When Sen. Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy last year, most of the left celebrated. Sanders had been a fierce critic of the Washington establishment, and his platform — a wish list of progressive left demands, including free higher education, national health care and a $15 an hour minimum wage — was viewed by many as evidence that his campaign would be fundamentally different than previous left primary insurgencies. His decision to openly run as a democratic socialist further intensified this expectation.
However, it wasn’t long before the criticisms of his campaign began to emerge, mostly from among the small but more levelheaded sections of the socialist left. Writing for the Black Agenda Report, managing editor Bruce Dixon argued that the campaign was just another iteration of the Democratic Party tactic of shepherding stray leftists and disaffected liberals back into the party. As Dixon stated, “the sheepdog’s job [here Sanders is the sheepdog] is to divert the energy and enthusiasm of activists a year, a year and a half out from a November election away from building an alternative to the Democratic Party, and into his doomed effort.” Though many on the left shared Dixon’s concerns, Sanders’ stunning performances on the stump and his initial victories quickly dispelled these questions as people began to believe he might actually stand a chance of winning the nomination.
Those who warned us against a Sanders candidacy within the Democratic Party were right all along.
Fast-forward to April 2016 and the effects of this uncritical enthusiasm are evident everywhere. Despite his crushing defeat in New York, and Hillary Clinton’s nearly insurmountable delegate lead, Sanders’ supporters continue to insist not only that he can win the presidential nomination, but that he will win. Even those with enough sense to recognize his chances are slim to none are nonetheless encouraging him to continue to run all the way to the convention in the hopes of building an insurgency from the convention floor.
Meanwhile well-intentioned campaigns to vote for “Bernie or bust” have led to infighting and bickering among leftists worried about the prospects of a Donald Trump presidency, while the undemocratic nature of the primary process has given birth to a chorus of reformist demands to change the voting system. Indeed, the April 19 New York State elections may be remembered as the primaries that launched a thousand petitions. Meanwhile, as Sanders’ numbers and the likelihood of his victory have fallen, his supporters have begun to turn their attention to the budding new crop of radical Democrats rising like weeds in the furrows plowed by his campaign.
But all of the arguments against Bernie or bust, all of the newfound enthusiasm for down ballot “left” Democrats, all of the petitions for open primaries, and all the liberal Facebook chatter about using Sanders’ campaign to take over the Democratic Party only go to show that those who warned us against a Sanders candidacy within the Democratic Party were right all along. It’s becoming clear that Sanders’ campaign will strengthen, but likely not change, the Democratic Party. As the Sanders campaign winds down, a historic political shift proceeding from Occupy Wall Street, Black Lives Matter and the Fight for $15 is, like its predecessor, the antiwar movement, being co-opted by pragmatic progressives who claim there is no alternative but to work for change from within the Democratic Party.
Thinking we can reform or take over the Democratic Party is the real idealist fantasy.
Such prognoses, however, are imaginatively impoverished and historically fallacious. The Democratic Party has never been a friend of the working classes, the poor or youth. Indeed, many of the most brutal and devastating attacks on working people, children and families (trade deals like NAFTA, welfare reform and cuts to food stamps, not to mention massive cuts to higher education) have been carried out by Democrats. Furthermore, like the Republicans, the Democratic Party establishment is bought and sold by business elites whose donations to both parties keep them beholden to elite interests.
At a time when the Democrats’ expected nominee is supported by Charles Koch, when there are almost as many independents as there are registered Democrats and Republicans combined, and when young Americans have a more favorable view of socialism than capitalism, pragmatic progressives’ dismissal of building radical third parties, and their insistence that there is no alternative, is not only strategically mistaken, but reactionary and dangerous.
As Nina Simone said, “to do things gradually will bring more tragedy,” and working people can’t afford another failed attempt to reform the Democratic Party or another decade or two of Democratic rule. Working people are hurting now, and the only way to stop that suffering and win any long-term gains is to continue to build the movements around radical demands such as free college for all, national health care, guaranteed employment, a minimum living wage pegged to inflation, and the nationalization of banks and natural resources.
Voting is not enough, donating money to candidates is not enough, phone banking and signing petitions is not enough.
Meanwhile, we must simultaneously begin the process of creating a viable working-class party that can fight for those demands from the ground up and build upon the enthusiasm and radicalism of this new generation to challenge the two-party establishment, first in local and then in statewide races across the country. Such a plan is about as straightforward and pragmatic as it gets. Thinking we can reform or take over the Democratic Party is the real idealist fantasy.
It’s time we accepted the hard truth that Sanders is all but finished and realize, with a sigh of relief, that we never really needed him to begin with. We are bigger than any one candidate, and in the months to come there are going to be hundreds of meetings, assemblies and gatherings to discuss how to build the movements and parties we will need to win, including alternative conventions in Philadelphia and across the country. We should seek to participate in those meetings and help to build them and the organizations hosting them.
At the same time, we should seek to educate one another about what socialism really is, and learn to finally shake off the influence of those social democrats like Sanders and Robert Reich, who would seek to save capitalism from itself, but who have no vision for an alternative beyond capitalism. But most importantly, we have to face the fact that voting is not enough, donating money to candidates is not enough, phone banking and signing petitions is not enough. If we really believe in the idea of a political revolution and want to participate in the construction of a new world, we will have to work for it every day, not just every two or four years.