Bernie Sanders: The Independent Candidate for Working People, or a Trap?

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) pauses during a political rally in Madison, Wis., on Wednesday. (Michael P. King/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)
Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) pauses during a political rally in Madison, Wis., on Wednesday. (Michael P. King/Wisconsin State Journal via AP)

By Juan Diaz and Florence Oppen
With Bernie Sanders  entering the 2016 elections, many honest working class activists and fighters for a better world see his candidacy as a light of hope in the gloomy social, political, and economic situation Americans find themselves in today. Sadly, this glimmer of light is unfortunately just  that- a glimmer that risks corralling workers and oppressed into the 2016 presidential charade.
We believe that Bernie Sanders, despite many progressive elements in his platform, is not a real political alternative for workers. This is mainly because 1) he remains inside the Democratic Party and 2) ignores a set of issues of vital importance for the “99%” or the working class, in particular in relation to its most oppressed sectors (immigrants, Black people) & those suffering from the U.S. wars abroad.
There is a reason why Bernie Sanders is trying to win the Democratic Party (DP) nomination and not calling for the formation of an independent party. Behind his “pragmatism” lies the belief that it is enough to only change some policies and improve the wealth distribution in order to “fix” the capitalist system and make it work for us. In contrast, socialists reject altogether the framework of austerity, layoffs, militarism and repression, and we do not think this can be stopped by a “progressive” candidate in the Democratic Party. Neither the DP nor capitalism can reformed. It is not a matter of electing the “right person” who has great morals & ideals to the corrupt positions in the U.S. Congress and the White House, as Sanders is leading us to think.
We need to break with the establishment political culture, with the Congress of millionaires and the  twin parties of the 1%, and mobilize independent mass political action to achieve change. The working class and oppressed people need and deserve a complete and real change, that is what people active in the labor movement, in Wisconsin, Occupy, the immigrant movement and Black Lives Matter have called for. And to achieve that the most important thing we need is an independent political voice that takes a clear stand on the issues important to us.

Who is Sen. Sanders and Why Has He Appeared Now?

