Bernie Proved a New Party is Possible

By Tony Wilsdon & Ty Moore

The electrifying presidential campaign of Bernie Sanders proved, in outline, the huge potential for building a new mass party of the 99%. At the height of the primary fight against Clinton, especially as the dirty tricks of the Democratic National Committee were exposed, the idea that Bernie’s campaign could provide a “blueprint” toward forming a new party became more widely discussed among his supporters.

“Whatever happens between now and the Democratic Convention — what’s next is that we form a brand new progressive political party from scratch. It has never been more clear to me that millions and millions of us do not belong in the Democratic Party. Their values are not our values. … [Sanders] has created a blueprint for us on how we build a political movement without the money from the billionaire class and their special interests.”
– Shaun King, prominent New York Daily News columnist 

“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.”
– Michelle Alexander, renowned legal scholar and author of The New Jim Crow 

“Never, ever give up fighting against the increasing concentration of wealth and power at the top, which is undermining our democracy and distorting our economy. That means, if Hillary Clinton is elected, I urge you to turn Bernie’s campaign into a movement — even a third party — to influence elections at the state level in 2018 and the presidency in 2020.”
– Robert Reich, former Secretary of Labor in Bill Clinton’s administration

Bernie raised nearly $230 million from over two million individual donors, breaking all records including those set by Obama in 2008. At the height of his campaign in the first quarter of 2016, Sanders raised at least 50% more than Clinton each month (CNN, 4/21/16). By mid-April, Bernie’s total campaign contributions surpassed Clinton’s (excluding her Super PACs). All this without taking a dime in corporate cash. Sanders’ campaign demonstrates how independent working-class candidates can raise the funds needed to mount serious campaigns by making a class appeal to working people and the left.

With free market capitalism the de facto state religion in America, it is impossible to overstate the significance of an avowed democratic socialist calling for a “political revolution against the billionaire class,” winning over 13 million votes and 46% of the delegates. This is especially stunning given the rigged character of the Democratic primary fight, with the rules set by the DNC and an electorate skewing heavily toward older, wealthier party loyalists. Every poll continues to demonstrate Bernie Sanders has emerged as the most popular politician in the U.S. with favorability ratings far surpassing the two major party nominees.

Bernie won well over twice as many millennial votes as Clinton, and 25% more than Clinton and Trump combined. “It’s hard to overemphasize how completely and utterly Sen. Bernie Sanders dominated the youth vote,” reported the Washington Post (6/20/16).

Consider if the entire union movement had got behind Sanders. It could have tipped the balance in his favor, even within the skewed primary campaign. Outrageously, the majority of labor leaders squandered the possibility to have the most pro-labor major party candidate in history in order to prove their loyalty to the pro-corporate Clinton campaign, reflecting their deeply conservative political outlook. Still, Bernie’s campaign became a pole of attraction for the more fighting, healthy forces in the labor movement. Labor for Bernie established significant points of support, with approximately 100 union locals and seven national unions (ATU, APWU, CWA, ILWU, NNU, NUHW, and UE) endorsing Sanders, along with tens of thousands of union activists who joined the campaign.

A Radical Program

At the heart of Bernie’s mass appeal was a radical program, including breaking up the big banks, a $15 minimum wage, single-payer healthcare, free college tuition, decisive action on climate change, ending mass incarceration, massive investment in rebuilding infrastructure, and taxing the rich and big business to pay for it all.

Socialist Alternative consistently pointed out that even if Bernie had won the presidency, actually implementing this program would require building a mass working class movement and a new party of the 99% challenging corporate domination of politics and society. The current era of capitalist stagnation and crisis the ruling class will fiercely resist serious reforms and will constantly push to reverse them. Winning sustained change will require more decisive measures including taking the top banks and corporations into public ownership under democratic control as part of a wider socialist transformation of society, far beyond what Bernie has proposed.

However, by raising such a far-reaching and fighting program and speaking to the pressing issues impacting millions of people’s lives, Sanders’ campaign raised expectations and drew millions into political activity.

