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Bernie Sanders’ Political Revolution Splinters Apart

Insulting potential supporters, as when comedian Sarah Silverman told the “Bernie or Bust” camp at the Democratic National Convention they were “being ridiculous” is the sign of a losing strategy.

It was wishful thinking that the DNC in Philadelphia would unify the warring Sanders and Clinton camps. Conversations with more than 10 Sanders delegates, staffers, and surrogates reveal raw anger at the Democratic Party.

Lisa Stiller, Sanders delegate from Oregon, says “I am very angry with the Democrats with the whole rigged election. If Clinton had won fair, the anger had not been there. Clinton needs to earn our vote, but we need to unify and not let Trump get elected.”

Andrea Burns, an at-large delegate from Massachusetts said of the reaction to Sanders delegates’ refusal to fall in line, “There’s a lot of tension. People are mad at us.” Burns and other Sanders supporters said their opposition is policy-based, such as “Clinton’s neoliberalism and incredible militarism.” While she said many in the Massachusetts delegation would vote for a third-party candidate and focus on down-ballot races, she said if she lived in a swing state, “I would probably vote for Secretary Clinton.”

Josh Fox, director of the documentary Gasland and a Sanders surrogate, said the convention was “a divided room with extraordinary anger.” He said reasons for discontent include the email scandal involving the DNC violating its own rules to side with Clinton during the primary and the pick of Tim Kaine as the vice presidential nominee.

Fox’s main beef was with how Clinton “is ignoring the progressive wing and agenda.” He said Sanders supporters feel shut out and said they wanted “a coalition government because we won 46 percent.” I asked what that meant, and Fox suggested replacing Kaine, who has backed Wall Street deregulation and free-trade deals, with Sanders.

This is just one position among Sanders supporters. A Sanders delegate from Texas, and member of the Democratic Socialists of America, which bills itself as the largest socialist organization in the country with 7,100 members, was asked if it was possible to reform the Democratic Party. The delegate scoffed, “We’re not going to reform the Democratic Party. We’re going to take it over. Bernie Sanders people have taken over the Democratic Party in four states and a bunch of counties.” Is the future of the Sanders political revolution in the Democratic Party? He responded, “So you come close to winning and you are going to throw away all that work?”

Brad Deutsch, attorney for the Sanders campaign, offered a similar perspective. He pointed to the progressive planks in Democratic Party platform as proof, “We are already reforming the party.”

On the streets of Philadelphia, where protests number in the thousands rather than the dozens at the Republican National Convention in Cleveland, a third position is to vote for Green Party candidate Jill Stein. One self-described communist said, “I’m here to stop Hillary Clinton. She’s a greater danger than Donald Trump.” Then there are Sanders voters who say they will vote for Stein and hope to build the Green Party as a viable third-party alternative because they see no difference between the Democrats and Republicans.

Then there is Sanders new institute, “Our Revolution,” that he says will recruit and run at least 100 progressive candidates this cycle, apparently within the Democratic Party.

Some of these strategies overlap, while others are contradictory. Divisions are opening up in Sanders’ forces. Some delegates see the Democratic Party as completely hostile to their political revolution and others believe their forces are already seizing power.

These will widen into competing organizations as different strategies are pursued. Now, this is neither good nor bad because it was inevitable that Sanders army would break apart as only he glued them together.

It’s similar to how Occupy Wall Street broke into grouplets when it lost control of the physical space that united participants. Without that common bond, nearly all of Occupy’s successor projects ran out of steam even as it helped pave the way for the low-wage workers movement, Black Lives Matter, and the Sanders campaign itself.

Will that happen to Sanders’ political revolution? At this point, it is likely many of these projects will founder because passion and money aren’t enough; they also need organizational and theoretical sophistication plus a base-building strategy. Without those elements, projects will lapse into reformism or individualistic politics that rely on the goodwill of leaders rather than a collective transformation of ideas and social relations.

The reality is the Sanders moment is over as a national phenomenon. He retains a fundraising and volunteer apparatus, and significant personal clout. But his wing of the political revolution means using his star power to recruit, run, and fund progressive candidates within the Democratic Party. This will be decided by Sanders and his inner circle. It is not a “movement,” one which is self-organized, self-determined, and self-directed. In every city, county, and state Sanders’ institute runs candidates in, they will encounter the same rigged game, obstructionism, and dirty tricks by the same corporate Democrats who conspired to sabotage his primary bid.

