Will the Democrats put out the Bern?

June 24, 2016

People who want to make a "political revolution" aren't going to achieve their goals with Bernie Sanders' hope of transforming the Democratic Party from within.

BERNIE SANDERS' presidential run is finally coming to a close, months after most people--from Beltway pundits to Socialist Worker to Sanders himself--had originally thought his campaign would be long over.

The odds were always overwhelming that Hillary Clinton would win the presidential nomination of a party designed for corporate-backed candidates like her to win. But that didn't stop a number of Clinton supporters and even some Sanders backers from concluding, when Clinton effectively clinched the nomination earlier this month, that Sanders' message was too radical for a country whose "people don't give up their deeply held beliefs easily," as Joshua Holland wrote in Rolling Stone.

That's a strange thing to say about a candidate who a year ago had little name recognition outside his home state of Vermont, who just won 23 states and more than 13 million votes (not including states that had caucuses instead of primaries), who took no campaign money from corporations or SuperPACs--and who, to top it off, proudly referred to himself as a socialist.

Bernie Sanders speaks to a big crowd in Iowa

Sanders succeeded against all the odds precisely because his proposals--like redistributing the wealth by taxing Wall Street and the rich or creating a single-payer health care system--are radical, at least by the standards of current American politics.

Most of the people who supported Sanders didn't give up their deeply held beliefs. They were unexpectedly able to act on their discontent with the criminal behavior of the U.S. ruling class, developed during and since the Great Recession.

This is particularly true of Americans under the age of 30, 2 million of whom voted for Sanders--far more than voted for Clinton and Donald Trump combined. It's no coincidence that these millennials are also far more likely to identify themselves as "working class" than the rest of the U.S. population.

The Sanders campaign didn't create this radicalization--it has had many other faces before and during this campaign, as SW has argued before. But Sanders helped to develop it, both by introducing a left-wing message into the usually brain-deadening mainstream political discussion, and by connecting people's anger at inequality and corporate greed to a set of raised expectations about what could be different about the U.S. if only people came before profits.

Throughout the Democratic primaries, Clinton and her supporters tried to dismiss Sanders' platform as a utopian grab bag of "everybody gets free stuff"--as if the programs Sanders proposed, like universal health care and university education that is fully funded by a more progressive taxation system, haven't existed in most wealthy countries around the world for decades.

THE FACT that these attacks on Sanders for being "unrealistic" didn't make a dent in his support over the past year is important, as left-wing author Naomi Klein wrote for Common Dreams:

Clinton, and the 40-year ideological campaign she represents, has lost the battle of ideas. The spell of neoliberalism has been broken, crushed under the weight of lived experience and a mountain of data.

What for decades was unsayable is now being said out loud--free college tuition, double the minimum wage, 100 percent renewable energy. And the crowds are cheering. With so much encouragement, who knows what's next? Reparations for slavery and colonialism? A guaranteed annual income? Democratic worker co-ops as the centerpiece of a green jobs program? Why not? The intellectual fencing that has constrained the left's imagination for so long is lying twisted on the ground.

In a similar vein, prominent Sanders supporter Robert Reich wrote an e-mail for MoveOn.org that began: "It doesn't matter what happens now. Bernie has already succeeded."

Not so fast.

It might be true, as Klein says, that the ideological spell of neoliberalism is broken, but the actual policies of neoliberalism will continue until we create social movements and organizations capable of countering and reversing them. That effort is only beginning, and contrary to Reich, it matters a great deal what happens from this point on.

Klein and Reich might agree that the practical struggle to overthrow neoliberalism is still to come. But they won't agree with this: Part of Sanders' success will be in potentially reinvigorating support for the Democratic Party--and that will be a major obstacle for those who are inspired by the vision of a society organized around priorities that the Democrats oppose.

The Democratic National Convention in July will be filled with contradictions. Outside, there will be a series of protests on the streets of Philadelphia organized by various liberal and left forces, including many Sanders supporters. Inside the Wells Fargo Center will be a carefully choreographed unification of the two former rivals--the beginning of the big push to bring Bernie's backers into the Clinton fold for November.

That doesn't mean the two campaigns aren't still at odds over the terms of Sanders' support. Clinton backers in the media are blasting Sanders for having to gall to demand changes to the party platform, and Sanders didn't explicitly endorse Clinton for president in his sort-of-concession speech in mid-June.

Throughout the primaries, Sanders and his supporters refused to buckle under pressure from the Clinton campaign--from the red-baiting of January to the fake chair-throwing scandal in May--and Sanders looks like he will honor his promise to continue the fight, at least rhetorically, through to the convention.

Sanders' willingness to stand up to the rotten Democratic Party elite has been refreshing. The problem is that his goal all along has been to strengthen a very rotten party.

MANY RADICALS who supported Sanders see their effort as one prong of an "inside-outside" strategy--support for left-wing Democrats to push the party leftward, on the one hand, combined with building protests, third parties and other forms of independent activism, on the other.

Whatever the strengths and weaknesses of that approach--which SW has not supported--it should be clear at this point that Sanders' own orientation is all inside and no outside.

In his speech last Thursday, the next steps that he charted for the "political revolution" he called for were to: 1) defeat Donald Trump--which effectively means voting for Hillary Clinton; 2) improve the Democratic Party platform; and 3) recruit thousands of people to run for office so that more liberal Democrats will be competing with Republicans in all 50 states.

