By Jeff Booth, member of AFSCME Local 3650 and the Independent Socialist Group
“And so today I am announcing the suspension of active campaigning, and congratulate Joe Biden, a very decent man, on his victory” (Bernie Sanders, 4/8/2020).
Bernie Sanders suspended his campaign to be the Democratic Party candidate for President and less than a week later, he formally endorsed Joe Biden as the party nominee in the presidential election this November. This move comes as a huge economic and social crisis unfolds in the U.S. where the failures of capitalism are fully on display in the system’s lack of preparation and chaotic response to the COVID-19 virus.
Many enthusiastic followers of the Sanders campaign are surprised, outraged, and/or disappointed and saying so on social media. Some are claiming they are done with voting for the Democratic Party, while others are trying to justify possibly voting for Biden or considering turning their backs on electoral politics altogether.
Right after endorsing Biden, Sanders pledged to campaign vigorously for his former rival. Sanders also began lecturing his former supporters that it would be “irresponsible” not to vote for Biden.
Soon after Sanders endorsed Biden, Obama and Elisabeth Warren did the same. Warren went as far as to say she would accept an invitation to be Vice President for Biden if offered. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (AOC) said she was “‘absolutely’ supporting presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden…” (New York Post, Emily Jacobs, 4/15/2020), although a formal endorsement from AOC is still being negotiated.
Sanders, Warren, AOC, and other Democrats representing the “progressive” wing of the Democratic Party have fallen in line behind Biden, proving that the line between “progressive” and “establishment” Democrats is always shifting and often disappearing. The distance between these two “wings” has been exaggerated, either deliberately or out of ignorance, by many on the left. In reality, these two wings are part of the same party and will come together when they need to.
Despite the impact Sanders’ presidential campaigns made in 2016 and 2020, no public meetings or protests have been called to continue to build the “movement” Sanders claimed to build through his campaign. This is partially due to people being stuck at home, social distancing, caring for children, or suffering from COVID-19 related illness. Despite these circumstances, protests against the sudden shut down of the campaign—including appropriate social distancing measures—could still be orchestrated.
Previous supporters of Sanders now find their political energy and financial sacrifices being directed towards Biden’s campaign. The national press secretary from the Sanders campaign, who publicly refused to support Biden, was disowned by Sanders: “He seemed to distance himself from his campaign’s former national press secretary, Briahna Joy Gray, when asked about her recent statement on social media refusing to endorse Biden. ‘She is my former press secretary—not on the payroll,’ Sanders noted. A spokesman later clarified that all campaign staffers were no longer on the payroll as of Tuesday…” (Associated Press, Steve Peoples, 4/14/2020).
The frustrations and disappointment of tens of thousands of Sanders supporters are understandable. In his public speeches and rallies, Sanders tapped into rising anger about inequality and lower living standards with his relentless attacks on the “billionaire class.” He raised hopes and expectations for many working people and youth by agitating consistently for Medicare for All, cancellation of student debt, a Green New Deal, a $15 an hour minimum wage, taxing the rich, and many other progressive policies.
Sanders’ campaigns have occured in the context of a renewed interest in socialism by youth and others, including some who are more than ready for fundamental change. The progressive program of the Sanders campaigns, if won, would improve the lives of ordinary people. Our organization, the Independent Socialist Group (ISG) supports and actively organizes for many of the demands Sanders put forward.
However, ISG refused to support Sanders as long as he ran as a Democrat. We don’t see progressive demands being won through the Democratic Party. Progressive demands are won by the pressure of mass movements that force the hands of both corporate political parties, like the mass movements in the U.S. in the 1960s and 1970s.
Progressive demands can also be won by the independent politics of the working class through workers’ parties like labor parties or socialist parties kicking out the parties of big business in elections or winning enough votes to make a political impact. For example, just the formation of the Canadian New Democratic Party (NDP) in 1964 was instrumental in winning universal health care in Canada. In many industrialized countries around the world, mass movements combined with political parties of the working class, independent of big business, have achieved better social benefits than in the U.S.
In 2016 and 2020 we, socialists who would later form the ISG, called for Sanders to break with the Democratic Party, run as an independent, and become part of a mass movement to organize a new left political party for working people and youth. Each time that Sanders ran for President we argued, as we would with any progressive candidate, that running to win a progressive or left program as a Democrat would end in defeat within the Democratic Party.
