What will happen to the “political revolution”?

November 8, 2016

Whoever wins the election, the left will face challenges--including filling the hole left behind when Bernie Sanders shut down his radical message, writes Jen Roesch.

AS THE underbelly of American democracy hauls itself across the finish line of this miserable election, the hope and enthusiasm generated by Bernie Sanders' primary campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination feels like a distant memory.

It seems hard to believe that millions of people were voting for a self-described socialist less than a year ago, and with some confidence that he might win. But the discussion of substantive political issues that Sanders injected into Election 2016 has given way to mudslinging and, in the last days of the campaign, the shock and fear that Trump had once again made it a close race.

How did this happen?

It's not because the issues that Sanders campaigned on no longer matter to people. And it's certainly not because people wanted the election to come down to a choice between Clinton and Trump. Bernie Sanders, who isn't on the ballot in November and is barely mentioned in the mainstream media these days, has a far higher favorability rating.

If anything, the last two months of the presidential election should have vindicated Sanders and his scathing attack on Wall Street's influence over the U.S. political system.

Bernie Sanders waits to endorse Hillary Clinton at a New Hampshire rally
Bernie Sanders waits to endorse Hillary Clinton at a New Hampshire rally

For months last year, Sanders attacked Clinton for her connections to Wall Street and challenged her to say what she said in her $200,000-an-hour speeches to banks and corporate interest groups.

Now WikiLeaks has done what Clinton wouldn't--releasing a steady stream of e-mails, speech transcripts and campaign documents that lay bare the close relationship between Corporate America and Democratic Party leaders like Clinton.

In particular, Clinton's private speeches show the truth about politicians who say one thing in private to reassure the rich and powerful while taking public positions that sound radical, in order to appease the Democrats' progressive base. As an additional punch to the gut, the leaked e-mails reveal the full extent of Clinton's contempt for the environmental, Black Lives Matter, union and other activists whose support she is demanding.

As Luke Savage wrote for Jacobin, "Were it not for the apocalyptic prospect of a Donald Trump presidency, the leaks could well have sent Hillary Clinton's campaign into an irreversible tailspin."

But that same Jacobin article--titled "Why Bernie Was Right"--begs the question: Where is Bernie now?

SANDERS DID release a statement in response to the WikiLeaks revelations, but it was hardly the rallying cry one would have expected of the man who relentlessly attacked Clinton last winter. Instead, Sanders urged his supporters to "look forward, not backward," downplaying the revelations as something "Clinton may have said years ago behind closed doors."

So it isn't only the frightening prospect of a Trump presidency that is saving Hillary Clinton from being held accountable--it's also the refusal of high-profile liberal figures to openly criticize her--Sanders perhaps first among them.

After the bitter Democratic primary fight, there was a lot of speculation and plenty of liberal handwringing about whether Sanders would formally endorse Clinton--and, once he did, how hard he would campaign for her. Many of Sanders' most dedicated supporters, including a highly visible contingent of "Bernie or Bust" delegates at the Democratic National Convention, held out hope that he might run independently--or at least withhold his support.

But from the beginning of his primary campaign, Sanders himself was clear that he would support the "eventual nominee"--which was always highly likely to be Clinton. He has followed through on his commitment--and his actions over the last several months have illustrated the price of that choice.

It isn't simply that Sanders told his supporters to hold their nose and vote for Clinton because a Trump presidency would be a disaster. The logic of his position requires that he downplay any criticism of Clinton. It wasn't to campaign against Trump--he had to campaign for Clinton.

In an interview with the New Republic, Sanders attempts to make a case for Clinton "on her own merits," but his answers show the level of deception necessary to do so:

On a number of issues, I believe Hillary Clinton's positions are quite strong...I want to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, and I think Clinton is open to moving in that direction...She supports infrastructure projects that will put millions of people back to work.

Do I think Clinton is prepared to [raise taxes on the wealthy]? Yeah. Do I think she is prepared to do away with loopholes to get rid of outrageous tax breaks for large multinational corporations? Yeah, I do. Do I think she is serious about climate change, and that we can push her even further? Yeah, I do.

Every answer flies in the face of the mounting evidence that Hillary Clinton isn't committed to any of these things.

The idea that Clinton is "serious about climate change" is particularly laughable in the face of her appalling refusal to defend Indigenous activists who are being attacked for their courageous protests of the Dakota Access Pipeline. To his credit, Sanders has spoken out against the pipeline and in defense of the protesters.

But by giving progressive cover to Clinton, he makes it harder to build the kind of pressure that could force a President Clinton to take real action over the opposition of energy giants who want the pipeline built no matter what.

So Sanders isn't just silencing his criticisms--he's helping to get people who wanted so much more to vote for everything they hate.

DURING THE primaries, the intense economic and social polarization in U.S. society found an expression in mainstream politics. People who were bitter about declining living standards and fed up with the political status quo could choose between candidates with very different solutions.

Donald Trump's right-wing populism, which blamed immigrants, Muslims, Black people and various other scapegoats for making American un-great, was countered by Bernie Sanders' left-wing populism. His insistent talk about a program of broad economic reforms raised people's expectations and opened the door to a much more radical critique of capitalism.

But once Clinton and Trump secured their respective parties' nominations, the mainstream debate has shifted far to the right.

