Vince Emanuele: Sanders' campaign an opportunity to organise workers, poor

February 27, 2020
Anti-war activist Vince Emanuele during a visit to Australia in 2015.

United States Democratic presidential hopeful Bernie Sanders has promised many progressive reforms, including closing corporate tax-loopholes, introducing Medicare for all, raising the minimum wage, creating more union jobs, reducing military spending and US interventions overseas, legislating for abortion rights and new renewable energy targets. Green Left’s Pip Hinman spoke to Vince Emanuele, who is active in Sanders’ campaign in Indiana, about how it is drawing in new activists and shaping politics.

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Without question, Bernie Sanders’ platform is the most progressive left-wing agenda of a major presidential candidate in US history. Not only is his campaign pitched to people who are upset and angry about US President Donald Trump and the Republican Party, it gives a voice to people who have been betrayed by the Democratic Party, but who remain part of the party, hoping to make it more progressive.

Sanders’ campaign also gives a voice to tens of millions of Americans who have largely given up on electoral politics.

In the US, we’re lucky if we get 50–60% of people to vote in presidential elections. Sanders’ campaign provides an opportunity to reach out to and organise poor and working-class people who feel left behind by both major parties.

The two aspects of Sanders’ campaign that distinguish it from the others are: first, his foreign policy platform and internationalist vision and secondly, his connection to social movements and unions.

Throughout his campaign, Sanders has consistently told his supporters that the only way he will win, and the only way he will be able to enact the policies he wants to enact, is if millions of people stay mobilised and organise in their communities and pressure elected officials and corporations.

He’s not telling people, “Vote for me and I’ll change the world”. Quite the opposite — which is great for organisers and social movements.

This is the first opportunity in the history of this country to elect someone to the White House who comes from social movement politics.

Sanders was a student organiser during the civil-rights era and was arrested on multiple occasions. Unlike former US President Barack Obama’s fake community organiser credentials, Sanders has actually worked with and supported social movements throughout his life and political career.

That’s a very unique and unprecedented aspect of him as an individual, and of his campaign. You can draw a straight line from the anti-globalisation protests in the mid-to-late 1990s, through the anti-war movement of the Bush era, right up to Occupy in 2011–12, which really laid the groundwork for Sanders’ 2016 campaign.

Without Occupy, the world wouldn’t know Sanders. The social movements of the past 30 years opened the space for someone like Sanders to exist on a national stage. Organisers and activists in the US who have been fighting for social, economic, environmental and racial justice for the past 25 years should be proud.

I guess the reality is that no electoral campaign ever goes “far enough”. At this point, however, there’s an interesting dynamic at play. On some level, Sanders is proposing policies that are ahead of social movements. For example, he has proposed nationalising utilities and making all electrical utilities publicly owned. Yet, right now, there is no movement in the US demanding that. That’s one example. There are several others.

So, in one sense, Sanders is following the lead of social movements, but in another sense, he is also setting the temperature for pushing social movements to go even further. This back-and-forth dynamic is very interesting to watch and see how it plays out. For Sanders’ campaign to go further, social movements have to be better organised. We’ll see how this plays out over the next year or so.

Is Sanders’ campaign in Indiana drawing in new communities and activists?

In 2017, my friend, Sergio Kochergin and I opened a community-cultural centre in Michigan City called Politics Art Roots Culture (PARC). After Trump’s victory and after returning home from the Standing Rock protests [against the Dakota Access Pipeline] in 2016, it became clear to Sergio and I that smaller towns and cities throughout the US needed to be organised.

We met hundreds of veterans and civilian activists at Standing Rock who were going home to essentially nothing: no local organisations, no local political groups, no sustained way to remain involved.

Since Trump’s victory in 2016 largely hinged on his ability to win support in smaller towns and cities, we felt like this was the best use of our time, experience and resources, especially in the short term.

Around the same time, a bunch of people from the local community started an organisation called Organized & United Residents of Michigan City (OURMC), which has become an independent political organisation whose mission includes electing progressive/left people to local office, running successful single-issue campaigns and providing educational and cultural events for the community.

OURMC uses PARC as its organising hub, so it’s a good relationship. OURMC decided last year that we would focus a good portion of our time on the Sanders campaign if he decided to run and if the campaign looked viable.

So far, we have had mixed success with the Sanders campaign. The Indiana primary doesn’t take place until May so we are in a tough position because a lot of energy is being sucked up by early primary states.

People are canvassing in those states and the campaign is spending most of its resources in those states, so we haven’t seen the kind of influx of new people that we would have liked to have seen by now. But we have still managed to meet a lot of new folks who otherwise wouldn’t have come around. I’ll be able to answer this question more substantively once we start our canvassing operations in mid-March.

Right now, we’re spending most of our time making phone calls in early primary states, coordinating with Sanders organisers at the regional level and getting ready to canvas neighbouring states to train our members and give them more experience prior to May.

At that point, we will focus on specific neighbourhoods in Michigan City: poor Black communities; poor white communities; trailer parks; apartment complexes; and other places that are usually ignored or left behind during election season.

For us, the challenge is not only getting people to vote for Sanders, but plugging them into long-term organising efforts.

