Last May, shortly after Bernie Sanders entered the Democratic Party presidential primary, I wrote an article for the Red Vine where I outlined a general position about his candidacy and how it would unfold.1 In doing so, I made a few predictions – always a risky move – about the development of the Sanders campaign and how it would feed into both the primary process and the eventual general election. While some of the predictions still have yet to be fully borne out one way or another, thinking about them fourteen months after the fact makes me think I was, at least in general terms, right. Hopefully I can bring that out a little bit below:
“1) Gain a reasonable degree of popular support among sections of the populace who have been active in broadly-defined progressive social movements in the past 3-5 years, particularly those campaigns seeking to address economic inequality (Occupy, the various minimum wage increase campaigns, and so on.) This will also include sections of the organized left, both in its radical liberal forms (Greens and others), and its socialist forms. “
I think this is largely true. While the Sanders campaign has attracted a large number of people for whom this is their first real political or social movement engagement, a significant section of Sanders’s supporters came from people who have been active in one or another of the protest or social movements that have started to emerge in the past five years, such as various post-Occupy groups, Fight for 15/15 Now, Black Lives Matter to a degree, various anti-fracking and climate justice movements, and many others. Furthermore, the Sanders campaign did create pull in fairly reasonable sections (for what that’s worth) of the radical-liberal and socialist left; the Green Party had to deal with several members and a couple state parties arguing for people to support and vote for Sanders, and a few socialist groups and many individual socialists have been some of Sanders’ strongest supporters. Both Democratic Socialists of America and Socialist Alternative, for example, have strongly pushed the Sanders campaign as an opening for the left.
”2) Do well enough in some primary states to reinforce a hold over the aforementioned groups and project the idea that it is better/more effective to fight for progressive social change within the context of Democratic Party politics as opposed to an independent political force. In this sense, it seems possible that Sanders does better than Kucinich in this regard, at least in terms of votes won in primaries, as at this point Sanders is the only official challenger to Hillary Clinton. This will probably change over the next six months, which may eat into Sanders’ vote totals as a result, but Sanders still seems to have an advantage here that Kucinich didn’t in 2004.”
This one is still somewhat up in the air. Certainly, Sanders did better than Kucinich did twelve years ago, partially because he was pretty much the only other candidate in the race (RIP Lincoln Chafee.) I think it’s also true that this is the role Sanders wanted to play, or was intended to play – bring in new layers of progressive and socialist activists into the orbit of the Democratic Party so that its own left-wing rhetorical credentials would be secured, and even the “independent” networks that are/will be created to supposedly further the agenda that Sanders has raised will largely remain as half-inside half-outside organs of the Democratic Party. And at least to a point, that’s probably what will happen in November. I for one have no doubt that the vast majority of people who votes for Sanders in the primary will, for better or for worse, vote for Clinton in the general election.
However, reality has intervened. While Sanders would have most likely lost to Clinton even in a completely transparent and fair process, the development of the primary process has exposed hundreds of thousands of people to the bureaucratic tyranny and Byzantinism that is the structure of the Democratic Party, its cozy and completely legal entanglement with state institutions (boards of elections and so on), and the periodic scandals of Democratic Party officials apparently trying to tip the balance in Clinton’s favor anyway. Even if the vast majority of these people remain in the Democratic Party orbit for the next few months, hopefully enough of them will remember this experience and be able to engage in some critical reflection on what went wrong, why the Democratic Party is structured the way it is, and what sort of structures might actually be needed to both meaningfully fight for the politics that they claim to support, and how their elected representatives can actually be controlled by their members, rather than the other way around.
“3) Either drop out of the race before the Democratic National Convention and endorse the frontrunner, or declare support for the eventual nominee during/immediately after the DNC, on the argument that, given the choice between the Democratic and Republican presidential candidates, it will be more possible to fight for the issues that the Sanders campaign has raised with Democrats in power than with Republicans in power, based on some combination of the Democrats either being the more natural constituency for progressive politics and/or the Democrats being more susceptible to pressure from the left (two very closely linked, but ultimately separate arguments.) While the entirety of the base that the Sanders campaign has built won’t go along with this, a large enough majority likely will so that the Democrats’ left flank is sufficiently secured, and the rest of the presidential campaign can be spent on attacking Republicans, wooing “moderates,” and ensuring their patrons in the capitalist class that the presence of a left constituency within the Democratic Party won’t be a major threat to them.”
The first part of this has basically already happened, even if some Sanders supporters and delegates are pushing ahead anyway. As the Democratic National Convention rolls on, this will become even more apparent. As for the other part, sections of it have borne out (witness some prominent neo-conservatives come over to the Clinton camp), but on some level that prediction won’t fully be tested until November. So let me take a couple more risks, and make a couple more predictions:
- Hillary Clinton will win in November. She will do so with the votes and support of the vast majority of people who votes for Bernie Sanders in the primary. Some Sanders voters will turn elsewhere (largely to the Green Party, most likely, but I hope many of them give the Soltysik/Walker campaign a serious consideration) but level of defection of Sanders supporters away from Clinton will likely be lower than the level of anti-Trump Republicans away from Trump.
- A number of these anti-Trump Republicans – moderates, the few social liberals that bizarrely remain in the party, neo-conservatives as mentioned above, will also end up supporting Clinton. (A smaller number will likely turn to Gary Johnson and the Libertarian Party, which is already happening in some quarters.) This will happen as the result of a targeted effort by the Clinton campaign to vote for “common sense” or “decency” or whatever against Donald Trump.
- In the calculus of the Clinton campaign and the eventual Clinton presidency, these supporters will ultimately be seen as the people who bring Clinton over the top, because it will be widening the big-tent coalition that the Democratic Party seeks. While progressives are also part of that tent, they will be taken for granted on a political and policy level, as they largely have been for years, while a Clinton presidency will govern in a way which aims to keep their new-found supporters from the right under the tent as well. It may work for 2018, 2020, and so on, or it may not; the point is that a Clinton presidency will be much more beholden to them than to the progressives who came in earlier. As far as the left goes, Clinton will ask for everything and give nothing. And while it may defeat Trump, I doubt it will put a serious damper on the social forces that Trump has rallied, thus giving yet another (albeit frighteningly real) bogeyman for the Democratic Party establishment to bring up whenever progressives start complaining too much.
There has to be another way.
Fortunately for all of us, I think there is one. Fortunately for progressives and socialists who feel like they have to vote for Clinton, their vote in November has nearly no bearing on the development of that other way. The real work begins after the election, to lay the groundwork for a party that can seriously challenge the Democrats, the Republicans, and the state itself.
It’s not going to be easy. It will likely mean grinding through boring meetings, organizing sessions, and study groups, but will likely also have some very inspiring campaigns. It will likely mean hard-fought political arguments, but so long as we are able practice unity within diversity in good faith, those arguments will hopefully produce even higher forms of unity. And it will likely mean losing, at least in the short term.
But we have a world to win if we do.
– Peter Moody