Is it really “Our Revolution”?

September 13, 2016

Daniel Werst writes about a launch meeting for Bernie Sanders' "Our Revolution" in New Orleans and what it reveals about the new organization.

PAUL FLECKENSTEIN'S recent article provided a valuable analysis of the "down-ballot" strategy that Bernie Sanders has supported in his newly launched non-profit organization Our Revolution ("Taking down the revolution?").

I attended the kickoff night meeting for Our Revolution in New Orleans, and I believe the debate that took place among participants connects directly to the criticisms raised in Fleckenstein's article.

On August 24, staff, volunteers and supporters from Sanders' campaign for the Democratic nomination organized local meetings across the U.S., inviting contacts and friends of friends from their mailing lists and activist networks to join this new political organization. Each meeting tuned in to watch a LiveStream broadcast of Bernie Sanders giving a speech to a small audience of supporters in Vermont about his goals for influencing politics after losing to and endorsing Hillary Clinton for president.

The New Orleans Our Revolution meeting was made up of about 20 people, most of whom had been strong supporters of Sanders' campaign.

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Virtually all of the attendees spoke heatedly before the meeting began about their anger at Hillary Clinton's politics and discussed different opinions about Sanders' endorsement.

Before Sanders' speech, we had time for a few introductions, and Aaron, who was leading the meeting, asked for an informal poll: "Who considers themselves a socialist?" A majority of the room raised our hands, including the speaker, who explained that he was a member of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA)--and later that he was inviting people to join that organization as well as Our Revolution.

But when we began discussing Hillary Clinton, Aaron made clear that the position of Our Revolution was already decided by the central leadership from the Sanders campaign, and not subject to debate by its membership, which was just about to be formed. Justifying this, he indicated that the organization was committed to supporting Clinton in order to take "an anti-fascist position" against Donald Trump.

MANY SW readers will have heard or read about what Sanders said in his kick-off speech. While this speech paid homage to mass struggles of U.S. history like the civil rights movement and the struggle for women's voting rights, the meat of the address made clear that the focus of Our Revolution would be centered on supporting the election campaigns of around 100 selected candidates for local, state and congressional office.

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This is the "down-ballot" campaign strategy. Sanders' speech did not explain at all what campaign promises these candidates would be expected to make. It was clear that at least the vast majority of them would be running in the Democratic Party, but this issue was never openly discussed. There was no discussion of the existence of Green Party or the fact that many of Sanders' own supporters have come out in support of the Green Party presidential candidate Jill Stein since the primaries ended.

Candidates marked as "progressive" by Our Revolution have been chosen and will be chosen without any open debate by the membership. Incidentally, while you can donate $10 or, if you have it handy, $1,000 to Our Revolution or go to one of its meetings (the New Orleans organizer suggested vaguely that the group might hold meetings once a month here), there is no formal list of members, rules for membership or rules for making any decisions by members' votes.

The results of this undemocratic selection process were clear the day after the official launch on August 25. Our Revolution sponsored a public meeting in Albany, New York, to support selected "progressive candidates" in various elections in the state. The organization invited Mike Derrick to attend.

Derrick is the Democrat in a three-way race for a congressional seat in the upstate 21st district. He is running against sitting Republican Elise Stefanik and Green Party candidate Matt Funiciello. He was also a registered Republican voter until 2015, when he switched registrations for this campaign.

Our Revolution refused to allow the Green Party candidate to speak to its members and supporters, despite the fact that he won 11 percent in the last election and is campaigning for "a $15 an hour living wage, single-payer health care, a 100 percent renewable energy grid, a massive government public works program to get us to full employment, and the need to end our imperial wars." The organization told Funiciello he was banned from attending because his campaign was "aggressive and divisive."

THE CRITICISM of the down-ballot strategy can be summed up in a few points. As Fleckenstein wrote, "Sanders and his organization want to transform a pro-corporate party that is structured to stop such efforts." Attempting to change the party "from within" means proving loyalty to it--avoiding criticism even if it is factually and politically deserved in order to convince people to vote for Democratic candidates.

This issue came up in our local meeting when one participant, who indicated he planned to safe-state vote for Stein, argued that in a two-party system, radicals have no choice but to enter one of the parties and transform it to support their political demands.

