After, or with Bernie, the task remains the same
Building a people’s opposition to the two parties of capitalism
The Bern for Bernie has become much more than a campaign for the nomination. By giving a voice to the widespread discontent in America it is challenging both the GOP’s rightwing politics and the neo-liberal, corporate politics of the Democratic Party. This grassroots upsurge has the billionaire class and their political representatives in both major parties worried. What worries them most, however, is that the politics behind Bernie could coalesce into an independent political movement to challenge the two-party system they control.
Through Sanders millions of Americans are demanding new social benefits that effectively challenge the prerogatives and profits of capitalism. These demands are far more threatening to capitalism than is understood. A movement large enough to win free post-secondary education, Medicare for all and paid parental leave would shift the balance of power toward labor.
The Democratic Party’s corporate backers and centrist politicians have shown little more interest than the Republican Party in supporting these long overdue social benefits. The role of the Democratic Party and the institutions in orbit around it is to dampen expectations around more realistic demands that are acceptable to the establishment. That is, members of the capitalist class. Attempts to co-opt the movement behind Sanders has already begun as suggestions to roll in that Sanderistas should form another inside-the-party pressure group like Progressive Democrats of America and set up a think tank or two as a legacy to Sanders and his ideas.[i] These are steps toward political irrelevance.
Sanders’ choice to run in the Democratic Party, although a practical choice perpetuates the notion the party is a vehicle for the far-reaching change he advocates. It is an illusion to think such an institution will support massive new social benefits and risk loosing its corporate backers. On the other hand, the response to Sanders has made it clear millions of the party’s voters and independents reject the corporate, centrist’s politics of the Democratic Party.
Polls show this constituency is open to electoral alternatives that will challenge the two parties. These voters will continue to respond to candidates and politics as refreshing as that modeled by Sanders, in particular among today’s youth and future young voters.
To capture this momentum beyond 2016 will require taking steps to field independent, left, Green, socialist, progressive democrats and activists candidates around an independent political program that addresses the needs workers, students and the poor. Sanders raised well over $140 million at this writing. Think of how many candidates for congress could run on even a fraction of that kind of money. The alternative for voters and activists is to remain confined within the Democratic Party’s political machine and centrist program. This has been and will remain a political dead end for winning the social benefits and political reform that inspired people to give millions to Sanders.
This brings into focus a difficult political and psychological hurdle to overcome. The Democratic Party is perceived and positions itself, as a necessary bulwark to prevent the GOP from reversing a women’s legal right to abortions and other hard fought advances like voting rights, marriage equality and protecting a host civil liberties, labor standards and social programs.
The argument goes like this. Alternative candidates, like Ralph Nader in the 2000 election, can play a spoiler role causing a democrat to loose to a right wing candidate like that of G.W. Bush. First, this argument places far too much emphasis on presidential races. The key to building a national electoral opposition does not start with running for president, but with a strategy to unseat GOP and conservative Democratic lawmakers in congress in alliance with progressive democrats and organizations. A presidential bid can create awareness, but without a congressional strategy and candidates it becomes symbolic in the minds of voters. However, if 50 candidates are running for congress on a similar political program a presidential bid becomes a more meaningful race.
This is a weakness of Sanders’ campaign, in that it did not recruit like-minded candidates to challenge conservative incumbents in house or senate races across the country. If even 20 candidates were running on his program he would have had an answer to critics that say he has no plan to enact his program. His recent initiative to embrace a few house candidates is helpful, but strategically falls too late in most states to recruit candidates in time to meet filling deadlines.
Secondly, on the question of the spoiler role, there is a lack of understanding of political tactics that could be employed should a spoiler situation arise even in the context of the presidential Electoral College system. For example, if it was deemed necessary, a candidate’s campaign could negotiate with other contenders to prevent playing such a role. What can be won at this negotiating table is determined by the relative support behind each candidate and the issues at stake. Such flexible, sophisticated political tactics, however, do not call for sacrificing principles even if a momentary or timely retreat is deemed necessary.
