Keeping the system safe from democracy

The Democratic Party has a long record of trying to crush any radical alternatives.

The Democratic Party

2016 IS going to be the year of the outsider.

At least that's what the insiders of the Washington political system are saying and writing these days. Truth be told, their definition of "outside" might not be the same as most of you reading this article.

Still, if you look at who's making news in the early stages of the presidential election campaign--still more than a year away from the general election--the insiders might seem to have a point.

For the Republicans, it's Donald Trump and Ben Carson--a blustering windbag and a right-wing crank who express some of the very worst xenophobia and hate that right-wing politicians have to offer. But they're getting a hearing among a section of voters drawn to their anti-establishment pose.

As for the Democrats, their outsider in the presidential primary race, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, has a lot better claim to the label.

The avowed socialist is putting his claim to political independence in question by running for the presidential nomination of a party that is very much inside the U.S. bipartisan establishment. Nevertheless, Sanders is inspiring excitement from millions of people drawn to his message condemning economic inequality, environmental destruction and all the other injustices generated by the political status quo.

The sentiment in support of someone outside Washington politics is so great that even Hillary Clinton got into the act. At the Democratic candidates' debate in October, she called herself the ultimate outsider--because she's a woman.

It is a disgraceful fact of U.S. history that no woman has ever been president, nor even the presidential candidate of either major party. But Clinton is no outsider. As Secretary of State, U.S. senator and Democratic Party power broker before, during and after her husband Bill Clinton's presidency, she's a consummate insider of what Ralph Nader calls the two-party duopoly. In fact, she's counting on her insider status to ensure that she wins the Democratic nomination this time around.

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IT SHOULD be no surprise that voters might want a change from the narrow Washington status quo--especially with the ever-lengthening presidential election season already upon us and its constant reminders of the role of big money and corporate influence on both parties.

Political fundraising used to be a dark secret of American politics, mainly tracked by campaign finance watchdog groups. Now, it's featured as front-page news by the New York Times.

A Times report earlier this year revealed that fewer than 400 families are responsible for almost half the money raised during the 2016 presidential campaign so far. That's "a concentration of political donors that is unprecedented in the modern era," the paper pointed out. "Big donors are not only patrons of the candidates but also confidantes, with great access to the candidates--and, sometimes, business before them."

But there are other reasons for the discontent with two-party status quo. Among the Democratic Party's loyal base, the last seven years of Barack Obama in the White House have reinforced an ongoing desire for something beyond the choices offered by the establishment.

Obama, who also claimed the "outsider" label when he ran for president, was elected on a wave of hope that he would transform Washington politics after eight long years of the Bush administration's imperialist wars and giveaways to Corporate America.

But for the vast majority of working people, the Obama administration didn't deliver. Corporate America enjoyed a strong recovery from the recession of 2008-09 on the strength of increasing workers' productivity, while workers' wages and living standards declined. The betrayals were particularly punishing for Black America, which has also endured a spreading epidemic of police violence--with precious few answers coming from the administration of the first Black president.

Joe Biden's announcement in October that he won't be running for president in 2016 has cemented the idea that Clinton will be the corporate-anointed Democratic presidential nominee, barring some unexpected collapse or scandal.

That dismal prospect helps explain the enthusiastic response to the Sanders campaign. But we don't need an "outsider" inside the Democratic Party--we don't need a political "independent" who has promised not to be a genuinely independent "spoiler."

We need another party. The real obstacle to getting the issues that working people care about on the table during election season--much less acted on afterward--is a political system limited to two parties dominated by the same ruling elite.

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THE DEMOCRATIC Party has fiercely defended the rule of this two-party duopoly, campaigning ruthlessly to shut down any alternative to its left at any number of points in its history.

During the mass labor rebellion of the 1930s, growing numbers of radicalized workers--frustrated with the betrayals of Democratic politicians who called out the National Guard to attack strikes, even as they claimed to take the side of unions--were drawn to the idea of creating a labor party to represent working-class interests. According to a 1937 Gallup poll, more than one in every five people surveyed supported such a party.

