One Question is a monthly series in which we ask leading thinkers to give a brief answer to a single question.
This month we ask:
Should the American Left unite behind Bernie Sanders?
With responses from: Doug Henwood; Judith Butler; Charlie Post; Bill Fletcher Jr; Zillah Eisenstein; Eric Mann; Lester Spence; Marina Sitrin; Eric Blanc; Juan Cruz Ferre; Eljeer Hawkins; John Bachtell; Rand Wilson and Peter Olney.
Brooklyn-based economic journalist. He’s a contributing editor of The Nation, and has written for Harper’s, Bookforum, The Baffler, the Socialist Register, and Jacobin. Henwood hosts a weekly radio show, Behind the News, which originates on KPFA, Berkeley. His books include Wall Street (Verso, 1997), After the New Economy (The New Press, 2003), and My Turn: Hillary Clinton Targets the Presidency (Seven Stories, 2015). He’s working on a study of the rot in the American ruling class.
Can we go mostly out for Bernie Sanders instead of all?
I completely understand the temptation to put all our eggs in the Bernie basket. With his 2016 campaign, he almost single-handedly introduced a seriously social democratic programme into American political discourse, and even made the word ‘socialism’ charming, no mean feat in this reactionary political culture. He inspired thousands of mostly young people to enter politics and caused the membership of the formerly moribund Democratic Socialists of America to soar. He forced mainstream Democrats to admit just how wedded to the corporate agenda they are.
Without his candidacy, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez – who was largely responsible for getting people to talk about a Green New Deal and a top tax rate of 70% almost overnight – wouldn’t be in Congress, neither would her colleagues Ilhan Omar and Rashida Tlaib. Ditto many fresh faces in state legislatures. Thanks to all these campaigns, there’s a serious left campaign infrastructure operating across the US – not merely around elections, but a variety of issues, from housing to wages to police brutality. For someone who matured in politics like me, when a meeting of the Left consisted of seven weirdos in a ramshackle space, the transformation feels other-worldly.
So, I completely understand the draw of trying to do it again. A second Sanders campaign could bring even more people into left politics, deepen the organising infrastructure for the future, and offer rich opportunities for political education. All true. But it still worries me.
It worries me for several reasons. One is that there’s a bit of a repetition compulsion about it – the Bernie campaign worked so well last time, why won’t it again? But things are quite different this time. He’s not coming out of nowhere, surprising an unprepared establishment. He’s running against a small army of other candidates, not just one who was a perfect symbol of a discredited status quo. Were he by some fluke to win, he would face a hostile Congress and ruling elite, who would frustrate him at every turn. It might be better to build strength from below, in city councils and state legislatures, and maybe even a governorship or two, before scaling the summit. It feels like people on the Left are looking to Sanders as some sort of magic, almost redemptive figure.
Which isn’t to say one shouldn’t work on Bernie’s behalf. It is to say, keep some powder dry.
Teaches at the University of California, Berkeley and co-directs the International Consortium of Critical Theory Programs. She is the author of several books including Precarious Life (Verso, 2006), Frames of War (Verso, 2009), and Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly (Harvard, 2015).
I am fairly certain that this is the wrong question. If the American Left is looking for one person who can define and shape its politics, then it is already lost. The point is to commit ourselves to a political platform that effectively counters radical social and political inequality, systemic racism, violence and discrimination on the basis of gender or sexuality, and that promotes national health insurance, affordable education and housing. It would promote as well the end of US domination in foreign policy.
Once we have that platform, one that closely approximates Democratic Socialists of America but refuses to relegate racism and sexual and gender politics to a secondary position, then we can perhaps listen to what candidates say. But no one person holds that key. The platform does, and it can, if it compels consensus on the Left, compel existing and future candidates to take more courageous and radically transformative positions. So perhaps now when authoritarian regimes are becoming normalised, it is more important than ever not to make a fetish of personality.
Long-time socialist and activist in the City University of New York faculty union. He is the author of The American Road to Capitalism (Haymarket 2012) and numerous articles on labour, politics and social struggles in the US.
Yes and no.
