Socialists and the Horse Race

Will backing Bernie Sanders help build an independent left? A debate.

Bernie Sanders in Ohio on February 25, 2016. Baldwin Wallace University

After Super Tuesday, Bernie Sanders’s campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination has reached a critical point. Many voters have bought into the Clinton camp’s aura of inevitability, while others feel there’s still a fighting chance. But wherever the campaign ends up, socialists agree that the real work lies in building permanent, independent political alternatives for working people.

What they have not agreed on is how to build that alternative and whether directly supporting the Sanders campaign helps in this goal.

In December, four socialists came together to debate these questions. Danny Katch of the International Socialist Organization, Bhaskar Sunkara of Jacobin magazine, Gloria Mattera of the Green Party, and Dustin Guastella of the Democratic Socialists of America each offered their viewpoint on how to relate to the campaign and — crucially — what to do after it ends.


Danny Katch

Alright, we’re here to debate, but it’s actually good to establish some of what we don’t have to debate, some of what we all can agree on. Does anybody here hate Donald Trump? Does anybody here support Planned Parenthood? Does anybody here think that all refugees should be welcome in this country?

I’m not just saying that for cheap applause; we should remember that, because in a few months there are going to be a lot of people saying we don’t actually. How many of you here are pretty sure you’re not going to support Hillary Clinton even if she gets the nomination? Well if you’re in that category, then I’m talking about you, and I’m talking about me, because in a few months we will in all likelihood, unfortunately, be facing a presidential race between Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump or some other loathsome Republican.

Hillary Clinton is not going to win the Democratic nomination because she has a better message than Bernie Sanders, and it’s certainly not because Bernie Sanders’s social-democratic policies somehow don’t connect with women or African Americans, or all the crap you see Hillary supporters putting out.

The reason why in almost all likelihood Hillary Clinton is going to get the nomination is because the Democratic Party is not a democratic party. It’s a very misnamed party because it’s run by money primaries, connections to corporate media, and rigged internal structures like superdelegates, who are all already pledging that they’re going to support Hillary Clinton.

In a few months, when we have that race, in all likelihood between Hillary Clinton and a loathsome Republican, and you don’t support Hillary Clinton, you’re going to be accused of supporting Trump because that’s the logic of lesser-evilism. You’re going to be accused of not caring about Planned Parenthood.

It doesn’t matter if you were one of the people who were at the protest against Donald Trump last night at Columbus Circle, or you’re one of the people who helped organize that protest. You’re going to be accused of not caring about the consequences of Donald Trump, and you’ll be accused of that by some people whose only response to Donald Trump is to say, “Oh, Trump is terrible, send more money to my campaign,” which is basically what Hillary Clinton is saying about Donald Trump after being friends with him for twenty years.

And unfortunately, in a few months Bernie Sanders and most of the upper-level organizers in his campaign are going to tell their supporters that they need to now get behind Hillary Clinton to prevent that horrible Republican victory. And the pressure on the people who think we need to build something independent of that is going to be enormous.

There are going to be emails every day coming from liberal organizations talking about the latest horrible thing that Donald Trump, Ted Cruz, or Marco Rubio said. There are going to be articles written by every liberal magazine blasting people on the Left who aren’t getting in line with the Hillary Clinton campaign, saying that we don’t care about deportations because we won’t support the party that’s deporting more people than anyone in history.

They’ll be saying we don’t care about refugees because we’re not lining up behind the person who was secretary of state in the administration that created more refugees than we’ve seen in any time since the end of World War II.

Let me stop for a second. Why am I talking so much about Hillary Clinton when we’re here to debate Bernie Sanders? Because I’m cheating — I can do that. No, what I’m actually trying to do is pull the lens back a little bit to talk about what I really do feel.

If we can look ahead not just to the next primaries but to the next twelve months, we can see the defining challenge for the Left in this country, which is fighting for a left that’s independent of the Hillary Clinton campaign and a Democratic Party that thrives from generation to generation on sucking in the new generations of unions, grassroots movements, and activists and turning them into partisan hacks. The kind of people that say that the war in the Middle East is a war crime when George Bush does it, but when Obama does it, don’t have as much to say.

That’s what it means to take movements and turn them into partisan BS. We need a left that’s much better than that. I’m not accusing people in this room of not doing that, I think that’s a sentiment that brings us together and people together. There’s a strategic debate about how to do that.

The challenge of trying to build an independent left over the next twelve months, it means a couple things: One, it’s going to mean in November making sure there is an electoral independent thing to do, we’ll have to talk more about the Green Party and Jill Stein’s campaign.

