Getting ready for Bernie 2020

February 27, 2019

Danny Katch, author of Why Bad Governments Happens to Good People, kicks off the discussion of what the left should make of Sanders’ 2020 presidential campaign. We expect this article and others about the Sanders 2020 campaign to inspire a healthy debate. SW will compile contributions to the discussion of Sanders 2020 in an ongoing series, just as we have previous debates about socialists, national politics and the Democratic Party. Send your comment or a response to an article to [email protected].

DONALD TRUMP used his State of the Union address to throw down the gauntlet before the new socialist movement. “We are born free, and we will stay free,” Trump declared. “Tonight, we renew our resolve that America will never be a socialist country.”

Following the president’s script, news cameras cut to the disgusted scowl on the face of America’s most famous socialist, Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, who gave a stinging rebuttal later that night: “People are not truly free when they can’t afford to go to the doctor when they are sick.”

But his real reply came two weeks later when Sanders announced his 2020 presidential candidacy. In the first 24 hours, Bernie’s campaign raised $6 million from 250,000 individual donors.

Trump barely had that many people come to his inauguration — and half of them were probably just there to drop off unmarked envelopes of cash with Trump’s former fixer Michael Cohen.

Bernie Sanders

If the past month is any indication, one of the most hotly debated topics in the next presidential election will be the meaning of socialism itself: Is it the catastrophe playing out in Venezuela or a planetary-saving Green New Deal? Meanwhile, for hundreds of thousands of Sanders supporters, the bruising campaign ahead will further their disgust with the machinations of the Democratic Party.

All of this means that Bernie’s 2020 campaign presents tremendous opportunities to expand the new socialist movement that his 2016 run partly inspired.

But to make the most of those opportunities, those of us who see socialism as not just a set of domestic policies like Medicare for All and the Green New Deal, but the vast, unruly power of the global working class making its own history, also need to soberly assess the campaign’s limitations.

Most obviously, the socialism invoked by Sanders is limited to U.S. borders, an untenable lead to follow for socialists organizing inside the world’s largest and most violent empire.

Beyond that, Sanders’ talk about “political revolution” and people needing to “stand up and fight back” may evoke for some of us images of strikes and protests, but generally refers to sweeping election victories for a Democratic Party that has been revived under Sanders’ influence.

Sanders’ political revolution is simultaneously an indictment of the corporate two-party system and a call to re-infuse that system by giving the Democrats a new dose of young, radical energy.

There have been and will continue to be debates in Socialist Worker about whether we’re better off working inside or outside the campaigns of socialists like Sanders who operate inside a Democratic Party that we understand to be irredeemably hostile to working-class interests.

Whichever side of that argument you fall on, it’s important to grapple with how radicals can critically engage with Bernie 2020 to help shape how the largest audience in generations will understand what socialism is and how we can get there.

THE MOST obvious way that Bernie’s second presidential run will be different from his first is that he’s starting off with the very thing he lacked in early 2015: vast name recognition and a huge base of supporters.

That could make all the difference in the world in early primaries in the Southern states, where the then-lesser-known Sanders got hammered by Hillary Clinton in 2016.

This time, Bernie is also bolstered by prominent socialists like Rashida Tlaib and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, whose elections to Congress last year now make Sanders look less like a lone prophet and more like a trendsetter.

Just as importantly, these dynamic women of color will greatly blunt the impact of the “Bernie Bro” charge — the cynical narrative from 2016 promoted by Democratic operatives to manipulate the questions about whether struggles against racism and sexism had a prime place in Sanders’ political revolution into an argument for the empty neoliberal platitudes of the Hillary Clinton campaign.

Speaking of which, another obvious change from the last election is that many Democrats who lined up behind Clinton’s “Three cheers for the neoliberal status quo!” campaign are now tacking far closer to Bernie’s positions.

Presidential candidates are tripping over one other to support Medicare for All, including New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker — previously known as the senator from Big Pharma.

It’s become commonplace to say that Sanders has moved the Democratic Party to the left, but let’s make an important distinction: While Democratic voters are genuinely moving left, many Democratic politicians are following them like a cornerback looking to swat away a pass.

Talk, after all, is notoriously cheap. As Eoin Higgins recently reported for New York, a number of incoming Democratic members of Congress have already started walking back their campaign promises to support Medicare for All.

There’s a similar dynamic regarding the Green New Deal. While party leaders like Nancy Pelosi grumpily dismiss the ambitious plan to put millions to work building an economy based on renewable energy as “the green dream, or whatever they call it”, other liberals are eager to grab hold of the Green New Deal and strip it of all radical content.

A prime example came from the New York Times editorial board, which “endorsed” Green New Deal legislation from Ocasio-Cortez and Sen. Ed Markey, only to completely redefine it.

