The Rise and Fall of Bernie Sanders

Briahna Joy Gray

Briahna Joy Gray, national press secretary for Bernie 2020, sheds light on the campaign’s highs and lows — and gives her view on where the American left should go next.

Interview by
Connor Kilpatrick

In the early months of 2020, a string of primary victories for Bernie Sanders briefly offered hope of a socialist breakthrough in American politics. Just as in 2016, his campaign drew enormous crowds — and after a victory in Nevada that confounded his establishment critics, he was even installed as favourite for the Democratic nomination.

But the success was short-lived. The Democratic Party machine, led by former President Barack Obama, recognised the threat posed by this insurgent left and headed off its progress — organising for a string of rival moderate candidates to drop out and endorse Joe Biden. Today it looks like Joe Biden will very narrowly win the US presidential election, but with nowhere near the landslide that was predicted.

One person who saw the Bernie Sanders campaign through its zenith and nadir was Briahna Joy Gray, its national press secretary. After making her name with leftist magzine Current Affairs, Gray was a prominent figure throughout Bernie Sanders’ 2020 campaign, hosting its podcast Hear the Bern and featuring regularly in the media.

Before this week’s election, she spoke to Connor Kilpatrick about Bernie 2020, the lessons from the campaign, and the path forward for the American left.


When you look back at the 2016 and 2020 Bernie Sanders campaigns, what do you think?


In many ways, 2016 was more successful. We won more states; the race was closer, it went longer, the opposition was openly disgusted, the Stop Bernie movement was less explicit — it was like they hadn’t organised yet, it was less effective. It felt, in some ways more hopeful, looking at it from the outside. The main issue — one of the main issues, both then and now — is this lopsided media.

The thing that really enabled Biden’s victory was the narrative about electability and the media’s refusal to interrogate that at all. The polls continued to show people preferred a Bernie platform. People want these enormously popular programmes like Medicare for All. But, ultimately, that is how Biden won: there’s not a tonne you can do to push back against free advertising for your opponent unless you’re willing to take on a truly outsider position — the way that, frankly, Donald Trump did — and go whole hog on the media, completely invest in independent messaging, throw money at Facebook ads and videos, do stunts that command media attention, and draw strong contrasts with your opponents.

Sometimes I wonder if Bernie morphed into the person he was portrayed as but never was — actually loud, actually aggressive, actually in your face and critical of the other candidates — then might it have turned around? But I don’t know how helpful it is to imagine because I also want to respect that not doing it that way did contribute to Bernie being the most trusted, most liked, and most popular politician in America.


If you’re in the campaign, it probably looks like an endless series of missed opportunities. But from the outside, to me, it felt as if you were running against a Republican incumbent who has uniquely rattled Democratic primary voters. This is a year where the party’s preferred candidate gets the nomination.


I think there are disqualifying aspects of Biden’s record that could have been hit harder. At the end of the day, 30 per cent of primary voters in North Carolina and Michigan thought that Joe Biden supported Medicare for All. Sanders was the most trusted person on healthcare — but he was close to Joe Biden, who was up there. Most voters had no idea about Biden’s record on social security, including black voters.

We spent the whole of the start of 2020 talking about Bernie Bros. At no point was I, the black national press secretary or, frankly, Senator [Nina] Turner, as a public spokesperson and co-chair, empowered to take that argument head-on and refute it with the reality of our existence. We had tools in our arsenal I think could have put a dent in Joe Biden’s support. But none of the candidates took any meaningful aim at Joe Biden, except for [Julian] Castro, who got a slap on the wrist for doing so.


Why don’t we do a reconstruction of the last year, starting with last summer. That seemed like a low moment in the campaign, right before Bernie Sanders’ heart attack. Were you still confident he would find his footing, or were you getting nervous?


I wasn’t confident about anything. I’d never run a campaign before. I didn’t really have a sense of what was normal, or what kind of position you should expect to be in at a given moment. At that point it did feel as if Elizabeth Warren was a much bigger threat because she was getting a lot of positive media attention, and the argument was that if you care about these policies, why not take them from a woman? That way, you also get the representational value.

The meaningful differences between their policies — student debt cancellation and, of course, Medicare for All — hadn’t become clear. So the counterargument along the lines of ‘well, I don’t trust Warren to follow through on her promises because there are aspects of her record that suggest she isn’t as committed to these issues’ is a much weaker argument than ‘she doesn’t believe in it’. It requires a lot of knowledge, and it sounds like you’re being paranoid.


