Please suspend your skepticism for a couple of minutes to consider that Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination has managed to create, intentionally or not, the possibility of achieving the holy grail of progressive US politics: a third political party independent of the Democrats and Republicans.
A new, independently financed political party could make Sanders’ call for “political revolution” and his claim that he is trying to build a movement more than a dream boldly proclaimed by an inspiring, if not quixotic, leader. It could deliberately seek to unify our currently fragmented movement cultures and operate as a vehicle for the substantive promise of Sanders’ “political revolution”: deep institutional and cultural reform. Doing so, it could begin to fulfill our country’s lofty aspirations: a society truly ruled by the people with meaningful input available to everyone, absent discrimination on any basis — race, gender, sexuality, nationality or religion.
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Most importantly, perhaps, an independently financed party could seek to define this broad policy platform, not primarily through the input of elite power brokers funneled through the corporate-financed media and think tank complex, but with the input of grassroots leaders already engaged in building such a society.
At their core, political parties are fundraising and marketing mechanisms.
Painting in broad strokes, this platform could include forms of political and economic participatory democracy and pluralist institutions capable of bringing our society’s investment of its wealth under democratic control. Our economy could be designed not simply to produce more wealth in the aggregate, but also to meet the material needs of all of our people within our planet’s natural limits. And by beginning to move beyond our hyper-competitive culture, where we compete for bountiful resources artificially made scarce by wealth inequality, we can finally acknowledge and materially redress — yes, through reparations — our society’s historic discrimination on the basis of race, gender and sexual orientation.
The Two-Party Political Monopoly
At their core, political parties are fundraising and marketing mechanisms. Over the years, the Democrats and Republicans have achieved fundraising economies of scale that have effectively barred the entry of any would-be competitors. Their collective fundraising monopoly — combined, they spent $7 billion during the 2012 election cycle — has allowed them to dominate the political discourse by financing campaigns, reaping brand recognition from the political advertising that accompanies campaigns, and thereby establishing their legitimacy as the parties who run candidates and do the governing of our country. US politics, especially at the national level, simply does not exist independent of the two parties.
Today’s two parties, like any actors in our market society, are responsive to their investors. Only 0.4 percent of US citizens — a little over 1 million people — gave $200 or more during the 2012 cycle. These contributions amounted to just over 60 percent of the money spent during the 2012 election cycle. Around 28 percent of the 2012 cycle money came from around 30,000 people — 1 percent of 1 percent of the over 300 million people living in our society.
The two-party reliance on the wealthy — especially the very, very wealthy — has effectively disenfranchised large portions, perhaps even a majority, of our society. About half of our society has zero net assets: They don’t have any money lying around to “pay to play” in our democracy. They are politically invisible, effectively without democratic input.
The Sanders Campaign’s Opening for a New, Independently Financed Party
Financial resources are and have been the primary obstacle to the creation of any new political party, especially one that could exist on a national scale. A party needs name recognition. It needs money to finance the campaigns and generate the news coverage that creates name recognition. Any chance for an independent political party is trapped by the catch-22 that defines US politics: You need money to gain name recognition, and you need name recognition to raise money.
The Sanders campaign seems to have reached a point, consciously or not, where it now no longer needs the Democratic Party.
Effectively, there has existed no path into politics for additional parties. Just look at the Green Party, which has been running independent, crowdsourced campaigns for over two decades now, on a democratic socialist platform very similar to that of Sanders (along with a strong critique of US empire). Sanders’ campaign has demonstrated unequivocally the grassroots support for his platform, yet the Green Party presidential campaigns have not gotten nearly as much recognition, at least since Ralph Nader’s run in 2000.
By exploiting the Democratic Party’s name recognition, Sanders appears to have escaped the third party catch-22: He has achieved widespread name recognition without first having to raise money from the usual big donor suspects. The name recognition the Sanders campaign has earned by using the legitimacy and news coverage afforded by the Democratic primary process has, in turn, allowed it to create a fundraising apparatus.
The Sanders campaign seems to have reached a point, consciously or not, where it now no longer needs the Democratic Party in order to continue to have an impact in this presidential campaign and beyond. By participating in the primary process, it has earned the name recognition needed to build a fundraising institution. And Sanders’ fundraising throughout the primary process, completely independent of the two-party fundraising channels, has been nothing short of historic. In effect, the campaign has already created the skeletal fundraising infrastructure that is the backbone of any political party.
