If Bernie Sanders Runs in 2016: Dem, Indy, or Green?

Scott-McClartyby Scott McLarty
February 13, 2014

A Democratic or Independent Sanders campaign for the White House won’t ignite a “political revolution.” But a Green Sanders campaign might.

Should Sen. Bernie Sanders (Ind.-Vt.) run for president?

The creeping realization that the next Democratic nominee may be Hillary Rodham Clinton, who has already picked up $400,000 in speaking fees (i.e., unofficial campaign contributions, i.e., bribes) from Goldman Sachs, is making a progressive alternative increasingly attractive for 2016. Sen. Sanders is mulling the idea and a few Draft Sanders efforts are underway.

By progressive, I mean favoring an immediate shutdown of Guantanamo and the NSA surveillance dragnet, Medicare For All to replace Obamacare, a ban on fracking, cancellation of the tar-sands pipelines and Trans-Pacific Partnership, prosecution of banksters responsible for the fraud that triggered the 2008 economic crisis, a livable wage for working Americans, a reversal of the redistribution of wealth to the One Percent, and an end to military adventures and drone warfare, among other things.

Despite campaign promises and occasional rhetoric, President Obama has proved himself on the wrong side (or inadequate side, in the case of wages) of all of the above. The ferocious partisan hostility between Dems and a Republican Party determined to march off the cliff of extremism shouldn’t blind us to the retreat of the Democratic Party’s mainstream from FDR-era progressivism. We have two parties of war and Wall Street.

Ms. Clinton is likely to be even friendlier than Mr. Obama to the plutocrat sector. She’ll enjoy a progressive makeover to disguise her record and appeal to the amnesiac voting bloc. She’ll win the support of Dem voters who place hope in the illusion of her incremental progressivism (“Her heart’s in the right place!”) and those for whom Dems are the eternal lesser of two evils (“We have nowhere else to turn!”).

Some of those with more realistic expectations about a Clinton presidency have appealed to Sen. Sanders, who acknowledges the need for a “political revolution” to change the country’s direction, to consider running.

There are two questions regarding a Sanders candidacy, the second contingent on the first: whether he should run, and how he should run. I’ll leave aside “whether” for now and skip over to “how.”


Here’s the problem with independent campaigns: they leave no legacy. An independent might call public attention to a few big issues ignored by the D and R candidates, but there exists no institutional means to carry the independent’s ideas forward after Election Day.

John Anderson’s independent campaign drew nearly 7% of the vote in 1980, above the FEC’s 5% threshold for partial public funding in the following presidential election, if Rep. Anderson had established an alternative party or run on an existing alternative party’s ballot line.

In some cases, candidates create party labels for their ballot lines, such as Former Salt Lake City Mayor Rocky Anderson’s Justice Party in 2012, but such campaigns are in effect independent, with the ad hoc party folding when Election Day is over. Independent campaigns are historical footnotes, with nothing to show for the candidates’ efforts.


We know what happens to progressive Democratic contenders for the White House. Just ask Dennis Kucinich. Or Rev. Jesse Jackson. Their campaigns serve mainly to keep progressives within the Democratic fold during the pre-primary period, ensuring that most of the latter will vote for the party’s corporate-money nominee in the general election.

Progressive Dems have tried for decades to steer their party back towards its alleged principles. Despite their best efforts, the Democratic Party continues to slide to the right. The party’s leaders assume they can take progressive votes for granted, while adapting to compete with the GOP for corporate campaign checks.

Much of President Obama’s agenda and accomplishments would have been recognized as Republican ten years ago. The long list of examples includes the individual mandate, an idea that was introduced by the Heritage Foundation and supported by Republicans until Dems made it the basis of Obamacare in 2009.

The fact that groups like MoveOn.org have defended or acquiesced to the Dems’ embrace of conservative agenda proves that instead of pulling the Democratic Party to the left, progressives have been pulled to the right.

When a Democratic president proposes cuts in Social Security and secretly negotiates an anti-labor trade pact (the Trans-Pacific Partnership) while publicly bemoaning income equality, when Democrats from the party’s left flank defend the kind of military strikes and surveillance that they protested under a GOP president, it’s a sign that the party is beyond rehabilitation.

Why Not Green?

Several articles and one online poll limit Bernie Sanders’ options to running Dem and running Independent, if he decides to run at all. They seem to go out of their way to ignore a third option staring them in the face: running Green.

A quick comparison of Sen. Sanders’ positions with the Green Party’s platform and principles shows a close match.