The vast sums of billions of dollars that the capitalists and their organizations are spending on the campaign to compete for office shows the thirst and the desperation of the ruling class and their twin parties, the Democratic Party and Republican Party, to reach power.[1] In the never-ending spiral of the corporatization of the electoral process, both parties are now worried about the fact that elections appear to the average American as a deal don  in advance – a deal that is about a kind of money and power relations that are foreign to working people. The candidacy of both Trump and Sanders is, as we said in our previous article, an attempt to cover up the big money machine of corporate America that is functioning behind people’s backs, and to get closer to the “average” American or the so-called “middle class”. They wish to get folks interested in the voting game and away from building the social movements and alternative parties and organizations that are the only vehicles that have shown to be able to compete with the social and political power of the ruling class.
Nevertheless, Sanders seems to be a complicated player in this equation, and his campaign is spurring mixed reactions amongst labor and social justice activists. He presents himself as a truly “independent” candidate, even calls himself a “socialist” but he is aspiring to win the Democratic ticket. He definitely leads a different kind of campaign than Clinton: his major donors are labor unions (Machinists, Teamsters, education unions, etc.) and small donations (he received 250, 000 donations of $33.51 average)  while Clinton, as all the other candidates from both parties, is massively financed by corporations.[2] He insists in holding rallies with working people and middle class layers, instead of expensive fundraising parties. In fact, what his campaigns shows is that there is the political space for a working people led electoral alternative, that could have a chance to defeat the traditional corporate parties and make room in the public debate for our own issues.
However, Sanders has a record of being a mildly radical establishment candidate: he has spent his past 30 years as a Washington D.C. politician and congressman with strong ties to the Democratic Party. It is true that he has usually spoken to the “left” of the Democratic Party on economic issues, but it is no less true that his whole career has been spent moving away from working people and to the privileged circles of corporate politics. As he recently stated himself: “Don’t let anybody tell you that we’re radical, that we’re outside the mainstream,”  “We are the mainstream.”[3] And in fact, a mainstream politician is what Sanders has become.
In 1980, he tried to begin his political career as an “independent”, and even  as a self-proclaimed “socialist” , and was briefly associated with the antiwar and pro-labor Liberty Union Party.[4] He managed to get elected mayor of his town in Burlington (Vermont) by keeping his independence. But his aspirations to develop as a professional politician led him to very soon cut a deal with the Democratic Party in Vermont so he could win a spot at the national level in Washington. Thus in 1988, as he was planning to run for the Vermont seat in Congress and  was  to run  against  the Democratic candidate Paul Poirier, he made a deal with the devil: Sanders agreed to prevent the formation of any real third party alternative in the State and to vote with the Democrats in Congress in exchange for the DP’s promise of not running against him.[5] From then on, Sanders built a mainstream career as a professional politician. He first attended Harvard’s Kennedy School, where he built all of his relations with the liberal elite and key Democratic Party people. In 1991, he was given membership in the Democratic Party Congressional Caucus, and in 1992, when he campaigned for Bill Clinton as the “lesser evil”, he continuously backed DP candidates for elections. It was in the 2004 election where Sanders showed his true colors and completed his U turn when he declared: “Not only am I going to vote for John Kerry, I am going to run around this country and do everything I can to dissuade people from voting for Ralph Nader. . . . I am going to do everything I can, while I have differences with John Kerry, to make sure that he is elected.”[6] And in 2006, he ran for senator & again made a similar deal with the Democrats. Thus, for the last 34 years, Sanders has not held a real job, like the vast majority of working people, and has instead moved up into the political elite.
Therefore, Senator Sanders is not a grassroots voice of the working people, but a “professional” of the “establishment” politics he now denounces. He has strong ties with and dependency on the Democratic Party and a very limited program of reforms that leaves aside essential and urgent problems for working people in the US. We socialists are not looking for any “perfect” candidate, with a socialist program already made. We want to build a political alternative together with other social and political forces, but we are trying to build a viable one- a political alternative that could put in place an emergency program against austerity and the attacks on basic democratic rights, and put a halt to U.S. imperialist militarism and neoliberal policies all over the world. And it is impossible to do this without breaking with, and further defeating, both the Republican and the Democratic parties.

