Taking down the revolution?

August 31, 2016

Can Bernie Sanders' "down-ballot" strategy succeed in transforming the Democratic Party? Paul Fleckenstein explains from Vermont why the chances are slim and none.

AT THE Democratic convention in July, Bernie Sanders upset some of his most devoted supporters with his wholehearted endorsement of Hillary Clinton--and his attempt, not always successful, to keep rebellious delegates in line behind the Democratic Party's presidential nominee.

But Sanders says he still stands for the "political revolution" he called for when he was opposing Hillary Clinton--and to carry it out, he founded the nonprofit organization Our Revolution to "reclaim democracy" by "harnessing the transformative energy of the 'political revolution.'" According to Our Revolution's website:

Through supporting a new generation of progressive leaders, empowering millions to fight for progressive change and elevating the political consciousness, Our Revolution will transform American politics to make our political and economic systems once again responsive to the needs of working families.

Our Revolution isn't a revolutionary idea. Its goals and strategies resemble several other PACs and nonprofits, some of them also associated with failed presidential campaigns derailed by the Democratic Party apparatus: Democracy for America, founded during Howard Dean's 2004 campaign for the nomination; the Progressive Congressional Change Committee, formed to support the so-called "Warren wing" of the party; and Progressive Democrats of America, set up during the Bush years "to transform the Democratic Party and our country"; to name a couple.

Bernie Sanders speaks at a press conference to launch his Our Revolution organization
Bernie Sanders speaks at a press conference to launch his Our Revolution organization

Like Our Revolution, these groups are focused on remaking the Democratic Party--reclaiming it from pro-corporate centrists like Hillary Clinton and turning it into a vehicle of progressive change.

Central to the strategy is the formation of "a new generation of progressive leaders" by focusing on "down-ballot" elections--lower-profile contests at the national, state and especially local level. The idea is to build up liberal forces over time by winning elections at different levels, including against more conservative Democrats.

But "down-ballot" is no way up for the left. Both the history of similar previous efforts and current developments with Our Revolution show the problem with a strategy of the left attempting to transform the Democratic Party from the bottom up.

OUR REVOLUTION certainly has cache as an expression of mass voter support for Sanders' progressive agenda, but it's important to recognize that this doesn't mean it's a democratic organization. Though Our Revolution and groups like it sell themselves as grassroots and movement-based, they are typically top-down initiatives, founded by political figures and operatives connected to the Democratic Party for years.

In fact, Our Revolution's mid-August launch was tarnished by the resignation of four key staffers who disagreed Sanders' decision to focus on traditional campaign tactics such as ad buys, as opposed to on-the-ground organizing.

This ties the organization from the start to an insider logic of conventional electoral organization and behind-the-scenes political calculation, and away from mass involvement.

The contradiction between such an insider logic and the popular character of the Sanders challenge in the primaries is important to bear in mind.

Sanders won an audience of millions of people because his message challenged the status quo at the national and international level. His chances of actually winning the nomination were always very small, but one main reason for the excitement Sanders generated is that he proposed a left-wing alternative on major issues such as health care, workers' rights and even the nature of political system itself.

The politics of "down-ballot" elections are decidedly more pedestrian. Political revolution simply isn't on the agenda in a race for City Council or the state legislature.

Indeed, the nature of these elections pushes candidates, no matter how progressive, to narrow their focus, not broaden it.

For one thing, only smaller reforms are achievable at these lower rungs of government, even when it's clear that the real struggle has to be in a bigger arena. A liberal City Council member can propose to increase access to health care for the poor with a local initiative, but the only effective and lasting solution to the problem requires taking on the whole health care industry.

The narrow focus on local issues is far less inspiring to those who really want a political revolution--and it contributes to undermining the possibilities of achieving progress on those issues.

In Vermont, for example, a multiyear campaign for a single-payer health care system within the state won wide support, but its main organizers stayed silent on the pro-corporate character of Barack Obama's health care law--which made it that much harder to resist when the state's top Democrats ultimately refused to pursue a reform that was rejected by the party's business backers.

