Anyone who follows the progressive left in the US has probably encountered a lot of criticism of Bernie Sanders ever since he endorsed Hillary Clinton for president and campaigned for her to beat Donald Trump in 2016. Some of Sanders’ biggest supporters during the 2016 primaries, such as Jimmy Dore and Debbie Lusignan, the host of Youtube’s the Sane Progressive, have now become his biggest critics.
I was disappointed by Bernie’s reaction to many of the obvious attempts to manipulate the vote in the 2016 Democratic primaries. In my opinion, he should have publicly criticized the Democratic Party for engaging in this skulduggery, but I also understand why he didn’t. He saw his candidacy as a way to raise important issues in the Democratic party and force them to be discussed on the national stage. He knew enough about the machinations inside the Democratic Party to know that he would not be allowed to win the nomination for president, which is why he was able to keep campaigning with such passion on the issues even when he knew that he would loose.
At the end of the day, he wanted the Democrats to win the presidency no matter what because he has spent the last 3 decades in congress watching the Republicans gut the policies he cares about. He knew exactly how evil Trump would be as president, because he had seen what past Republican presidents did to the environment, labor rights, market regulation, etc. He has no illusions about corporate Democrats like Obama and the Clintons, but he knew that he could still push on important issues under a Hillary presidency, whereas that would be impossible under Trump.
Bernie was afraid that if he raised the issue of election fraud and all the dirty tricks of the Hillary campaign, that it would discredit her in the general election and the Republicans would win. With hindsight, many of us on the left wished that he had, since Hillary ended up loosing anyway. Basically, Bernie decided that the short term political impact of denouncing the dirty practices in the Democratic Party would be worse than the long-term good that it might cause in pushing the party to reform.
Bernie has always been a politician who values small, but tangible gains, which is why he spent so many years fighting for amendments in Congress. Maybe Bernie’s decisions were too short-term in scope, but we should also realize the long-term strategy that Bernie is playing. First of all, he is now angling to really win the presidency in 2020 and he thinks that the party might allow it to happen, whereas it wouldn’t in 2016. This means that he has to play a delicate game where he doesn’t totally alienate the bigwigs in the party, but tries to show them that the best way to win is a populist left strategy not based on corporate and big-money donations.
He founded Our Revolution so that progressive activists could work to reform the Democratic Party from within, while he pretends that he is not involved. This means that Our Revolution can work to get elected progressive candidates, but they generally don’t primary sitting establishment Democrats in congress, and they leave that work to Brand New Congress, the Justice Democrats and the Democratic Socialists of America. This means that Out Revolution can work on changing the rules of the DNC, but Bernie has to pretend that he doesn’t have a dog in that fight. He can publicly criticize the party, but he has to keep that criticism within certain acceptable bounds, and one of those limits is not talking publicly about the dirty tricks that were played against him.
These strategies have disenchanted many former supporters like Jimmy Dore, who want Bernie to found a third party that will force the Democratic Party to either coopt their issues or risk loosing elections. I understand the third party strategy and historically it has worked. Almost every progressive idea that was adopted by the Democratic and Republican Parties between 1870 and 1940 first came to the fore under a third party. Reformers like Teddy Roosevelt and Franklin D. Roosevelt basically adopted the ideas of the third parties and implemented them. Without the Populist, Progressive and Socialist Parties laying the groundwork, the ideas that became anti-trust law and the New Deal probably never would have been enacted in public policy.
The thing that the third-party advocates fail to acknowledge, however, is that the Democrats and Republicans have spent over a century laying down rules to prevent third parties from arising after witnessing the threat posed by the Populist, Progressive, and Bull Moose parties. Bernie is a practical politician and he has looked closely at the tangled thicket of rules that are designed to hinder a third party. He sees little chance of a third party succeeding on a national level, whereas he sees a viable path for success in taking over the Democratic Party from within. So far the empirical evidence suggests that he is right. His agenda is taking over the party.
