We Have a Historic Opportunity to Build a Left Alternative – If We Seize It!
Following Sanders’ defeat in the delegate-rich but “closed” New York primary, hope for securing the nomination is dimming. But despite nearly clinching the nomination, in many respects Hillary Clinton emerges from the New York primary more damaged, her party more divided, than she entered it.
What came to be called the Battle of New York has served to further expose what millions of people in the U.S. are becoming painfully aware of: the Democratic Party primary is rigged in favor of the establishment.
“I believe that we need to think very seriously, particularly as folks of color and progressives, about building either a new party or a new movement.” Those were the words of Michelle Alexander, esteemed author of The New Jim Crow, speaking with Chris Hayes on MSNBC on April 1.
Three days later, writing in the New York Daily News, the nation’s fourth-largest circulation paper, Shaun King’s column begins with the above quote, adding:
“I not only agree with Alexander, but I want to take it a step further — I think it’s already happening right before our very eyes. Political progressives across this country, in supporting the candidacy of Bernie Sanders, are completely rejecting the Democratic Party. … We should form our own political party in which we are firmly and boldly against the death penalty, where we are for a living wage all across this country, where we are for a complete overhaul of the criminal justice system, where we are for radical reforms to protect the environment and curb global warming, where we are for the eradication of big money in politics, where we are willing to truly consider healthcare and education for all as a right and not a privilege.”
Approaching the same question from the opposite political standpoint, Paul Krugman’s April 8 New York Times column echoed Shaun King’s insight that a new party is emerging “right before our very eyes.” Krugman warns Bernie to tone down his attacks on Clinton or risk a deeper rupture from the Democratic Party, arrogantly asking: “Is Mr. Sanders positioning himself to join the ‘Bernie or bust’ crowd…? If not, what does he think he’s doing?”
Both Krugman and King are right. The stronger Bernie’s “political revolution against the billionaire class” becomes, the more it threatens to break out of the straitjacket imposed by the Democratic Party which, in the end, is completely dominated by big business.
That’s why Socialist Alternative is calling on Bernie to continue running through November as an independent if he is blocked in the rigged primary process. Win or lose in the general election, an independent Sanders campaign could win millions of votes and lay the foundations for a new party of the 99%.
On the other hand, if despite all their dirty tricks against him, Sanders remains loyal to the Democratic Party and backs Clinton in the general election, it would mean the demoralization and disorganization of our movement.
Yes, we need a strategy to push back right-wing Republicans and not allow them to take the White House. As Kshama Sawant explains in the accompanying piece, an independent Sanders campaign could choose to avoid running in the 5-10 “swing states” while still aggressively campaigning to build a new party everywhere. The central point, though, is that collapsing the anti-establishment movement behind Bernie into the Clinton campaign – a false unity with the candidate of Wall Street and the political establishment – would leave the field wide open for right populists like Trump or Cruz to expand their base.
If Sanders chooses to drop out and back Clinton, continuing the political revolution will mean Sandernistas moving beyond Bernie.
We are entering what is possibly the most favorable moment in U.S. history to launch a new left party. Public trust is collapsing in both major parties, the establishment media, and all the key institutions propping up American capitalism. Eight years since the Great Recession, with most workers still suffering despite the recovery on Wall Street, all the built-up anger and discontent is expressing itself in a bitter revolt against establishment Democratic and Republican leaders.
This is the context for the dramatic rise of Bernie Sanders who has run, by any measure, the strongest distinctly left-wing presidential campaign in American history since Eugene Debs. Though Debs avoided the fundamental mistake Sanders is making by running within the corporate-controlled Democratic Party, Deb’s strongest run on the Socialist Party ticket won 6% of the popular vote in 1912.
Bernie began his campaign with no name recognition, polling 3%, and without any elected figures of national significance backing him – and already he has won more votes and more state primaries, raised more money, and mobilized more volunteers than any comparable left challenge in 100 years.
He has done all that with a distinctly left-wing platform, refusing corporate donations, embracing the socialist label, and making the call for “a political revolution against the billionaire class” his central slogan.
