By Keely Mullen, Socialist Alternative (our sister organisation in the US)
When Trump was elected in 2016, a chorus of establishment Democrats from Hillary Clinton to Barack Obama to Nancy Pelosi urged ordinary Americans to “give him a chance.” Pelosi went as far as to say she “prayed for his success.” While these political leaders were welcoming Trump into the Oval Office, hundreds of thousands of people were taking to the streets in protest of his election.
Now, we are faced with the possibility of another four years of Trump and the Democratic Party’s establishment is directing all its efforts toward sidelining the candidate with the best chance to beat him: Bernie Sanders. Despite what the corporate pundits say, this is not because Bernie is unelectable or because he’s too far left for the American people. It’s because his campaigns, both in 2016 and 2020, have served as a lightning rod for working-class people who have been left behind for decades by corporate politicians in both major parties. The movement behind Bernie Sanders is viewed as an existential threat by the Democratic Party establishment.
This conflict between Bernie Sanders and the corporate Democratic Party leadership is thrusting to the fore a central question for his millions of supporters: can the Democratic Party be made into a party that genuinely represents working-class people or do we need to build something new?
How the Democrats Have Not Fought Trump
During his three-and-a-half years in office, Donald Trump has done real damage. He and the Republicans passed landmark tax cuts for the rich. He has ramped up repression at the U.S./Mexico border, leading to absolutely brutal conditions for children and families seeking asylum. He has come dangerously close to launching yet another unnecessary war, this time with Iran. He has ripped up environmental regulations and in budget after budget proposed deep cuts to the Environmental Protection Agency. He has given a pass to white supremacists like those who terrorized Charlottesville in 2017, and promoted serial predator Brett Kavanaugh to the Supreme Court with the goal of overturning Roe v. Wade.
Despite being consistently one of the least popular presidents in U.S. history, the Democrats have been unable to land any real blows against him.
Socialist Alternative supported Trump being impeached and removed from office, but we warned that a narrow focus on Ukraine risked letting him off the hook. We argued that Trump should be taken down for his real crimes against working people, people of color, immigrants, and the environment. Our warnings were proven correct when Trump hit his highest approval rating to date during the Senate impeachment trial and people largely tuned out.
There is a real hunger to defeat Trump and tens of millions are searching for the best strategy to do that. However, the impeachment proceedings did not galvanize ordinary people. More than four times as many people watched the Nevada Democratic debate as watched the opening remarks of the Senate trial.
In the leadup to the New Hampshire primary, Democratic voters in the state were polled by WBUR on the issues they most wanted to hear the candidates speak about. At the top of the list was healthcare, education, the environment and housing. Impeachment did not rank among even the top five issues for voters.
The Democrats’ narrow focus on Russian interference and corrupt dealings with Ukraine were not simply miscalculations from the party’s leadership. They reflect a much deeper political approach.
While many Democrats have issued verbal denunciations of Trump’s most vicious attacks, they have not waged any real struggle against them. Why is it that they did not launch a serious battle against his tax cuts for the rich? On his detention of immigrants at the border? On his disregard for the climate crisis? Because fighting for the interests of working-class and poor people is not their priority.
Democrats have cast decisive votes lowering the tax rate on the country’s highest earners since the ‘80s. Obama extended the Bush-era tax cuts for the rich during his first term. The very cages that became symbolic of Trump’s barbaric immigration policy were built under the Obama administration. The Democrats are deeply complicit in the criminal inaction on the climate. The nine Democrats assigned by Nancy Pelosi to sit on the Select Committee on the Climate Crisis, received nearly $200,000 from the fossil fuel industry during their 2018 campaigns. Overall the oil and gas industry donated just under $5 million to Democrats in the 2018 Congressional races.
While there is sharp conflict between the Democrats and Republicans on a number of issues, those differences exist within the context of their united approach to defending the interests of big business and the billionaire class.
Reform the Democrats or Launch a New Party?
Since 2016, when Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign exposed the deep division between large sections of the base of the Democratic Party and its leadership, a debate has intensified on the left about whether or not the Democratic Party can be transformed into a party of, by, and for working-class people. The dominant conclusion advanced by figures like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and many others on the left has been that indeed the Democratic Party can be overtaken by its left wing. While the Democratic Socialists of America passed a resolution at its convention calling for the formation of a new workers party and many of its members and leaders see working in the Democratic Party as a “pragmatic” necessity rather than a long-term project, they are generally not drawing the necessary conclusions about what is needed in this explosive situation.
