EssaysFeatureLiberal Democracy in Question

The Sanders Campaign and ‘Political Revolution’

Support yes, credulity no

The Bernie Sanders campaign for President is one of the most exciting and hopeful developments in US politics in decades. Sanders is, and long has been, a man of principle — democratic socialist principle. He articulates a clear message — that a more genuine democratic politics in the United States needs to mobilize millions of people on behalf of an egalitarian political economic agenda — and he does so in a way that is both consistent and intelligent. He is always “on message,” because he has expressed this message for decades and he knows and believes in it, not because he is properly “handled.” His campaign has thus far succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of most supporters and indeed apparently of its architects, in mobilizing large crowds, in raising extraordinary amounts of money on the basis of small donations, and in running neck-and-neck with Hillary Clinton in the Iowa caucus and the New Hampshire primary. The Sanders campaign has a viability, and a Sanders victory in the primaries has a plausibility, which is surprising and even heartening to those of us who support greater social justice and equality. I support this campaign now because I believe its message is crucial and the campaign represents the most promising opportunity for this message of social justice to be empowered and also because I truly believe that committed democrats ought to embrace the possibility of surprises — what Hannah Arendt once called “miracles” — whereby conventional wisdoms are upset and new and good things become possible.

At the same time, my support consists almost exclusively in the opinions I can offer on the basis of what I honestly believe to be true. Political campaigns and movements need activists, and true believers. But I am not an activist, and although I am deeply committed to liberal values, I am a true believer in nothing. I am a writer, a teacher, a political scientist, an editor, and an individual, and I owe it to myself, and to those I can reasonably believe might care about what I think, to reflect seriously on what is going on. Some may regard such a posture as something of a cop-out, or as a luxury that only a certain kind of self-styled “intellectual” can adopt. But I lead no organization, have no followers, wield no particular political power — I don’t even have a blog or a Twitter account! — and indeed I have nothing political to contribute except my honest opinion.

And so I must say that although I support the Sanders campaign now, and I believe that a strong Democratic candidate for president in 2016 can arise only from a vigorous contest for the nomination, I also have substantial skepticism about the “political revolution” that the Sanders campaign claims to be advancing. My deepest skepticism relates to what I think any Democratic president can hope to accomplish in the next eight years. Here Sanders may be more serious than Clinton, for in his more candid moments he insists that a president can do little without a movement behind him (or her!) and that this takes time and energy to build. I suspect that the chances of such a strong movement being mobilized over the medium term are very low. But even if I am wrong about this — and here only time will tell — I am skeptical, in a more proximate sense, about whether the Sanders campaign is as politically “revolutionary,” in a serious sense, as it claims to be, and whether it can really command the kind of “people power” to even win the Democratic primary, much less the presidency in November 2016. And I think the reasons for skepticism are important politically, because an exaggerated sense of the power of the Sanders campaign is closely linked to an exaggerated sense of grievance toward those Democrats, including some on the left, who are not Sanders supporters. I am concerned that the legitimate contest between Sanders and Clinton is beginning to generate a kind of rancor, on both sides, that can have the unintended consequence of strengthening the power of the Republicans in the coming election.

The ongoing dustup over Democratic party “superdelegates” encapsulates my skepticism. It will thus be my point of departure.

It cannot be doubted that the Democratic National Committee under the leadership of Debbie Wasserman Schultz has been transparently biased in favor of the Clinton candidacy. Nor can it be doubted that the Democratic party establishment, following the lead of the Clinton campaign, has employed some pretty “dirty” tactics to benefit the Clinton candidacy. But can serious left political analysts and strategists be surprised by this? There is a great deal of moralizing coming from Sanders supporters, including some formerly establishment figures such as Bob Reich, that the existence of “superdelegates” epitomizes the “rigging” of the “establishment.” But I submit that this moralizing needs a reality check.

For many decades American political parties were fairly insular organizations run by insiders and political machines — and the interest groups, including labor unions, that were both “patrons” and “beneficiaries” of these parties. Party nominees were typically selected by such insiders. Over time this method of selection was reformed, and primary elections were organized as a way of opening up the process to political competition and “public opinion.” Most of the delegates to national conventions are now chosen through primary elections and caucuses. But the national party organizations still retain the privilege of appointing a substantial number of “superdelegates” to represent the interests of “party regulars” in convention decisions. Is this bad? Is it contrary to democracy that political parties are organizations that have leaders who do the regular work of the parties and who therefore claim some guaranteed representation in the party’s own decision-making processes? Most of these “superdelegates” are Democratic officeholders at local and state levels, people active in the party in a way that most ordinary primary voters are not. Indeed, in the American system, nineteen states have open primaries. This means that a voter does not need to be a member or participant in a party, or even a regular voter/registered voter for the party, in order to decide to vote in the party’s primary. In these states — which include Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, and Texas — anyone can vote in any party’s primary. In these states Democratic Party delegates responsible for selecting candidates are selected through voting that can include not only registered Democrats, but also registered Republicans, anarchists, libertarians, and independents of all kinds. These practices, quite obviously, severely dilute and weaken parties. That is indeed their purpose. But is this a good thing for “democracy?” In most of the strong “social democracies” of Europe, there are strong political parties. In the United States, the “superdelegate” system is one important mechanism for counterbalancing this party weakening.

