Sanders 2016 rally in Grand Prairie, TX | Photo by Steve Rainwater
Without the electoral revolt on the left inspired by Bernie Sanders in 2016 and carried forward by Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, among others, the socialist movement in the United States would likely be stuck in the same rut it has been in for decades. More than a decade of mobilization and rising class consciousness have laid the groundwork for the renewal of left-wing politics, but Sanders’s campaign was the key spark.
As he gears up for another run in 2020, many in the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and those who are following our work expect us to jump all in to this new campaign.
But not everyone agrees. People in DSA who oppose our organized participation in a Bernie 2020 campaign raise three main objections. First, they argue that Bernie’s campaign would be insufficiently socialist and would not move the left forward. Second, they claim that Bernie’s run would actually strengthen the Democratic Party and undermine the potential for independent socialist politics. And third, they contend that DSA can not make a meaningful contribution to such a campaign.
While we respect the contributions of all our comrades to the debate on Bernie, we think that all of their objections can be answered. We’ll take up each in turn, both to rebut them and to lay out what we think is the positive case for a Bernie 2020 campaign. In our view, a Sanders campaign would present the best available means in the short term to raise class consciousness, further develop the socialist movement, intensify the necessary conflict between the leadership and base of the Democratic Party, and build DSA.
Does Bernie Advance Socialist Politics?
If critics of a Sanders 2020 campaign are right that Sanders’s platform fails to build support for democratic socialist demands, then all other challenges to such a campaign don’t need to be addressed. Socialists can’t support a candidate who doesn’t in some way advance socialist politics.
Advancing socialist politics today, at a time when our views are still marginal (although they’re finally getting a hearing), primarily means building the class consciousness of millions of people.
That’s not because the vision of a better society we want is unpopular. The vast majority of people in the United States today would like to bring people out of poverty, drastically reduce inequality, protect the rights of immigrants, end mass incarceration, guarantee universal health care, protect the environment, and curb the power of bosses. These goals are wildly popular. They do not by any means comprise the whole of the socialist vision of a better world of course, but they are a critical part of it.
The problem lies elsewhere.
First, the solutions socialists know are needed to achieve these goals are still controversial and often poorly understood. They all involve attacking the power of the capitalist class head on, and unless people are prepared to resist the enormous counteroffensive from the rich and powerful when we come for their privileges, there won’t be the popular support or mass mobilizations necessary to win.
And second, many people remain highly skeptical that anything can be done about the rotten situation we find ourselves in. They might even have class consciousness in the sense that they know who the enemy is — the bankers, the rich, the landlords, the bosses — but they are resigned to the situation as it is. A critical component of class consciousness is knowing that the working class has power — if we organize. We have to bring that dimension of class consciousness to working-class neighborhoods all over the country.
Advancing socialist politics in our period depends on tackling these two problems. Can we build real support for redistributive policies, so that people know that it’s the power of the capitalist class we have to confront to build the better society we all want? And can we inspire millions of people to move from resignation to action?
This is why the Sanders campaign was so important in 2016, and why it will be again in 2020 if he runs.
As DSA we have the numbers and resources to make a small impact in raising class consciousness on our own. DSA’s Medicare for All campaign does a fantastic job of popularizing a deeper understanding of what Medicare for All is all about through its “five principles.” Our candidates like Julia Salazar in Brooklyn, Jovanka Beckles in the Bay Area, and Kristin Seale in Philadelphia help us reach thousands of people. And DSA union members bring our socialist politics and our vision of a left-wing, militant, and democratic labor movement to workplaces across the country.
But we’re still far too small, even with allied organizations, to make the qualitative transformation in class consciousness needed today. Setting aside a debate that raged on Twitter a few months back about whether or not Lenin would support Bernie today (he would), Lenin was right when he said: “where there are not thousands, but millions, that is where serious politics begin.”
The best electoral hope we have right now to raise the class consciousness of millions of people is once more through a Bernie Sanders presidential campaign. His platform of ending austerity, passing Medicare for All, raising the minimum wage, expanding Social Security, and making public colleges tuition free will speak to the needs of working-class people. His plans to tackle mass incarceration, end cash bail, protect immigrants regardless of their status, and combat climate change speak to and help frame the growing movements to end state repression and the trashing of the environment.
His campaign will popularize this platform while expanding people’s understanding of what it will take to win it. Sanders constantly identifies the capitalist class (which he usually refers to as “the millionaires and billionaires”) as the negative force in society, and he consistently and directly says that he would tax them more to pay for the new social benefits he proposes. He also ties winning these redistributive programs to slashing the defense budget and ending US military interventions.