Socialist Alternative understands why so many activists have focused their efforts on transforming the Democratic Party, but we have consistently pointed to the limitations of this approach.
In an article published in Jacobin on February 21 called “Democratic Party Elites Are Ready to Steal the Nomination From Bernie Sanders. We Need a Plan to Stop Them,” the authors make the argument that Bernie Sanders’ front runner status proves that socialists and progressives, are winning the fight within the Democratic Party. They argue that the call for a new party “takes the social movement left out of a contest for power that we are currently winning.” It may appear to some that the left is winning the battle to control the party, the deeper reality is far more complex.
Bernie Sanders’ enormous popularity shows the openness that exists for left-wing and socialist ideas in the U.S. He has support across the political spectrum, among Democrats, independents, some Republicans, and hundreds of thousands if not millions of people who have never participated in electoral politics before. He is the number one candidate among non-white voters and has left the rest of the primary field in the dust when it comes to grassroots fundraising.
Despite all of this support from such a broad coalition of voters, Bernie still faces tremendous obstacles on his path to the general election. If progressives and socialists were truly winning the battle to take over the Democratic Party, why are we preparing for a showdown at the Democratic National Convention where it’s very possible Sanders will be undemocratically blocked?
“Winning the fight” in the party would require much more than Bernie Sanders being the party’s current front runner or even the party’s nominee. This would only be the beginning.
Winning the Party
Where we differ from the position advanced in the Jacobin article mentioned above is in our understanding of what it would take to “win the fight” to transform the Democratic Party. Here’s why the Democratic Party is not a tool we can easily morph to our liking and wield to advance our cause:
1. The party is undemocratic:
Unlike most political parties in other countries, there is no “joining” the Democratic Party. You can register to vote Democrat, you can donate to the party’s campaigning outfits, you can run for office as a Democrat. But, short of being a political insider or corporate lobbyist with access to backroom meetings, there is almost no way to meaningfully participate in decision making within the party.
The complete lack of democracy in the party was on full display in 2016 when its establishment blocked Bernie Sanders from winning the Democratic nomination. The party’s sinister maneuvers were exposed in 2017 when Donna Brazile confirmed what we all had suspected: throughout the 2016 primaries, the Democratic Party was controlled by the Clinton campaign.
According to Brazile herself, in exchange for clearing the DNC’s debt, a deal was brokered between Hillary Clinton’s campaign and Debbie Wasserman Schultz – then chairman of the DNC. Brazile wrote: “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.”
2. The party’s structures are set up to benefit big business:
Take, for example, the Democratic Congressional Campaigning Committee (DCCC) which has recently come under fire from Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. The DCCC is the committee within the party dedicated to electing Democrats to the House of Representatives. However, far from being a neutral campaigning outfit the DCCC asserts the will of the establishment by cutting off at the knees any progressive challenge to an incumbent Democrat. As AOC said, “[The DCCC] has been an entrenched tool in a system that blocks working-class candidates from running for office, and protects out of touch incumbents.”
In 2019, the DCCC announced it would cut off political strategists and vendors who support candidates mounting primary challenges against Democratic Party incumbents. This prompted AOC to announce that not only would she not pay DCCC dues, but that she was launching her own PAC to directly challenge the DCCC. This is a step in the right direction.
Beyond just intervening in the campaigning side of the political process, the DCCC is also used in a sinister way to control who within the party steers its apparatus. Members of the Democratic Caucus in the House are expected to raise a certain amount for the DCCC from outside donors in addition to paying dues. The more money a representative brings in, the more powerful their committee assignments will be.
According to a September 2019 exposé in The Intercept entitled “Here’s How Much The Democratic Party Charges To Be On Each House Committee”: “Members of Congress who pay their dues and hit their targets are rewarded with better committee assignments in the future, and more favorable treatment of legislation they author, than members who shirk their dues. Members who don’t pay, for instance, are less likely to have their bills or amendments get a floor or committee vote.”
Beyond just having tight control over its own structures, the corporate establishment has also forced each presidential contender to sign a pledge that they will not use any alternative campaigning structure if they win the nomination. The pledge requires that candidates “use state parties as their organizing, messaging, and political arm should they become their party’s nominee.”
This means if Sanders were the nominee he would be formally prevented from launching the type of mass membership organization that would be desperately required to back him up and help push back against ferocious ruling-class opposition and sabotage from the party’s establishment. Sanders winning the nomination does not automatically loosen the restraints placed on him by the party leadership, if anything it tightens them. Therefore he will need a way to organize his millions of supporters in order to defeat Trump and win his program.
