This is an extraordinary time as we could be at a turning point in American political life.
Sanders is receiving mass support for the message of Occupy — the 99% versus the 1%. He has used his candidacy to popularize key radical demands: $15 and a union, an end to mass incarceration, universal healthcare, free public higher education, legalizing millions of immigrants, a carbon tax, and banning fracking, to name a few, even if articulating them within a social democratic framework; impacting millions who were unfamiliar with such ideas, or had dismissed them as impossible.
Sanders says there is a billionaire class who benefit from the status quo, and we need to take them on. Emphasizing that antagonism is an important part of the campaign, and it is a class perspective that we haven't seen expressed in any mass electoral effort in the U.S. since Eugene Debs.
Through this campaign a significant sector of the working class is becoming politicized and exhibiting a shift in mass consciousness to an extent not seen in generations. We are at the beginning of a new radicalization particularly among youth. A new generation is forming its political identity — large numbers of youth, the majority of whom belong to the working class or a collapsing “middle class,” have been shaped by the Sanders phenomenon in ways that will last long after this election. They are open to socialist ideas, and have gained experience in organising.
Of course the contradiction at the heart of this process is that while Sanders’ success has revealed that there is a mass base for a left party, he would not have reached this vast audience if he hadn’t run in the Democratic primary. It is an open question as to whether millions learn through their experience that the Democratic Party is a road block to fundamental change that must be removed or split, or end up being sucked into fruitless efforts to transform a rightward moving, neoliberal party.
Despite the reams of advice by older men (who learned nothing from their failure to realign the Democrats in the 1960s when the labour and social movements were much stronger and the Dixiecrats were leaving) advocating strategies to reform the Democrats, and divers Sanders supporters planing to build a “party-within-the-party” (for some this is a long term strategy to realign the party, for others a tactic with a split perspective), I think it unlikely that the youth that have put so much energy into the Sanders campaign will be interested in joining a Democratic reform movement.
Already 43% of voters don't identify as either Republican or Democrat, and this is particularly true of millennials. The conflict with Clinton and the DNC has become more contentious. The Sanders campaign is looking to a contested convention. We don’t know how explosive that may become, but there is a likelihood of mass demonstrations both inside and outside the convention. Sanders’ plan to press for strong progressive planks in the party platform (though usually unread and ignored) has potential value in that if delegates get progressive language into the platform which Clinton ignores, that would help expose Democratic hypocrisy; or if attempts to amend fail, that could deepen the fissure between the party establishment and its progressive base. Either outcome could further the eventual possibility of an independent left party.
A fissure has been created between the Democratic base, along with independents, and the Democrats neo-liberal leadership that will fester and at some unpredictable time may lead to a split. However, while Sanders is serious about a "political revolution" that lasts beyond his campaign, encourages social movements, and was a member of Labor Party Advocates, he is not a movement organiser.
The question for us, broadly defined, is how to help this movement flourish after this electoral cycle. There are myriad signs that the Sanders movement, which has from the beginning been more than a one-off electoral campaign, is not going to fold as did most of the Rainbow Coalition, or deteriorate into another version of DFA, MoveOn, or PDA.
One effort, the June National Peoples’ Summit, has a goal of beginning to assemble a “force” out of the Sanders campaign and other social movements which will “seek to bring together activists committed to a different kind of agenda: a People’s Agenda that can enhance and expand issue campaigns and hold elected officials accountable to popular demands for justice, equality and freedom.” The Summit includes sessions such as “Building Independent Political Power” and “Down-Ballot Political Revolutionaries: Electing People from the Movement to Public Office”.
A new period has opened where there will be a lot of partial breaks from the Democratic Party, first in local and then in statewide races. It will be bit by bit and ambiguously as we already see with efforts like the Richmond Progressive Alliance, Chicago’s United Working Families, and Vermont’s Progressive Party and Rights & Democracy.
For example, the Vermont Progressive Party is fielding 30 candidates in the 2016 election, the most in its history, most of them running on both Progressive and Democratic ballot lines. Inevitably, most Sandersistas will support individual Berniecrats who run on progressive or radical platforms, have no loyalty to the Democratic leadership, yet run within Democratic primaries. In partisan races this will involve “primarying” neoliberal Democrats. In reality, many election districts are basically one-party districts where a left party can compete without facing marginalisation as a “spoiler”.
