A new generation is rising, politically awakened by the horrific social and environmental future capitalism has on offer. Behind the mass anger at Trump’s bigoted billionaire agenda, most people sense that his election was more symptom than cause. The global surge in right-populism is fueled by rising inequality, grinding austerity, and deeply corrupted political systems shaped by decades of capitalist neoliberalism. Unless the left can build a credible working-class political alternative, right-wing forces will continue to grow.
This is the historic significance of the movement beginning to gather behind Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. Learning from the failure of Hillary Clinton’s Wall Street-backed 2016 campaign, millions now recognize that Bernie’s appeals to working-class unity and his bold anti-corporate platform offer a far stronger strategy to challenge right-populism.
Many of the bold reforms popularized by Sanders in 2016, once considered fringe, now have undeniable mass support. Medicare for All, free college, taxing the rich, and moving to a 100% renewable energy economy are supported by large majorities. Building on this, Sanders’ 2020 campaign has gone further, calling for a Green New Deal, voting rights for prisoners, and an extensive plan to reinvest in K-12 public education and improve teachers compensation.
Bernie’s 2016 and 2020 campaigns emerge from a profound crisis for the U.S. two-party system. His campaign’s challenge to the corporate stranglehold over American politics is creating the conditions for an historic political realignment along class lines including splits in the Democratic Party’s big tent coalition.
In every other advanced capitalist country, working people succeeded in establishing political parties that won major gains like the National Health Service in Britain. The American labor movement at its strongest won major gains like health benefits and pensions for sections of the working class but with the retreat of unions, these gains were largely lost. Only in the U.S. was a viable mass workers party never established. This flowed from the historic strength of U.S. capitalism, which was able – until the last couple decades – to deliver higher living standards to each generation. From the Civil War up to the present, the American two-party system has been the most stable political system in the world.
The promise of the “American Dream” was always more of a reality for some sections of the population than for others. Yet despite the bitter legacy of racism, rising living standards for most workers helped to cohere a social base of support for the ruling class.
Despite the strength of American capitalism, there have been missed opportunities to build a viable mass workers party. When the Great Depression exposed the rottenness of capitalism, resulting in a mass labor revolt, or when the mass movements of the ‘60s and ‘70s came up against the end of the postwar economic boom, the possibility opened up for the labor movement to pose a more decisive challenge to corporate domination.
In these two examples and others, labor and left leaders have repeatedly placed false hopes in transforming the Democrats into a real peoples party. But we now face a situation of decisive decline for American capitalism where its ability to maintain support has been undermined.
End of the “American Dream”
In the center of world imperialism, where capitalism was long treated like a state religion, millions are now exploring socialist ideas. Even before the Great Recession of 2008, three decades of bipartisan neo-liberalism had driven down living standards, shredded the social safety net, and created levels of inequality not seen since the robber baron era. For the first time in U.S history young people face a distinctly bleaker future than their parents.
Since 2008, mass protests and struggles of working people, oppressed communities, and the youth have profoundly reshaped American politics, though against the background of deepening political polarization and the growth of right-populism. Trump’s election sparked a historic wave of revolt, with his first day in office was marked by the largest protest in U.S. history, with millions demanding an end to sexism and bigotry. From the mass airport occupations against the “Muslim ban” to waves of mass protest against gun violence, family separation at the border, and climate change, millions have shown their preparedness to fight back.
Nearly 60,000 have joined the Democratic Socialists of America since 2016. This alongside the rapid rise of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez into a national icon, capable of shaping the national debate, demonstrates the dramatic shifts in popular consciousness now unfolding.
Now the powerful strike wave of teachers is re-awakening the American labor movement. What began as a “red state revolt” has now spread to urban centers. Many of the young teacher activists who emerged at the forefront, especially in places like West Virginia, were radicalized and activated around Sanders’ 2016 campaign, underscoring how the political movement against the billionaire class will spur working-class struggles and vice versa.
This growing popular revolt against the conditions resulting from capitalism’s decay has, over the last decade, created fertile soil for Sanders second fight for the presidency. This is why, for the first time in American history, a self-described socialist has a serious shot at winning the White House.
The movement gathering around Bernie’s campaign will face ferocious opposition from big business, and overcoming this will require organizing a mass political uprising on a larger scale than even Bernie is projecting. This means turning Bernie’s campaign into the outlines of a new party based on the interests of working people.