The Left in the US should unite behind the radical potential of the Sanders’ campaign. Sanders is championing policies that will both benefit all working people and address racial and gender oppression. His open challenge to the neo-liberal consensus distinguishes him from all of the other candidates, Democratic and Republican. Most importantly, Bernie Sanders has given a name to the previously inchoate popular disgust with forty years of austerity, war, racism, sexism and homophobia – socialism. His campaign helped re-legitimise socialism in the US and (along with the election of Donald Trump) built the largest organised socialist movement in the US since the 1940s.
The Left should not, however, unite behind Sanders as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President. The Democrats have been the graveyard of every radical social movement from the industrial union movement of the 1930s and 1940s to the black freedom struggle, women’s movement and anti-war movements of the 1960s and 1970s. Today, the party is even more firmly under the control of capitalists, who run the party through their funding of the myriad campaign committees which are the de facto leadership of the Democrats. They will do everything in their power to quash Sanders’ challenge.
At the same time, many mainstream, pro-corporate Democrats like Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren and Corey Booker are rhetorically adapting elements of Sanders’ programme – in particular single-payer health care and free college tuition. Their demagogic support for these programmes will make it difficult for Sanders to be the clear voice of pro-working class politics in 2020. Finally, the pressures to throw Trump out of office will put tremendous pressure on all Sanders’ supporters to support which ever neo-liberal the Democrats nominate in 2020.
Put simply, the radical potential of the Sanders campaign will be dissipated as long as it remains trapped in the Democratic Party. Both those who believe the Sanders’ campaign will promote a realignment of the Democrats to the left, and those who think it will prepare the way for a split with the Democrats and the emergence of an independent party will be disappointed – and will likely be pulled deeper into the Democratic party and its right-ward trajectory. Only a truly independent Sanders campaign can fulfil its radical potential and continue to build a socialist Left in the US.
Bill Fletcher, Jr.
I would not start with this question. I would start with a different one: does the US Left need an electoral strategy? I would answer ‘yes,’ it needs one and that, for the most part, it is lacking one.
Much of the US Left views electoral politics as analogous to a thermometer. It provides us with the ‘temperature’ of the masses and an opportunity to discuss politics. While all of this is important, it misses the larger point: the US Left needs to be engaged in a fight for political power both within the context of so-called democratic capitalism and in an effort to lay the foundations for transformation to socialism.
The challenge during Presidential election season is that many left and progressive forces view politics only through the lens of the Presidential campaigns, regularly ignoring other, down-ballot elections. Thus, I believe that the question that needs to be asked is: how does a Bernie Sanders campaign fit into a larger left electoral strategy?
In the interest of time, let me provide some recommendations:
- Bernie Sanders, at this juncture, is the most progressive and winnable of the candidates for President. While there are other candidates who have important strengths, Sanders stands out in terms of the gist of his overall programme.
- Sanders is correct to, once again, run within the context of Democratic primaries. Running as an independent would render him irrelevant. Running inside of the DP, however, helps the process of building the sort of mass bloc necessary to bring about not only a shift within the DP but a shift in the larger political arena.
- The Sanders platform needs to be expanded and adopted by candidates in other down-ballot races. The most significant areas where it must be expanded, however, are around race and gender. In 2016, Sanders was a one-note samba, focusing almost exclusively and narrowly on economic issues and not demonstrating the interconnections between race, class, gender and capitalism. As a socialist, he must expand his framework for both ideological and moral reasons. As a political candidate he is called upon to do this if he wants to win a majoritarian bloc.
- The Left needs to develop state-by-state strategies that, while helping to advance Sanders, do far more. The Sanders platform must be a lens through which the Left looks at other candidates. It can also serve as a guide for the identification and development of potential candidates who can offer a left challenge throughout the electoral arena.
Professor of Politics at Ithaca College in New York for the last 35 years and presently a Distinguished Scholar in Residence. Her books include The Audacity of Races and Genders: A Personal and Global Story of the Obama Campaign (Zed Books/Palgrave, 2009); Sexual Decoys: Gender, Race and War in Imperial Democracy (Zed Books/Palgrave, 2007); and Hatreds: Racialized and Sexualized Conflicts in The 21st Century (Routledge, 1996). Her website is at: zillaheisenstein.wordpress.com.
It is too early for me to say whom I will support in 2020. I am hoping for a robust dialogue in these next months. I am hoping that the electoral dialogue, especially among women, will push candidates to their most radicalised and inclusive stance.
