Responding on Sanders and reforming the Democrats

August 31, 2017
The Democratic Socialists of America Convention in Chicago in August.

In his response to my August 1 (GLW #1148) piece on the strategy of US Senator Bernie Sanders, Danny Fairfax writes in GLW #1150 on why he thinks the Democratic Party can be reformed.

One error the comrade makes is his view of the primary system in the United States. He thinks it gives roughly the same chances for “grassroots movements to defeat entrenched [Democratic] party elites” as the structure of the Labour Party in Britain allowed Jeremy Corbyn’s rise to the leadership. It doesn’t.

The Democratic Party is not a membership organisation, unlike the Labour Party. It was the Labour members’ vote that elected Corbyn as party leader.

Democratic voters do not meet to nominate candidates or anything else, unlike the Labour Party’s constituent local organisations. Democratic candidates for primary elections are not chosen by any democratic process, but by the candidates themselves announcing they are running.

Democratic Party primary voters get to choose from among the self-proclaimed candidates, if they meet internal Democratic Party rules that are established by the party machines in each state.

Rigging the rules

Moreover, the Democrats have adopted rules (super-delegates composed of establishment Democrats) that make it virtually impossible for an insurgent candidate to win. For the party to actually be reformed it would have to be reformed not only at the top, but top to bottom.

If Sanders had won the Democratic nomination in 2016, and then beat Donald Trump, he would have faced not only establishment Republicans, but mostly establishment Democrats, too, in Congress. He would have had to “compromise” with them on his platform by moving to the right. 

Sanders’ supporters in the Democratic Party are now called “Our Revolution”. They can choose among the given primary candidates those they think are best, but that’s all.

The great majority of such candidates in the upcoming 2018 elections will run on what has become the Democrats’ rallying cry — they are the anti-Trump party. Each will say “I am the best candidate to defeat the Republican candidate, so vote for me”.

As far as any policy issues, almost all will run on what the Democrats in Congress are now saying: support the present tax system against Republican proposals; keep the present system of denying citizenship to undocumented immigrants because Trump’s actions are worse; keep Obamacare (and reject national health insurance) against Republican attempts to repeal it and make it worse; continue Bill and Hillary Clinton’s mass incarceration of Blacks and Latinos policy (with Republican support) by not mentioning it; say nothing about prosecuting cops who murder Black people as policy; continue the “war on terrorism” justification of Washington’s real wars; and support the Patriot Act.

If I am right about the 2018 elections, and “Our Revolution” makes barely a dent, this will set the stage for what the Democrats will do in the presidential election in 2020.

Democratic establishment

In liberal California, “Our Revolution” was able to win some elections for delegates to the state Democratic Convention. They were roundly smashed at the convention.

It is simply not true that the Democratic establishment is “desperately clinging to control of the Democratic machinery” as Fairfax imagines. Even Sanders’ proposal for chairperson of the Democratic National Committee was defeated, in spite of the fact that Sanders’ candidate was not even a Sanders supporter.      

Fairfax’s belief that the Democratic Party can be reformed is belied by the failure of all attempts to do so for the past eight decades. Perhaps Fairfax, as an Australian, is not aware of this history.

These previous attempts were all made in more favorable conditions than the present, given the steady decline of the organised working class to where it represents only 7% of workers in private industry, and a bit more in the weak (with some notable exceptions) public sector unions, and the weakness of the revolutionary socialist left.

Fairfax characterises the Democratic Party as “centre-left.” It isn’t. It has tailed the extreme rightward movement of the Republican Party by moving decidedly to the right itself, but just not as far. Obama did this on issue after issue, “compromising” with the Republicans.

The party today is to the right on many issues of the Republican Party of Richard Nixon, which had to adapt to the radicalisation of the ’60s. It is today a right-wing capitalist party, while the Republicans are extreme right-wingers.

A few other points: Sanders is a registered “independent” as Fairfax notes — but one who is part of the Democratic caucus in the Senate, owes his leadership position there to that caucus, ran as a Democrat and votes with them over 80% of the time.

Democratic Socialist of America

It is true that the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) for a long time tried to reform the Democratic Party. But it is not true, as Fairfax implies, that the DSA has that view today, in light of their failed attempts to do so.

The recent DSA Convention reflected its move to the left, and there was a discussion of what position to take in regard to the Democratic Party. The overwhelming majority rejected the old policy of attempting to reform the Democrats, although it was put forward by one delegate. That is, the DSA is to the left of Fairfax.

One proposal to dissociate completely from the Democrats received 40% of the vote, indicating the overall move to the left. This discussion will continue.

The majority did vote to disaffiliate (finally!) from the pro-imperialist Socialist International.

Unlike Sanders, who is pro-Israel, the convention voted to support (with some opposition) the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement against Israel’s oppression of the Palestinians. This is a decisive move to the left from the previous DSA position.

Fairfax is correct that I am opposed to working within “centre-left” capitalist parties in the US, Europe and Australia, and even more opposed to working within rightist capitalist parties in the futile hope they can be reformed.

Fairfax puts forward the pipe-dream of a Sanders win in the 2020 election (he probably won’t run again, but let’s assume someone like him will). We won’t have to wait for that election to see if I or Comrade Fairfax is right. The 2018 elections will tell us.

Without getting into a full discussion of the DSA of today, I think revolutionary socialists should relate to it and its new members, who were Sanders supporters and are moving to the left. How to do this is being discussed in revolutionary socialist groups such as the International Socialist Organization, Solidarity and others. The present DSA position of rejecting the strategy of seeking to reform the Democratic Party opens the door to this.

Finally, Sanders’ 2016 platform did contain proposals socialists agree with and do fight for. But these proposals were immediate and democratic demands, not “transitional demands”. In suggesting this, Fairfax garbles Leon Trotsky.   

[Barry Sheppard is a long-time socialist activist from the US, whose two-volume political memoir The Party: The Socialist Workers Party 1960-1988 describes his experience as a leader of the Socialist Workers Party in the 1960s and ’70s. Danny Fairfax is an Australian socialist who was active in Sanders’ campaign in the Democratic primaries last year while living in New York.]

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