Most serious capitalist commentators are warning that a new recession is on the horizon, possibly before the 2020 elections. Under these conditions, even if Sanders wins the presidency, his ability to deliver his promised reforms within the framework of capitalism will be extremely limited.
This reality is fueling a welcome debate over the meaning of socialism. Among a growing minority, it is becoming clearer that a more fundamental transformation of society will be needed to tackle climate change, inequality, racist oppression and imperialism exploitation.
At the same, the hope that a Sanders presidency could deliver sweeping reforms is raising the expectations of millions. Combined with the beginnings of a resurgent labor movement, Bernie’s presidential campaign represents the best opportunity in decades to build a powerful challenge to corporate political domination.
The “Stop Sanders” Campaign Begins
Powerful oligarchs from Wall Street to Silicon Valley to the major energy companies are debating how to stop Sanders, and for good reason. Health care stocks topped all others on the S&P 500 for five of the last six years, but amid growing support for Medicare for All this spring, a big selloff turned health care into the worst performing sector.
Bloomberg ran an article, “Bernie Sanders, 1; Health Insurers, -$30 Billion” which explained “The catalyst for the rout was health-insurance giant UnitedHealth Group Inc., which used its earnings call to engage with the biggest threat to the status-quo out there: Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’s proposal to eliminate private insurance in favor of government-run universal coverage” (4/17/19). The industry spent $563 million lobbying last year, and this effort to influence top Democrats has intensified in recent months to block Sanders’ policy proposals which “would effectively legislate many of the companies out of existence.”
From Wall Street to the energy industry, corporate America is bitterly opposed to Sanders. Most would strongly prefer four more years of Trump rather than allowing Bernie to take the White House.
In April, the New York Times ran expose titled “‘Stop Sanders’ Democrats Agonizing Over His Momentum,” which revealed a series of secret dinners of the leading congressional Democrats, top party operatives, and big donors to plan out how to block Bernie in the primaries. Among other things, the idea of using the party’s unelected “superdelegates” to deny Bernie the nomination – even if he gets a higher primary vote than other candidates – is being openly discussed.
Senator Debbie Stabenow of Michigan, a superdelegate, made their calculation clear: “If we have a role, so be it, but I’d much prefer that it be decided in the first round, just from a unity standpoint.” Democratic Party leaders strongly prefer to avoid a repeat of 2016, when their primary rigging threatened to split the party. “Is America Becoming a 4-Party State?” was the title of a New York Times column by Thomas Friedman, where he blasts Ocasio-Cortez and the new left and warns that “political parties across the democratic world are blowing up” (2/19/19).
The best outcome for big business is to be seen as defeating Sanders “fair and square” in the Democratic primaries, and many are attempting to anoint Joe Biden for this role. He is held up as a trusted “centrist” who can rise above the partisan bickering and the “extremism” of both Trump and Sanders.
However, already Biden’s early lead in the polls is sagging as his long record as a shill for Wall Street comes under greater scrutiny. Big business has several backup options in the race, including Buttegieg, Beto, and Harris.
Fear-mongering around Bernie’s “electability” remains the central line of attack. Yet as James Downey, the Washington Post opinions editor, points out, “while there’s little polling evidence to suggest Democratic voters would abandon the party if Sanders were the nominee… there’s plenty of reason to think that Democratic donors may do so… So establishment Democrats are right that Sanders would face certain obstacles that most other potential nominees wouldn’t — namely, that more big paid-for megaphones will be turned against him” (4/17/19).
In reality, the bigger danger is that the Democrats fail to learn the right lessons from 2016 and again nominate a corporate tool like Biden to face off against Trump, offering most workers another no-choice election.
Lessons from 2016
Bernie’s historic 2016 campaign called for a “political revolution against the billionaire class” and pointed towards creating a new political force in U.S. politics. However, learning the lessons from Bernie’s bitter primary defeat, which paved the way for Trump’s victory over Clinton, remains vital if we are to avoid a similar outcome in 2020.
Those on the left who argue for working within the Democratic Party emphasize how the U.S. electoral system rules are rigged against third parties. The actual experience of 2016, however, proved to millions just how undemocratic the system is for anti-corporate candidates running within the two-party system.
