Sen. Bernie Sanders’ recent appearance in Portland, Maine highlighted the structural disorganization and lack of strategic vision that continue to plague the American left—particularly in the wake of the demoralizing election of Donald Trump.
Over 1,500 people packed the State Theater on April 17 for the first night of Sanders’ and newly-elected DNC chairman, Tom Perez’s post-election pick-me-up tour, “Come Together and Fight Back.”
But make no mistake about which of these two politicians attendees showed up for: Mainers loudly booed Perez, who recently beat out the more progressive, Rep. Keith Ellison (D-MN), to head the DNC. Sanders, meanwhile, remains the most popular politician in the country, according to several polls.
One young woman, waiting in the interminable line, seemed to speak for the crowd. “I’m here to see Bernie!” she announced. “Not the DNC!”
I joined four other comrades from the Portland branch of the International Socialist Organization (ISO) to sell copies of our newspaper, the Socialist Worker, and talk to people in line. (Full disclosure: I am a dues-paying member of the ISO.)
While we did sell a lot of papers, and had some quality conversations with a few folks, most people seemed rather indifferent to our presence. A few even audibly scoffed at the word “socialist,” which is completely baffling to me. Were these people unaware they were waiting in line to hear a self-professed “democratic socialist” speak? Sanders certainly made no secret about his identification with socialism on the campaign trail. He even gave a whole friggin speech on the topic.
One of my comrades ventured into the crowd to talk to people one-on-one. He opened by asking what they thought about the “state of politics, today.” Most people groaned or laughed cynically in response.
“I’m actually feeling optimistic,” my friend countered. “The Women’s March and airport protests have all given me hope.”
Upon reflecting on these recent anti-Trump protests, people suddenly shifted their tone. “Oh yeah!” they said. “That’s right!”
While these informal conversations can hardly be granted the weight of a Gallup poll, I think they are nonetheless informative. They suggest a demoralized left that is unsure how to proceed in the wake of Trump’s election.
Indeed, the initial, seemingly daily protests and rallies that greeted Trump’s inauguration have subsided in recent weeks. And early talk among Democrats of impeaching Trump based on alleged Russian interference with the election have failed to yield any substantive evidence—and, given the overall dubiousness of the claims, are unlikely to.
Instead, the Democrats have resigned themselves—and their liberal supporters—to waiting for the 2018 midterm election where they hope to re-take Congress. (Hence the Sanders/Perez rally.)
Thus, a noticeable sense of despair and demoralization has overcome much of the left—right at the time when we should be ramping up our resistance to Trump’s racist, xenophobic, imperialist policies.
Many of those at the State Theater rally had understandably pinned their hopes on Sanders’ presidential campaign and his social democratic platform. But Sanders’ campaign was ultimately sabotaged by the Democratic Party, which remains opposed to all of his policies.
As such, any path forward for the left cannot come through the Democratic Party. Progressives’ long-standing fantasy of “taking over” the Democratic Party from within remains just that.
The history of left-wing activism is rife with examples of progressive reformers–from Jesse Jackson, to Dennis Kucinich, to Howard Dean, and Sanders–who have attempted to “re-take” or “recapture” the party through “insurgent” presidential campaigns. And not only did each of these efforts fail, but the Democratic establishment was able to pull these candidates’ supporters back into the party fold, every time.
Little wonder the Democratic Party has been dubbed the “graveyard of social movements.”
“The question remains: Can progressives take over the Democratic Party..?” Lance Selfa asks in his 2008 book, The Democrats: A Critical History.
To answer that, one has to consider that the Democratic Party really represents one of the two main parties of corporate rule in the United States. Despite its name, it is not a democratic organization whose members control it. So any activist or trade union or popular attempt to take it over always faces a counter-attack by the people who really control it—big business interests, who will use every underhanded trick in the book to maintain their hold.
In other words, despite their traditional posturing as the party of labor, women, immigrants, and minorities, the Democrats are at heart a capitalist party—just like the Republicans. The Republicans are merely more up-front about their servitude to corporate interests.
While the Dems pose as the “party of the people,” the truth is they are responsible for some of the most grievous ravages against the working class—the repeal of the Glass-Steagall Act, the elimination of welfare, and the passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), all facilitated by President Bill Clinton—in modern history.
Indeed, no less a lionized “progressive champion” than Franklin Delano Roosevelt claimed his greatest achievement as president was that he “saved capitalism.”
But don’t take my word for it. House Minority leader Nancy Pelosi recently conceded as much during a CNN town-hall style special. In response to a college student’s question about millennials’ growing preference for socialism over capitalism, Pelosi answered, “Well, I thank you for your question. But I have to say, we’re capitalist. That’s just the way it is.”
Straight from the donkey’s mouth, if you will.
No, the Democrats will not save us. The working class needs its own political party—one that truly represents our interests.
I maintain that the tragedy of Sanders’ presidential campaign was his decision not to challenge Hillary Clinton and the Democratic Party as an independent candidate. Had he done so, he may well be sitting in the White House, today.
(And can we please drop this mantra that Sanders would have had “no chance in hell” running as an independent or with the Greens? In an election in which a record number of Americans were disgusted with both the frontrunner candidates, it is no far-fetched stretch of the imagination to see Sanders winning the presidency as a third-party candidate. At the very least, he would have been able to continue his campaign through the general election, having avoided the DNC’s nefarious underhanded schemes that ultimately undid his primary campaign.)
But then, Sanders has always been a nominal member of the Democrats. It all goes back to Sanders’ longstanding deal with the party: He faithfully tows the party line, and they will not challenge his Senate seat in Vermont. As such, CounterPunch’s Paul Street calls Sanders a “de facto Dem.”
Worst of all, Sanders by running within the Democratic party structure–and, ultimately, endorsing Clinton when his quixotic primary bid was inevitably foiled–failed to build an enduring, politically astute left-wing movement that can continue to push for his campaign demands. Instead, his supporters find themselves disillusioned and uncertain how to proceed. Some of them have ditched the Democrats for good, but others are all too willing to give them “one more chance.” And with Trump in office, those of the latter mindset are likely to have greater sway over the direction of Sanders’ “political revolution”–or whatever remains of it.
On the other hand, Sanders has convinced hundreds of young people to identify as “socialist,” which in of itself is pretty awesome. This means there is an audience out there for socialists. Our task is to tap into that audience, discuss socialist politics with its members, and try to pull them to more radical views.
But if the formation of a viable, militant working-class left is to ever take hold, leftists must disabuse themselves of the misguided notion it can use the Democratic Party as a vehicle for that end. It cannot.
The Democratic Party is and always has been a party for capital, empire, and corporate interests. It has never been a party for the working class. Any successful socialist revolution can only come, as Hal Draper observed, “from below.”
Many readers are likely to scoff at this analysis, dismissing it as “unrealistic,” or beyond the realm of the so-called “politically possible.”
Yet, as Selfa writes:
It’s said that one definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over and expecting a different result each time. If that’s true, the partisans of such “realistic” strategies of fusing with the Democrats or “taking over” the Democratic Party–both of which have failed generations of progressives–are really the ones who are out of touch with reality.
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