Bernie Sanders and the Democratic Party shell game

Feb. 2020 Sanders


Joe Biden placed his hopes on seizing a commanding lead in the 14-state Super Tuesday Democratic Party primary contest. The results indicate a a big day, with the former VP taking Massachusetts, Minnesota, North Carolina, Virginia, Alabama, Texas, and Oklahoma. Bernie Sanders won the top prize of California, as well as his home state of Vermont, Utah, and Colorado. About one-third of all Democratic delegates are at stake in this primary.

Super Tuesday results indicate that Biden is attracting older Black voters while Sanders has a lock on the youth vote. Bloomberg, despite spending hundreds of millions, managed to win only a few delegates. On Wednesday morning, Bloomberg suspended his campaign and endorsed Biden, further tightening the vise on Sanders.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders surged as the leading Democratic Party candidate after the Nevada primary. Party leaders have frantically searched for a candidate to counter him. Sanders won the popular vote in Iowa although South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg narrowly edged him for delegates, 13-12. In New Hampshire, Sanders won with 26% of the vote, followed closely by two centrists, Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar. Sanders surprised the media and the party establishment with a win in Nevada, gaining almost 47% of the vote. Latinx voters and rank-and-file casino workers played a decisive role in the Sanders win. 

Biden, the anointed establishment candidate, won in South Carolina with 48.4 % of the vote, which was hailed in the media as decisive and impressive. The Democrats continue to push the former vice president as an alternative to Sanders. Buttigieg’s gains in early voting and Klobuchar’s rise above Warren in New Hampshire surprised many analysts, but their poor performance in South Carolina was a factor in their decisions to drop out and endorse Biden. Clearly, the DNC and Wall Street pushed for so-called centrists to close ranks against Sanders.

Former New York City Mayor Bloomberg has spent more than $450 million so far to buy the nomination. The Democratic National Committee (DNC), which is desperate for a centrist alternative to Sanders, changed the rules in the middle of the game to allow Bloomberg into the Nevada debates. Fear of Sanders’ reformism has clearly struck terror into the hearts of the DNC, which depends on Wall Street cash to fund itself and party activities.

During the Nevada Democratic debate, Bloomberg dismissed Sanders’ positions as “communism.” The Sanders win in Nevada sparked a frenzy of panicked reactions in the pro-capitalist media. MSNBC host Chris Matthews compared Sanders’ victory to the Nazi invasion of France during World War II only days after saying that following a “Red” victory in the Cold War “there would have been executions in Central Park, and I might have been one of the ones getting executed.” Matthews issued a tepid apology after a backlash against his statement on the invasion of France.

NBC commentator Chuck Todd compared Sanders supporters to Nazi brownshirts earlier in February, sparking calls for his resignation. Sanders’ statement on the successful literacy campaign following the Cuban Revolution sparked another round of McCarthy-style denunciations both inside and outside of the Democratic Party, even though Obama had expressed similar opinions several years ago. Wall Street investors expressed fear that a Sanders presidency would destroy the economy.

Like Trump, Sanders appeals to a layer of the electorate that is disaffected and angry at their continued economic misfortunes. Income inequality has persisted and grown worse. Massive student debt acts as a brake on the social mobility of young people. Stagnant wages and higher housing costs have pushed some working people into homelessness, and gentrification has meant the displacement of whole neighborhoods.

Yet Democratic Party regulars seem mystified that Sanders appeals to a broad spectrum of Democratic voters. They have convinced themselves that only a “centrist” or moderate can challenge Trump. It’s clear that the Democratic Party would rather sustain a defeat, and four more years of Trump, than the victory of a reformist candidate like Sanders.

What are Sanders’ real politics?

Despite his use of the “democratic socialist” label to describe his politics, it’s clear that Sanders’ politics are closer to New Deal liberalism, slightly repackaged and updated, than to any real challenge to the rule of capital.

