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Bernie Sanders and the Limits of Electoral Politics

Bernie Sanders has progressives wondering if his presidential campaign can help build a sustainable working-class movement.

Sen. Bernie Sanders makes his way to his rally during the Iowa Democratic Party's Jefferson Jackson dinner. (Photo: Phil Roeder)

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Presidential politics has long been a source of frustration for many left-wing activists. Organizers work tirelessly year-round in trying to raise consciousness and fight for social justice. But every four years, the country gets consumed and distracted by the presidential election – or what Noam Chomsky calls “a public relations extravaganza that only marginally deals with issues.”

The formula is extremely predictable; the result, virtually always the same. Eventually the process comes down to a few wealthy, establishment candidates, funded by the same moneyed interests, who engage in extremely narrow debates filled with empty, poll-tested platitudes. Worse yet, the Electoral College, the primary schedule, voter ID laws and the influence of corporate money are among the many obstacles that serve to effectively disenfranchise millions of Americans from the process.

The corporate media, which profit greatly from a barrage of often misleading political ads, can hardly be bothered to cover anything other than this odious and undemocratic spectacle. Their coverage of this shameless pageant typically amounts to interviewing campaign staffers and party consultants, all the while fetishizing the voting process as if it were the only type of civic engagement that matters.

Without fail, these pundits and candidates speak as if this election is the most important in generations. Maybe a year (or less) after a victor is declared, the next election cycle begins to dominate the national discourse. And the cycle continues.

“Sanders is trying to break from neoliberalism.”

This election cycle, however, may be a little different. The candidacy of Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent who is running as a Democrat, has proved to be a significant variable that has changed the calculus of the Democratic primary. The self-described “democratic socialist” has tapped into some of the country’s populist outrage and is raising issues like single-payer health care, tuition-free college and Wall Street’s sinister influence on the political process. His message has been generally consistent: He is advocating the same views in 2015 that he has for decades in front of small crowds in Vermont. This authenticity is one quality that most presidential candidates – including his main opponent, Hillary Clinton – cannot credibly claim to share.

Sanders is speaking the language of class warfare. He embraces the socialist label (despite some conflict among socialists about whether he does indeed fit into that category) and constantly calls out the ownership class – he calls it “the billionaire class.” His impressive poll numbers and large crowds make him just viable enough that he can’t be ignored entirely by the corporate media.

Despite all of these promising elements of the Bernie phenomenon, there are still mixed feelings on the left about the value and utility of his presidential bid. Some cite his affiliation with the Democratic Party and his foreign policy record as incompatible with the type of “political revolution” he aspires to lead. Many others note that his brand of democratic socialism isn’t really socialism, nor is it tied to a broader movement. Others fear Sanders’ function will be to court radicals into the Democratic Party tent and weaken the prospects for revolutionary change. These concerns have prompted a debate among the left over how to maximize the opportunities the Sanders candidacy may provide to advance the cause of social justice.

Defining “Democratic Socialism”

On November 19, Sanders gave his highly anticipated “socialism” speech at Georgetown University. His goal, he said, was to explain to the American people what “democratic socialism” means to him and what it would mean for the country if he were elected. One goal of the speech, to be sure, was to ease the fears of voters who, throughout decades of Cold War propaganda, had been told the word is synonymous with Soviet gulags.

Sanders’ speech was largely praised by liberal supporters. But he didn’t really promote socialism – at least not as most socialists see it. The term means many different things to many people, but one mostly undisputed core belief is that under socialism workers control the means of production.

Sanders, however, was preaching the liberalism of Franklin D. Roosevelt, not the socialism of Eugene V. Debs (one of his heroes), who ran for president as a Socialist five times between 1912 and 1920. Roosevelt “saw one-third of the nation ill-housed, ill-clad and ill-nourished,” said Sanders. “And he acted, against the ferocious opposition of the ruling class of his day.”

Sanders has no problem conceding this point and never has. “I am not suggesting that all things should be publicly owned and that everyone should make $58,684.34 a year,” Sanders told me in 2009 at an event in Stowe, Vermont. “We are talking about making sure everyone has access to basic things: education, health care and decent roads.”