But, I have a few questions, anyway. Who is the American Left? And, how does this connect to the Bernie question?
I consider myself part of a growing anti-racist/feminist Left in the US. It recognises racist-misogynist capitalism as the structural problem to be dismantled. As such, capitalism is not a stand-alone structural system.
So my preference is for Bernie to step aside and use his clout and power to support the most progressive woman candidate that emerges. He could help ignite this process. And, let me be clear. I campaigned and voted for Bernie in the 2016 Democratic primary against Hillary Clinton. Then I shifted and voted for Hillary against Trump, because context always matters. And the context has shifted yet again for Bernie.
I know many think that the key criteria for any viable candidate in 2020 are their electability. But be careful how you think about this. Make sure you are not obsessing over white people’s votes – especially right-wing and moderate ones. Instead, mobilise all the rest of us with a programme for economic, environmental, racial and gender justice. Follow the lead of the striking teachers and restaurant workers. And listen and learn from Sara Nelson, the president of the Association of Flight Attendants (CWA) who called for a general strike.
I will mobilise for the woman candidate who promises to fight for: the Green New Deal; health care for all; day-care for all; an end to cash bail; $15 minimum wage; free Palestine. You get the idea. Trump has actually made this new progressive radicalism possible because of his right-wing radicalism. He has paved the way for a new electoral radicalism by exposing the interdependence of misogyny and white supremacy with capital’s greed. His fear and anger have created new possibilities for radical response. Trust these new voters who care newly now. There are more of them than right-wing white people. (Obama won by tapping youth who turned out for him.)
The anti-racist feminist left is thriving and mobilising along with other radical coalitions. So I am all for Bernie helping to radicalise the 2020 election by assisting, like he did when he offered support to Ilhan Omar during her recent controversy over her criticism of Israel. Let him use his standing to electrify a woman’s candidacy – maybe pushing for Stacey Abrams as a VP. But, it is not his time this time around if a woman candidate offers us a radically anti-racist and feminist agenda.
Veteran of the Congress of Racial Equality, the Newark Community Union Project, Students for a Democratic Society, the United Auto Workers New Directions Movement, and the League of Revolutionary Struggle. His 10 books include Playbook for Progressives: The 16 Qualities of the Successful Organizer (Beacon, 2011). He is the host of Voices from the Frontlines: Your National Movement-Building Show on KPFK Pacifica in Los Angeles. He welcomes comments at email@example.com.
I see the US as a racist, imperialist bully built on a genocidal white settler state. I give no moral legitimacy to any candidate who does not vehemently oppose the imperialist actions of our government. Sanders’ statement, ‘We have got to look at candidates, not by the colour of their skin, not by their sexual orientation or their gender and not by their age’ is an attack on every woman and Black Democratic candidate and reflects his incurable racism and sexism. Bernie Sanders ‘socialism’ is little more than ‘imperialism with benefits.’
I accept the urgency of a united front against the racist and proto-fascist Donald Trump and will work in the general election to support any Democratic candidate to defeat Trump. The demands that should frame the Democratic Primaries include open borders for all immigrants, free the 1 million Black and 500,000 Latino prisoners, end the Israeli Blockade of Palestine, stop US intervention in Venezuela, and cut US greenhouse gas emissions by 50% of 1990 levels by 2025.
I will follow the lead of three dynamic and courageous young women, new members of Congress. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, from the Puerto Rican community, has opposed ICE and called for tearing down the US wall with Mexico and is willing to be point on the great debates. Ilhan Omar, originally from Somalia, has supported Boycott, Divestment, and Sanctions, opposed Elliot Abrams and the US efforts to bring down Maduro as they did Allende, and has been threatened by Nancy Pelosi and the Democratic Party machine. Rashida Tlaib, a Palestinian-American, strongly supports BDS, calls for the ‘right of return’ of all Palestinians, and the impeachment of Donald Trump, aka ‘the mf.’
By contrast, Sanders one-note focus on ‘strengthening Social Security’ and ‘Medicare for all’ is a conscious strategy to pacify the rabid white racist Trump voters instead of supporting Black Lives Matter, confronting white imperialist gentrification of Black communities, and the police occupation of Black communities. His support for a video on the humanity of the people of Gaza and his criticisms, if not sufficient, of Israeli policy, are his greatest achievements so far.
