Who are the Bernie Sanders supporters? Where are they coming from and where are they headed? And what should the role of socialists be in this phenomenon?
I went to the DNC in Philadelphia to try to get a better grip on these questions.
We have to distinguish between the protesters on the outside (which were almost unanimously pro-Sanders) and the Sanders delegates, who tended to be a bit older and more established in life. One main reason, I suspect, is economics: All the expenses of the delegates are borne by the individual delegates themselves, unless they can get donations from somebody. Expenses include travel, hotel room (delegates must stay at the hotel assigned to their delegation) and all sorts of other required expenses such as paying for the required breakfasts, required bus to take them to the convention, etc. Obviously, this means that a single mother or a broke student or ex-student cannot be a delegate. For some of these delegates, this was their first time being involved in an election campaign. For others, they’d had long experience in such campaigns. This included one Sanders delegate I talked with who made his living working on such campaigns, starting with the John Kerry presidential campaign of 2004. (He tried to recruit me to get involved in the Democratic Party at the local level here in Oakland.)
I spoke with a lot of “Berners”, as one Sanders DNC delegate called them, who were on the outside. Most of them were relatively young (surprise!), but they came from a diversity of political backgrounds. Some had been deeply involved in Democratic Party politics for years. Here is a partial list of “Berners” I talked with:
- A young woman who had been involved in campaigning for various Democratic candidates for the last 13 years, but she didn’t plan to continue with this. She also said
that she would have quit sooner were it not for Sanders’ campaign.
- A 30s something woman who had also campaigned for other Democrats. She said she was done with the Democratic Party, that she supported a “3rd party”, but that she would support other Democrats “on a case-by-case basis.”
- A woman in her early 20s who was brand new to political activism of any sort and who agreed with the need for a workers’ party, but who also wasn’t totally clear on the concept.
- A 30s something woman from Chicago who also agreed on the need for an alternative to the Democrats but at the same time hopes the liberal Democrat Chuy Garcia will be able to replace the machine Democratic Chicago mayor, Rahm Emmanuel.
- A 30s something socialist supporter of Sanders who also was a member of Socialist Alternative. He believed that Sanders’ campaign was “unique… an exceptional instance that’s likely to never happen again.”
- A group from “foreclosurebusters.org” from New York. In response to my question about the need for a workers’ party, one of them said that “the two party system is broken” but that “we’re not ready” for the “real democracy” of a party built “from the grass roots up.”
- A group of Haitians protesting against Hillary and Bill Clinton’s role in Haiti. The person I talked with agreed with the need for a workers’ party but was not optimistic about the prospects.
- A 20 year old with a sign “Socialists 4 Justice”, who also both supported Sanders and said he agrees with the need for a workers’ party.
- A middle age, middle class liberal who argued that change comes “incrementally” and slowly.
As you can see, there was a huge diversity in the backgrounds of these “Berners”, including whether or not Sanders had brought them into political activity, and specifically into Democratic Party activity.
I also managed to speak with a few Clinton supporters. They were:
- A middle age woman delegate from California who was an official in the SEIU. She
totally defended everything about Clinton and was very excited about the “first woman president,” was unwilling to consider either the role of Margaret Thatcher in Britain or the Clintons’ role in Haiti. She adamantly denied that the union leadership is not really fighting for its members on the job.
- A middle age woman who was completely unfamiliar with the role of the Clintons in Haiti and basically tried to bore me to death.
- A middle age couple, from New York, who were “guests” to the convention. (I was told that most of these official “guests” were the big money donors.) They got a bit agitated when I asked them about Hillary’s role in Haiti, accused me of having “an agenda” (which is true) and stomped off.
In general, I didn’t get the impression that the Berners felt that Sanders had betrayed them by supporting Clinton, although the overwhelming mood was to support Jill Stein of the Green Party. One woman, in fact, said that Sanders had only done so because “he had to,” or else he’d have had his credentials removed.
Despite Sanders’ repeated statements that this is not just about one candidate, that was precisely the mood there — “feelin’ the Bern” as some signs put it. This focus on the individual was inevitable since most “Berners” weren’t committed to building “Bernie’s” party – the Democratic Party, nor did he put much emphasis on that issue.
And once “the Bern” was out, there was a tendency for this mood to be transferred to Jill Stein. “Jill not Hill” was the chant. There was some talk about the Green Party, but that wasn’t the focus; the individual candidate was the overwhelming focus, to the extent that even some of the “Berners” I talked with agreed that it approached hero worship or a personality cult.
