Party Crashing and Political Revolution: With the DNC Just Weeks Away, What’s Next for Our Movement?

As the California Democratic Primary rapidly approaches, I’m reminded of a small but important event that took place earlier this spring in San Francisco. Gutsy activists protested in April outside a campaign fundraiser for Hillary Clinton, co-hosted by movie megastar and area resident, George Clooney. The party was full of glitz, privilege, glamour, and of course money. Lots of it. The minimum price for entry to the hotel location was $33,400, with a seat inside the house party going for $353,400.

A group of 200 protesters, uninvited and unwelcome at an event unaffordable to them, used the media spotlight outside to call out Hillary Clinton’s corporate record and corporate backing. George Clooney even felt compelled to respond to reporters, acknowledging the “obscene” amounts of money influencing the U.S. political system.

Of course, lots of Clinton fundraisers like this one have happened all over the country, both before and since, while even larger sums of money are amassed quietly with corporate Super PACs. But what was different about this “Golden City” event was the success of activists in breaking through the media blackout with a vivid snapshot into the world inhabited by the Democratic Party establishment, and the fundamental class character of the party itself.

But as we’ve seen over the past year, this establishment which has relentlessly tried to anoint Clinton is not only problematic in basing its funding on the super rich, Super PACs and Wall Street. It’s that these same class loyalties and preferences are fiercely and undemocratically enforced at every level through party and primary structures, from top to bottom, and from state to state. Last week, growing realizations of this (along with the crisis in the Republican party) were reflected in a poll showing 90% of voters have lost confidence in the country’s political system, with an unprecedented 40% going so far as to say that the two party system is “seriously broken.”

But the fact is, these parties were not made for the 99%, and we were never invited.

What is different in this election year has been Bernie Sanders’ incendiary challenge to this establishment and its multi-millionaire and billionaire base. Meanwhile, the base of Bernie’s campaign has been informed by a fundamentally changed political landscape characterized by a growing revolt against neoliberal politics for the rich – from the Occupy Wall Street movement to the Fight for $15 to Black Lives Matter.

In this new period, the left insurgent campaign of this self-described democratic socialist stands in stark contrast to Clinton’s Wall Street-blessed one. Not only because Sanders accepts no corporate money and has an average donation of just $27, but because of his powerful demands in favor of the 99% – such as free college education, Medicare for all, breaking up the big banks – which are all completely unacceptable to the Democratic Party leadership.

From the very beginning there has been a “yuge” contradiction between Bernie’s call for a political revolution against the billionaire class, and his decision to run in the primary of a party controlled by that same billionaire class.

The Trump Card

Nowhere have the contradictions of Bernie’s Democratic Party challenge been made more clear than through the fierce determination the establishment has shown in backing Hillary, in spite of the ever-increasing evidence of her weakness as a candidate against Trump.

And they have done so with all the formidable tools at their disposal. These include the undemocratic superdelegates, the skewed debate schedule, top-down control of caucus processes, voter disenfranchisement, and media smear campaigns. The latest of the coordinated media assaults tried to portray Sanders supporters as “violent” and compared them to Trump supporters because they dared to object to the undemocratic shenanigans at the Nevada state convention.

Having little credibility to convince ordinary people that she would boldly fight for their interests, Clinton has more and more focused her message on fear of Trump.

She presents herself as the “tested”, “experienced” candidate who could see the Democrats through to victory in November. But these arguments fly in the face of a mountain of polling evidence showing Sanders consistently beating Trump by far larger margins than Hillary. This is not incidental, but is grounded in Sanders’ direct appeal to the interests of working people and open rejection of the agenda of Wall Street. But that is also precisely why the establishment has stuck it out with Hillary – because they have full confidence she will reliably serve their interests.

Another factor is the publication of the State Department Inspector General’s report on Clinton’s use of a private email server during her time as Secretary of State. This report confirmed that Clinton knowingly broke State Department rules. Those members of staff who questioned what she was doing were told to “never to speak of the secretary’s personal email system again.” In the end the email scandal may lead to very little, but it has reinforced the widespread perception that Clinton cannot be trusted, while her consistent refusal to release the transcripts of her highly paid Goldman Sachs speeches tells the same story.

Of course there is a long way to go until November but as of right now, Clinton and the blowhard Trump are in a dead heat in national polls. The reason Hillary is struggling against Trump is not just about “trustworthiness”. Trump is completely untrustworthy. It is because Clinton is the personification of 40 years of neoliberal policies, under both Democratic and Republican administrations, that have led to a collapse in middle- and working class living standards.

Trump is not just a monster created by the Republicans, though their longtime appeals to racism and xenophobia certainly played a key role. His rise is also the product of the Democrats’ sharp turn to the right beginning in the late 70s and their wholehearted embrace of attacks on the interests of working people, with policies like NAFTA and the “ending of welfare as we know it” under Bill Clinton.

The question that urgently needs answering is not just “how do we beat Trump in the election” but even more importantly how do we cut out the underlying roots feeding into the growth of Trump’s right populism?