Most states restrict primary participation to registered Democrats and Republicans, despite 42% of voters identifying as independent while only 31% identify as Democrats and 24% as Republicans. In New York, for example, the Democratic legislature requires voters to register as Democrats seven months before the primary to participate!
So even if party leaders play by their own rules, the primaries are an unfavorable terrain for building a working-class political movement. But 2016 again revealed that the Democratic establishment not only stacks the rules in their favor, but are prepared to break those rules if needed.
Even before the first primary vote in 2016, the Executive Director of the National Nurses United, RoseAnne DeMoro, bitterly complained:
“If the process in the Democratic Party is this rigged, how can [Bernie] be loyal?… This campaign has been so biased from the beginning. It’s sabotage. It’s continuous. They make the Republicans look democratic,” she said. “We are at a rupture here in democracy and the Democratic party.”THE GUARDIAN, 12/18/15
Or as Michelle Alexander, renowned legal scholar and author of The New Jim Crow, explained several months later in The Nation:
“The biggest problem with Bernie, in the end, is that he’s running as a Democrat – as a member of a political party that not only capitulated to right-wing demagoguery but is now owned and controlled by a relatively small number of millionaires and billionaires… I hold little hope that a political revolution will occur within the Democratic Party without a sustained outside movement forcing truly transformational change. I am inclined to believe that it would be easier to build a new party than to save the Democratic Party from itself.”
None of this is to dismiss the colossal challenges that exist in the way of establishing a viable new mass party uniting working and oppressed people in America. In the same article, Alexander highlights one of the central challenges:
“Of course, the idea of building a new political party terrifies most progressives, who understandably fear that it would open the door for a right-wing extremist to get elected. So we play the game of lesser evils.”
Yet despite playing the lesser-evil game, a right-wing extremist still got elected in 2016. Clinton’s corporate campaign deeply alienated a section of the Democratic Party base while Trump’s right-populist appeals to “drain the swamp” in Washington put him over the top.
Despite polls throughout the 2016 primary fight showing Sanders as the strongest candidate against Trump, the corporate media endlessly downplayed this, whipping up fear that Bernie was “too far left” to win. This myth combined with fear of Trump was a decisive factor helping the Democratic leadership to whip up the party faithful and provided a certain cover for them to lie, cheat, and bully their way to Clinton’s primary victory over Bernie.
However, as Clinton and Trump faced off in the 2016 general election, Bernie emerged from his primary defeat as the most popular politician in America in every poll. In reality, Clinton and Trump were both widely despised. Most people voted against whichever candidate they disliked more. Any serious analysis of Sanders’ 2016 primary successes, alongside the corporate Democrats’ long record of devastating losses at the state and federal level between 2009 and 2016, paint a clear picture: the best strategy to undermine support for the populist right is by building a powerful working class movement, completely independent of big business and the political establishment.
Don’t Accept a Rigged Primary
Defeating Trump and his agenda is among the central reasons Socialist Alternative argues that Sanders should use his 2020 campaign to lay the basis for building a new party for working people. While we don’t agree with his decision to run in the Democratic primaries, we are firmly committed to helping Bernie win. A Sanders victory would expose the contradictions in U.S. politics even further and enormously assist the building of a real movement against the right.
However, if Sanders is again undemocratically blocked in the primaries, he should move immediately to launch a new party as a vehicle to continue building a working-class fightback against both Trump and the billionaire class.
In 2016, Socialist Alternative energetically supported Bernie’s campaign from the beginning. But when anger at the rotten, undemocratic actions against Bernie by the Democratic leadership reached a boiling point in April 2016, Kshama Sawant and Socialist Alternative launched an online petition calling on Sanders to launch a new party. Within weeks 130,000 signed onto the petition, offering a small taste of the scale of support for a new party if Sanders himself had led the way, alongside his supporters in the labor movement and the wider left. In her article motivating the petition, Kshama warned:
“Unfortunately, alongside Clinton’s supporters, Sanders himself has argued that an independent run risks splitting the progressive vote and allowing a Republican victory. Especially with Trump as the GOP frontrunner, this fear is understandable…
“[But] there is another danger if Bernie drops out to back Hillary. It would leave Trump… a free hand to monopolize the growing anti-establishment anger, while most of the left is trapped behind Clinton, the crowning symbol of establishment, dynastic, Wall Street politics. Could the far-right even dream up a better scenario to build their forces?”