But it’s also going to mean fighting for our social movements to stay independent and to stay out in the streets, for people in Chicago to keep fighting to get Rahm Emanuel out of there because of his complicity in the murder of black and Latino men and women by his police department.

It also means continuing rallies against Islamophobia and for refugees, and working and fighting inside those organizing meetings to make sure that the message isn’t just that this is all Trump, Trump is so horrible, but that people who are going to these protests get to hear and think about the role that Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton as the secretary of state played in laying the basis of that Islamophobia. The pressure to not do that will really be strong.

The question tonight that we’re debating is whether or not the Bernie Sanders campaign helps or hurts that effort of building the Left. I think it doesn’t help for a couple reasons: one, because as I’ve already implied, for all the wildly encouraging success that Sanders’s campaign has had, it’s building something that for the most part won’t exist by the time we head into the general election. It’s not building something that’s lasting and independent.

And secondly, though Bernie Sanders is getting out a great message around economic equality — and getting people to talk about the “S” word — unfortunately I think he’s also giving new life to the idea that we can take over the Democratic Party from within; that it can be a tool for us. Then that hope is going to be transferred into the Hillary Clinton campaign. That’s something we need to disagree with.

That’s the heart of what I think we need to be debating tonight. It’s about the nature of the Democratic Party, whether or not it can be used by the Left, or whether or not it inevitably uses us. And I don’t think it’s a debate between purity and practicality. I think that ends up being a kind of straw-man argument.

For one thing, the reason why we in the International Socialist Organization aren’t supportive of the Bernie Sanders campaign is not about purity, it’s not because he’s not revolutionary enough. We were knee-deep in Ralph Nader’s Green Party campaign, other campaigns of people who aren’t revolutionary socialists, but we’re about building lasting and permanent formations independent from our two-party system.

Let’s be honest: neither side of this debate is practical. We both have incredibly long odds that we’re facing. On the one hand, on my side, the last successful third party in this country was 150 years ago when Abraham Lincoln won an election on the Republican Party ballot for stopping the spread of slavery. On the other hand, the last time socialists successfully entered the Democratic Party and moved it to the left without themselves moving to the right was never.

So, if you want to be practical, you really shouldn’t be a socialist at all. We both have long odds in the task set out. But that last point does bring up a really important question about Sanders: isn’t Sanders making it more practical to be a socialist? Isn’t he popularizing socialism? And, to an extent, I think that’s definitely true. I know being in the ISO, I’ve seen more people coming around asking about socialism because of the Sanders campaign.

But we should be clear: that really didn’t start with Sanders. That started with the Great Recession and 2010-11 — that’s when polls started showing significant minorities and pluralities among young people, African Americans, Latinos favoring socialism over capitalism.

Sanders has given that an electoral expression and he’s increased the number of people talking about socialism. That’s great. But the thing that’s been missing for the last five years and that the Sanders campaign has not actually moved us forward on is giving some definition of what socialism can mean and how socialists can organize.

In fact, to me the danger of the Sanders campaign, as much as it’s providing opportunities, is that it puts forward the Democratic Party as an organizational possibility for socialism, saying that this is a way that we can organize. And then that in turn puts pressure on what Sanders is able to say or feels like he can say socialism is.

In the last six months he has gone in his reference points of socialism from Eugene Debs, to Denmark, to the New Deal. And I’m hoping it doesn’t get all the way to Jimmy Carter. There’s a pressure to conform socialism into what the Democratic Party will allow, and to me that’s something we don’t want to squander.

I share the sentiment that I think a lot of Sanders supporters have of “Oh my god, this is such an exciting moment.” For all the stuff that I’ve been saying about how this next year is going to be so challenging, with public pressures and lesser-evilism, I think it will be an incredible opportunity too, and we don’t want to squander that. We want to make socialism stand for something and not be part of the same party as the War on Terror and deportations.

Bhaskar Sunkara

Some of you have heard me talk on this topic before. I’m not going to offer a lot in addition, so what I did is I took my original speech and cut it to its bare bones. No bad jokes, no puns, no anecdotes from my childhood; just the basic points.

I support Bernie Sanders and I think you should, too. But first let me direct my attention my fellow Bernie Sanders supporters and briefly explain the way in which I think we should not support Sanders.

We should not aim to transform the Democratic Party or to look for new blocs within it to realign our base. We should recognize that even though out of the workers who do vote — and many of them for good reason stay home because they don’t see much of a difference when they do — most vote for the Democratic Party, this alone isn’t an argument for it.

