When Principle Collides with Reality and Common Sense: Socialist Alternative’s Enthusiastic Non-Endorsement of Bernie Sanders

“We will be campaigning with Sanders supporters against the corporate politicians while politically arguing for Sanders to run all-out through the November 2016 election, as a step toward building an independent political alternative for working people.”

This is the conclusion of Socialist Alternative’s wide-ranging and enthusiastic article about Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential run. Although it’s a welcome break from the vitriolic sectarian humbug about Sanders peddled by the likes of Black Agenda Report and Socialist Worker, the article doesn’t actually endorse him!

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Socialist Alternative haters will chalk up this deliberate ambiguity on endorsing Sanders to dishonesty, treachery, and rank opportunism, but the reality is a little more complicated. This neither-here-nor-there stance is what happens when principle collides with reality and common sense. The principle at issue is: no support for the Democratic Party. The reality is: this principle doesn’t account for the situation we now face — socialist candidate, capitalist party. And common sense tells us: yes, “sometimes life defies yes/no answers,” but you either vote for someone or you don’t on election day.

How Socialist Alternative plans on “campaigning with Sanders supporters against the corporate politicians” like Hillary Clinton without actually telling prospective Democratic primary voters to choose Sanders over Clinton as the rest of us will be doing from now until summer of 2016 when the nomination fight ends they don’t explain. Democrats in Seattle who have waged a fight within their own party on behalf of Socialist Alternative’s councilwoman Kshama Sawant will no doubt be greatly weakened, confused, and disappointed when she and her organization refuse to join them in caucusing for comrade Sanders on March 26, 2016, the date the primary is scheduled for Washington state.

But instead of trying resolve the contradiction between principle, reality, common sense, Socialist Alternative spends a lot of time explaining how they would run Sanders’ campaign if they were in charge (they’re not). In doing so, they make spurious claims about how much stronger and better their Sanders campaign would be running for as an independent rather than seeking the Democratic nomination and about the actual political choices Sanders and his supporters face if they lose the nomination fight with Hillary Clinton:

“In our view, however, Sanders is making a fundamental mistake by running in the Democratic Party primary. Instead, we have argued that he should run as an independent to help build a political alternative to the corporate-owned political parties. There is a glaring contradiction between Sanders’ call for a political revolution against the billionaire class and attempting to carry that out within a party controlled by that same billionaire class.

“This contradiction will be posed starkly when Sanders loses the Democratic primary. Sanders has said he will endorse the Democratic nominee, which is very likely to be Hilary Clinton or – if Clinton stumbles badly – another safe pro-business Democrat. This will mean that those mobilized by Sanders will be told to support a pro-corporate Democrat, the exact opposite of a ‘revolution’ against the ‘billionaires and oligarchs.’ This could result in the demoralization of those mobilized by the idea of fighting corporate power and the loss of a historic opportunity.

“Notwithstanding his mistaken decision to join the Democrats, there will be another path open to Sanders when the Democratic machine blocks him. Sanders should continue running in the general election as an independent to provide working people an alternative to Hillary Clinton and the right-wing Republican. Such a step could open up a completely new chapter in U.S. politics, acting as a huge impetus towards the building of a new political force to represent the 99%.

“To avoid Sanders’ campaign ‘disappearing into the political ether’ will require that he continues running all the way through the November 2016 election and does not make the mistake, as Jackson did in 1984 and 1988, of endorsing the Democratic nominee once he loses the primaries. This is the clear lesson from Jackson’s shipwrecked campaigns, and we must fight to avoid the same mistake being repeated with Sanders’ campaign.

“Sanders’ campaign is heading for a political crisis in 2016, when he will need to choose between supporting the Democratic nominee or continue running in the general election. Socialists need to build the strongest possible base among Sanders supporters in preparation for this debate. A strong left current can mobilize Sanders’ supporters to demand Bernie continues running, or lead as much of the campaign as possible away from the Democrats if Bernie insists on endorsing Clinton.

“Sanders running independently could help to open the floodgates. Our movement is not strong enough to elect an independent candidate like Sanders in 2016, but more importantly an independent Sanders campaign could change U.S. politics forever, laying the basis for a new third party that could give millions a powerful tool to begin organizing against Wall Street.

No reason is given for why Bernie Sanders would choose to make such a “fundamental mistake,” especially since it marks a sharp break with his 30 years of independence from the Democrats. He isn’t “joining the Democrats,” he’s using them to try to gain ballot access in all 50 states. Despite what Socialist Alternative claims, if he fails to become the nominee in summer of 2016 he won’t be able to keep running as an independent even if he wanted to since — as Sanders arch-nemesis Aaron Dixon correctly points out — it would realistically take 18 months of petitioning before the election to accumulate enough signatures to appear on the ballot in all 50 states. Even if Sanders followed Socialist Alternative’s (faulty) prescription to the letter and continued running even after losing the Democratic nomination in July 2016, the result would not be “open[ing] up a completely new chapter in U.S. politics, acting as a huge impetus towards the building of a new political force to represent the 99%” but a brutal bout of cynicism and demoralization once the sheer impossibility of getting 600,000-700,000 valid signatures (in reality, two or three times that amount to survive legal challenges) in time for mid-summer 2016 filing deadlines to appear on the November ballot in all 50 states became clear to his supporters.

The reality Socialist Alternative needs to accept and grapple with politically and strategically is that the path to an independent Sanders for president campaign in 2016 closed completely the moment he decided to go through the Democratic Party instead. He made his choice and now we need to make ours: either we unite with him to defeat with Clinton — the consummate “corporate politician” — by any means necessary or we unite with the radicals and liberals working around the clock to destroy his campaign from his ‘left’ and his right. Claiming to support Sanders in theory while refusing to support him practice will seem to the average Sanderistas to be politically inane at best and hypocritical at worst, Socialist Alternative’s undoubtedly honest and pure intentions notwithstanding. Politics and political struggle is just as much about struggling over perceptions as it is about struggling over principles.

Socialist Alternative is absolutely right to call for creating an organized socialist current within the Sanders campaign but their non-endorsement blocks them from actually doing that. An organized socialist current can’t develop outside or independently of the actual campaign groups that are taking shape and whose main activity for the foreseeable future will be on competing with Hillary Clinton supporters for the Democratic nomination. No one helping Sanders today is going to spend even 30 seconds listening to a group that refuses to endorse Sanders and won’t get their hands dirty working on his behalf in the here and now. If Socialist Alternative maintains this neither-here-nor-there stance, Democratic Socialists of America will be the only socialist group capable of creating an organized socialist current broader than its own ranks within the Sanders campaign although whether they aspire to do this remains unclear.

Socialist Alternative has a historic opportunity to reach and influence 175,000 Sanders volunteers and over 34 million Democratic primary voters but only if it realizes that endorsing and campaigning for Sanders in the Democratic presidential primary is no more ‘supporting the Democratic Party’ than endorsing and campaigning for Kshama Sawant is ‘supporting the U.S. government.’ Rejecting ultra-leftism only half-way isn’t going to cut it.

One response to “When Principle Collides with Reality and Common Sense: Socialist Alternative’s Enthusiastic Non-Endorsement of Bernie Sanders

  1. Pingback: One Divides into Three? A Report on the U.S. Left Unity Conference | Revolutionary Democratic Socialism

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