“If electoral politics is to have some transformative potential, it has to be connected by some kind of a social movement.”

In fact, his “socialism” speech at Georgetown was largely designed to explain how his democratic socialism differs from actual socialism. “So the next time that you hear me attacked as a socialist, like tomorrow,” he said in his speech, “remember this. I don’t believe government should take over, you know, the grocery store down the street or own the means of production.” The Sanders campaign clearly hopes his speech will help counter Clinton’s suggestion that he is too radical. David Brock’s pro-Clinton super PAC, Correct the Record, has already attacked Sanders with an email to The Huffington Post that compared Sanders to former Venezuelan President Hugo Chávez and suggested he was soft on Hezbollah – neither of which were meant as compliments.

But many socialists have had mixed reactions to the campaign and Sanders’ description of democratic socialism. “Sanders is confusing people about what socialism is,” wrote Howie Hawkins in the Socialist Worker, which has been militant in its opposition to Sanders’ campaign. Listening to a Sanders supporter tell CNN that democratic socialism “is just good capitalism,” certainly backs up Hawkins’ point. It is not Sanders’ ideology that is confusing; it’s his decision to use the label to describe New-Deal-style liberalism that has perplexed many, from The Wall Street Journal to the leftist magazine Jacobin.

By conflating public programs with socialism, Sanders is actually (if unwittingly) guilty of the same fallacy made by conservatives who routinely describe virtually any public program or progressive tax as socialism.

“Apparently the populist independent-turned-Democrat from Vermont and the unrepentant capitalists share the viewpoint that government institutions are inherently socialist,” wrote Emma Caterine in an op-ed for Truthout. “Empirically and historically incorrect, [Sanders’ statements] endanger any hope for building socialism in the United States through a doublespeak of calling liberal institutions socialist … there is nothing revolutionary about socialism in name only.”

The Sanders Effect: Evolving Views on Capitalism, Socialism

While some are clearly befuddled by Sanders’ description of socialism, many radicals have still praised the campaign as a potentially powerful, if imperfect, tool for raising class consciousness.

“Sanders is trying to break from neoliberalism,” said Steve Maher, a Ph.D. candidate at York University and a member of the Socialist Project in Canada, in an interview with Truthout. “It is worth saving the legacy of FDR, which may be the one thing he will be able to do.”

“The Sanders campaign is galvanizing a lot of people. People are engaged in this movement like never before.”

And while Caterine, Hawkins and others say Sanders is doing a disservice by using the word “socialism,” others say that embracing the word – even if not technically accurate – is a positive development as it sends the message that a world dominated by greed is not inevitable and that alternatives exist.

“Standing on a national stage and using that term implies that there is a radically egalitarian force that is in opposition and even hostile to capitalism,” said Connor Kilpatrick, writing in Jacobin.

It wasn’t long ago that the idea of socialism being embraced by a mainstream candidate was unfathomable. In fact, GOP candidates are still, absurdly, using the word as a pejorative to describe Clinton and President Obama. But US voters are just not scared of the word as they once were.

“That is quite a remarkable development and it is a sign of … how badly capitalism has served millions upon millions of Americans across the neoliberal era and since the Great Recession,” said Paul Street, the author of They Rule: The 1% v. Democracy, in an interview with Truthout.

Indeed, the evidence that Americans are becoming increasingly supportive of socialism and critical of capitalism is not just anecdotal. Polls show that Americans, especially millennials, increasingly prefer socialism to capitalism. This trend does correlate strongly with Sanders’ entry into the national spotlight. An October study by YouGov shows that more Democrats (of all ages) have a favorable opinion of socialism (49 percent) than of capitalism (37 percent). Only 6 percent of Democrats are turned off by Sanders’ identification as a socialist. When the same questions were polled in May – at the infancy of Sanders’ campaign – Democrats were equally supportive of capitalism and socialism (43 percent in both cases). Since Sanders started his campaign for the White House, Democratic voters’ support for socialism has gone up 6 percent.