At that point, were you in favour of going after Warren?


It’s difficult. We had a month-long media cycle about snake emojis. At the same time, someone brought a Nazi flag to a Bernie rally, and it wasn’t covered once.


Nobody cared about Bernie’s identity [as Jewish] in that way. It’s interesting what identities count, and who they count for.


It reinforced my belief that I don’t think identity can work for the Left — if you try to point it out, everyone just agrees to ignore it. Bernie Bros sending snake emojis are a sexist, misogynistic threat, but Biden being credibly accused of sexual assault is, ‘well, you never really know.’ You get shrugged off.

I feel like I can criticise Tim Scott and object to his political beliefs without saying that he is not a real black person. Clarence Thomas is the worst for a myriad of reasons, but he is in fact black. Condoleezza Rice isn’t my pick for VP, but she is black, and one of the most frustrating things about the identity narrative is that it keeps liberals from engaging substantively in arguments where they’re on the right side. Talking in these generalised terms collapses people’s ability to distinguish between different kinds of scenarios or do critical thinking, and that’s how you get into cultural battles.


The Nevada primary victory was when it could of really happened. In Iowa and New Hampshire, the people who win those states frequently do not win the nomination. But when Bernie won Nevada, even after the Culinary Workers Union fiasco, it made me think it was possible. However the media seemed largely to discard it. It felt like Latinos didn’t count as a Democratic bloc. Do you think this was the case?


[It was] complete Latino erasure — Latinos did not matter in this election. Nobody cared about them. If you were paying attention, you realised that the states that are electorally relevant in a general election are heavily Latino. We’re talking about the swing states in the Southwest, we’re talking about Texas, we’re talking about Florida. Bernie Sanders had 60, 70 per cent of the Latino vote. It was an outrageous supermajority.

In addition to that, Bernie was number one with both black and Latino voters in the February polls. I never turned on the TV once and saw anybody mention that fact. More women gave to Bernie’s campaign than to any other, more black people gave to Bernie’s campaign than to any other — these things continued to be true and they didn’t care. If one day, black people stopped voting for Democrats en masse, and let’s say Latinos do, then there will be no more conversations about how black women are the backbone of this party. They don’t care. It’s the most one-sided relationship that you could possibly imagine.

There’s a really important lesson there. It’s mind-blowing, especially as a black woman who is being simultaneously told: ‘You’re not black enough, but also trust black women; you’re the backbone, the “firewall”, but also don’t talk about the fact that black women would benefit most from student debt cancellation, and don’t talk about the fact that black people want Medicare for All more than any other constituency group.’

Latinos are the most under-insured group in America. When you saw the testimony from the culinary union workers, there’s a video of this guy movingly talking about how ‘I have a really good job here on the floor, I have health insurance, but so many of my friends and family don’t. I’m voting for Bernie Sanders because my union insurance doesn’t cover them. They need insurance.’

Article after article was published saying, ‘Bernie just needs to direct his followers to vote for Biden; the stakes are too high.’ It doesn’t work like that! If Biden wants all of those people, he should consider why Latino voters liked Bernie Sanders. The Democrat establishment should consider that there are people in this world who are voting for policy reasons, in addition to voting for someone they think can be trusted because he has fought for their community.

There are plenty who were direct beneficiaries of the real commitment Democrats made to black people fifty years ago. I don’t begrudge black voters who value that relationship and value the leadership of people like Jim Clyburn, who spilled blood for movements that resulted in them gaining freedoms. I know what’s going on with police violence now, but we’ve gone from seeing chain gangs that looked exactly like slave gangs in the South. There has been movement. With Latino voters, there isn’t that same history there.

There’s also a history of black radicalism. I would have loved to see a campaign in which we were empowered to say that there can be no racial equality under unfettered capitalism. The tensions between the black community and the Democratic Party are already there, but you’ve got to talk about it the right way. You’ve got to say, ‘They trot you out every four years, you hold the line, then they call you the firewall. What are you getting in return?’

These conversations certainly aren’t happening in the black media. But that’s exactly what these Black Lives Matter protests are saying: we’re tired of living in cities with black mayors, expected to be thrilled because there’s a black face in the mayor’s office.


Do you think that in twenty years, these issues are something the Democratic leadership is going to have a major problem on their hands, securing black voters?


Obviously there’s a generational divide, but I think it’s a mistake to give up on older voters. I think it was a mistake for us not to target older voters. I felt like our advertising on Twitter was preaching to the choir. Bernie had a platform for older voters. He had social security expansion and protection; he had home healthcare; he had Medicare for All.