Their involvement in the party is a passive one. The Democratic Party is structurally a party of capital. It functions to weaken the fighting capability of workers. Any viable program — a revolutionary one or nice and reformist one, like my own — requires working-class political consciousness and mobilization.

And also I have to say, there is a certain way in which one should not oppose the Sanders campaign even if you’re going to come down against it. I think Danny and others in the International Socialist Organization do this correctly.

Danny didn’t line-by-line oppose Sanders at the level of program. He made a structural argument about the nature of the Democratic Party and he conceded that, for instance, if you compare the program of Ralph Nader in 2000 to the program of Sanders, Sanders’s program is more progressive. So if you’re going to oppose Sanders, I think it has to be pitched at that structural level.

But if I share the desire of most here for working-class political independence, militant direct action outside of electoral politics, rank-and-file action in the labor movement, for bottom-up democratic social movements, why am I supporting Bernie Sanders?

Well, I asked myself three questions back in April when this was just a theoretical question, and those three questions were: (1) is the Sanders campaign pushing things towards the left or to the right? (2) What is the level of social movement activity now compared to the past? Is there a reasonable fear that the Sanders campaign could co-opt energy from movements and neutralize them within the tent of the Democratic Party? And (3) what is the current level of strength of the socialist left? Are we capable of swaying a national election, either on the one hand by running an independent socialist, or on the other, following those who are already banging the drum for a progressives for Hillary campaign, just to keep the Right out?

The experiences of the last few months have confirmed the answers to these questions in my mind. The Sanders campaign is indeed driving forward the importance of income inequality and the need for a social safety net and a rejuvenated labor movement.

He’s doing this while describing himself as a socialist, helping to start a conversation about what that means today. Many socialist groups and outfits across the country — and I can only speak concretely about Democratic Socialists of America, of which I’m a member, and the experience of Jacobin — have benefited tremendously from this attention. He’s opening up space, in other words, for this discussion about socialism.

I have found it rather easy to start a conversation with people by saying, “I support Bernie Sanders, but . . .” rather than the talk I imagine other comrades are having, which goes something like, “I understand why you support Bernie Sanders, but . . .”

On my second question: even though there are burgeoning movements that many of us are engaged with, and we hope will grow in the future, at the moment, the current level of struggle does not mirror the periods of great upsurge that became vulnerable to co-optation.

The populists of the 1890s; the labor movement of the New Deal era; and the New Left of the 1960s and ‘70s, where many of them ended up in the McCarthy, McGovern campaigns — those were times when the possibility of independent political action was forestalled and corralled into the Democratic Party.

The sixties and seventies especially were a time when even the far left confused the bureaucratic structures of official reformism as an embryo of some type of workers’ party. The times now are different. Sanders’s supporters on the Left don’t call for such a strategy, there’s no structural basis for that to be even conceivable.

Furthermore, I can see absolutely no proof that the Sanders campaign has done anything to limit the appeal of social movements that do exist today. In fact, I would argue that it actually has brought thousands who were previously not as engaged to the spirit of at least broad, liberal-left political organizing in a positive way.

And to answer my last question, I think the socialist left is weak. (I know that’s not a surprise to you all.) There’s of course no use in being defeatist about it, but we have maybe 2,000 people active in socialist organizations, in a country of 330 million people and counting. That’s a staggering number. It has no comparison in the history of any capitalist country since the dawn of the workers’ movement.

Obviously many of us are doing things about it. I applaud the work of the International Socialist Organization, Socialist Alternative, the Democratic Socialists of America, and others; it’s necessary and often thankless. Still at the moment our level of strength means we are not capable of meaningfully impacting the national presidential election.

This situation demands tactical flexibility when approaching the question of Sanders. Our best bet at the moment, in the field of national electoral politics, is to support and engage in the Sanders campaign as open socialists. We, in other words, have more to gain than we do to lose. Bernie is leading millions of people to socialism. While we have two thousand — at best — socialists active in groups. We won’t even have to be that good at reaching Sanders supporters to see a dramatic difference in our movement.

Engaging with the campaign allows us to meaningfully connect with these people. Obviously, this is not an argument for subsuming ourselves within the Democratic Party; for relating to it as some sort of true home for working-class activity; or attempting to realign it. This is a one-off engagement with the presidential campaign of a self-described socialist. We can make this tactical decision and support Sanders in a national race while also building independent political formations at the local level.

We can look at the 1930s, when a lot of labor activists who voted for Roosevelt were also heavily involved in building local labor parties, to see that we can make these decisions at the national level while building independent formations at the local level. I call for treating the Sanders campaign as a tactical parenthesis without losing sight of the need for independent political action. We have much to lose by standing on the sidelines.

