A Balance Sheet of an Historic Movement
By Tom Crean (Socialist Alternative, USA)
On April 8, Bernie Sanders “suspended” his campaign for president. In the weeks since, Sanders has turned a defeat into a rout through wholesale capitulation to the Democratic Party establishment. He has given a fulsome endorsement to Joe Biden, the incredibly weak corporate presumptive nominee. He even criticized his press secretary, Briahna Joy Gray, for failing to immediately do likewise. The latest report is that some of Sanders’ closest advisers are forming a super PAC to back Biden.
This outcome is deeply disappointing to millions who saw Sanders as the authentic voice of a “political revolution” against the billionaire class. Of course, most of Sanders’ supporters will accept his argument that Trump must be defeated at all costs, even if that means voting for Joe Biden.
But a significant minority, especially of young people, will not be persuaded to vote for a loyal servant of Wall Street whose 45-year political career includes advocating cuts to Social Security and Medicare; supporting mass incarceration policies; allowing Anita Hill to be humiliated on national television when she called out Clarence Thomas’ sexual harassment; and enthusiastically voting for the Iraq War. While we completely agree about the need to get rid of Trump, to back Biden is to back the failed neoliberal policies that got us Trump in the first place.
Sanders ended his campaign at a point where working people in the U.S. are facing the most serious crisis since World War II: on the one hand, the coronavirus pandemic — made a hundred times worse by the failures of capitalism and the Trump regime — and, on the other, an economic collapse on the scale of the Great Depression.
It is true that Sanders faced a steep uphill climb to the nomination after Super Tuesday. But as a candidate he had a powerful platform to build the mass movement which will be needed to defend working people from chaotic and dangerous “re-opening,” the threat of mass unemployment, budget cuts to essential services and mass evictions. Instead he has essentially told people to put their faith in the Democratic establishment. This abdication of leadership leaves a dangerous vacuum which can disarm working people in the face of the attacks of the right since we know the leadership of the Democratic Party will do nothing to protect us.
Nevertheless the Sanders phenomenon has also had a profoundly positive impact on mass consciousness, especially among young people and sections of the working class who have swung sharply to the left. Sanders’ campaigns in 2016 and 2020, but especially this time, took on the character of a real movement built around a fighting pro-working class platform including Medicare for All, a $15 minimum wage, ending mass incarceration and a Green New Deal. The rallying cry was for a “political revolution against the billionaire class.” This huge step forward in consciousness will not be lost and will play a key role in the social and political struggles that will unfold in the next period.
The Importance of Sanders
To fully understand the significance of the Sanders movement and its abrupt conclusion we must step back and take a longer historical view. For forty years, since the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980, American politics has been dominated by neoliberal ideology. Neoliberalism, as the accompanying article on Keynesianism explains, was the response of the ruling class to the economic, social and political crisis of their system at the end of the postwar boom in the ‘70s. Its key feature has been a relentless offensive against the gains made by working people in earlier periods. This was done by removing restrictions on the global movement of capital, giving the big banks ever more power, cutting social services, and privatizing as much of the public sector as possible.
The goal was to restore profitability for the bosses no matter what the cost to society. But to succeed in imposing its agenda, the ruling class needed to deal decisive blows to the labor movement. Reagan smashed the air traffic controllers’ union, PATCO, in 1981 and Margaret Thatcher defeated the British miners in 1985. They also needed an ideological justification. This included the idea that socialism had failed, which was enormously reinforced by the collapse of Stalinism at the end of the ‘80s. They promoted individualism and meritocracy over social solidarity and promised growth through unleashing the wonders of globalized “free markets.” For a period this agenda won a degree of mass support or at least mass acceptance. Neoliberals also came to dominate the Democratic Party, a process completed by the rise of Bill Clinton.
But while the neoliberals made many promises, the reality by the late ‘90s was clear: a massive increase in inequality and eroding public services. Working people were working longer and harder for less. But the throwing back of the labor movement and the left meant overall resistance was weak. An important moment was Ralph Nader’s independent run for president in 2000 where he won almost 3,000,000 votes and tapped into a growing “anti-globalization” movement. But this opportunity to build a new political force on the left was squandered.