And his campaign can inspire thousands of activists to take their own initiatives. As the teachers strikes this year in several conservative states demonstrated, many working people were inspired in part by Bernie’s 2016 run to start to organize themselves. Bernie’s campaign played a major role in catalyzing a new round of working-class militancy.
Of course Sanders’s platform is primarily about immediate demands. As socialists we know that it will take more than reforms to change the underlying problems facing society today. Ultimately, the existence of a capitalist class is antithetical to an egalitarian and democratic order, so securing the better society we all want will require abolishing the power of that class entirely. And that will take winning far more ambitious structural reforms, eventually including nationalizing the big banks and the major corporations, putting workplaces under the democratic control of workers rather than bosses, and replacing our antiquated constitution and system of government.
Those aren’t the kind of demands you’ll find in Sanders’s political revolution.
But there is a good reason for that. A precondition for fighting on such an ambitious platform is building a much higher level of class consciousness. And it’s towards that goal that Sanders is moving us, regardless of whether or not he shares our longer term perspective that it’s necessary to break with capitalism.
What matters in a period like ours, when we can’t reasonably expect the socialist movement to take state power, is moving people from resignation into action around the issues they care about right now. In the process, we need to raise awareness that even winning immediate demands like Medicare for All will take a confrontation with the capitalist class. When millions share that common understanding, then opportunities for deeper and more radical challenges to the system will become possible — particularly if there is a strong socialist left contesting elections and organizing in unions and mass movements.
But as a Democrat?
While some find the critical flaw with a Sanders campaign in his platform, others find it in the way in which he’ll likely enter the race. If Bernie runs in 2020, it will without a doubt be in the Democratic primary. So while some would be willing to concede that Sanders’s platform does in fact advance the socialist project, they argue that the way in which he would run makes it impossible for principled socialists to campaign for him.
This criticism has a better grasp on the process that Sanders has unleashed, though it still lacks a clear understanding of the opportunities it presents.
Let’s start with the question of what ballot line Bernie should run on. We believe that Bernie would be 100% right in the current moment to pursue a presidential campaign through the Democratic Party.
Though we are not advocates for a strategy of lesser-evilism, the fact remains that such a path avoids the pitfalls of being seen as a spoiler in presidential elections which historically has marginalized left-wing challenges. But it also means that Bernie can take his challenge directly to the neoliberal leadership of the Democratic Party and present the country with a choice of how to fight the right-wing politics of Donald Trump. And it means that Bernie can push that challenge starting in the spring of 2019 — when he and other contenders will likely announce — through the summer of 2020 when the Democratic National Convention is held. Of course we’d prefer to have our own independent working-class party capable of contesting presidential elections — and we aspire to build one in the future — but given the conditions we find ourselves in, running in the Democratic primary is the best way Bernie can advance class politics in 2019 and 2020.
But the deeper question about the effects that running on the Democratic ballot line have on class consciousness and the potential for independent politics in the future is more serious.
A whole generation of “Berniecrats,” inspired and supported by Bernie Sanders and Our Revolution, have emerged in the last two years to run in primaries against corporate Democrats. These candidates often invoke a version of the mantra of Paul Wellstone, a Senator from Minnesota in the 1990s: “I represent the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” Positions like that can end up bolstering the myth that the Democratic Party is (or could become) a progressive and left-wing party.
From the perspective of building class consciousness this approach is a mistake. It obscures the reality that the leadership of the party has since the 1940s principally been dominated by the liberal wing of the capitalist class (and, for a time, the white supremacist landlords of the Jim Crow South). This group includes internationally-oriented bankers, tech millionaires, urban real estate developers and landlords, and media moguls. The party serves these interests and then tries every two years to drag working-class people out to vote for it with vague promises of concessions — and more and more frequently, invocations of the apocalypse that awaits us if Republicans win.
While Berniecrats partly help refurbish the image of the Democratic Party among voters, Bernie has also breathed new life among activists into hopes for a realignment of the party’s institutions. Sanders has never “formally” registered as a Democrat. But despite a long and principled career as an independent, in recent years he’s been more inclined to engage in intra-party power conflicts, including supporting Keith Ellison’s ill-conceived bid to become chair of the Democratic National Committee.
These kinds of challenges are ill-conceived because they rest on a mistaken analysis of the structure of the Democratic Party. Unlike democratic membership parties in Europe — think of the Labour Party in the UK for example — where members have opportunities to shape the direction and choose the leadership, the really-existing Democratic Party is a complicated and anti-democratic network of organizations, donor alliances, and campaign committees that are unassailable by grassroots movements. The nominally small-d democratic party committees that exist at the local and state level (and find their highest expression in the DNC) are divested of almost all real power. Engaging in intraparty squabbles is not a strategic use of activists’ time. To the extent it does anything, it creates illusions about the progressive potential of the Democrats.
