Can the Democratic Party be used for good?

May 21, 2015

Danny Katch, author of the e-book America's Got Democracy! The Making of the World's Longest-Running Reality Show, has some questions for radicals who are supporting Bernie Sanders' campaign for the Democratic Party presidential nomination.

THE PRESIDENTIAL run of Bernie Sanders poses an important question for socialists.

On the one hand, the Vermont senator's progressive populism could inspire millions of voters disenchanted with Wall Street domination and might give thousands of mostly young people their first taste of political activism--even if it's the limited electoral activism of passing out brochures and praising their candidate. The fact that Sanders calls himself a socialist and famously has a portrait of socialist leader Eugene V. Debs in his office is cool, too.

On the other hand, while Sanders is nominally a political independent, he is running for the Democratic presidential nomination, and he has long acted as a de facto member of the Democratic Party, one of the most criminal enterprises the modern world has ever known--with a rap sheet that includes, chronologically: slavery; the Trail of Tears; stealing half of Mexico; the Confederacy; Jim Crow; Hiroshima and Nagasaki; the Korean and Vietnam Wars; NAFTA; mass incarceration; mass deportations; and massively escalated drone and cyber warfare.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders
Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders

Yes, the Democrats also can claim credit for good things like Social Security, as well as Medicaid and Medicare--though we socialists insist the real credit belongs to the mass movements that put the "party of the people" under such pressure that it had to act. Even setting that aside, remember this: The Mafia has also been known to provide services to the neighborhood to reduce opposition to its nefarious activities.

Furthermore, the Democrats have a history of neutering radicals by luring them in with left-wing candidates--like Jesse Jackson in the 1980s and Dennis Kucinich in the 2000s--who inevitably lose the money-rigged presidential nomination process, and then throw their support to the corporate-backed champion. Sanders has already declared that he won't continue his campaign as an independent after he loses in the primaries--most likely to the billion-dollar Hillary machine.

So the question is whether the left can use the Sanders campaign to gather a new generation of young activists and bring them closer to socialism--or whether it will be the radicals who get used once again by the Democrats, with the Sanders campaign acting as, in the words of Bruce Dixon at the Black Agenda Report, the sheepdog that herds straying progressives back to the Clinton-led pack.

This debate is not about "political purity" on one side and clever tactics on the other. Both sides believe their position is both principled and strategic, and there's no need to paint Sanders supporters as imperialist sellouts or those who won't join his campaign as unthinking dogmatists.

Instead, there are three questions that are more useful points of departure for the discussion.

1. Can the Democratic Party be transformed from within?

Many, although not all, of the leftists backing Sanders have supported other left-wing Democrats or "inside-outside" vehicles like the Working Families Party in the hopes of pushing the Democratic Party leftward.

The fact that Sanders calls himself a socialist and is nominally not a part of the Democratic Party is a bonus, but not decisive for these folks--many of whom would have supported a run by the unambiguously Democratic Sen. Elizabeth Warren, had she decided to run for the presidential nomination.

Many of these radicals are aware of the dismal history of the Democratic Party laid out above, but they believe it's impossible in the near future to build a third party because of the undemocratic structure of the U.S. political system and the dominant hold that the Democrats have over unions, civil rights organizations and liberal non-profits.

There is a lot to be said for this argument--particularly the fact that the left hasn't creating a successful ongoing third party since anti-slavery forces built the Republican Party in the 1850s. But it's also true that over those same 150 years the strategy of running progressive candidates has failed to move the Democratic Party to the left. The Democrats did shift in a more liberal direction in the 1930s and 1960s, but only temporarily, and under pressure from labor battles and protest movements, not the influence of particularly charismatic leaders.

The honest approach to answering this question is deciding whether our energy is best spent trying to overcome the tremendous obstacles to building an independent left-wing party or trying to overcome the tremendous obstacles to transform the Democratic Party from the inside.

My money is on the former because the Democratic Party is a fundamentally undemocratic organization. It is run by devoted representatives of the 1 Percent who have shown, time and again, that they will not let the party be taken over by those who want to change that agenda.

The same point applies, by the way, inside a Democratic Party campaign. Just as the party establishment won't allow Bernie Sanders to have a fair shot against Hillary Clinton, I don't think Sanders and his advisers like Tad Devine--a veteran political operative who has worked for such notably uninspiring and non-insurgent Democratic candidates as Al Gore and John Kerry--will allow leftists to create democratic chapters inside the campaign that are free to debate the two-party system, the meaning of socialism or whatever else people have in mind.

2. How can the left make the most out of the Sanders campaign?

Some have argued that the best way for socialists to relate to Sanders supporters is to work inside his campaign for the presidential nomination--in order to be well-positioned to lead people to an alternative when Sanders abandons them for Hillary Clinton next year.

I believe, on the other hand, that a much more straightforward way to prepare for the same moment would be to build a genuine independent left-wing alternative starting now, so that disillusioned Sanders supporters who are looking for something viable to take part in.

