mansion. We did not seek the support of super-PACs. Our campaign was fueled by the working class—teachers, postal clerks, Amazon warehouse workers, nurses, small-business owners, farmers, and veterans—with more than two million individual donors making ten million contributions that averaged $18.50. No campaign in American history had ever received that kind of support. We had revolutionized campaign financing, developing an entirely new model that rejected Big Money and put the people in control.
The way we ran our campaign was intentional. We knew that, to reach people who had grown justifiably cynical about politics, we had to abandon the practices that had caused tens of millions of American to lose faith in both major parties. We didn’t just talk about “rejecting the influence of big corporate money”—although I did that a lot—we actually did it. And we explained why it was absolutely necessary to reject “greed-fueled, corrupt corporate influence over elections.” The simple truth, as I said in every stump speech, is that no elected official is going to represent ordinary Americans and take on the special interests if they are beholden to Big Money. You can’t receive campaign contributions from the pharmaceutical industry and lower the outrageous cost of prescription drugs. You can’t rely on funding from the fossil fuel industry and combat climate change. You can’t take big checks from CEOs who have made their fortunes running non-union plants and then implement pro-worker labor law reforms. You can’t do fundraising events with billionaires and help develop a fair and progressive tax system.
Ultimately, of course, this country needs to enact fundamental campaign finance reforms to overturn the disastrous Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United and establish public funding of elections. But to get to the point where we can enact those reforms, candidates have to break free from the stranglehold of Big Money. And the only way to do that, as I learned a long time ago, is by relying on contributions from working-class people. Our campaign showed it was possible to do this even at the level of presidential politics.
Initially, we were told our approach was impractical. That it could never work. I knew that was wrong. So I went on social media and wrote: “I have a wild idea: I want to challenge you to help our campaign hit a goal that will absolutely astonish the political and financial establishment.” People from all across the country responded and political veterans were, indeed, astonished when our campaign raised $45 million in a single month—February 2020—with more than 2.2 million donations. The Guardian newspaper said we’d “established a gold standard for small-dollar fundraising.”
I was enormously proud of what we accomplished. I was prouder still of the legacy of our grassroots online fundraising efforts, which can be seen in the campaigns of a new generation of candidates, especially those running for Congress, who have rejected all corporate PAC money, basing their fundraising on small donations—ensuring they will never have to bend to pressure from Big Money interests.
Copyright © 2023 by Senator Bernie Sanders. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.