Why I won’t be voting for Bernie

April 18, 2016

Bernie Sanders holds many positions worth supporting, but his allegiance to the Democratic Party is a deal-breaker, says Danny Katch.

BERNIE MANIA is in full effect in New York.

Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders has spoken to crowds of over 20,000 people in the Bronx and Greenwich Village, rallied with Verizon strikers and declared that "I welcome the contempt" of Verizon CEO Lowell McAdams, and drawn thunderous applause at the Brooklyn debate by calling for single-payer health care and free college tuition--forcing Hillary Clinton to clench her teeth through dozens of "Bernie!" chants before she could speak.

I have enthusiastically felt the Bern this past week, without ever questioning my decision to not vote for him (or Clinton) in the Democratic primary tomorrow.

Not because Sanders's isn't "radical enough" for me--although I do consider his version of socialism to be more like old-fashioned liberalism, especially his unquestioning support for the right of the U.S. to bomb and invade other countries.

But if a candidate with Sanders' platform were running as an independent, I would strongly consider supporting the campaign and working within it to try to push it further to the left. Bernie is running as a Democrat, however, and like other members of the International Socialist Organization (ISO), I don't vote for the Democratic Party (or the Republicans) as a matter of principle.

Bernie Sanders campaigning in Phoenix
Bernie Sanders campaigning in Phoenix (Gage Skidmore)

Some other leftists think this position is hopelessly rigid dogma: The ISO believes that supporting Democrats is a "fundamental sin", is how one dismissive author put it.

Frankly, when we're dealing with the ruling party of global capitalism--responsible for bailing out banks, breaking up immigrant families and bombing Muslims around the world--I wouldn't mind seeing the American left get a little more of that old-time religion.

But more importantly, upholding firm left-wing principles doesn't necessarily lead to sectarian irrelevance, a point that nobody has demonstrated more decisively than a certain Bernard Sanders.

The foundation of Bernie's mass appeal is that in era in which politicians are almost universally seen as corrupted by big money, he refuses to take money from corporate-funded political action committees (PACs).

It is from this position of principle that Sanders has been able to effectively argue--politely at first and more sharply as the campaign has gone on--that Hillary Clinton is fatally compromised by her reliance on big money donors who "expect to get something in return."

But the same point applies not just to Clinton but the entire Democratic Party, which is showered in donations and lobbyists from Wall Street to Walmart to weapons manufacturers, all of whom expect to get something in return.

So even though Bernie is the first presidential candidate in ages who seems to represent us, by running as a Democrat, he's asking us to continue giving our support a party that very much belongs to them.

ELECTIONS IN the U.S. are framed as contests between individual personalities rather than political parties with established agendas.

George W. Bush didn't campaign as a representative of a Republican Party committed to gutting taxes on the rich and waging war on the world: he was just a regular guy who'd be fun to have a beer with!

Barack Obama took the country by storm as a golden-tongued symbol of racial unity--rather than as a centrist Democrat aiming to keep Wall Street humming and restore the Pentagon's credibility after Bush's quagmires.

In this political culture, it's natural that most people view Bernie Sanders--an out and proud socialist who has long worked closely with the Democratic Party but formally kept himself independent until this year--not as a representative of the Democrats but as his own unique phenomenon. But unfortunately that's not how this system works.

Just as a corporate super PAC doesn't donate to a politician without expecting something in return, a corporate-owned party like the Democrats doesn't allow a candidate like Sanders into its presidential race without expecting something in return, and what they're getting from Bernie is loyalty and credibility.

In the very likely event that Sanders loses the nomination, he says he will endorse Clinton. Just as importantly, the strategy behind his "political revolution" is based on his campaign inspiring a surge of voter enthusiasm that leads to both houses of Congress being taken over by Democrats--the vast majority of whom, remember, are far more like Hillary Clinton than Bernie Sanders.

Neither of these constitutes a "betrayal" by Sanders of his supporters, most of whom are still loyal Democrats. There is, however, a sizable minority who don't plan to support Clinton if she wins, but many of those stances will soften between July and November--particularly when Sanders and most of his prominent supporters demand a vote for Clinton as the "lesser evil" compared to Donald Trump or Ted Cruz.

