Bernie Sanders between the Democrats and the Left

What is the significance of Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the US presidency? Up until this year, Sanders conducted his entire political career (from mayor to congressman to senator) as an “Independent,” outside the Democratic Party (DP). He does not foreground his identity as a socialist, but nor does he disavow it; he makes sure, however, that people understand it as referring to “Scandinavian-type” socialism, i.e. social democracy.

His presidential campaign is the first one that he runs as a Democrat, and the question that has to concern us is: what kind of “understanding” may he have been required to accept – at least implicitly – in order to be able to do this (given the primary commitment of the DP leadership to the interests of capital). One point Sanders made immediately clear (in a major TV interview), right after he announced his candidacy: if he ended up not becoming the DP’s nominee, he would throw his support to the winning DP candidate, whoever that might be.

Sanders correctly observes that if he were to run outside the DP, he would not get anywhere near the access that he now gets to the mass media and (therefore) to large audiences. He has said from the outset that he is “running to win,” and not just to provide an outlet for people to express their dissident opinions. And indeed his performance has been impressive. He speaks bluntly and forcefully, and he addresses the real concerns of a popular majority (increasingly including the issues particularly affecting people of color), all of which has brought to his rallies larger crowds than those drawn by any other current candidate, from either major party.

Can all this bring him victory in November 2016? There is evidence that the Republicans feel more threatened by Sanders than they do by any of the other DP candidates, principally because he is the only Democrat who forcefully rejects the status quo. (For a discussion of Hillary Clinton and the other possible DP nominees, see here.) Sanders also has traditionally been able to win the support, in his home-state (Vermont), of poor-white constituencies that tend to vote Republican in other electoral contests – against their own economic interests – because of loyalties carried over from an earlier period.

However, the DP leadership has a long history of preferring to lose to the Republicans rather than mobilize their own core supporters, who favor more progressive social policies than are acceptable to the party’s corporate sponsors. Examples of this seemingly defeatist approach can be found in 1988, when DP nominee Michael Dukakis chose to run a technocratic rather than a populist campaign despite great popular discontent with the incumbent Republicans, and in 2000, when DP nominee Al Gore refused to challenge the suppression of the decisive Florida vote.

By the same token now, even if Sanders appears to offer the strongest alternative to the Republicans, the DP leadership is likely to do everything possible to defeat him. In the meantime, his campaign is useful to the party insofar as it draws otherwise sceptical voters into their arena (what radical critics call “the sheepdog function”). The “establishment” DP politicians, such as Hillary Clinton, will be pulled leftward in their campaign rhetoric – without serious commitments in that direction – while also claiming to be more “electable” than Sanders (meaning, in practice, more likely to be treated respectfully by the corporate media).

The DP has always accommodated politicians who can create the impression that the party cares about the working class (or, in its more usual language, “working families” or “the middle class” or “ordinary Americans”). But, once these politicians have spoken their piece, the basic neoliberal agenda can be maintained by having a significant minority of DP legislators vote on the same side as the Republicans (as is regularly done in order to ratify “free trade” agreements).

Sanders is among those who would stick to their progressive stances on social and economic issues. Where he appears to have succumbed to the dominant consensus, however, is in his failure to challenge US imperialism and militarism. True, he can tell left-wing audiences about the antiwar work that he did in his younger years, and can remind us that he voted against authorizing Bush II to invade Iraq. Still, he routinely ratifies the military budget and has not challenged the almost unanimous support of US politicians for Israel. What is particularly noteworthy is that, of the ten policy “issues” listed on his campaign website, not a single one pertains to foreign policy or to the government’s biggest budget item, which is the military. Moreover, he remarkably has called for increased participation of the ultra-repressive Saudi government in waging the US-led “war on terror”. (For an overview of Sanders’ foreign policy stances, see here.)

Sanders frequently says that his campaign calls for a “political revolution”; so it is odd that he does not encourage questioning of some of the central priorities on which the leaderships of the two dominant parties are in agreement – and on which an alteration would be necessary in order to make possible the social agenda that he calls for. 

If, contrary to most expectations, Sanders wins the DP nomination, the ensuing election contest (in the last three months before November 2016) could be of exceptional interest. Sanders would be under extraordinary pressure to scale back his rhetoric. At the same time, the DP’s top sponsors would most likely desert the party in favor of the Republican candidate (as they did when George McGovern, who had a less radical image than Sanders, won the DP nomination as a “peace candidate” in 1972).

Thus, even if Sanders gains the DP nomination, and certainly if he loses it, a huge space of potential action will open up for the Green party, which is the most important (though still small) left-wing electoral party.

Many scenarios are possible, but one would hope that there could be some kind of communication and collaboration, at the base level, between those who are now working for Sanders and those who see the necessity of building up a fully independent left-wing force. The challenge for the Left, at this point, is to provide a space for those who have been newly politicized by the Sanders campaign to continue their work for the progressive positions he advances, rather than accepting the role of being mobilized (as “sheep”) only to support a supposedly lesser-evil DP candidate.

And, if Sanders himself turns out to be the DP candidate, it will still be necessary to pressure him from the left, to keep him from succumbing to the inevitable pressures he will face. What is without question is that because of the urgency of the current economic and ecological crisis, a radical stance has not only become more necessary than before, but can also be more politically popular than one that stays within traditional parameters.

When the general-election phase of the campaign arrives (after all the parties have had their nominating conventions in Summer 2016), an important question is whether a pending lawsuit to open the presidential debates to parties other than the Democrats and the Republicans (who currently sponsor the debates, from which they exclude others) will have been successful. As long as voters’ effective choices are limited to those two parties, there will be little policy-change. The hardest steps beyond that scenario are these initial ones.

But, in the meantime, organizing can occur on multiple fronts. For those who recognize the limitations that mark the Sanders campaign, but yet who want to take advantage of the openings it has created, it is important to maintain networks that include but are not limited to Sanders-supporters, and which make it possible to convey demands to the Sanders campaign – such as this one  -- that can help offset its fear of challenging the ruling consensus.

Any serious change in US priorities will ultimately depend on what is done directly by an organized majority. Presidential campaigns typically draw energy away from developing such a force, but only if we let them. We cannot ignore the campaigns, but we must not let them prescribe how we use them. As the early 20th-century US socialist Eugene Debs understood, the question of who leads us matters less than what we do ourselves.

Victor Wallis is editor of Socialism and Democracy