Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign for president in 2016 was a watershed moment. His call for a “political revolution against the billionaire class” translated into 13 million votes, hundreds of thousands in attendance at his rallies, record amounts of individual donations, and a surge of interest in socialist ideas. We supported Bernie’s campaign in 2016, and called for Sanders to keep running as an independent after he lost the rigged Democratic primary – a sentiment shared by millions. Socialist Alternative also supports Bernie running in 2020, though we are urging him – and his supporters – to learn from the important mistakes made in 2016.
As we head toward the 2020 presidential election, Bernie is one of the early front-runners. He is one of the most popular politicians in the U.S. and has a unique profile that stands in sharp contrast to the Democratic Party establishment and Trump.
If he runs, 2020 will not be a simple repeat of 2016. There will be a different dynamic with Trump in the White House, and the Democratic Party establishment, the corporate media, and the billionaire class will be prepared for him. If he runs in the Democratic primary he will face a more crowded field.
But a second run would also start out at a higher level than the first. Thousands of people – many of whom believe Bernie can win – will be ready from the outset to build an active mass campaign and fight for his program. The potential exists for the biggest left-wing door knocking campaign in the history of the U.S., especially if a section of the unions throw their full weight into Bernie’s campaign.
At the same time, many progressive workers and youth may prefer a fresh face or someone younger, and may initially look to others perceived to be progressive. But who out there has the same combination of massive profile, working-class politics, and ability to rally millions against the billionaire class?
In 2016, Bernie rejected corporate donations and ran on a radical program of pro-working-class demands such as a $15 an hour federal minimum wage, jobs programs, Medicare for All, and free public college. He has already begun to lay out a similar platform and attune his message for an expected campaign.
In a December 6 appearance on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert, he said many of the things that millions of people want to hear from the timid Democratic establishment, but don’t. When asked about the recent midterm elections, Bernie gave a biting response, saying “Trump said this election was about him. It was – he lost.”
Democratic Party leaders Nancy Pelosi and Chuck Schumer promised bipartisanship after the midterms, but Bernie called for using the Democratic majority in the House to hold Trump accountable and to force the Republicans to vote against popular issues like student debt, lowering prescription drug prices, and expanding medical coverage for all.
Unfortunately, he praised former president George H.W. Bush and failed to expose his role in promoting economic and military plunder worldwide by U.S. imperialism and the billionaire class. But, what undoubtedly stood out to most people was Bernie’s tone of urgency in fighting Trump, inequality, and especially climate change.
If Bernie comes out of the gate with money, active support, and a strong message that resonates with the broad discontent among working people – weighed down for two years by a Trump presidency and a timid Democratic “resistance” – his campaign once again could become a powerful vehicle for working people to fight back in the presidential election.
With the right approach, his campaign could lead to the growth of a mass working-class political organization to deepen and continue the fight in the years ahead.
Can Bernie Win?
Many people believe that Bernie can even win the Democratic primary. While there certainly is a path to victory for Bernie in 2020, there are a few factors that need to be considered that could present challenges.
First, the Democratic establishment – who rigged the primary for Clinton in 2016 – is more prepared for Bernie. They have been forced to tolerate him over the past years because of his popularity but, undoubtedly, behind the scenes there is a growing effort to undermine and derail him. Together with the billionaire class, they are absolutely hostile to his program and the radicalizing workers and youth behind him.
Second, Bernie will face a more crowded field of candidates. The 2016 primaries were seen, from the beginning, as a mere formality in the coronation of Hillary Clinton. While she had the backing of the establishment, she was widely disliked among working people not least because of her support for big business politics and the Iraq war.
Bernie’s politics sharply contrasted with her. But also, his campaign was the only credible alternative in the primary. Going into 2020, there are more than a dozen candidates likely to run, and no clear establishment favorite. Many of these candidates are widely perceived to be progressive, and have opportunistically adopted some of Bernie’s policies and message.
As an indication of the difficulties this could present, an ongoing poll of MoveOn members, obtained by NBC, had Bernie with only 13.1% behind Beto O’Rourke (15.6 percent) and Joe Biden (14.9 percent) (NBCNews.com, 12/11/18). MoveOn supported Bernie in 2016 with 78% of their members voting to endorse him.
Of course, things will change when the actual campaign begins, but it does suggest that Bernie won’t automatically have a majority of Democrats at the outset of a new run.
A third complication for Bernie is the overwhelming desire of tens of millions to defeat Trump – assuming he’s on the ballot. This could raise arguments and doubts about electability. Of course, it’s absolutely ridiculous to think that Bernie would do worse against Trump than Joe Biden or Kamala Harris. But the playing field is not exactly fair and we should expect the corporate media to ramp up attacks, or “scrutiny,” aimed at Bernie.
Need for an Audacious Grassroots Campaign
These obstacles can be overcome. But it will require a sharp political message and a massive organizing effort to convince people not to settle for any seemingly progressive Democrat.
Politically, Bernie will need to skillfully take up attempts of the establishment to blur the differences between their candidates and himself. It would be a mistake for him to tone down his message and platform, or to shy away from sharp criticisms to help expose other candidates’ loyalties to the establishment. This includes progressive members of the establishment like Elizabeth Warren – who failed to support Bernie ahead of the Massachusetts primary in 2016, which Clinton then won.