Economic Reform is Important But not Enough

What we have seen is that while the average person is working longer hours for lower wages, we have seen a huge increase in income and wealth inequality, which is now reaching obscene levels” – Sanders said this past April. And on this we could not agree more with him.[7]
The Sander’s campaign has been having some success in getting endorsements, statements of support, and attracting big crowds among labor unions[8] and the white and blue collar workers they represent. A number of locals from the Vermont and South Carolina AFL-CIO[9]  have endorsed him or written statements of support, and most recently, he scored a big endorsement from the National Nurses United — a 185,000 member union and the largest group of nurses in the country[10].
Sanders is trying to make amends with organized labor after Obama’s betrayal  in 2010 of one of his central campaign promises: the passing of a significant pro-labor reform, the EFCA.[11] A reform that Sanders now wants to bring back to the table. Though it is progressive that unions are walking away from corporate Clinton and for the first time in decades, this is not going to be enough to stop the huge offensive against labor unions- an offensive which has led to today’s all time low union representation and their memberships experiencing one of the lowest standard of livings since the 1930s[12].
Yet the main reason behind the unprecedented support Sanders is getting has to do with the concrete and pragmatic reforms of his economic platform, which includes very progressive measures that socialists support, and we are ready to fight for: $15-an-hour minimum wage (even though he is not proposing an immediate raise, but an horizon to get there in 2020), 2 week of paid vacations  to all workers (there is no Federal minimum at this moment), 12 weeks of paid family and medical leave and one week of paid sick days. These would be extraordinarily and live changing victories for US workers, as also would be the defence and expansion of the Social Security and Planned Parenthood plans or the establishment a single-payer health-care system as Sanders also proposes.[13]
Sander’s stance on public education has been another of his great attractive aspects for students and teachers. Of course, we support his recent bill of making all 4-year public colleges tuition free, a bill Hillary Clinton also supports, but what what we also need is to expand the public education system and increase its quality. Nonetheless, Sanders initially backed and voted for Bush’s No Child Left Behind (NCLB) Act of 2001, which is responsible for today’s national system of standardized testing and its curriculum and has tied school funding to test results. He later changed his vote to oppose the final version of the legislation, but he still does not support its repeal. His proposal simply wants to “amend” the existing law instead of establishing a completely federally funded public education that would foster equality and give more (and not less) resources to poor and marginalized school districts.[14]
But for working people in the U.S., our lives are more than bread and butter issues, like the $15 minimum wage and the 4-year tuition free college we adamantly support. Socialists and all of the folks who want a real change in this country are equally concerned with overcoming the deep racism in this country that keeps a large number of workers intimidated and deprived of rights and builds walls between workers, or fighting for full civil and political rights for the 20 million immigrant workers living in the US. We are extremely worried by the growing gap of economic rights between men and women, the past decade of attacks on abortion rights and contraception in the name of “religious freedom” of corporations, and the humiliating “pro-life” rhetoric that degrades women’s capacity to assert their life choices. We oppose the U.S. presence in the Middle East, its disastrous neoliberal policies in the American continent, in particular in Mexico and Colombia, its continuous attempts to buy off, deviate and co-opt the ongoing revolutions (like it is the case in Syria), its spreading of military bases in Iraq and all over the world, & the very existence of the Guantanamo illegal torture center. But what is Sander’s take on all these other issues that go beyond a change in the distribution of economic resources?
On Black Liberation, we could say Sanders has a rather shameful record: he signed off and voted on a critical legislation that would build and lead to the mass incarceration of working class Black and Latin@s that still exists to today  – Bill Clinton’s 1994 Three Strikes Crime Bill[15]. This legislation led to a huge funding of prison construction and sent many felons “to lifetime imprisonment for a third offense, any kind of third felony offense, including drug offenses and other nonviolent offenses.”[16] After the Ferguson and Baltimore protests, a candidate whose campaign had to be disrupted by Black Lives Matter activists so he would include something about attaining racial equality in his platform is not a candidate we can trust to take a stand on democratic issues.
Sanders’ view on immigration reform is not too different from Obama’s and Clinton –  he supports the comprehensive immigration reform bill that passed the Senate in 2013 that would “give a path to citizenship to some of the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants living in the U.S.” but also “adds huge increases in border security…,” and would prevent “green card status for undocumented immigrants until the government deploys 20,000 additional border agents, mandates E-Verify to prevent businesses from hiring unauthorized workers, completes a 700-mile border fence and adds to entry-exit systems to track whether foreign nationals overstay their visas.”[17] Sanders said that as “president, if Congress did not pass immigration reform, he would use executive action to give deportation relief to the parents of U.S. citizens[18]. Yet immigrants do not need “deportation relief”, they need full civil and political rights, they need citizenship! And Sanders is not going to give them this. By backing Obama’s immigration legislation, Sanders will continue to divide immigrant families and communities depending on when they got to the U.S., and would continue the horrible border militarization, and the spying & criminalization of the sector of “qualifying immigrants”. Furthermore, immigrant rights activists have critiqued his recent comments that put “forward the totally-debunked notion that immigrants coming to the U.S. are taking jobs and hurting Americans – specifically young people, Latinos, and African-Americans.”[19] It is therefore not surprising that Sanders polls very low among Blacks and Latin@s, and this reflects an awareness that Sanders does not offer a perspective for black liberation or immigrant rights.
Regarding women’s rights, Sanders promise to appoint pro-choice to the Supreme Court is not enough. We need an urgent federal law ensuring secure free abortion on demand everywhere in the country, regardless of the chauvinistic attitudes of some local councilmen. Further, will Sanders close Guantanamo and forgive the debt to Puerto Rico while giving these second class citizens full rights? In fact, the most worrisome silence of the “progressive” candidate has to do with foreign politics and his support of U.S. wars: Senator Sanders has a frightening record of having voted in favor of all of the US military interventions abroad. He supported Clinton’s 1996 precursor of the Patriot Act (the Anti-terrorist and Effective Death Penalty Act), the economic sanctions against Iraq in 1991, which killed half a million children,[20] he supported the first U.S. bombing of Iraq in 1992, Clinton’s War in Kosovo, he voted for the credits for the Afghanistan and Iraq wars. One could not find a more faithful ally of US militarism.
More recently, in 2006, he voted for HR 921 that backed Israel’s war against Lebanon, for HR 4681 which imposed sanctions on the Palestinian Authority after the victory of Hamas in Gaza, and last year, he supported the Senate Resolution 498, which supported Israel’s latest war on Gaza in the name of Israel’s “right to defend itself.” Finally, Sanders recently stated he is not opposed to the US drones program, which has killed at least 2,464 people since Obama took office, by arguing that “we have to use drones very, very selectively and effectively. That has not always been the case.”[21]

