By Dustin Guastella
Senator Bernie Sanders has been mulling over a presidential run for the past few months and is set to make an announcement this week or next about his potential candidacy. Bernie, a self-proclaimed and vocal socialist, is a talented campaigner, a remarkably successful politician and broadly popular across the ideological spectrum in his home state. Should he decide to run, socialists need to play an active role in building his campaign, but we also need to think carefully about why a Bernie candidacy is important and how socialists should best support and shape such a campaign. For starters, I don’t think socialists should work for Bernie in the hopes of “reclaiming” the Democratic Party (when was it ours to begin with?). Further, Bernie’s presidential run shouldn’t be seen as a means to pull Clinton to the left, a failing strategy for sure.
The real benefit to building a viable campaign for Sanders in 2016 is the possibility of uniting burgeoning social movements and newly radicalized youth into an organized force. With the help of thousands of grassroots activists, Bernie could run an effective and inspiring campaign. It would be a chance for leftists to flex our electoral muscles and for millions to see that there is an alternative to the policies of neoliberal capitalism. If we’re smart, a Sanders presidential campaign could help us build DSA nationally while uniting coalition forces at the local level that could be mobilized for future socialist campaigns. Using Sanders as a mouthpiece and tribune, we could promote socialist analyses and bring issues like income inequality and workplace democracy into national political debates – and we could do all this not as good liberals but as socialists.
The S-Word Matters
At the height of his popularity Eugene V. Debs commanded more than a million votes. If we have any chance of matching that success in the future – of igniting mass support for socialist politics – we need to start with candidates who openly affirm socialism as a desirable and necessary alternative future.
Regardless of what you think of Sanders’ politics (is he a liberal, a European-style social democrat, a democratic socialist?) he identifies as a socialist. And in America this matters. Where every other national politician (including liberal darling Elizabeth Warren) scrambles to distance themselves from the s-word, Bernie has embraced it. He is the first serious left-wing candidate in a generation to do so. And while his vision looks more like Scandinavia than Marinaleda, he speaks about a future that millions of Americans find attractive, with a clear and compelling analysis.
That analysis is of course a narrative of class struggle, and Bernie could help to popularize it on a national level (as against moralizing narratives about greed and cruelty). Not only is this refreshing but it would help millions of working-class Americans make sense of their situation and the condition of the US economy and democracy. It would also serve to change the terms of the national political debate from one about more-or-less-government to one about class forces and class struggle.
While many liberals and progressives largely agree with such an analysis and have come to view socialism positively, too many of them see socialism, the word, as an unnecessary burden, a liability (as if we could easily expropriate the expropriators so long as we called it something else). We need those sympathetic voters to see socialism as “the name of their desire” and with Bernie as the major left-wing challenger he could serve to legitimate socialism as a political ideology in the eyes of millions.
The Most Successful Socialist?
One of the benefits to having Bernie run is that he’s actually quite good at it. The Flatbush native first became interested in left-wing politics as a student. He spent one year at Brooklyn College (at the time a hotbed of socialist organizing and debate) and then transferred to the University of Chicago. He was a member of the Young Peoples Socialist League, the small but vibrant youth section of the Socialist Party, heavily influenced by charismatic Trotskyist-turned-democratic-socialist Max Shachtman – the very same organization a young Mike Harrington joined across the country in New York City. He was active in the Civil Rights movement in the early 1960’s, including as an organizer for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee.
After graduating from Chicago Bernie set roots in Vermont working odd jobs. His electoral career began in the early 1970’s when he joined the anti-Vietnam War socialist-peacenik outfit the Liberty Union Party. For the better part of a decade, Bernie ran for and lost several races on the Liberty Union ticket.
As US politics began its monumental drift to the right – with the landslide election of Ronald Reagan in 1980 – it seemed like there was precious little space for left-wing politics in America. But within that space was precious little Burlington Vermont. In 1981 Sanders ran for mayor and won, defeating a six-term incumbent Democrat and establishing the so-called “Peoples Republic of Burlington” (the only US city to pledge solidarity with the Nicaraguan Sandinistas). Bernie was so successful in Burlington that even when both major parties conspired and endorsed a single candidate in 1987 he still emerged victorious.