And we need to be crystal clear: we will not be able to do that by turning over the political fate of working people once again to the Democratic establishment.

Bernie Sanders recently stated: “The Democratic Party has a choice. It can open its doors and welcome into the party people who are prepared to fight for real economic and social change – people who are willing to take on Wall Street, corporate greed and a fossil fuel industry which is destroying this planet. Or the party can choose to maintain its status quo structure, remain dependent on big-money campaign contributions and be a party with limited participation and limited energy.”

While I completely agree with Sanders’ description of the Democratic Party as it is, what is deeply unfortunate is that he seems to have concluded that the way forward is for working people – yet again – to attempt to reform this completely undemocratic party. In this vein, he has committed repeatedly to support Hillary Clinton if she wins the nomination.

I hope we can convince him otherwise, or barring that, that we can win over as many Sanders supporters as possible away from this political dead end.

That’s why Movement4Bernie and I have launched a petition calling on Bernie Sanders to continue running all the way through November as an independent or on the Green Party ticket with Jill Stein. In the weeks since it was launched, we have collected over 35,000 signatures. Please sign it, share it, spread it around. The more momentum we can build for an alternative, the harder we will make it for the Clintonites to undermine our movement.

The DNC and its Platform

In recent weeks, the contradictions of Sanders’ Democratic Primary challenge have become ever more pronounced, as Sanders has more and more framed the race around pushing the party to the left.

While it’s very important that Bernie has been continuing to fight instead of conceding the race, I believe it’s a mistake to define the next stage of the battle primarily in terms of party platform and pressure on Clinton.

The inclusion of Cornel West and Bill McKibben are not unimportant concessions from the establishment to Sanders, but it’s an open question what the ultimate effect of this will be.

A determined and public challenge to the normally scripted and bureaucratically controlled platform process could lead to a departure from the recent choreographed conventions. And things can sharpen further if West, McKibben and others do hold firm to a radical reshaping of the platform, including voting against a final platform that does not include their key demands.

But we need to be clear that the platform itself is completely non-binding. There are no rules, no democratic mechanisms, nor even any tradition of the platform guiding real world votes by elected Democrats. The DNC platform normally goes out the window shortly after the convention is over.

Yet in spite of this, the Democratic establishment will likely only make the concessions they feel are necessary. In this they have clear majority control – compared to Bernie’s 5 platform assignments, Hillary has 6 and Debbie Wasserman Schultz has 4 more. This is yet another arrangement with a an undemocratic “buffer” system, not unlike the superdelegates in the primary. Even with a non-binding platform, this establishment leaves nothing to chance.

Lastly, we should recognize that the Democratic leadership may try to use this process, along with the political authority of West and McKibben, to convince Sanders supporters to finally come onboard the Clinton train.

With so many Sanders supporters currently unwilling to cave to this pressure, the potential is raised for a political explosion in Philadelphia against the establishment. The Bernie or Bust mood has in fact increased, with some recent polls showing nearly half of Sanders voters unwilling to support Clinton. There is even discussion of a walkout of delegates from the Democratic Convention. If a big, well organized walkout were to take place against undemocratic maneuvering at the convention it could be historic, and would point in the direction of political independence of the 99%.

The California Primary

As the primaries have gone on, Sanders has gained strength, winning more states and pledged delegates than Clinton since Super Tuesday at the start of March. Now the California primary is too close to call. While the delegate math makes it almost impossible that Sanders could have a majority of pledged delegates going into the DNC, nonetheless a defeat for Hillary in the last major primary would be a humiliating rejection and raise even bigger questions about her campaign. On the other side, a defeat for Bernie would be used to ramp up further pressure on Sandernistas.

With only weeks to go before the Democratic Convention, the party establishment is increasingly desperate to bring Sanders supporters in line by whatever means necessary.

In the coming weeks it will not only be adamant Clinton supporters and corporate media pundits calling for “party unity,” it will increasingly be major progressive leaders as well. This could even include some prominent Bernie supporters for the first time hinting that the time may be nigh to support Hillary, though the worst of this will likely wait until Philadelphia.

Regardless of what happens in California, we can expect to see an increase in all such attempts to force Sanders supporters in line, including calls to the Bernie or Bust movement for “peace”, “order” and “unity” at the Democratic Convention in late July.

We Need a Party of the 99%

In debates with Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders repeatedly asked why single-payer healthcare does not exist in the US, while such systems exist in virtually every other major country. A key part of the answer is that almost all these other countries had some form of independent working-class party. For example the National Health Service in Britain was brought in under a Labour government after World War II. In Canada, it was the Cooperative Commonwealth Party, a social democratic party that brought in the first single-payer universal health care system in North America. Many countries also achieved strong public pension systems, fully free higher education, and other reforms as a result of powerful workers’ movements that created parties which fought for their interests.

