Whither Bernie: Scanning the Political Landscape

The Sanders candidacy combines an election campaign with a social movement. The size of this movement is unprecedented. Going against the odds, Sanders has revealed and activated a significant left in America and altered the political dialogue in the country. The movement he has generated is, in itself, an historic achievement and the instrument for a continuing potent shift to the left in America. If Sanders also is elected president (a very outside chance), that would be icing on the cake. This is a fluid primary season and my analysis of how things will play out goes on the assumption he will not win the primary (though my fingers are crossed). Absent a primary win, what alternative directions might his remarkable movement take? Here are six possible options for the future, with a critique of each.

The first option is for Sanders to focus on reforming or radicalizing the
Democratic Party, basically creating a new and robust New Deal. His movement could be a powerful force pushing legislators in office to change policies or mobilizing to elect new progressive legislators at every level. Some activists call for organizing a Tea Party of the Left--related to the Democrats, but existing outside the Party. Sanders has already taken steps to shake up Congress by helping fund the progressive campaigns of Zephyr Teachout (New York), Lucy Flores (Nevada), and Pramile Jayapal (Washington State).

We see new groups forming to reform the Democratic Party, like National People's Action and Brand New Congress. And existing groups have gotten a formidable shot in the arm from Sanders' momentum, including the Working Peoples Party, Progressive Democrats of America, MoveOn, and the Howard Dean offshoot, Democracy for America (DFA). Some groups that are further left, including components of the Democratic Socialists of America, see working within this Party as a useful step toward more radical outcomes down the line. The campaign offers a venue and a fluid constituency who could be moved in a radical direction.

The Democratic Party option has outspoken critics who believe it isn't possible to radicalize this guardian of the status quo. They claim the Party is too immersed in and controlled by the establishment and has long been the graveyard for radical movements. These movements have been taken over, smothered, or subverted after the Party adopted pieces of their programs--Social Security, health care, and 40-hour workweek are some examples. This cooptation takes the steam out of the radical drive.

The critics claim that the Democratic Party is essentially part of a single, two-sided, capitalist party apparatus dedicated to maintaining the current system. Some worry that Bernie could simply be serving as a sheepdog to lead radicalized youth into a moderate fold. And they believe spending time tinkering within the Party is a diversion, deflecting efforts away from building a true left organization and action front. Even if a strong platform statement is adopted at the Convention, there is no reason to think it would be carried forward. Hillary cannot be trusted; she will swing toward the center/right and there are no formal procedures that require implementing that platform.

A second option is for Sanders to support or lead a new independent party focused on social change. This action would involve Sanders' many supporters, existing progressive groups such as those previously mentioned, and socialist organizations choosing to join the effort. The array of socialist groups includes, among others, Democratic Socialists of America, Socialist Party USA, Socialist Alternative, the Green Party, Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Appeal, Freedom Road Socialists, Revolutionary Communists, and Workers' World. Unity hasn't been a high point among these groups, but current circumstances might spark some alliances.

Jill Stein of the Green Party has already asked Sanders to begin talks on collaborating with her group. An independent party strategy might involve a broad left coalition, a form of united front, in which there would be a socialist presence. The Bernie supporter constituency contains various positions across the liberal-progressive spectrum and many would be unwilling to get on board a strictly socialist organizing thrust. And some socialist groups would definitely prefer to remain apart, fixed on their mission of replacing free enterprise with a planned economy.

When should independent party action begin? There are sharp differences on this. The bold position is that it should start now, during the primary. This is advocated strongly by Kshama Savant, the socialist city council member in Seattle. She believes that Bernie made a mistake by not running as an independent in the first place. Others think the good time would be right after the primary. That allows time to plan the start up--but avoids protracted delay. Probably most of those leaning toward a third party initiative prefer to hold off until after the election. Because of Sanders' pledge to endorse the winner of the primary, he's not likely to support a rival action opposing the Democrats until the election is over. He's come over as a man who won't go back on his word. One of his chief assets is his reputation for honesty and integrity, and there is no reason to believe he would squander that. He said he would endorse the winner of the primary, but he didn't indicate how much support, if any, he would provide during the campaign. That's a big unknown at this time.