THERE'S A more practical and immediate problem with a narrow focus in down-ballot races: Focusing on broader questions, especially when they involve criticizing the national Democratic Party, usually means confronting hostile local leaders of the party, who have the power to harass and block progressives.

This brings us to another in-built contradiction of Our Revolution's strategy: Sanders and his organization want to transform a pro-corporate party that is structured to stop such efforts.

During this year's primary campaign, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) showed how far it would go to defend Hillary Clinton, the anointed choice of party leaders and corporate donors, from the Sanders challenge, as WikiLeaks proved with its revelation of DNC e-mails.

The DNC stands at the top of a party structure--consisting officially and openly, as well as through informal networks and backroom deals--that extends all the way down to the local level. The job of this structure and the officials who staff it is to vet and groom candidates for political office--which gives them the power to shape elections and influence who wins.

For those who toe the party line when it matters, there is a gravy train of political favors, political appointments, fundraising advantages, media attention and endorsements.

Progressive candidates can defy these incentives, but at the cost of weakening their chances of accomplishing what they set out to do--which pushes them toward a "go along to get along" attitude.

The party hierarchy doesn't have the ability--nor the interest--in keeping all progressives from winning down the ballot. But it does have the ability to enforce accommodation to the party's general objectives and priorities for candidates who want to advance their political careers.

Consider another example from Vermont: Our Revolution has endorsed Tim Ashe, a four-term state senator who has run as a candidate of both the Progressive Party and Democratic Party. Ashe rose to office as a supporter of single-payer health care.

But when the state Democratic establishment betrayed its promise to pursue a state single-payer system, Ashe agreed with them, siding with Democratic Gov. Peter Shumlin in killing single-payer because it "will put small business out of business."

Rather than remain responsible to the movement that pressured the Democrats to take up real health care reform and defend its demands, Ashe aligned with party and business interests. Without doing this, he likely would not maintain his chairmanship of the state Senate Finance Committee.

ANOTHER QUESTION arises in looking at other candidates being endorsed by Our Revolution: Just how progressive are these progressives?

Many of those listed as Our Revolution candidates are familiar figures from the liberal wing of the Democratic Party, but even they should give the left reason to ask questions. For example, Rep. Tulsi Gabbard, who put Sanders' name in nomination at the July convention, is a right-wing critic of Barack Obama's foreign policy based on an Islamophobic defense of the war on terror. Rep. Tim Canova, who Sanders supported in a bid to unseat former DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz, is an anti-Iran hawk and vocal proponent of Israel.

These two examples reveal a significant weakness on issues of war and peace among those on the liberal side of the Democratic Party.

While the Democrats allow a range of positions on domestic issues, there is generally a stronger consensus around support for the U.S. military, the military-industrial complex and Washington's imperial alliances--even though the U.S. war machine is one of the main obstacles to any proposal for domestic reforms, even if the Democrats were willing to fight for them.

Vermont has firsthand experience of the Democrats' dogged defense of the empire. While a handful of more progressive Democrats verbally opposed the basing of the F-35 bomber in Burlington, not a single one joined the grassroots anti-basing movement in protesting and pressuring Sen. Patrick Leahy--the quintessential defender of the status quo and main Democratic power broker in the state--to reverse his decisive backroom support for this boondoggle.

Stopping the F-35 was only going to happen as a result of militant protests. But that would have exposed the Democrats' ties to military contractors and muddied the liberal image of Leahy and state party leaders--something no Democrat was willing to commit to.

THERE IS another test of the "down-ballot" strategy: Have liberal Democrats of the past gotten closer to achieving their goals when they won local elections and increased their presence in the lower ranks of the party? Though the example differs in some respects, the rise of the Black Democrats in the 1970s and after is instructive.

