Sanders’ Campaign: Shell Game to Save the Two-Party System or Third Party Breeding Ground?

Arun Gupta’s “The Only Article You Need to Read About the 2016 Election” avoids the typical, weak ‘left’ objections to Bernie Sanders’ decision to seek the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination and bases itself instead on undisputable facts — namely, that “progressive challenges [to] the mainstream Democratic candidates” such as Dennis Kucinich in 2004 or Progressives for Obama of 2008 have not dragged the Democratic Party to the left politically but instead dragged progressives and socialists to the right. Gupta’s argument is that this is will be the social function and/or objective outcome of Sanders’ campaign, its socialist gloss and the genuinely oppositional intentions of its participants notwithstanding.

But there are crucial differences between past presidential attempts by ‘left’ Democrats and what Sanders is doing and those differences make all the difference in the world.

For one thing, Bernie Sanders unlike Ted Kennedy, Jessie Jackson, Dennis Kucinich, Howard Dean, and any other past contender is not a Democrat — never has been, and never will be. This is not semantics. All of Gupta’s examples were lifelong Democrats, gears in the Democratic Party machine who were unwilling to break that machine since doing so would end their own political careers. The most naked demonstration of this kind of crass careerism was  when Jessie Jackson ended the Rainbow Coalition insurgency in 1988 in exchange for his son and advisors being appointed to positions on the Democratic National Commitee and in the nominee Michael Dukakis’ campaign. Bernie Sanders, on the other hand, is not in any way beholden to the Democratic Party whose candidates he has unceremoniously beaten at almost every opportunity during his three-decade political career. Sanders beat the Democrats so many times they stopped running against him and started instead endorsing him, a remarkable achievement for a self-proclaimed and unapologetic socialist.

As Sanders explained in his appearance on This Week with George Stephanopolous when asked why he was running for the Democratic presidential nomination: 

“In my heart, I am an independent. I have been an independent for 30 years. But I am seeking the Democratic Party nomination for President of the United States. And obviously I’m going to follow all of the rules and regulations to get on the ballot as a Democrat.”

So Sanders is fighting for the Democratic Party presidential nomination as a means of getting on the ballot in all 50 states which has nothing to do with rehabilitating, fixing, reforming, or somehow improving the Democratic Party or the party establishment’s nominee, Hillary Clinton.

There is another aspect of Sanders’ lifelong independence from the Democratic Party that sets him apart from the Kuciniches, Deans, and the Jacksons: he has already said he would endorse the eventual nominee if he loses and ruled out any type of spoiler campaign. How does that make him different from ‘left’ Democrats past? They played coy by keeping their mouths shut about what they would do in the event they lost the nomination fight; this deliberate silence allowed their supporters to speculate that a break with the Democratic Party was a possibility and entertain notions that they had some leverage (in the form of withholding endorsement) over the nominee, neither of which were ever in the cards. Or if they didn’t keep silent, they shamelessly lied as Dennis Kucinich did when he promised to lead a fight on the Democratic Party convention floor in 2004 to win an anti-war plank in the party platform and then did the exact opposite, surrendering without a fight.

The basic, foundational problem with Gupta’s article is that it does not spend any time analyzing what Sanders is actually saying or actually doing but crosses out “Kucinich” in decade-old left critiques of ‘progressive’ Democratic presidential efforts and writes in “Sanders” in its place. This is why the following passage, which is supposed to be prophetic, is in actuality recycled albeit with a few name changes:

“When asked about the closed-door meeting and Clinton’s $2 billion in campaign contributions from Wall Street and wealthy donors, Sanders’ manager says, ‘What we got from the Clinton campaign was a commitment to begin the process to talk about reducing income inequality. We’ve moved. They’ve moved. It’s truly unity in that sense. We are fully behind Hillary Clinton as our party’s presidential nominee for 2016, and are our only focus for the next 100 days is to make sure she is elected to that office.'”

Again, Sanders has already told us he will back the nominee on a lesser-evil, keep-Republicans-out-of-the-presidency basis regardless of her stated program or her (false) promises on this or that issue. Unlike ‘left’ Democrats of nominations past, Sanders isn’t playing the imaginary leverage game and taking us for a ride.

So if Sanders’ brief foray into the Democratic Party isn’t a scam, what is it?

The potential breeding ground of a third party or a proto-party.

Think about it: Sanders signs up 175,000 volunteers in 48 hours. Those volunteers are pledged to him and his campaign, not the Democratic Party as an institution. Sanders hasn’t changed his mind about the Democratic Party’s essence as a coalition of Wall Street and Main Street that prevents the party from being the fighting party of the 99%. His future endorsement of Hillary Clinton doesn’t preclude using whatever electoral machine he builds out of the 2016 race to help build local and state-based third parties by running candidates in local and state-wide races, possibly modeled on the country’s only influential left third party at the state level, the Vermont Progressive Party (which evolved out of smaller, more local pre-party formations) or something less ambitious like the Richmond Progressive Alliance.

That’s the potential anyway. Whether or not that potential begins to develop or is realized depends firstly on what Sanders decides to do if/when he loses. But it also depends on the sentiments and willingness of the rank-and-file foot soldiers of the Sanders campaign in all 50 states to continue the struggle after the nomination fight is over.


Sanders has consistently said that the struggle to defeat what he calls the “billionaire class” through a political revolution can’t be mainly about one person (himself) but has to involve tens of millions of Americans at the grassroots level. We should take him up on that and help make it happen by taking leading roles in his campaign instead of claiming that all is lost before the fight has even begun.

Concluding (as Gupta does) that we should leave politics, political parties, and elections in the hands of the two existing parties while we stand outside the halls of their power and beg these hostile parties to heed our “militant grassroots activism” is to suggest we keep failing to win as we did in Wisconsin in 2011, in Occupy in 2011, and as #BlackLivesMatter is doing now with its inability to get a single killer cop convicted or win meaningful police reform. Changing the conversation is great but as socialist candidate Jorge Mujica said at a recent left electoral conference, “we keep winning the debates and losing the elections.”

Some how, some way, we need a party (or parties) of our own so we can take power and take over the country and not just protest whatever insanity the Democrats and Republicans decide to foist on us.


4 responses to “Sanders’ Campaign: Shell Game to Save the Two-Party System or Third Party Breeding Ground?

  1. I agree with all of this but I think we should make it clear: just because Sanders has already said he’d endorse H. Clinton if (when) she wins doesn’t mean the rest of the left should also do so. Clinton is so awful — such a warmonger — that I don’t think she even counts as a lesser evil regardless of who wins the Republican presidential primary. Socialists shouldn’t advocate voting for Clinton under any circumstances.


    • She may be a warmonger but on the domestic policy front she’s going to win the lesser-evil vote whether we socialists call for it or not.


        • As a socialist, I’ve never had a problem with being in the minority. The problem is too many of our comrades are content to stay in the minority, forever.


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