There wasn't a word to supporters about taking action independent of the Democratic Party--whether that be to form a union in their workplace, or call for a protest to win single-payer health care, or confront the racist violence and corruption of big-city police forces where the Democrats are invariably the boss. And it goes without saying that the task Sanders once stood for, though more in words than actions, was left off the list: create a political party completely independent from and hostile to corporate rule.

Even Sanders' fundraising apparatus--based on small donations and a potential a model for future left-wing campaigns--is about to be absorbed into the Democratic Party machine.

Sanders used the ActBlue fundraising platform that belongs to the Democratic Party--meaning that the 2.5 million people who donated to Sanders will be getting solicitations from other Democratic candidates for years to come. Clinton's campaign, meanwhile, created its own fundraising platform that it controls exclusively--further evidence that when money is involved, Clintons have their version of an inside-outside strategy.

SANDERS IS proposing to transform the Democratic Party from within in two ways: By using the July convention to make the party platform more progressive and by creating a new generation of left-wing elected officials at all levels of government.

In doing so, he's asking people to channel their energies into a party that is designed not to listen to them, but to contain them.

The platform fight is mostly meaningless, as history shows--to take one example among many, every Democratic platform from 1976 through 1988 supported "universal health care," but the Democrats never lifted a finger to make anything of the sort happen.

The effort by Sanders delegates Cornel West and James Zogby to push the platform committee to condemn the Israeli occupation is an important political statement, bringing pro-Palestinian voices into the mainstream political discussion. But the odds are overwhelmingly against them, and all the debates of this July will have virtually no impact on what Hillary Clinton says about Israel on the campaign trail--or does as president.

After Sanders' speech on his plans for the "revolution," nearly 7,000 people reportedly signed up to run for political office. But like the many "Sanders Democrats" running for Congress--which include the Islamophobic Tulsi Gabbard and anti-Iran hawk Tim Canova--there seems to be no criteria for what makes these candidates particularly progressive.

Perhaps more importantly, there is no reason to think that these new Democrats will break from the pattern of previous generations that started out at least somewhat on the left of the party mainstream, but moved steadily to the right the further they climbed the party ladder.

Look no further than the Democrats who were being hailed as the party's new left wing just a year before Sanders started his presidential run. Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren refused to endorse Sanders for fear of damaging her own clout within the party, while New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio's biggest accomplishment seemingly is being a loyal servant to real estate developers.

The Democrats have long been "history's second-most enthusiastic capitalist party," as former Republican strategist Kevin Phillips once put it. Today, the Republican Party is dominated by cranks and reactionaries, so the Democrats are hoping to be promoted to Corporate America's A-Team--while still maintaining their traditional base among workers and people of color.

It's critical that the enormous differences between the party establishment and apparatus and those who vote for them are understood--both by Sanders supporters new to politics and those on the left who think the Democratic Party is wracked with divisions.

Hillary Clinton won 55 percent of the voter-based delegates, but 92 percent of the "superdelegates" made up of Democratic officeholders, apparatchiks and big donors. This isn't a divided party, as some on the left contended, but one that is remarkably united--against Sanders and all the hopes that his campaign represented for millions of voters.

The strategy of turning the Democratic Party into a left-wing vehicle is a hopeless task. This is the kernel of truth that always existed in the claim that the Sanders campaign was unrealistic--not because of its political message, but because of its hope of turning the Democrats into a party that would stand for those politics.

Anyone who wants to make a "political revolution" needs to try to do so by building actual left-wing parties and movements.

CREATING AN American left that's independent of the Democrats can also seem like an insurmountable task--and it would be one if our goal was to immediately win the next presidential election.

But our goals should extend beyond November--and beyond than running candidates for office, for that matter. They should be about building institutions that can support the strikes and protest movements like Occupy and Black Lives Matter that have erupted on the streets in recent years, but within the Democratic Party found only politicians looking to co-opt their language while neutering their content.

The question of building independent politics will be most clearly posed this fall by the Green Party presidential campaign of Jill Stein.

Many Sanders supporters are already planning to vote for Stein. Others, like Sean King of the New York Daily News, are talking about leaving the Democrats "after this election." But leaving the party means a lot more during the election--including committing to building an alternative.

Many Sanders supporters have defended his decision to run for the Democratic presidential nomination by noting that he wouldn't have received as much media attention had he ran as a political independent. That's true--but that could change in future elections with a strong Green vote this November.

If Stein got 5 percent of the vote--which would be an enormous leap, but not impossible given that a CNN poll has her currently at 7 percent, even though she still has little name recognition--the Greens would receive $10 million in funding for 2020 and automatic ballot access in many states. That's one concrete way to build toward a political revolution.

A strong Stein turnout would also send a message to activists and protest movements that we can find a political expression for our power outside the Democratic Party--that Palestine solidarity efforts are better spent building the BDS campaign than fighting for language in the platform of a party that is hostile to us, and that we're more likely to win a $15 an hour minimum wage by dogging Clinton on the campaign trail than negotiating with her representatives behind closed doors.

No matter how successful she is, Jill Stein's campaign can't be a substitute for the strikes, occupations, protests and more that are necessary to seriously challenge the agenda of both the Republican and Democratic Parties. But it could be an important step for shaping the people who can lead those fights.

In his semi-concession speech, Bernie Sanders said his campaign showed that "[o]ur vision for the future of this country is not some kind of fringe idea. It is not a radical idea. It is mainstream. It is what millions of Americans believe in and want to see happen."

He's right, and his success in showing the popularity of working-class demands for wealth redistribution will hopefully be the most important legacy of his campaign. It's up to us to build on that legacy and create the organizations independent of Sanders' chosen party that can be capable of winning those demands and more.

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