Behind the DNC attack on Sanders

January 5, 2016

A controversy erupted in the Democratic presidential primary race after the Democratic National Committee (DNC) accused the Bernie Sanders campaign of taking advantage of security flaws to access detailed voter records belonging to frontrunner Hillary Clinton. The DNC initially cut off the Sanders campaign's access to its own voter records, but restored it after protests and negotiations. Two readers, Bennet Wilcox and Corin Warlick, wrote the following articles (completed before the DNC agreed to restore access for the Sanders campaign) as our website went on a break for the holidays.

Why was Sanders targeted?

LAST MONTH, the Democratic National Committee (DNC), led by Chairperson Debbie Wasserman Schultz, suspended the Bernie Sanders campaign's access to a shared database of voter information, essentially halting the campaign's voter outreach efforts weeks before the Iowa caucus.

In light of this betrayal of democracy, socialists are now presented with three major questions about how to respond: 1) How can we explain such a public sabotage of Sanders' campaign on the part of the DNC? 2) What lessons can we draw from this regarding the nature of the Democratic Party? 3) How should this impact the way in which we relate to people supporting the Sanders campaign?

The answer to the first question seems the most obvious: socialists have suspected since the first whispers of a Sanders candidacy came about that the corporate hierarchy at the helm of the Democratic Party would be threatened by the prospect of a Sanders presidency and would pull out all the stops to prevent his nomination in the event of his gaining widespread grassroots support.

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This hypothesis led to the related assumption that a Sanders candidacy in the general election would be highly improbable, as the presence of hundreds of superdelegates--delegates to the party convention that aren't bound to any popular vote--in the Democratic Party would make it nearly impossible for Sanders, even if he were to win a majority of the popular vote in the primaries, to win the nomination.

The assumption was that the leadership of the Democratic Party would be willing to watch as superdelegates overturned the outcome of the primary elections if Sanders were able to win. This assumption, it seems, has been shown to be incorrect. What has transpired in the last couple days was an even greater and more blatant disregard for democracy than even many on the left had expected.

The Democratic leadership has not waited to overlook popular support for Sanders by relying on already existing anti-democratic institutions within the party; it went one step further by denying the Sanders campaign access to resources given to the other Democratic candidates in a clear attempt to stifle Sanders' progressive potential. Any pretense of democratic fairness within the party has been set aside, leaving no doubt as to where its loyalties lie.

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But why? Why would Wasserman Schultz and the DNC risk the massive backlash that was sure to come from this egregious partiality when Sanders' aspirations for the nomination would already be defeated if "democracy" were allowed to run its course? The explanation, I think, lies in the arguments that groups like the International Socialist Organization have been making all along.

If Sanders were to galvanize enough support among the Democratic base in order to win the popular vote come the primary in February, a backlash against the Democratic establishment was sure to come--and not in the form of polemics against this or that leading Democrat (as has already been taken up by Huffington Post), but against the very structure of the Democratic Party.

The irony of the Democratic Party's anti-democracy would have become clear, and the ensuing struggle would have been carried out along the lines of eliminating the superdelegate system in favor of direct participation--or at least, a fully representative system of delegates.

The demands of disgruntled Sanderistas would not be confined to the firing of the DNC chairperson, but would go to challenge the very structure of the party itself, a possibility threatening the interests of many more people than just one figurehead of the corporate hierarchy behind the Democrats.

What becomes clear now is the extent to which Schultz's actions were the result of both outside interests and the interests of those in the subsequent rungs of the Democratic leadership. While this scandal certainly threatens the power and legitimacy of Wasserman Scultz herself, it protects the legitimacy of the party bureaucracy as a whole. This is the key to understanding why such a risky move would be undertaken by a party whose actions seem always to be jeopardizing its legitimacy among the progressives it depends on.

So what should a socialist response look like? Sanders supporters across the country have already begun to murmur about an immediate break from the Democratic Party and the continuation of the Sanders campaign as an independent candidate. While this prospect would certainly change the entire dynamic of the Sanders campaign, it seems unlikely given Sanders' promise at the beginning of his campaign not to be a "spoiler" and given the logistical difficulties associated with breaking from the Democrats at such a late stage in his campaign.

What this does show us, however, is an already-changing consciousness within the Sanders base around both lesser evilism and what the Democratic Party means for working class politics. We must continue to engage even more vigorously with the progressive and socialist-leaning base of the Sanders campaign on the question of what a workers' alternative to the capitalist parties can look like.