The Sanders campaign and its supporters, myself included, are proud to say that it would be a good thing if the politics of US social policy were more like those of European countries such as Denmark or Germany or even the United Kingdom. But there is no advanced democracy in the world that has political parties as weak as the political parties in the United States. Some on the left are pleased to liken the Sanders ascendancy to the rise of Jeremy Corbyn to the leadership of the British Labour Party. But Corbyn has been an activist in the British Labour Party since 1974. He rose through the ranks of that party and was selected as leader of the party through a party decision process that privileged the role of the party’s affiliated trade unions. Corbyn is a party activist who was elevated by the party establishment in which he long participated. Is it “undemocratic” that labor unions and their representatives have special privileges in the British Labour Party? Is it unfair that lots of people — independents, Conservatives, members of the far-right National Party, etc. — who might have liked to see a more moderate Labour leader, were not part of the process? No serious person on the left would answer “yes.”

The fact is this: the United States — a deeply flawed system in manifold ways — is the only representative democracy where an individual who is not even a member of a major party can vie to become its principal national candidate. It is a good thing that Sanders can vie for the Democratic nomination for President. It is a wonderful thing that he can mobilize throngs of voters, many of them young people who are not regular participants in the political process. But the Democratic Party is a political party; it has a structure, and it has activists who work every day to advance its goals. Some of these activists are rich people and their lobbyists. Some of them are trade unionists and teachers and social workers. As a party, it furnishes advantages to its most dedicated participants. It is a strange “political revolution” that wishes to proceed as if these forces do not exist or ought not to exist and to moralize that they represent “corruption.”

The Sanders campaign, then, stands in a very peculiar relationship to the Democratic Party, derived in large part from the fact that its candidate is not a member of the Party and many of its supporters have had little involvement in the Party. If it is to win the Democratic Party nomination, it must reckon with the fact that this party has a history and an organization and certain procedures, one of which is that it “reserves” a certain number of delegates to be chosen by party leaders. In other words, it is a political party. This is a challenge. And the American two-party system most definitely is an obstacle to socialists, and others, who do not lean toward the center and who challenge the political status quo. But isn’t the point of a “political revolution” to reckon seriously with the obstacles to political change?

In a fine recent piece in Jacobin, “The War on Bernie Sanders,” Matt Karp observed that “there is abundant evidence that the Democratic Party elite has thrown its full weight behind Clinton — and against Sanders — in ways that surpass any other primary campaign in recent history.” This seems true, and it is something that Sanders supporters must struggle against. But why cast this as a “war on Bernie Sanders” rather than what it is: an effort by party activists to do what party activists do — support the priorities, commitments, and candidates to which they have long been connected?

Here some sobering facts must be taken very seriously:

  • Clinton has won the support of 39 of 46 Senate Democrats, 158 of 188 House Democrats, and 12 of 18 Democratic governors (it is also sobering to note that in each case, Democrats constitute the minority of the class in question).
  • Clinton has been endorsed by more than 40 of 70 members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, including figures such as Maxine Waters, Eddie Bernice Johnson, Donna Edwards, and John Conyers — a long-time member of Democratic Socialist of America.
  • The Congressional Black Caucus PAC (political action committee) recently endorsed Clinton and disparaged Sanders. I happen to deplore this, and it is true, as Rep. Keith Ellison has insisted, that this PAC is not accountable to the actual Congressional Black Caucus. But it is also true that 41 of 46 individual members of the CBC have endorsed Clinton. This includes some of the most left-liberal members of Congress, including people — such as Waters and Conyers — who have long been considered beacons of the Democratic left. One can disagree with these 41 individuals, each a substantial political force representing many thousands of people. But one cannot simply chalk it all up to “rich lobbyists” or toadying.
  • In the same way, only months ago the mayoral victory of Bill DeBlasio in New York City was hailed by left commentators as a victory for the left. Similar things were said about the electoral success of Sherrod Brown when he was elected to the Senate in 2007 and about Al Franken when he defeated Norm Coleman to win a Democratic Senate seat in 2009. These Democratic office holders are now all working for Hillary Clinton. Have they become sellouts? Or might they have good reasons to support a more “establishment” candidate, one of which might even be the desire to strengthen Democratic representation in Congress?

