United States: Sanders' campaign is 'invigorating and unifying' the left

Democratic Socialist presidential candidate Bernie Sanders with his supporters.

Green Left’s Alex Bainbridge spoke to Isaac Silver, a Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) member in Chicago who is involved in Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination.

What efforts has the establishment made to prevent Bernie Sanders from becoming the Democratic presidential nominee?

The first strategy was an approach of throwing every other potential Democratic Party presidential candidate at the wall, to see if any of them would stick and emerge as the main “anti-Bernie” candidate.

At one point, there were more than two dozen candidates — from former Vice-President Joe Biden, to senators, to random, relatively unknown state Democratic Party politicians.

The establishment hoped it would suck the air from Sanders’ campaign and prevent him from developing momentum in the lead up to the primaries.

That backfired spectacularly and accomplished exactly the opposite. Because there was so much noise from all these interchangeable establishment candidates, every month or two a candidate — who no one can even remember now — would be positioned as the front-runner, or the backup front-runner, if Biden’s campaign hit a road bump.

We finally got to the primaries and the dynamic of the past couple of months has been a reckoning with that approach.

Sanders has demonstrated that he has a very solid, cohesive base of support. Unlike the other interchangeable, flavour-of-the-month candidates — who were “moderate” or “centrist”, but lacked a clear ideological appeal or core to their campaign — Sanders has an army of activists all over the country who are clear about why they are supporting him and are ready to contribute funding, volunteer hours and get out to vote for him.

That reality hit the establishment in the face this year, when Sanders began to pick up momentum in the polls. That momentum led into the first couple of primary elections in Iowa and New Hampshire, where his campaign was far better organised than many of the competitors.

Sanders won the popular vote in the first three contests, which is, I believe, unprecedented in the history of presidential elections — not just for the Democratic Party.

The second strategy was similar to the one used against Labour Party leader Jeremy Corbyn in Britain. The media either did not mention Sanders’ existence, or it totally trashed his politics, character, campaign, or all three.

For a long time, Sanders’ age has been made an issue. He suffered a heart attack last year and that was suggested as the end of his campaign.

There have been repeated routine attacks on his base , for example characterising it as strictly young white people — that was held over from the 2016 campaign, when it did have some reality.

More recently, we have seen red-baiting attacks on his identification with socialism and comments he has made about aspects of Cuba and the Soviet Union.

Would you agree that the Democratic Party establishment has been pulling out all stops against Sanders?

Yes, absolutely. I think the Democratic Party has structural barriers to the participation of a left-wing candidate.

Compared with 2016, there has been some modification of the primary and convention rules.

For example, we know that in Iowa Sanders won thousands more votes than the second-placed candidate because there was a change in the rules to reveal the popular vote, rather than just this arcane algebraic formula that assigns delegates to candidates.

Although Sanders got thousands more popular votes, he got fewer delegates because of this formula. This threw up the question: Now that we see this happening this time, maybe it has always been the case?

These primaries are competing for allotment of national delegates to attend the Democratic Party National Convention in July. This is the first year in decades where there will be a first round of voting at the Convention by delegates assigned from the popular vote, without consideration of the so-called “super delegates”, who were so decisive last time.

These super delegates are elected officials and other party insiders who have a decisive, weighted vote. This time, they will be prevented from voting, unless no candidate reaches 50% of the delegates.

So, if Sanders gets 40% and the remaining 60% is divided among the other candidates — at say 10–15% of delegates each — that would trigger a second round of voting, where hundreds of super delegates would get to weigh in.

We don’t know what would happen then. A recent candidate debate ended with this question: “What would you do if at the convention one candidate got a plurality but not a majority?” Every candidate, except Sanders replied that they would allow the super delegates to vote.

So that makes it clear that the absolute priority for Sanders’ supporters is to win 50% plus one of the delegates at the Convention.

Remarkably, this actually seems possible. The campaign has a lot more momentum and strength than anybody expected just a few months ago. But there are still all kinds of structural barriers.