It was the crash of 2008–9 which exposed the full bankruptcy of neoliberalism with millions losing their jobs and their homes. The Democrats under Obama bailed out Wall Street just as they and the Republicans are doing today to the tune of trillions of dollars. It took several years but resistance began to develop with Occupy Wall Street in 2011 and Black Lives Matter. This was part of an international wave of struggle including the Arab Spring and the anti-austerity struggle of the Greek and Spanish working class.
But this resistance was initially not reflected in the political realm in the U.S. This was the historic role that Sanders played. Running as an open “democratic socialist” his campaigns have been a rallying cry for those, especially young people, who have drawn the conclusion that society needs to move in a different direction. As the radical author Naomi Klein said recently, Sanders “broke the spell” of neoliberalism.
Sanders’ 2016 campaign raised an astonishing $228 million while refusing donations from corporate America. Despite running in the Democratic primary this clearly pointed towards the potential for an independent left political party.
Sanders was also pushed to the left by the increasingly youthful and working-class base he had built. In 2020, he declared billionaires “should not exist” and called for a “government of the working class” in which his role as president would be “organizer in chief.” But while all of this was extremely important, as Seattle socialist city councilmember Kshama Sawant explained:
“[T]he key reason we supported Bernie so strongly was the same reason the ruling class feared him. His 2016 campaign helped inspire mass struggle, including the teachers’ revolt in 2018 and 2019 and the beginning of a rebirth of the labor movement in this country. If he had somehow overcome all the obstacles and won the presidency in 2020, the ruling class feared the enormous rise in the confidence and expectations of working people along with the wave of struggle it could create.” (socialistalternative.org 4/9/20)
But 2016 also came with a huge warning: the election of Donald Trump. Sanders said all along that he would support the eventual Democratic nominee even if it was Hillary Clinton. Socialist Alternative, on the other hand, said he should continue his campaign as an independent if he was blocked by the establishment. By refusing to take this path, Sanders left Hillary Clinton, whose tired neoliberalism was deeply uninspiring, as the only alternative to Trump. One of Sanders’ key arguments against continuing as an independent was that he did not want to be a “spoiler” and hand the election to Trump. Well, despite standing aside, Hillary Clinton still lost. The real “spoiler” that gave us Trump was the Democratic establishment.
Trump, while basing his appeal on outright xenophobia also represented a distorted right-populist rejection of neoliberalism, including its “free trade” deals, which had cost millions of manufacturing jobs. His victory showed the price that would be paid for the failure to build a mass alternative to corporate politics on the left.
The Crisis in the Democratic Party
Sanders’ willingness to support Clinton in 2016 helped paper over a deep crisis within the Democratic Party. After bailing out Wall Street, the Democrats lost control of Congress in 2010. They went on to lose control of 27 state legislative chambers around the country and a total of over 1,000 legislative seats, to reach their weakest position as a national party in 100 years. In 2016, Clinton’s message boiled down to saying that Trump represented an existential threat to “American democracy.” She promised virtually nothing to working people, touting the weak economic recovery under Obama that had overwhelmingly benefited the rich.
In reality, both the Democratic and Republican establishments defended policies like free trade deals and cuts to social services that were deeply unpopular with ordinary people. The lack of significant differences on economic issues is what has allowed the Republicans to use issues like gun rights to solidify their base over many years. The establishment’s weakness was exposed on the right by Trump and on the left by Sanders. The crisis of the American political establishment mirrors that of “center-right” and “center-left” parties in Western Europe who implemented endless austerity after 2008–9. In some countries, particular establishment parties have seen their vote collapse almost entirely.
The weakness of the Democrats has continued under Trump despite their victory in the midterms. They have completely failed to build a real fightback against Trump’s reactionary attacks on immigrants, women’s rights, and against working people generally. They spent most of their energy on the futile hunt for the “smoking gun” to prove that Trump was a Russian agent and on the tedious “Ukraine affair.” To the extent they have any chance in 2020 against Trump, it’s because of his disastrous handling of the coronavirus crisis and the massive economic crisis that has opened up for working people and large sections of the middle class on the Republicans’ watch.