Lessons From Occupy: Bernie Sanders and Class Consciousness

As interesting as the Sanders campaign is, there is still not a lot of suspense regarding who will win the primary. Barring almost unthinkable events, Hillary Clinton’s estimated $2.5 billion war chest and her establishment support will likely ensure her coronation as the Democratic Party nominee. The general election will revert back to the old, predictable formula.

But as depressing as this many sound, perhaps the success of the Sanders campaign should not be measured entirely by how many delegates pledge support for him at the Democratic National Convention. Other crucial factors include: 1) whether his message of the wealth gap between the “very rich and everyone else” succeeds in shifting public discourse and 2) his ability to help foster a thriving movement representing the working class that outlasts the election cycle.

“[The] benefits of the campaign are opening up questions that are otherwise marginalized, pressing the [Democrats] a little towards more progressive positions, and, most important, engaging and mobilizing lots of people,” Noam Chomsky told Truthout.

“Presidential elections are where movements go to die.”

In this sense it may be useful to reflect on similarities and differences between the mobilization surrounding Sanders’ campaign and the Occupy Wall Street movement of 2011 and 2012, which many have similarly described as powerful due to its lasting effects on public discourse. The Occupy movement peaked with encampments in public spaces in more than 900 cities and 82 countries. But by early 2012, the encampments were mostly gone, in part due to mayors in places like New York City and Boston ordering brutal police crackdowns. Now, years later, some look back at the movement as a failure; it didn’t result in any immediate economic reforms, and the movement has largely fizzled out. But one of the goals of Occupy – which didn’t make specific demands or specifically endorse candidates or legislation – was to help the public see the world through the lens of class: the “99%” (the working and middle classes) vs. the “1%” (the ownership class). In this sense, Occupy had a great deal of success.

Anecdotally, there are many examples of this. During the 2012 GOP presidential primary season, Republicans seemed to genuinely see Occupy’s message as a threat. “I’m so scared of this anti-Wall Street effort. I’m frightened to death,” said Frank Luntz, a famous Republican strategist who focuses on political messaging. “They’re having an impact on what the American people think of capitalism.” Luntz advised GOP candidates not to use the word “capitalism” because members of the public “think capitalism is immoral.”

The movement has firmly altered the national discourse. “Whatever the long-term effects of the Occupy movement,” said a New York Times article from 2011, “protesters succeeded in implanting ‘we are the 99 percent’ … into the cultural and political lexicon.” The American Dialect Society named “occupy” the “Word of the Year” for 2011. In 2015, the theme still permeates. An October 23 policy paper by Third Way, a group of Wall Street-funded Democrats, lamented the fact that “a Google search of ‘the 1%’ yields 303 million entries.”

In fact, the coverage by The New York Times also serves as evidence of Occupy’s ability to crack the veneer of the establishment press. A Truthout analysis of The New York Times in the four months following the start of Occupy (September 17, 2011 to January 17, 2012) shows there were 357 references to “inequality” in that time. Of those articles, 151 mention the Occupy movement directly. This shows a strong correlation between the Occupy movement and the media’s coverage of income inequality. Similar increases were documented in The Washington Post (chart 2) and the broadcast media (chart 3), according to data from search engines and LexisNexis.

2015 1210bernie chart2

2015 1210bernie chart3

Like the Occupy movement, Sanders is emphasizing class relations, calling the “1%” the “billionaire class,” and describing the working class as “working families” or the “middle class.” If he can serve to educate the public in similar ways, the effect of Sanders’ candidacy could last well beyond 2016.

Running for President or Building a Movement?

Of course, there are key differences between Occupy and Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign. Occupy was an attempt to build a broad movement to fight for economic justice. Sanders speaks of the need for such a movement, but in the end his main focus is running for office, not nurturing broad-based activism outside the electoral sphere.

“Bernie Sanders doesn’t represent a movement. He is kind of a holdout from the 1960s-era New Left that just never went away,” Maher said. “He says he would try and organize a movement if he wins, but it is unclear exactly what that would look like.”

He added, “If electoral politics is to have some transformative potential, it has to be connected by some kind of a social movement. To build something that lasts, these things have to be done together.”