At a public forum last year, he clarified his views: “What do I mean when I talk about democratic socialism? It certainly is not the authoritarian communism that existed in the Soviet Union and in other communist countries. This is what it means.

“It means that we cherish, among other things, our Bill of Rights. And Franklin Roosevelt made this point … in 1944, in a State of the Union Address that never got a whole lot of attention. This is what he said, basically—it was a very profound speech toward the end of World War II. He said: You know, we’ve got a great Constitution. Bill of Rights protects your freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of speech, and all that stuff. Great. But you know what it doesn’t protect? It doesn’t protect and guarantee you economic rights.”

The reality of Sanders’ whole career has been as a pragmatic “outsider” who just happens to be inside the Democratic Party in every way. He caucuses with Democrats, votes with them, is the standing chair of the Senate Democrats Outreach Committee, and is entirely dependent on their political apparatus. His choice to run in the Democratic Party primaries was not an accident, nor was it to bring “socialism” into the mainstream. He is a career politician who acts in the service of capital. Whatever moral connection he might feel to working people is negated by the fact that he is building a movement for their class enemy.

Sanders’ record on foreign policy is one of loyal support for the imperial project. He has voted to financially support every U.S. military adventure over the past 20 years. Sanders supported the development of the F-35 fighter jet—a $1.5 trillion handout to defense contractors.

At times, Sanders has opposed the war machine, speaking against death squads in Central America in the 1980s or voting against the first Gulf War, but these were exceptions. During the 1990s, Sanders supported sanctions against both Libya and Iraq and the bombing of Kosovo. An estimated one million Iraqis, half of them children, died under the brutal sanctions regime. Sanders voted in favor of the post-9/11 Authorization for Use of Military force and has been a consistent “yes” vote on funding for U.S. military adventurism in the Middle East.

Sanders has been a loyal supporter of Israel in Congress, voting for military aid and in favor of attacks on Lebanon and Gaza framed as self-defense. At times, Sanders has criticized Israeli human rights abuses against Palestinians, but his record of support for the apartheid state is clear. He has referred to the BDS movement as anti-Semitic. His response to the Trump “deal of the century” for Palestine was to call for a return to the “two-state solution” and international law.

In an interview on the TV show “60 Minutes,” Sanders discussed scenarios where he would use military force as president, saying, “We’ve got to make it clear to countries around the world that we will not sit by and allow invasions to take place.” He expressed support for NATO and said that he would respond to threats against the U.S. and its allies. Sanders promised to defend Taiwan against an attack from China.

Bloomberg’s record

The latest centrist challenge to Sanders, Michael Bloomberg, a former Republican and one of the wealthiest men in the world, displaced working-class residents by accelerating gentrification in the largest U.S. city. His police force expanded stop and frisk policies begun by Giuliani, which disproportionately targeted Black and Latinx youth. During his three terms in office, cops conducted more than 5 million such searches, seven times the rate under the Giuliani administration.

In 2013, Bloomberg said, “I think we disproportionately stop whites too much and minorities too little.” In defense of stop and frisk, he said, “If you look at where crime takes place, it’s in minority neighborhoods. If you look at who the victims and the perpetrators are, it’s virtually all minorities.” In the same interview he also asserted that Black and Latino men “don’t know how to behave in the workplace where they have to work collaboratively and collectively.”

While Bloomberg has offered half-hearted apologies for stop and frisk, he has gathered support from a layer of Black politicians, including members of the Congressional Black Caucus, former Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter (also a proponent of stop and frisk), and Houston Mayor Sylvester Turner.

During the Nevada debate, Warren came out swinging at Bloomberg’s record of sexual harassment and allegations of mistreatment of women, calling for Bloomberg to release women from their Non-Disclosure Agreements. In another incident last year, Bloomberg referred to trans people as “it” and a “some guy in a dress.”

