Letter from the US: Bernie Sanders’ Democratic Party strategy is fatally flawed

Bernie Sanders addressing the People's Summit in Chicago on June 10, at which he argued for pushing the Democrats to the left.
July 31, 2017

In a New York Times op-ed in June titled “How Democrats Can Stop Losing”, Bernie Sanders slammed the Democratic Party.

“In 2016 the Democratic Party lost the presidency to possibly the least popular candidate in American history,” he wrote. “In recent years, Democrats have also lost the Senate and House to right-wing Republicans whose extremist agenda is far removed from where most Americans are politically.

“Republicans now control almost two-thirds of governor’s offices and have gained about 1,000 seats in state legislatures in the past nine years. In 24 states, Democrats have almost no political influence at all.

“If these results are not a clear manifestation of a failed political strategy, I don’t know what is … The Democratic Party, in a very fundamental way, must change direction.

“It has got to open its doors wide to young people. It must become less dependent on wealthy contributors, and it must make clear to the working families of this country that, in these difficult times, it is prepared to stand up and fight for their rights.

“Without hesitation, it must take on the powerful corporate interests that dominate the economic and political life of the country.”

Corbyn

Sanders, who ran an unexpectedly strong campaign in the Democratic primaries last year on a platform of reforms in the interests of working people, pointed to the upsurge in support for the British Labour Party, led by socialist MP Jeremy Corbyn, as a model.

He said: “There is widespread agreement that momentum shifted to Labour after it released a very progressive manifesto that generated much enthusiasm among young people and workers. One of the most interesting aspects of the election was the soaring turnout among voters 34 or younger.”

He charged that “too many in our [sic] party cling to an overly cautious, centrist ideology”. Sanders proposed the Democrats adopt some of the positions he campaigned on in the Democratic primaries: “Democrats must guarantee health care to all as a right, through a Medicare-for-all, single payer program…

“Democrats must support a progressive tax system that demands that the very wealthy, Wall Street and large corporations begin paying their fair share of taxes.

“Mr. Trump wants to sell our infrastructure to Wall Street and foreign countries. Democrats must fight for a trillion-dollar public investment that creates over 13 million good-paying jobs…

“Democrats must take on the fossil fuel industry and accelerate our efforts to take on climate change by encouraging energy efficiency and the use of sustainable energy…

“Democrats must make public colleges and universities tuition free, and substantially lower student debt.”

He noted that “our failed approach to crime has resulted in the United States’ having more people in jail than any other country. Democrats must reform a broken criminal justice system and invest in jobs and education for our young, not more jails …

“Democrats must fight for comprehensive immigration reform and a path toward citizenship.”

Leaving aside that he says nothing about war, institutionalised racism, and other serious issues, what is Sanders’ actual political project?

The title of this opinion piece and his “Democrats must” comments give an indication. He is primarily concerned with how the Democrats can stop losing elections, and frames his proposals as a strategy to that end. The framework is how to reform “our” party so that it wins elections.

Democrat strategy

The Democratic Party establishment has a different strategy for winning future elections: it plans to run as the anti-Trump party, and unite the different factions in the party, including Sanders’, around that single issue.

These adherents of “a cautious, centrist ideology” don’t care if Sanders criticises them and makes some proposals for progressive reforms of the system, so long as he is part of the team and ultimately calls for a vote for the Democrats to “stop Trump”.

Some Democratic candidates in the upcoming 2018 elections may adopt aspects of Sanders’ suggestions. Others will stick with the neoliberal line. But the party as an institution will reject Sanders’ appeal for the party to fundamentally change direction.

That was made clear in last year’s Democratic primary, when the party establishment went all out to defeat Sanders, including the dirty tricks exposed by WikiLeaks (with or without Russian help).

The present fight between and within both major capitalist parties over health insurance is a case in point. The problems with Obamacare stem from its reliance on the insurance companies. The Republicans’ proposals are worse, take away the positive aspects of these laws, and rely even more on the insurance industry.

The Democrats could adopt Sanders’ obvious (and popular) proposal for nationalised health insurance. This would cut through all this mess, get rid of the insurance companies and the failures of Obamacare, as well as the reactionary Republican proposals, and guarantee health coverage for all from birth.

But they won’t. Instead, they are vociferously defending Obamacare against the Republicans — and against nationalised health insurance. The framework is set: vote Democrat to stop Trumpcare.

Sanders’ trajectory is clear in his “Our Revolution” movement, which seeks to reform the Democratic Party along social democratic lines. This is not a new idea.

Since the mid-1930s, the Communist Party and its descendants have tried to do this. So did the Socialist Party and its descendants, the union bureaucracy, and others. The result has been the Democratic Party’s overall move to the right over these decades, the opposite of what these forces envisioned.

Sanders could leave the neoliberal Democrats and form a new social democratic party, breaking the death hold of the two-party system. He has explicitly rejected doing so.

Democrats vs Labour

Sanders’ appeal to the recent experience in the British Labour Party is disingenuous. The Labour Party is a membership party, the Democrats are not.

The Democratic Party is controlled by its establishment in a top-down structure. Its “membership” is the voters who register as Democrats, who are expected to vote for whoever the party nominates. These voters have no say in Democratic Party policy —there is no structure to allow this.

The Labour Party has its establishment too, consisting of its members of parliament and other elected officials. This establishment changed its rules to open elections to the party leadership even further in the expectation it would strengthen the party’s right. They were wrong. The members elected Corbyn on a left-wing platform.

As a result, hundreds of thousands of workers and youth poured into the Labour Party. The membership endorsed what Sanders correctly describes as a “very progressive manifesto that generated much enthusiasm among young people and workers”.

“One of the most interesting aspects of the election was the soaring turnout among voters 34 or younger,” he said. This manifesto was way to the left of Sanders’ proposals.

Most Labour MPs predicted a disaster for Labour in the recent elections, believing Corbyn was too far left. They were dead wrong again. Labour made big gains in the election because of its new program and leader, and while not winning a majority (no party did) emerged as the real winners.

Capturing ‘the resistance’

Nothing like this could happen in the Democratic Party.

What the Democrats are trying to do is capture the deep distrust of Trump in much of the population into support for them. The neoliberal par excellence Hillary Clinton even made the absurd claim that she is part of the “resistance” — as the ongoing demonstrations against Trump’s policies have become known.

This stance has had some success, and is one of the reasons for the downturn of these protests since early May. Sanders, whatever his intentions, is becoming part of this con game.

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