Sanders’ comments on a Green New Deal seem aimed at persuading workers that they will not be left behind in the transition from fossil fuels. Are unions supporting him?

It’s true that Sanders is trying to destroy the false dichotomy of workers versus the environment. This is great for both the union movement and environmental activists, two groups that corporations and the government have pitted against each other for decades.

The Green New Deal allows an opportunity to break down those walls and start building solidarity between frontline communities, unions and environmental activists who are often white and come from middle to upper-middle-class backgrounds.

In terms of union support, Sanders has more endorsements from organised labour than the rest of the candidates combined.

Some of the national unions include: the American Postal Workers Union; National Nurses United; National Union of Healthcare Workers; and the United Electrical, Radio and Machine Workers.

At the regional level, he has dozens, including teachers' unions, longshoremens' [wharfies] unions and communications workers' unions.

If Sanders wins, it will in large part be due to the work of organised labour.

Sanders has said that the 2020 election is the most “consequential election in the history of modern America and maybe in the history of America”. Is that how it is being perceived on the ground?

Absolutely, but not for the reasons people hear in the corporate media.

People are rightly freaked out and turned off by Trump’s behaviour and rhetoric, but most of the people who are organising on the ground, especially Sanders’ supporters, are much more concerned about Trump’s actual policies: cutting social programs for the poor; cutting taxes for the rich; deregulating industries, including the financial sector; alienating international allies who seek less militarisation; ramping up the Pentagon budget; imprisoning children on the Mexican border; pardoning war criminals and white collar criminals; and the list goes on.

I absolutely agree with the writers, artists, historians, academics and organisers who insist that 2020 is the most important election in the history of this country.

If Sanders ends up the Democratic nominee, the contrast between him and Trump could not be clearer. Their policies and world views could not be more different. This is the sort of debate we should have: fascism versus socialism.

Most people in the US are ready for that debate. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to elect someone who not only wants to build social movements and unions, but who understands that climate change poses an existential threat to life on this planet and the way we’ll deal with that problem is by international cooperation and solidarity.

The anxiety, anger and dedication on behalf of Sanders’ supporters are palpable. Most of us understand that time is running out. We don’t have the luxury, especially in the context of immense ecological devastation and runaway climate change, of waiting another four years.

Four more years of Trump is virtually a death knell for the planet. We need to make rapid changes over the next decade to avoid the worst of climate change.

Trump and the GOP are actively accelerating ecological devastation and climate change. This country and the world can’t handle four more years of authoritarianism, climate denial, brutal attacks on the poor and increased militarism.

Anything that happens in the US reverberates across the globe. The 2020 election will decide whether Uncle Sam exports authoritarian capitalism or democratic socialism.

The Democratic establishment is fighting back, as is Wall Street. Why are they so upset when Sanders seems to actually have a chance at winning against Trump?

The Democratic Party establishment would rather lose to Trump than move to the left and lose to Sanders. This much has been clear since 2016. Nancy Pelosi, Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are not only ideologically opposed to Sanders, they also loathe him because they understand that his potential victory poses a threat to their material interests within the party.

As you know from the Australian Labor Party, plenty of people are quite comfortable with their cosy jobs and positions within the party. Sanders’ campaign exposes all of these people as political hacks. And they hate him for it.

Sanders is going around the country telling people that the corporate media has let them down, the Democratic Party has let them down, the professional political class has let them down and many establishment Democrats hate him for it.

On a much larger scale, you're absolutely correct that Wall Street is fighting back and I expect those attacks to increase as the weeks and months progress. But it’s not just Wall Street fighting back: it is the entire billionaire-capitalist class: banks, investors, developers, landlords, police departments, corporate news outlets, the world's largest corporations, arms manufacturers and fossil fuel companies — all these entities are actively fighting Sanders’ campaign.

That he has a real shot at winning the nomination says a lot about the organisers, activists and volunteers on the ground who have been battling a never-ending stream of corporate propaganda.

We have had to battle not only the capitalist class, but also right-wing elements and liberals within the party who are using Red Scare tactics.

Fortunately, these attacks aren’t working that well. Americans, especially those under 45 years of age, are not buying the “socialism equals dictatorship” propaganda the right is pushing.

Sanders continues to rise in the polls. Each week, his chances are looking better and better, but that’s because millions and millions of people are dedicating untold amounts of time and energy knocking on doors, making phone calls, setting up fundraisers, house parties, and donating. We have a series of major primary states coming up, so we’ll have a much better idea of his chances in mid-to-late March.

In the meantime, leftists around the globe should support his campaign. Without doubt, Sanders has flaws. I have disagreed with his votes in US Congress on several occasions, but that’s politics.

Never in my life have I poured this much time, effort, sweat, emotions and resources into an electoral campaign. Generally, I avoid electoral politics like the plague, but this campaign is different in every way, from its vision and connection to social movements to its ability to bring out poor and working-class Americans who have given up on the system and everything in between.

Any serious left-wing organiser in the US should view the Sanders campaign as a strategic opportunity to not only potentially have an ally in the White House, but to use the campaign as a way to bolster existing social movement efforts and build independent left-wing organisations that outlast the 2020 campaign and go beyond Sanders’ vision.

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