Recently, Democratic Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi said she would be comfortable with Sanders as the nominee, but we have also seen this huge campaign against him. What would be the significance if Sanders is the nominee or the President?

This is a debate that is happening now in the United States within all levels of society. The left, the ruling class and the media are all grappling with this question.

Aspects of Sanders’ campaign are fundamentally hostile to the leadership of the Democratic Party and the self-conception of the party.

First, he has rejected funding other than from his grassroots base of working-class contributors and makes it clear that this is a principled stand against the influence of the capitalist class and various elements of the ruling class in politics.

The “Sanders wing” of the Democratic Party, including AOC [Congressperson Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez], has also set up its own independent fundraising and campaigning apparatus.

Secondly, Sanders’ program directly confronts some of the main industries in the US, primarily the healthcare industry, the fossil-fuel industry and the military-industrial complex.

Sanders says: “This campaign aims to be the worst nightmare of the health insurance companies, of the pharmaceutical companies, of the fossil fuel companies.” He represents a class-conflict orientation rather than a class-collaboration approach.

Thirdly, his “get out to vote” campaign and the type of voters the Sanders campaign is oriented to — youth, people of colour, workers, immigrants — has directly contrasted to the traditional Democratic Party orientation towards middle class, suburban, swing voters. That has become the centrepiece of so-called “third way” neoliberal Democratic Party electoral operations.

In contrast, Sanders’ campaign is focusing on mobilising people who traditionally do not vote, an entirely different electoral base that has an intrinsically confrontational posture towards the economic interests running the Democratic Party.

There is a huge contradiction and conflict there. Where it will go is impossible to predict.

One possibility could be stopping him getting the nomination and coming up with a plan to put forward another candidate without fracturing the Democratic Party base. That would be their ideal, but it seems tricky — if not impossible — at this point, because of the loyalty Sanders has from voters.

Another option, which the smarter elements of the ruling class may hope for — if it is inevitable that he gets the nomination and they aren’t able to stop it — is to let him run then, as happened to Corbyn, actively or passively sabotage his campaign and when he loses, say: “This is what happens when the left is in the driver’s seat” and “That is why we have to go back to [Hillary] Clinton and [Barack] Obama-type candidates”.

The centrepiece of establishment messaging in recent weeks has been that Sanders is “too dangerous”.

There are congressional candidates who see a ticket, with Sanders at the top, as being toxic to their chances of being elected. They say this would be suicidal for the Democratic Party and for any opposition to President Donald Trump, Senate and Congressional Republicans.

These point to some of the key structural cracks in the Democratic Party. It is an interesting time, because this is a far more ideologically and politically clear crisis than there has been in either major political party for quite some time.

What is the mood among socialist activists? Are people excited?

Yes, everybody is totally excited. It has been invigorating and unifying. This is a moment when activists from many different kinds of campaigns — around police violence, environmental issues, immigrant rights or the left wing of the labour movement — have been put into a relationship with one another under the umbrella of the Sanders campaign.

A small minority of the social movement left have endorsed Elizabeth Warren.

Another tension has been the degree to which the left should have an independent posture or total absorption into the Sanders campaign, and whether to and how to critique those policies at odds with the goals of the left and various campaigns.

Also extremely inspiring, especially contrasted with the 2016 campaign, is the strong and visible support from refugee and immigrant communities and people of colour. It has been like a rainbow coalition campaign, which is quite promising.

Can you address some of Sanders’ weaknesses?

In the context of mainstream candidates of the past decades, Sanders is far more anti-war and anti-intervention — although there are some weaknesses there.

He openly says that there could be times when the US may have cause to intervene here or there. He can play into nationalist politics, such as rivalry between the US and China, or Russia.

DSA took a vote at our last convention that if Sanders does not get the nomination, we would not support any other Democrat candidate. Sanders openly pledges that he will support whoever is the candidate, even if it is the billionaire Mike Bloomberg.