The independent party option isn't everyone's cup of tea. Critics say that third parties in have almost invariably crashed in this country, across the political spectrum. On the left, futile campaigns were run by Eugene Debs, Norman Thomas, Henry Wallace, Ralph Nader, and Jill Stein. Moving toward the right, John Anderson, Ross Perot, George Wallace, and Strom Thurmond have played that hand and lost. The electoral system and the structure and culture of American politics work against third parties, and so does the mindset of the electorate. Creating a third party can be a lofty aspiration, but it's not a plausible reality.

A third option is to promote grassroots organizing at the local level--building a progressive action infrastructure with geographically-based coalitions. The grassroots strategy has two components: establish grassroots citizens action groups dealing with local issues--traffic congestion, gentrification, and homelessness; pursue electoral work to affect the vote for city councils, state legislatures, and Congress. This local effort would generate a network of organizations, leaders, competencies, and power that would progress upward. The approach reflects the "Long March to Change" strategy, whereby you build a baseline of local change and slowly erect layers above--in the process putting in place elements of the new society.

There are emerging developments afoot to carry out such grassroots organizing. The People's Summit is planning a national meeting in Chicago in mid-June. Participants include the National Nurses United, People for Bernie, Democratic Socialists of America, Progressive Democrats of America, Reclaim Chicago, etc. The aim is not to form a new national organization but to energize organizing at the grassroots level. The Summit will draft an overarching People's Platform for these groups to work from. Other new groups are being formed in various locales for similar purposes, for example, Grassroots Select, with offshoots such as TeamBernie4LA in Los Angeles and LeftUpToUs in Austin. Continuing efforts are found in existing groups like Black Lives Matter and Dream Defenders.

Critics point out that concentrating on grassroots organizing has a clear downside. These scattered efforts have never been sufficient and that greater mass is needed to have an impact on national and societal problems. The notable Saul Alinsky community organizing program never took hold because of its strictly local orientation. Local groups often fragment and go off to follow particularistic interests and goals. To tackle significant problems of scope, there needs to be some combination of bottom-up and top-down action and leadership.

A fourth option at play calls for mobilizing to smash the system. Some hard-left activists think it's necessary to carry out broad civil disobedience, using disruptive tactics to unhinge the normal workings of society and harm the wellbeing of elites. That's because the ruling class has never shed its privileges in response to reason or humane impulses.

This strategy has an anarchist flavor, is typified by the student movement at Berkeley, and replicates the approach of Occupy. There would be work stoppages, unlicensed marches, and picketing. Journalist Chris Hedges has been a notable advocate of the disruptive approach. One outcome might be a change in election rules so that dissident groups are able to compete more successfully in the voting process.

Skeptics say that there isn't an appetite in the country for civil disobedience and the possibility of subsequent bedlam. Plus, the instrumentalities of social control through the police and military would quickly crush disorderly overtures. "Smash the system" would become "smash the movement."

Acknowledging that revolt has a long history (going back to the American Revolution) as a means to dislodge oppressive regimes, circumstances and timing have to be present to create the Perfect Storm for successful non-violent change. Success requires widespread involvement in a disciplined way; not the emotional responses of outrage and the taking up of political theater that are attractive to so many, especially young rebels. The US currently does not have a Mahatma Gandhi or Vaclav Havel to lead this kind of movement.

Fifth, Bernie could release his supporters to build a movement of their own choosing. He would encourage self-direction and not provide direct leadership.
This is not likely to occur. It would mean that Bernie, in some sense, abandons his constituents, an action that doesn't seem compatible with his character.

As a sixth alternative, Bernie could simply focus on being a Senator from Vermont--with greater prestige and leverage in the Senate, including important committee assignments. This is also unlikely because it smacks of deserting his supporters. Senatorial involvement would probably be used in combination with aspects of one or more of the other options.

