Debating “The case for Bernie 2020”
“The Case for Bernie 2020,” at the Socialist Call website. The article was submitted to the Socialist Call and Jacobin, and not accepted — and is published here to contribute to discussion on the left., a longtime socialist and activist in the Professional Staff Congress, the union for faculty and staff at the City University of New York, wrote this article in response to one by Neal Meyer and Ben B., headlined
THE RECENT victories by socialists running in Democratic Primaries have once again put the question of socialists and electoral politics at the center of political debate on the left. While establishment Democrats won more primary races and will continue to dominate the party’s Congressional delegation, even if the Democrats “flip” the House or Senate in 2018, many on the socialist left are looking forward to a 2020 Bernie Sanders presidential campaign in the Democratic primaries.
Neal Meyer and Ben B.’s “The Case for Bernie 2020” published at the Socialist Call website puts forward a bold vision of how the socialist left can intervene in a new Sanders’ campaign to prepare the way for the emergence of an independent working class political party in the U.S.
Meyer and B. reject the two most common left approaches to the Democrats: “lesser evilism” and attempts to reform the Democratic Party. They understand that aligning the socialist left with whomever the Democrats nominate because they are not open reactionaries like most Republican nominees has been a disaster.
This approach has led the U.S. left, almost continually since the 1930s, to give up independent organizing of working and oppressed people in order to “defeat the right.” As a result, the Democrats see no obstacle to their drift to the right, as they implement policies in office that materially hurt workers, people of color, immigrants, women and queer folks at home and abroad. As the segments of working people search for an alternative to the Democrats, the only one they find is the populist far right.
Neal and Ben also reject futile attempts to “reform” or “realign” the Democrats from a neoliberal capitalist party into a working-class party. They recognize that the Democrats today are nothing more than a fundraising cartel, dominated by unelected and unaccountable committees that serve as the conduit between capitalists and Democratic candidates.
In the place of these failed strategies, Neal and Ben, and others in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), advocate running in Democratic primaries as open socialists.
On the one hand, they think this strategy will allow socialists to avoid being labeled “spoilers” who help elect Republicans by running on third-party lines. On the other hand, they believe that socialists challenging the neoliberals in the Democratic primaries will deepen the polarization between “a dominant corporate and an insurgent progressive wing” of the Democratic Party. This will prepare for what some have called a “dirty split,” in which a growing pro-socialist/pro-working class electorate will eventually withhold their votes from the pro-capitalist Democrats and support an independent working class party.
WHILE I am skeptical about the practicality of a “dirty split” from the Democrats in the early 21st century, let’s consider what implementing this strategy would involve. Put simply, it would involve building “a party within a party.”
Socialists running in Democratic primaries will not only have to openly declare their politics, but make it clear that their primary loyalty is to their socialist organization. Practically, this would mean, first, refusing to support corporate Democrats in general elections — to call for their supporters to abstain from voting if socialists are defeated in the primaries. Second, if socialists won the primary and the general election, they would have to be prepared to caucus independently from the “regular” Democrats in various legislative bodies, so as not be prisoners of the pro-capitalist politicians.
In the case of the 2020 presidential elections, this strategy will require socialists to publically declare for “Bernie or Bust” from the beginning of the campaign. They will need to make it clear to all concerned that socialists will not, under any circumstance, support any candidate other than Sanders. They will need to distribute literature and hold public meetings to organize other Bernie supporters around this perspective throughout the campaign.
Put simply, socialists will have to build an independent campaign within the Sanders’ campaign that will refuse to support the corporate Democrats in the fall of 2020 at the same time as they are the “best builders” of the Sanders campaign.
Socialists will be building a “campaign within the campaign” under very different circumstances in 2020 than in 2016. While the “superdelegates” have been eliminated from the first ballot at the Democratic National Convention, Sanders will again face the sort of dirty tricks the Democratic establishment used in 2016.