After his tenure as Mayor, Bernie ran for Vermont’s at-large House seat in 1988. He was up against the Lieutenant Governor Peter Smith, a Republican, and Paul Poirier, a Democrat. Bernie ran as an independent and came in second with 38% of the vote. Ironically enough, the Democrat served as a spoiler, winning only 19%. But the campaign was instructive in that it proved Bernie could win poor rural white “woodchuck” support and urban liberal “flatlanders,” something Democrats had a very hard time doing. In 1990 Bernie ran against Smith again and won.
He went on to co-found the Congressional Progressive Caucus and spent 16 years representing Vermonters in the House. In 2005, he began campaigning for the Senate with the help of many prominent Democrats, including Chuck Schumer and Barack Obama (and some $65,000 from DSA members and friends). Bernie faced a Ross Perot-like candidate named Terry Tarrant. Tarrant drove a Bentley, hobnobbed with national Republican leaders and spent $7 million of his own money on the campaign. In the end, Tarrant lost by an embarrassing 33%. And in 2012 Bernie won the seat again, this time with 71% of the vote.
While Bernie is certainly a well respected progressive, some on the left have questioned his socialist credentials. Luckily, we can get a sense of Bernie’s politics and how he would govern through his voting record. He admirably voted against the invasion of Iraq and was a vocal critic of the war, giving speeches and lambasting Republicans and Democrats for their support of it. At the same time, Bernie voted to fund the wars and has supported sanctions against Iran. He has maintained that Israel has “the right to defend itself” and has been reliably quiet on Obama’s murderous foreign policy. Obviously these are serious weaknesses for any socialist candidate. We need to keep Bernie honest, and if we can unite activists to fight for his campaign we can and should pressure him to change some of his foreign policy positions.
In 2003 Sanders famously slammed Alan Greenspan as an “out of touch” plutocrat who cared more about CEOs and financial elites than working Americans. In the same speech he criticized monetarism and the “free-trade” deals that have come to define America’s economic policies and are now identified as the pillars of neoliberalism. Sanders has also been a vocal – probably the most vocal – critic of rising income inequality. Long before Occupy and Thomas Piketty made it politically fashionable, Sanders gave speeches on the House floor about the disappearance of middle-income jobs and the growing class divide. The Senator has recently introduced a WPA-style federal jobs and infrastructure bill that could support 13 million middle-wage jobs. So far he is the only potential candidate who supports a $15 minimum wage.
In Vermont Sanders is known for his attention to “pothole issues” and has fought for policies that have endeared him to many of his rural constituents. Recently he has pushed hard for more federal funding for dental care and the establishment of local free dental clinics. While this isn’t exactly a sexy issue and certainly not one that has national political appeal, it is the type of work that shows that Bernie’s popularity comes from his success at meeting the needs of poor and working-class Vermonters.
Overall, Bernie’s politics are squarely social-democratic. He lavishes praise on the welfare states of Sweden, Norway and Denmark and he doesn’t offer much in terms of moving beyond them. But unlike his European counterparts, Bernie enthusiastically supported the election of Syriza and wrote Fed Chair Janet Yellen to urge her to support that embattled government against Troika discipline (Bernie might be the only American senator who recognizes the threat of fascism in Europe and its relationship to neoliberal capitalism). This is important because although Bernie’s official program (if we can call it that) is a progressive social-democratic one, his position in American politics is radical. As Stathis Kouvelakis noted in a recent interview:
“A program’s radicalism is best measured in terms of conjuncture and not in the abstract. And in the current conjuncture even very modest or moderate demands take on what I would even call revolutionary dimensions.”
Indeed, if Bernie was pushing his agenda in Spain or Greece he would be much closer to the likes of Syriza and Podemos than their social-democratic counterparts. And while Bernie’s politics are hardly revolutionary, he could awaken a deep interest in radicalism throughout the country.
Dustin Guastella is co-chair of Philadelphia DSA. First published by Democratic Socialists of America.