Some founding members of Occupy, however, have been organizing feverishly on behalf of the campaign. People for Bernie, according to its cofounder, Winnie Wong, “started as an extension of Occupy Wall Street” and has been among the most vocal pro-Sanders organizations, especially on social media.

Black Lives Matter demonstrations have succeeded in applying pressure on Democratic candidates from outside the party structure.

“The Sanders campaign is galvanizing a lot of people. People are engaged in this movement like never before. It is truly a unique movement,” she said, undeterred by others on the left who question Sanders’ brand of socialism. “This isn’t about ideology. This is about reaching out to people. And a lot of people just don’t have the time to care about what socialism is, or what it means to be a leftist. They are worried about food on their plate or the cost of medicine.”

Katherine Brezler, a kindergarten teacher from Brooklyn and the national digital director for People for Bernie, is another strong advocate for Sanders.

“Here is the issue. It is not just that he voted against the war. It is not just that he wants to end mass incarceration – it is the movement. The small victories we see all across the country,” she said. “This is a dark time for our politics. We see things like Donald Trump’s racism – which is an outrageous caricature of all that is wrong with this country – and we just have to rise up.”

Labor for Bernie

One arena in which Sanders’ efforts at movement building have not been strong is in the realm of organized labor. Most of the major national unions like AFSCME and SEIU have endorsed Clinton, despite Sanders’ undeniably stronger record on labor issues. The AFL-CIO national office has not made an endorsement and may not until after the primary.

Sanders does, however, have some passionate supporters from the labor movement. In May 2015, labor writer Steve Early warned in an essay for Jacobin that if “organized labor plays it cautious and safe, jumping on the Clinton bandwagon instead of rallying around Sanders, it will be just one more sign of diminished union capacity for mounting any kind of worker self-defense, on the job or in politics.”

He urged workers to join Labor for Bernie, which is actively recruiting “labor leaders, union members and working people to unite behind Bernie Sanders … who will work for the 99 percent.”

The group has close to 10,000 members in more than 50 unions, said Rand Wilson, the group’s founder, in an interview with Truthout.

“Sanders has been a champion of workers’ rights, outspoken on trade issues and has used his office to intervene and organize on behalf of workers his whole career,” Wilson said. “Clinton is part of the status quo. I think you have to look at her source of support [Wall Street]. It shows how far the Democratic Party has gone.”

Wilson says he is disappointed, if not surprised, by the big labor endorsements Clinton has received. “The national unions are stuck with the idea that transactional politics will save them,” he said. “They want to be with the winner and get some small transactional benefits.”

Not all major unions have endorsed Clinton: The California-based National Nurses United and the American Postal Workers Union are two notable exceptions. And, according to In These Times, as of November 17, about 30 union locals from across the country have endorsed Sanders.

Sanders’ campaign is also hoping to take advantage of a decline in support for Clinton among women. Jenni Siri and Pat Downs are hoping to help this cause as members of Women for Bernie. “Many of us have taken up the fight for at least $15 an hour, and want our candidate to take aggressive actions to save our planet,” they said in a statement to Truthout. “Bernie Sanders is the only candidate we trust to actually do what he says he will do on our behalf.”

The way in which the large national unions have embraced Clinton reflects what some consider the biggest source of division over the merits of the Sanders campaign.

Challenges From the Left

Many leftists say Sanders can’t credibly speak about revolution when he is so closely affiliated with one of the major centers of elite power. And Black Lives Matter activists have issued significant challenges and critiques of Sanders from the left.

“I know it is cliché, but presidential elections are where movements go to die,” Caterine told Truthout, adding that some former Occupy activists are now pouring their energy into the Black Lives Matter movement, which, like Occupy, doesn’t “endorse any candidates or align with Democratic politicians.”

Black Lives Matter Seattle raised headlines when it shut down a Sanders’ rally in Seattle in August 2015.