Sometime during the 2018 midterm election races, I ended up flying through Texas. Our flight got delayed, and we missed our connecting flight. Me and this 78-year-old white woman chatted in the airport — we had to stay overnight. It turned out she was a Trump voter. I was like, ‘Okay, what is it about Trump?’ And she tells me, ‘Well, my life is really hard. My adult daughter lives with us. She doesn’t have health insurance. She can’t afford her own place. My grandchildren are insured because of the CHIP [Children’s Health Insurance Program], I guess.’ She didn’t know the name of any government programme — but her grandchildren were insured, she had had breast cancer, and it wouldn’t have been covered if she hadn’t been 65 when it kicked in. She didn’t realise that she was telling me all the ways the government had enabled her whole family’s survival.

The next morning we met back up at the terminal, and she offered to give me a ride to the rally I was covering. Her daughter picked her up, and we were all cruising along and having a good old time. I said, ‘Look, I don’t mean to evangelise, but I think maybe you should come to this rally.’ I was like, ‘You should come to listen to this because I understand why you hate Democrats. I understand why you don’t like Hillary Clinton. But your whole family is basically surviving off of the fact that you are on Medicare, your social security payments are paying for the roof you put over everybody’s head, and the person that you’re voting for is trying to cut all of those entitlement programmes.’

I know that she’s a Republican and your question wasn’t about Republican voters, but it’s the same for all of these older Democratic voters. There are whole ecosystems subsisting on these government cheques that people like Biden are trying to cut. They have an ample understanding of how much $1,000 a month is doing to stabilise their lives, and could very well appreciate how much better their lives would be if those programmes were expanded to $1300, as Bernie wanted to do with social security.

But we didn’t talk about it that way in the campaign. I don’t mean to be critical of Bernie because he has done what I will never do and I have an enormous amount of respect for him, but I hoped there would be more of a conversation. Certainly before the campaign was announced there was time for us to think through some of these issues. We need to talk more to regular people, and not assume that we know how they think or will vote based on superficial demographic qualities.


So where do we go now? What is the future of the movement that coalesced around Bernie?


From the beginning of the primary, the first question that was asked of all of the candidates, in particular Bernie Sanders, was, ‘Will you vote blue no matter who?’ The only available answer was yes. If you were going to say no, there would be accusations about how you weren’t a real Democrat, you were a bomb-thrower, you didn’t have any loyalty to the party. At least, that’s what would have happened to Bernie. What that basically guarantees is that the party can do whatever it wants to Bernie, it can uplift the most conservative candidate in the race to take the crown, and there will be no repercussions.

There has been a devaluing of the vote. I’m seeing people in the streets putting their bodies on the line, and how effective that is. I am inspired by this activism, and at the same time thinking to myself, ‘If they make a demand of Biden, why should he listen?’ He has, through this entire campaign, been utterly indifferent. He didn’t shift left. Other candidates tried to be for ‘Medicare for all who want it,’ and these bureaucratic college debt forgiveness plans. He didn’t do any of that and was rewarded for it. And now, we have to vote blue no matter who.

So I don’t mean this in a glib way, but if I were his advisor, and didn’t have my politics, would I advise him to listen? Why would I tell him to bunk the interests of his donors in order to adhere to anything that’s being asked of him, whether it’s any kind of police reform, much less defunding the police, Medicare for All, or supporting monthly $2,000-a-month coronavirus payments?

Without economic justice, we’re never going to have racial justice, and vice versa. I’m excited for the possibility of us moving in that direction. It feels like that’s starting to come out of the Black Lives Matter movement. The person who was shot in the eye at one of these protests, and then didn’t have health insurance and will have a $58,000 bill: this is where we need to be. We need to sit in that space and feel the power that comes from exposing how layered disadvantage is in American life. Then, to incorporate public conversation about how 23 people have more wealth than the bottom 50 per cent of humanity.

We can’t allow the floor to be a hair’s breadth higher than Donald Trump. We can’t be defining ourselves by the worst Republican alternative. Even if Joe Biden wins, his only obligation will be to be a smidge better than the Republican candidate. There’s no one else coming to save us. We have to really consider what power we have and leverage it wisely. If you aren’t doing something that makes people angry, it’s probably not worth it.

About the Author

Briahna Joy Gray is a contributing editor at Current Affairs and the former national press secretary for Bernie Sanders's 2020 presidential campaign.

About the Interviewer

Connor Kilpatrick is the story editor at Jacobin.