Focusing on lower-level elections means reducing debate about seriously changing the system since individual legislators and state and local politicians don't have the power to demand major reforms such as universal publicly funded health care, major tax increases on the rich or the disarmament of the police.

Meanwhile, working as a support group within the Democratic Party while the existing leadership is in power means that seriously criticizing the party's candidates and policies will lead to a backlash against the support group or its "progressive" Democratic politicians.

Therefore, there are major incentives to tone down demands and support the decisions of the party leaders. As Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor put it, there is a "price of admission" to being in the Democratic Party.

The central political issues touched on in Sanders' speech were college tuition costs and health care.

On tuition, he assured viewers that Democratic leaders are now "talking about" creating free tuition to public colleges. The idea was not even acknowledged that state governments, many of them Democratic, have been rapidly raising college tuition for several decades, and this is not likely to be reversed due to verbal promises in an awkward moment during a presidential election. Governors, legislatures, university presidents and indeed Hillary Clinton are unlikely to willingly hand billions of dollars back to students.

Sanders insisted in his speech that the 2016 Democratic platform is the "most progressive ever" and dismissed those who suggest it will not be followed. He did not comment on the many planks in past Democratic platforms that have been ignored. Nor did he comment on how the bureaucratic drafting process was used to block planks he proposed against fracking and the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP).

On health care, Sanders first acknowledged that Clinton does not support single-payer public health care funding. (In fact, she openly mocked his supporters for believing in it.) But he told viewers of his speech that Clinton has "agreed" with him to double federal funding for community primary health care clinics. And he concluded positively that this would lead to virtually universal "primary" health care access.

This kind of political promise means demanding that activists across the U.S. give up our demands and accept the dubious promise of much smaller reforms. First, we are supposed to accept the validity of non-binding promises in an election against everything we know about Clinton's position on health care.

A few years ago, patients and activists were outraged when Chicago mayor Rahm Emanuel, a close ally of Hillary Clinton and the Democratic leadership, suddenly shut down six of the 12 public mental health clinics in the city. Here is a case where, with lost state funding and damage from years of decreased service, the promised doubling of federal money for clinics would not even repair the harm of recent cutbacks, even if the promise is kept.

This is not a promise meant to improve public health care resources. It is a fig leaf for Clinton's actual support for private insurance companies, private hospital chains, and private pharmaceutical corporations that profit off of sick people.

At the same time that Our Revolution is backing Democratic candidates, a memo was leaked from the office that runs Democratic Congressional campaigns in which top staff explained confidential guidelines for how to handle Black Lives Matter activists. The November 2015 memo urged candidates to agree to meet with activists in small groups if invited, but to avoid appearing at large public meetings. It continued, "Don't offer support for concrete policy positions."

SANDERS HAS gone from calling for substantial reforms and disrupting the phony election debate to working as a salesman for Hillary Clinton's campaign. This logic is built into joining the Democratic Party. When he recently appeared on Meet the Press, he repeated the ridiculous promise that Clinton would for example "be making public colleges and universities tuition free."

Working for Democratic candidates out of party loyalty and fear of the Republicans means sacrificing more than "purity" as some suggest of radicals. It means agreeing in effect that it's necessary to lie for them.

And the support strategy means demanding that voters and supporters give up the opportunity to criticize and debate. The down-ballot strategy has been attempted by a string of liberal groups such as Democracy for America, the Progressive Congressional Change Committee and Progressive Democrats for America.

These organizations are inevitably top-down. Member support is appreciated, but decisions are made by bureaucrats watching the campaigns and soliciting support from the sidelines. This is why these organizations have no serious political discussions, constantly ask their own supporters to overlook Democratic policies that serve only the 1 Percent, and function largely as mailing lists with little actual action.

Our side will need hundreds or thousands of the dissatisfied people and young activists who came to the launch meetings of Our Revolution in future struggles.

But the arguments Our Revolution is making to docilely add a little steam to some of the campaigns of the Democratic Party while making clearly unfounded promises and refusing to answer criticism--like that of the hundreds of Sanders' own delegates who protested at the Democratic National Convention, for instance--are not helpful.

Further Reading

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