in a couple of weeks, Bernie Sanders will lay out specifics of his vision for “Our Revolution.” He has been clear that his campaign for progressive social change did not end with the Philadelphia convention and will not end with the November elections. He has not been clear about how that is to happen. “Our Revolution” at the moment is a foggy concept.
Tom Gallagher, whose pre-convention articles I’ve reposted here several times, published a thoughtful analysis a few days ago in which he contrasted the American two-party system with the parliamentary systems common in European democracies. If we ignored the party labels and looked at the core policies, he said, we would have five major parties in the U.S. Namely, a Social-Democratic left party led by Sanders, a “Liberal” left-centrist party led by Clinton, a right-populist party led by Trump, and two conservative parties led by Cruz and Kasich, respectively.
You might quarrel with the labels on the right side. There’s an emerging right-centrist bloc of moderate Republicans of the Bloomberg stripe, who are currently with Clinton. And the lines between the Trump faction and other right-wing blocs are blurred and shifting. But on the left side, Gallagher’s inventory looks solid. While the “Liberal” Clinton party (the term is borrowed from the British spectrum) is the largest, Sanders’ Social-Democratic group is the second largest overall. Sanders took roughly forty-five per cent of all elected delegates in a primary system that was heavily slanted against him. He got more than twelve million votes. He raised more than 228 million dollars. Sanders’ successes defy historic precedents.
Given this new political reality, I can’t follow Gallagher’s conclusion that “Our Revolution” ought to set as its goal to remain within and to try to capture the Democratic Party. “We want to control the messy Democratic Party,” he writes. I have agreed with Gallagher that Sanders, after serving in the Senate for sixteen years as an independent, was smart to enter the Democratic Party for the primary. But in my view, what was brilliant before Philadelphia is less so in the aftermath.
Let me be clear. I agree with Sanders’ endorsement of Clinton for November. At least as a general umbrella guideline, subject to exception in states where the Clinton-Trump race is not at all close. The attacks on this endorsement strike me as at best reckless and at worst as paid for by Trump. This is the time for a kind of popular front or democratic coalition against Trump.
But an electoral endorsement or coalition is a very different thing than a merger of parties. Remaining within and trying to control the Democratic Party, as Gallagher advocates, amounts to merging the Sanders revolution with the Democratic establishment. The millions of people who grew enthusiastic about the ideas in the Sanders campaign will have no party flag to rally around. The Democratic Party flag will remain at best an ambiguous, and in many ways a repellent standard. Nothing beyond a string of Bernie Sanders email messages will identify progressive candidates down-ballot in races all over the country. Building political allegiances requires, among other things, clear imagery for the public to identify with. The strategy of trying to capture the Democratic Party from within situates the battle in the closed rooms where internecine conflicts take place, out of the public eye, and in a short time a mass of partisans becomes confused, demoralized, and passive.
With a single sketchy, passing historical reference, Gallagher dismisses the chances of a third party. But Gallagher does not even begin to look at the history or the current chances of progressive moles trying to take over the Democratic Party. Assume that Clinton is elected. She will command unlimited financial resources and a cornucopia of patronage goodies to distribute to her party loyalists. Debbie Wasserman-Schultz will be on steroids. Clinton will have the option to boot the Sandernistas out or to keep them on leash inside the party kennels, and she can do either at any time. Trying to take over the party of a sitting president, as Gallagher ought to know, is a borderline delirious notion.
Of course, if Clinton is defeated, the picture changes. Sanders will be able to say, “we told you so,” drawing on the array of polls during the primary showing Clinton as the weaker candidate against Trump. In the resulting chaos, a well-organized and disciplined Sanders faction might well make major gains toward party control. But the money men that run the Democratic Party (like the Republican) will never give up ownership of the party label, and the Sanders bloc will have to break out, or be kicked out, before the dust settles.
My voice is not the only one urging Sanders (while continuing to endorse Clinton for November) to launch a progressive third party. No less a pragmatic voice than Robert Reich, the former Secretary of Labor, wrote in the July 10 issue of The Nation:
The next move for Bernie Sanders’s political revolution is to set up a third party (shall we call it the New Progressive Party?), whose primary goal should be to get big money out of politics. Nothing else worth doing is possible unless we reclaim our democracy, and we can’t do that through our current Democratic or Republican parties, both of which are beholden to big money.
Reich thinks the launch of the new party should be delayed until after November 8. Perhaps, but a serious ramp-up toward the launch, with the goal clearly in mind, needn’t wait. I would argue that Sanders has already waited too long; that the moment to announce the project was in his endorsement speech in Philadelphia. But better late than never.