Beyond Bernie: What’s next for the left?

August 30, 2016

Bernie Sanders' campaign for president came to an end with the self-declared socialist calling on his supporters to back the choice of the Democratic Party establishment. But the campaign will have a continuing effect on the millions of people who were energized by Sanders' challenge to the U.S. political status quo--and by his open advocacy of socialism.

With the general election campaign underway, asked leading writers and activists for their thoughts on the aftermath of the Sanders campaign and the job of the left in the post-Sanders period. Here's what Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor, Bhaskar Sunkara, Jen Roesch, Sarah Jaffe, Howie Hawkins and Amy Muldoon had to say.

Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor

Author of From #BlackLivesMatter to Black Liberation

With each passing week, Donald Trump's presidential campaign reaches a new low, and the liberal establishment's coalescence around Hillary Clinton's candidacy becomes even firmer.

Of course, Trump is a frightening thug who should be relentlessly resisted, but the overwhelming focus on him threatens to give Hillary Clinton a blank check as president.

Since the two parties' conventions in July, Trump's unraveling has meant little attention has been paid to developments in the Clinton campaign. Not only have a rogue's gallery of war criminals come out to endorse her, but the campaign is actively soliciting the support of Republicans who are jumping Trump's sinking ship. The concerns of skeptical Sanders supporters are validated with each conservative embrace by Clinton's campaign.

But more troublesome than Clinton courting Republicans is how the crisis within the Republican Party apparatus is used to discipline liberals into passive complicity with Clinton's--sometimes anemic and other times reactionary--political program. The pressure to keep Trump out of office also works to silence people who would otherwise be wholly critical of Clinton's neoliberal political agenda.

Supporters of Bernie Sanders at a town meeting in Phoenix

For example, Clinton has promised to spend $120 billion to reinvest in urban centers with high unemployment and crumbling infrastructure. But on further review, what Clinton is actually promising is to create "empowerment zones" in these cities.

This is an old approach to urban reinvestment that gives massive tax breaks to corporations on the promise that they will create jobs. This, of course, has never worked in the 60 years that it has been proposed as a solution to urban problems.

Clinton, however, gets a pass because she is not Donald Trump. And the problem isn't just during the election, but that this passivity, if Clinton wins, will carry over into her presidency.

The pressure will be even greater once Clinton is in office to "give her time" to carry out her agenda. There are already stories being floated in the media by Clinton supporters about how difficult it will be for her to get parts of her agenda through a Republican-dominated Congress--including her much-touted pledge to raise taxes on the rich.

Sanders was denigrated as unserious for proposing universal health care and free public college tuition, but the idea that Clinton will convince Congress to hike taxes on the rich is pure fantasy.

The Democratic Party will then insist that we turn our attention to the midterm elections, just in time for a fresh crop of Republican boogeymen to arise, as a reminder to liberals that whatever faults Clinton may have, we must, once again, rally around her lukewarm campaign to stop the "greater evil."

And so the important work of building social movements is also delayed or put on hold while we work to continue to put Democrats in office in what we are always told is the "most important election of our lifetime."

This is a vicious cycle that has paralyzed the broad left from forming independent organizations and political parties that can weather the ups and downs of the election season.

It has also circumscribed our political imaginations in terms of what is possible in the realm of political struggle. Too often our conception of politics begins and ends with the question of which political candidate will cause the least harm, when what we really need to be asking is "how do we get free?"

This isn't to say that elections are unimportant, but we should also not overestimate their importance. The reason that most Americans don't vote is because voting in these elections has almost no impact on their day-to-day lives.

Millions of people in this country are already living in the nightmarish world we are told would be unleashed if Trump were to become president. Millions live in poverty; millions toil in underpaid service jobs; millions cannot afford health care coverage; millions suffer the indignity and terror of eviction and homelessness; millions live in fear of police abuse and violence; millions fear the turmoil of deportation and fractured families.