In the era after the civil rights movement won its main victories, the Democratic Party was transformed from the party of the Jim Crow South to the party that embraced a rising group of Black political leaders. There were just 100 Black elected officials around the U.S. in 1964, According to the late historian Manning Marable--by 1975, there were 3,000. Almost all of these African American officeholders were liberal Democrats, including former civil rights and Black Power activists who turned from "protest to politics."

Starting with Richard Hatcher in Gary, Indiana, and Carl Stokes in Cleveland, Black Democrats won the mayor's office in major U.S. cities. As Lee Sustar wrote for Socialist Worker:

Wilson Goode in Philadelphia, Harold Washington in Chicago, Coleman Young in Detroit, Maynard Jackson and Andrew Young in Atlanta and others got the enthusiastic backing of African Americans who believed their rise signaled both a blow to the racism of the Democratic Party machines that ran most big U.S. cities and an opportunity for Blacks to finally get their interests served.

But the reality is that these mayors ended up presiding over cuts and austerity. Republican President Ronald Reagan was instituting huge cutbacks in federal aid to cities--such as the virtual elimination of support for public housing. This forced Black mayors and other elected officials to cut the social services that Black neighborhoods needed most, usually while beefing up law enforcement. While formally liberal, Black elected officials were compelled to become administrators of right-wing social policies.

The politics of the Black Democrats were affected as well. However genuine their motives and radical their starting point, they had to temper and tailor their political agenda if they hoped to take advantage of the opportunities offered by being a candidate of the Democratic Party.

As From #Black Lives Matter to Black Liberation author Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor wrote, their allegiance to corporate, financial, and law-and-order interests was "the price of admission into the ranks of the political establishment."

The Black Democrats were very successful in using "down-ballot" elections to win a place inside the Democratic Party. But rather than an advance in challenging the status quo of poverty, police abuse, de-industrialization and poverty, their success left them powerless to make the kind of changes they promised to enact.

Worse, the most progressive figures in the Democratic Party were put in the position of defending a rightward-moving status quo. Thus, during the 1990s, rather than challenge the law-and-order agenda of President Bill Clinton that set in motion the era of mass incarceration, members of the Congressional Black Caucus were proponents of it.

As Taylor concludes in her book:

After 40 years of this electoral strategy, Black elected officials inability to alter the poverty, unemployment, and housing and food insecurity their Black constituents face casts significant doubt on the existing electoral system as a viable vehicle for Black liberation.

THE PEOPLE's historian Howard Zinn famously said that "the really critical thing isn't who is sitting in the White House, but who is sitting in--in the streets, in the cafeterias, in the halls of government, in the factories. Who is protesting, who is occupying offices and demonstrating--those are the things that determine what happens."

The biggest political changes in the U.S. were accomplished not by the election of a few political leaders, but the mobilization of masses of working-class people in strikes, protests, occupations and political actions of all kinds. During the labor upsurge of the 1930s and the social struggles of the 1960s and '70s, Democrats--whether at the national or local levels--were often on the wrong side.

Many of those who advocate a down-ballot strategy recognize the importance of protest and resistance--though it must be said that in Vermont, Bernie Sanders has a reputation among activists for staying removed from grassroots struggles.

Their calls to transform the Democratic Party from inside often include a reference to some sort of inside-outside strategy. But the focus on winning elections and operating inside the party leads them toward an entirely inside strategy.

For political leaders, the legislative "process" of compromise to get things done, backroom alliances, soliciting donations and support for future campaigns, and the like does far more to determine their political views than their initial aspirations, whatever they might have been.

This is why it is so commonplace for activists involved in a particular struggle to encounter elected leaders who claim to agree with them, but who urge moderation, patience and compromise. Those attitudes are engrained in them by their participation in the Democratic Party and the political system.

This is why maintaining political independence is so important. When movements fighting for higher wages, affordable housing, health care or environmental justice connect their efforts with campaigns to elect Democrats, they end up curbing their goals and demands to meet requirements of political leaders, not the other way around.

That's true whether those leaders are running for national or local office. The down-ballot strategy won't bring us closer to a "political revolution"--it will take us further away from the kind of struggles and movements that can achieve real change.

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