Predominantly non-partisan local elections are less problematic as independents are not as hampered by the dynamics of the two-party system. This is not a time for routinist passivity. In my opinion, these developments require Marxists to rethink our preconceptions about how we might contribute to breaking the strangle hold of the two-party system.
While the “political revolutionaries” doing these campaigns will be skeptical or disgusted with the two-party system, they will not for the most part share our strategic rejection of the Democratic Party. I think that we should evaluate and work with promising efforts while being clear that we believe that trying to realign the Democratic Party is a dead end, that we are partisans of creating an independent, mass working class party.
Yes we should argue against lesser evilism, and concretize that by promoting a protest vote for [Green Party candidate] Jill Stein (perhaps even resulting in securing ballot lines for future elections). However, it would be self-isolating to break off working relations with people advocating a “vote against Trump”.
This election is extraordinary in that while many people will be voting against Trump, none of our potential base will be working for, or enthusiastically voting for, the “lesser evil” neo-liberal with the worst unfavorable ratings of any Democratic nominee in modern times. We have an opportunity to work with the militant minority of Sanders supporters who are in motion, moving left, and becoming increasingly hostile to the Democratic Party.
We should encourage them to keep their committees going to work on local issues like $15 minimum wage, universal healthcare, racial and climate justice, etc., anticipating a rise in social movement organising, along with these movements recognizing the need for a political expression.
In this process we can recruit the best of them to socialist organisation, as socialist groups working with the Sanders campaign are already doing. However, I think its important that we recruit people to a perspective of advocating for steps that would open up a broader terrain of struggle for a party of our own.
While recognizing the reality of the left’s limited capacity to affect events, in this new more favorable situation we should be doing everything possible, against the odds, to open the road to an independent party of the 99%.
The Labor for Bernie network is an all volunteer, independent, grassroots, rank and file based network that has already had a big impact on the broader labour movement. The network includes thousands of elected officers, shop stewards, organisers, and rank-and-file members. It has tapped into the widespread disgust with bureaucrat-driven, transactional, business as usual politics, insisting that our unions should only endorse candidates that actually support union values. Labor for Bernie has organised rank and file networks to demand broad membership debate and discussion about the candidates and their stands on the key issues, pushing back against premature and top-down endorsements by officials.
While the bulk of the labour bureaucracy is joined at the hip with the Clinton and the neoliberal Democratic leadership, the dynamism of the Sanders campaign, and Labor for Bernie’s organising, has fostered cracks in labour’s slavish alignment with the Democratic Party establishment. Seven national unions endorsed Sanders (NNU, CWA, APWU, NUHW, ATU, UE and ILWU), and many locals have endorsed Sanders in defiance of their internationals’ endorsement of Clinton. A fissure in terms of a Sanders endorsement is a step forward.
From the beginning, Labor For Bernie was intended to last past the 2016 elections wth the perspective of creating new grassroots political structures in the labour movement – perhaps even a new party – capable of continuing the “political revolution” in contests for elected office in tens of thousands of municipal and state level races. Already we are seeing more local unions running candidates.
The last attempt at organising a labour party during the brief mid-1990s labour movement upsurge was, according to the former Labor Party national organiser Mark Dudzic, “premised on the understanding that you cannot have a party of labour that does not have at the table a substantial portion of the actually-existing labour movement.
The Labour Party had to start with the assurance that it wouldn’t play spoiler politics and that it would focus on building the critical mass necessary for serious electoral intervention.”
As the 1990s attempt at labour’s revitalization foundered, so did prospects for moving the labour movement away from its lockstep relationship with the Democratic Party. While many unions and labour activists have had it with “politics as usual”, labour is not yet ready to disengage from the political entanglements in a two-party, winner-takes-all system.
This is just the beginning of the messy differentiation within the unions. Building a movement for a party of our own is inextricably linked to the project of transforming and revitalizing key sections of the labour movement. The activity of the labour militants brought together around the Sanders campaign can play a key role in the interrelated tasks of promoting independent working-class politics and putting the movement back in the labour movement.