But it is not simply “the party establishment” that is in question.

There is also “the establishment” more broadly. Sanders took some heat when he described Planned Parenthood, pejoratively, as part of “the establishment.” Well, in the real world, political parties and campaigns and movements are composed of constituent interests and organizations. Planned Parenthood, NARAL, and Emily’s List have long been considered very important and very left-liberal women’s organizations and stakeholders in the Democratic Party. They all support Clinton. So too do Stonewall Democrats and the Human Rights Campaign.

Most importantly for the left, the Clinton campaign has the endorsement of 23 unions, including AFSME, AFT, NEA, IAM (Machinists), Building Trades, UFCW (Foodworkers), and the SEIU. These are major unions. It is true that the CWA has endorsed Sanders, that the AFL-CIO has withheld endorsement thus far, and that many rank-and-file union activists and workers support Sanders. But the vast bulk of organized labor support has gone to the Clinton campaign. And some major labor leaders have emphatically endorsed Clinton. Dolores Huerta, the legendary leader of the United Farm Workers, supports Clinton. On October 24, 2013, I attended the celebration of the 60th anniversary of Dissent magazine. The event took place at the UFT Hall in the UFT offices in lower Manhattan. The opening remarks, a tribute to the magazine, and to the traditions of democratic socialism in the United States, were delivered by co-host Randi Weingarten, President of UFT. Weingarten is a major Clinton supporter, and her union has endorsed Clinton. What are we to make of this? Can this all be explained in terms of “establishment reaction?”

To be clear, many individuals associated with these groups support Sanders. Some important leaders support Sanders. And this support has no doubt helped to fuel the extraordinary success of the Sanders campaign. My point is not that Sanders lacks support. My point is that this support includes virtually none of the entire range of constituent groups that have long buttressed the democratic left in US politics. We are talking about a substantial array of political forces, including many forces that would presumably anchor a real “political revolution” to transform status quo politics in the Untied States.

In what, then, does the “political revolution” currently consist? There is a set of real positions and proposals to legislate egalitarian reforms of the financial system, the system of higher education, and the health care system. And there is Sanders himself, a dynamic and charismatic figure who is both principled and seemingly indefatigable. But neither political ideas nor a political leader can constitute a “movement” much less a “revolution.” And I believe that Sanders and his key advisers would be the first to admit that the core of his “revolution” thus far has been his energetic and resourceful campaign organization, and its ability to mobilize millions of voters, and especially new voters and young voters. This is a real mobilization, and it is indeed reason to be excited about the Sanders campaign.

But it is worth pointing out that we have been here before, with the Barack Obama campaigns of 2008 and 2012 and the Howard Dean campaign of 2004. Why should we expect the Sanders campaign’s extraordinary mobilization of millennial voters to be any more enduring and any more transformative than the earlier mobilizations by Dean, who eventually tanked, and Obama, who won?

Indeed, the greatest reason for skepticism of the “political revolution” being promised may be Obama himself. It is worth recalling then in 2008 it was Obama who was widely hailed as a “transformative” candidate. He was no democratic socialist, as commentators on the left well knew. But he represented something new and exciting, not simply because he was African American, but because he was the former community organizer and the antiwar candidate and because he spoke for an exuberant left communitarianism and an audacious hope. I vividly recall how many of my friends who now enthusiastically support Sanders enthused about Obama in 2008. Now they are disappointed. I am not resorting to the cynical lines now being peddled by the Clinton campaign, in their effort to link her as closely as possible to Obama’s achievements. My friends who enthused about Obama in 2008 are right to be disappointed. Obama is a good President in many ways, and he has delivered some good things. But even though he mobilized much enthusiasm and many young voters and even though he voiced progressive values, he did not come to power with a substantial mass movement at his back, as he would have needed to do the “heavy lifting” that would be required of any substantial program of reform. And he faced substantial Republican opposition (which has only intensified) as well as red-baiting and race-baiting. He maneuvered, and feinted and jabbed and compromised and retreated, and made some good moves and some sorry moves. In truth, his program did not match his vision and especially his eloquence. Having ascended to the “commanding heights” of the strongest capitalist state in the world, he became largely a captive to this state — as any president is likely to become.