Kamala Harris was a brutal Attorney General who prosecuted Black and Latino kids and adults and opposed the anti-prison movement. She is now feinting to the left and the Black but if she wins the primary I fear she will tell white voters she is ‘tough on crime.’ Corey Booker gives opportunism a bad name. Elizabeth Warren has many redeeming qualities, but I cannot forgive her appropriation of a false Native American identity for personal gain. In the primaries, I will follow the lead of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, and Rashida Tlaib. Whither they goest I will go.
Associate Professor of Political Science and Africana Studies at Johns Hopkins University. Co-Director of the Center for Africana Studies. For more information and selected writings see http://lesterspence.com and http://tinyletter.com/lkspence.
On February 19, 2019 Bernie Sanders declared his presidential candidacy for the 2020 election cycle. Over the past few decades the Left has asked whether an electoral strategy is one they should embrace. Sanders, a Democratic Socialist, causes us to ask this question again.
For me the answer is simple.
Broadly, the Left should be far more involved in electoral politics than it has been. Specifically, that translates in this case into support for a Bernie Sanders campaign.
The arguments for being involved in electoral politics are several. I’ll focus on two.
For the first time in generations, the ideological mean has shifted to the left. While there are all sorts of challenges with using public opinion data, recent research suggests that not only are there more people identifying with socialists and more people supporting left-leaning public policy, there is broad consensus among people who tend to vote Democrat and people who tend to vote Republican that we are engaged in a form of class warfare, and working class Americans are on the wrong end of that war. Taking advantage of this shift in attitudes is going to require electoral politics. Electoral politics – and here I’m referring both to running and winning electoral office and using the local, state, and national legislative bodies to enact legislation – is required alongside direct action, ‘popular culture’, and a combination of new and old institutions in order to make these attitudes durable, and to transform these attitudes into discrete positions on policies.
Now one friendly counter-argument acknowledges the necessity of electoral politics, but would suggest that third-party politics represent the most fruitful route. While it is possible to generate enduring change at the local level and in some instances the state level through third parties, it is incredibly difficult to generate victories at the national level. For something like that to occur not only would we need a sea change in attitudes about class, we’d need a sea change in attitudes about politics and parties, as well as a pre-existing institution robust enough to supplant the current two-party system. We have none of these. As such, particularly given the energy of activists and organisers, transforming the Democratic Party makes far more sense than attempting to run as a third-party candidate.
So because we have such a shift in attitudes (itself generated partially by Occupy Wall Street and Black Lives Matter) and because electoral politics represents an important level in transforming these attitudes into enduring political change, the Left should be involved in the election, and should rally behind Sanders.
Assistant Professor of Sociology at SUNY Binghamton. Her books include Horizontalism: Voices of Popular Power in Argentina (AK Press, 2006); Everyday Revolutions: Horizontalism and Autonomy in Argentina (Zed Books, 2012); and co-authored, They Can’t Represent Us!: Reinventing Democracy from Greece to Occupy (Verso Books, 2014). She is currently writing a book on global societies in movement and non-movements with the University of California Press.
It would be great if Bernie Sanders was president of the US.
There is no self-identified Left in the US. There are people who are fed up with politics, with environmental destruction, economic precarity and the countless crises of capitalism. Many of these people identify as radical, revolutionary and progressive. Many do not use any category, especially the youngest generation – who are also some of the most radical.
So, understanding there is no Left (yet), the question seems to me to be how do we unite in our difference so that a Bernie Sanders can get elected. People will unify behind him, others will organise for different progressive seeming candidates, ones they will argue are more realistically electable. And others still will get behind more radical seeming candidates, pushing for a third party. In the past, and currently, there has been a great deal of judgement against those who are not choosing the same path as us – not just judgement, but snarky nasty judgement. If we want any sort of alternative future this is what must stop.
Calling for a unified Left will not make it so. To move towards something remotely unified will require an acceptance of difference, dignified disagreement and respect.
There is not one path to making change, whether with elections, defending the earth or eliminating capitalism. The vision of one path is increasingly defunct, and instead people around the world, the US included, have been organising on many paths. This is not a question of tactics or strategy, but a fact of new ways of organising that are taking hold globally, and have been since 1994. Once we accept this difference we can be a unified Left – unified in our difference – with different tactics and strategies and similar goals.