“Read literally,” the Times wrote, “the resolution wants not only to achieve a carbon-neutral energy system but also to transform the economy itself. As Mr. Markey can tell you from past experience, the first goal is going to be hard enough. Tackling climate change in a big way is in itself likely to be transformative.”

As if the Green New Deal’s entire premise isn’t that we can stop climate change by transforming the economy!

IN 2016, Sanders, Trump and Clinton laid bare a developing political reality: The U.S. may have two political parties, but it is moving toward three political bases: right-wing nationalists, neoliberal centrists and an emerging left made up of New Deal liberals, radicals and socialists of different stripes.

One of the key debates facing this left is whether it should be working toward establishing independence from the centrists who continue to have a firm grip on the Democratic Party or whether it needs to unite with the center against the hard right.

It’s not a simple question for everyone to answer given the tremendous threats posed by the continuing rule of Trump and his band of white nationalists. When it comes to protests to defend our rights from the Trumpists, we need maximum unity of the type seen in the Women’s Marches and in the aftermath of Charlottesville murder.

But when it comes to putting out a positive vision of what we’re for — which is what elections are supposed to be about — it’s urgent for this country to finally develop an independent left that represents the people of all races, genders and nationalities who make up the vast working-class majority.

One thing that hasn’t changed from the last election is Sanders’ contradictory message about this key question of unity versus independence. If anything, his increased stature has only heightened the conflict.

Unlike last time, Sanders is running to win from the start, and he’s doing so without any signs of watering down his platform. That’s both a powerful statement of independence and a bid to unify the party under his left-wing leadership.

Despite his rhetoric about both parties being under the influence of the billionaire class, Sanders has generally been unwilling to subject the Democratic Party to his withering criticism — a reticence he ascribes to sticking to a positive message, but that also mirrors his longtime strategy of not straying too far from the party’s good graces.

But if Sanders wants to win a race against candidates who are trying to co-opt his policies, he’ll have to argue why he should be more trusted to fight for them, which could push him toward sharper critiques of his rivals and their party. If that happens, Sanders will be showered with howls of protest that he’s weakening a party that needs to unite against Trump — which would damage his claim that he’s capable of leading it.

IT’S UP to Sanders to deal with the contradictions of a socialist candidate trying to win the Democratic Party nomination. It’s up to us to navigate the different contradictions we face of bolstering his radical message while challenging its limitations.

Here are some initial thoughts for how we go about it:

Work with activists inside and outside the Sanders campaign to organize rallies and teach-ins around Bernie’s initiatives like Medicare for All, free college tuition and others; defend them from Republican smears and Democratic dilutions; and use every opportunity to expose the good cop-bad cop routine of the two-party system.

Use the same method with Ocasio-Cortez, Tlaib and Ilhan Omar in defense of the Green New Deal, cutting funds to ICE and Palestine solidarity — and publicly fight for this approach with allies who fear it jeopardizes anti-Trump unity.

Publicly criticize Sanders on his lack of internationalism, and urge his most left-wing supporters to do so as well.

Sanders is not a war hawk like most leading Democrats. But he doesn’t challenge the Pentagon the way he calls out Wall Street, and he’s virtually silent on his party’s deep ties to the war machine.

His statement about last month’s coup attempt in Venezuela was a tepid condemnation of the history of U.S. intervention in Latin America that said nothing of the Obama administration’s far more recent sanctions and destabilization efforts against the Maduro government.

Just as importantly, Sanders has repeatedly supported trade sanctions against China and protectionist measures against “American jobs” going overseas. It’s critical for the new socialist movement to argue that U.S. and Chinese workers have more in common with each other than we do with our bosses.

Build local socialist electoral campaigns outside of the Democratic Party to lay the groundwork in the coming years for the independent party that Tlaib, Ocasio-Cortez and Sanders could be helping to lead right now if it existed.

DURING BERNIE’S first campaign, many of these ideas might have seemed abstract with little opportunity for implementation. But that’s the other major difference this time around: a larger and more radical left.

Recently, a comrade of mine recalled a prediction that I had made in 2016. Here’s what I wrote:

Whether or not the most determined Sanders supporters grow disillusioned from this experience [of Sanders’ endorsing Hillary Clinton after the party convention] 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.

This forecast, the comrade helpfully pointed out, turned out to be very wrong, and that’s a great thing.

Hundreds of thousands of Sanders supporters have grown more radical through a myriad of channels I never anticipated: the waves of protests against Trump’s atrocities; the campaigns of new socialists like Tlaib and Ocasio-Cortez; the growth of socialist groups like the Democratic Socialists of America and protest organizations like the Sunrise Movement; a profound new awakening of survivors speaking out against sexual assault; and the return of old-fashioned class struggle in the form a now yearlong teacher strike wave.

For the first time in many decades, the building blocks for a powerful socialist left in the U.S. are coming into view. We all need to think about how we can use the opportunity of Bernie’s second campaign to make that left larger and stronger coming out of 2020.

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