I would liken this tactical flexibility to a group of workers on strike finding themselves unexpectedly in a harder fought battle than they anticipated. The question they need to resolve is whether or not they should fight on and risk serious defeat or they should retreat and be better prepared the next time around.
My point is not to judge whether this tactical framework was applicable in the Green Party’s choices in the 2000 election. There are many other explanations for Democrat, Al Gore’s loss including massive voter suppression. I chose this example because it remains hotly debated and continues to put the brakes on developing independent political opposition to the two parties at a time when voters are yearning for alternatives. This negotiating framework is a means to resolve this conflict and begin to run candidates.
A related debate has been prominent in the 2016 Democratic primary contest. African-American voters, especially, those who are old enough to remember the 2000 election, by large margins, continue to support Hillary Clinton. Understandable, given their experience under numerous GOP administrations and the looming threat Trump and Cruz represent. African-Americans have a more sophisticated analysis of U.S. politics and history than any other constituency because politics has defined the nature of their oppression as well as the means to struggle for freedom and justice. Today, decades after defeating Jim Crow laws, they continue to endure the indignities of second-class citizenship, police violence and remain the political scapegoat for nearly every ill in America.
Their first concern then is holding at bay the most reactionary forces when making political choices. That they confront this choice is not their fault. It is a reality because white activists have not done the hard work of persuading enough white people to abandon racist attitudes. This is why we have Trump. I have heard some white Sanders’ campaign workers make critical comments about black voters’ choices. In this larger historical context, however, such criticism is unhelpful and insensitive when coming from white people.
Blacks know Clinton is familiar with the levers of power. They are unsure Sanders can win or wield power. They know polls that now show Sanders defeating GOP contenders are not valid criteria in forecasting the outcome of the General Election. Again, a more sophisticated perspective.
They make this choice knowing about Bill Clinton’s mass incarceration bill of 1994 and his support for ending federal welfare. They know of Hillary’s complicity. Still the choice is about now. And what is a stake now. Whites don’t have to solve this equation. African American pragmatism is engendered by real concerns about potential political and economic outcomes they will have to endure. For these reasons, and others, any emerging independent movement to challenge the two parties will need to put fighting racism as central to its program or it will fail to attract black support or build the unity necessary to win political power.
This brings us to the final ingredient necessary to forge new political and electoral alternatives to gain the power to make change. This is the question of war and peace. What Sanders’s revolution is missing is a foreign policy for peace as bold as his domestic program. It is also missing a parallel campaign to elect a congress he would need in order to enact his domestic program. Sanders seems reluctant to do either.
It is too late in the contest, but consider the possibilities if Sanders had declared that the wars of the one-percent and the oil oligarchies are no more in the interest of the 99 percent than rising income inequality. A risky wager given the fluctuating public opinion on foreign policy, but after 14 years of war and seeing more ahead, Americans might have welcomed a candidate with a plan for peace.
Speculation aside, the point is that any left of-center opposition to the two-parties must make a firm principled commitment to oppose imperialist wars, sanctions and intrigue. A peace majority cannot be built any other way. An opposition party cannot fall in line behind fabricated “humanitarian” military interventions to justify regime change of a sovereign government in Libya, while at the same time oppose wars like the Iraq War. It cannot join the chorus of establishment figures demonizing Putin and Russia while opposing economic sanctions against Venezuela. It cannot be swayed by anti-China/communist rhetoric used to justify the U.S. military’s expansion of bases in Asia – Obama’s so-called pivot to Asia.
Applying such principles in 2016 would require Sanders to tell Americans how he would resolve and exit the existing wars and end the war on terrorism. After years of war, Americans deserve a detailed foreign policy from a candidate who is running against Hillary’s record of supporting imperialist aggression. Sanders has boldly criticized past U.S. military intervention like no other presidential contender in decades, but these and his criticism of Clinton’s foreign policy record have been insufficient. Voters deserve specifics. Those Sanders offered so far do not instill confidence in his leading a significant change in foreign policy. In fact, his often-repeated recipe to defeat the Islamic State is just another variation on more war, but with different actors.[ii]
What to do whether Sanders wins or looses nomination
- Do what Sanders was understandably reluctant to do, decide to break with the Democratic Party’s centrist, militarist politics taking whatever steps big and small at all political level to test independent electoral possibilities in 2016 and beyond.