A shell game

Since the election of Trump, the Democrats have mounted a half-hearted “resistance” that hands Trump what he wants. For all of the Democratic rhetoric that Trump is a threat to the republic and democracy, Democrats in Congress voted to renew the PATRIOT Act and gave Trump billions more in defense spending. Democratic protests about the assassination of the Iranian commander, Qasem Soleimani, were about process and not the legitimacy of imperialist intervention in the Middle East or the legality of murdering a foreign leader. Complaints from Congressional Democrats accepted the imperialist framework but expressed outrage that Trump didn’t play by the established rules.

Meanwhile, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other social programs are in danger. Environmental laws have been gutted and Trump’s climate denialism endangers future generations. The two-party shell game is a losing proposition for working people.

The Democratic Party is the oldest party in the United States. The party focused on maintaining the rule of Southern slaveholders in an uneasy coalition with the merchant capitalists of the North. The interests of the small farmers and workers in the cities who supported and formed the base of the party were subordinated to those of the major ruling classes.

Today, while the Republicans, Democrats and other ruling-class politicians can debate over how they should respond to the demands of their working-class constituents, they are fundamentally opposed to overturning the rule of capital and are opposed to worker’s democracy.

The political caste of both parties is corrupt and out of touch with the needs and concerns of working people. There is a deepening political crisis in the U.S., which is a symptom of the rot in U.S. society—an economic recovery that has only benefited the richest, persistent wealth inequality, homelessness, mass incarceration, and the growth of an energized far right. This political crisis will only deepen as the effects of the climate crisis grow more acute.

Would electing Sanders president usher in a new era of reforms and gains for working people? Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez pointed out that President Sanders would have to compromise on Medicare for All to get the measure through Congress. It’s unlikely that the Democratic Party elected officials would support any ambitious reforms. In Virginia, where the Democrats control both houses of the General Assembly and the governorship, they refused to repeal the state’s union-busting “right-to-work” law because corporate interests opposed repeal.

Even though the Democrats controlled Congress and the White House in the early years of the Obama administration, they failed to pass legislation making it easier to join a union or a higher minimum wage. The federal minimum wage continues to be $7.25 per hour. The Democrats are long on promises when they know nothing can be done and notably absent when the time comes to pass even the mildest of reforms.

A party of our own

Shouts of support for Sanders have been echoing through the left as a supposed alternative to “establishment” candidates represented by Biden and Bloomberg. In-fighting within the Democratic Party establishment is being used to justify support for Sanders.

Activists are sacrificing the independence of social movements for a chance to have “their guy” at the table of capitalist politics. Ostensible revolutionaries in Solidarity, Socialist Alternative, and the Party for Socialism and Liberation have thrown support behind Sanders.

Some former members and leaders of the now defunct International Socialist Organization (ISO) have crossed the class line to support Sanders. As an organization, the ISO had opposed support for Democrats, but this support for political independence collapsed rapidly under pressure of the reformist Sanders campaign. The ISO did, however, support the multi-class Green Party’s presidential campaigns. Other former leaders and members of the ISO, organized in the Revolutionary Socialist Network and various independent collectives, have refused to take this opportunist course.

Socialist Resurgence understands the strong desire for change that drives many people to support the Sanders campaign, but we argue that neither Sanders nor the Democratic Party can be the vehicle to achieve the fundamental social changes necessary for workers and the oppressed. We would argue instead for independent working-class and socialist campaigns. We can’t look away or make excuses for Sanders’ support for imperialist interventions and for Israel’s oppression of the Palestinian people.

The Democratic Party has been impervious to reformist progressive or social democratic efforts to reform its structures. The Democrats are institutionally tied to capitalist interests but have displayed the ability to co-opt the middle-class leaderships of social movements and the labor bureaucracy. The presence of these sorts of movement “leaders” within the Democratic Party is calculated to short circuit reform efforts and to assimilate workers and oppressed peoples as passive voters. The prospect of a “brokered” convention that would rob Sanders of the nomination is very real—much like the 2016 sabotage of Sanders’ nomination by the DNC. If Sanders loses the primary contest, he will undoubtedly support the eventual nominee—just like he did in 2016.

