Tag: Bernie Sanders

The significance of Bernie Sanders’s opposition to Donald Trump’s Syria bombing

In years past, it has often been difficult to find anti-militarist beacons in Congress – Democrats included.  Particularly since Dennis Kucinich’s 2013 departure from the House, it’s sometimes seemed that the only prominent national political figure willing to oppose the latest White House military venture was the somewhat-libertarian Senator Rand Paul.  And today, with a Democratic Party left struggling to emerge and define itself in the midst of the Trump opposition, the imperative to create a sane foreign policy – distinct from that of politicians whose domestic policies often verge on the insane – has never been greater.  A Democratic left cannot claim to offer a thorough-going alternative to business-as-usual Washington politics until and unless we break with the conventional bipartisan wisdom on foreign policy.   All of which lends particular significance to Bernie Sanders’s prominent opposition to Donald Trump’s Syria bombing.

Much of the mainstream response to the Syria raid was, of course, familiarly tragicomic – sometimes almost to the point of laughable – with one network newscaster sufficiently moved by the “beautiful pictures of fearsome armaments” so as to quote “the great Leonard Cohen: ‘I am guided by the beauty of our weapons.’”  Another opined that by launching the attack, “Donald Trump became president of the United States.”  More significantly, Congressional leaders previously vowing to fight the man’s administration tooth and nail hastened to back him as he violated American law by usurping their exclusive right to declare war and violated international law by attacking a country that has not attacked us.

The really tragic aspect of the overall reaction, however, lies in the presumption that with this latest act of war, we have actually “done something” in response to the horrific circumstances of the Syrian war – “done something,” that is, in the sense of doing something positive.  And it is precisely on this point, that the Sanders response is most important, as he called on the Trump administration to “explain to the American people exactly what this military escalation in Syria is intended to achieve, and how it fits into the broader goal of a political solution, which is the only way Syria’s devastating civil war ends.”  Now this in itself hardly qualifies as a radical statement.  And the fact that it stands out as in any way unusual is itself an indictment of the current environment in which “doing something” meaningful for the Syrian people is presumed to require dropping bombs and/or sending troops somewhere – and little else.   But given our country’s history of liberal leaders who talk tough about taking on the powers that be, only to rush to join the parade to salute to the commander-in-chief when he plays the war card, the Sanders statement stands out as an all too rare example of a leader on domestic issues proving equal to a foreign policy challenge.

To be fair – and frank – about the current situation, lets not ignore the fact that when Sanders says, “we should’ve learned from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan … that it’s easier to get into a war than get out of one,” and that if “the last 15 years have shown anything, it’s that such engagements are disastrous for American security, for the American economy and for the American people,” it was Barack Obama who was in the White House for most of those years.  To put it bluntly, the Obama presidency largely anesthetized the American antiwar movement.  Again, to be fair, they weren’t the only ones lulled into complacency – let’s not forget that the Nobel Peace Prize Committee gave him the world’s most prestigious prize early on in an administration that went on to bomb seven countries.  But if it takes a figure like Donald Trump to restore the American left’s mojo, well so be it.

A couple of short years ago, it was a fair question whether there really was such a thing as an American left – outside of college lecture halls and counter cultural institutions.  No more. Post-Sanders campaign, we now find millions seeking a government not dominated by Goldman Sachs and their Wall Street peers.  Millions viewing the richest nation on earth being unwilling to guarantee health care to all of its people as an absurd situation.  Millions considering the pursuit of corporate profit an inadequate governing principle for meeting twenty-first century global environmental challenges.  Millions looking for leaders who will reverse the growing divide of wealth and power – across the nation and world wide.   And, likewise, there are millions who recognize that the nation – and the planet itself – cannot indefinitely sustain our current delusionary policy of achieving world peace through ever-increasing armament and intervention.

No one in recent politics has been more insistent on the point that “It’s not me, it’s us,” than Bernie Sanders.  But at the same time, there is no getting around the fact that individual politicians are sometimes required to rise to the occasion.  And Sanders has done so at a particularly important juncture.  Frankness does also require that we recognize that he has not always shone in this area throughout his entire political career: After starting out as a mayor with a foreign policy – meeting with Ronald Reagan-nemesis Daniel Ortega, the Sandinista President of Nicaragua, when he held the top job in Burlington, Vermont – his focus shifted to domestic economic issues when he went to Congress and on occasion he seemingly fell into orthodox foreign policy voting.