- Take Sanders domestic program into congressional races in an effort to elect new congressional representatives, independent, socialist, Green or Democrat, that pledge to support Sanders’ domestic economic program and enlarge it to include a demand for a peaceful foreign policy.
- Begin discussions and make plans to sustain local organizational capacity of the Sanders campaign to aid in shaping a political movement to challenge the rule of the two major parties.
- Hold local and state conferences to discuss and debate existing and future possibilities for independent political action around an advanced political program for racial justice, peace and jobs.
- Set sights on 2018 mid-term elections with the goal of recruiting a minimum of 30 candidates[iii] for house seats across the country to run on a common independent political program that addresses the multiple needs for economic security and opposes U.S. imperialist foreign policy.
These steps are key to sustaining the expectations for change Sanders campaign has tapped. A visible presence in the 2018 elections is a critical opportunity that cannot be missed. In the minds of millions of Sanders’ supporters the Democratic Party primary is just a vehicle for some as yet undefined possibility of a different politics outside the two-party system. Demonstrating what is possible is a necessary next step. The 2016 election and its aftermath will continue to remind the millions who support Sanders, that it is an illusion to think major political and social change will take place within a party owned by the very moneyed interests Sanders is challenging.
From this longer-range perspective of contesting power the Sanders’ upsurge is not about Bernie, the Democratic Party or even about his winning or loosing. It is about furthering the kind of class politics Bernie ignited. It is about the next election and the next. It would be a stretch to suggest it is possible to organize an independent political and electoral movement in 2016, but this is the trajectory the Sanders campaign shows is necessary, possible and viable. Any steps taken in this direction would aid Sanders should he become the nominee and further the struggle in 2016 and beyond for a more just and fair society his campaign has come to symbolize to millions.
[i] For example, Amy Dean, “Life after Bernie Sanders.” January 20, 2016, Aljazeera and Harold Meyerson, “The Long March of Bernie’s Army,” The American Prospect, March 23, 2016.
[ii] Sanders thinks Arabs should do the on the ground fighting, the U.S. provide air support and arms. Sanders also supported intervention in Libya, which by his Iraq criteria he should be calling the second worst foreign policy blunder in history.
[iii] The number matters because in the minds of voters a larger the group of candidates will be seen as a serious alternative. Too few will appear merely symbolic and will struggle to break through corporate media barrier. Media can ignore a few Green and independent candidates here and there. A minimum of 30 is simply an intuitive guess, but I am quite certain any fewer will not meet these criteria.
Missing ingredients of Sanders’ political revolution
A strategy to elect a new congress
A call for a bold new foreign policy
February 12, 2016, Wayne A. Nealis
There has been much talk lately of Bernie Sanders leading a progressive realignment of American politics. Indeed public support for Sanders’ domestic program such as free post-secondary education, paid parental leave and single payer health care represent the political criteria necessary for such a shift. The groundswell Sanders triggered expresses the desire of tens of millions of Americans for far-reaching change.
Sander’s domestic economic reforms, if legislated, would vastly improve the lives of working class and poor Americans. Sanders says he can win a majority of their votes in the general election. Based on match up polls Sanders is doing just that as he does as well or better than Clinton against GOP contenders. This is evidence he has tapped into an existing constituency for progressive realignment.
To Sanders credit he has responded to pressure from Black Lives Matter activists stretching his program to include a critique of police brutality invoking the names of those killed at the hands of police. Clearly he is not trying to win the law and order vote that Bill Clinton pandered to in his 1992 campaign. Sanders has also taken a principled stand against violence and hate speech directed against immigrants and Muslims. His anti-one percent agenda challenges both the GOP’s rightwing politics and the neo-liberal policies of the Democratic Party.
Yet enacting Sanders’ domestic program would require a new congress, not just a new president. And, secondly, Sanders chances of winning the nomination is unlikely unless he makes a clean break with the Democratic Party’s long history of supporting an imperialist foreign policy.