Is Sanders ’ Campaign Really Headed Towards  a “Progressive” Endorsement of Clinton and the DP?

However, the major problem of Sanders’ candidacy right now is not that his program is “not enough”. Even though it is true that his program does not address key needs of working people, the most important missing step of his campaign is a break with the Democratic Party. The DP is the historical gravedigger of radical and independent labor and social movements in the U.S.. Just to take recent examples, let’s remember how the union leaderships and democrats cut short and betrayed the massive and unprecedented general strike of immigrant workers in California in 2007, and how 3 years later the  Wisconsin labor upheaval was forcibly channel into a recall process of Gov. Walker by the DP, or how liberals and NGO staffers co-opted the Occupy movement by trying to translate it into support for the re-election of Obama in 2012. We should begin building an independent workers party now- and not later. And we should build a political alternative that is controlled by the rank and file, not a platform for professional politicians, a political organization that is open to welcome and include social movements and fighting unions so immigrant rights and education activists, as well as Black and antiwar organizers can come in, and educate, discuss shape its political platform.
The fact that Sanders did not do that- and based on his career as a Democrat, shows that not only he does not represent a break from the political establishment governing the country but that instead he is an obstacle for that project. We fear and see that Sanders is the last reserve of the 1%ers for maintaining the allegiance of the working class people to a system of oppression and exploitation.
Ultimately, the Sanders campaign is a way to corral and channel folks to the Democratic Party, that is to say, to prevent a real independent campaign and candidate. He’s another attempt by the Democratic Party (and he’s a “ride or die” DP supporter) to bring some hipness, and show that the “left” Democratic Party has people that care about working peoples issues. His campaign is similar to Dennis Kucinich (2008), Jesse Jackson (1984,1988), Theodore Roosevelt (1912) and other historical “left” Democratic Party attempts that co-opted and put a nice friendly face to the party of the capitalist class and then channelled all the supporters back to the Democratic Party campaigns. It’s a strategy by the ruling class and unfortunately likely to have some success. Past movements of the working class and oppressed succumbed to this electoral trap, including the Civil Rights movements in the 1960s, and other Black Power, indigenous and women’s movements in the 1970s.
The Sanders campaign is helping to make people believe there is a sympathetic Left in the DP and there is a grave danger and great chance that once Sanders likely loses the primary vote next spring (as this pundit shows, Sanders has a very small chance of actually winning the DP primary[22]), he will channel his supporters towards Clinton. If this scenario plays out, Clinton might ultimately appear as “capitulating“ to the Left and then being reborn as “progressive.” Ultimately, the Sanders campaign will reinforce the power of the Democratic Party and increase disillusionment of the progressive sectors of the working-class.