Gloria Mattera

Thank you for everyone who organized this and for all of you being here, to the previous speakers. It’s a little strange for me because I’m going to talk more from a political party perspective. I do consider myself an ecosocialist, I was a member of an organized socialist group. But I also think there are two audiences here, an ideologically socialist one and the people who are part of political groups.

I have an example of how having these two audiences affects this debate. A couple of months ago, there was a time when you could change your registration in New York State to become a member of a particular party. You can change it, but then you can’t vote until a year later. And I got on my voicemail along with many other Green Party members an enthusiastic young person, who called me from another state, to remind me that I needed to change my registration from Green to Democrat in enough time to vote for Bernie in the Democratic primary.

He was very excited, but when I called him back he never called me. On my way in here I bumped into a young man who I see at different demos — he’s actually Green — I’ll just call him Joe so he is anonymous. And I told him what I was doing and he said, well that should be really interesting, he goes, “So, I changed my registration from Green to Democrat, I really feel the Bern. I don’t know what it’s going to mean really, but I feel the Bern. I’m going to change it right back.”

I didn’t want to go into a whole thing about that, but it’s like there are two audiences there. Some are experienced; they’re political; they are in socialist groups. I would say yes, there are very few socialists in groups, but how many socialists are out there that are not in groups? Or maybe they don’t realize they’re socialists, but if you talked to them about the kinds of things socialism means, they’re on board. Maybe those are the people that we’re talking about.

And I think as a leader in the Green Party — and I will also say, by disclosure, I am a senior adviser to the Jill Stein campaign, who’s the leading recognized candidate in the Green Party, although she won’t be a nominee until much later on next year — that we do have to compare and contrast Sanders’s program to a Green Party presidential candidate’s program because there are quite a few similarities. I will say for those of you who don’t know a lot about the Green Party that it is the only independent left party with a national presence.

That doesn’t mean there are no smaller parties doing things around the state, but it is a national presence, and that really means something when you have a candidate. So if my comrade Howie Hawkins was here he would start talking about William Jennings, start back there and then we’d get all the way to Jesse Jackson.

One example I’ll use is Howard Dean. So what happened with his supporters? They became MoveOn.org, Change.org, this.org, all these kinds of things. What does that mean for people who got excited about the Sanders campaign?

How many will become socialists, how many will come to the Green Party, how many are going to do that same thing, which is “There’s hope for the Democratic Party in between the big elections when we elect someone that we’re really disappointed in,” right? That’s what we do.

So to have a national campaign for an independent candidate, like a Green Party candidate, at this moment — maybe someday there will be other parties that can do that — we have to start now. Those resources of money and people and visibility and talking to people have to start now, not later, not when Sanders starts to tank for whatever reason, whether the Democratic Party does that, or whether it’s just what Hillary’s going to bring in terms of the money and superdelegates.

We are small — whether we’re an organized group or not, whether we’re Green or not — and those of us who believe that things need to change, that this is a rotten system, and people are suffering and dying because of it, have to step up and put the small amount of resources that we have to build that national independent campaign now.

That doesn’t mean that we don’t look at the local level — in 2017 and all the off election years, the most important thing is running candidates on the local level from the Black Lives Matter movement, from the single-payer health care movement, from the stop mass incarceration movement, etc. We are a part of that.

The Bernie Sanders campaign is a tool. For some socialists it’s a tool to recruit or to talk about socialism. To the Democratic Party that campaign is a tool to keep people in the Democratic Party. So electoral work, electoral campaigns in general are a tool that socialists and those on the Left need to use more.

We’re not good enough yet. We have the Kshama Sawant campaign, we had some good results in terms of some Green Party campaigns, Howie Hawkins’s fabulous campaign, and Brian Jones’s campaign. But we have to really work that muscle. We have to know what it means.

During the Hawkins campaign, there were about eighty people at the Commons and there was excitement about how there were two socialists running for governor and lieutenant governor in the Green Party line.

What happened? I have those eighty names, but some people said, “Well, can we make a separate thing that’s not connected to the Green Party?” You could do that. But we’re running a campaign here, we need people to get signatures, raise money, have house parties, work on voter identification, all that stuff is the nitty-gritty dirty laundry that maybe some people don’t want to do. If we don’t learn how to do that, we are not going to win.

The objective is to take power here, and one way to take power is to elect candidates who are accountable to the movements that we’re working in. But we won’t get them elected writing about them in our papers. We won’t get elected just having a dialogue about them. I think Danny referred to this earlier. What is going to be the biggest pressure? We need to stop having meetings that say, “Is it Sanders or the Democratic Party?”