On the issue of foreign policy Sanders is much less clear with his supporters and the American people than on domestic issues. He likes to say, to his credit, that he voted and lobbied against the Iraq War calling it the greatest U.S. foreign policy blunder in history. Yet beyond that vote the evidence he would lead a progressive realignment on U.S. foreign policy is thin.
He had reservations about, but did not oppose the U.S. plans attacking Libya, the result of which by his Iraq criteria he should be calling the second worst U.S. blunder. No doubt his track record on foreign policy decisions is better then Clinton’s, but that does not make him a peace candidate, as he appears to have become. Curiously, his campaign does not list any foreign policy advisors. Typically this provides the public a window as to what a Sanders administration would look like. While this may be strategic and smart, it places more onus on him as a candidate to be more specific.
The responsibility to push him further weighs heavily on those of his supporters who oppose the long-standing bi-partisan imperialist foreign policy. Of course, leading foreign policy realignment requires convincing a majority of Americans to back it. Bernie may not be sure support for realignment is firm enough to risk the potential backlash from the bi-partisan foreign policy establishment. Compounding the decision is that recent terrorist attacks and the upsurge of ISIL, may have undercut the slim anti-war majority.
Yet, taking such a risky step may be his best chance to wrest the nomination away from Hillary. The public knows she is a war hawk; and for this reason young people in particular, have embraced Sanders in hopes he will be less likely to take the country to war. His emphasis on diplomacy is welcome, but what are voters to make of his vague commitment to ensure “the decision to go to war is a last resort.”
Sanders talked little about foreign policy until a December 2015 debate when he charged Clinton had been too quick as senator and Secretary of State to support the use of military force. Since then his support rose to a high of 42 percent among Democratic voters nationwide from 30 percent, where he had plateaued. While evidence of a direct correlation cannot be proven, it may be an indicator of an opening for realignment on foreign policy. The question is he willing to lead it?
Were he to take a few more steps toward challenging U.S. foreign policy might he convince more voters? On Super Tuesday, March 1, voters in 10 states will show their cards. At this time, polls show Clinton will win 60-plus percent of the delegates in these states though there are signs of movement toward Sanders. The questions looming over his campaign is foreign policy. Can he recruit more supporters without taking as clear a stance against war as he has against the oligarchs of capitalism?
His remaining bet among those he has already made would be to mobilize the ‘we are tired of war vote.’ What might such a message to voters entail? Perhaps a statement such as the following.
It is time to acknowledge that the bi-partisan decision to carryout a military response to the terrorist attacks of 9-11, and the subsequent invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq, has led to an exponential growth in terrorism. Shortly after 9-11, U.S. intelligence officials estimated al-Qaeda members numbered less than 500. Today, al-Qaeda and groups it spawned, like ISIL, Boko Haram and the Al Nusra Front, have recruited tens of thousands and operate in a dozen countries.
Today I am taking a stand with a majority of Americans who are tired of war with no end. I know this majority is slim, especially given the recent terrorist attacks and the rise of ISIL. Suggesting a pullback from a military strategy could cost me support. Yet, I cannot in good conscience any longer go along with the war on terrorism. I suggest for discussion the following ideas for changing course.
- Announce, as a confidence building measure, ending all U.S. drone attacks. Drones kill civilians as often as the intended targets. This causes resentment and fuels the recruitment of terrorists. It is counterproductive.
- Call on international conflict resolution organizations, independent of nation-states, to initiate any and all possible negotiations in conflict areas. The U.S. or any other nation militarily involved cannot provide mediating services given they are party to the conflict.
- Announce the U.S. intends to gradually withdraw its forces from conflict areas on a timetable it will set in consultation with mediators, allies, regional humanitarian organizations and governmental leaders.
- At the same time, announce the U.S. is prepared to halt all offensive military operations for a trial period to encourage ceasefire talks among warring parties.
We cannot know where such an approach might lead, but testing alternatives is long overdue. These initiatives would signal to moderate political forces and to the citizens of the region that the war on terrorism will end and destiny is in their own hands.