The Democratic Party and its loyal supporters among union leaders set out to crush this sentiment.

When the newly formed United Auto Workers (UAW) union voted to support the creation of a farmer-labor party, leaders of the Congress of Industrial Organizations (CIO) federation intervened quickly so as not to risk defeat for Democrat Franklin Roosevelt. CIO leaders threatened to take away the UAW's funding for organizing the auto industry if it didn't rescind the delegates' vote and back Roosevelt instead. The UAW leaders complied.

To this day, the U.S. does not have a labor party--something commonplace in many other countries around the world. Because of this, the Democrats can use organized labor's ritual support to help them pose as the "party of workers," without having to provide much in return.

Another example: As the global justice movement emerged at the end of the 1990s, consumer advocate Ralph Nader ran for president as the Green Party candidate, reflecting the mood of the protest movement that coined the slogan "Another world is possible." The Nader campaign was an electoral expression of the protests and staked its ground as a political alternative to the two-party duopoly.

The Democrats fought this rise of a genuinely independent alternative every step of the way--and when they couldn't motivate their liberal base to vote for the far-from-inspiring Al Gore, they relied on the threat of what a George W. Bush presidency would look like. Their motto in 2000 and 2004 was "A vote for Nader is a vote for Bush."

The party establishment used every trick, but they couldn't stop Nader's 2000 campaign from winning 2.7 percent of the vote, the strongest showing for a left-wing presidential candidate in half a century.

The Democrats blamed Nader for Gore's defeat--even after it was confirmed that Bush had stolen the election by making sure that votes for Gore were left uncounted in Florida. The Democrats could have fought Bush and the Republicans--but decided they would rather let the GOP steal the White House than challenge the vote and undermine the legitimacy of the "world's greatest democracy." Ralph Nader was the convenient scapegoat.

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THE HISTORICAL record is clear: When confronted with truly "outside" campaigns, the Democrats try to crush them.

More often than not, however, simply threatening voters with the prospect of a Republican in the White House is enough to keep most loyal Democratic voters from going astray--and 2016 is shaping up to be one of those kinds of years, as the stable of Republican contenders proves to be more frightening every day.

Bernie Sanders deserves credit for putting issues like class inequality and ecological devastation at the forefront of political discussion. The popularity of his campaign exposes the huge gap between mainstream politics in the U.S. and what ordinary people think and believe.

A comparison of recent opinion polls showing what people think about socialism seems to illustrate the impact of a socialist getting the national spotlight. In May, when the pollster YouGov asked what people thought about socialism and capitalism, the Democrats surveyed favored the two systems about equally: 43 percent each. In October, YouGov asked the same question, and socialism was winning out among Democrats by 49 to 37 percent.

The Sanders campaign has shown that there's an audience for radical ideas and an opening for organizing an independent left-wing alternative to the Democratic Party. The problem is that Sanders isn't helping to organize such an alternative. However different he may seem to Hillary Clinton, Sanders has thrown in his lot with the Democratic Party--and promised he'll stay committed to them through November 2016.

We need a left that stands for an alternative in the here and now. In the electoral arena, that means supporting genuine left-wing candidates--the Greens' Jill Stein is running again for the party's presidential nomination on the basis of challenging the political status quo.

Supporting an electoral alternative has to go hand in hand with building social struggles and resistance to inequality and injustice in U.S. society.

In 2012, Chicago teachers stood with students and parents to battle what seemed like an unstoppable drive for profit over people, exposing the real priorities of Democratic Mayor Rahm Emanuel, and showing that they could bring the city to a standstill. In 2014, the residents of Ferguson, Missouri, rebelled against the killing of Mike Brown and drew the attention of the world to the epidemic of racist police violence defended by a bipartisan political establishment.

Struggles like these can help challenge political power far beyond the electoral arena--and create a climate in which a political alternative can be built.