But while Trump was able to force the Republican establishment into retreat and remake the party in his own image, this has not been the case for the left in the Democratic Party. At a fundamental level the stakes were higher with Sanders. Trump, despite his populist rhetoric and erratic behavior, does not threaten the corporate character of the Republican Party. Since he took office, CEOs have supported his tax cuts for the rich and attacks on environmental regulation as well as generally backing his tough line on China. Sanders’ program and approach, on the other hand, was seen as a direct threat by the corporate interests which dominate the Democratic Party.
The 2016 election revealed how rigged the Democratic primary is and how far the Democratic leadership would go to prevent Sanders winning the nomination. In 2016, Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the head of the Democratic National Committee, worked out a deal with Clinton that essentially made the DNC a direct adjunct of her campaign. As Donna Brazile, former DNC chairperson, revealed subsequently:
“Hillary would control the party’s finances, strategy, and all the money raised. Her campaign had the right of refusal of who would be the party communications director, and it would make final decisions on all the other staff. The DNC also was required to consult with the campaign about all other staffing, budgeting, data, analytics, and mailings” (Politico.com, 11/2/2017).
Establishment Panic on the Road to Milwaukee
This time around, the Democrats’ corporate backers made it amply clear that they preferred four more years of Trump rather than a Sanders’ victory. The establishment responded by creating a very wide field of candidates to cut down Sanders’ support and avoid a repeat of the two-way race in 2016 which increasingly exposed Hillary. For a while this strategy seemed to be working. But Biden floundered, Warren lost traction when she moved to the right and Pete Buttigieg never resonated with working people.
Then Sanders won the first three primaries, the first time any candidate had ever accomplished this feat (Newsweek, 2/23/2020). Especially after the Nevada primary, there was intense panic in the Democratic establishment about the possibility of Sanders winning a plurality of delegates to the Democratic National Convention in Milwaukee in July or even winning an outright majority. This was to a large degree due to the failure of the establishment to coalesce around a candidate to stop Sanders. At this point, in late February, Biden’s campaign was basically dead in the water.
A Sanders victory or the establishment being forced to block him in an even more blatant way than in 2016 would have pushed the contradiction — between an increasingly radicalized wing of the base and the zombie neoliberal leadership of the party — to its limit. It would also have created a huge opening for building an independent working-class party.
It was Socialist Alternative’s perspective in February that Sanders, as the frontrunner, facing a very divided field of weak candidates, might very well win the plurality of delegates, forcing the establishment to go even further in using dirty tricks to stop him than in 2016 including at the convention. We called for “millions to the streets” in Milwaukee, Wisconsin where the Democratic convention was to be held in July. Such a massive confrontation would have exposed the completely un-democratic nature of this party creating a huge opening for independent working-class politics.
This may seem at first sight paradoxical since Sanders was standing in the Democratic primary. But it was precisely because of the corporate domination of the Democratic Party that it was impossible for the establishment to accept Sanders as their nominee or as president. As we consistently explained, the only way he could possibly win the presidency and implement his platform was to begin turning his campaign into the outlines of a new party organically linked to a mass movement of working people in workplaces and communities.
Since Super Tuesday, the corporate media has created one-hundred-and-one narratives about the inevitability of Joe Biden’s rise and Bernie Sanders’ fall. In fact, there was nothing inevitable about the sequence of events that took place. It was certainly not rooted in popular enthusiasm for Biden’s stale corporate politics.
After one particularly contentious debate before the Nevada primary, conservative New York Times columnist David Brooks pointed out that none of the other candidates had a clear answer to Sanders’ critique of corporate domination or his proposals for serious reform: “[none of them] have the categories or mental equipment to take down a socialist like Sanders…saying his programs cost too much is a pathetic response to a successful myth,” (2/20/2020). In reality the response to Sanders of the other candidates was a mix of weak neoliberalism, corporate identity politics and snide redbaiting.
After the South Carolina primary, the establishment — and particularly former president Obama — saw their opportunity to intervene more decisively. They “persuaded” every other candidate to get out of the race either before or right after Super Tuesday. The corporate media stepped up its relentless attacks on Sanders around the tired themes that Medicare for All is “too expensive,” Sanders’ policies are “too extreme” for the wider electorate voting in November, that Sanders couldn’t “work with others,” that he might have been “soft on communism,” etc, etc.