But these are the issues that are systematically ignored during election season, because in the contest to see who will run the American empire, the needs of the poor, oppressed and exploited aren't even secondary--they don't register at all.

And so the task of the existing left is to continue to build the developing movements against police terror, for immigrant rights, for workers' rights, for education justice and beyond. Not only do we have to build these movements in their own right, but we also must work harder to connect them and show how these issues all overlap and influence each other.

We need a larger movement in general to stop the roaring freight train of gross economic inequality, privatization and the impoverishment of millions of people in this country. Another world is possible, but we have to organize and fight for it.

Bhaskar Sunkara

Founding editor, Jacobin magazine

I think that fundamentally, the Sanders campaign was a huge triumph.

It may sound funny to say that at this moment, when a lot of people are rightly disappointed by Bernie Sanders' decision to endorse Hillary Clinton in such a full-throated way. But the reason why I supported Bernie Sanders from the beginning--and I obviously had disagreements with comrades in the International Socialist Organization and others on this issue--was because I thought a self-described democratic socialist pushing a social democratic program could open political space and possibilities.

I really think that's been accomplished. For one, we've shown that there's a real majority for our politics, and in the short term, for a social democratic program.

We've also shown that there is a fissure--and I think it's been opened further--within the Democratic Party between the base of the party, especially young people who supported Bernie Sanders, and the party establishment. Obviously, a lot of the wounds that were opened up will be healed by the relentless drive of lesser evilism to support Hillary Clinton and the fearmongering about the prospects of a Trump presidency.

Nonetheless, I think that things have shifted in a certain direction which will leave some sort of base to the left of Clintonite liberalism in the Democratic Party. And that base is our future constituency for any sort of left politics.

If you combine that with the development of social movements such as Black Lives Matter and of other activity such as within trade unions, there have been some promising developments. Thus, I think all of us can say that as of August 2016, the prospects for building a left and a socialist opposition in the United States is stronger than it was one year ago today.

That said, the success in energizing people around the Sanders campaign may not translate immediately and directly in marshaling all these people and directing them toward the left and various non-electoral struggles right away. Instead, it represents a kind of terrain for the left for some time to come. These people will be the raw material and a receptive audience for us to continually engage with over the next five or 10 years.

It's important that the left learn to relate to everyone. We have to figure out how to connect to the Bernie supporters who are following Sanders and will critically support Hillary Clinton. And I think it's very important to relate to young people who are basically saying, for lack of a better term, fuck it, and refusing to support any establishment candidate, whether they are voting for Jill Stein or are staying home,

I think we need to relate to all those people while trying to keep alive the vision of the politics we want, which is independent class organization. We have the opportunity to push that line wherever we can.

I think there's a real opportunity--particularly at the local level, in cities like New York and Chicago--to challenge Democrats. And it's there that I think we need to aggressively push against the idea that the Democratic Party can't be transformed and used in any shape or form.

Often, we rightly criticize attempts to transform the Democratic Party from within at the national level, so we rightly criticize, for example, Bernie Sanders' endorsement of Hillary Clinton. But I think it's a better use of the left's efforts to organize independent political challenges at the local level, because we can actually, in many places, run viable, competitive campaigns for the City Council or for state Senate, and challenge the Democrats there.

Jen Roesch contributor and member of the International Socialist Organization

Since the end of the primaries--and long before, actually--there has been a chorus of complaints from liberals about Bernie Sanders supporters who hesitated to fall in line behind Hillary Clinton. They have been derided as ridiculous, childish and entitled for failing to understand the realities of the system.

But their anger is fueled precisely by the fact that they do understand those realities.

Sanders spent the last year exposing the Democrats as a party of the wealthy and powerful. His supporters are right to be skeptical, even bitter, at the idea that a vote for Clinton will have any meaningful impact on their lives.

It isn't simply that Clinton is the candidate of Wall Street. The inequality in this country is so widely felt that people instinctively understand this election will do little to change things--even those who hope that Clinton will at least do less damage than Trump.

