Although Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) ended his presidential campaign earlier this week, Penn for Bernie says it is gaining members as it restructures its original mission and creates new space for the progressive movement on campus.
Although many of the group’s members have decided they will vote for former Vice President Joe Biden in the general election, Penn for Bernie will not endorse him for president. Instead, the group will focus on re-labeling and welcoming new members.
“It was never about Bernie, it was about the movement he represented and the ideas he fought for. It took a few days to grieve, but our group is back at it,” Penn for Bernie Outreach Director and College junior Emily Liu said. “We’re preparing and are ready to continue the fight.”
Since Wednesday, the day Sanders dropped out, the group has gained over 15 members to its approximately 160-person base, through an activist-centered group chat that was created by newly accepted students in Penn’s incoming Class of 2024.
The group’s directors sent out a survey form on Friday to over 200 members seeking input about the future of Penn for Bernie — namely, a new mission statement, label, and how the group can best organize to support local Philadelphia and Pennsylvania campaigns.
“We’re just really engaging with the members of our club right now, and how we can best translate our club into a populist left coalition on campus with strong contrasts to Penn Dems and mostly center-right groups,” Penn for Bernie Co-director and College sophomore Amira Chowdhury said.
Penn for Bernie Co-director and College sophomore Jack Cahill said the group's opinion is split for the general election, with some members opting to vote for Biden, some planning to vote third-party, and others abstaining from voting entirely. He said Penn for Bernie does not feel it needs to formally support the presidential pick of the wider Democratic party or influence its members' voting decisions.
“Voting is, fundamentally, a mechanism for someone to voice their support for a candidate who is at least somewhat aligned with their political and policy convictions. Unfortunately, for many of us, Joe Biden is the antithesis of everything we stand for and believe in,” the group wrote in a statement to The Daily Pennsylvanian.
The group’s board members do not believe Biden will adopt progressive policies that benefit impoverished and working-class minority groups, and cited that these groups comprise the majority of the people who are absent from America’s political process. Sanders' campaign championed youth and working-class issues, such as providing universal health care and wiping out student loan debt, and his on-campus supporters are unconvinced that Biden will implement policies effective enough to remedy those issues.
“Biden is the lesser of two evils, and would be a better alternative to Trump – however, whether each individual member of our club votes for Biden is their own personal decision to make, and one that should be based on their core values, political assessments, and policy priorities,” the statement read.
The day after Sanders announced he would end his campaign, Penn for Bernie tweeted, “Don’t let anyone shame you either way. Have some backbone!”
While Chowdhury believes groups like Penn Dems are “socially liberal," as they champion causes like women's and LGBTQ+ rights, she does not think they advocate for an economic agenda that will alleviate issues of working and middle-class Americans.
According to Cahill, members are considering numerous options for their club's new identity, like transforming into a Penn Young Democratic Socialists of America chapter, or an Our Revolution chapter, a national progressive group founded in 2016 after Sanders' first presidential campaign ended. They may also re-label themselves as "Penn Justice Democrats," a group that would serve as a “progressive umbrella group” for other leftist organizations, and hopefully have an affiliation with the national Justice Democrats group.
The group is thinking about starting a campus-based publication or podcast, and hopes to encourage participation in local elections for progressive left candidates in Philadelphia.
“I’m very happy that we are going to be moving forward with retaining the solidarity that we’ve garnered from Penn for Bernie itself,” Cahill said. “It’s provided an opportunity for people to rant and rave and truly find their own purpose in activism, and so we’re going to try to create a very strong organization that allows people to be a part of that journey.”
As the group charts out its future, members remain optimistic about their work in the face of an uncertain national political landscape.
“We’re still very alive,” Liu said. “We’re definitely going to be just as strong of a club moving forward, and have a more lasting impact on Penn’s campus hopefully than just being based on Bernie’s campaign.”
Cahill said that the group’s continued efforts encapsulate the meaning of Bernie’s “Not me, Us” campaign message.
“Some of us came into this organization seeing Bernie as the savior, and I personally come out of this seeing us as our savior,” he said.