We cannot rely on the parties and politicians of big business to truly fight for the interests of the working class. Workers in the U.S. need a political party of our own that can organize workers, youth, unions, and community organizations for mass campaigns to win what we need.
Limits of the Sanders Campaign
Sanders and others have called each of his campaigns for President a “movement.” In reality, his presidential campaigns never developed into more than a Democratic Party electoral campaign. His campaigns did not take the steps to initiate mass campaigns or organize protests for progressive demands like Medicare for All, free education at public universities, etc.
At times, Sanders even acknowledged it would take movements to achieve the kinds of demands he was promoting, but his main message was always to vote for him and other Democrats. In other words, Sanders said by words and deeds that the way forward for achieving significant improvements in living standards was through registering as a Democrat and voting for Democrats, including himself. His campaigns in 2016 and 2020 took all the interest and political energy around progressive ideas and tied them to his Democratic Party primary electoral campaigns; he is now attempting to point them towards Joe Biden.
For example, “Our Revolution,” an organization created by Sanders after the 2016 election said minutes after Sanders’ campaign suspension speech: “For nearly four years, Our Revolution has worked at the local and national levels to bring working-class and young people into the political process. Together, we are rebuilding the Democratic Party from the bottom up. Today, our work continues.”
Sanders, in discussing his role in the upcoming months given the current crisis, has described himself as part of the Democratic leadership, committed to electing Democrats “at every level of government.”
Sanders’ campaigns could never be separated from the Democratic Party itself. He has various institutional ties to the Democratic Party, including a history of voting with Democrats, accepting Democratic Party committee assignments in Congress, promising loyalty to the Democratic Party, embracing liberal ideology, and endorsing other Democratic Party candidates. He has supported and campaigned for Clinton in 2016, and now Biden in 2020.
For example, Sanders’ decision to suspend his campaign came after at least three separate phone meetings with Obama, who in 2008 inspired serious hopes among working class and black voters but ultimately bailed out the corporations, increased immigrant detention, and expanded multiple imperialist wars.
The Sanders and Biden campaigns spent the last three weeks before the suspension cooperating on a strategy to convince Sanders supporters that Biden would accept at least some progressive demands from Sanders’ campaign. After formerly pointing out, correctly, that Biden represents everything wrong with the Democrats, Sanders now supports him, saying of Biden, “we need you in the White House.”
And the progressive demands Biden is supposedly taking on board are few and watered down. For example, Biden has made it quite clear he will not support Medicare for All or any universal healthcare or national health service. After weeks of negotiations with the Sanders campaign, Biden claims he will “lower the age of Medicare eligibility from 65 to 60” and “forgive student debt for low-income and middle-class families who attended public colleges and some private institutions” (NPR, Asama Khalid, 4/10/2020).
It’s almost certain that these promises will be tossed aside if Biden wins, like Obama/Biden did with the Employee Free Choice Act and other campaign promises during their eight years in power.
The Democratic Party: Owned and Operated by Wall Street
Democratic Party politicians often talk about progressive issues but continue to support pro-capitalist policies and block progressive change when in power. Look at solid “blue” states and cities that are overwhelmingly controlled by the Democratic Party but still fail to implement policies like a $15 an hour minimum wage or pro-union legislation. For example, the Democratic governor of Virginia refuses to repeal the state’s anti-union “right-to-work” law. At the local level, a number of Democratic politicians are using the COVID-19 crisis to justify revoking union contracts.
Democrats like Clinton, Obama (and Obama’s Vice President, Joe Biden), and many others, as well as the Republicans, have forced through budget cuts, privatizations, and bailed out the big corporations while working people faced decades of stagnant wages, weakening unions, and a deadly lack of decent healthcare and housing.
There have been many populists who have tried to reform the Democratic Party to take a progressive, even “left” direction. For example, Jesse Jackson’s 1988 run for presidential nominee impressed Sanders, who endorsed the campaign. Jackson put forward a progressive program which was met with a lot of enthusiasm, particularly after two terms of the Trump-like Reagan. However, just as Sanders would do in 2016 and is doing now, Jackson lined up behind the Democratic Party nominee, Dukakis. Historically, the Democratic Party is not above using populist rhetoric or co-opting left-leaning politicians or parties into its electoral machine.
