By Dustin Guastella
The Democratic Field: Clinton v. Warren v. Bernie
The media have already christened Hillary Clinton as the Democratic nominee. Clinton’s coronation should come as no surprise, as she has positioned herself as a friend of Wall Street (and Wal-Mart). She advocates fiscal discipline and so-called “privatized Keynesianism” and takes her political advice from “the markets.” She prides herself on her role in gutting welfare, her aggressive foreign policy and her close relationships with Republican leaders. Most damning of all: BENGHAZI! I don’t think I have to convince readers of this blog that she is the epitome of a neoliberal Democrat and her candidacy represents what Tariq Ali calls “the extreme center”.
Many progressive Democrats are frustrated by her supposedly inevitable victory. They want someone to challenge Clinton. Unfortunately, they don’t want Bernie. For months now, progressives in and outside the party have called on “populist” Senator Elizabeth Warren to run. And even though Warren has made it clear that she won’t, organizations like MoveOn and Democracy for America (and even to some extent the Working Families Party) have committed to a “draft Warren” campaign. Worse yet, some of the same progressive forces who want her to run don’t necessarily want her to win. They would like to see her “toughen Hillary up” for the general election and pull her to the left on economic issues, but ultimately they are content with a Clinton victory.
While Warren’s stance on high finance is commendable, overall she is not as strong a candidate as Bernie. She is close to the Democratic Party establishment, she has expressed strong support for Israel, she has spouted surprisingly hawkish rhetoric about Iran, she wrote a book proposing “school-choice” as a solution to a shrinking middle class (although recently she has recanted, claiming her views were misinterpreted), she has consistently praised “entrepreneurs” and even fancies herself the “savior of capitalism.” It’s unclear why liberal organizations have championed her cause and snubbed Bernie — maybe they are afraid of socialism, or maybe they see Bernie’s age as a hindrance, or see his maleness as a deterrent for voters eager to vote for a woman. Nonetheless, it doesn’t look like she is running, and lately she hasn’t even been able to criticize Clinton or the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party. Why would progressives waste their time stumping for a candidate who simply isn’t interested?
Bernie’s candidacy is much more likely, but he has assured us that if he runs he will run as a Democrat. This is obviously a sore subject among those who wish to see him buck the two major parties and run as an independent. Unfortunately, socialists do not have the capacity to get his name on the ballot in all 50 states, and with liberals throwing their weight behind Warren’s non-campaign we likely wouldn’t get much ground support outside of the ideological left. But despite the fact that he will be running in the Democratic primary, I don’t see his campaign as a “reclaim the party” initiative.
Through tabling and handbilling about why socialism is the key to emancipatory politics and defining Bernie first and foremost as a socialist who happens to work within the Democratic Party apparatus, we could use Bernie’s campaign to effectively contribute to building a vibrant, independent socialist movement outside the Democrats. We should also be clear that American political organizations like the Democratic and Republican parties are hardly political parties in the classic sense. They are ideologically pluralist to the extreme and essentially serve as election machines that pack up the day after a campaign. Rank-and-file “members” have no say in the direction of these organizations and are unable to affect the policy decisions of party leaders. With this in mind, we should spare ourselves a debate about whether voting for Bernie as a Democrat will irreparably tarnish his politics (or ours), but likewise we shouldn’t console ourselves in the belief that Bernie will mark a turning point in the Democratic Party and will singlehandedly turn it into some sort of engine of working-class progress.
Building a Bernie Platform
The effectiveness of a Bernie campaign depends on his ability to connect with working-class Democratic voters and with those disaffected voters who see the two parties as more or less identical. Well known for championing workers’ rights (he is often met with a hero’s welcome at union halls across the country), Bernie needs to be the Fight for $15 candidate in 2016. In almost every major city and in some key political battlegrounds, the Fight for $15 is taking off and a broader movement for income equity is coalescing. Coming off the heels of a major national day of strikes and demonstrations, Bernie’s upcoming announcement should target low-wage workers from McDonald’s to Wal-Mart and everywhere in between. He should call for a $15 federal minimum wage triple-indexed to inflation, productivity and cost of living, and the abolition of the so-called tipped minimum wage. In so doing he would cull the support of major unions who have spent the past year (and a ton of cash) pushing for $15, but he would also likely attract a large swath of low-wage workers outside the organized labor movement, many of whom are alienated and disillusioned. It would help define Bernie as the anti-corporate candidate and would put him in stark opposition to business-friendly Democrats and especially Clinton, who certainly doesn’t want to upset her Walton family friends and donors. Furthermore, not to be too hopeful, an emphasis on labor issues could pry the AFL-CIO endorsement from Clinton the Inevitable, which would mean more than encouragement, it would mean local ground troops.