These attacks range from the ridiculous to the pathetic but along with the daily parade of “important people” getting behind Biden, they had a cumulative effect. But what really made this rise to the level of mass manipulation is that millions had to be convinced to disbelieve the evidence in front of their eyes: that Biden was not just a tedious, weak candidate whose positions were completely out of touch with the majority of the base of the Democratic Party but that his mental faculties are clearly diminished. It was precisely this issue, best known to the establishment itself, that led them to desperately search for months for an alternative to Biden. If “electability” was the key issue this should have been disqualifying.
The lengths to which the party establishment and their media allies were prepared to go has been revealed in the handling of Tara Reade’s allegation of sexual harassment and assault against Biden. The New York Times sat on this story for NINETEEN DAYS until after Sanders announced he was leaving the race. They have admitted to consulting with the Biden campaign on how to describe the allegations in print. It’s now clear that Reade was trying to tell her story for months, including going to Time’sUp for help which they refused. And up until last week, not a single corporate media outlet even asked Biden to respond to the charges! This has also shown the complete hypocrisy of the Democratic establishment on the question of sexual harassment and assault given that the allegations against Biden have every bit as much credibility as those against Brett Kavanaugh.
The establishment and their ruling-class backers heaved a huge sigh of relief at the way they were able to push Sanders out and the fulsome support Sanders has given Biden. However, they have actually only escaped one crisis by creating another. Already there is speculation about the Democrats switching Biden for someone else which would create a new loss of credibility for the leadership. But regardless of who the party’s corporate nominee is in November, if they actually defeat Trump, they will take charge in the middle of an unprecedented social and economic crisis where their bankrupt politics will focus the anger of young and working people leading to massive social struggle and the question of a new political party will be posed even more sharply.
Sanders Pulls His Punches
But while the establishment showed its utter ruthlessness in blocking Sanders a second time, there had to be something for them to manipulate. Compared to early 2016, when Trump’s rise was ominous but hardly certain, now we are dealing with something different, namely the mass desire to get rid of the most reactionary and dangerous president since Ronald Reagan.
It is clear that despite polls showing Sanders beating Trump, significant sections of the Democratic electorate, especially older voters, were not convinced that he could win in November and were therefore susceptible to the establishment’s disinformation campaign. Contrary to the argument that Sanders’ views were too far left, however, in the first 20 primaries, including the ones Biden won by large margins, exit polls showed a majority of voters supported Medicare for All. A new poll shows that 45% of Republicans now support Medicare for All. In the middle of this Biden reiterated that he would veto Medicare for All if it did pass Congress!
What this means is that there was a significant share of the electorate who agreed with Sanders on the issues far more than Biden, Buttigieg, Klobuchar, or even Warren but who were simply not prepared to take the risk because of “electability.”
What Sanders singularly failed to do was to define Biden as the corporate tool that he is, notoriously continuing to refer to him as “my friend” throughout the campaign. It is not clear that going on the offensive against Biden at a much earlier stage would have been enough to decisively cut across the establishment’s maneuver in early March but it would have given Sanders a fighting chance. For example, if Sanders had run attack ads in South Carolina pointing out that Biden had repeatedly threatened to cut Social Security it could have helped to dent Biden’s support among the state’s older and heavily black Democratic electorate.
The lack of a sufficiently aggressive approach by Sanders flows from a deeper problem, namely that he underestimates how far-reaching the “revolution” in politics and society needs to be to achieve his stated goals.
Sanders’ vision of “democratic socialism,” as articulated in the last four years does not extend far beyond Roosevelt’s New Deal and postwar European-style social-democratic welfare states. These were both different versions of applying Keynesian measures whose goal is to save capitalism, rather than move toward socialism. Furthermore, they both ended in failure: the New Deal did not lead to a sustained recovery, which only began with the war economy of World War II; the “structural Keynesianism”of the postwar period led to the “stagflation” and social crisis of the ‘70s before the capitalists turned to neoliberalism.
