How the biggest socialist candidacy in a century is dividing an already divided movement.
By Bill Scher
February 4, 2016
Perhaps the most astonishing aspect of the 2016 presidential race is that Bernie Sanders, somehow, has made “socialism” a safe word in American politics. Nearly 100 years ago Socialist presidential candidate Eugene Debs had to campaign from prison; today, Sanders campaigns on socialism in broad daylight. For eight years, Democrats winced when Republicans hurled the “socialist” slur at President Barack Obama; now, 43 percent of likely Iowa Democratic caucus participants, many inspired by Sanders, embrace the label.
But the real socialists? They can’t wait for him to lose.
If you think Sanders’s candidacy has divided the Democratic party, that’s nothing compared to what he’s done to American socialists, a complex network of rival fringe parties united by a belief in overturning the economic order, but divided by almost everything else: strategy, personality, and what they think of their suddenly famous associate.
The rise of Sanders has triggered an ideological argument – is Sanders promoting bona fide socialism or, as Fredrik deBoer suggested in POLITICO Magazine last year, is he nothing but a “Socialist In Name Only?” — but the real divisions are tactical. In a presidential election year, even socialists have to think about electoral strategy. And Bernie’s rapid ascent means that the political decisions of the far-far left have been complicated by an unfamiliar surge of attention.
Some welcome it. Philip Locker, Seattle-based spokesman for the national Socialist Alternative organization, is thrilled by Sanders phenomenon, enthusing that “the political system is starting to be shaken” as Sanders “is popularizing socialism to an audience of tens of millions.”
To others, that’s dangerous naiveté. Howie Hawkins, a Green Party co-founder and member of the socialist group Solidarity, wrote an essay in May for the ISO’s Socialist Worker website attacking Sanders for “violating the first principle of socialist politics: class independence,” consorting with the “billionaire class” by pledging to “support their candidate” if he loses the Democratic primary.
Socialists don’t usually enjoy much presidential ballot access; collectively, their presidential candidates won a measly 86,528 votes in 2012. But there are plenty of parties: the Socialist Party USA, Peace and Freedom, Socialism and Liberation, Socialist Equality, Socialist Workers and Workers World. Some of these are more focused on revolutions than elections; The Workers World Party is running a presidential candidate even though “Our party does not aspire to be in the White House,” since “what matters is who is in the streets.” Others seem themselves as “democratic socialist,” such as Socialist Party USA, which can claim one of two municipally elected socialists in the country: Red Bank, New Jersey school board member Pat Noble.
The largest and most established party in the socialist spectrum doesn’t have “socialist” in the name at all: It’s the Green Party, with approximately 100 municipal office holders across the country, most concentrated in California. The hardy leftists haven’t made much national noise since its presidential candidate Ralph Nader sent the 2000 election into overtime. This year, party leaders are banking on Bernie to create an unparalleled recruitment opportunity –as soon as he loses.
After Sanders fans “experience the frustration from his likely defeat by the Clinton juggernaut,” says Green Party spokesman Scott McLarty, the party will send them a message: “You have a choice. You can keep alive ideas like single-payer by coming home to the Green Party … or say goodbye the political ‘revolution’ that Bernie Sanders claims to represent.”
Do you root for Bernie as an almost unique chance to get millions of people to think seriously about socialist ideals, or against him for planting a false flag of revolution? And if you expect him to lose in the end—which, to be fair, most socialists do—should you ride the train as far as it goes, or get off it now and throw your energy into the real revolution? Those are the questions bitterly dividing the movement, as Sanders himself storms energetically from one rally to the next.
In many ways the split is most acute around the Green Party. Its likely nominee will be party veteran Dr. Jill Stein, who also led the ticket in 2012 and earned just under a half-million votes, the best Green Party tally since 2000. Though the biggest candidate on the far left, Stein still faces the daunting challenge of ballot access. A Green presidential candidate has never been on the ballot in all 50 states (in 2000, Nader appeared in 43). Approximating that goal is essential to mitigating concerns about wasted votes, and in 2012 Stein only reached 36, not counting the District of Columbia. According to a Green Party statement, it starts this year with only 22 in hand.
Here’s where the Sanders campaign begins to tactically divide the election-minded socialist left. Greens want socialists to put all of their energy into getting Stein on as many state ballots as possible, starting now.
But socialist groups that don’t field their own presidential candidates, such as Socialist Alternative and the Democratic Socialists of America, are ecstatic about a candidate who is mainstreaming the “socialist” label. They want to ride the Sanders train for as long as possible, though their objectives and tactics differ.
DSA is actively campaigning for Bernie to win. It provides supporters with downloadable campaign materials, including a handout that explains how Sanders has sparked the “revival of socialism in the United States.” And it is pushing a #WeNeedBernie Twitter campaign.