Unfortunately, history will be a harsh judge of Sanders’ decision to endorse Clinton rather than continue running for president through the November election as an independent and beginning to build a new political party to represent working people. If Sanders had taken this step it could have opened a new chapter in U.S. politics. Sanders could have gotten the largest vote for an independent left-wing presidential campaign in modern U.S. history, and rallied hundreds of thousands of activists to start working together to build a new political party to continue fighting after the 2016 election.

While it is very unfortunate that Sanders has spurned this historic opportunity, his campaign still played an important role in educating millions of workers and young people on the sharp limits of fighting for change within the corporate-controlled Democratic Party.

Democratic Establishment Bares its Teeth

As the mass support behind Sanders gathered momentum, the Democratic Party establishment was forced to turn to dirty tricks to defeat him. Hundreds of thousands of working people and young people have had a rapid-fire education over the course of the primary battle in how the party establishment used unelected superdelegates, the corporate media, corporate cash, the authority of elected politicians and popular figures, closed primaries, and the skewed primary schedule to bear down on insurgent candidates like Sanders.

Bernie has argued that the improvements he achieved in the Democratic Party’s platform is proof of the potential to continue his political revolution by fighting to transform the Democratic Party. The problem is there is no mechanism in the Democratic Party to hold elected officials accountable to the platform. Instead it’s role has traditionally been as window dressing to pacify the left while the politicians essentially ignore it after the convention. In contrast, a genuine left-wing or working class party would require its leaders to vote in accordance with the democratically agreed upon platform, and would withdraw its support for politicians who betrayed the party platform.

It is true that Sanders also won some reforms that democratized the rules for presidential primaries in the Democratic Party. But as was shown by repeated maneuvering by the DNC against Sanders, democracy is a sham in the Democratic Party. Rules are ignored, or rewritten as necessary. The corporate elite, alongside the entrenched Democratic Party leadership, are not about to give up control of their party — a vital pillar of capitalist control over society — and if they need to break a few rules that will not deter them.

Even if Sanders had won the nomination despite all the undemocratic obstacles thrown in his way, the party establishment and its overseers on Wall Street would have fought with all their might against allowing their party to be used to elect a socialist president campaigning for single-payer health care, taxing the rich, and to make education free from childcare through college. Sanders would have faced a revolt from the pro-business Democratic Party establishment.

The only way Sanders could have overcome this resistance would have been by appealing to the millions of working people supporting him to get organized and giving them power and ownership over this campaign. And what would this be if not the beginnings of a new political party that is independent of corporate cash?

Time for a Political Alternative

A September 2016 Gallup poll showed a record 6 in 10 Americans want to see a third party, while just 37% believe the existing two parties are doing an adequate job and that a third party isn’t needed. The failure of Bernie to take his supporters out of the dead-end of the Democratic Party and launch an independent left campaign has left the space open for right-populist candidates like Donald Trump and Gary Johnson to capture some of the anti-establishment mood. If labor and progressive leaders continue to support pro-business politicians like Hillary Clinton, it will only lead to further disappointments for working people, giving opportunities for further growth of right-wing populism, as we have seen in other countries.

To many progressives the idea of a new party can still seem far-fetched. In part this is because, unlike most other countries, the U.S. working class has no historical experience of building mass socialist or labor parties. Even though most of the former mass workers parties in Europe and elsewhere have been transformed over the last 25 years into openly pro-capitalist parties, their legacy leaves a powerful imprint on the consciousness of workers in most other countries.

However, in the U.S. the potential to build a broader mass workers party was very real at a number of points, including during the Great Depression and the crisis of the late 1960s through the mid-1970s. These opportunities were not realized mainly due to the power of U.S. capitalism throughout much of the 20th century, but also because of the political mistakes of leaders in the labor movement and other left forces.

The situation today, however, is now ripe for a political transformation. U.S. capitalism has been in long term decline since the mid-1970s and its institutions and establishment have lost credibility. Neoliberalism is thoroughly discredited and the two main political parties, including the Democrats, are to the right of the majority of the public on many key issues. Alongside the explosive emergence of Black Lives Matter and the $15 minimum wage struggles, the Sanders campaign showed that tens of millions are now ready to support a fighting left political alternative.