That's a dynamic we experienced on a small scale in New York during last year's race for governor, when the right-wing Democrat Andrew Cuomo faced a spirited challenge in the Democratic primaries from Zephyr Teachout's populist campaign.

Teachout won an impressive 34 percent of the vote in the primary election against Cuomo, despite being vastly outspent by the incumbent's corporate-backed machine. But socialists--including some of the individuals and organizations now supporting Sanders--didn't think we had to be inside her Democratic Party campaign to reach her supporters.

Instead, we built the Green Party campaign of Howie Hawkins and Brian Jones, knowing that when Teachout lost the primaries, some of her supporters would be looking for an alternative. In that way, we were able to use Teachout's momentum to make modest but important gains for independent politics, winning 5 percent of the vote and getting a number of teachers' union locals to endorse a Green Party candidate for the first time.

Building independent politics outside the Democratic Party requires patience--the Hawkins-Jones campaign was barely covered during the months of the Democratic primaries when Teachout was getting all the attention. But it makes more sense than campaigning for a Democratic candidate in the name of building an alternative to the Democrats.

Bernie Sanders's decision to run as a Democrat isn't a technical detail or a box that he happened to check off on a questionnaire. It's a core part of his campaign message--that the Democratic Party can be made into a progressive force. This is a tenet of party mythology that is as important to Clinton as it is to Sanders. Socialists who intend to genuinely build the Sanders campaign will be much more likely to adapt to this mythology than to successfully challenge it.

There is a long and painful history of radicals thinking they can come up with halfway strategies to ease people into left-wing politics, but they only end up guiding themselves away from them.

It might seem hard at the moment to imagine radicals who despise Hillary Clinton following Bernie Sanders in calling for a vote for her in the general election in November 2016. But wait until a year from now, when the choice is between Clinton and Scott Walker, running proudly on a campaign promise to make the whole country union-free.

In his contribution to an exchange of views with the ISO, Socialist Alternative's Philip Locker does the left no favors by minimizing the gravitational pull that will be exerted on Sanders' supporters once the primary elections are over with. "In 2004," he writes, "when Dennis Kucinich and Howard Dean endorsed the Democratic nominee, John Kerry, an important minority of their supporters ended up joining Ralph Nader's independent campaign."

In fact, the tide ran overwhelmingly in the opposite direction. The pressure on Kucinich and Dean supporters and others on the left to back John Kerry, under the "anybody but Bush" mantra, was so intense that the Green Party itself abandoned Nader's independent presidential bid, and nominated a candidate who subscribed to the "safe states" approach of not campaigning in states where the election between Kerry and Bush was close and a third-party option could be a "spoiler."

3. Is the role of the left to start social movements or give them political direction?

Some are supporting the Sanders campaign because they think it can "kickstart a small 'd' democratic movement," as the newly formed People for Bernie put it. Others hope the campaign will raise issues of inequality and corporate greed and shift the national conversation to the left.

But there are already movements pushing politics to the left in the U.S., from Occupy Wall Street a few years ago to Black Lives Matter today. Before Sanders even entered the race, these movements and the leftward shift among Democratic voters had pressured Hillary Clinton to run as "the most liberal Democratic presidential front-runner in decades," as the Washington Post concluded in one analysis.

Clinton has shifted her positions on same-sex marriage, immigration, raising the minimum wage and the criminal justice system--all issues that have seen vibrant protest movements in recent years. The two main positions on which she has maintained her long-held conservative views--militarism and free trade deals--reflect in part her confidence that unions and liberal antiwar groups will back her, no matter what she says.

Socialists and other leftists have been active in all these movements, but they would still happen without our involvement. The unique role that we can play is to strengthen them by offering an alternative political direction from the killing embrace of the Democratic Party. One component of that alternative is looking to a third party challenge to the Democrats, or, if that's not possible, at least fighting to preserve the independence of social movements.

We have to do the hard work now of building independent political forces in preparation for whatever opportunities arise. Radicals hoping to use the Sanders campaign to assemble those forces for them are generals in search of an army--who hope that the Democratic Party will be careless enough to leave one unattended. It just isn't going to happen.

Of course, we should work alongside Sanders supporters in labor, political and social struggles. We can applaud their opposition to a political system that is thoroughly rigged by big money donors and the corporate media. But socialists should talk to them not just about corporate domination of politics, but why imperialism, racism--and ultimately Democratic Party itself--are vital to that domination.

For those who are open to these arguments, it will probably make a lot more sense coming from people who are not working in a Democratic Party campaign.

It's great that Bernie Sanders calls himself a socialist. What's even better is that we don't need him to promote socialism, as opinion poll after opinion poll tells us.

Seven years into the worst period for capitalism since the Great Depression of the 1930s, socialism doesn't need to be "normalized" to appeal to working people. We need to make sure they think that socialism stands for the beliefs and principles that Eugene V. Debs championed so well a century ago--including independence from the two parties of capitalism.

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