Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential primary campaign has had a profound and continuing impact on working people and youth in the U.S. Millions of Americans, from big cities to suburbs to rural areas, were inspired by something that most had never seen before: working-class politics.
Sanders’ call for a “political revolution against the billionaire class,” was paired with bold, fighting demands like single-payer health care, free college education, a federal $15 minimum wage, and big taxes on Wall Street.
Since the election, Sanders has continued to have a huge influence on the American political discussion, with the self described “democratic socialist” becoming the most prominent left critic of the Trump administration.
Taking on Trump
Rather than demonizing working-class voters, as many Democratic leaders have done in their search for scapegoats since Clinton’s humiliating election defeat, Sanders has worked from the beginning to undercut Trump’s support on a class basis. He has gone on the offensive against Trump’s billionaire cabinet, Republican health care plans, the president’s tax cutting plans for the rich, and brutal attacks on social services and education. Sanders has taken up the concrete issues that affect the day-to-day lives of working people, while highlighting the president’s hypocrital failure to represent the “forgotten men and women.” Perhaps most effectively, Sanders has spoken at rallies around the country to not only oppose Trumpcare, but to continue building support for Medicare for All.
In sharp contrast, Democratic Party leaders since the election have continued to push back hard against demands for progressive policies—with the party standing firm against single-payer health care, with Tim Kaine and other prominent Democrats standing with Big Pharma against Bernie’s pharmaceutical bill, with Clinton praising Trump’s bombing of Syria, and most recently with Nancy Pelosi saying support for abortion rights should not be a “litmus test” for Democratic candidates. Remarkably, in spite of the ongoing dumpster fire of the Trump presidency, and growing support for left-wing ideas like Medicare for All, support for the Republican Party has remained steady, while Democratic Party approval ratings have declined almost continuously since November.
Polls now find Sanders to be one of the most popular elected officials in the U.S., with an impressive 60% approval rating at a time when politicians from both major parties are broadly viewed with suspicion.
Transforming the Democratic Party?
But while Sanders does a great many things right, he has not yet converted the huge enthusiasm built up through his historic presidential campaign into a mass organization capable of effectively fighting for the policies he campaigned on. In spite of launching the small, top-down Our Revolution group, Bernie is still mostly a one-man army.
Sanders has repeatedly asserted that “right now” he’s working to “transform” the Democratic Party rather than building a new party, while at the same time insisting that he is “not a Democrat.” These contradictory statements have been recently reaffirmed by Sanders during his “unity tour” with new Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez.
In a telling sign of the fundamental contradictions built into Sanders’ current approach, the Democratic “unity” tour turned overnight into a “disunity tour,” further exposing the sharp differences opening up within the party. Berniecrats booed Perez in city after city, as Perez held the party line on for-profit health care, corporate campaign cash, and the status quo party platform. Meanwhile, Democratic Party loyalists angrily called for Bernie to be thrown out of the party he’s not formally a member of.
Of course, it’s true that the main energy on the left right now is going toward the attempts to “take back” the Democratic Party and use it to fight back against Trump. And certainly it’s an enormously important development that this serious effort by grassroots forces is taking place on a scale unmatched in decades. This reflects the politicization and radicalization of millions of people, albeit starting from a low level.
But what would be required to transform the Democrats into a “people’s party”? At a minimum it would mean accepting an end to all corporate donations, a consistent pro-worker program, a binding platform, and the genuine democratic structures capable of holding elected representatives accountable. Corporate Democrats would almost certainly part ways rather than accept this.
But despite the deep crisis in the party, it remains far more likely that the Democratic neoliberal leadership and apparatus will prevail and it will be the forces of the left that will have to face the choice of parting ways and launching a new mass party.
While Sanders generally talks about the vital need to “transform” the Democratic Party, he is very careful to stress how difficult that will be and is effectively leaving the door open to building a new party to replace it. But while Sanders has clearly not drawn this conclusion, what is sorely needed right now in the struggle against corporate neo-liberal politics and Trump’s right wing populism is a broad, grassroots, democratic membership organization, capable of fighting for and winning the things Sanders has campaigned on and that could give real life to his “political revolution.”
The stunning growth of Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), from 6,000 to 20,000 members in just one year’s time, as well as the rapid growth of Socialist Alternative, shows the enormous potential to build the socialist left at present. A politically broader organization with Sanders’ leadership and authority would have far greater potential for rapid development, and hundreds of thousands of people could be inspired and drawn into the effort and ongoing struggle.
But to fully take shape, such a mass organization would need a sustained organizing effort along with a bold, campaigning edge. To take one example, the fight for Medicare for All could go hand in hand with building such a force. Sanders has certainly succeeded in raising the profile and support for single-payer, but at present he is mainly using it as a rhetorical counterpoint to Trumpcare, saying for example, “Today we defend the Affordable Care Act, tomorrow we fight for a Medicare for All.” Instead, a mass membership organization could dynamically organize on this key issue and grow its own ranks by holding health care rallies around the country, leading up toward a massive national day of action to demand Medicare for All.
Even if the organization’s main orientation was toward the Democratic Party, such a force would in fact serve as the outline for a new mass party when, almost certainly, the “transformation” fight failed.
In February, former Sanders campaign staffer Nick Brana launched “Draft Bernie for a People’s Party,” a petition campaign similar in many ways to the one Socialist Alternative organized in the final months of the 2016 primary, ultimately garnering 125,000 signatures. Brana’s petition so far has 36,000 signatures, which is significant given the overwhelming focus on Trump and the Republicans at present.
In April, Cornel West joined Brana on Democracy Now, bringing the call to Draft Bernie to a broader left audience. Brana and West used the occasion to jointly invite Sanders to a town hall to discuss the launching of a new party.
Unfortunately, Sanders has so far passed on the invitation.
Socialist Alternative feels Sanders should attend the town hall, even if he is not prepared to be “drafted.” He can use the event to have an honest and open debate about the way forward, bringing his plans out in the open and making the case to his supporters. At the same time, Berniecrats can draw up a balance sheet on how current “transformation” efforts are working, while having a serious discussion about tactics and strategies.
We believe a new mass left party, independent of corporate money and power, is objectively what’s necessary to decisively defeat the right wing, the billionaire class, and to win transformative gains. As we have explained before, Sanders missed a historic opportunity last year, when he endorsed and campaigned for Clinton, instead of running all the way as an independent and launching a new party. The window has not yet closed, but history does not offer an unlimited number of opportunities to challenge the pro-corporate, racist, anti-worker forces that dominate our society under capitalism. We must take them when they come, and make the most of them.
In addition to a new mass organization, the best way to advance this struggle at present is to run strong independent left and socialist election campaigns across the country, which we have invited DSA to join us in doing. In Minneapolis, Socialist Alternative candidate Ginger Jentzen is running for city council, fighting for a $15 minimum wage and a bold affordable housing program. In Seattle, we are supporting People’s Party candidate Nikkita Oliver, and have joined up with the DSA to support independent democratic socialist Jon Grant’s campaign (see page 5).
A new mass left party will require a massive organizing effort, correct timing, and the involvement of broad forces. But it will happen. Global capitalism and its two pro-corporate parties in the U.S. are utterly failing to address the real needs of the working class, and offer no way forward from a future of massive inequality, instability and crisis. A new party can and must be built—even if it ultimately has to go forward without Bernie Sanders.