Socialists and the Horse Race

A conversation with

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

  • Editors (E)

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.