“Today BLM Seattle, with the support of other Black organizers and non-Black allies and accomplices, held Bernie Sanders publicly accountable for his lack of support for the Black Lives Matter movement and his blatantly silencing response to the #‎SayHerName #‎IfIDieInPoliceCustody action that took place at Netroots this year,” wrote the organization’s cofounders Marissa Johnson and Mara Willaford in a press release about the action. They added:

While we are drowning in [white progressives’] liberal rhetoric, we have yet to see them support Black grassroots movements or take on any measure of risk and responsibility for ending the tyranny of white supremacy in our country and in our city. This willful passivity while claiming solidarity with the #‎BlackLivesMatter movement in an effort to be relevant is over. White progressive Seattle and Bernie Sanders cannot call themselves liberals while they participate in the racist system that claims Black lives…. As was said at the Netroots action, presidential candidates should expect to be shut down and confronted every step along the way of this presidential campaign. Black people are in a state of emergency.

Since that time, Black Lives Matter has continued to protest events with other Democratic candidates. Although these protest actions have drawn criticism from a contingent of progressives, who have argued that such protests should be directed against Republicans rather than against Democrats, the Black Lives Matter demonstrations have succeeded in applying pressure on Democratic candidates from outside the party structure. All three of the candidates in the Democratic primary have expressed public support for the movement for Black lives, and Sanders recently kept his promise to discuss the controversial death of Sandra Bland at the CNN Democratic debate in October. It is more than reasonable to credit Black Lives Matter for pushing the candidates to address the issue more vocally.

The Democratic Party Dilemma

David Swanson, who worked for Dennis Kucinich’s long-shot 2004 presidential run, said he is skeptical that much good can come from the Sanders campaign given the “corrupt” nature of the election process.

“He can’t win,” Swanson said in an interview with Truthout. “The power structure has no intention of allowing Sanders to win, and [has] complete control over whether he does.”

“Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.”

Others argue the campaign may actually serve to further the Democratic Party’s ability to pretend to be the party that represents the working class. “There’s a reason that the Clintons and the DNC have been happy to welcome Bernie into the primary race,” Paul Street said. “They know he can’t seriously contest the nomination and that he knows he can’t, but that he also promises to help give the neoliberal Democratic Party a much-needed progressive/populist image makeover.”

Not all are so critical. For instance, Socialist Alternative, which just recently helped elect a socialist to the Seattle City Hall, is generally supportive of Sanders campaign, despite his party affiliation.

“We think [the campaign] is a real positive development,” said Bryan Koulouris, a national organizer for Socialist Alternative. “We urged him to run as an independent … but he is undeniably creating an openness to socialism.”

Rand Wilson argues the best strategy is to try and “change the party” from within. He said he plans on running to be a delegate in Massachusetts and will be at the convention to support Sanders regardless of the outcome. This sentiment is shared by Brezler, a self-described “lifelong Democrat,” who says the Sanders’ campaign can help “rewrite the playbook” for progressive politics in the party.

Of course, the degree to which Sanders embraces his Democratic colleagues in the aftermath of the election will also be an important factor. Sanders has been clear he will not run as an independent and will support the Democratic nominee – but will he also be willing to attack the party for its complicity in the country’s plutocratic nature, during and after the election?

“The system is rigged for two parties, but to be included in the debate he probably made the right decision,” Maher said. “But this can’t be generalized. In the long run, a movement can’t be run with the Democrats. They will never be a force for progressive change.”

Presidential Elections: “A Poor Substitute for Democracy”

The reality is that we don’t know what kind of impact Sanders campaign can have because there is no recent parallel to this kind of campaign: A critique of capitalism from a viable major party candidate is new ground. But in uncertainty, there can be hope.

“Isn’t it self-evident that there is no right answer to this?” writes Michael Albert, founder of the anti-capitalist Z magazine. “The variables typically differ from person to person. And we don’t know where the Sanders campaign will go.”

In 2008, Howard Zinn wrote, “Voting is easy and marginally useful, but it is a poor substitute for democracy, which requires direct action by concerned citizens.”

What seems indisputable is that the real test of the value of the Sanders candidacy will likely not be decided by what happens in the primary, but what happens when it is over. Any lasting progress that comes from Bernie Sanders’ campaign will not be determined in the voting booth, but by the hard work of activists and organizers across the country dedicated to social revolution.

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