Even more importantly, Sanders faces mainstream, corporate Democrats co-opting major elements of his platform. The strategy of Pelosi and the de facto Democratic leadership in the 2018 Congressional elections has been to “let a thousand flowers bloom.” Democratic candidates are free to campaign on the issues that are most likely to win House and Senate seats. Some, like Connor Lamb and other Democrats in the “Rust Belt,” barely raise any criticisms of Trump. Others, like committed neoliberals Cory Booker, Kirsten Gillibrand and Kamala Harris are tacking left. They talk about supporting “Medicare for All” while actually defending the Affordable Care Act as the only “practical solution.”
It will be much more difficult for Sanders to establish himself as a clear, left-wing alternative in 2020, as establishments Democrats, in particular the chameleon-like Elizabeth Warren, appropriate the more popular elements of his platform. And even if no “frontrunner” emerges by the time of the national convention, the “superdelegates” will step in on the second ballot to ensure that a “safe” corporate Democrat is nominated in 2020.
UNDER THE best of circumstances, a “campaign within the campaign” will face enormous hostility from a variety of forces.
Most obviously, the corporate Democrats will use organizing for “Bernie or Bust” as a club against the Sanders campaign. They will argue that Sanders and his supporters are “not really Democrats” and are not truly interested in defeating Trump and his minions. Not only will this position give them cover for a new round of “dirty tricks,” but it will also be used to justify changes in party rules that will make commitment to the eventual Democratic nominee the prerequisite for running in party primaries.
Socialists will also face the hostility of the “Berniecrats” in Our Revolution and other “progressive” formations in the Democratic Party. These forces are thoroughly committed to yet another futile attempt to reform the Democrats and will argue that socialists must support whomever the Democrats nominate in 2020. Many DSA comrades, including many (if not most) of the DSA members who are elected officials, will also argue against a “Bernie or Bust” position because they, too, remain committed to reforming the Democratic Party.
We can already see the pressures of running as Democrats on the most important DSA candidate in 2018, Alexandra Ocasio-Cortez. Within weeks of her upset victory over Joe Crowley for the Democratic nomination for a House seat from Queens and the Bronx, she was backtracking on her commitments to ending deportations, opposing U.S. aid to Israel, and opposing militarism.
More recently, she has endorsed the re-election of pro-corporate, neoliberal Democratic gubernatorial nominee Andrew Cuomo — as he dismissed her victory and those of other socialists and progressives in the Democratic Party. Ocasio-Cortez and other DSA comrades who have won Democratic primaries are generally not advocates of a “dirty break.” Not surprisingly, they have not committed to caucusing independently from the Democrats in state and national legislatures, a minimal precondition for laying the groundwork for a future split with the corporate Democrats. Despite the excellent statement by the New York City DSA criticizing Osacio-Cortez’s support for Cuomo, they have not been able to hold her accountable.
Finally, the majority of the newly radicalized young people who will flock to a 2020 Bernie campaign will be hostile to a “campaign within the campaign.” Most continue to believe that elections, not disruptive strikes and social movements, are the road to political power. They desire more than anything to remove Trump from the White House and will probably bend to the pressure to support whomever the Democrats nominate.
Even if socialists do not endorse or build an independent presidential campaign after Sanders’ likely defeat in 2020, they will still be cast as “spoilers” if they do not actively campaign for the Democratic nominee. The pressures of “lesser evilism” will be greater in 2020 than at almost any time in the past 90 years.
Especially if the Democrats can make gains in the 2018 Congressional elections, the prospect of possibly replacing the noxious orange-skinned monster in the White House will lead all Democrats — “establishment” and “progressive” — to demand every effort to “dump Trump.” If past experience is any indication, much of the socialist left will fall in line. It will be much more difficult for socialists to do what they did in 2016, when 74 prominent members of DSA refused to support Hillary Clinton against Donald Trump.
TO WITHSTAND these enormous pressures will require a much larger and more politically and organizationally cohesive socialist movement than exists today in the U.S. Ultimately, the main obstacle faced by both Mayer and B.’s strategy and independent electoral campaigns is the absence of a sufficiently large minority of working people who are willing to either not vote for a Democrat or “waste their vote” on an independent candidate.
