How do we describe Sanders?

April 26, 2016

RECENTLY, DANNY Katch wrote an article titled "Why I won't be voting for Bernie" for

The key to Danny's argument, I believe, is his statement that "I don't vote for the Democratic Party (or the Republicans) as a matter of principle." This statement would benefit from further consideration. Surely as it stands, this is not a self-evident "principle."

I think what underlies Danny's position is this passage in the International Socialist Organization's "Where We Stand": "We do not support candidates of capitalist parties like the Democrats or the Republicans. We support genuine left-wing candidates and political action that promotes independence from the corporate-dominated two-party system in the U.S."

To see if this principle applies to the Sanders campaign, we need to ask and answer three questions: 1) Bernie Sanders is currently campaigning in the primaries; does that make him a candidate of the Democratic Party? 2) Is he a "genuine left-wing candidate"? 3) Is his campaign a "political action that promotes independence from the corporate-dominated two-party system in the U.S."?

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I don't think that the answers to these questions are clear-cut.

FIRST, IS Bernie a candidate of the capitalist parties? He certainly hopes be a candidate of the Democratic Party--that is why he is running in the primaries. If he wins a majority of delegates in convention, then he will almost certainly become the party's candidate, although this looks quite unlikely right now. In fact, he is running his primary campaign largely in opposition to the Democratic Party establishment, which has been doing everything in its power to block his nomination.

His political history also demonstrates a similar ambiguous (or contradictory) pattern. He runs for election as an independent, but then caucuses with the Democrats in the Senate.

So is he or is he not a candidate of the Democratic Party? Well, he isn't their candidate yet. If any single individual can embody the so-called inside-outside strategy of working both within and outside the Democratic party at a purely electoral level, that body belongs to Bernie Sanders. In any case, a vote for Bernie is clearly not identical to a vote for the Democratic Party, as Danny implies.

Okay, so is Bernie a "genuine left-wing candidate"? I suppose we would have to judge how genuine he is based on his program and on his history.

Nobody would mistake Bernie for a revolutionary, despite his call for a political revolution. But that call for political revolution is far from meaningless. Certainly you don't hear Hillary Clinton nor other Democrats make such a call a centerpiece of their campaigns.

Sanders' program is one of left reformism--no social revolution for Bernie. As a social democrat, he makes many good demands on the domestic side of his program, including his support for single-payer health care, the $15 minimum wage, free public college tuition and numerous other reforms that we all know about.

His positions on foreign policy, on the other hand, sit comfortably within the progressive wing of mainstream Democratic politics. His views on Israel, for example, are essentially those of a liberal Zionist (support for Israel, but criticism of Netanyahu). And then there is his (really, really awful) view that Saudi Arabia needs to intervene militarily in the Middle East to a greater extent than it already has.

Taken as a whole, it seems fair to call Bernie both "genuine" and "left wing," assuming that you are willing to grant that reformist social democrats can be "left wing." This needs to be understood within the U.S. historical context, where there is no working-class, mass socialist party of any sort.

Lastly, is the Sanders campaign promoting "independence from the corporate-dominated two-party system"? Once again, I believe the answer is not either/or.

We know that Bernie has said on more than one occasion that he will support the eventual Democratic nominee, and there is no serious reason to doubt his word on this. So subjectively, the answer to this is "no."

But that shouldn't be the end of the story. When polls show that more than 25 percent of Sanders' supporters say that they will not vote for Clinton, that suggests to me that these supporters have been encouraged to consider independent political activity through, and objectively promoted by, the Sanders campaign.

When union locals vote against their national leaderships to call for supporting Sanders, I think that is a small but real step towards political independence. For now, it is still framed within the two-party limit. By itself, it is not yet a break, but given some help from revolutionary socialists, this kind of independence from the national leadership can make a real break in the future more likely.

THE FACT that many people identify with Sanders as a socialist should not be taken lightly. His talk of political revolution and of challenging the billionaire class has changed the way politics is being viewed by millions of young people. This is a change in a most promising direction that will not be reversed easily.

Taken as a whole, the Sanders campaign is a deeply contradictory phenomenon. That is what makes it difficult for many (like me) to call for abstaining from voting for Bernie (or voting against endorsing him within your union local). This is especially true in states with open primaries, like California, where you don't even have to register as a Democrat to vote in the primary, as long as you decline to state your party preference.

For me, the argument comes down to this: If you think that Bernie's campaign is opening up new opportunities for socialism, and if you want to stand in solidarity with those who support his campaign for this reason (among others), then I think the arguments in favor of voting for Bernie outweigh those against.

There is one big caveat, however. Have no illusions: The Democratic Party was, is, and will be a capitalist party. Don't join it, don't work within it, don't be fooled by it, don't spare your criticism.

We need to build our own organizations outside and in opposition to the Democrats. Remember that if and when you vote for Bernie. And don't forget to work for and vote for Jill Stein in November!
Rick G., San Diego

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