Sanders and others on the reformist left imagine a return to the postwar welfare state. But as we explain on p.— the postwar boom happened for very specific reasons which cannot be reproduced. Capitalism has resumed its long-term decline and the period we are heading into will more resemble the 1930s than the 1960s. Significant reforms can be won but only based on building a fighting labor movement and a new party of working people and the poor.
Sanders appears to be motivated by the desire not to be blamed for re-electing Trump by giving any less than his most fulsome support to the only “viable” candidate, Biden. But how will this in any way advance the fight for Medicare for All or a Green New Deal? At the very least there would have to be a credible threat made that his support and that of the millions who follow him could not be guaranteed to extract meaningful concessions from the establishment. Whatever lip service is paid to “progressive” ideas in the coming months by Biden and his surrogates is literally worth nothing.
But even if Sanders extracted a higher price for his support, the idea of “reforming” the Democrats is illusory. As we have repeatedly pointed out, turning the Democrats into a “party of the working-class,” as Sanders promised to do, would require at an absolute minimum that its candidates stop taking money from corporate interests, and that its public representatives adhere to a pro-working-class platform decided on through actual democratic structures. To state this is to show what a fantasy this is. The only positive element of Sanders’ demise is that it will help to open the eyes of hundreds of thousands to this reality.
Unfortunately, there are those on the socialist left who echo Sanders’ misunderstanding of the situation. In a piece in Jacobin after the Nevada primary, Dustin Guastella and Connor Kilpatrick triumphantly declared “Face it, establishment Democrats — it’s his party now,” completely underestimating the determination of the establishment to stop him at all costs. Around that time, Jacobin editor Bashkar Sunkara also attacked Kshama Sawant for pointing to the need to turn Sanders’ campaign into the beginning of a new party using the same misguided logic that victory in the fight to transform the Democrats was imminent.
A few weeks later, after the tide had turned, Dustin Guastella argued that the left had to accept the outcome and stay in the Democratic Party because of its weakness, saying “The Democratic ballot line affords us legitimacy and access to a mass base, and we cannot afford to abandon the tactic of using it because we are upset with the party. We will always be upset with the party, because it is not our party.” (3/11/20) Thus in a matter of weeks, his and Jacobin’s position switched from underestimating the obstacles confronting the left to underestimating the capacity of working people to move beyond this dead husk. In reality these mistakes are two sides of the same coin.
It is useful to compare what has happened here to the demise of Jeremy Corbyn, the left-wing leader of the British Labour Party. From the time he became party leader in 2015 with massive support from young people especially, the neoliberal apparatus which had controlled the party since Tony Blair took over in the ‘90s sought to undermine and sabotage him. As new revelations show, Blairite party staffers worked to undermine Labour in the 2017 elections and conspired with the “anti-Semitism” witchhunt being waged in the corporate maedia against Corbyn and his allies. Unfortunately, Corbyn refused to go on the offensive against the neoliberal Blairites. Over time this undermined his support in sections of the working class, directly contributing to the party’s failure in the 2019 elections which led Corbyn to step down.
Entering a New Era
Even before the twin crises of the pandemic and global economic downturn, it was clear that capitalism was entering a new historical phase. The rising trend of protectionism, weakening of international institutions and inter-imperialist conflict since 2008, has sharpened under Trump, resulting in a pronounced “de-globalization.” This is being accelerated under the coronavirus lockdowns with borders becoming harder and China and the U.S. accusing each other of starting the crisis.
While the pandemic is the trigger of the economic slump, we have stressed that there are deeper causes including the long term slowdown of productivity growth combined with endless speculation. The issues that detonated the 2008–9 crisis were in no way resolved in the past decade.
Furthermore, neoliberalism has been increasingly unsustainable on a political basis. At the end of 2019, we saw the development of a global revolt from Ecuador to Hong Kong against corruption and austerity. The scale of this revolt can be compared to the late 1960s and came on top of the emergence of a global youth movement to stop climate catastrophe and the mass women’s movements in many parts of the world in recent years.
