Bernie Sanders Is Changing American Politics—But He’s Not Thinking Big Enough

Sure, Sanders has pulled the political conversation strongly to the Left. But he—and the activists involved in his campaign—are capable of much, much more.

Joe Allen

(Michael Vadon / Flickr)

Many writers on the radical Left have been deeply pessimistic and alienating in considering Bernie Sanders’ campaign for president. Black Agenda Report editor Bruce Dixon dismissed the Sanders campaign as sheepdogging for Hillary.” Something tells me that calling people sheep” isn’t the best way to engage anyone in a positive political conversation.

The tens of thousands of Sanders supporters that have come out to rallies across the country want a different politics in this country. What are we saying to them about building a bigger, more relevant socialist left today?

Equally patronizing has been William Kaufman, who dismissed the historic opposition of many on the radical Left to supporting a Democrat as a mindless ideological reflex.” Calling someone mindless” isn’t a good way to start a conversation, either.

Personally, I’m not a Bernie pessimist or Sandernista” who’s all-in for the Vermont Senator. I think that the Sanders campaign is refreshing and he has made socialism positive for a younger generation. I wholeheartedly support his call for a ‘“political revolution against the billionaires” and have watched with great interest as his political program has shaken up the presidential race.

Yet big business and its allies dominate the highly undemocratic political party which Bernie is running under the auspices of. This raises a bigger question: What is Bernie’s deeper strategy for transforming the Democratic Party? So far, Bernie has said very little about this. When he speaks about challenging the status quo, he always seems to be talking about the intransigent Republican majority in Congress — not the party whose name he is running under. And while the GOP has certainly gone off the right-wing deep end in recent years, the Democrats have also drifted further and further in the same direction. Sanders has taken mostly strong progressive positions in his campaign that are well to the left of others in the party, but he has yet to put forward a longer-term plan about dealing with that drift.

So the Sanders campaign presents the broad left in the United States with a great political opportunity, but also with something of a conundrum: How can sort out the many positive aspects of Bernie’s campaign while forthrightly dealing with the substantive political problems of running as a Democrat?

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With this in mind, I read Marc Daadler’s recent In These Times article on Sanders’ impact on Hillary Clinton’s use of attack ads and found it a bit thin. Not because Sanders has not had an impact on Clinton’s use of such ads — Hillary has, indeed, pledged to refrain from attacking Bernie during this campaign cycle, which seems like a pretty good thing — but because Daalder and other writers are highlighting such small-fries victories rather than these issues of power and politics inside the Democratic Party. This is a mistake.

Bernie at recent meeting before 2,000 people at the University of Chicago on Monday exhorted his audience to think big!” He’s right: We should be thinking big. Bernie made socialism attractive and relevant in a way that the long-established broad Left in the United States hasn’t accomplished in many decades of hard work. Something has changed in U.S. politics, and the Left seems woefully behind the times.

For me, this means we should be putting forward a discussion about political strategy to Bernie supporters and critics, revisiting older debates about the Left and the Democratic Party while also recognizing the importance of newer political campaigns such as Black Lives Matter and the struggle against eco-catastrophe — struggles that could fundamentally reshape American politics.

Let’s put it this way: Is Bernie’s campaign in form and substance a fairly traditional liberal Democratic campaign with an anachronistic socialist label attached to it, or could it help birth a new socialist movement? If it is to be about the latter, what political strategy is being put forward to bring it about? How can the Sanders campaign go beyond relatively minor, short-term victories around attack ads to accomplish a major political transformation?

For several decades, many socialists, trade unionists and liberals put forward a strategy of realignment.” In a nutshell, the argument went like this: liberals and the Left should build up the political forces of trade unions and the civil rights movement (and later other by other progressive social movements such as the Vietnam anti-war movement, women’s and other social movements) in the Democratic Party to force out the old Dixiecrat” wing of the party.

This realignment of political forces inside the party, it was hoped, would transform it into a political party more akin to a European-style labor or social democratic party or, at the very least, something like the Old Canadian New Democrats. This newly transformed party could potentially implement the type of pro-working class political agenda that could make the United States into a more European-style social democratic country.

Some aspects of realignment did come about: The Dixiecrats, for the most part, did leave the Democratic Party while the reforms sponsored by Sen. George McGovern did open up the party to more diverse convention delegates and opened up primaries to more challengers. One result of this was a large number of black delegates and party leaders. But the Democrats also, at the same time, became a more conservative party, and abandoned much of the liberalism that defined it since the New Deal.

Whatever you may think about realignment as a strategy, it was, indeed, a big-picture strategy that was debated and fought over for by the broad liberal-left. I think happen to think it was the wrong strategy, and have believed for many years that we need to campaign for the creation of labor party or, at the very least, independent or socialist campaigns with the support of the labor movement.

The tens of thousands of Sanders supporters that have come out to rallies across the country want a different politics in this country. What are we saying to them about building a bigger, more relevant socialist left today? Whether you support Bernie’s campaign or not, what do you have to say to that question?

Focusing on the minor victories Bernie Sanders is able to notch misses the point of what’s so important about his campaign. The energy he has tapped into has the power to radically transform our country’s politics. As we watch and participate in and critique that campaign, let’s keep those big-picture goals in mind. After all, we’re capable of winning much more than minor skirmishes over attack ads. 

Joe Allen is the author of The Package King: A Rank and File History of United Parcel Service, Vietnam: The Last War the U.S. Lost and People Wasn’t Made to Burn: A True Story of Race, Murder, and Justice in Chicago (Haymarket, 2011). He has written for Jacobin, Socialist Worker and elsewhere.
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