Despite our misgivings about the dalliances of Bernie and his band of Berniecrats with the Democratic Party leadership, that’s hardly been the most important effect of their challenge.
The transformation of consciousness described in the previous section is key. But even among the base of the Democratic Party, they are having a major effect. They have polarized the party between a dominant corporate wing and an insurgent progressive wing. There is now a real ideological struggle within the party between those advocating a continuation of Obama’s neoliberal politics and those supporting a new social democratic politics.
The danger of cooptation of movements and reabsorption of working-class people into the party is real. And yet the dramatic and rising levels of inequality and political unrest in the U.S. suggests that that’s not the inevitable resolution of this conflict in the near term. These objective conditions will likely keep the struggle between the two wings of the party a live one for the foreseeable future. And attempts to resuscitate the party’s reputation will almost certainly fail when the party’s real controllers — the liberal wing of the capitalist class — continues to win out in every meaningful policy struggle.
The dreams of realigning the Democratic Party will also come up against the party’s truly undemocratic structure. That confrontation has the potential to further radicalize a whole layer of activists inspired by Bernie’s political revolution. If socialists are right that the party won’t transform itself to meet the demands of these activists, then the question of how to organize outside of the party will be put even more forcefully on the agenda as time goes on. Even today, steps can and should be taken on a local level to run independent candidates against the Democrats. And if it turns out we’re wrong about this — if by some unprecedented development the Democratic Party is transformed into a real democratic membership organization — then we will be the ones who will have to reassess our theory of how politics works in order to adjust to a new reality.
We can’t predict the outcome of this struggle between the corporate and progressive wings. It may lead to defeat for the left and total reabsorption. Or a complicated compromise. Or to the beginning of a split between the leaders and the party’s working-class base. But if political strategy were about acting only when a favorable outcome is guaranteed, there wouldn’t be much of a need for political strategy. It’s precisely because the outcome is uncertain that socialists need to jump in and fight to bend the process in a direction favorable to the working class.
That will mean working alongside the hundreds of thousands of Bernie activists who will be part of a possible 2020 campaign as they talk to millions of working-class people. In the process we need to persuade everyone we can of the need for independent political organizations that confront head-on the neoliberal politics of the Democratic Party leadership. We need to point out the ways the party’s apparatus constantly frustrates, and will continue to undermine, the new class politics Bernie has inspired. But it’s only by contesting this process — by actively supporting candidates who align with our short-term goals while persuading people that the leadership of the Democratic Party is against us — that we can push the movement more firmly in the direction of independent politics.
Can DSA Make a Difference in the Campaign?
Still others will concede that Bernie’s campaign advances socialist politics and that running in the Democratic primary does not violate our political principles, but will question why DSA should bother to endorse and participate.
What they fail to see is that Bernie’s campaign will depend overwhelmingly on grassroots volunteers. And the extent to which Bernie’s campaign builds class consciousness and wins more people over to the need for independent politics also depends in part on the quality of the work done by socialists within the campaign. We shouldn’t underestimate our own importance in this sense.
As the largest left-wing membership organization in the country, DSA could potentially help coordinate and lead grassroots campaign operations, especially outside of Iowa and New Hampshire where most of the attention and campaign resources will be focused for the duration of 2019. Just as in 2016, Bernie will likely be able to draw on significant financial contributions from working and middle class people making small donations to his campaign. But the strength of left-wing politics will never lie mainly in our ability to raise and spend money. Bernie will need experienced and coordinated volunteers knocking on doors and holding rallies in every city, town, and country road. And there are few organizations like DSA at this point with the army of experienced grassroots organizers ready to put in the time to make this happen.
We also find ourselves in a unique and unfamiliar terrain. Since Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory, the national media cares about what our organization does and what our members think. Our actions are a litmus test for how the newly resurgent left is feeling. By coming out in support of Bernie, we send a clear message that the activist base of the left is united in the belief that defeating Trump is crucial, and that Bernie is the most viable vehicle to do that. Few people will think we’re looking to back Kamala Harris or Joe Biden instead. But a lack of support could be interpreted as a sign of weakness for Bernie, and allow centrist Democrats to further muddle the differences between his program and theirs.
