By WAYNE DELUCA
The special House election in Montana at the end of May saw Republican Greg Gianforte defeat Rob Quist, a Bernie Sanders-endorsed progressive Democrat. This feat was made remarkable by the fact that Gianforte had physically assaulted Guardian reporter Ben Jacobs the day before the election.
Exactly how Quist, a folk singer noted for his cowboy hats, was meant to be a progressive is somewhat unclear. His platform stood for small business, never mentioned single-payer health care, failed to call for any change to America’s imperialist foreign policy, talked up tax reform, and embraced the fairy tale of “clean coal” pushed by energy conglomerates. There was a very modest call for economic nationalism—taxes on companies “that ship American jobs overseas”—but barely a major challenge to the orthodoxies of the modern Democratic Party. Quist’s appeal as an outsider was simply a question of his image and his willingness to stand with people like Sanders identified with the “left wing” of the Democrats.
Quist’s opposite also lost his election. Jon Ossoff, who came in as a surprise first-place finisher in a jungle primary, failed to defeat Republican Karen Handel. Ossoff was a tabula rasa, a candidate without really any substantial policy platform. He represents the “Resistance” of the so-called establishment wing of the Democrats, attempting to essentially run a candidate against the Republicans by hanging Trump on them as an albatross.
But despite considerable outside support, Ossoff’s campaign, too, withered and lost. The Sanders wing crowed at this, claiming that only they would be able to run substantial candidates with energetic support and defeat Trump and the Republicans at the polls.
As Quist and Ossoff were losing, a candidate in Philadelphia chosen by the Sanders wing was winning his election. Larry Krasner, a civil rights attorney, won the Democratic primary in the race for District Attorney. Krasner ran a campaign to the left of the other candidates, and the Democratic decision makers in the city failed to coalesce around a single candidate, with all other comers being flawed.
Krasner was supported by Reclaim Philadelphia (a group that had its beginnings among Sanders’s primary campaign volunteers and staff) and the Philadelphia branch of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), with hundreds of phone bankers. Krasner won a plurality (around 38% of the vote), and turnout only added up to about 17% of voters, but his victory was hailed nationally and by groups such as Socialist Alternative as a progressive win.
Mere days later, Krasner was making friends with the head of the Fraternal Order of Police, which has spent the last 35 years campaigning for the state to murder political prisoner Mumia Abu Jamal.
These were three of the campaigns that shaped the dialogue when Bernie Sanders took the stage at the People’s Summit on June 9 to 11 in Chicago, a gathering of the self-declared left wing of the Democratic Party. Supporters included National Nurses United, Our Revolution, Progressive Democrats of America, and Democratic Socialists of America.
Sanders presented his grand strategy to “open up” the Democratic Party’s ranks to youth and trade unionists, and bring about a political revolution. This does not mean a revolution against the racist, imperialist, capitalist government of the United States but a transformation of the Democratic Party into something that is, well, sort of “progressive.”
Exactly what this means, as we see in Quist’s case, is unclear. The “progressive” and establishment wings of the Democratic Party are less about substantial policy issues, which Sanders and the groups supporting him are muddled on, and more a pair of brands vying for the affection of the Democratic voting base.
The “establishment” brand, until the catastrophe of Hillary Clinton’s loss, typically sold itself as cool, collected, and competent. Its brand was very much that of former President Obama, whose supporters would often share images branded “Everyone Chill the F— Out, I Got This.” Now it wants to build its credentials as a “resistance” to Trump, as seen in the recent sit-in on health care held by New Jersey Senator and likely 2020 presidential candidate Cory Booker.
The “progressive” side has primarily branded itself around support for Sanders, who has put forward a cantankerous form of New Deal liberalism and support for single-payer health care. Especially after the recent near-victory for Jeremy Corbyn’s revitalized Labour Party in Britain, the chorus from this section has been “Bernie Would’ve Won.” It has taken up the idea of class, although often in muddled terms such as “middle class” (an amalgam based on income rather than on the relationship to production) and Sanders’ “billionaire class.” In retribution the establishment wing has taken up the mantle of being feminist and antiracist, despite its obvious failings in advancing the liberation of women, LGBTQIA+ people, and oppressed nationalities.
Advancing this, Our Revolution has put forward a plan to “retake” the Democratic Party by convincing former Sanders supporters to run for Democratic county committees. A tedious and bureaucratic process, this serves not to build power under the radar for progressive causes, but rather to rebuild the very machinery that the establishment wing of the Democrats long neglected.
Unfortunately, once Democrats are elected, the right wing of the party structurally holds all of the cards and will demoralize and disappoint its young adherents—just as it did those who went into the party after the social movements of the 1960s and 1970s.
More vigorous than Our Revolution, Democratic Socialists of America has seen an uptick in running candidates, mainly as Democrats. DSA has grown significantly since Donald Trump’s election, and has swapped its old “realignment” strategy for an “inside/outside” relationship to the Democrats. It also has encouraged its members to run as “open socialists.” Unfortunately, this has made no difference in policy;
DSA members are mostly running for local offices on good-government platforms. Their being known as socialists is only remarkable because of the long and ugly history of repression of the left in the United States. The campaign content is less radical than the Sewer Socialists of early 20th-century cities like Milwaukee.
None of these forces or strategies can overcome the class character of the Democratic Party. It is a party of capital, and has never been otherwise. It is not the openly draconian face presented by the Republicans, but the Democrats remain a prop of forces in Wall Street and Silicon Valley that want a relatively flexible, dynamic, and modern capitalism rather than the brute laissez-faire model desired by the energy and manufacturing companies that group mainly behind the Republicans. Capital in the United States has the luxury of two parties.
A strategy rooted in the Democrats can never be anti-imperialist. The “progressive” wing of the Democrats, including Sanders, continues to support the state of Israel and its brutal occupation of Palestine. The Democrats have never been an antiwar party; Obama was president for eight years and never had a single day of peace. Many support imperialist bombing and intervention as long as it can have a humanitarian gloss, as was seen in pressure on Obama to bomb Libya and Syria.
For socialists the strategy of backing candidates in the Democratic Party primaries is a dangerous mirage. Groups like Socialist Alternative thought that they could endorse Bernie Sanders in the Democratic primary, only to switch to an independent candidate in mid-stream once he was defeated. Instead, they wound up as builders for Sanders’s long operation in the Democratic Party, and have lost credibility when they speak about independent working-class politics.
Socialists run in elections not because we believe that capitalism can be reformed, as the “progressives” in the Democratic Party do. Socialist campaigns are a method of bringing revolutionary socialist ideas to a broad audience and allowing voters to register their discontent with the capitalist system and its attendant racism, sexism, imperialism, and other oppression. As Lenin put it, our model is to be “tribunes of the people,” speaking against every wrong and laying bare the unpleasant truths of our society.
Modern capitalist parties are more like corporate brands than substantial political organizations; the success of Donald Trump should make that painfully clear. We cannot win by associating ourselves with a brand that is not clearly based on the working class and its allies and oriented toward goals that are in their interest. Even the halfway-house of the Green Party is no way to build a mass-action-oriented socialist movement.
As groups like Our Revolution and DSA turn more of the anti-Trump sentiment into ground work for the Democrats, their role—and the legacy of Bernie Sanders—will be in rebuilding this discredited capitalist party, not in building toward working-class power and socialism. We need to do the opposite—build an independent party of workers and the oppressed.