The Democratic Party Dead End and the Resignation of American Progressives

Nation of Change
by Michael Trudeau

If you read the New Republic or receive emails from the PAC “Friends of Bernie Sanders,” you might have seen a rather strange article recently by New Republic editor Michael Kazin titled “Democrats Need Bernie Sanders to Run for President.”

As perhaps the main voice on the left calling for independent progressive senator Bernie Sanders to reject the Democratic Party in 2016 in favor of a leftist coalition, I’ll offer that there’s a lot Kazin gets right but that his ultimate conclusion is vitally flawed. Namely, Sanders cannot and will not win the Democratic primary (Mr. Kazin is correct to assume this), but it is precisely for this reason, and others, that Sanders must not enter it (Mr. Kazin is incorrect to assume that he should). Kazin argues that

1) Sanders should run as a Democrat,
2) Sanders cannot win as a Democrat and that Hillary Clinton is a shoe-in,
3) Sanders will give HOPE to progressives inside the Democratic Party, and
4) Progressives are currently disenchanted because they had HOPE for progress in 2008 but are butting their heads against neoliberal Obama.

Kazin fails to connect the dots that the same disenchantment will happen when the neoliberal Clinton is elected. He actually illustrates the left’s point that progressives who run within the Democratic primary do not advance a progressive agenda, but he has apparently failed to realize it. This puts the article’s title in a whole new light: It turns out Democrats need Bernie Sanders to run for president so that liberals and progressives stay within the party to vote for Clinton and neoliberalism, where they are depoliticized, just like they are now under Obama. The left has always known this, but thank you, New Republic, for pointing it out in writing.

Let us be realistic: If Bernie Sanders raises issues to Hillary Clinton and the American public for a few months during the Democratic primaries, it will not change the course of the Democratic Party one iota. This is true in the same way that the raising of issues by the likes of Jesse Jackson, Howard Dean, and Dennis Kucinich (twice) in the Democratic primaries did not change the course of the Democratic Party, nor have these candidates and groups such as Progressive Democrats of America been able to significantly influence President Obama’s policies—nor has the Progressive Caucus, for that matter, the largest Democratic caucus on Capitol Hill. And liberal commentators think Sanders will?

Instead, despite all this supposed progressive energy, the Democratic Party and the American political spectrum continue to shift farther rightward, and with Clinton at the helm it will most likely get worse. It is true that issues raised by Sanders may receive lip-service from Clinton, but these issues will not be adopted during the four-plus years she’ll have to dismiss them. Look to Obama’s presidency for proof of this. If that doesn’t convince you, look to who Clinton is and whom she represents.

The left does not run candidates to lobby Democratic neoliberals to change; the left runs candidates to replace them.

If Bernie Sanders runs as a Democrat, the effect becomes little more than ensuring Clinton’s nomination and aiding her election, as Michael Kazin oddly enough suggests in his column but perhaps does not realize. The scenario is this: Progressive-minded voters are attracted to the Democratic Party because of Bernie Sanders, and there they stay once Sanders loses the primary to a corporate Democrat, such as Clinton. It should be noted that Clinton has already earned the favor and endorsement not only of Wall Street but also of sixty congressional Democrats, including progressives such as Tammy Baldwin, Elizabeth Warren, and Raúl Grijalva—the latter a board member of Progressive Democrats of America, a group that ironically is petitioning Sanders to run as a Democrat. A bit unclear how that works.

While the intention surely is not to bait and switch these voters whom Sanders will attract to the Democratic Party, theeffect is essentially the same: They buy a ticket to see Sanders and his “political revolution” and they get Clinton and neoliberalism instead. Then for four-plus years they bang their heads against the wall, lobbying Hillary Clinton to please, please not be Hillary Clinton, while the economy and the environment continue to crumble and while American foreign policy advances on fronts old and new.

Those excited progressives vying for Sanders will become disenchanted, yes, in exactly the same way Kazin points out that progressives who voted for Barack Obama are now disenchanted. Though Mr. Kazin apparently does not see his blind spot, does Bernie Sanders see it?