Finally, we have an obligation to join the Bernie campaign in order to help shape the message. We can couple an active campaign for Bernie with political education events throughout the next two years. We’ll be the only organized group backing him that can provide the hundreds of thousands of volunteers with a real strategy that goes beyond the campaign and a strong grounding in democratic socialist politics. Image the impact DSA can have if, at a Bernie rally drawing tens of thousands of supporters, we’re able to have an impressive presence and recruit people to come to a follow up canvass or event that includes a stronger analysis of capitalism and socialist strategy.
We can also be a pole that resists the attempts by some Democratic Party activists, who will surely gravitate to the campaign, who will want Sanders to tone down his class struggle politics. While Bernie’s national profile and enormous popularity is the key reason his campaign will be so important in raising class consciousness, the presence of a strong and principled socialist pole is indispensable.
Building DSA Through a Sanders Campaign
DSA is not and never should be the kind of organization that exclusively thinks about politics in terms of what is good for us. Our primary task is much bigger: not to build our own capacity, but to help build the consciousness and capacity of the working class as a whole.
But to do that work effectively, we do have to spend some time thinking about how we can build DSA. We don’t want to make the opposite mistake — too common in the recent past — in which left-wing organizations allow themselves to fade into the background and don’t look out for their own health. Our ability to participate in shifting the balance of class forces towards working people depends on our continued growth (“politics starts in the millions…”).
Bernie is not a member of DSA, and he almost certainly never will be. But the first boom in DSA’s membership came directly out of Bernie’s primary campaign and the Democratic Party leadership’s utter failure to defeat Donald Trump. We know for a fact that our participation in major national political fights can be a boon for our organization. We gained almost 10,000 members and unprecedented legitimacy for our organization and our ideas just from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s victory. The more people hear about us, the more they like us.
A Bernie campaign in 2020 will present us with a similar opportunity to grow as we did in 2016, except we will be a much more well-known entity. As DSA members become lead volunteers in Bernie’s campaign, we would be in constant contact with both the activists and the voters most receptive to his message — the same people who are most likely to want to become involved in DSA. It is not unreasonable to think our membership could top 100,000 members as a result of participating in the campaign.
And the benefits of a Sanders campaign don’t stop at membership growth. To maximize our impact in the long term, we need to find a way to move thousands of new DSA members from passive supporters into active socialists. Bernie’s campaign is the perfect way to train these new members to become skilled organizers. There will be almost constant activity, meaning anyone can find a way to participate. The goals are clear and the stakes couldn’t be higher. Almost everyone in the country will be following the campaign and care about the issues being raised. And we risk losing these new members and the momentum we have gained if we abstain from the biggest political fight of the decade.
We Need to Plan Now
The number one lesson we should take away from 2016 is that relatively small organizations like ours must participate in the big movements and developments that dominate national politics. In 2020, just as in 2016, millions of working-class people will be presented with a choice between neoliberal Democrats, a right-wing incumbent, and a democratic socialist. They will ask of any organization that seeks to be a leader of the movements against right-wing and neoliberal politics: “which side are you on?”
We need to have an answer. The worst case scenario is that Bernie announces early in 2019, DSA has had no pre-discussion, and we either rush an endorsement or waste the first 6 months of his campaign embroiled in an internal debate about what to do. The first option would be undemocratic. The second would make us look weak to our enemies and confuse our potential allies.
DSA is the best hope the socialist left in the United States has had in decades for building a better future. And for those who remember politics before the rebirth of DSA — when debates about socialist strategy seemed trivial or abstract because we were marginal and nothing we did seemed to affect the broader world — the change in conditions is both exhilarating and dizzying. It is incredible that we now have the opportunity and responsibility to debate questions like our involvement in a presidential campaign, and to know that our choices will really matter.
Of course we can’t predict with certainty what will happen. We can’t even be sure Bernie is running — although all signs suggest he is. And we don’t know the new challenges that we’ll face in this coming campaign. It’s possible that candidates like Elizabeth Warren will jump in and chip into Bernie’s support, or that the corporate wing of the Democratic Party has tricks up their sleeve to cut the legs out from under a Sanders campaign.
But politics is about making wagers. And to make good wagers we have to prepare and plan for the most likely scenarios and then commit to a course of action when the time is right.
In the next few months, as the campaign rapidly approaches, every DSA member is going to have to think about where they stand. In our opinion, every member should consider three questions:
Will Bernie’s campaign build class consciousness and advance democratic socialist politics?
Will it drive further divisions in the Democratic Party, preparing the way for a bolder and more powerful independent socialist politics?
And can DSA make a meaningful impact on the campaign, in a way that makes the campaign an even more potent force for raising consciousness while also strengthening DSA?
We think the answer to all three questions is yes. And we hope every member will join the discussion about them and help DSA move more quickly towards formulating a strategy for engaging in the campaign. After all: foresight can be 2020.