The example of the McGovern campaign in 1972 illustrates the futility of trying to “capture” the Democrats by progressives. The insurgent and moderately “antiwar” McGovern campaign was cut off by the labor movement and party institutions, going down in one of the most lopsided defeats in U.S. history. The McGovernites managed to make some democratic reforms in party structures and processes, but these were soon reversed by the neoliberal Clintonite “New Democrats.”

The Democratic leadership is intent on stopping a Sanders nomination by every means at their disposal. The New York Times reported (Feb. 27, 2020): “Dozens of interviews with Democratic establishment leaders this week show that they are not just worried about Mr. Sanders’s candidacy, but are also willing to risk intraparty damage to stop his nomination at the national convention in July if they get the chance. Since Mr. Sanders’s victory in Nevada’s caucuses on Saturday, The Times has interviewed 93 party officials—all of them super-delegates, who could have a say on the nominee at the convention—and found overwhelming opposition to handing the Vermont senator the nomination if he arrived with the most delegates but fell short of a majority.”

Revolutionary socialists understand that there is no electoral road to socialism. We don’t reject participation in elections, but we have no illusions that elections, especially under the banner of a capitalist party, can achieve the radical and thoroughgoing changes necessary. The Climate Crisis, income inequality, racism and oppression, and labor rights can’t be permanently solved under capitalism. The Democrats are a party of imperialist war and capitalist austerity. Attempts to realign the party or use the Democrats’ ballot line are doomed to fail and will only continue to subordinate the interests of working people to a party of the capitalist class.

What is necessary is a mass struggle for the democratic ownership and control of the economy and society by the working class and its allies. No gains won by working people have ever been freely given. Even the most modest reforms must be won through independent mass struggles. Revolutionaries support reform struggles but insist on the need to go beyond mere reforms:

“The essence of Marxist strategy, of any revolutionary strategy in our time, is to combine the struggle for reforms with the struggle for revolution. This is the only way in which to build a revolutionary party capable of providing reliable leadership to the masses and of enabling them in revolutionary situations to make the transition, in consciousness and in action, from the struggle for reforms to the struggle for power and revolution” (George Breitman, “Is It Wrong For Revolutionaries To Fight For Reforms?”).

What can be done now?

In 2018, Socialist Resurgence members in Connecticut, then part of Socialist Action, ran antiwar veteran and climate activist Fred Linck for U.S. Senate. Ultimately, Linck was not put on the ballot due to the machinations of the Democrats, despite having gathered more than 11,000 signatures. Campaign supporters spoke to thousands of people about the campaign and its platform.

Similarly, the 2019 independent socialist campaign of Ellie Hamrick for city council in Athens, Ohio, relayed a popular message without watering down its revolutionary program. Almost 600 people voted for Hamrick, who called for rent control, police abolition, workers’ rights, and decriminalized solutions to the opioid crisis. In the process, Hamrick’s campaign exposed landlord ties to the Democratic Party.

Socialist organizations, community organizations, and labor activists could immediately take steps to organize labor-community councils around a fighting program to address the climate, housing, and income inequality crises. These councils could build active workplace Labor Party clubs as well.

Councils could run candidates for Congress on a common program and put pressure on the unions to convene a Congress of Labor to include all workers’ organizations and organizations of the oppressed. Such a Congress would elaborate a program to address the coming climate catastrophe, police brutality, jobs, health care, mass incarceration, and imperialist wars overseas. This gathering could also immediately break with the Democrats and build a mass Labor Party.

An independent working-class party must be built as a clear alternative to the Democrats. This means a combined fight for a Labor or workers’ party, for a class-struggle leadership in the unions, and the building of a revolutionary organization rooted in the working class and organizations of the oppressed. A working-class party would not simply be an electoral apparatus but would fight daily in workplaces, schools, and neighborhoods for the interests of the oppressed and exploited.


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