It would be great if Bernie Sanders were elected, and attacking each other is not going to make that happen. If some people are organising direct actions exclusively, others mass demonstrations, others strikes, others intervening in the world of social media, others campaigning for a middle of the road democrat and still others for Bernie – great. As long as we are creating many Yeses, many alternatives, as the Zapatistas reminded us, and one No, which is against a system and its many crises, not one another. Walking together in difference is unity and a Left that can hold that is a radical and potentially revolutionary Left.
An organiser in New York City, member of the Democratic Socialists of America, and the author of Red State Revolt: The Teachers’ Strike Wave and Working-Class Politics (Verso, 2019).
Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign provides the biggest opening for independent working class politics in generations. We don’t get opportunities like this very often – it’s absolutely essential that we seize this one fully.
Regardless of whether Bernie actually wins the primary or not, his campaign will send a clear class struggle message to tens of millions of people in the United States. Over and over again, Bernie will explain that winning Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, criminal justice reform, and immigrant rights, is possible and necessary – but that to win them will require building a popular movement capable of forcing the hands of the powers-that-be. And since Trump will lean heavily on red baiting, the campaign will further legitimise the concept of socialism to a mass audience.
No less importantly, Bernie is our best bet to beat Trump. Unlike every other presidential contender, Bernie has a long and proven consistency in advocating for working people against the billionaires. Unlike every other candidate, he clearly is not beholden to the Democratic Party establishment or its corporate donors.
The Left needs to be part of the Bernie 2020 campaign so that it can organise hundreds of thousands of working people into independent working-class organisations – such as the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and Labor for Bernie – to drive forward the ‘political revolution’. You can’t do this from the outside.
Some leftists believe that we should not support Bernie because he is running on the Democratic Party ballot line and/or because of his political limitations (e.g. on foreign policy issues or his definition of socialism). This criticism is hardly a serious reason to withhold endorsement – a candidate shouldn’t ever need to have a perfect platform to merit the Left’s support. We can both enthusiastically endorse Bernie and criticise any of his limitations.
The issue of the Democratic Party is a more substantial one. Running within the primaries of the Democratic Party will subject the campaign – and its supporters – to all sorts of political and organisational pressures. Particularly if Bernie loses in the primaries, there is a real risk that the energy he helps generate could be channelled back into supporting a built-to-lose mainstream Democrat. The appropriate response to this, however, is not to abstain from the campaign, but to organise as a distinct current within it to crystalise working-class and socialist organisation. If Bernie wins the presidency, such independent, bottom-up vehicles will be needed to generate sufficient disruptive power – through strikes and mass actions – to force Capital and Congress to cede to Bernie’s key policy planks.
Juan Cruz Ferre
An editor for Left Voice Magazine currently pursuing a PhD in Sociology at the City University of New York. His articles have been published in NACLA, In These Times and Truthout.
Bernie Sanders’ platform is very progressive: he puts forward several working-class issues that are long overdue. The extraordinary popularity of his campaign shows that there is a new generation of socialists and, more broadly, a mass movement of people who won’t take ‘no’ for an answer – who want universal health care, tuition-free college and decisive steps to avoid climate disaster. Furthermore, it shows that the ‘socialist’ label is no longer a liability, no matter how much Trump and the Republicans may want to use it as a deterrent.
However, I think the socialist Left should not rally behind Sanders’ campaign. We need to agree that his program, rather than socialism, is a set of reforms within this very system. To be sure, his campaign has the potential to politicise thousands of people and objectively shifts political debate to the left, but it also binds a new generation of self-declared socialists to the Democratic Party machine. This is no minor detail. It legitimises not only a party that is ultimately dominated by capital, but the whole electoral system. At a moment where the Democratic Party is in deep crisis, the socialist Left is in no better position to offer an alternative to the hundreds of thousands who are looking left for alternatives.
Organisations like the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) are debating whether to make the Bernie 2020 campaign a national priority, which means funnelling as many resources as possible to phone-banking and canvassing for Sanders, including registering tens of thousands to the Democratic Party to vote in the primaries. By doing so, the DSA will send the message that the vehicle for achieving our goals is, indeed, the Democratic Party.