So, although he is technically an independent and is openly critical of the Democratic Party establishment and directorate, he does still tie his fate, for understandable reasons, to the Democratic Party’s apparatus.

The resonance and breadth of his campaign would be extremely unlikely if he were running as a third-party candidate. It is a difficult question for the left to grapple with.

Finally, while his self-identification as a socialist opens up tremendous room for the socialist left to talk about the capitalist system and to put forward socialist solutions, when pressed on what he is talking about as socialism, it is a very mild version of some types of social democratic programs you might find in northern or western Europe, or even in the US under the New Deal.

He both opens up the possibility of talking about socialism and in some frustrating ways redefines it as liberalism plus some extended public programs and redistribution, taxes and so forth.

How does Sanders’ campaign relate to socialist strategy today?

There is both an ideological and a material aspect to it: the ideas and program Sanders is putting forward and the social forces that have united behind the campaign. The unity of these aspects is important and one really good thing about his campaign has been his slogan: “Not me. Us.”

He says: “Even when I am elected and I am in the White House, I cannot deliver any of what I am talking about unless there is a mass movement of millions of working people.”

When he defines what that mass movement would look like, it tends to be primarily electoral, and he says: “Get out to vote to knock out the establishment Democrats and Republicans.” But that message does resonate with people and it is about uniting and putting the working class into motion.

This is somewhat of a gamble for the revolutionary left, or those who see that a certain path towards socialist transformation is required — not just a break with the Democratic Party but a break with the capitalist state apparatus altogether.

The reason this is a gamble worth taking is because over the past decades there has not been a powerful working-class movement. Sanders’ campaign is generating and animating what could become such a movement.

I think the context is important and this is not the end point, but hopefully the beginning of something that will play out in the coming years, decades and even generations.

The rise of DSA had a lot to do with the 2016 Sanders campaign and I see this campaign having strengths in terms of the layers of the working class it has mobilised. On balance, having the socialist movement rooted in the working class is going to mean positive things.

The unexpected strength of Sanders in the first few primaries means that by mid-March there will be much greater clarity. There is a huge chunk of states that will be voting on “Super Tuesday” [March 3] and that will set the course.

If Sanders goes to the Convention with the highest number of delegates but not 50% and the establishment rejects him as its candidate, could it spell the death of the Democratic Party?

The question as to when and how to end the Democratic Party is an open one. I don’t think that a totally disastrous collapse of the Democratic Party, in the absence of some clear plan and infrastructure for an alternative, would be possible.

I am in favour of replacing or superseding the Democratic Party with a real challenger — a real working-class party, which is electoral, but also does other kinds of campaigns.

But how exactly do we go about doing that? It is increasingly clear that the left has not thought seriously about this in quite some time, because the question has never been posed, except as an abstraction.

We have a track record with the Ralph Nader campaign in 2000, which politicised many people, including me, but the social weight of that campaign was miniscule compared with what is happening now. That campaign didn’t raise the question of breaking up the Democratic Party and separating its working class base from its funding and decision-making apparatus.

I think the working class needs a party of its own, but then you have to ask how it would be different, apart from having a different name and not having any rich people calling the shots.

What would such a party look like? How would it be structured? What would it do? How would it be governed? How would we run it? These are important questions, for which we don’t have answers.

One of the exciting things about the Sanders campaign is that there are new possibilities on the table that weren’t there before.

Also quite interesting is the way the Sanders’ vote is polarised generationally, racially, and in terms of income and educational attainment.

While some of Sanders’ total vote percentages have been relatively narrow, they are delivered with super majority votes from Latinx, from young people, from those earning less than US$50,000. This is a really strong, rock solid, cohesive base of support.

This is recognised by Bernie, the establishment and the media. Everyone who is under 35 years old is a Bernie supporter or one step removed from that.

How does the establishment put that back in the bag? There is a whole generation completely polarised against the leadership of the Democratic Party. This will continue playing out in the coming years.