Like Sen. Sanders, the Green Party measures the health of the nation’s economy according to the level of financial security enjoyed by working Americans and the number of people lifted out of poverty — in contrast to the Ds and Rs, who judge the economy by the Dow, GDP, and corporate profit margins. Democrats cite economic gains since 2009 as evidence of a recovery, while Sen. Sanders and the Green Party advocate deep changes to a system that has allowed the top One Percent to enjoy 95% of these gains.

It’s very possible that Sen. Sanders would win the Green nomination if he competed for it. Instead of disappearing after the primaries, he’d compete as nominee in the race until the November election. The ideas and positions he expressed would remain in the public debate as an alternative to the narrow spectrum represented by Ms. Clinton and the GOP nominee. With the Green Party already on the ballot in most states, he wouldn’t have to start from scratch in collecting ballot lines as an independent.

The two main objections to a Green Sanders campaign are (1) he’d siphon votes away from the Democrat, and (2) he’d have no chance of winning the White House, so why bother running?

The first objection is an excuse for progressives to fall back into a voting pattern that has allowed Dem politicians to take their votes for granted. If we’re serious about reversing the country’s direction, the risk of another GOP presidency has to be weighed against the risk posed by the dangerous bipartisan march to the right, which is likely to continue in the coming decades unless interrupted. It’s clear by now that the interruption won’t come from within the Democratic Party but from insurgencies like Occupy Wall Street and the Green Party.

The “winnability” objection often comes from Dem apologists who prefer that Sen. Sanders run as a Democrat. The problem with this argument is that his chance of winning the nomination in today’s Democratic Party is nearly as remote as his chance of winning the White House as a Green.

Greens face this question all the time: Why run or vote for a third-party presidential candidate at all, if he or she has nearly zero chance of winning?

There are lots of reasons to run and support an alternative party candidate. We all deserve the right to vote for candidates who best represents our own interests and ideals. Insisting that the only valid candidates are the two who are competing to serve Wall Street turns democratic elections into a sham, making it hardly worth our energy to fill out a ballot. (It’s one reason why most Americans don’t vote.) A movement that, on the basis of lesser-evilism, supports a party or candidate whose program is contary to its own participates in its own self-defeat. Barack Obama’s 2008 victory killed the antiwar movement when most of its participants ignored his actual positions and imagined he was the antiwar candidate.

Voting for an alternative party’s candidates helps the party grow beyond Election Day. In some states, ballot access and major party status are based on formulas that include the number of votes for the party’s presidential candidate. As noted above, receiving 5% in a presidential race qualifies a party for partial public funding in the next election.

National candidates help focus public attention on their party’s local candidates. Green nominees have consistently used their campaigns to promote Greens running in winnable local races. Greens like to talk about the presidential campaign spectacle, but they know that the party’s real growth is taking place at the grassroots level. Still, local Green candidates benefit immensely from presidential campaigns that carry the banner for the party.

Green nominees bring public attention to Green ideas and local organizing efforts: saving public education, water, and other services and resources from privatization; enacting livable (not just minimum) wage laws; promoting conservation, new energy technologies, bike lanes, reduced bus fares, and other ways to end fossil-fuel dependence and stem the advance of climate change; opposing runaway police and prosecutorial power and the private prison-industrial complex, which continue to drive mass incarceration of young black, brown, and poor people and the drug war; urging cities and states to establish public banks that would end Wall Street’s bond-market tyranny; helping homeowners threatened with foreclosure.

In 2012, Green presidential nominee Jill Stein and running mate Cheri Honkala ran on the “Green New Deal”, an economic and ecological program introduced by New York Green gubernatorial candidate Howie Hawkins in 2010 and endorsed by over 60 other Green candidates. Dr. Stein and Ms. Honkala joined Philadelphia activists in getting arrested for protesting foreclosures. A year later, Green Mayor Gayle McLaughlin of Richmond, California, led her city in using eminent domain to help underwater homeowners.

In other words, there are more ways to win than qualifying for the front-door key to the White House.

If you want a revolution, you have to do something revolutionary. The political revolution that Sen. Sanders advocates requires a sustained movement that’s represented by a party in the electoral arena. The party must be permanent, serious about electoral participation, independent of the bipartisan establishment, and beyond the reach of corporate PACs, lobbyists, and campaign checks.

One party fits that description. If Sen. Sanders decides not to run as a Green, he should be encouraged to endorse the Green nominee, promote Green candidates running locally, and help build the Green Party.