There is a growing sense that the "radical political change" dismissed as unrealistic by Sanders critics is the only solution to the multiple crises we face. It is this deeper vein of anger--one that goes far beyond this election cycle--that Sanders tapped into. But for the generation of Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter, the Sanders campaign wasn't its first attempt to fight for that change.

The last five years have seen many struggles that emerged seemingly out of nowhere, but receded just as quickly. It has been difficult to translate these into sustained movements capable of winning lasting reforms, let alone posing a challenge to the system. But they have had a cumulative impact on consciousness.

The Sanders campaign amplified this, but it also gave it a language--that of socialism. Interest in socialism has been growing for years, but few could have predicted how forcefully it would burst onto the political stage this year. Even if Sanders' socialism is far from my vision of socialism from below, for millions of people, it has created a new way of thinking about the problems we face.

This provides a framework for talking about the interconnected nature of our struggles and the potential for solidarity. By putting forward demands for the redistribution of wealth, it can provide a bridge between the massive anger that people feel and the kinds of struggles that could bring them into organized activity.

But the question remains: With Sanders abandoning his call for a "political revolution" and joining in the celebration of Democratic Party unity, where do we go next?

Many people, including Sanders himself, believe we should draw the lesson that a socialist came close to winning the Democratic presidential nomination, and we should focus on running other progressive candidates.

But despite running arguably the most successful insurgent campaign the Democratic Party has seen, Sanders was unable to shift the Democratic Party's 2016 presidential campaign and message even slightly to the left.

Instead, Clinton boasts about her endorsements from war criminals, campaigns for Republicans votes and assures Wall Street that she is their best friend. Sanders has been relegated to using his popularity to shore up the left vote for everything he campaigned against.

To build on the radical potential of Sanders' campaign, we must break from the Democrats. Jill Stein's Green Party campaign is an important opportunity to register opposition to a system that tells us we deserve nothing better than the lesser of two evils.

But the most important steps lie outside the electoral arena. This year showed that there are massive numbers of people open to socialism who aren't yet organized. We need to bring them into discussion and activity. Those who were inspired by Sanders are, in many ways, the potential future of a new socialist movement in this country.

But there is nothing inevitable about the conclusions people draw from their experiences--whether they become active and are convinced that their own self-activity is indispensable. The process of discussion, debate and organization is critical.

The austerity, racism and repression that have driven the radicalization haven't gone away. They will continue to deepen, regardless of who wins the election. Fighting these will require sustained, democratic struggles involving masses of people around concrete demands. It will also require stronger and larger socialist organizations that can provide an alternative to the system as a whole.

None of this will be easy to accomplish. But we do know the best aspirations raised by Sanders' campaign can't be realized through the Democratic Party. The goal of the left should be to engage this new generation and create a political home for those who are ready to fight.

Sarah Jaffe

Journalist and author of Necessary Trouble: Americans in Revolt

In the last week or so, I've had several conversations with people who had spent a lot of time and energy on the Sanders campaign, wondering where to go next.

It's a fair question. Presidential elections suck up all the air in the political space for the years that they take up, and as big donors spend more and more money on them, they expand to take up more and more time.

But actually, I think the most important work is done outside of the presidential arena. Sanders stepped into a space that had been created by tens of thousands of movement activists around the country, striking workers and Occupiers, and members of the movement for Black lives, and articulated something that had been in the air: Capitalism is not working for most people.

I think it's worth saying that any campaign you put your heart into that loses will leave you feeling the need to grieve. That's a human response.

But after that, where do we go? The genie, as they say, isn't going back in the bottle. The anger and frustration and, most of all, hope for something better that people are feeling, the raised expectations, are still here, and they need to go somewhere.

That might be into local elections in cities and towns like the one where I live in New York's Hudson Valley, where the energy that Sanders tapped into can go into making real change on a community level, electing people who see outside of the narrow choices that are on offer.