Sanders is keeping his name on the ballot for the remaining primaries, claiming he can use any additional delegates he might win to influence the Democratic Party platform at the upcoming National Convention. This is a mistaken approach. Democratic Party national conventions are extremely controlled and stage-managed to promote the establishment candidate, with minimal discussion about the party platform. With Sanders actively supporting his opponent, it’s doubtful the delegate count from remaining primaries, if they happen, will increase significantly. There are many tactics and tricks, including superdelegates, that the Democratic National Committee (DNC) can use to prevent any progressive changes at the convention.
Most crucially, Democratic Party platforms are routinely ignored by Democratic Party candidates. There is no real accountability for candidates or office holders when it comes to enforcing loyalty to progressive issues and campaign promises. Loyalty to the core values of capitalism and imperialism, however, will be enforced by the corporate-controlled DNC. 2016 and 2020 are just the latest reminders that the Democratic Party and its corporate backers will do anything, legal or illegal, to block “left” Democratic Party campaigns.
We in the ISG have pointed out at public meetings, in leaflets, on social media, and in discussions that it’s counterproductive for working people to have illusions in using the Democratic Party electoral machine for any attempt at progressive or fundamental change.
It’s equally useless to pretend that a Democratic Party politician can be magically separated from the Democratic Party itself: an institution and a tool for pro-capitalist policies. Unfortunately, when it is argued that Sanders and other progressive politicians like AOC are not truly part of the Democratic Party, it encourages political hopes, energy, time, votes, and money being wasted in helping the corporate, pro-capitalist Democratic Party continue its monopoly on mainstream progressive politics in the U.S.
Because of the differences we have with Sanders, we believe it would be a terrible waste to take the support for what Sanders was raising in his campaign and confine it in the corporate Democratic Party by voting for Biden or anyone else in the Democratic or Republican parties.
The coronavirus pandemic and accompanying economic crash have made it clear that capitalist profit will always come at the expense of the working class. The Democratic and Republican parties are distributing minimal aid to workers in the U.S. while carving out multi-billion dollar bailouts and contracts for corporations.
Improvements like universal healthcare, raising the minimum wage, and a Green New Deal are needed now more than ever. We believe programs like Medicare for All can be initiated by increased taxes on the super-rich and big corporations, as well as cuts in military spending. We don’t need to increase taxes on working people. We believe a Green New Deal needs to be a “Socialist Green New Deal” to emphasize the level of economic planning, public ownership, and funding needed to avoid the dangers of severe climate change.
Even this late in the game, Sanders could commit to fighting for the kinds of demands he raised in his platform by breaking with the Democratic Party. Sanders could have organized his supporters around an independent campaign, bypassing the rigged Democratic primary. That independent campaign would have provided a far stronger alternative to Trump than the business-as-usual campaign of Biden, which offers no solutions to the problems that have made Trump’s rise possible. Such a campaign could have helped gather other forces together for a mass workers’ party to challenge both parties of big business, and the system of capitalism itself.
Sanders supporters need to continue to fight for real change and help build strong independent socialist campaigns in local, state, and federal elections. Ultimately, this will require breaking with Sanders himself who will argue against this, as he tries convincing his supporters to “vote blue, no matter who.”
In the presidential elections, this means workers and youth, including Sanders supporters, should take a serious look at supporting a left-wing independent such as the Left Green and socialist Howie Hawkins.
Sanders could still organize virtual or, hopefully soon, in-person conferences urging his supporters to support an independent presidential campaign, join with Hawkins in a Green Party campaign, or run a write-in campaign. However, Sanders seems interested in trying, again and again, to reform the Democratic Party. He is clearly uninterested in helping to build a mass, left political party for working people and youth.
It is clear now to a new generation that the Democratic Party is NOT the political vehicle for workers and youth interested in genuine democratic socialism.
Working people should run our own candidates as a political party where we can have real membership and internal democracy, including the right to vote on the platform, select candidates, and hold them accountable to our decisions. A workers’ party would lack the obstacles of corporate ownership, big money, and undemocratic measures that are business as usual in the Democratic and Republican parties.
If you consider yourself a socialist, progressive, activist, or a Sanders supporter and are tired of the constant betrayals of the Democratic Party, get involved in helping to build a U.S. workers’ party. The Independent Socialist Group is a part of that movement, fighting for workers’ rights, and for changes we need like free, national health care, a workers’ party, and a socialist world!