United States: Where to for Sanders supporters?

June 17, 2016

Bernie Sanders joins striking FairPoint workers on the picket line in South Burlington, Vermont, January 18.

For a year now, presidential candidate Bernie Sanders has been the hope of millions in the United States. He has been the hope of people disgusted with the role of the banks and corporations in politics, angered by growing inequality, appalled by racial injustice and opposed to a foreign policy based on military intervention.

Taking up the demands and embracing the spirit of Occupy Wall Street first and then of Black Lives Matter, the Sanders campaign has been an unprecedented radical, populist movement — rejecting Wall Street and Washington and suggesting a more democratic, egalitarian and peaceful future. Millions rallied to Sanders' slogans calling for a fight against the “billionaire class” and for a political revolution.

Sanders ran as a democratic socialist on a program of economic and social reforms — a higher minimum wage, free public education, health care for all, rebuilding of the national infrastructure, expanding the social security system, ending a racist and violent justice system, and opposing “regime change” overseas.

He raised US$200 million dollars from individual contributions averaging $27, won millions of votes and garnered the support of three big unions (postal workers, communications workers, and nurses), as well as 12,000 individual union members organised in Labor for Bernie.

The oldest candidate in the race, he won the largest proportion of votes from the young of all races and genders.

Clinton's win

Now the Democratic Party presidential primary election is effectively over. Ahead of the final primaries in Washington DC on June 14, Democrat establishment favourite Hillary Clinton had won 2203 delegates (54.7%) and Sanders had won 1828 delegates or 45.3%. In terms of the popular vote, Clinton's proportion was larger, since Sanders did better in states with caucuses, where fewer people vote.

In addition to the elected delegates, there are also 719 super-delegates who are not elected; they come from the Democratic Party National Committee, the House of Representatives, the Senate, state governors and distinguished party leaders. So far, 577 Democratic Party super-delegates support Clinton and 48 support Sanders.

President Barack Obama and Democratic Senator Elizabeth Warren have endorsed Clinton. At this point it is virtually impossible for Sanders to win the nomination mathematically.

Short of some political miracle, Clinton is the Democrats presumptive nominee.

On June 9, Sanders met with Obama where he promised to work to defeat presumptive Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump. Sanders told reporters: “I look forward to meeting with [Clinton] in the near future to see how we can work together to defeat Donald Trump and to create a government which represents all of us and not just the 1%.”

Yet on June 12, Sanders refused to concede defeat and endorse Clinton, saying: “We are going to take our campaign to the convention with the full understanding that we are very good at arithmetic and that we know, you know, who has the received the most votes up to now.”


Sanders refuses to bow to the inevitable and many of his supporters are even less willing to knuckle under. The election process has infuriated many of Sanders' supporters. Corporations provided much of the funding for Clinton, the corporate media shaped the interpretation of events and structures such as the power of unelected super-delegates suggested the final outcome from the start.

On June 6, on a day when there were no elections anywhere, Associated Press declared Hillary Clinton the victor on the basis of 20 super-delegates who came out for her. This took place the day before the crucial California primary and could have acted to suppress the Sanders vote.

Sanders has pledged to fight on to the Democratic Party Convention on July 25 to 28 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, with the goal of influencing the Democratic Party's rules and platform. As well as the nearly 2000 Sanders delegates inside, there are expected to be tens of thousands of his supporters outside the convention hoping to influence events inside.

Yet little can happen inside that will really influence the Democratic Party, its candidate or the election campaigns that will culminate in the national elections on November 8.

The presence outside the convention of Sanders' young followers, by and large until now a peaceful lot, may prove to be combustible material, especially if the police mishandle the situation, as they so often do. We might see a convention and protests as raucous and explosive as the Democrat convention in Chicago in 1968.

The convention could conceivably change the super-delegate rules, though that is no sure thing, and in any case the change would only become effective in 2020. As for the platform, it is little more than a piece of paper.

The Democratic Party Platform, usually very vague and general in its language, may be said to represent the sentiments of the convention and attempts to win the support of the voters. But neither the presidential candidates nor other candidates are bound to adhere to it during the campaign or to attempt to implement it once elected.

Certainly Clinton, who has a long history in politics as First Lady, Senator and Secretary of State — and who has an clear record as a representative of the economic and political establishment — can be expected to ignore the platform and pursue the goals of Wall Street and Washington.

Many of Sanders supporters, who have become increasingly sophisticated through this campaign, feel a deep revulsion toward the Democratic Party and Clinton. Several thousand of them were expected to meet in Chicago from June 17 to 19 at the People's Summit, an assembly called by the National Nurses United union, the National People's Action housing group, the Democratic Socialists of America and others.

Next steps

This will give a picture of some of the best organised sectors of Sanders supporters, but the People's Summit appears to be more a conference than a convention. It is not clear that any definite organisational or political proposals will come out of it.

Some Sanders supporters plan to work for progressive local candidates, such as Debbie Medina, a socialist candidate running in for the State Senate of New York. Sanders himself has put out a list of progressive candidates he is backing and for whom he is raising funds.

Whether or not Sanders supporters will find these candidates to provide adequate vehicles for their ideals remains to be seen.

Some Sanders supporters have already become renegades from the Democratic Party. In some places, in small but not insignificant numbers, they are starting to move into the Green Party to support Jill Stein, the Greens' candidate for the US presidency.

Stein, whose program stands to the left of Sanders, could conceivably begin to pull some votes away from the Democrats. However, there will be tremendous pressure on Sanders supporters to back Clinton in order to defeat Trump, whose racist and misogynist rhetoric and flirtations with neo-Nazi groups leads many to characterise him as a fascist.

The cry will be: Hillary Clinton and democracy or Trump and fascism. And though a vote for Clinton is not a vote for democracy, but rather a vote for corporate neoliberalism, austerity and militarism, it will understandably be hard for many to resist. None of us on the left want Trump.

Whether Sanders supporters turn toward Stein or vote for Clinton to defeat Trump, the movement has become both too radical and too broad to be contained within the Democrats. Some will continue to work within the Democrats, but looking for more radical candidates, and working for independents and socialist when they can.

Others will leave, having become convinced socialists — whatever exactly that means to them — and they will be looking to build an alternative on the left. They represent the future of left politics in the United States today.

[Slightly abridged from New Politics. Dan La Botz is a co-editor of New Politics. He worked on the Sanders campaign during the primary, but is a Green Party member.]

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