While this attack on Sanders will inevitably be forgotten by some by the time Hillary Clinton's name appears on the ballot next to whatever reactionary racist emerges victorious from the Republican primaries, it also lays bare the true nature of the Democratic Party in a way that Barack Obama's unrivaled deportations or Bill Clinton's ramping up of the racist war on drugs failed to do.

While lesser evilism is sure to play a part in this election, as with every other, an opportunity has arisen for engaging a whole new layer of people feeling the direct impact of the Democrats' hypocrisy. It is our job, as always, to respond, without a hint of sectarianism and with our arms open, ready to work with folks who are tired of the betrayal that comes with Democratic Party politics and are ready to build the foundations of something new.
Bennet Wilcox, New York City

Building something beyond Sanders

IN MID-December, a new "crisis unfolded in the Democratic Party presidential primary. Someone on Bernie Sanders' campaign staff viewed online records belonging to Hillary Clinton's campaign through the party's voter file system. While the staffer was quickly fired, the DNC responded by cutting off the Sanders campaign's access to these vital files and launched a smear campaign against him.

Whatever the Sanders staffer's intent in accessing the files, it should be clear that this scandal is entirely manufactured--the tool of a party which does not want a grassroots, left-wing threat to its program, whether it's within the party or outside of it. Party leaders are attacking Sanders' credibility to try to prevent the grassroots forces behind his success from organizing an effective resistance--but we can expect more direct attacks to come.

This will be a disorienting event for people on the left, both those who have joined the Sanders campaign and those who have remained outside of it. Either way, it's important to keep a clear perspective on it--and be sure that, even if this assault succeeds and Sanders is pushed out of politics, we don't need to be.

To Sanders supporters, I'd say the most important thing to remember is that while this was inevitable, the defensive action of an organization trying to expel a foreign body, it's not necessarily the end. In order to fight the very powerful Democratic Party media machine, the same movement that propelled Sanders this far will need to be stronger than ever.

It's not enough to participate in voting drive activities that will only end up benefiting the party if the Democrats do defeat Bernie. In order to be effective, the movement will need to fight in every struggle, to show that, regardless of any smear campaign against its figurehead, real change can come through it.

Sadly, however strong his campaign is, Sanders might be defeated in the primary. I'd even go so far as to say that he probably will. Of course, everyone recognizes that fact, but the intent of this attack by the DNC is to drive that into everyone's heads--to discredit not only this particular threat, but the whole idea of a left alternative. We need to make sure that doesn't work, regardless of the outcome of the primary.

If Sanders did become president, it would take mass power to force the system to use that as a lever for change, not just end up another Carter--or Allende. If he doesn't, we'll certainly need that power to have a chance at change anyway. So Sanders supporters need to be sure that when the time comes, they're ready to enter other movements or organizations and to resist defeat and demoralization.

For those of on the left who, expecting this kind of situation to happen, focused on work outside of the Sanders campaign in order to lay the groundwork for continued struggle afterwards--congratulations, you were right on that. Full disclosure: I'm also in this camp.

But that's not the end of the question: The coming weeks and months are actually when our strategy will be proved right or wrong--whether we can follow through on the proposal to "build something even better than a presidential campaign."

It will take a lot of discussion to hammer out the correct approach to take, but these are some preliminary thoughts.

The most important thing is not to be smug. I've seen folks on the Internet saying "We were right and they were wrong," and while, of course, the Internet brings that out in people, everyone should be clear: We're on Bernie's side! We may have a different idea of what we need to be doing right now, but the DNC represents the enemy much more than the millions of people who see hope in Sanders' campaign.

Slander may push away many of the wavering liberals who supported Sanders, but not the sentiment of mass anger he represents, or the activists--particularly among the youth--dedicated to his election. Those people need to deepen and broaden the grassroots aspects of that campaign, and we need to do our part in that. Organize joint events with them, help them integrate further into activism--– whatever is best in your local situation.

Ultimately, the most important thing is to be an alternative to capitulation to the Democratic Party apparatus. Win or lose, Bernie supporters will be under enormous pressure to fold--to think there's nothing more to be done and let the existing forces do what they want.

We need to be the ones saying: We can do more, and we need to do more, this is only the beginning--and showing through our actions that there's a loud and viable option. We need to try to make sure this is not a case of mass demoralization and a turn toward another big-name populist, but a strengthening of the left.

It is still very early, and the primaries could go any number of ways. But whatever happens in the future, there is a great movement built up around Bernie Sanders. We all have to do our parts to make sure it doesn't go to waste.
Corin Warlick, Atlanta

Further Reading

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