I didn’t have a chance to watch any of the speeches (too busy and too tired), but I did get some insights into the workings of the convention through talking with a few of the Sanders delegates. One delegate said it was one giant “infomercial”, with the delegates under complete control from when they got up in the morning and had to sit through a breakfast that they’d already paid for (mandatory) and listen to various speakers lay down the line. It also costs a minimum of several thousand dollars for a delegate to attend, and I was told that the costs had increased several times over since the 2012 convention. Whether intentional or not (probably intentional, in my opinion), this would have served to keep away many of the younger, more radical of the “Berners”.
An example of how the convention was handled was this: Some Sanders delegate had several thousand old little balloon-type inflatables left over from the 2012 Obama campaign. He painted “No TPP” on them and mailed around several hundred to every state. The plan was to hold them up when Obama spoke. On that day, the convention security confiscated every one of them when the delegates entered the hall. In at least one case, they actually called the cops to enforce their edict!
The walkout on Tuesday, when Sanders officially endorsed Clinton, had been planned well in advance. These delegates went to the media center, where they were locked in and had to negotiate their release with the Philadelphia cops!
One delegate reported to me that the general mood in the convention among the Clinton supporters was like something she’d seen in the Republican nomination, with the immense hostility from the Clinton supporters, who tried to drown out the Sanders supporters with chants of “USA! USA!”.
The Sanders Campaign – some details
The Sanders delegates were getting regular tweets and text messages from on high. However, there was no means of them communicating amongst themselves, except on a person-by-person basis. And there was the constant threat to yank the delegate’s credentials. One delegate I talked with was quite sure that if any delegate had stepped forward and actually tried to organize anything apart from what the Sanders leadership approved of, they would have lost their credentials.
I was also told that the text of Clinton’s acceptance speech was distributed to the Sanders delegates in advance and that they were negotiating with the Clinton campaign about that speech from eleven in the morning until seven at night. The “Berners” had seven points they wanted added or changed; they got five of them. For instance, Clinton was originally going to call for a $12/hour minimum wage, but they got her to agree to fifteen. The also wanted her to “apologize” for the way they’d been treated by the Democratic National Committee. They did not get that.
The Sanders campaign has set up what appears to be a non-profit called “Our Revolution.” It is revealing to compare it to “Momentum,” which was set up by the British Labour Party’s new, left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn. “Momentum” is an open organization, with rank and file local meetings and branches. One Momentum member tells me that with a week’s planning they can get several hundred to a meeting. On the other hand, everything about “Our Revolution” is controlled from the top – from the message that’s sent out to its general focus, which appears to be to advise and help (including financially) local liberal candidates run for office. Some of these might be “independent” vs. “Democrat”, but let’s not forget that Sanders has run as an “independent” before he even got to Washington, and for all that time, he functioned in the real world as a Democrat, continues to function as one despite the fact that he is now reportedly reregistering as an independent.
Role of Socialists
The most prominent socialist in the US – Seattle city council member Kshama Sawant along with her group, Socialist Alternative – supported Sanders. This is contrary to the classic view of revolutionary socialism – that the workers’ movement has to stand on its own two feet, independent of all wings of the corporate (that is, capitalist) politicians, and that in the US the most important step is to start down the road of building a working class political party, which can’t be done while supporting a liberal Democrat like Sanders. While all my criticisms of Sanders were, I believe, on track and fairly concrete, I think my experience in Philadelphia went a long way towards putting some flesh on the bones (as did Sanders capitulation, which I predicted – to the extent of predicting more or less what he’d say.
The main problem is the lack of clarity on the question of class struggle – the fact that there is an irresolvable conflict of interest between those who work for wages for a living (the working class) and those who live off those who work for wages (the capitalist class), and that while the latter – the capitalist class – has two major political parties, the working class needs a party of its own, which the Democratic Party can never be. The conflict comes in when you support these liberal Democrats, as Sawant did. How can you support any Democrats on one hand (which she also has done in effect at the local level in Seattle), and clarify this point about class conflict and the need for a workers’ party on the other?
I listened closely to Sawant speak at one rally in Philadelphia. She hinted at the class struggle, just as Sanders has done. She denounced “the Democratic Party establishment”, but not the party as a whole. (She made that distinction in Seattle when defending one of the Democratic liberals there.) She hinted at the idea of the working class when she talked about “ordinary people”, but never clarified it. And she hinted at the need for a party based on the working class, when she talked about the need for a party “of the 99%”. Here are some quotes from her speech: “people all across this great country are looking for an alternative to these two establishment parties…. We need to build a left… We need an independent party for the 99%… We have to build a left right here and right now… (We need an) independent party for the 99% right now in an election year….”