For the left, the argument to support the lesser evil is all short-term fear and no long-term strategy. Every four years, Democrats renew their license to push the agenda of their wealthy backers--all they have to do in return is make the obvious case that the Republicans would be even worse.

In recent years, we've seen initially powerful anti-war and immigrant rights movements become tamed by the fear of the Republicans into being largely quiet over Obama's drone warfare (better than Cruz's carpet bombing!) and record deportations (not as bad as Trump's wall!)

The Democratic Party has long been the secret weapon of the American ruling class for preventing the growth of a strong left opposition--both at the ballot box and in the streets. The principle of left independence is important not only to help independent presidential campaigns like the Green Party's Jill Stein but also to prevent the next generation of activists from getting sucked into the Democrats' co-optation machine.

THERE ARE many leftists who agree with these points but nonetheless argue that Bernie's campaign is just...different.

And in many ways it is. The Sanders campaign is stronger than any left-wing attempt to win the Democratic Party since Jesse Jackson's presidential runs in 1984 and 1988--before many Bernie voters were born.

The Sanders phenomenon is part of a global response to the travesty of the financial crisis and bank bailouts, fueling political earthquakes from Jeremy Corbyn winning the Labor Party in Britain to the rise of new parties like Podemos in Spain and SYRIZA in Greece.

Unlike the situations in many countries, however, our left-wing electoral revolt is taking place inside a party owned by the One Percent, which creates a contradictory situation.

On the one hand, Bernie's success is exposing millions of his supporters to the crooked inner workings of the Democratic Party--from the sham of superdelegates to the shenanigans of party leaders like Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz.

On the other hand, Sanders is giving the Democrats new life by convincing a fresh generation of would-be radicals that the party is the best means of working for progressive change.

"If Bernie had run as a Green or independent, he never would have gotten this far." That's the lesson being drawn by progressives across the country. Within a few months, there will another lesson--that the price to pay for this access is obedience to the forces that truly run the Democratic Party.

Whether or not the most determined Sanders supporters grow disillusioned from this experience or more radical depends in large part on the degree to which the small but real forces of the U.S. left are working to provide independent alternatives--from Jill Stein's campaign to Verizon strike solidarity committees to revolutionary socialist organizations.

ONE OF the most important lessons we can learn from the Sanders campaign is, ironically, the possibilities that exist for a vibrant independent American left.

By galvanizing opposition to past Democratic policies and financing his run exclusively on small donations, Sanders has identified millions of working people who could be willing to finally reject their party and begin the hard work of building organizations that belong to us--our own political party and our own unions and protest groups that don't rely on the false promises of politicians.

Unfortunately, just at this time of potential for laying the groundwork for independent politics, many leftists are throwing themselves into the Sanders campaign, often with the claim that this is the only time they're ever going to vote for a Democrat.

I don't doubt their sincerity, but it isn't clear to me why they won't make similar exceptions in the coming years for the near-inevitable wave of Sanders-inspired "socialist" Democrats--or Sanders-style "independent" parties like the Working Families Party that aim to pressure the Democrats from the left but ultimately get in line behind party demands.

For the ISO, not supporting the Sanders campaign doesn't mean lecturing Sanders supporters "from the sidelines" as the tired cliché goes. It means working alongside them (and Clinton supporters too) to protest Donald Trump and support striking Verizon workers.

Above all, it means holding forums and study groups around socialism, political revolution and other ideas that Sanders has done us the enormous favor of bringing into mainstream political vocabulary.

Most Bernie supporters don't agree with our position on his campaign, of course, but they aren't at all hostile. Instead they are curious. They're not just interested in Sanders but in socialism, and what kind of strategies and movements it will take to make his ideas a reality.

One of the major tasks for the U.S. left is to win Bernie Sanders voters to a fuller understanding of socialism that recognizes the hostile class forces at the heart of the Democratic Party.

That's a process that will extend way beyond this November, but it starts now by putting our principles into practice and not supporting the Democrats via voting for Bernie in the Democratic primary.

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