He did, however, unquestionably break new ground in the history of presidential debates when he called climate change the greatest threat to our national security, excoriated the policy of overthrowing legitimately elected governments dating back to Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, and took Hillary Clinton to task for her association with Henry Kissinger.  And now, in standing up against the tradition of critical American political thinking ceasing once the president gets violent, he nurtures our chances to really develop an alternative to the bipartisan endless war consensus.  And yes, in the long run that is a job for us, not just him.

Over the Rainbow: The Uncertain Future of U.S. Politics

The World Turned Upside Down: ‘Our Revolution,’ Trump Triumphant, and the Remaking of the Democratic Party

When Bernie Sanders conceded the race for the Democratic Party’s nomination for president in July 2016, he likely assumed that in a few months, after Hillary Clinton won the presidency, he would return to a role similar to the one he played on the campaign trail: a kind of social-democratic gadfly to a largely neoliberalized party, capitalizing on the unprecedented popularity he drew in his presidential campaign to pull President Clinton—and the entire party—to the left.

Alas, to his surprise and ours, this arrangement was not to be. But rather than seeing his role as an oppositional figure diminish under President Donald Trump, Sanders’ opportunities to affect the Democratic Party and American politics more broadly may have actually increased.

For one thing, the party appears rudderless, adrift, and still shell-shocked at November’s results. Perhaps no one better exemplified this fact than Clinton herself, whose top post-election priority seemed to be wandering in the woods beyond the New York City suburbs. Sanders, meanwhile, has taken action: publishing numerous op-eds and a book, debating Texas Sen. Ted Cruz on Obamacare and single-payer health care, speaking out against Trump’s policies. The party seems to lack real leadership right now; if anyone holds it, it seems to be a wild-haired, self-described democratic socialist who has deliberately rejected the party his entire life.

Despite his professed disdain for the Democrats, Sanders has long been a pragmatist, dating back to his days as Mayor of Burlington, Vermont.[1] It should come as no surprise, then, that a new organization that has emerged in the wake of Sanders’ primary loss and bears his blessing (though not his day-to-day involvement) is, despite its to-the-barricades name, actually a deeply pragmatic one.

Our Revolution (OR) is that organization, backing political candidates in races ranging from local school boards to Democratic National Committee (DNC) chair and attempting to affect a transformation of the party at the state and local level from the bottom up. It is also running progressive campaigns like the fight against the Dakota Access Pipeline and demanding Democrats not vote to approve President Trump’s cabinet nominations.

The organization is young but has already experienced its share of turmoil, with a major staff revolt within weeks of its founding. Still, Our Revolution has positioned itself to absorb a large portion of the energy from Sanders’ campaign, raise large amounts of money through small donations and distribute the money to progressive candidates at all levels throughout the country.  It could play a major role in progressive campaigns and Democratic candidacies in the near future. Its overall aim appears to be nothing short of a major realignment of the Democratic Party in the very near future, pulling the party away from its pro-business, neoliberal shift of the past several decades toward a more robustly pro-worker agenda.

Much of the progressive and radical forces to the left of the Democrats expected to find themselves in a position in 2017 in which they could offer full-throated critiques of a rightward moving Democratic Party and a centrist-neoliberal president in Hillary Clinton. Instead, those forces—many of which have found a home in Our Revolution— now find themselves in a more delicate position in which they must balance building a united front approach to opposing Trump while confronting the party, the Democrats, which is currently the only viable home for those forces.

Right now, however, the organization seems to lack a stomach for the second part of that equation, the very thing that has made Sanders’ political career so unique: a deep-seated opposition to a party believed to be hopeless, corrupted, and unable to genuinely represent working and poor people’s best interests.

Candidates and Beyond

The scope of Our Revolution’s focus is broad, reaching far beyond individual candidates and even beyond the progressive campaigns du jour. The organization’s platform does not make for light reading: it features twenty-one separate issues ranging from “big money in politics,” affordable housing, and “Medicare for all” to disability rights and resolving Puerto Rico’s debt crisis, many at great length and in significant detail.[2] As Sanders did during his speeches in front of massive crowds on the campaign trail, the group appears to trust the average American’s hunger for substantive, progressive politics will outweigh their short attention spans.