The demise of neoliberalism does not mean we are entering an easier period: quite the contrary. The new reality will look more like the 1930s with even deeper social crises and political polarization. The current twin crises and the disastrous response of the ruling class, particularly in the U.S., has completely exposed capitalism.
The partial application of Keynesian measures by the ruling class out of necessity to restart the economy can create illusions about the possibility of reform. But serious concessions will be made only out of dire necessity or under mass pressure. There is no basis for return to postwar structural reforms; this will be more like the Keynesianism of the ‘30s which only ameliorated but did not resolve the crisis.
Workers see food being ploughed back into the ground while shelves are getting more bare; they see trillions being poured into bailing out banks and corporations while benefits for themselves are very difficult to access; and they see frontline workers putting their lives on the line every day for a system that frequently fails to provide them even with basic protective equipment. In general they see that everything including their lives is subordinated to profit.
Health care is a particularly explosive issue. It’s not just the shocking lack of PPE and necessary equipment in the hospitals and the failure to ramp up testing to the levels necessary. In recent years, hospitals have closed all over the country. There is now a wave of hospital closures in rural areas as well. This has contributed to a massive cut in bed capacity nationally. Even in big cities we are seeing health care workers being laid off in the middle of a pandemic! Given that unemployment may soon reach 50 million or 30% of the total workforce, it is estimated that 35 million could lose their employer-based health care. At the same time, states will soon be making massive cuts to social services including to Medicaid. In every conceivable way, the American for-profit health care system is failing the test. When trillions are being spent propping up corporations and banks, the argument that Medicare for All is “too expensive” has been blown out of the water.
The same applies to the arguments against the Green New Deal. As ordinary people see the state intervening in the sacrosanct workings of the “free market” to address the immediate crisis, the question obviously arises of why this can’t be done to protect us from the even greater threat of climate catastrophe.
What is posed on every level is the need to reorganize society so that our needs — including jobs, affordable housing, education, health care, and a livable environment — are prioritized, not profit.
What the Situation Demands
As this new period opens up, Sanders and Corbyn have been found wanting, unable to meet the challenge. While the way things went down was not inevitable, their half-hearted approach won’t work in this new situation.
Sanders’ failure to stand up to the corporate establishment was also shown by his recent vote for the massive stimulus bill including the multi-trillion corporate bailout. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, to her credit, voted no but has also been backing away from supporting progressive challengers to establishment incumbents.
We can’t understate the effect of Sanders abandoning working people at this decisive moment. A dangerous vacuum now exists on the left. But this is not a decisive blow which will set the movement back for a long time. In the short term there is no doubt that the path to forming a new mass party of working people has been blocked by objective developments as well as Sanders’ capitulation. The perspective of a mass confrontation at the Milwaukee convention marking a key point of rupture was not a mirage but has obviously been cut across.
But this changes nothing about the profound underlying crisis facing the political establishment especially if it continues to repeat neo-liberal talking points. As explained earlier the Democratic leadership in blocking Sanders and imposing the desperately weak Biden has only managed to defer their crisis and probably not for long.
Finding the political road temporarily blocked, the best elements will turn to struggle in workplaces, against cutbacks, and against mass evictions. Some, seeing no other path, will for now continue the hopeless effort to reform the Democratic Party. Others will incorrectly conclude that electoral politics is futile. A large number, however, will be looking for deeper answers and will instinctively understand that transformative change requires mobilizing people on all fronts including electoral politics. This is not because of the false idea that change is simply a legislative process. It was Sanders himself who pointed out that only mass movements create real change.
The politics we need is to give organized expression to the genuine support of millions for the platform which Sanders articulated and which becomes more necessary with each passing day. It is the coming social upheaval in the U.S. that will lay the basis for a new party.
As in the 1930s, the role of socialists in the coming period will be critical in building a fighting labor movement and mass resistance to social and economic catastrophe. But unlike the ‘30s the left needs to go further and decisively break with the Democrats to build a new mass party. Current debates in the DSA (Democratic Socialists of America) show that many see this is where things need to go even if they are not yet ready to take that step. We need the widest possible discussion on the left on how to develop genuine working class political independence.
Bernie Sanders could have performed an enormous service by bringing his movement in the direction of a new party; but with or without him, this must and will be done.