However, as Jimmy Dore loves to point out in his Youtube videos, the leadership of the party is still playing all sorts of tricks to resist reform as well, so there is no guarantee that Bernie’s strategy will work. The only sitting corporate Democrat in the US congress who has lost a primary so far has been Joseph Crowley, so reforming the Democratic Party is hardly a sure bet at this point. Dore argues that the leadership of the Democratic Party is going to make sure that Bernie won’t win the presidential nomination, and he is wasting his time trying to play ball with the Democratic Party leadership, when he should be attacking them publicly. Dore believes that Sanders is “sheepdogging” progressives into a corrupt party that doesn’t want to reform itself, when he should be using his political capital to build a third party that can challenge the Democrats from the outside.
On the other hand, the polling shows that Bernie is the front-runner to be the next Democratic nominee for president, although the mainstream press will never acknowledge it. The other potential presidential candidates know it, which is why Kristen Gillibrand, Kamala Harris and Cory Booker sound more and more like Bernie every day. Even if Bernie doesn’t win the nomination, whoever does win will have to adopt much of Bernie’s agenda at least in their public discourse. The problem is that a candidate like Gillibrand, Harris or Booker will probably pull from the Obama playbook, and run as a progressive, but govern as a centrist and a corporatist.
More important, in my opinion, is the work to replace the corporate Democrats in congress and the state houses with enough populist left politicians like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, so that a Bernie-style president can push through Medicare for All, free tuition at public universities, a public infrastructure bill, ending the wars, etc. FDR was a great president because he had a Democratic Party in control of congress. He not only had progressive leaders in congress who were pushing the New Deal, but he was able to work in coordination with them to pressure recalcitrant congressmen into voting the right way.
I wish that progressive activists would understand Bernie’s strategy, rather than posting asinine comments online like “Bernie’s a sellout” or “we can’t trust Bernie after he endorsed Hillary.” Leftist activists seem to take a special kind of delight in leaving these sorts of comments on Youtube. It is fine to disagree with Bernie’s strategy and to work on a different one, but at least have the maturity to acknowledge what he is trying to do, rather than engage in pointless character assassination and failing to acknowledge the political realities of the US. Bernie may be pursuing the wrong strategy and reform of the Democratic Party might not work in the long-term, but we would all be better off if we stopped trying to see this as the moral failing of Bernie as an individual, but rather understanding it as long-term strategy to achieve a set of progressive policy goals.
Personally, I believe that we need both an inside and an outside strategy to eventually be successful. Working for reform within the Democratic Party and third-party activism are both useful, because both strategies help to push the Party to the right place and these two strategies are not mutually exclusive. In fact, doing one helps reenforce the other. Helping the Green Party get 5% of the vote and primarying corporate Democrats both help to push the Party to the left and adopt a progressive agenda. If a third party is ever going to successful in the US which is a winner-takes-all system, then we are going to need Democrats in office who are sympathetic to rule changes such as ranked-choice voting. At the same time, working in the DSA and the Green Parties is certainly not a waste of time, because they pose a credible threat to Democrats who are forced to coopt their agenda. Even if we chose to work through a third party, we shouldn’t disparage progressive politician like Bernie who have chosen a different path to achieve the same policy goals.
I follow the Molly Ivin’s strategy when voting. Vote for the third party as a protest when the vote is not close in your district, but vote for the Democrat when the vote is close. I voted for the Green Party candidate in 1992 and 1996 against Bill Clinton, but I held my nose and voted for Obama in 2008, because I thought that the race would be close in Indiana, where I was voting. I voted for Bernie in the Democratic primaries in 2016, but didn’t bother to vote in the general election, because Indiana was going to go overwhelming to Trump, so my vote was effectively meaningless. If I were able to vote in a place like Pennsylvania, Florida or Ohio, where the vote was expected to be close, I would have held my nose and voted for Hillary, despite her patently corrupt practices as a politician.
Given the kind of damage that Republicans are wont to inflict on the nation, progressives need to be strategically smart and not be ruled by simple passions in our voting. Part of that strategy can be third party voting, but it makes no sense to disparage the moral character of people like Bernie who are pursuing a different strategy. If you feel that Bernie’s strategy is wrong, than attack the strategy, not the man. At the very least, acknowledge that we share many of the same goals on the left, if not the same way of getting to those goals.