But more importantly, at least in my opinion, that energy can go into existing movements or into creating a new political force within the community that demands better of the power structures that exist.

People who just began to think about the way power is wielded in the workplace can come together to support workers struggles, walk picket lines, adopt stores as groups did during the Verizon workers strike. The demand for free college can go into organizing around student debt and for reinvestment in public higher education.

As the Affordable Care Act (ACA) continues to stumble and to be insufficient, Sanders' call for single-payer health care can be renewed on a state level and in a national push for a public option, which is once again on the public mind as yet another private insurer pulls out of the ACA exchanges.

Even as the Sanders campaign grew and won millions of votes, plenty of movement activists continued to do work that had nothing to do with the presidential race.

Around the country, organizers with the movement for Black lives worked on local issues, defeated prosecutors who gave carte blanche to police who kill and also put together a platform, the Vision for Black Lives, that lays out demands for a truly free society, one in which not only state violence, but the economic violence of capitalism comes to an end.

The Sanders campaign was something we should understand as another iteration of the social movements that have rocked the U.S. and the world in the last several years.

It was not the beginning of the political revolution, and it will not be the end, as I have said elsewhere. But like every other part of the struggle that has happened, it has brought in new people who are frustrated with the world as it is and ready to take some risks to make it better.

Regardless of how they vote in November, what really matters is that they find ways to connect to the struggles that will continue no matter who is in the White House.

Howie Hawkins

Green Party member and former Green candidate for governor of New York

The Sanders campaign revealed two realities that demonstrated the socialist left can build an independent mass party of the left.

First, the big Sanders vote demonstrated mass support for progressive social and economic policies. Second, the 2.5 million contributors who gave $230 million to Sanders' campaign in small contributions revealed that the ordinary people will finance a political movement for progressive change on a scale that can compete with corporate candidates of the two-party system.

The Democratic Party will be a graveyard for Sanders' demands. The Democratic Party is not only ideologically capitalist; it is structurally capitalist. The real power structure of the Democratic Party is a shifting coalition of entrepreneurial candidates and their campaign organizations that compete for donations (investments) from the corporate rich.

These campaign organizations trump party committees and platforms. Democratic candidates and politicians owe their investors, not formal party structures. If Sanders supporters enter this swamp, they will lose their very identity as an alternative.

The other swamp to avoid is a retreat to single-issue movements that try to pressure, instead of replace, the politicians of the two-corporate-party system.

The nonprofit industrial complex is another capitalist market where professional staffs compete for foundation and government grants whose ultimate source of funding is rich corporate donors to the foundations and the politicians. The power over who gets the grants pacifies these advocacy organizations, reducing them to supporting and lobbying Democrats for minor ameliorations. It is a divide-and-rule process that pits issues and constituencies against each other.

The Sanders campaign demonstrated that there is a mass base for a different kind of politics--for a mass-membership party where party candidates and leaders are accountable to the membership and the platform they approve. Such a party can participate in or initiate movements demanding reforms with significant resources and organization that are accountable to a popular base, not corporate funders.

The mass-membership party, where formal members are organized into locals and finance the party with their dues, was an invention of the socialist left in the late 19th century. It was how the workers' movement and its small farmer allies were able to build movements to win the universal franchise, to organize labor unions and cooperatives, and to effectively compete in elections against the older top-down parties of the landed and business elites that were based on their legislative caucuses and wealthy sponsors rather than a formal membership with democratic rights in their party.

The Democrats and Republicans are organized on the old top-down model favored by business elites. It is time to organize a democratic mass-membership party in opposition.

Supporting the Green Party presidential campaign of Jill Stein and Ajamu Baraka should be next step in building a mass-membership party and the next step for Sanders supporters who want the "political revolution" to continue. A sizable Green vote will yield real gains.

First, the Green campaign is fulfilling the traditional influential role of left third parties in American politics, which is to force popular demands that the two major parties are ignoring on to the legislative agenda. The Stein-Baraka campaign is keeping the Sanders' domestic program in the national debate and adding the crucial missing piece in Sanders program, an anti-imperialist foreign policy.

