|SocialismToday Socialist Party magazine|
Issue 210 July/August 2017
Bernie’s big opportunity
Bernie Sanders’ 2016 presidential primary campaign has had a profound and continuing impact on working people and youth in the US. Millions of Americans, from big cities to suburbs to rural areas, were inspired by something that most had never seen before: working-class politics. Sanders’ call for a "political revolution against the billionaire class" was paired with bold, fighting demands like single-payer healthcare, free college education, a federal $15 minimum wage, and big taxes on Wall Street.
Since the election, Sanders has continued to have a huge influence on political discussion, with the self-described ‘democratic socialist’ becoming the most prominent left-wing critic of the Trump administration. Rather than demonising working-class voters, as many Democratic leaders have done in their search for scapegoats since Hillary Clinton’s humiliating election defeat, Sanders has worked to undercut Trump’s support on a class basis.
He has gone on the offensive against Trump’s billionaire cabinet, Republican healthcare plans, tax cuts for the rich, and brutal attacks on social services and education. Sanders has taken up the concrete issues that affect the day-to-day lives of working people, while highlighting Trump’s hypocritical failure to represent the "forgotten men and women". Perhaps most effectively, Sanders has spoken at rallies around the country to not only oppose Trumpcare but to continue building support for Medicare for all.
In sharp contrast, Democratic Party leaders have continued to push back hard against demands for progressive policies, with the party standing firm against single-payer health care. Polls now find Sanders to be one of the most popular elected officials in the US, with an impressive 60% approval rating at a time when politicians from both major parties are broadly viewed with suspicion.
But while Sanders does a great many things right, he has not yet converted the huge enthusiasm built up through his historic presidential campaign into a mass organisation capable of effectively fighting for the policies he campaigned on. Sanders repeatedly asserts that "right now" he’s working to "transform" the Democratic Party rather than building a new party – while insisting that he is "not a Democrat". These contradictory statements have been reaffirmed during Sanders’ ‘unity tour’ with the new Democratic National Committee chair Tom Perez.
In a telling sign of the fundamental contradictions built into Sanders’ current approach, the tour turned overnight into a disunity tour. Berniecrats booed Perez in city after city, as Perez held the party line on for-profit healthcare, corporate campaign cash, and the status quo party platform. Meanwhile, Democratic Party loyalists angrily called for Bernie to be thrown out of the party he’s not formally a member of.
But what would be required to transform the Democrats into a ‘people’s party’? At a minimum it would mean accepting an end to all corporate donations, a consistent pro-worker programme, a binding platform, and genuine democratic structures capable of holding elected representatives accountable. Corporate Democrats would almost certainly part ways rather than accept this. Despite the deep crisis in the party, it remains far more likely that the Democratic neoliberal leadership and apparatus will prevail – and that the forces of the left will have to face the choice of parting ways and launching a new mass party.
The stunning growth of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) from 6,000 to 20,000 members in just one year, as well as the rapid growth of Socialist Alternative (US co-thinkers of the Socialist Party), shows the enormous potential to build the socialist left at present. A politically broader organisation with Sanders’ leadership and authority would have far greater potential for rapid development. Hundreds of thousands of people could be inspired and drawn into the effort and ongoing struggle.
In February, former Sanders campaign staffer Nick Brana launched the Draft Bernie for a People’s Party petition campaign. This was similar in many ways to the petition Socialist Alternative organised in the final months of the 2016 primary, ultimately garnering 125,000 signatures. Brana’s has 36,000 so far, significant given the overwhelming focus on Trump and the Republicans at present.
Sanders missed a historic opportunity last year when he endorsed and campaigned for Clinton, instead of running all the way as an independent and launching a new party. The window has not yet closed, but history does not offer an unlimited number of opportunities to challenge the pro-corporate, racist, anti-worker forces that dominate our society under capitalism. We must take them when they come, and make the most of them.
In addition to a new mass organisation, the best way to advance this struggle at present is to run strong independent left and socialist election campaigns across the country, which we have invited DSA to join us in doing. In Minneapolis, Socialist Alternative candidate Ginger Jentzen is running for city council, fighting for a $15 minimum wage and a bold affordable housing programme. In Seattle, we are supporting People’s Party candidate Nikkita Oliver, and have joined up with the DSA to support independent democratic socialist Jon Grant.
A new mass left party will require a massive organising effort, correct timing, and the involvement of broad forces. But it will happen. Global capitalism and its two pro-corporate parties in the US are utterly failing to address the real needs of the working class, and offer no way forward from a future of massive inequality, instability and crisis. A new party can and must be built – even if it ultimately has to go forward without Bernie Sanders.
Calvin Priest, Socialist Alternative