Bernie Sanders’ foreign policy is also a far cry from what a socialist Left should hope for. Anti-imperialism is not a footnote, but should be front and centre for any socialist project in the US. Sanders’ position towards the Israeli occupation of Palestine is problematic, and his recent remarks about the humanitarian aid to Venezuela feed into Trump’s imperialist plot to intervene in the country through his puppet Juan Guaidó.
The bottom line of my argument (explained in more detail here) is that great personalities are not the true engine of history; class struggle is. And the only force that can bring about socialism is that of workers organised as a class. We’re seeing an awakening of labour in the wave of teachers strikes throughout the country, even talks of general strikes against Trump’s shutdown, the repeal of no-strike bans in certain states. We will see more labour unrest in the coming years, and this gives socialists an opening to engage in organising, radicalise the unions, and build a network of revolutionaries with a footing in the working class.
Elections can politicise the workers who are fighting, but if the proposal is to rebuild the Democratic Party, we are back to square one. There is a reason why all committed socialists, from Marx to Kautsky, from Rosa Luxemburg to Eugene Debs, insisted on the political independence of the working class. Running independent socialist candidates, even if less spectacular than Bernie’s presidential run, will go a longer way in carving out a space for the Left and claiming for itself a distinct identity in a rapidly changing political scenario.
Community, labour and anti-war activist, born and raised in Harlem, New York, member of Socialist Alternative/CWI for 24 years. He contributes regularly to Socialist Alternative Newspaper, socialistworld.net and Hampton Institute on race, criminal justice, Black Lives Matter, and the historic black freedom movement. He has lectured at countless venues including Harvard University, Hunter College, Oberlin College, and the University of Toronto.
On Tuesday, February 19, Senator Bernie Sanders (I-Vermont) declared he would throw his hat in the ring for the second time for the Democratic Party Presidential nomination, for the 2020 Presidential elections. The groundswell to the announcement was immediate and overwhelming; the Sanders campaign received 6 million dollars in donations and tens of thousands of volunteers pledging to work on his campaign in a matter of 24 hours.
There are 1,500 billionaires worldwide, with 560 in the United States, and 75 living in New York City alone. China, Germany, and India each have 100 or more respectively. Led by Amazon founder and world’s richest human being Jeff Bezos, worth $143.1 billion, the five wealthiest people own more wealth than the bottom half of the world’s population combined, which is roughly 3.8 billion people. Oxfam has just reported that 82% of the money generated last year went to the world’s wealthiest 1%. We are truly living in a new gilded age, where the world’s wealth and resources are held in so few hands. Recently the United Nations special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights issued a scathing report after traveling throughout the United States. The report highlighted the deep levels of income inequality, poverty, and deplorable conditions in the wealthiest nation in human history.
The resurgence of socialism is rooted in the utter failure of capitalism and bourgeois democracy to solve the everyday problems workers, youth, and poor people face.
The American Left should critically engage with the Sanders campaign and its programme as a step forward in the class struggle and the future outlines for a party of the working class and poor. The increase of social struggles like the Fight for 15, Black Lives Matter (BLM), #MeToo, and workplace struggles like the cross-country teachers’ strikes has opened up a new political paradigm for the Left.
Bernie has decided to run in the Democratic Party which I firmly believe is a mistake as we must learn the bitter lessons of the 2016 Democratic Party presidential primary election. If Sanders loses, he should run all the way to November as an independent and assist in laying down the foundations for a new party to challenge the two parties of Wall Street and its agenda. This campaign and Sanders, despite glaring weaknesses, allow the Left to discuss with ordinary workers, youth and the most oppressed how we can build a powerful multi-racial working-class mass movement that can bring down Trump and the capitalist system.
Elected national chair of the Communist Party USA in 2014 after serving as chair of Communist Party of Illinois (2001-2014) and Communist Party of New York (1992-2001). He has been active in many electoral campaigns including both Obama presidential campaigns, and the Sanders and Clinton campaigns. He’s been involved in Chicago Jobs with Justice and currently in Labor Network for Sustainability and Lincoln Square Indivisible. He writes frequently for People’s World on current politics and Marxist strategy and tactics.