3. The party is loyal to the politics of big business:
While the Democratic Party website lists a host of positions and political goals, many of which are not objectionable, the reality is that their leadership is willing to betray any stated value in exchange for a fat check. There is no mechanism to hold elected officials accountable to the party’s official platform.
The party’s real platform is not contained in any public document but is reflected in the actual positions they have taken over many decades: from ramping up mass incarceration under Clinton, to supporting George Bush’s invasion of Iraq. Party leaders, like Joe Biden, have supported restricting or cutting “entitlements“ like Social Security. Under Barack Obama, the Democrats fiercely pushed the corporate agenda of privatizing public education and attacking teacher unions. The underlying politics of the party since the ‘80s is support for neoliberalism, including globalization and driving back the gains of working people. The vicious establishment war against Bernie Sanders and pro-working class reforms like Medicare for All is a continuation of this – but now their politics has been exposed to tens of millions.
This is why AOC is quite correct when she said that in any other country she and Joe Biden would not be in the same party. The U.S. has had a uniquely dysfunctional situation where the left has been imprisoned in a viciously corporate party for nearly a century.
We Need a New Party
The final question at the recent Nevada debate was whether candidates agreed that the person with the most votes and delegates should get the nomination. Only Bernie agreed, confirming what many of us had feared: the Democratic Party establishment is prepared to steal the nomination from Sanders, even if he has a plurality of delegates, at a brokered convention. If he is again undemocratically blocked from becoming the party’s nominee, we cannot quietly accept our fate as happened in 2016. This is why we are calling now for a “million to Milwaukee” to use people power to force the hand of the establishment.
If Bernie manages to win the Democratic Party nomination, overcoming all the obstacles put in his path, the realities of the Democratic Party as outlined above will not cease to exist. In fact, the party’s establishment will do everything in its power to cut Bernie’s political revolution off at the knees.
Again some on the left are not drawing the necessary conclusions. The recent Jacobin article “After the Nevada Blowout, It’s Bernie’s Party Now” argues that because Bernie is activating otherwise disaffected voters, “a new party, thoroughly working-class and committed to egalitarian politics, [is] quickly blooming up into the husk of the old one.” This implies that all we need to do is win the nomination to transform the party.
However, if he wins the nomination Bernie will not simply be able to wield the party’s existing apparatus to his liking; he will have to organize his supporters to keep up the pressure. Jeremy Corbyn in Britain faced a similar struggle after winning the support of the membership to become probably the most leftwing leader of the Labour Party in its history. The party’s right wing was determined to undermine Corbyn and prevent his radical pro-working class reforms from being realized. Despite bringing tens of thousands of new people into the Labour Party to back him up, Corbyn made the fatal mistake of not organizing his base to wage a ferocious battle to defeat Labour’s neoliberal right wing and force it out of the party. This paved the way for Corbyn’s defeat in the most recent general election at the end of 2019.
Bernie and his supporters need to learn the lessons of Corbyn’s mistakes. If he wins the Democratic nomination, we will urgently need to set up our own democratic organization that explicitly excludes establishment Democrats in order to win Bernie’s program.
Ultimately, an organization that formed around Bernie – win or lose – would need to take on characteristics of a new party with a clear pro-worker platform to which elected officials were accountable. It would need to exist without corporate money or influence. This might be temporarily a “party within a party” but such a situation would be highly unstable. Either the establishment would drive it out or it would have to drive the establishment out – a near impossible task.
At this stage, Bernie himself has given no indication he will take up the project of launching a new party. He has already stated he will support the Democratic nominee regardless of who it is. We disagree with this approach. Electing a corporate Democrat is no solution to the social, political, and economic crisis that paved the way for Trump’s election. In the context of another impending economic crisis, putting another corporate Democrat in the Oval Office is a guarantee that big business will be taken care of and working people will be left footing the bill. This will undoubtedly lay the ground for something even worse than Trumpism.
If Bernie however does take up this call and form a new party – or even a mass democratic membership organization – with an active internal life, democratic structures, and an inspiring political program, millions of new people would be brought into politics. This would directly threaten the position of both major political parties as well as the ruling-class interests they represent.
With the mainstream media and political establishment shaking in their boots, there has never been a better time to strike a death blow to corporate domination over politics. The coming months will be a historic marker for working-class people in our fight to assert control over our own lives and push back the billionaire class. The next step in this process needs to be a decisive break from the Democratic Party elite and the formation of a new political party of, by, and for working people.