Even by the standards of mainstream politics, the strength of Sanders’ campaign is breathtaking. Clinton began the election with what, on paper, appeared set to be among the most formidable corporate election machines ever assembled. Yet, in the last three months, with an average donation of $27, Sanders has tapped his expanding base of small donors – now over two million strong – to raise dramatically more than Clinton. In March alone, Sanders raised $44 million to Clinton’s $29.5 million.
Just a year ago, every self-respecting mainstream pundit was still peddling the myth that no candidate refusing corporate contributions could be electorally viable – much less a candidate calling themselves a socialist! That idea is now dead.
No one can deny the potential for building a nationally viable left political party, completely independent of corporate cash, putting forward unapologetically left, working-class policies. The only remaining question is one of leadership: Will Sanders take the initiative and, if not, will the forces behind him pull it together?
One simple fact reveals the rigged character of the primary system: National polls consistently show Bernie Sanders enjoys, by far, the highest favorability rating of all the presidential candidates, and he beats out all of them in head-to-head match-ups. Yet he will almost certainly be eliminated before the general election if he plays by the rules of the two-party system.
Our Movements Need Independent Politics
It’s time to break the rules. An aggressive independent campaign for president by Bernie Sanders, linked to building a new mass party for the 99%, could dramatically transform American politics. Bernie would not need to win the election to force a decisive leftward shift in U.S. society. Even registering a vote of 10 or 15 million for a new party – and the potential exists to win a far larger vote – could strike a crippling blow to the political monopoly of the two parties of American capitalism.
A general election campaign would reach a far larger audience. Most workers and young people won’t start paying close attention to politics until the general election. Dropping out after the primaries would allow Clinton to shift rightward again, but if Sanders runs through November it will force an expanded national debate on a $15 an hour minimum wage, free college, stopping job-killing free trade agreements, taxing the rich and Wall Street, and on the corrupting role of money in politics. Clinton and the Democratic Party as a whole would be forced further to the left to try and cut across Sanders and the development of a new party.
We have seen the impact of just one socialist city council member in Seattle: Kshama Sawant, who, leaning on mass support, has forced the entire Council to embrace $15 and a series of other reforms to cut across the threat of other left challenges.
Around the world, where workers have won far-reaching reforms like single-payer health care, free education, or paid parental leave, it’s been through forming mass workers’ parties. In Canada, trade unions launched the New Democratic Party with socialized medicine as their central demand. They won less than 15% of the national vote and were blamed for tipping the vote to the conservatives. But to cut across the growth of the New Democratic Party, that same conservative government granted Canadian workers their central demand – and Canada’s system of socialized medicine was born.
In fact, history is rich with examples that demonstrate that, in the words of the late Howard Zinn, “What matters most is not who is sitting in the White House, but who is ‘sitting in’ – and who is marching outside the White House, pushing for change.”
In late 2000, as Bill Clinton’s presidency was coming to an end, The New York Times ran an article comparing his legacy of centrist, pro-business policies to those of the justly reviled conservative Richard Nixon. Under Nixon, some of the most far-reaching reforms of the last century were passed, including the dramatic expansion of welfare, the integration of public schools, state-funded abortion rights, the creation of federal agencies ensuring workplace safety, consumer and environmental protection, the end of the Vietnam War, and other progressive reforms. Virtually all those gains were rolled back under Clinton’s neoliberal regime.
The policy difference between Clinton and Nixon had nothing to do with the personal outlook of either president. Instead, it reflected that Nixon faced a mass social upheaval, movements that refused to be contained within the limits of the two capitalist parties. On the other hand, by the ‘90s the labor movement, domestically and internationally, had suffered massive defeats, and the elite were pushing their advantage to reverse even more of the gains working people had made in previous decades. Under these conditions, Clinton’s “New Democrats” led the neoliberal charge, rolling back many of the social gains won through struggle a generation before. The process was reinforced by labor and social movement leaders, co-opted into the Democratic Party, who refused to organize any serious resistance to Clinton’s attacks.
Bernie Should Call a Conference
There is still time for Sanders to run as an independent or to appeal to Jill Stein and the Green Party to join their ticket. While the Greens have generally remained aloof from Sanders’ campaign, Stein has repeatedly indicated that she is open to collaborating with Bernie if breaks from the Democrats. And, as The Wall Street Journal points out, “most states’ deadlines are months away. Nine fall in July, 32 in August, and five in September. Four deadlines – Illinois, Indiana, New Mexico and North Carolina – are in June, and precedent suggests that the deadlines would be struck down if challenged. … A well-organized and funded effort could get the job done in a matter of weeks” (3/22/16).