We are going to be under a lot of pressure if Trump or someone similar becomes the Republican nominee because then the Left is going to be under attack, we’re going to be in a lot of bad positions. I think if we have a strong presidential candidate with local candidates throughout this country, whether they’re socialists, whether they’re in different movements, whether they’re Green Party members, we have the ballot line and we have the expertise to run elections.

Doesn’t mean that we have to be the people in the election, we want that to come from as wide a group as possible, and we think that that is going to build a strong independent left movement.

Socialists need to think of the Green Party as their electoral home. You can do your work — if you’re an anarchist, fine, you don’t vote. Maybe we can’t elect Jill Stein or Bernie Sanders.

But we can elect people around this country and we have, who I think will make a difference in pushing our movements forward and showing that the Democratic Party is corrupt; that we need an independent party of not only workers, but people who have been disenfranchised for many, many years. Thank you.

Dustin Guastella

I want to start with something Manning Marable used to say. He said that we get the leadership we deserve or the leadership we demand. But we on the socialist left have gotten neither leadership that we deserve nor leadership that we demanded in the person of Bernie Sanders.

We don’t deserve it because we didn’t build the kinds of dynamic, mass organizations necessary to produce that kind of leadership. And Bernie has successfully articulated a sort of critical position that that kind of mass organization should throw up. We didn’t demand Senator Sanders because we haven’t built the kind of broad based social movements that typically produce such leadership.

What we have are the very beginnings, the very kernels of social movement activity with Occupy and with Black Lives Matter. We’re not yet at the point where there’s mass social struggle and this kind of leadership is demanded by millions of people across the country.

In this way, I’m trying to say that Sanders isn’t really a reflection of what sort of social movement activity we have on the ground. He’s a welcome, albeit really unexpected, intervention. I think that’s an intervention we really can’t ignore as socialists.

There’s no question that we in the socialist movement, like Bhaskar said, have way more to gain here than we do to lose. And we need a tremendous amount, we need to gain so much, not just in terms of individuals, but in terms of the mass power needed in society and in American politics if we’re going to be the kind of force that we want to be in the future.

Sanders’s politics are squarely social democrat. However, his analysis is rooted in an analysis of class struggle. And he says this, he’s talked about the ruling class. I don’t know how many people are shocked to hear that on national television but I was definitely surprised to hear a presidential candidate in the Democratic Party talk about the ruling class.

And his critique opens the door to a more fundamental critique of capitalism for those of us who are actually working in and around the campaign. And it gives us the opportunity to articulate a positive vision of socialism that we see as a radical, democratic, and egalitarian future.

If socialists aren’t making those critiques from a position of genuine support within that movement, I’m sure that we will not have a major effect in directing the outcome of where Sanderistas go after the primaries.

But if we do it from genuine support within that movement we can have an impact on where they go and what they do and how we are able to use this Sanders moment to mobilize hundreds of thousands, perhaps millions, of young people, a diverse crowd of young folks thinking critically about capitalism.

We have a moment where hundreds of thousands of voters have been mobilized, not only to reject the ugly right-wing populism of the Republicans, but also Hillary Clinton’s milquetoast reformism. Voters fighting for a positive social-democratic program for mass democratic rights, social rights, and decommodification.

And as limited and partial as Bernie’s demands are, they do represent a fundamentally offensive struggle for social rights and to some extent radical democracy and decommodification. He openly acknowledges that such an offensive struggle for the Left requires mass social movement. That is really important. It’s not just a refreshing thing to hear, but it’s an analysis that requires socialists to get involved in a way that creates that mass social movement.

If we have just a fraction of the sort of power that we need to win even a small amount of Sanders’s gains, we’ve made a tremendous leap in the socialist movement. And many Sanders supporters have endeavored to do just that. We’ve seen Sanderistas ignite a small movement within labor and have captured some really impressive endorsements for Bernie, and not just the expected ones; a lot of different locals are now fighting about Bernie versus Hillary.

And this fight isn’t just about whether or not they want to elect a cranky senator from Vermont, it’s about the fundamental role that labor sees itself playing in politics. They’re having a debate about that blank-check approach they normally have toward Democrats, and I think that debate is really important for workers and the labor movement as a whole.

Thousands of young people are out canvassing and organizing their own Sanders activity outside of the apparatus of the Sanders campaign, outside of paid staff, outside of the sort of campaigns we’ve seen before, the faux-grassroots campaigns we’re familiar with. And not only are they excited about Sanders, but I can tell you firsthand, they’re really excited about this idea of socialism, this idea of an emancipatory, egalitarian future.