The group was involved in over 100 campaigns in the 2016 election cycle, including three in the Senate, fifteen in the House, and dozens at the state and local level. By the organization’s own count, they appear to have won slightly more than half of the races they became involved in. Our Revolution also backed seven ballot initiatives, such as a single-payer measure in Colorado and a campaign finance reform bill in Maryland. [3]

In an election off-season, the group has moved to focus more on issue-based campaigns, including support for the #NoDAPL protests in North Dakota and various efforts to oppose Donald Trump’s new administration (as well as centrist-leaning Democrats that they consider too milquetoast in their resistance to the president). Our Revolution issued broad calls for more vigorous debate over and opposition to Trump’s cabinet nominees, for example, after many Democrats put up little resistance to their confirmation early on. (The organization has not, however, targeted any incumbent Democrats with its email blasts or messaging since November’s election.[4]) Before Trump’s inauguration, they encouraged President Obama to commute the prison sentence of Puerto Rican independence activist Oscar Lopez Rivera, who has spent 35 years in prison for a number of charges related to bomb-making and armed robbery as part of a campaign for Puerto Rican independence. (Shortly before leaving office, Obama did pardon Rivera.)

The group is also the inheritor of Bernie Sanders’ massive and famed email list, which helped produce the highest number of small donations in a political campaign in U.S. history. The Democratic National Committee is desperate to gain access to the list and the potentially huge number of activists and donors it would bring them; so far, Our Revolution has remained unwilling to turn it over.[5]

One election the group stayed involved in after November, however, was Rep. Keith Ellison’s unsuccessful run for Democratic National Committee chair against former Labor Secretary Tom Perez—a contest that was billed as a referendum on the future direction of the Democratic Party. Given the current state of affairs in the party—with Sanders’ campaign revealing and stirring to action a massive section of progressive and even socialist-curious voters, (many of whom still feel that party’s leadership unfairly stole the nomination from him); and with Clinton and her centrist brand of politics being clearly discredited by the Republican sweep across the local, state, and national levels — one might have assumed that the Democratic leadership would finally be willing to toss this newly riled base a bone in the form of appointing Ellison as DNC chair.

But instead of reaching out to that base through such a choice, party leaders rebuked them, mounting a full-on campaign for Perez over Ellison—even after he was endorsed by much of the labor movement, including by the United Auto Workers ( UAW), American Federation of Teachers (AFT),  Service Employees International Union (SEIU), and AFL-CIO. In the internal party vote that took place in Atlanta on February 25, Perez came out on top. Ellison embraced Perez after the vote and encouraged his backers to do the same. In a supposed show of unity, Ellison was named “deputy chair” of the DNC. But as AFT President Randi Weingarten noted on Twitter, just hours after Ellison’s appointment to this position, the Democratic Party’s official account tweeted a graphic of their new leadership slate with Tom Perez at the top; neither Ellison’s name nor the title “deputy chair” appeared anywhere.[6]

The contest may offer some clues about the kind of disdain with which progressives and leftists will continue to be treated as they go about trying to transform the party. While these activists may feel like they have the only momentum within the party right now while Democratic centrists have been thoroughly discredited, this does not mean the party will hand over the reins without fighting tooth and nail.

Perez is certainly more progressive than someone like Hillary Clinton and was praised by unions as an effective labor secretary. But Ellison was an early backer of Sanders and is one of the most progressive members of Congress. If there is a left wing of the Democratic Party, Ellison is certainly on it, making his endorsement by Our Revolution a no-brainer. The rubric for determining which candidates qualify as progressive enough to gain the organization’s stamp of approval, however, remains confusing.

For example, Our Revolution endorsed Rep. Tulsi Gabbard of Hawaii in her successful reelection campaign. Gabbard was one of the few members of Congress that backed Sanders in the primary and has spoken out against the war on Iraq after serving in a combat zone there through the Army National Guard, opposed a $1.15 billion arms sale to Saudi Arabia, opposed the Trans-Pacific Partnership, and endorsed Bernie Sanders in the primary.