Second, there are 37 state ballots where the Greens are up for qualification, needing 1 to 3 percent of the vote in most of those states. These ballots can be used by local candidates for municipal, county, state and federal office in coming elections. Most electoral districts in the U.S. are one-party districts due to bipartisan gerrymandering of safe seats for members of both corporate parties. The minority major party doesn't compete seriously, if at all, in most of these districts. A left third party, with a relatively small core of activists, can quickly become the second party, the primary opposition party, in these districts and determine the policy debate.

Third, 5 percent of the vote qualifies the Green Party for public funding in the 2020 presidential general election. It starts at about $10 million for 5 percent and increases the higher the vote.

Fourth, the experience, organization and supporter lists developed in canvassing voters in support of the Stein-Baraka ticket can be used to build local movements and party organizations starting right after the November 8 election. The fight to defeat Trans-Pacific Partnership in the lame duck session of Congress begins on November 9. The process of building a mass party of the left from the bottom up continues right after the election.

Amy Muldoon

Communications Workers of America member at Verizon and shop steward in New York City

The strike of 39,000 union members at Verizon in April and May got an invigorating boost from the attention that Bernie Sanders brought to it with his presidential campaign. But the strike in turn contributed something critical to the discussion of socialism that Sanders helped opened up: class struggle.

The Sanders campaign highlighted the progressive role that government could play in curtailing corporate greed and closing the wealth gap, but our strike showed how ordinary people could directly confront--and stop--the bosses' assault on our living standards.

Since the strike, I've had the opportunity to speak to multiple audiences about how and why we were able to win. What I've seen is a serious interest in class politics, especially from young people who form the heart of the Sanders demographic.

However, people coming to politics today don't have the experience or exposure to strikes and class struggle that earlier generations did. Unfortunately, there isn't a wave of copycat strikes that can push a discussion forward about class power as the avenue for challenging the bosses and politicians that work for them.

I don't think the radicalization that drove the Sanders campaign will evaporate, but it could go in many different directions.

Within the labor movement, the pointless loyalty to the Democrats is as thick as ever at the national leadership level. My union, the Communications Workers of America, was probably the largest labor organization to endorse Sanders. There was widespread support for Sanders, some of it very enthusiastic. The feeling that finally someone was talking class politics and actually walking the walk inspired more interest in the election than I've seen in years.

Since Clinton won the nomination, I've seen a lot of frustration with the attitude coming from the leadership--and liberal forces everywhere--that we have to vote for Clinton. More politically savvy members see voting for Clinton as a short-term stop in a longer fight to turn the Democrats back into a "party of the people."

I doubt Clinton will have any kind of "honeymoon," given how disliked she is pre-election. The strike and the Sanders campaign raised people's expectations, and I don't think you can put that genie back in the bottle. The nomination process may have blunted some of the optimism that the campaign inspired, but it sharpened the anger and clarity among a portion of Bernie supporters.

Unfortunately, the unions tend to be some of the most loyal adherents to the Democratic Party machine. Rumor has it that unions left the Working Families Party (WFP) in New York after the CWA--a driving force within the WFP--endorsed Sanders, even though Sanders voted with the Democratic Party line as an independent in the Senate more than many formal party members.

There has been a wave of leadership changes across local unions in the last five years, but the Democrats are still hegemonic, even among reformers. Assuming Clinton wins, she can expect a rocky term of office. Will the unions sit on the sidelines during protests? When, not if, the Trans-Pacific Partnership economic deal is approved, how will unions react?

We can't answer these questions today, but we know the dissatisfaction with establishment politics that was exposed during the Sanders campaign lives on. Within the labor movement, this inevitably raises questions not only about the status quo in formal politics, but organizing the unorganized and negotiating contracts.

Raised expectations can turn into real change, if the left continues to transmit the lessons of actions like the Verizon strike to the broadest audience.

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