This warning unfortunately turned out to be all too true. However, if Sanders had run as an independent in 2016, using his campaign to establish a new mass party for working people, it is by no means ruled out that he could have bested both Clinton and Trump. Some on the left dismiss this idea, pointing to Ralph Nader’s limited electoral success running as an independent in the 2000s. But this misses the colossal changes in U.S. society following the Great Recession. Since 2013, polls consistently show around 60% of Americans want a third party, and by 2018 this included 54% of Democrats and 72% of independents (but only 38% of Republicans).
If Sanders’ 2020 campaign is again blocked in the primaries, a mass conference of his supporters should be organized to democratically discuss the next steps, including the question of running all the way through November.
It is clear that in 2020, as in 2016, many people will see beating Trump as the overriding priority. This is completely understandable, and from day one, socialists were at the forefront of fighting Trump. At the same time, we need to warn that limiting the fight against the right to electoral challenges, especially by corporate candidates, will continue to backfire. Without the construction of a new party of the left linked to fighting movements of working people capable of answering the deep problems we face, the right and far right will continue to find openings to develop further.
One scenario where they could certainly find openings is if another corporate Democrat is elected president in the context of an economic downturn and, like Obama, bails out Wall Street and big business. We should not forget that it was the bailout of the banks and the inaction of the unions during the first two years of the Obama administration that opened the door to the Tea Party, a precursor to Trump’s takeover of the Republican Party.
Against this background, failing once again to bring Bernie’s working-class message into the mass audience of the general election in 2020 would leave working people with another no-choice election, demoralizing and disorienting millions.
New Party Needed to Win
Of course, it can’t be ruled out that Sanders could win the Democratic primary, given the rottenness of the Party leadership. But we should be clear: overcoming the sabotage from the leadership and corporate media will require a civil war within the Democratic Party is only possible through the power of a mass movement of working people.
Crucially, Bernie’s campaign should take further steps to unite, at the local and national level, with striking teachers and other workers moving into action. The campaign should help organize coordinated national protests for abortion rights, immigrant rights, and link up with the international youth climate strike movement.
Pointing in the right direction, on April 27 over 60,000 Bernie supporters attended 4,700 “Organizing Kickoff” house parties across the country. To build the necessary power to win, however, these kinds of meet-ups would need to coalesce into ongoing grassroots campaign structures. Campaign supporters should be empowered to democratically organize themselves at the local, city, and state level for the huge struggle ahead. “Labor for Bernie” groups should also be formed in all unions, linked to the struggle to rebuild a fighting labor movement – an issue we address in the accompanying article in this issue on the lessons of the teachers’ revolt.
If the Sanders campaign adopted this approach it would signify, in reality, the outline of a new political party, organized in direct opposition to all the traditional centers of power in the Democratic Party.
If, against the odds, Sanders were to win the White House in 2020, the need for a new party and mass movements of working people would only grow. Business-backed politicians from both the Democratic and Republican parties would still dominate Congress, state legislatures, and city governments. Sanders would face huge pressure to moderate his demands and betray the expectations for deep-going social change his campaigns have inspired. Failing this, all the resources of the capitalists, including the corporate media, the courts, and elements of the entrenched government bureaucracies would be set in motion to block Sanders from carrying out his program of reforms.
Sanders has correctly emphasized that, even if he is elected, winning Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, taxes on big business, and the rest will require real movements from below. But how will these movements be organized? If Bernie won the White House, a broad left party would be vital to coordinate mass working-class action against corporate sabotage. In the end, major victories will require the social power of working people being brought to bear against the power of the ruling class, from escalating mass mobilizations up to and including national general strikes.
Rather than being paralyzed in an ongoing civil war with the still dominant corporate-backed Democratic establishment, our movement would be far stronger if we got organized completely independent of corporate influence, linking together labor struggles and social movements around a common program.
Can Sanders’ Socialism Succeed?
Bernie Sanders and most the U.S. left profoundly underestimate the obstacles to winning his package of reforms within the framework of capitalism. Their main strategy rests on the mistaken idea that it is possible to recreate, in effect, the post-World War II era of high taxation on big business and an expansive social welfare state. However, far from this period of expanding social programs and rights representing a “normal” state of affairs for capitalism, which can be re-created by electing left governments, the postwar global political economy was only possible due to a very unique historical conjuncture that will not be replicated today.