Bernie has more allies to help with such a task. This go-round Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and others can help create a sharper political contrast by challenging the corporate Democrats in Congress to vote “yes” or “no” on progressive legislation – and calling them out when they don’t.
Unfortunately, Bernie and Ocasio-Cortez send mixed messages on the corporate Democrats, at times sharply criticizing them, and at other times praising them. This approach contributes to the wrong idea that the corporate Democrats can be pushed into standing up for working people.
But a political revolution against the billionaire class will not be successful by avoiding a confrontation with the pro-corporate elements of the Democratic Party.
To challenge the Democratic Party establishment, it is crucial to build an organized mass campaign that can inspire support from working people and the oppressed at doorsteps, in workplaces, and inside unions and other important organizations of working people.
To tap the creative energy of supporters, Bernie should avoid the trappings of a top-down, staff-driven organization, and open up his campaign structures to the grassroots. Bernie supporters should not wait for the official campaign to set up shop in their areas, and should launch a broad, independent campaign with grassroots democratic structures to rally working people to take ownership of the campaign.
This includes linking up with all the social struggles taking place in local areas. A Bernie campaign will be far more attractive to the most oppressed if it has the character of a broad working-class movement fighting against every injustice. The unions who supported Bernie last time, along with DSA and other progressive groups should throw their weight into such an effort.
The Case for An Independent Campaign
But even with a mass grassroots campaign, the Democratic Party primary is far from a fair process for working people, as we learned in 2016. It’s a rigged system. While there certainly is the potential for Bernie to win, which we would welcome, it’s in no way automatic.
In fact, given the complexities of the 2020 landscape, it is not excluded that his campaign is defeated even earlier than it was in 2016. This could be leave us with another general election between a faux-progressive corporate Democrat against Trump and millions of supporters of Bernie could again find themselves demobilized and without a vehicle to continue the fight for working-class policies.
After the defeat of Bernie in 2016, the issues he had forced into the debate were shunted aside. Instead the debate became depoliticized and centered around the personalities of Trump and Clinton. Tragically, far more people paid attention to the general election than the primary.
This raises the question about whether Bernie should even run in the corporate-dominated primary system, or if he should just now commit to run all the way as an independent and use his campaign to begin building a new mass party for working people. After all, he’s already a household name and doesn’t need the primaries to reach a mass audience.
However, the suggestion that Bernie should abandon the Democratic Party primary and run independently is a non-starter for many. Many on the left, including some leading thinkers in the Democratic Socialists of America, argue the primary is the best “strategic” chance for Bernie to win. This is backed up by Bernie’s strength in the 2016 primary.
In our view, there would be important advantages for the workers’ movement if Bernie ran independently if you look more broadly at the processes unfolding. In the 2020 election there is a lot at stake for both the billionaire class and the working class. Capitalism is facing mounting crises on a number of fronts, and the ground is being prepared for huge events that will shake society and lead to political upheaval on a massive scale. The single biggest advantage of an independent campaign would be to lay the basis for a mass party rooted in workplaces and communities that can galvanize struggle against the ruling class.
The mass revolt in France of the “yellow vests” provoked The Wall Street Journal to ask, “The real question is what happens to Western politics when the economy next heads south. Times won’t always be this good, and the next recession will test the resilience of advanced political systems.”
Already, in a number of countries since 2008, we have seen the collapse of many traditional political parties – the equivalents of the Democrats or Republicans – and the emergence of new parties on both the left and far right. In the U.S., the growing polarization within the political system points toward this possibility here. People are growing tired of establishment politics in the face of widespread grinding hardship. The sooner we build a real alternative for working people, the better chance we have to forestall the growth of right populism.
The biggest obstacle to a new party is not that working people wouldn’t support it – as many on the left claim. In fact, polls show growing support for a new party. The real obstacle is the conservative leadership of the left and the unions that has promoted the idea of the Democrats being the only possible alternative and a “lesser evil” for decades.
In 1950s, the unions – built through big struggles against the bosses in the 1930s and 1940s that led to significant gains – represented one-third of the workforce and commanded enormous authority in working-class communities.
Instead of launching an independent working-class party with an anti-capitalist program, the leadership of the unions delivered votes for the elites in the Democratic Party, a strategy that has continued for decades. The result? Today, less than 8% of workers are organized in the private sector, a decisive reason for the growth of inequality.
We are living in period where U.S. capitalism and its parties cannot deliver the goods for working people. A Bernie 2020 campaign could give voice to all the bubbling discontent. But it also presents a historic opportunity to rally millions of working-class people into an independent political force to fight for far reaching change against the billionaire class.
An audacious campaign in 2020 could turn the “spoiler” question on its head – after all, the Democratic Party establishment claimed Clinton was the best chance against Trump and failed. They should either stand aside or risk being replaced – just like the radical Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln smashed the “lesser evil” pro-slavery Whig Party in 1856-60.
We understand that most workers will not agree to an independent Bernie campaign and will want to try the route of the Democratic Party primary. We do not rule out the possibility that Bernie wins the primary, but it’s a gamble nonetheless. We want Bernie to be elected president but we want his campaign and presidency to be the voice of the struggles of working people. But the biggest danger of all is that we miss a historic opportunity to build a new mass working-class party.