Better yet, the general election is not until November. Sanders, a savvy politician who has managed to become the longest-serving Independent in the history of the US Congress, has more than half a year to use the presidential campaign process to continue to build a fundraising institution. But will he? Here’s a scenario for how this could play out.
Strategic Use of the 2016 Presidential Campaign
Sanders has already repeatedly vowed to remain in the Democratic primary until the convention in July, a scenario that basically every electoral pundit determines is far more likely than not. This buys the Sanders campaign at least another three months to build name recognition and fundraising as it continues to advertise on TV, to receive news coverage, even if it is disproportionately minimal, and to travel across the country to physically deliver its message to American voters.
The Sanders campaign should bypass the corporate mass media as a mechanism for spreading its ideas.
At that point, even if Sanders loses the Democratic nomination, his campaign can make the argument that enough popular support exists to justify a run in the general election. His campaign will have won close to 50 percent (and at least 40 percent) of the Democratic primary delegates. The main threat to an Independent Sanders candidacy continuing to have an impact on our politics is the possibility that the people who have supported his campaign thus far cease to do so. The campaign can explain that if, say, Sanders is not viable a week before the general election, then he will encourage his supporters to vote for Clinton in order to avoid a Republican presidency.
Winning would be an uphill, virtually impossible struggle, given the resources needed to campaign all at once across the country. Both parties will be able to get out their messages on-the-ground, through their elected officials and organized local chapters all across the country, in a way that Sanders simply would not be able to match.
But again, Sanders does not need to win the general election. What he would be trying to do is start a new political party. So far, Sanders has raised around $140 million through over 6 million contributions, averaging around $27 per contribution from over 2 million contributors. If he can double that for the general election, he will have significant resources. This proposition is made less improbable by the possibility that the name recognition Sanders has built only continues to build upon itself, and that his support is actually strongest, and has the greatest potential to grow stronger, among Independents who often are restricted by closed primaries from expressing that support in Democratic primaries.
Building a New Party’s Media and Information Presence
Doubling the Sanders campaign’s fundraising to date would leave it with around $280 million. With a couple of strategic decisions, the Sanders campaign could use that $280 million over the course of a six-month general election campaign for president to lay the groundwork for a new political party.
First, Sanders must recognize that the campaign money would not be well spent on traditional media. The corporate mass media, though not necessarily deliberately corrupt in any common understanding of the concept, is certainly beholden to market forces. Everything the corporate mass media puts on the airwaves is done with the objective of attracting viewers and listeners in order to sell advertising.
Selling advertising space during high viewership times to political campaigns is a significant element of the corporate mass media business model. It’s too expensive for Sanders to “pay to play” in this advertising-as-information system. The two parties will likely spend in excess of $400 million each on advertising through televised mass media. The Sanders campaign should recognize this, and deliberately bypass the corporate mass media as a mechanism for spreading its ideas.
The Sanders campaign can learn from movements and cede real control to them.
Instead, the Sanders campaign could create its own media and information mechanism. It could set up something like a 24-hour YouTube channel — the platform does not matter — and invest significant resources (tens of millions of dollars) for professionally produced coverage of Sanders’ campaigning. This could include extensive interviews with the actual people turning out to support Sanders on the campaign trail, creating self-producing, crowdsourced political education materials produced by and for the people who support Sanders’ candidacy.
The Sanders campaign could also use this independent media platform for political education and awareness, and to amplify movement-building already underway.
All kinds of experts and practitioners could appear on the channel to explain the problems we face — campaign finance, income inequality, institutional racism, environmental degradation, permanent US war — along with the potential institutional solutions to them that basically don’t get any air time on the corporate mass media.
For example, concerning the financing of elections and our political system more generally, the law professor Lawrence Lessig could explain the role money plays in defining the boundaries of the legislative agenda. The political scientist Thomas Ferguson could explain his investment theory of US political competition.
Law professors Michelle Alexander and Paul Butler could explain how institutional racism pervades our society’s institutions, from the criminal legal system to education to housing and beyond. Jessica Gordon Nembhard, who works with the Washington, DC, racial and social justice group ONE DC, could detail her work documenting the Black tradition of combating institutional racism by seeking to create cooperative economic institutions. And Ed Whitfield, co-managing director of the Fund for Democratic Communities, could explain how that movement continues today, albeit undetected by our mainstream culture.