These are the kind of people that I think we can win over to the socialist left, we can make into genuine socialist militants for the long haul. And we’re only going to be able to do that if we’re capable of organizing them within the Sanders movement.

It remains to be seen whether the kind of social movement on the scale needed to win Sanders’s reforms will coalesce. But if socialists are not in and around that movement, or the seeds of that movement at the very least, we have no chance of influencing it and pushing it toward broader and more ambitious goals.

Now finally, a word on the Democrats. Obviously many people are really anxious about Bernie’s relationship to the Democratic Party; how such a relationship compromises his candidacy and the possibility of anything genuinely progressive resulting from this campaign.

I want to challenge some of these critiques. A lot of them are very good, but some of them I think are often misunderstood or present an overly structural position of the Democratic Party.

First I want to say that, as Bhaskar said and others said, we do not see Sanders as a realignment strategy for the Democratic Party. Right off the bat that is not something that we are working towards. Rather we see it as a huge opportunity to build socialist momentum out of the campaign — that is, organizing Sanders supporters to become socialists, to join the socialist movement, to become critics of capitalism.

So one of the more frustrating arguments against Sanders is that he’s merely a sheepdog for Hillary — that is, he’s keeping many frustrated left-wing voters in the party and is eventually going to be herding those voters to Hillary’s arms when she gets the nomination.

Firstly, this argument is really insulting to a lot of those voters who have a mind enough of their own to vote for Jill Stein after the primary, and if not, many of them had made up their mind about voting for Hillary way before Bernie came along.

Second, I think the concept of keeping voters in the party is a little problematic. Our two major political parties are hardly the sort of mass organizations we sometimes imagine them to be. There are no party dues, there are no mass meetings, and there are no party agendas set by the mass majority of those members. In many ways the Democratic Party is a loose and open organization, and virtually anyone can join them up.

Now that’s not to say that building an alternative electoral organization shouldn’t be a major part, or the major part, of building the socialist movement, but only to say that Bernie’s Democratic primary run does not automatically contaminate many of his supporters. It doesn’t make them dyed-in-the-wool Democrats just because they’re supporting Bernie in this primary campaign.

And if we don’t want them to become dye-in-the-wool Democrats, I suggest we get involved in that campaign and talk to them critically about the Democratic Party and about the party apparatus.

Finally, and this goes back to my first point, we haven’t really given Sanders good reason not to run in the Democratic Party. The socialist movement is really weak right now. We’ve not built strong electoral coalitions or organizations that Sanders can count on to help him get his name on the ballot in all fifty states, we’ve not built the kind of local electoral campaigns that create cadres of city municipal leaders, we’ve not built the kind of labor campaigns that have ranks of working-class voters going out door-knocking for independent political work, and so we need to do the work — and I agree with Gloria — we need to do the work in the long term to get political movements like Sanders and leaders like Sanders to run independent campaigns. But right now we’ve not given him much of a reason to do that.

For now, Sanders’s run in the Democratic Party represents a major opportunity for the US left to organize and recruit thousands of young radicals to our movement. Building out of the campaign we can create the kind of powerful force necessary to affect American politics. But we can only do that from a position of critical, but unswerving support from within the Sanders camp.


Open Discussion

Question #1

One thing I’m hearing that I’m confused about, from the people who encourage us to support Bernie Sanders, is what that actually looks like. Because Bernie Sanders as we all know is not running a social movement, he’s running a campaign for president of the United States. I went to the Brooklyn for Bernie Sanders meeting and there were fifty people in a room, exactly the same kinds of people we want to be engaging with.

But a lot of that meeting was saying we’ve identified through all of this data — exactly what Gloria was describing — we’ve identified all the neighborhoods that went Green, all the neighborhoods that go left, all the neighborhoods where we think we can get some Bernie supports, and what we’re going to do is flood those neighborhoods, we want to convince them to unregister as Greens and register with the Democratic Party.

That was every effort. All of your energy is spent figuring out how to take people out of the Green Party, out of the independent parties, and into the Democratic Party.

I think we all agree that Bernie Sanders at some point will not be the nominee. Is the plan of the campaign to call those people back up and say, “You know what, we gave it our best shot, it’s not working out, what you should do, you should go back to the Green Party.”

No, of course not. And this is an incredible turnout. So what’s going to happen is these people are going to be Democrats, the Green Party is going to have less people. So how are we dealing with that?

Question #2

So I’ve been a part of a number of campaigns. And in my experience, there’s a sort of naïveté among Bernie supporters about the role of the Democratic Party and their attempt to co-opt social movements.