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In all of these strategic directions, there are questions about Bernie's role. Will he lead or support the alternative options? Will he turn over the campaign organization's resources? That includes email lists; a list of volunteers and their skills and willingness to work; staff names, skills, and contacts; fund-raising infrastructure; money. Estimates at this time are that Sanders has a mailing list of 5 million, has 8 million supporters on social media, and has raised more than $185 million in contributions. How these assets are deployed is crucial to any scenario that unfolds.

As context, we have to recognize that despite his self-identification, Sanders is not a full-fledged socialist, as classically understood. He is basically a New Dealer and Scandinavian-type social democrat. He doesn't advocate fundamental socialist principles calling for nationalizing at least some key industries and establishing worker ownership. Rather, He cites Franklin Roosevelt's "Four Freedoms" speech, with its "Economic Bill of Rights," as core to his beliefs, leaving Karl Marx aside. This outlook will shape the choice of options he elects to enact.

My own guess is that Bernie will, at least in the short run, take option #1, radicalizing the Democratic Party. He is, at the moment, heavily entwined, positively and negatively, in the Party's affairs as a candidate and caucus member. My hope is that further down the line he embraces option #2, taking leadership in starting a new independent party.

Radicalizing the Democratic Party is an ambition mired in frustration. The way the Party has obstructed the Bernie candidacy at every turn has given Sanders pause. Debbie Wasserman Schultz, rather than being a neutral Party chief executive, has been blunt in boosting the Clinton machine and hamstringing Bernie. The unfavorable debate arrangements, the stacked super-delegate setup, and the lockstep endorsements by party elites have all worked against him, as did the suspension of his campaign's database access and the underrepresentation of his campaign on key convention committees. Anyone taking an objective look at the Nevada Convention fracas can see that the State Party's apparatus was lined up with an iron fist to safeguard Hillary's position, extremely frustrating Bernie's delegates.

Hillary's surrogates lament that she has had to fight on two fronts--Bernie and Trump. The accurate rejoinder of the Bernie people is that he too has been obliged to fight on two fronts: Hillary and the Democratic Party establishment. The Democratic powers-that-be stand resolutely in the way of the Bernie insurgency within the Party. If we look toward the independent option, however, the social and political environment of the moment is uniquely favorable to making a third party bid.

Widespread dysfunction and disgruntlement prevail in the country. The government is pinned down by perpetual gridlock; it is impossible even to appoint Supreme Court Justices. Sanders has made the reality of shameful economic inequality evident to all elements of the public. The middle class has gone into distressing economic decline, with no hope of relief in sight. Our manufacturing capabilities are on life support. Problems like homelessness, infrastructure decay, drug addiction and racism seem beyond solution. Efforts to address climate change are pitiful. Ceaseless wars sap the nation's resources and moral integrity.

Public unrest and anger about this state of affairs are found on both the right and the left. Astonishingly, running as a democratic socialist conducting a political revolution, Sanders has tallied almost 10 million popular votes (through May), with the California primary still to come. Compare this with the not quite 1 million votes the great socialist leader Eugene Debs garnered in his most successful campaign. Factor in the enormous energy and commitment of the army of young people fueling the Bernie movement. Take note of the powerful organizing apparatus the campaign has assembled in email lists, volunteers, fundraising, social media, and the like.

Recognize that avowed socialist Sanders is not seen as a bomb-thrower or crazy person, even by the mainstream media. He is viewed widely as an honest man with integrity, who has been consistent in his views--impervious to the political winds. People broadly admire his quest for equality and drive to take money out of politics. He alone accepts no funds from billionaire backers and is not beholden to special interests. It is no wonder that in polls he is rated the most favorable among all the candidates who have run in 2016.

The current constellation of circumstances give rise to a promising new perspective. There are real prospects, though the hurdles are daunting, that an independent party led by Sanders could ascend and steer the country toward a robust politics of social justice. At the risk of discrediting myself for plagiarizing a slogan, maybe it's Sanders rather than Trump who will make the country great again.