Mark Jacobson, a professor of civil and environmental engineering at Stanford University, could detail his plan for a transition to 100 percent renewable energy in the United States by 2030. Jacobson has repeatedly argued that there are only political and social barriers to a renewable energy transition, not economic or technical ones. The Climate Justice Alliance could address its plan for a “just transition” to a renewable energy paradigm that privileges the racially and economically marginalized groups who have suffered disproportionately from our current ecological crisis. John Farrell, of the Institute for Local Self-Reliance, could explain the potential and institutional advantages of a democratically owned and managed renewable energy industry.
Practitioners and policy experts from the New Economy Coalition, like Gar Alperovitz, who is also a cofounder of the Next System Project, could discuss economic democracy and institutional strategies to create widely shared wealth. Alperovitz helped to create the Evergreen Cooperatives, a network of cooperatives in Cleveland, Ohio, that has used the purchasing power of quasi-public hospitals and universities to create community and worker-owned cooperatives, employing people in Cleveland’s impoverished inner city and financed by a cooperatively controlled investment fund.
Economics professors L. Randall Wray and James K. Galbraith could explain modern monetary theory and the potential for a vastly different system of public finance, including the possibility of quantitative easing for the people, as the Labour Party’s Jeremy Corbyn has been promoting in the UK.
US empire could be brought to the forefront, and explained on an institutional basis that is consistently completely absent from the corporate mass media, by people like Andrew Bacevich, Greg Grandin and Matthew Hoh.
Other civic leaders could appear to discuss any community-building efforts already underway. This could include everything from community groups, like some of those above, who desire a more compassionate or aspirational politics, to civic leaders leading movements, like Rev. William Barber of the North Carolina branch of the NAACP and the Moral Mondays movement, and Karen Lewis of the Chicago Teachers Union.
Activists could appear to both promote their work and discuss movement- and institution-building strategies with one another. This could help to create a broader movement culture, connecting many different groups with each other. This broader movement culture could include racial justice groups such as the Dream Defenders, Black Lives Matter, Black Youth Project 100, Million Hoodies and HandsUpUnited. It could include groups for undocumented people such as United We Dream. It could include groups for LGBTQ people like GetEQUAL, environmental groups like 350.org, student groups like the Ohio Student Association and democracy reform groups like 99Rise and Mayday. And it could include independent political parties such as the Green Party, the Socialist Alternative, Democratic Socialists of America and the Working Families Party.
An independent media channel associated with the Sanders campaign could both promote the campaign and begin to connect basically all elements of US progressive culture. A Sanders independent media channel could help to build such a comprehensive activist policy plan, which could outlast the Sanders campaign and serve as the basis for the political party that emerges from it.
The New, Independently Financed Party’s On-the-Ground Presence
The second big piece of an attempt by the Sanders campaign to build a new political party could be investment in candidates for office, including Sanders’ candidacy. Toward this goal, the Sanders campaign could invest the majority of its over $200 million in on-the-ground organizing. With real resources available, the Sanders campaign could possibly convince some of the most progressive Democrats to finance their campaigns through the new political party, rather than through the Democratic Party. It could also support the local candidacies of upstart candidates completely independent of the two parties.
Simply by naming our corrupt campaign finance system and our historic income and wealth inequality, the Sanders campaign has generated more electoral support than anyone ever imagined was possible. Aside from public financing of health care and education and a public finance commitment of $1 trillion to building infrastructure, the Sanders campaign has not presented alternative political and economic institutions, let alone any kind of comprehensive institutional reform model capable of transforming society in the way that Sanders frequently describes on the stump.
That is OK. Political campaigns don’t typically produce institutional models for change; they advocate for ones that currently exist. The two-party go-to think tank policy complex simply does not produce alternative institutions for electoral reform and people-driven economics opposed to corporate-driven economics. That said, the Sanders campaign so far has demonstrated little, if any, awareness of the aforementioned reform models built by grassroots groups and other practitioners, and imagined by academics and other experts. The campaign should actively seek to learn from these efforts, incorporate them into its platform and promote them through its campaigning.
These models — for alternative financing of elections and media; for creating a democratic and decentralized energy industry; for reducing our economic reliance on multinational corporations by supporting worker- and community-owned cooperatives through public procurement — can be the institutional program of a new political party, independent of big money interests, that fights for political and economic democracy.
The Sanders campaign can learn from movements and cede real control to them over the campaign. It can build a new political party committed to political and economic democracy that becomes the vehicle for the “political revolution” that Sanders calls for on the stump. All the Sanders campaign needs to do is seize the opportunity it has already made possible.