For example, my two most stark experiences of being a socialist and an activist was first, in 2004, in an organization largely involved in the gay marriage movement. And what happened to the movement in 2004 is we were told that that now was not the time, that you’re about to elect a Democrat. Because the Left is so tied to the Democratic Party that meant that gay marriage was dropped and wasn’t won until years later.

The second thing: for people who remember, every March busloads of people used to travel from New York City down to Washington, DC to protest the anniversary of the invasion of Iraq. This happened for years. 2007 was the last time that happened. That’s because in 2008 Barack Obama was elected president and the antiwar movement tanked.

If our social movements — not electoral movements — that are actually trying to exercise the power of ordinary people do not break fundamentally from the Democratic Party then I think that we will continue to lose.

Question #3

Questions for the comrades that are currently supporting the Sanders campaign: we haven’t been very clear about what happens after August. And I’d like to hear, are you going to be working for the Green Party campaign after August, after presumably Sanders does not get the nomination? Conversely, for the Green Party, for Gloria, what is the Green Party’s orientation to the supporters of Sanders now?

Question #4

I would just like to clarify, is our engagement with the Bernie Sanders campaign a cultural one, where we question and develop what it means to be a socialist, or is it about trying to build socialist organization?

Question #5

If Bernie Sanders wins the Democratic nomination, I will cheer. And I think we should all cheer. I think we should cheer about the fact that seven hundred thousand people have made a contribution to his campaign. This is something that socialists should work to take advantage of after; it’s not up to Bernie Sanders what happens after the primary. It’s up to the people who work at the base of his campaign. If we have a relationship of trust with those seven hundred thousand people it’s an opportunity for us.


Closing Remarks

Dustin Guastella

I’m going to try to analyze some of the broader themes of this discussion. First, what does it actually look like to work in the campaign or around the campaign? So in Philadelphia, where I’m from and where I do work, we’re agitating and educating from outside the Bernie Sanders campaign.

The difference is that we have 120 extra people showing up to an event. There are just more people, because of the Sanders campaign, interested in what it means to be critical of capitalism.

So when it comes to what the work looks like, it doesn’t look much different from what ISO and DSA and SA are doing in the day-to-day. The difference is just that we have a new audience of young people who are critical of capitalism who are interested in a new way forward, so that’s one answer to that.

In terms of what the campaign itself is doing? Well, DSA and other socialists that are working in the campaign are not taking orders from the Sanders campaign. That’s not what I mean by getting involved in the campaign.

It means getting involved in a lot of the grassroots groups that are going on. We are not doing the kind of stuff one audience member mentioned, calling people up and telling them to become Democrats. We’re not doing that.

Gloria Mattera

I’m going to answer some questions and give a little reality check. So why not vote for Sanders in the primary and Green in the general election? Well of course, if any registered Democrat said to me, “Who should I vote for in the primary?” I would say Bernie Sanders, of course. I would encourage them, and I think that’s important. As many Democrats as possible should do that. I’m not going to say you shouldn’t bother, you should change Green, you should do all these other things.

And Jill recently reiterated in the Socialist Worker that Sanders is raising some really important issues and that we have a lot of similarities. So vote for Sanders in the primary, but Jill is saying there is a Plan B and we need to talk about that. It’s nice to hear what’s happening in these more “ra-ra” dialogues in the Sanders meet-ups but there’s the nitty-gritty of the campaign which isn’t as pretty.

We are a great talk shop, but how many people in this room know how to do the work to get someone elected? Whether it’s president, or whether it’s city council, or whether it’s your village alderman if you’re outside New York City, you need to learn, and I’d like you to learn that from the Green Party campaigns.

Yes, we are recruiting Black Lives Matter to run in 2016 because even though all eyes are going to be on the presidential campaign, there’s going to be other people to vote for and those people are really important. We now have two state officials, leaders of the most corrupt state assembly in the nation, found guilty. That is amazing. So I think there’s a lot to do outside the Democratic Party.

The other reality check is that we’re not actually talking to tens of thousands of Bernie supporters. That’s not happening. Bhaskar just made a point that there are two thousand socialists in organized groups in the entire country and we’re not talking to ten thousand people.

We’re talking one-to-one, we’re building relationships and so we have to decide as a small group of people where that energy goes, what places we talk to them. Do we talk to people who have a Bernie Sanders button at a Black Lives Matter rally? Yes. Do I want to go to a campaign meeting? No. We need to take power in the electoral arena with candidates who come out of movements. That doesn’t happen in the Democratic Party.

