The question needs to be asked. What will Bernie Sanders’ supporters do when “We need a political revolution” inevitably turns into “We must vote for the lesser evil”?
It seems like bad manners to bring up the likelihood that Mr. Sanders will lose to Hillary Clinton in the primaries, when so many progressive voters are waxing enthusiastic about his decision to run for the Democratic nomination.
The fate of progressive Dem contenders like Jesse Jackson and Dennis Kucinich in previous election years permits us to offer some prognostications.
Here’s what the Sanders campaign will do: Bernie will raise important issues and introduce urgent ideas like the need for income equality and restraints on the power of corporations. He’ll compel Hillary to talk about these things, perhaps leading her to withhold public endorsements for the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the tarsands pipelines. He may help reverse the belief that socialism is a dirty word, a legacy of the Cold War and a generation of bipartisan rhetorical disdain for Big Government.
Here’s what the Sanders campaign won’t do: Bernie won’t win the nomination. He’ll have little or no influence on Hillary or the Democratic Party after he’s out of the race by late spring 2016.
The last thing Democratic Party leadership wants is a political revolution. It will do all it can to insulate itself and Hillary from Bernie’s influence. Ms. Clinton can declare that , but the One Percent have little to worry about from a pol who takes $200,000 speaking fees from Goldman Sachs.
For the Democratic National Committee, the main value of the Sanders campaign is that he’ll keep many progressive voters inside the Dem fold. Bruce Dixon, writing in Black Agenda Report, calls this the “sheepdog” effect.
Will this happen again in 2016? What kind of revolution is possible when its most ardent revolutionaries declare “I supported Bernie in the primaries, but now we have to back Hillary so a Republican doesn’t win”?
The pattern of past progressive Democratic defeats is likely to be replicated in 2016. Revolution will be DOA, at least within the Democratic Party, and progressives will participate in their own marginalization in a party that takes their votes for granted.
The Democratic Party and its leaders compete fiercely with the GOP for corporate campaign checks, while they feel little pressure to satisfy the demands of voters on the left whose support they already believe they can count on.
In an election year with anticipated billion-dollar campaign war chests, Bernie Sanders will not change this dynamic. His supporters can either capitulate to the Clinton juggernaut — or they can find another way to revolt at the electoral level.
Is Another World Possible?
Revolution requires more than a personnel change in higher office. It means changing the whole political landscape. If we want to alter the political landscape of the U.S., we must first address the fact that it’s dominated by two parties of war and Wall Street.
Both parties are sustained by money from corporate PACs and the One Percent. Neither party is capable of solving what we can call the four crises of the 21st century: (1) the unfolding climate catastrophe; (2) the new Robber Baron economy, with a shrinking middle class, shredded safety nets for working people and the poor, privatization of the public sphere, and a corporate oligarchy with sufficient power to make government its subsidiary; (3) the national-security/mass-incarceration state, with for-profit prison-industrial and homeland-security feeding troughs, runaway police and prosecutorial power, and appalling racial disparities in arrests and sentencing; (4) a belligerent foreign policy under which the U.S. may unilaterally attack any nation at will to assert political hegemony and control over resources.
The combination of these crises promises an era of deteriorating quality of life, increasing debt, eroded rights and freedoms, lawless militarism, and (if climate-change forecasts are correct) social breakdown. The danger they pose now can be compared with the rise of totalitarian states and the Cold War’s nuclear menace during the 20th century.
The income inequality that informs today’s Robber Baron economy, accelerating since the Reagan Revolution, recalls the unrestrained plutocracy of the first Robber Baron Era in the late 19th century and the reckless greed of the 1920s that triggered the Great Depression. President Obama’s secretly negotiated Trans-Pacific Partnership and similar trade pacts represent giant leaps forward for the current expansion of plutocracy.
Despite obvious differences, the Democratic and Republican party mainstreams are on the wrong side of the four crises. Both parties are driving us in the same direction. The lesser-evil rationale for remaining loyal to the Dems is simply a wager that the GOP will drive us off the cliff a few years earlier.