What is the Alternative?

Instead of endorsing and campaigning for BS (which entails ultimately giving a working class cover to the DP), we should use the elections period to educate, organize, and mobilize workers, oppressed &  youth in our movements and, at the same time, discuss with the supports of the Sander’s campaign as well as its detractors on the need to build an electoral socialist front where possible in 2016 and to start building the steps for a class independent  labor and oppressed party. We have had “Left” electoral successes and experiences in the past years, like the Kshama Sawant campaign and victory for Seattle City Council in 2014[23], and the effort of other  that have made big progress, like the Jorge Mujica Campaign done by the Chicago Socialist Campaign in 2015[24]  that show the potential and influence of using local elections to help spread socialist ideas and politics. These local, grassroots, and class independent electoral efforts have given workers and the oppressed a concrete alternative that is more attainable for the present and has a long-term perspective.
Specifically, Socialist Alternative’s (SALT) success with the Sawant campaign and her time in office shows that it would be a good initiative to spread these nationally, like SALT called for back in 2014, & to build for many local/state Sawant campaigns in 2016 and in the future. Sawants victory did not happen overnight, it took SALT building and running campaigns for years before (2012,2013) for the campaign to lay its roots and to build for the foundation of their victory in 2014[25]. Instead of delaying this plan to the unknown future, it is in the best interests of socialists, workers and oppressed everywhere to make this a reality in the cities and states where it tactically makes most sense. In this regard, SALT’s proposal in 2014 of forming “coalitions throughout the country with the potential to come together on a national level to run 100 independent working-class candidates in the 2014 midterm elections[26]” would have a been a good one in 2016. Unfortunately, SALT instead chose to support and outreach for the Sanders campaign[27]. This is a huge betrayal of the independent politics they presented with the Sawant campaign and a lost opportunity to dispute the idea of progressivism and political change inside the Democratic Party with the most well-known socialist in the country today.
A socialist electoral front could not only bring together the strength of various socialist organizations and their supporters, but it could also contribute to sink their roots in the important sites of workers and oppressed struggles in order to mobilize and use the electoral mediums to spread our ideas and build influence and organizational power. As socialists, elections should be used to spread our ideas and solutions, but also to use the podium and limelight to mobilize our class in the struggles they’re involved in their unions, workplaces, schools and communities. Fighting for democratic, class independent, and fighting unions and workers’ organizations, for a public education movement of students, teachers and all education workers, for social movements and organizations that fight for the liberation of Blacks, Latin@s, immigrants, women, LGBTQ and other oppressed should be center of these campaigns. The socialist politics and project they build will make them stand out and build a foundation of the class independent workers party we need to be able to compete with the ruling class’s twin parties, not only electorally but even more importantly in the sites of everyday struggles.
[8] “From 7,500 in Burlington, Vermont, to 300 in Birmingham, Alabama. – See more at:
[11] The Employee Free Choice Act  would have allowed the formation of many un new unions by recognizing new bargaining unions if the majority of workers in a workplace sign a union card.
For the past 7 years of the Obama administration -just like before- the labor leadership has been very weak in fighting, if not complicit in, the DP and RP led policies that have cut workers gains like pensions, health care, the right to strike, the right to unionization. Union leaderships are right to fear that the Supreme Court, with the backing of the majority of the DP and RP,  will take on a case on ‘fair share’ union fees in the coming year#. They will need to educate, organize & mobilize their memberships and community members in mass numbers in order to stop this and support the cause of labor.
[13]Further, “he’s a vocal opponent of the Trans-Pacific Partnership, another cross-country corporate deal that will hurt workers here and abroad, like NAFTA did in the 1990s, but that does not make of him an enemy of neoliberal policies.
NCLB has led to the disenfranchisement, defunding and privatization of k-12th public education, and once again, it is the inner city black and Latin@ schools and its students which faced the brunt of the attacks.
[18] Ibid

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