The obstacles facing Sanders are more daunting than those that faced Obama. That his aspirations are greater makes his success even less probable. Sanders is a tribune of a noble cause, a democratic socialist politician who has no substantial organized working class base, and a self-styled progressive who lacks the confidence of many of the most prominent progressive organizations in the United States. He stands for good things. I support many of these things, and so I support him. It is good that he is forcing the Democratic mainstream to the left. If Hillary Clinton is to be a strong candidate in the general election, as her supporters claim only she can be, then she will have to defeat Sanders in the primary. If she cannot defeat Sanders, then I do not see how she can claim to be the “most electable” candidate. The contest can thus only be good in testing ideas, in testing individual candidates, and in testing campaign organizations. Furthermore, who knows what might happen in the coming months? It is possible that a tide will turn and some organizational support might shift to Sanders. Or that Elizabeth Warren will join his team, and this will galvanize constituencies, including many women, behind a Sanders/Warren ticket. Or that through sheer electoral mobilization Sanders can win the Democratic primaries, and perhaps even the nomination, “over the heads” of the many organizations endorsing Clinton. This is very unlikely. But it is possible.

It is also possible that a sustained Democratic contest will lead to a Democratic candidate — a triumphant Sanders, a bloodied-but-standing Clinton — who will be unviable in a general election. This is a real risk to supporting Sanders. But at this point, I believe, it is a risk worth taking, because Clinton has yet to demonstrate her own viability, and because the contest is bringing to the fore issues too-long ignored. It is very true that it is important for a Democrat — a strong, tested candidate with a strong base of support among organizations and voters — to win in November, and to have the power to nominate Supreme Court justices, and do many other things worth doing. It is also true that it is about time that the issues that Sanders is raising be brought to the front and center of the Democratic party, if it is to win in November and, just as importantly, if it is to broaden its base and grow stronger in the future.

It thus makes sense to me to support Sanders now. But it also makes sense to face the facts. Chances are that he will win some primaries and lose many others and that in the convention the Democratic “superdelegates” will back Clinton, partly out of an understandable sense of “party loyalty,” but mainly because the organized forces that these delegates “represent” will have succeeded in mobilizing money and votes for Clinton, who is likely to have at least a plurality of delegates. And chances are that Clinton will be the Democratic nominee. If this happens, it will not be because “the establishment” made “war” on Sanders, or because immoral and corrupt “elites” opposed a noble man of justice. It will be because there exist what the late E.E. Schattschneider called strong “mobilizations of bias” in favor of the status quo, and these biases include the play of many organized interests including “left” interests, and the privileged position of business in a capitalist society, and the weaknesses and centrist leanings of organized labor, and, in the end, the fact that mass “public opinion” in the United States is not amenable to the selection of a democratic socialist Presidential candidate on the Democratic ticket.

Sanders is right when he says that “the system” is “rigged.” It is the nature of systems to be “rigged” — and the duty of radicals to understand the difference between exhortation and transformation. In this case the obstacles are many, and are reducible to no simple cause and surely not to the machinations of a small group of corrupt campaign donors and their lackeys. In the end, in November we will most likely be faced with a choice between corporate liberalism and corporate anti-liberalism. That for me will be an easy choice. But for now I support the anti-corporate candidate, because he is keeping things “real,” and miracles sometimes to happen, and who knows when an ember that is kept oxygenated now might really burn in the future? And while I am no true believer, I admire the idealism that the Sanders campaign has inspired and believe it is very important to value and support it.

I’ve shared these reflections with some friends who are Clinton supporters, some well-known people of the left who have expressed frustration that, after rehearsing the litany of limits of the Sanders campaign, I conclude by reiterating my support for it now. But the “for now” is a crucial part of what I am saying, for my sense of political responsibility entails an acute sensitivity to the passage of time. I am saying to Clinton supporters that they need to understand why many people question their candidate and now support Sanders because of the energy and ideas and possibilities he brings to a politics long mired in cynicism, even in spite of the limits of this campaign. But I am mainly speaking here to my friends who enthusiastically support Sanders. It is important for them to realize that the issues Sanders is raising are important, and the moral dimension of the Sanders campaign is elevating and valuable, but that this contest between Sanders and Clinton is not a struggle between angels and demons. The obstacles in the way of the Sanders campaign are very real, and they are rooted in the very real balance of forces in the society and especially on the left. If Sanders loses, it will not be because of the malevolence of Clinton and her supporters. And if it comes to this, it will be important for those who really care about the values Sanders promotes to take the full measure of the situation; to join with the party and its constituent interest groups, including labor unions, to support the Democratic nominee; and at the same time to continue to do the hard work of building support for a more egalitarian agenda moving forward.

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Jeffrey C. Isaac

  • Wall

    Not to nitpick, but Corbyn was only elected because they ditched the electoral college system and had ‘one man one vote’. The opposite of what you are saying.

  • Doorman60

    I do think it is time to create a third party as the Democratic party no longer has Unions or working peoples organizations of any strength to hold them to egalitarian values and thus have become the vaguely liberal arm of the wealthy bankers and corporations. The GOP and the DEMs are two arms of the same beast.

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