And for that matter, does the PAC “Friends of Bernie Sanders” see it? Odder than the Kazin article is that “Friends of Bernie Sanders” has endorsed it (by posting it on its website and emailing it to its supporter list), effectively admitting that Sanders cannot win the Democratic primary and that their supporters will essentially be used, then subsequently disenchanted by the Democratic Party and by Clinton—again.

Hillary Clinton as president of the United States is an idea that all Democrats concerned with democracy should very much oppose. Unfortunately, a recent NYTimes/CBS poll found that over 80 percent of regular Democrats already support Clinton for president in 2016, not to mention the numerous superdelegates cited above. It is not good enough for progressives to simply prefer someone like Sanders but that Clinton is acceptable in the end. No, Clinton should be adamantly opposed, not accommodated.

If Democratic neoliberalism wins, Americans and the world lose. If the GOP wins, Americans and the world lose. Both destroy economies and seek reckless, often illegal military intervention abroad, among other horrors. So it is much wiser, and imperative, to oppose both of these options by running a truly progressive candidate in the 2016 general election, which will help seriously build alternative political parties that can challenge this disastrous political stranglehold in which we find ourselves. True friends of Bernie Sanders would not encourage him into the dead end of the Democratic primary. True friends of Sanders would instead encourage him to realize the vision he has expressed of an American political revolution. It is convenient and naive to think that political revolution will happen over a period of a few months within the Democratic primary by appealing to a tiny sliver of America—that is, to progressive Democrats who participate in the primaries. The reality is much more challenging, but it’s also more exciting.

A majority of Americans want an alternative political party. A majority of Americans consider themselves independent of the Democrat and Republican Parties. A significant percentage of Americans do not vote because they feel they have no reason to vote. If Bernie Sanders joins the Democratic Party in 2016 to run for president, he fails to capitalize on all of these sentiments. A political revolution will not happen in this country unless a massive electorate is presented with the option of electorally challenging the duopoly.

That challenge is what Americans want; that is a the underlying discontent cited above. And that will not happen in 2016 unless Sanders 1) reaches the general election and 2) runs a campaign with existing alternative-party nominations such as the Greens, Vermont Progressive Party, and Socialist Alternative in concert with existing movements for social change such as $15/hour minimum wage, Occupy, single-payer Medicare for all, Move to Amend, anti-fracking, anti–Keystone Pipeline, anti-TPP, anti-foreclosures, anti–NSA spying, anti-drones, anti-duopoly, antiwar, a Green New Deal, and more.


To cast the above example in a new iteration: Imagine in 2016 if Jeb Bush were to win the Republican primary, and imagine if Hillary Clinton were to win the Democratic primary. If that happens, American voters will be presented with the option of electing one of two royals in the Bush-Clinton dynasty. This scenario is the perfect illustration of the corporate duopoly that binds America, and it actually might happen. (It is almost too bizarre and frightening to be true, but it could happen.)

Now, imagine if Americans were given the choice between the Bush-Clinton dynasty and Bernie Sanders backed by insurgent social movements and existing progressive political parties such as the Greens, Socialist Alternative, and the Vermont Progressive Party. Americans will not choose the Bush-Clinton dynasty.

But what is probably going to happen is much less exciting and much more depressing. If his recent appearances with Democratic groups are indication of the future, Bernie Sanders is probably going to enter the Democratic primary, and millions of Americans will not see an alternative to that dynasty, or whatever the iteration of it might be. Instead they will select one of two royals, and we will all lose. And worse, if Clinton is crowned, liberals and some progressives will believe that democracy and progress has won the day, and the whole system will shift more dangerously rightward.

If Sanders enters the Democratic primary, it is a missed opportunity to capitalize on a historic moment of discontent and rising populism, especially left populism, as Kshama Sawant’s election is but one indication of. His joining the Democrats defers yet again what needs to happen: Americans, and specifically American progressive Democrat voters, must break from the cycle of lesser-evilism that is crippling this country and invest instead in progressive, noncorporate alternative parties, as Americans once used to do. You do not challenge a corporate duopoly by joining the corporate duopoly; you challenge it by building alternative parties that threaten to replace it.

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