The people of these nations and the region are capable, smart and industrious and they will find a way to quell the appeal of Islamic fundamentalism if we end the war on terrorism. Our military strategy makes their efforts more difficult. Millions of Americans now realize the war on terrorism has made us less safe. In light of this it would be foolhardy to stay the course.
Sanders could make a lasting contribution to American politics were he to open this discussion. Sound unrealistic? Perhaps. Yet for many Americans it might appear more realistic than recent plans announced by U.S. military and political leaders to enlarge U.S. combat roles, including sending ground troops to Libya and adding to the 3,400 troops already re-deployed to Iraq.
As might be expected such a challenge to U.S. foreign policy will not be taken lightly by the military-industrial complex of bankers, contractors, weapons manufacturers and fossil fuel giants. They reap the profits of war. They are well connected with the leaders and backers of the Democratic Party. Look no further than the long list of Democrats who as Secretaries of Defense and State were the managers of U.S. imperialism. Obama’s current Secretary of Defense, Ashton Carter, is ideologically little different than Democrat Robert McNamara of the Vietnam War era or even Donald Rumsfeld under G.W. Bush.
To build a movement strong enough to defeat the power behind such people will be a protracted struggle of historic proportion. It will take an overwhelming peace majority in congress with the power to subdue the military-industrial profiteers. It will not be resolved in one election cycle; but Bernie could begin it, just as he has on economic policy. After 14 years of war, Bernie might find the public receptive to a plan for peace.
A political revolution sufficient to pass Sanders’ domestic program, let alone win a peace majority, will require electing as many as 200 new house and senate members to replace corporate Democrats and any and all Republicans. This is the missing ingredient for realignment. At least publicly, Sanders’ campaign has no such strategy. However, Sanders grassroots supporters have the organizational capacity to do so independently.
What might be done? For starters, delegations of Sanders supporters could meet with their House and Senate representatives. Where do they stand? With Clinton’s wing or the insurgent Sanders? Can they be persuaded to support Sanders’ program? If not, recruit a challenger. Elementary perhaps, but this, and Sanders’ weakness on foreign policy, are the missing strategies at the top of the campaign.
Organizing such a campaign in conjunction with the Sanders’ campaign would build the capacity to challenge congressional GOP incumbents and right of center democrats whether or not Sanders wins the nomination. Without such work, once Sanders looses the nomination, assuming he does, politics as usual will go on, unless he were to change his mind and run an independent campaign.
It would be a shame to lose the momentum behind Sanders. Instead, it can be channeled into congressional races. Take on the GOP and conservative congressional democrats. Run against them. Even in districts where it might seem unlikely to win, the groundswell around Bernie could become a deciding factor. It takes fewer than 200,000 votes to elect a House member. There are nearly this many Sanders’ voters in some districts.
I don’t want to spoil the Bern for Bernie enthusiasm, but I don’t think he will get the nomination. I cannot imagine a party in the grips of some of the largest corporate money bags in the nation and a party as an institution that has largely supported every invasion, covert action, coup and military budget for decades is going to trust Bernie Sanders with their dough and the bi-partisan imperialist project. This is all the more reason to enlarge the opportunities the Sanders’ campaign shows are possible and begin the task of electing a new congress in 2016 and beyond.
A congressional strategy is the most tangible, visible and practical means to advance the political revolution Bernie ignited. Even small steps toward independent politics would be instructive. The skills, enthusiasm and organizational capacity of Bernie’s campaign can easily be directed to support progressive Democrats, Green Party and even left of center candidates to further Bernie’s insurgency inside and/or outside the Democratic Party’s electoral process.
Whether or not he wins the nomination, go for it. We need a congress beholden to the 99 percent, not the one percent as it is now. If elected, Bernie will need a new congress. Be a thorn in the side of the establishment and keep the Bern burning. Then perhaps in the years ahead we can forge a real party of the people, to challenge the politics as usual of both parties that Sanders has so forcefully called into question.
That would be a real political revolution.