Such an audience will emerge from the deepening and broadening of working-class struggle, both inside and outside the workplace. The “red state” teachers’ revolt will have to spread both to the “blue states” and to other sections of the working class. Struggle against police brutality, for universal amnesty for undocumented workers, reproductive rights and Medicare for All will have to be much broader and more powerful than they are today.
Only when a significant segment of working people experience their social power outside the electoral arena will there be mass support for either effectively boycotting the corporate Democrats or for an independent party of working people.
Building such struggles will require organizing a new “militant minority” in the labor and social movements that can act independently and, if necessary, against the forces of official reformism — the labor officialdom and the middle class leaders of the movements of the oppressed.
Neal, Ben and I agree on the need to build struggles that are democratically organized, attempt to unite working people on the basis of common solidarity, and confront the employers and the state through actions that break the law when necessary. We have already seen the impact small groups of socialists, armed with this vision, can have on real struggles in the teachers’ strikes in West Virginia and Arizona. For the first time in nearly 40 years, the socialist left has the capacity to impact mass movements and, possibly, begin to shift the terrain of U.S. politics.
However, this strategy for rebuilding the labor and social movements has been incompatible with support for the Democrats. Electoral campaigns, especially those that hope to ameliorate social problems by electing progressives have a very different logic than mass movements. Election campaigns that simply seek to win office have a simple goal — getting out 50 percent-plus-one voters to the polls on the lowest common denominator.
Mass strikes and disruptive social movements, on the other hand, require broader and broader layers of people willing to challenge both the employers and the state in often illegal actions. Historically, socialists attempts to combine building combative struggles in the workplace and the streets with Democratic Party election campaigns, including for candidates who espouse a social-democratic politics, have led to the abandonment of radicalizing struggles for an alliance with “progressive” Democrats.
THE TENSIONS between movement building and Democratic Party campaigns will impact the relationship between socialists and most progressive Democratic Party activists.
While socialists want to use their support of candidates like Sanders to build disruptive strikes and street actions, most Democratic Party campaigners simply want to win elections. Even the most left-wing Democratic Party organizer knows that winning elections requires winning “moderate voters” — those most likely to be alienated by militant mass struggles.
The tensions between a movement-building strategy and Democratic Party election campaigns, even the most progressive or socialist, can also undermine rank-and-file organizing.
It is not unimaginable that elements of the union officialdom and the leaders of the mainstream organizations of women, people of color and queer folks will again support “progressive” Democrats in the hope of increasing their influence in the party. This was the strategy of the leaders of the major industrial unions from the mid-1930s through the 1988 election, when most supported Jesse Jackson’s unsuccessful primary campaign for president.
The decline of the labor and social movements has led most of their official leadership to slavishly support the every rightward-moving nominee of the Democrats, culminating in the early endorsement of Hillary Clinton by most unions in the 2016 primary season.
Even in 2016, several major unions did support Sanders — most importantly, the Communications Workers of America. Faced with renewed strikes, often initiated against their will, other union officials and the middle class leaderships of the movements of the oppressed may again embrace left-leaning Democrats against their corporate opponents in the party.
This will pose difficult choices for those who support both Sanders and a rank-and-file strategy in those unions. Do we prioritize the Sanders campaign and bury our differences with the union leaders? Or do we prioritize rebuilding militancy, solidarity and democracy, even if this “alienates” pro-Sanders officials?
I won’t be joining DSA comrades in the Sanders’ campaign or other socialist campaigns in the Democratic Party. I believe that a position of independence allows greater freedom to make the political arguments against lesser evilism, educate for independent politics and reorganize the “militant minority” in the labor and social movements.
Hopefully, we will find arenas to work together — including independent campaigns, like that of the Green socialists Howie Hawkins and Jia Lee for New York state governor and lieutenant governor, and other local independent and socialist electoral campaigns. No matter what our disagreements, we should all be working together to rebuild the militant minority in workplaces and communities and revive the mass struggles that are essential to making socialism a mass movement in the U.S. once again.