As I said, I didn’t encounter any support whatsoever, not the slightest, for the idea that Sanders should have run as an independent. That was because the call was simply seen as a tactical question. What needed a clearer explanation was the class issues at the core of it — who the working class is, who Corporate America or the capitalist class is, what is the basis of the Democratic Party, and why the working class can never control that party and needs its own party. And that couldn’t be clearly explained, including in popular but clear language, if you turn around and then support a representative of the Democratic Party, no matter how liberal he or she might be. Admittedly, it makes things a little more complicated if you don’t support Sanders, but I didn’t find anybody who cut themselves off from me once they heard that I didn’t support him.
Oaklandsocialist speaking before a small crowd in Philadelphia. You’ll notice that the speech didn’t get the loud cheers, but some people seemed to be listening and thinking; and several people came up to speak with me afterwards.
The socialist support for Sanders also led to a mistaken method in evaluating his candidacy. As one member of Socialist Alternative told me, “Sanders was unique…. this is an exceptional instance that likely will never happen again.” In another forum, another member of the same group expressed a similar approach when he said that he didn’t care about the history of similar candidates in the past. But we have to learn from the past. There is a long history of candidates like Sanders – Gene McCarthy (1968), George McGovern (1972), Jesse Jackson (1984 and ’88) and Dennis Kucinich (2012). Some attracted as much excitement as did Sanders (McCarthy, McGovern, Jackson the first time). And, contrary to what the S. Alt. member said, we almost certainly will be faced with similar candidates again in the future, especially if and when a movement for a working class party starts to get off the ground. That’s why it’s essential to learn from history as well as learn from mistakes.
The Next Step
The working class in this country cannot even start to resolve its problems, it cannot even start to stamp its will on society, without its own organization. The unions can do so, but only in a very limited way. That’s because the unions necessarily focus on the work place – not entirely but that’s the main focus – and also because the majority of workers can never even join a union. No, workers need a wider organization that they can fight through – whether it be around the issue of racist police murders, the environment, or student issues. Such an organization can only be a political party – not one that simply wakes up every two years to run candidates for office, but one that helps workers organize to fight in the streets and work places and communities for their interests day-in and day-out.
How can such a party get started?
Right now, there is a mood among many Sanders supporters to support Jill Stein of the Green Party. Maybe that mood will lead to thousands of these “Berners” sweeping into the Green Party and transforming it into a working class political party that actually fights capitalism.
Or maybe the movement in the streets against racist police murders will start to run local candidates of their own – separate from and opposed to the Republican/Democrat paradigm. If they do this, they will also have to broaden out and take on other issues. These different local campaigns could then start to come together to form a wider body which could lead to becoming a working class political party.
We also have to be very conscious of the situation within the unions. There, the vast bulk of the membership is alienated from a union leadership that is absolutely dedicated to the proposition that there is a harmony of interests between the unionized employers and the members. The result is selling rotten contracts and refusing to fight for the members on a day-to-day basis. At the same time that these union leaders are the voice of the employers inside the unions, they are also the voice of the Democratic Party. And given the alienation of the membership, the union leaders tend to dominate the structures of the union, including controlling the local meetings. That is why any new movement cannot rely on simply going to local union meetings; it should go directly to the workers at their work places. Of course, this will incur the wrath of the union leadership, who will attack the movement for meddling with the internal affairs of the union, but so be it.
It’s unclear how the movement will develop, but the general rejection of the Democrats is an important first step. Election campaigns cannot replace the movement in the streets, work places and in the unions, but they can help clarify a program – what we are fighting for.
- It seems to make sense for those who are working in the Green Party to struggle to build this party as a socialist and working class party and as one that participates in and helps build the movements.
- For those who are active in different protest movements – from opposition to fracking to opposition to racism and police violence, to whatever – it would make sense to start to more systematically link up these different movements with a view towards running independent local candidates who are explicitly opposed to both the Republicans and the Democrats. And at some point in the future, these local campaigns could start to link up to form a broader network which can become a mass workers party.
- In any campaign, if it starts to get off the ground the union leadership will try to intervene, either directly or through their left representatives or both. But they will do so in order to try to keep the movement within the bounds of what’s acceptable to the liberal Democrats and to prevent the radicalism from affecting their members. That’s why where the unions exist, they cannot be ignored, but the movement should go directly to the work places to talk with and try to involve the workers themselves.
Throughout this entire process, it is the task of socialists to both learn from the history – both more recent (Sanders) and earlier (including the other candidates mentioned above) and to watch and participate in the movement as it develops, both to learn from the movement and to try to apply the lessons of the past.