Socialist Alternative would like to see Bernie go all the way, but it treats him more as an educational opportunity. The group is a hot property in Trotskyite circles because it’s had a rare election success: in 2013 it helped make Seattle’s Kshama Sawant the first socialist City Councilor in America since Iowa City’s Karen Kubby, who served from 1992 to 2000. (Socialist Alternative also came a few votes short of a winning a 2013 Minneapolis City Council race.)
The leaders of Socialist Alternative aren’t optimistic Bernie can win as a Democrat. Locker says his group would not be surprised at all if “the Democratic establishment, the corporate controlled media, the huge power of Super PACS, and unfortunately even the majority of union leaders who are mistakenly supporting Clinton” denies Sanders the nomination. But with Sanders packing the seats, Socialist Alternative doesn’t want to miss the show. It is following a strategy of “boldly intervening at events and putting forward positive proposals to build movements that can challenge the ‘billionaire class’ that Sanders talks about.”
If and when Bernie drops out, the group will rally behind Stein and the Green Party as “Plan B;” Socialist Alternative backed her in 2012. But they’re sticking with Bernie until there is absolutely no chance he can go on, even calling on him to abandon his pledge to support the eventual Democratic nominee and mount a third party campaign.
To the Green Party’s Hawkins, these flirtations with Sanders are a grave error. “All the money and time going into Sanders’ handoff to Clinton is time and money that could be going into getting Jill Stein’s Green Party candidacy on every ballot in the country,” he says. Not to be argued down, Socialist Alternative, in a published rebuttal, said Stein and her supporters should get with the program and spend more time wooing Bernie fans by having “a large presence at every Sanders rally and town hall meeting” and less time bashing him as a sellout.
One person steering clear of this rift is Stein herself. In an interview, Stein boasts that her campaign is “ahead of the game in many ways.” With a database of supporters from the last campaign and $5000 raised in each of 20 states, the amount necessary to qualify for federal matching funds, “Now we have funding to … run a ground game, which we’ve never been able to afford to do,” she says.
Stein also sees hope for increased unity in a new coalition called LeftElect, which formed last year to improve coordination between socialist parties and other independent leftist organizations, in order to bolster electoral prospects at all levels of government. Stein sits on the steering committee, and she sensed much “common purpose” for 2016 at the group first conference. But other competing socialist parties are involved, including Socialist Party USA presidential nominee Mimi Soltysik. (Other socialist candidates already announced are Gloria La Riva of the Party of Socialism and Liberation and Monica Moorehead of the Workers World Party. The Peace and Freedom Party, another LeftElect participant, is deciding whether to endorse Stein, La Riva, Moorehead or a fourth candidate now running as an independent.) According to LeftElect organizer and Stein supporter Robert Caldwell, there are no plans to issue a formal endorsement and unify behind one presidential candidate.
Lacking complete unity on the farthest left flank, Stein sees a huge bounty just around the corner in the form of soon-to-be disgruntled Sanders voters. She is careful not to seem like she is breaking out the popcorn as he suffers the digs and jabs from the Clinton behemoth, genially “wishing” her nominal rival, “all the luck in the world.” But she fully expects him to lose. And when he does, she plans to “let this be a learning experience, the teachable moment” for Sanders backers, so they will discover that “political revolutions that start in the Democratic Party, unfortunately, they die in the Democratic Party.”
Top Stein supporters aren’t expecting miracles. Hawkins concedes the real goal of the campaign is five percent of the vote, which would qualify the party for federal campaign funds in the 2020 general election. Based on 2012 turnout levels, the Greens would need about 6.5 million votes, or 6 million Sanders-loving Democratic defectors to add to her 2012 tally.
Such a large vote total is unlikely, but even a fraction of that could be enough to give Clinton anxiety if the polls were close. Recall that in 2000 Nader won just under 3 million votes, less than 3 percent of the electorate. It only took 97,000 Nader voters in Florida — give or take a Supreme Court justice — to tip the election to George W. Bush. (Exit polls showed that 47 percent of Nader voters named Al Gore as their second choice; others would have picked George W. Bush or stayed home. In Florida, that would have produced a net gain of 26,000 for Gore, far more than the official 537 vote margin.)
But a whole lot of stars would have to align for the Green Party—first and foremost being on enough ballots, an effort that Sanders is, ironically, complicating. As Clinton sweats over how the Democratic left is united behind Bernie, she can at least take some solace in how the Socialist left is as divided as ever.
Bill Scher is the senior writer at the Campaign for America’s Future, and co-host of the Bloggingheads.tv show “The DMZ” along with the Daily Caller’s Matt Lewis.