Exploiting contradictions in the Democratic Party — that is, the widening gap between the voters and the donors — should also be a key aspect of Bernie’s run. Not only would it help Bernie pull support from the supposedly “ready for Hillary” base that is often taken for granted, it could also drum up support from outside the party — those left-wing independents who are looking for a genuine alternative. While Clinton’s boosters have branded her as a progressive, if pushed on any number of issues, from trade to economic inequality, Bernie would take the debate. He could fire up the working-class Democratic voter base and expose her as a corporate hawk. Rather than pull her to the left, Bernie should aim to attract support for his positions in and outside the party and start a larger conversation on the corporate nature of our two major parties.
Bernie also has to address and support the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Seeing as his Vermont constituency is 95% white, it’s not surprising that Bernie has not addressed race and racism in previous campaigns. Nevertheless, his silence is deeply problematic, not to mention politically dangerous. If he is going to make an impact in the Democratic primaries he must build a relationship with people of color. If Bernie can thoughtfully articulate the relationship between mass incarceration, racialized policing and the prevailing economic order, he can begin to build trust and support from young people of color in the emerging anti-racist movement who have been out in the streets demanding change. He would almost certainly be the only candidate to do so.
Finally, and briefly, Sanders should take on the bipartisan foreign policy consensus. One of the key reasons so-called ‘libertarian’ Rand Paul has gained so much support from young people has been his endorsement of an anti-interventionist foreign policy. Bernie needs to do the same from the left. No doubt there are plenty of people who are sympathetic with Paul’s message on foreign policy but are too clever to fall for his domestic program of brutal class-warfare. Paul’s ‘end the wars and shoot the poor’ doctrine is not exactly inspiring for all those anti-war activists galvanized under Bush and disillusioned under Obama, Bernie can offer a strong left alternative (something Warren and Clinton certainly can’t do as they clamour to go to war with Iran). Further, unlike Paul, he can better outline why we were in those wars in the first place.
Playing the Long Game
I’ve made the case for why a Bernie candidacy is valuable and hopefully addressed some of the anxieties about such a campaign along the way. But a single good candidate does not a movement make. The big question remains: how do we turn Bernie’s presidential run into a powerful campaign and eventually a major organized political force? Realizing such goals requires some significant work from socialists and some magnificent stumping from Bernie, and it is of course not without serious challenges.
Bernie has made it clear that without activists hitting the bricks for his campaign he would not waste the time. This isn’t just a rhetorical flourish or a romantic gesture, it is a campaign necessity. Sanders doesn’t have Clinton’s name recognition or cash (one need only compare Bernie’s donation history to Hillary’s to see both how well funded the latter is and exactly where each candidate’s loyalties lie), which leaves it to us to door knock and handbill. Beyond that, we need to build networks and relationships with socialist activists and progressives in our local areas who are capable of reuniting for future campaigns. Building a Bernie coalition means taking numbers and names for people who support an openly socialist candidate and those who believe in a long term change. More importantly though, it means translating interested activists into the long-distance runners of Irving Howe fame, certainly no mean feat but absolutely necessary for the possibility of a genuine left renewal.
We need to organize. Building our organization through the campaign and after is essential, and not doing so was the major mistake made after the Jesse Jackson campaign of 1988. As Bill Fletcher and others noted before the 2008 campaign for Obama, we need a neo-Rainbow coalition. Essentially this is still true, but we need that coalition to be dominated by the color red. If we are serious about socialism we need to put socialism front and center. Let other progressives work for Warren, we need to push for socialism.
We need to educate. Socialism is back on the table across the world. More Americans are interested in socialism and view it positively than in any time in recent history. Socialist politics is in a major period of theoretical and political renewal, with leftist governments in Latin America and insurgent socialist parties in Europe. Meanwhile, in the United States a generation of young people are beginning to take leftist politics seriously. With Bernie we have an opportunity to be in the center of the debate, to help define socialism against the inevitable red-baiting and partisan mudslinging to come, to bring our analysis forward, and to forcefully advocate on behalf of reforms that hamstring Wall-Street and promote democracy.
We need to practice. Recently, socialist electoral campaigns have been on the rise, but despite some success we have been met with a rude awakening that running a campaign takes skill and experience. As Jorge Mujica noted after his campaign for Alderman in the 25th Ward of Chicago, many socialists are keen to talk the talk but few are interested in walking the walk, and even fewer know how. A national political campaign takes a tremendous amount of work and presents itself as an opportunity for education and experience. Following the campaign, we will be smarter and keener on how to build out of the failures and successes of the primary season, and we’ll also be armed with real-world knowledge about how average Americans feel about socialism.
We need to offer voters the opportunity to reject neoliberalism and to choose socialism. Bernie running for president, even if as a Democrat, could serve as a referendum on an ideology and as a temperature check for the voting public. It could raise an interest in radicalism in millions of Americans who have been seriously questioning capitalism since 2008. And, it gives us the chance to organize those freshman radicals towards an immediate goal and build connections and skills to mobilize sympathizers in the future. We need Bernie, not as a savior but as a tool for future organizing.
Dustin Guastella is co-chair of Philadelphia DSA. First published by Democratic Socialists of America.