Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign to become the Democratic Party’s presidential candidate for next year's race has broken into the mainstream.
Pitching left, Sanders consistently draws far larger crowds to hear him speak than any other aspirant in either the Democratic or Republican parties. Polls show his support is climbing, and in one state, New Hampshire, he has moved ahead of the Democratic front-runner, Hillary Clinton. He may win some states in the Democratic primaries.
What is striking about the Sanders phenomenon is that his main message echoes economic themes made popular by the Occupy movement of 2011. These include opposition to growing inequality and the corporate hijacking of US politics. Sanders also raises the urgent issue of climate change and takes many pro-worker positions.
Sanders is also running as an open socialist. This puts the issue of socialism back into the wider political discussion, which represents an opportunity for socialists.
A discussion has opened within socialist groups and between them on how best to relate to this opportunity.
On one side are those who have joined Sanders’ campaign. On the other are those who argue against that course and seek to convince Sanders’ supporters to break with the Democrats.
This is an old debate on the left in the US. It is not about tactics, but about strategy – that of class collaboration versus class struggle.
Campaign group "People for Sanders" has been formed by Jacobin magazine founder Bhaskar Sunkara and more than 50 others, largely from the Occupy Wall Street movement.
Its founding statement says: “We support Bernie Sanders in his bid to become the presidential nominee of the Democratic Party. We stand firmly behind Senator Sanders as the strongest progressive possibility in the race right now. His commitment to our values is one of longstanding commitment. Sanders is the bold initiative.”
Some trade unionists have also formed Labor for Bernie. Its founding statement says: “We call on labor leaders, union members and working people to unite behind Bernie Sanders for a voice in the presidential political process and to elect the President working families need — a President who will answer to the 99 percent!”
On the other side, the International Socialist Organization (ISO), the largest revolutionary socialist group in the US, has taken the lead in arguing against supporting Sanders’ campaign.
The ISO's Ashley Smith replied to Sunkara: “[I]n running for the Democratic presidential nomination as the liberal outsider with almost no chance of winning, Sanders isn’t very ‘bold’ …
“By steering liberal and left supporters into a Democratic Party whose policies and politics he claims to disagree with, Sanders — no matter how critical he might be of Hillary Clinton — is acting as the opposite of an ‘alternative’.”
Smith said: “He could have set a very different example, with a far greater chance of success, if he ran for governor [in last year’s elections] in Vermont against the Democratic Party’s incumbent Peter Shumlin, who has betrayed promises to implement [a voter-approved] single-payer healthcare system, create green, union jobs and much more.
“Faced with a budget crisis, Shumlin and the state’s Democrats refused to raise taxes on the rich to fulfil their promises. Instead, they imposed cuts in social services, education and environmental programs, and laid off scores of state workers. Shumlin even went so far as to call for the banning of teachers’ right to strike.
“Sanders is Vermont’s most popular politician. With the backing of [Vermont’s] Progressive Party, he could have run for governor as an independent and easily defeated both the Democratic and Republican nominees, and never faced the accusation of being a spoiler that is inevitably thrown at any third-party challenger.
“A victory for a truly independent campaign by Sanders would have been even bigger than Kshama Sawant’s election to the Seattle City Council as an open socialist. In doing so, Sanders could have built momentum for a national third-party alternative to represent workers and the oppressed.
“If Sanders had his heart set on national politics, he could have run for president like Ralph Nader [did in 2000] as an independent opposing both capitalist parties …
“He would have been appealing for a protest vote, rather than a real chance to win, but Sanders rejected this possibility out of hand for a different reason. ‘No matter what I will do,’ Sanders said [when he announced his campaign], ‘I will not be a spoiler. I will not play that role in helping elect some right-wing Republican as President of the United States.’”
In 2000, Nader won nearly three million votes against the capitalist parties. The Democrats and reformist socialists roundly attacked him as a “spoiler” who helped George Bush win the White House.
Sanders proclaims, and his campaign loudly echoes, that he will support whoever is the Democratic Party nominee. In 2000, Sanders vehemently attacked Nader’s candidacy. Before he decided to run, Sanders said: “If I decide to run, I’m not running against Hillary Clinton. I’m running for a declining middle class.”
Sanders has appointed Ted Divine as his campaign manager, the quintessential corporate Democratic Party insider.
Smith described the dynamic of the Sanders campaign, as opposed to the wishful thinking of some of Sanders’ socialist supporters. “The Democratic Party establishment can breathe a collective sigh of relief,” Smith said. “It doesn’t, in fact, fear liberal Democrats like … Sanders, but third-party challenges like Nader’s that have the prospect of breaking their stranglehold on votes from workers and the oppressed, as several local and statewide campaigns have shown over the last few years.
“Hillary Clinton certainly doesn’t regard Sanders as a threat … In fact Clinton regards Sanders as an asset to her campaign. He will bring enthusiasm and attention to Democratic primaries that promised to be lacklustre at best.
“He will also help her frame the election on populist terms that have widespread support. That benefits the Democrats and undermines the Republicans, who have little to say about inequality, except that they like it.
“As liberal writer Paul Waldman wrote in the Washington Post, ‘Sanders isn’t going to pull her to the left because she was already moving that way. She’s talking about issues like inequality and criminal justice reform in terms she might not have used 10 or 20 years ago … Talking about them in more liberal terms isn’t just good for her in the primaries, it’s good for her in the general election.’
“No wonder Clinton celebrated Sanders’ entry into the race. ‘I agree with Bernie,’ she wrote on Twitter. ‘Focus must be on helping America’s middle class. GOP [the Republicans] would hold them back. I welcome him to the race.’
“You can expect that Clinton will agree with Sanders during the campaign, rearticulating some of his themes in a ‘more realistic’ fashion and occasionally chiding him for taking things too far…
“At this stage, Clinton is the overwhelming favourite to emerge as the Democratic nominee. If she stumbles in some irreversible way, the corporate establishment that controls the Democratic Party will come up with another more mainstream candidate, like [Barack] Obama in 2008. Either way, the eventual Democratic presidential nominee will toe the capitalist line.
“However much he disagrees with that candidate, Sanders will agitate for trade unionists and social movement activists to vote for the lesser of two evils. The result is that he will help corral people on the left from taking any steps toward building a genuine alternative to the two-party status quo.”
This is the main reason for not supporting Sanders’ campaign: it crosses the class line on a matter of strategy.
Most socialists disagree with Sanders’ social democratic politics on many issues, from his support for US foreign policy and Israel’s wars to his anti-immigrant stance and more. The extent of these disagreements is indicated by the fact that, in the Senate, he votes with the Democrats 98% of the time.
If Sanders was running as an independent socialist, it might be possible to back him, while openly raising these differences. But he is not running as an independent.
There is one issue in particular that should give socialist supporters of Sanders pause. That is his insulting behaviour toward the Black Lives Matter movement.
Two young African American women interrupted one of Sanders’ rallies to talk about the police murders of Blacks. Sanders responded by lecturing them, explaining they had nothing to teach him because he has been an anti-racist for 50 years.
Recently, two other Black Lives Matter activists also interrupted a Sanders speech on the anniversary of the police murder of Michael Brown one year ago in Ferguson, an anniversary which Sanders ignored.
These instances received wide publicity. Hillary Clinton has even moved to the left of Sanders on the topic.
Sanders is now trying to backtrack on the issue. He has hired an African American campaigner and modified his website to give more emphasis to race.
But right now, Sanders looks like a white radical who does not understand what has become most important social movement in the US. Socialists who support him risk being tarnished with the same brush.