What Kind of Party?

Many people think of a political party only in electoral terms. But what is needed is a party rooted in communities, workplaces, and social movements, whose political representatives give voice to the demands of ordinary people in the halls of power. At the end of the day all key reforms achieved by working people, people of color, women and LGBT people, have come through struggle. Elections are not the source of fundamental change, but as long as the electoral plane is ceded to corporate forces, working people’s interests will be constantly undermined.

This is precisely what Socialist Alternative sought to do in Seattle when Kshama Sawant won office in 2013. On a small scale we built a model for what a new party could do. Sawant’s 2013 campaign focused on the call for a $15 minimum wage and her victory helped to take this question to a new level. Through building the grassroots campaign 15 Now, with the support of key unions, Socialist Alternative played a leading role in achieving the first local $15 minimum wage in the country which led to further breakthroughs in San Francisco, Los Angeles, New York, and beyond.

In the formation of a new party of the 99%, socialists will argue for a clear left anti-capitalist program opposing budget cuts to social services, anti-union attacks, environmental destruction and structural racism and sexism while boldly calling for taxing the rich to begin addressing the horrible social and infrastructural decay permeating our society. Clearly such a party must take no corporate cash and we would also argue that its public representatives should, like Kshama Sawant, commit to taking the pay of an average worker to remain tied to the reality of working people.

Socialist Policies Needed

Establishing a new party is not in itself the solution to the problems working people face, but it is a vital step. However, given the range of forces which must come together to make such a party viable it will inevitably be made up of different political currents. In the initial period, it is most likely any new mass left party will be dominated by reformist ideas. Most progressive leaders, like Bernie Sanders, believe that capitalism could be tamed through reforms and made to serve the interests of working people

Socialists would engage in a vigorous debate, arguing that while we should fight for every possible reform under this system, capitalism must ultimately be replaced with a democratically planned economy to take society forward. Such a discussion, linked to building an independent political movement, and involving tens or even hundreds of thousands of people would in itself be an enormous step forward.

A mass left party linking the electoral fight to supporting or building powerful movements could, at least temporarily, win important concessions from the capitalist class. However, to go forward and lead a mass movement capable of ending the corporate domination of society, a party would have to adopt a fully socialist program. For a majority of workers and young people to reach socialist conclusions, they will first need to test out reformist leaders in power. The role of socialists is to be the most energetic fighters for every reform, and to help the working class understand, through both victories and defeats, the sharp limits for reforms within the framework of capitalism, especially in this era of neoliberalism.

During the post-WWII economic boom, mass workers parties were often able to deliver reforms that lasted over an extended historical period. However, in this era of capitalist crisis and neoliberalism, reformist parties across the planet are immediately thrown into crisis and splits wherever they win government power. Unless a powerful revolutionary tendency is built within a new party, capable of leading a majority of the party toward socialist conclusions, then the reformist tendencies will dominate and guide these parties into bitter betrayals.

It is therefore essential that a workers party, as a party of social struggle, have a genuinely democratic internal life. Accountable leadership structures must facilitate debate and discussion on all aspects of party policy so that the lessons of struggles and political campaigns can be fully assimilated and thereby strengthen the party’s roots in the broader working class. It must, for example, be possible for the party membership to recall their public representatives who betray the party’s democratically agreed upon platform and policies.

We are living through an era of growing struggles and radicalization internationally. The potential shown by Bernie Sanders’ campaign has raised the expectations of millions. The old “lesser evil” argument that it is impossible to run viable election campaigns without reliance on corporate money has been utterly destroyed. If Clinton manages to pull out a victory over Trump, she will not have a positive mandate for pushing forward her corporate policies. All signs point toward 2017 being a year of expanding struggles, from Black Lives Matter to the fight for $15, from the battle to block the TPP to environmental protests against fossil fuel corporations. Everywhere these struggles will move into sharper opposition to the political establishment of both political parties. Socialists will look to play a key role in these movements and the political debates within, campaigning for concrete steps towards a genuine political alternative for the 99%.