Trump's non-stop racist demagoguery and emboldening of the far right energized is centrally responsible for this, of course. But Hillary Clinton has also run a campaign as far to the right as any Democrat could. Her response to Trump's fearmongering, for example, has been to court Republicans alienated by the reality TV star and position herself as tougher on terrorism than Trump.

Unfortunately, there has been no popular left response to this. The Green Party campaign of Jill Stein tried to do so on an electoral level, but the lack of mainstream media coverage and the paralyzing fear of Trump limited her impact. The socialist and radical left is still too small to have a sizeable impact on the political climate. Among grassroots struggle, the fight at Standing Rock against environmental destruction and oppression of Native Americans has been an inspiring exception to the bleak picture.

Bernie Sanders was one political figure who could have made a difference. He remains enormously popular--if he chose not to silence himself, he could be giving press conferences in response to the Wikileaks revelations and denouncing Clinton's ties to Wall Street. He could be publicly demanding that Clinton support the protestors at Standing Rock and that Obama stop the pipeline project. He could be continuing to talk about free college education and the need for single-payer health care.

He probably wouldn't have decisively shifted the dynamics of this election by doing so. But he could have helped give confidence to people who wanted to continue to fight on a whole range of issues. Whether or not Sanders forced Clinton and the Democrats to acknowledge that there was pressure on their left, he would have kept a political space open for progressive ideas and given a platform for a left-wing alternative.

It's impossible to say what impact this would have had on Election 2016, but it's important to recognize that not doing so was a choice that came at a cost.

Many left-wing supporters of the Sanders campaign argue its most significant accomplishment was to popularize socialist ideas on a mass scale. They point to Sanders voters as the potential base of a renewed socialist left in this country.

This is certainly true as far as it goes, but greater popularity for socialist ideas, as important as it is, falls short of what's needed, especially considering Sanders' role in the general election campaign.

You can't call for a "political revolution," then back the mainstream candidate representing everything you called for a revolution against, and then expect to summon the original sentiment back into existence once it's "safe" to do so.

If anything, what the Sanders moment showed was that the left-wing sentiment in this country needs to be organized in order to deepen its roots and forge a new path. independent of the two-party system and its artificially narrow range of choices.

That sentiment hasn't gone away. But politics abhors a vacuum, and right now, the vacuum is being filled by the right. Whether Trump wins or loses, the far right has exploited this moment to project its voices and rally its forces. By contrast, our side has, by and large, remained hamstrung by the refusal to speak and act independently of the Democrats.

WHOEVER WINS the election, breaking out of this box will be a decisive challenge for the left in the months and years to come.

If Donald Trump should manage to win, the left will need to be able to confront the bigotry and violence that his presidency would be bound to produce. But it will also need to offer a convincing political alternative to the wreckage of working-class living standards, wrought by eight years of austerity under a Democratic president, that allowed Trump's right-wing populism to thrive.

But the left will face similar challenges in the event of a Clinton victory--with the added difficulty of overcoming the liberal call to give the new president time and to compromise our goals because nothing more is possible in the face of Republican obstructionism.

There are signs that the left won't satisfied with the typical advice to be patient. For example, the environmental justice organization 350.org has joined a call for a national day of action on November 15--one week after the election--to demand an end to the Dakota Access Pipeline. More broadly, the anger and radicalization that fueled the Sanders campaign hasn't gone away.

But the political questions raised by the Sanders campaign and its aftermath won't go away once the election is over.

Sanders has promised to work with liberal Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren to introduce progressive legislation in the first days of a Clinton presidency. If he followed through, this could be a lightning rod to galvanize resistance.

But Sanders' entire strategy rests on the idea that he will be fighting, along with his supporters, within the confines set out by the Democratic Party. Thus, Sanders' commitment to campaigning for Clinton shouldn't be seen as a "sellout," but as a product of his strategy--of pushing Clinton and the Democratic Party to the left, securing a progressive platform passed at the convention, and then using this to hold Clinton accountable once in office. It's an "inside-inside" strategy.

The problem isn't just that the Democratic Party leadership--and Clinton in particular--have proven unwilling to be "held accountable" to anyone but the 1 Percent. What Sanders calls the "most progressive platform in the history of the Democratic Party" isn't worth the paper it's written on--and Clinton has made it abundantly clear that her priorities as president will run in the opposite direction.

In her private speeches, Clinton revealed that she would continue to support fracking and natural gas extraction; that she would do nothing to curb Wall Street; that austerity policies will continue; and that she is ready to take on the project of shrinking "entitlement" programs like Social Security and Medicare.

The idea that this will be an administration that is open to progressive influence and simply needs to be "pushed" is a dangerous illusion.

If we are going to build powerful social movements that can fight for the reforms millions of people want--let alone build a socialist alternative to a system that large numbers are starting to reject--our side will need to be clear about the Democratic Party and what it stands for.

We can try to take advantage of any fight that arises within the ranks of the Democrats, but we can only do so if we build our own organizations, develop confidence in our own capacity to fight, and act independently. Any strategy that requires us to mute our criticisms--as Sanders has done throughout the general election campaign--will cripple us.

It's time to draw the lessons of this election season and build an independent left that can organize and give voice to the radicalization that is struggling to find its feet.

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