There are high-stakes in the 2020 elections.
While it would be great if the broad and diverse Left, which constitutes a majority of the Democratic Party, could unite behind Bernie Sanders, it’s unlikely.
What is exciting is a socialist candidate speaking to millions and socialist ideas becoming a natural and growing part of the political landscape. What is also exciting is the most diverse field of candidates ever in a Democratic primary, including women and people of colour, and multiple candidates who share similar progressive positions on many crucial issues. This array of candidates, emerging from the historic upsurge against the extreme-right, is sure to drive interest, participation, and turnout of key constituencies.
However, Trump, the GOP, the extreme-right, and their corporate backers pose an existential threat to democracy, peace, and the environment. Their defeat is imperative not only to people and planet now, but also to win a socialist future.
The Left should be united in helping build the broadest most diverse alliance possible to defeat these forces. Such an alliance would consist of the multi-racial working class and its allies, the broad Left including socialists, all democratic movements, and the fraction of the corporate class that opposes Trump.
While a majority have a positive attitude toward socialism (as they understand it) in the Democratic Party, victory will require winning independent, moderate, and centre voters including in swing states, some who voted for Trump in 2016 but have now turned against him.
The candidate who resonates with broad sections of voters, including moderate voters, can assemble a diverse range of constituencies and communities, best articulates an overarching vision for the future of the country, and is best able to address class, race, and gender, will win.
A resounding defeat of the extreme-right and election of a centre-left governing coalition that wins on a platform that moves in the direction of universal health care, free education, universal childcare, a Green New Deal, criminal justice reform, immigration reform with a path to citizenship, etc., can open the door to a new stage of more difficult struggle. Such a victory could radically alter the political landscape. It could create more favourable conditions for the working class and its allies, for the left and socialist current to grow, and for advancing more radical political, democratic, and economic reforms.
Rand Wilson and Peter Olney
As long-time union organisers and activists, we were ‘huuuge’ supporters of Bernie in 2016. We helped organise the Labor for Bernie efforts that moved tens of thousands of union members and hundreds of local unions (often in defiance of their parent unions) to aggressively support Bernie in the primaries. Just as significantly, Bernie also won the official support of six national unions (American Postal Workers Union, Amalgamated Transit Union, Communications Workers of America, International Longshore and Warehouse Union, National Nurses United and United Electrical Workers).
Bernie wisely decided to take the Primary Route and run as a Democrat. As a result, his candidacy and the movement that supported him, shifted the debate in the Democratic Party. The Sanders campaign demonstrated broad support for populist policies which up until then corporate Democrats were afraid to touch.
But 2020 is not 2016. In the coming primary season there will be multiple candidates who will at least give lip service to much or all of Bernie’s platform. It’s a real victory that so many mainstream Democratic candidates now embrace Medicare for All, free higher education, progressive immigration reforms and the Green New Deal.
While we still view Bernie as the best candidate, our task now is to find a way to create a ‘left pole’ within the labour movement that will promote deeper rank and file discussion and support for a working-class political programme. We also believe that it’s essential to build support for a member-driven endorsement process based on which candidates support such a programme.
Armed with an agreed upon platform – and broad support from their members – unions can enter the primary election fray and winnow-out genuine pro-labour candidates from the corporate Democrats. Candidate forums and endorsement questionnaires are essential tools in this process. Unequivocal support for labour’s strikes, contract and organising campaigns should also be used by unions as a key benchmark for earning an endorsement.
Our experience in the 2016 Democratic primaries showed how these tools provide an important route to building genuine working-class electoral power. For instance, last time around Bernie Sanders’ support for the Verizon strike proved to CWA members and many other workers his sincerity and credibility as a candidate.
An early endorsement for Bernie – or anyone else for that matter – ignores the crucial importance of membership participation and building a movement of workers ready to fight for its class interest. As Bernie has always emphasised, we need a grassroots revolution to fix a broken political system and a rigged economy. Now is the time to promote the programmatic planks that Bernie and any progressive candidate would like to run on. We strongly believe that candidates who adopt our platform would be in the strongest position to defeat Trump.
However, regardless of who eventually wins the Democratic Party’s nomination, we urge union members, labour allies and friends to be mindful that only a broad ‘united front’ will defeat Donald Trump in 2020.