Bernie Sanders’ campaign at a crossroads

The anti-big business and pro-worker message of Democratic Party ‘socialist’ candidate Bernie Sanders continues to resonate strongly among voters in the presidential primaries. However, despite his positive appeal, it would take an extraordinary surge in support to prevent the Democratic Party establishment securing Hillary Clinton’s nomination.

As Ty Moore and Philip Locker of Socialist Alternative (US co-thinkers of the Socialist Party) argue below, if Sanders’ ‘political revolution’ within the Democrats fails he should continue the fight as an independent left-wing candidate and lay the basis of a new mass party of the working class.

Bernie Sanders’ campaign stands at a crossroads. Even as he reaches new heights of popular support in national polls it’s becoming increasingly clear that Sanders’ hope for victory within the corporate-dominated Democratic Party primaries is extremely unlikely to succeed.

The Democratic Party primary elections are, by design, skewed to favour the pro-capitalist establishment that dominates the party. Especially since the redesign of the process after the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s, the entire primary process – from the super delegates to front-loading the more conservative southern states – is designed as an undemocratic firewall against left insurgent campaigns.

Historic campaign

Overcoming a near blackout in the corporate media throughout 2015, using mass rallies and social media, Sanders went from single-digit support in national polls to a dead-heat with Clinton by early February.

Bernie’s campaign has captured the imagination and raised the expectations of millions. It has demonstrated that it is possible to build a viable grassroots political revolution, completely independent of corporate cash, and capable of challenging the corporate stranglehold over politics.

Among young people – including young women who were “supposed” to flock to Clinton – Sanders’ call for a political revolution and socialist policies – like free higher education – has won overwhelming support.

Sanders raised $42 million in February alone from a record-setting 1.4 million individual donors. This is utterly unprecedented for a candidate who refuses corporate contributions.

The grassroots movement behind Bernie wants to fight on, fuelled by a healthy determination to overcome all obstacles. This is the spirit driving Socialist Alternative members across the country who have mobilised thousands through #MarchForBernie actions, “Labour for Bernie” activities, public debates, and mass community outreach.

Despite these dramatic successes, the Sanders campaign has failed to win over any significant section of the Democratic Party establishment to challenge Wall Street’s domination of their party.

Clinton’s machine

On the terrain of the electorate participating in the primaries, the weight of the Democratic Party machine has a major impact. The establishment of elected officials, party insiders, and wealthy donors use their power and links to influence unions, civil rights and community groups, and church leaders to turn out their base.

This influence was shown graphically by the role the vast majority of union leaders played in mobilising the power of labour behind the candidate of the Democratic Party machine without any serious opportunity for their members to debate or decide.

The power of the mass media is deployed to undermine anti-corporate campaigns and prop up establishment candidates like Clinton. Only through building up organised class conscious forces – independent working class movements, political parties, and media – can the power of the corporate media be systematically undermined on a mass scale.

On top of all this is the colossal mountain of Wall Street and corporate donations amassed by Clinton and her Super Political Action Committees. Despite the historic success of Sanders amassing over four million individual donations, Clinton’s virtually unlimited supply of corporate cash remains a major institutional advantage.

Keep on running

When Sanders launched his presidential bid last year, Socialist Alternative welcomed his campaign’s bold pro-worker message. At the same time we argued that Bernie was “making a fundamental mistake by running in the Democratic Party primary. Instead… he should run as an independent to help build a political alternative to the corporate-owned political parties. There is a glaring contradiction between Sanders’ call for a political revolution against the billionaire class and attempting to carry that out within a party controlled by that same billionaire class.”

Despite our clear disagreement with Sanders’ decision to run in the Democratic Party, we did not stand aside from his campaign or denounce it from the sidelines, as unfortunately many on the socialist left did. Instead, we worked in a non-sectarian fashion to support Bernie’s left-wing campaign while openly raising our political disagreements along the way.

Meanwhile Sanders and his supporters tested out their strategy of trying to take over the Democratic Party.

While it is true that Sanders was able to reach a mass audience by running in the Democratic primaries and participating in the televised debates with Clinton, it is now increasingly clear that this experiment will fail.

It’s time for Bernie, and more importantly for his supporters, to draw all the necessary conclusions from this experience.

If the movement does not break free from the straitjacket of the corporate-controlled Democratic Party it will be used as a left-wing prop for the Walmart, Wall Street, pro-war Clinton campaign.

The impact of the millions mobilised for a political revolution in Sanders’ campaign against the billionaire class being pushed to embrace a candidate of the billionaire class will mean the demoralisation, demobilisation, and shipwreck of the movement.

Bernie Sanders’ campaign has opened up the best potential in decades to build an ongoing political movement to challenge the corporate establishment of both major parties. But this will be tragically undermined unless we get organised – independent of the Democratic Party – to continue and deepen the ‘political revolution’, through November and beyond.

That’s why Socialist Alternative has consistently called on Sanders to run all the way through November, regardless of the outcome of the Democratic Party’s rigged primaries.

Stopping the right

The central objection raised against Sanders running as an independent – Bernie himself has rejected this – is the threat of dividing the vote and allowing a Republican to win. And with Trump seen as the likely Republican nominee, the determination of millions of workers, people of colour, women and young people to do everything possible to push back the far-right threat is completely understandable.

The problem is, Hillary Clinton is just about the worst possible candidate imaginable to cut across the right-wing, anti-establishment populism of Donald Trump. Alongside the Bush family, the Clinton political dynasty is the living symbol of establishment politics in America.

There is a reason most polls show Clinton losing, or neck-and-neck in matchups with the leading Republican candidates. It’s the same reason that, after president Obama bailed out Wall Street, the Tea Party Republicans made sweeping gains as the dominant voice, however distorted, appearing to express popular anger with the special interests that corrupt politics.

So far, Sanders’ ‘democratic socialism’ has captured broader anti-establishment support than Trump’s hateful right-populism. If Sanders attempts to funnel his supporters behind Clinton’s Wall Street campaign it will allow Trump to appear as the only anti-establishment voice in the general election.

Sanders has a political responsibility to run in the general election, both to provide a pro-worker alternative to the corporate candidates, and to cut across Trump’s anti-establishment appeal.

A Sanders campaign through November, even if just running all out on the ballot in 40 states or so, could lay the foundations for a new mass party of working people.

We have an historic opportunity to launch a new party that runs left candidates, who reject corporate cash and pledge to use their positions to mobilise grassroots power to win a working class agenda. This should include $15 an hour, an end to mass incarceration, free education, and single-payer health care.

Bernie’s campaign has already proved the potential exists for a new mass left party that could dramatically change the face of American politics.

Both the threat from the right, and the potential to rebuild a powerful independent left, demand that the movement behind Bernie refuses to be imprisoned within the Democratic Party. We must stay organised and continue the fight for a political revolution through November and beyond, laying the basis for a new party for working people.