Socialist Alternative has urged Bernie to call a mass conference of his supporters to democratically debate whether to endorse Clinton or continue as an independent. A mass democratic conference could lay the groundwork and provide a mandate for Bernie to run through November. But even if such a conference voted against an independent run, it would still be a step forward if it agreed to launch an ongoing membership organization to continue building movements, run independent working-class candidates at the local level in 2017 and for Congress in 2018, and lay the basis for an even stronger presidential challenge in 2020.
Already, People for Bernie, National Nurses United, and other prominent backers of Sanders are calling for a national People’s Assembly in June in Chicago to bring together Bernie’s base to launch an ongoing issue-based organization. Similarly, a widely circulated petition titled “A Love Letter to Bernie” calls on Bernie to turn his two-million-strong donor base into a democratic membership organization that runs “democratic socialist candidates” at all levels of government.
Both of these could be a huge step forward, but neither initiative has put the central question of political independence from the Democratic Party squarely on the table for debate. In the long run, avoiding a clear debate on this core question defaults to the status quo that is social movements reduced to pressure campaigns on corporate Democrats, without our own distinct political force. The proposals in the “love letter” can also point to the idea of a “party within a party,” half inside the Democrats like New York’s Working Families Party. This may appeal to many, appearing at first to be an easier path than a full break, but it is only delaying the final reckoning.
Similarly, there is a real danger that, if the amorphous base of support behind Bernie is first corralled and contained behind Clinton’s Wall-Street-backed campaign through November, the confidence and energy of the movement behind Sanders could not be easily recaptured in the aftermath.
Real movements of working people cannot simply be turned off and on, like a water spigot, to fit the tactical maneuvers of political leaders. The political and class consciousness of millions has been raised through the experience of the primary fight between Sanders and Clinton, but that process can be temporarily reversed.
If Sanders backs Clinton in the general election, alongside most prominent labor and progressive leaders, it will feed into the dangerously mistaken idea that the Democratic Party can serve two masters – both big business and its working-class voting base. As Sanders himself put it in the New York debate: “I disagree … that you can get money from Wall Street, that you can get money for a super PAC from powerful special interests, and then at the end of the day do what has to be done for the working families of this country.”
The whole dynamic will also serve to lower workers expectations, to reinforce the idea that big business is invincible and that political activism and voting are a waste of time.
Movement reliance on the Democratic Party remains the Achilles’ heel of the U.S. left. Especially in this era of global capitalist crisis and austerity, there is no basis to build a sustainable mass movement against big business while, in every election, attempting to funnel that movement behind a corporate-controlled party.
As American capitalism plunges our society into deepening economic, environmental, and social crisis, Bernie’s campaign has opened an unprecedented opportunity for building a working-class political challenge. Let’s seize the time.
The System Is Rigged
A discussion that started with the top-down superdelegate system and the enormous influence of corporate money in politics has gone on to raise awareness about the generally undemocratic nature of the Democratic primary and party itself. With a spotlight on the myriad of anti-democratic voting rules, front-loading of conservative states, and the antagonistic role of the DNC leadership, millions are seeing for the first time just how rigged the system is.
The anger was most visible around the “closed” New York primary. More than 27% of New Yorkers – 3 million people – were excluded by restrictive voting laws. In a little-known rule, independent voters needed to register as Democrats by last October 9 to participate in a primary six months later, tilting the electorate even further toward older, wealthier party loyalists. As if that wasn’t enough, in Brooklyn alone, 120,000 registered Democrats were purged from the lists. In one precinct, 10% of those who showed up to vote found their names had been removed!
The power of the media establishment has also been on full display. Even “progressive” papers like the New York Daily News went all-out, repeatedly running sensationalized, libelous front-page attacks on Sanders.
While Clinton’s 15-point margin of victory in New York was probably greater than the sum of irregularities, it is equally clear that, if independents and others wrongly excluded could have voted, the outcome would have been far closer and Sanders might even have won.