Progressives like to say “Another world is possible.” Another world won’t happen by investing hopes in Democratic also-rans. Progressives have been pledging to rehabilitate the Democratic Party for decades. They’ve gotten nowhere.
We need a political revolution, but it will have to come from outside of the two-party establishment, as all political revolutions in the U.S. have in the past.
Abolition of slavery, women’s suffrage, the eight-hour workday, workers’ rights, workers’ benefits, public schools, unemployment compensation, the minimum wage, child labor laws, direct election of senators, Social Security and Medicare, civil rights for Blacks and other disenfranchised peoples: all of these have something in common. They were introduced by movements and parties independent of the two ruling parties and adopted later by one or both of the latter.
The Populist, Progressive, and Socialist parties led the revolts against the Robber Barons of their time, bringing their ideas to the table that enabled the Progressive Era’s restraints on corporate power and President Roosevelt’s New Deal. FDR knew that failure to take action would have resulted in the defection of millions of Democrats to left parties. In the 1850s, the anti-slavery Republicans replaced one of the major parties.
The near-disappearance of third parties on the left in the latter part of the 20th century is one of the great unmentioned reasons for the triumph of the right wing in both major parties. It explains the disappearance of big progressive ideas in the Democratic Party like the New Deal and President Johnson’s Great Society and War on Poverty. (“Bridge to the 21st Century” and “Change We Can Believe In” are slogans, not programs. Obamacare, based on the individual mandate, a gift to the private insurance industry cribbed from the rightwing Heritage Foundation, can hardly be called progressive.)
Democratic politicians assumed that they’d continue to enjoy progressive support regardless of their retreats and capitulations. Progressives proved them correct.
No Democratic candidate, progressive or otherwise, is going to admit that change requires ending exclusive rule by the two corporate-money parties. This is the conundrum of the Sanders campaign. As a socialist elected to the U.S. Senate on an independent ballot line, Mr. Sanders affirms the historical importance of independent politics. He repudiates it by running for the Democratic nomination.
Mr. Sanders could easily use his campaign to challenge the pervasive myth about third-party spoiling and suggest ways to make elections fairer and more open to alternative-party participation. He’d have the authority of his own status as an independent socialist and it would be an important part of the political revolution. He should be challenged to do so.
The only way a presidential candidate can help build a lasting alternative to the Ds and Rs is by running on an alternative party ticket — promoting the party and its down-ticket candidates, advocating the party’s platform and principles, helping the state parties achieve ballot access, uniting various movements under an umbrella where they won’t have to compete with K Street lobbyists for influence.
Eugene Debs and the Socialist Party understood this a hundred years ago. The Green Party understands it now. The Green Party’s nominee will remain in the race long after Mr. Sanders’ defeat in the primaries.
It’s not realistic to believe Mr. Sanders will launch an independent run after he loses in the primaries, as some of his supporters have proposed. Aside from the fact that he has already rejected competing against the Dem nominee, state ballot-access rules would make it impossible for him to win ballot lines. Furthermore, unless they’re victorious, independent campaigns are dead ends. They leave no legacy beyond the percentage of votes they receive.
There are good reasons to support Bernie Sanders for the Dem nomination. There are also good reasons to favor Hillary Clinton over a GOP nominee who’ll represent a party steeped in irrationalism and extremism.
But voting for the Democratic nominee will ultimately rubber-stamp the two-party status quo and toss the prospect of political revolution into the Dem quicksand into which all progressive ideals disappear.
There’s no hope of reversing the country’s dangerous direction within the confines of the Democratic Party. If his supporters throw their post-primary support to Ms. Clinton, who’s likely to be even more One Percent-friendly than President Obama, Bernie Sanders’ political revolution will be over.
The real political insurgence will continue elsewhere, in movements like 15 Now, Black Lives Matter, new incarnations of Occupy Wall Street, 350.org, anti-pipeline and anti-war protests, single-payer advocacy groups, and those who fight for the rights of the poor, and electorally in alternatives like the Green Party.
Will Bernie Sanders and his supporters remain part of the revolution, or will they succumb to progressive OCD and jump on the Clinton bandwagon in 2016?
Scott McLarty is media coordinator for the Green Party of the United States. He lives in Washington, D.C.