The Democratic Party has always been a party of the oppressing class. First, as the party of the slave-owners, then after abolition as a political party funded and dominated by big business. Beginning in the 1930s it came to be seen as the party most tied to the interests of organized labor, black people, and women. But all the way through the ‘60s it still had a “Dixiecrat” wing that fiercely defended Jim Crow segregation in the South. At every point in its history, on every essential issue whenever the class interests of the corporate elite was at stake, it has taken the side of that class against the interests of the 99%.

We need a fundamentally different kind of party. A party that like Bernie takes no corporate money and completely rejects corporate influence.

Such a “party of the 99%” will need to be genuinely democratically organized and include an active, mass membership based on ordinary working people. The major policy positions voted for by the membership would be binding. The party’s elected leaders must be able to be held fully accountable by genuine democratic structures, and must be recallable through those structures. In contrast, within the Democratic Party elected leaders and establishment insiders dominate party processes in a top-down, bureaucratic fashion that seeks to avoid debate, to rubber stamp, and to discourage any activist initiative. In many areas the party does not even have meetings, but serves only as an undemocratic electoral machine.

A party of the 99% would work alongside social movements, not against them. When I was elected after campaigning to make Seattle the first major city to pass a $15 minimum wage, my organization, Socialist Alternative, and I seized the opportunity to launch the 15 Now movement to bring the maximum possible pressure to bear on the political establishment to pass $15. We used every opportunity provided by the platform of my seat on the City Council to build this new movement. We called and organized mass rallies, we mobilized to City Hall votes, we launched “action groups” in neighborhoods all around Seattle.

15 Now filed a ballot measure (against the opposition of most of our allies in labor who wanted to maintain friendly relations with the Democratic establishment) and collected 10,000 signatures so that we would have leverage against the political establishment’s attempts to back down from $15 or undermine the planned ordinance. This “credible threat” proved absolutely crucial, as later openly admitted by angry business leaders. Even at the final vote on the $15 ordinance (you can watch footage of this important council session here) we exposed every vote on every corporate loophole, making these sell outs of workers publicly uncomfortable for the corporate politicians. Our movement fought to the final day, the final hour, even the final minute against big business’s efforts to water down $15 in Seattle. 15 Now has since taken the fight all over the nation, and presently is doing battle in Minneapolis to raise the minimum wage there through a ballot initiative.

If Bernie were elected president, he would need to do the same. As he recently said, if he were elected President he would need to become the “organizer in chief,” which would require mobilizing millions of people into organized movements which can bring enormous pressure to bear against the Republicans and Democrats in order to win real gains for the 99%.

The Democrats, as a party of big business, do the opposite – they use elected office to de-escalate, demobilize, and demoralize movements. After Obama was elected as an “anti-war” candidate in 2008, he tripled the troop presence in Afghanistan within months of taking office. If the Republican candidate, John McCain had been elected and escalated the occupation of Afghanistan in this manner, he would have faced massive protests. Instead, because of the anti-war movement’s ties to the Democratic Party and the pressures not to embarrass Obama on this and other issues (such as massive drone expansion and whistleblower crackdowns), the anti-war movement collapsed and never recovered.

If you look beneath the surface at virtually every major gain for the 99% in U.S. history, you will unearth the same story – of Democratic and Republican politicians with their backs up against a wall under enormous pressure from mass movements. Jim Crow segregation existed for more than a century after the Civil War and Lincoln abolished slavery. It was defended by both parties, and it was only the fiercely determined struggle of radical civil rights activists – who rejected an incrementalist approach and organized mass struggles that stood up against violence and police repression – that segregation laws were finally defeated.

These two parties of big business never “lead the way” on major progressive changes, they make concessions out of political calculation and fear of mass movements – that if they do not bend, they may break. FDR defended his New Deal policies explicitly to business people as necessary concessions to save the system, saying “I’m the best friend American capitalism ever had.” At root, Hillary Clinton and the Democratic establishment’s pronouncements in favor of “incremental” change are really a call for working people to step down, back off, and shut up.

While it may seem daunting to launch a new mass party, history shows that it would be far easier than trying to reform this fundamentally broken one. To win any of our key demands – to establish Medicare for all, a national $15 minimum wage, to end mass incarceration – the left will need to sever its connections to the Democratic Party. At best, another attempt to reform it will be a detour from the fundamental conclusion that needs to be reached.

Jill Stein’s Green Party campaign will likely offer the strongest left challenge in November and deserves the broadest possible support, even as we raise the vision for building a new mass party. Every vote for Stein, whose politics have much in common with Bernie, is a vote against neoliberal politics and in favor of our independence from corporate cash and influence.

In the whole history of the United States, there has rarely been a moment with more potential to launch a party based explicitly on the interests of working people and the poor. What is missing are forces with enough weight which are ready to commit. If Bernie was to call a conference to discuss this in the coming months, the process could begin in earnest this year. If he does not, it will be left to our movement to continue what we started, by rejecting Hillary and the Democratic Party, and laying the foundations for a real political revolution.

Kshama Sawant is Seattle City Council Woman and member of Socialist Alternative.