Bhaskar Sunkara

One key distinction I want to make is that I don’t support lesser-evilism; and, crucially, I don’t think Bernie Sanders is evil. I honestly engage with Sanders and I honestly support him along the lines that I laid out and I think that’s important. If you are hovering in the campaign just to try to get something from Bernie supporters in an instrumental way, it will be transparent to the people you’re trying to connect with.

Regarding Gloria’s point, there’s one thing about socialists, which is why we can’t stick to two-minute restrictions: we talk constantly. So two thousand of us, we can talk to hundreds of thousands of people. The growth that DSA has experienced in the last few months show that even small groups of socialists are connecting with lots of people and it’s making a real impact.

On another note, I’d say most of the socialists I know engaging with the campaign oppose the kind of Popular Front-like engagement and realignment strategy that people pursued in past campaigns. We are putting forward a distinct kind of strategy in that way.

I would just have one bit of caution. I don’t think a vote for Sanders is a vote for a new Debs. Instead I compare it to Peter Camejo’s independent Socialist Workers Party campaign in 1976. That campaign might have not netted a lot in terms of mass support or votes, but its purpose was to communicate with large groups of people, to communicate with existing movements, and to do that as open socialists.

That’s what Engels would have described as a litmus test for our movement — that’s how he viewed electoral politics of this nature. In the same way, if socialists did an independent campaign that had momentum on that basis — as a litmus test for the movement at large — I would support it. If it was different, but there was energy around it like there was with Nader, that would also be worth backing.

One thing is certain: I won’t be supporting Hillary Clinton.

Danny Katch

Some people have alluded to trying to transform the Democratic Party. People ask, why just lay out an analysis of the Democratic Party and all they’ve done wrong, why not envision how they can be changed? Well, for the same reason I can’t envision how the Republican Party can be transformed. They’re different parties of the one percent.

It’s the party of World War I, World War II, Vietnam War, Korean War, beginning of McCarthyism, the Red Scare, mass deportation, mass incarceration — this doesn’t happen by accident. I can get into slavery, Jim Crow, and the internment of Japanese Americans, etc. I don’t mean to be flippant about it, but I do think we have to look that squarely in the face. I don’t think the other speakers are avoiding it, it’s mostly a shared agreement.

Next, the question about what if Sanders wins. Would it be because Hillary Clinton collapses in some massive scandal and Bernie Sanders moved to the right, enough that the superdelegates would support him? Or would it be him running the campaign he’s running now, or even further to the left, and under pressure from supporters to take up imperialism etc? I really don’t see him winning either way. But I think the first scenario would be more likely.

One thing I disagree with is the idea that those of us who argue that one of the roles of the Bernie Sanders campaign is steering people into the Hillary camp, that that’s condescending to those voters. I don’t think that’s true at all.

I’ll tell a story to illustrate why, about the 2004 presidential election when John Kerry was debating George Bush. I was in Hunter College watching with a ton of people, we were all booing and hissing George Bush. He was as hated then as Donald Trump is hated now before he started painting and being pathetic. John Kerry, who supported the Iraq war, was looking for a way to show that he was tougher than George Bush. And he said, “Number one, the borders are more leaky today than they were before 9/11. The fact is we now have people from the Middle East, allegedly, coming across the border and we’re not doing what we ought to do in terms of iris scans and thumbprint, fingerprint technology.”

It was so interesting being in this room with so many Hunter students, most of whom were first or second generation immigrants, who were booing and hissing George Bush but silent when Kerry said that. I was talking to some people afterward and they weren’t down with it but they were like, “Well you gotta do what you gotta do in an election.” Some people were even hoping that maybe this would even be a way to score a point against Bush.

People didn’t feel like they had an alternative. They’re not sheep and passive, it was their active hatred of George Bush and everything that he stood for that led them to figure out how they could justify going along with the kind of crap that John Kerry was saying.

People are intelligent. It’s up to us to build an alternative so that people have real choices. We on the Left have a special responsibility to do that. Lots of socialists agree in principle but, especially with the Sanders campaign, say “not this time” — but it’s never the right time.

I know this teacher who’s become an activist in the teachers union in New York City and she gives a speech I’ve heard once or twice that I really like. She says, “I didn’t choose to be a teacher at the time when education was under attack from corporate forces and charter schools, but you have no choice and then you have to start fighting it.”

None of us chose to live in a country that never developed a labor party. But we have to look reality in the face. Our Democratic Party is one of the two parties of capitalism. And I know that sounds rhetorical or jargony but you see what the reality means with all of them in power. Bernie Sanders is different than that but we must build a real alternative.

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