The colossal economic destruction of two world wars and the Great Depression created the conditions for capitalism’s greatest expansion ever between the 1950s and ‘70s. At the same time, The Soviet Union emerged after World War II as a global superpower. Capitalism was replaced with planned economies in Eastern Europe and China. Colonial revolutions swept away pro-imperialist regimes across Africa, Asia, and Latin America.
The planned economies of Eastern Europe and the USSR allowed for unprecedented economic growth and improvements in workers’ living standards. In this context, the capitalist class of Western Europe and the United States felt enormous pressure to keep living standards higher than in the East or face a revolutionary challenge.
The serious strategists of capitalism understood that, faced with powerful labor movements at home and threat of posed by planned economies in the east, accepting an expansive social welfare system was necessary to prevent revolution. Even then, the working class had to fight for each and every gain made.
All that changed with the end of the postwar boom in the 1970s, and especially following the collapse of the Stalinist planned economies in the early ‘90s. These world-historic events led to the neoliberal capitalist offensive against unions, slashing corporate taxes and regulations, and gutting social welfare programs as global capitalism moved into a long cyclical decline.
Especially since the Great Recession of 2008, a vicious race to the bottom has thrown millions more into poverty while a few at the top saw their fortunes soar. With a new recession on the horizon, capitalism today simply cannot sustain the kind of expansive social welfare systems of the past. Even in the Scandinavian countries that Sanders points to as a model of “socialism” there has been a massive scaling back of the welfare state.
None of this is to suggest that important reforms like Medicare for All or tuition-free college couldn’t be achieved within the framework of capitalism today. But even these reforms would require a huge movement from below, and the capitalist class would look to reverse these victories at their first opportunity.
Even if many of the specific reforms Sanders calls for could be won through struggle, his broader goals of ending corporate domination of politics and ending inequality, poverty, and racism are not achievable under capitalism. Sanders’ underlying view is that capitalism can be reformed into a system that works for ordinary people – a dangerous illusion that will come crashing up against reality in the next period.
The goal of transitioning the U.S. and the global economy away from fossil fuels over the next decade as embodied in Alexandria Ocasio Cortez’ proposal for a Green New Deal, for example, would be viciously opposed by the powerful energy industries. Wall Street has major investments staked on burning all the remaining fossil fuel reserves. Breaking their power and mobilizing the huge resources needed to tackle climate change will require taking the big energy industries and financial institutions into public ownership under the democratic control of working people.
In this context, a Sanders presidency would be rapidly faced with two choices: either capitulation on central pillars of his platform, or using the presidential podium to help build a mass movement from below prepared to challenge the ruling class in a more serious way. Unfortunately, while Bernie’s reformist “democratic socialism” represents a huge step forward compared to the neoliberal ideas long dominant in U.S. politics, it is not adequate to meet the expectations for serious social change developing among millions of his supporters.
For the scale of social change and investment needed to tackle income inequality and the legacy of racism, to ensure quality housing, health care, and education to all, to end predatory imperialist adventures once and for all, a socialist transformation of society is needed. This would mean taking the top 500 companies and financial institutions into public ownership and reorganizing our economy according to a democratic plan.
This kind of revolutionary change is often dismissed as utopian, including from many self-described democratic socialists. Yet from Syriza’s capitulation in Greece to the neoliberal takeover of the Workers Party (Partido dos Trabalhadores) in Brazil, recent history has repeatedly confirmed the warnings of Marxists: governments pursuing a gradual, reformist challenge to capitalist austerity will fail to deliver.
The new generation moving into struggle remains at an early stage of its political awakening. Despite passing through numerous radicalizing experiences since the 2008 capitalist crisis, today’s working class has not yet engaged in major tests of strength with the capitalist class, much less serious attempts at taking political power. These kinds of experiences, in the U.S. and internationally, were vital for past generations to develop a more rounded-out class and socialist consciousness, and will again be necessary in the years ahead.
How to overcome these obstacles – both the opposition from the ruling class and the weaknesses of our movement – is the central question facing the forces gathering behind Sanders. While energetically supporting Bernie’s campaign, we in Socialist Alternative will engage in the growing debates within the movement to educate, inspire, and prepare the ground for a new party for working people equipped with a socialist program.