By October the sniping between the Clintonites and Sandernistas will be ancient history. A drumbeat of “Vote Clinton or the world will end” will push all but a few diehards to the Anybody But Trump side. The notion Sanders voters would flip to Trump was always a baseless charge promoted by disingenuous liberals trolling the left. Tracking polls over months show that 90 percent of Sanders supporters plan to vote for Clinton, and that is before the DNC or a general election that will turn into a cauldron of fear and rage. (This also indicates disgruntled delegates have little clout with voters. What Sanders does to motivate his base for Clinton is the real wild card.)

While many in the Sanders camp can be proud for making a defiant stand at the DNC, protesting the proceedings, booing Clinton, and walking out of the arena rather than dutifully parroting “I’m with her,” the reason they are so upset is they never had a plan B. At the same by walking out, the Sanders delegates missed a golden opportunity to disrupt the prime-time speech by Bill Clinton, the man who enacted some of the most reactionary elements of the Reagan Revolution. And the alternative is not Jill Stein and the Green Party because activists end up trapped in another electoral dead-end.

The move towards Stein will fade, as did Ralph Nader’s initially electrifying independent run in 2000. She will outdo her 2012 showing of .4 percent, but will be hard pressed to top 1 percent given past performances by third-party candidates on the left, and will notch even lower showings in swing states. The Green Party has had a bit of electoral success at the local level, but lacks a developed ideology and extra-electoral organizing necessary to create a base that can intervene in elections strategically rather than as the end in itself.

Other strategies were advocated by participants in the Socialist Convergence in Philadelphia, which brought together independent leftists and small parties. This includes DSA, whose National Director Maria Svart, said, “DSA is organizing strategically. We have to defeat Trump in November. But eventually we want to be independent.”

DSA believes the Democratic Party can be reformed or taken over, which is wishful thinking. In the 1960s, when the left and labor were more powerful and capital weaker, though still dominant, an attempt to realign the Democrats into a social-democratic force, like Sanders hopes for today, resulted in unions and civil rights groups supporting pro-war, Wall Street Democrats.

Today, Wall Street dominance is greater than ever in a Democratic Party that is giving a prime speaking slot to Michael Bloomberg, the eighth wealthiest person in the world.

Some groups are also pushing independent movement building, and by definition they have less of a presence on the streets of Philadelphia, such as Black Lives Matter and the climate justice movement, because they see their work as continuing no matter who becomes president.

Some smaller left parties like Socialist Alternative and the International Socialist Organization also take that position. Both say they have experienced “strong growth” in membership during the Sanders candidacy (as does DSA), though they took opposing positions. Socialist Alternative backed Sanders’ primary run—while opposing Clinton in the general election. ISO did not back Sanders because he ran in the Democratic Party, but it felt his campaign gave greater legitimacy to socialism. Socialist Alternative sees its work as primarily in electoral politics, while ISO takes a long view that concerted electoral activity is premature without a large organized political base and allied movements.

Despite nearly 15 months of political revolution, the exact same question remains that existed at the beginning of the Sanders candidacy: how to organize his army of supporters into an effective political force beyond the ballot box?

If a small fraction of Sanders’ 12 million voters conclude that the Democratic Party is a dead-end and strategic independent organizing is the only realistic path to political transformation, then the Sanders campaign will not have been for naught. But if his supporters try to reform a party subservient to Wall Street without the resources to wage a grueling war of attrition with corporate Democrats, then the movement will fade away.

Sanders raised hopes and revived socialism as an idea millions subscribe to. But it was always tilting at windmills. Organizing is always hard work because it is through the process that the needed social transformations are largely achieved, rather than by repeating slogans about political revolutions.

This is an expanded version of a story that originally ran on TeleSurTv.

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Arun Gupta is a graduate of the French Culinary Institute in New York and has written for publications including the Washington Post, the Nation, Salon, and the Guardian. He is the author of the upcoming “Bacon as a Weapon of Mass Destruction: A Junk-Food-Loving Chef’s Inquiry into Taste” (The New Press).

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