But Gabbard’s foreign policy stances are scattershot. Despite a handful of progressive stances, she also voted in favor of a 2015 Republican bill to ban Syrian refugees from coming to the United States, has visited Donald Trump in the White House and said her meeting had been “frank and positive.” Kellyanne Conway, one of Trump’s top advisers, told the press the two had “a lot of common ground.” Gabbard also has close ties to Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi, the far-right Hindu nationalist who “bears a responsibility for some of the worst religious violence ever seen in independent India” during his term as chief minister of the state of Gujarat, including a massacre of 2,000. The Atlantic called Gabbard “The GOPs Favorite Democrat.”[7]

Sanders’ campaign caught fire mostly thanks to his domestic policy agenda; his foreign policy, while far to the left of most in the Democratic Party, left much to be desired for many leftists, especially on issues like Israel-Palestine. Still, how could an organization dedicated to carrying on Bernie Sanders’ “revolution” within the Democratic Party continue to back a politician like Gabbard who has joined the GOP’s opposition to refugees?

The Exodus

Our Revolution was born in chaos. Within weeks of its founding on August 24, 2016, eight of the organization’s fifteen staff resigned in protest of the appointment of Jeff Weaver, Sanders’ campaign manager and longtime associate, as the organization’s president.

Mainstream coverage of the staffers’ exodus adopted a bemused tone at the new organization of lefties who were at each others’ throats before their work was even up and running. The staffers who left laid the blame for Sanders’ defeat at Weaver’s feet, accusing him of mismanaging the campaign by focusing too much on television ads. They also emphasized a disagreement with the decision to adopt a 501(c)(4) tax status, which could allow the group to accept “dark money” from wealthy donors who would not have to disclose their donations—a perceived hypocrisy given Sanders’ relentless critiques of such campaign finance arrangements during his campaign.

“As a campaign manager, Jeff was a total disaster who failed Bernie’s supporters with his mismanagement,” former OR organization director Claire Sandberg told the Washington Post. We’re organizers who believed in Bernie’s call for a political revolution, so we weren’t interested in working for an organization that’s going to raise money from billionaires to spend it all on TV.”[8]

In addition to philosophical disagreements with this arrangement, Our Revolution’s tax status led to difficulties in coordinating with the candidates it endorsed. 501(c)(4) organizations can give unlimited donations to candidates as long as these groups do not directly coordinate with the campaigns that they have endorsed.

This supposed firewall between campaigns and “dark money” groups has been widely criticized as both thin and unrealistic, with obvious opportunities for violation by both sides. But no one appears to have explained how to violate this law to Our Revolution in a key House race in Florida.

Tim Canova, who was endorsed by Our Revolution in his bid to challenge former DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz for her House of Representatives seat, and his former staffers complained about first a duplication of work by Our Revolution and Canova’s campaign due to that lack of coordination; Canova then accused the organization of abandoning him, aiding his loss in the race. The incident led The Atlantic to ask “whether Sanders, Our Revolution, and his supporters will be able to give candidates inspired by [Sanders’] call to action what they need to win.”[9]

Still, Canova’s complaints are isolated. If other Our Revolution endorsees share his campaign’s sentiments about the group, they have not yet voiced them aloud. And even over the course of its brief life, the group can be credited for some impressive victories.

State Takeovers

The group has led some impressive state-level victories in just a few months. The Wall Street Journal characterized Our Revolution’s strategy as focused on “infiltrate[ing] and transform[ing] the Democratic Party’s power structure, starting with the lowest-level state and county committee posts that typically draw scant attention.”[10]

Perhaps the most impressive of these campaigns is the recent takeover of the California Democratic Party by “Berniecrats.”

Our Revolution ran what The Hill called “an on-the-ground get-out-the-vote effort to make sure supporters attended caucuses in each of the state’s 80 assembly districts” during an “ordinarily sleepy” event, electing 650 state party delegates out of 1,120, giving them a majority in the choosing of the state party’s officials including its chairperson.[11]

The organization’s operation reflected the ability to engage in the nitty-gritty of actual politicking that Sanders’ campaigns have always focused on. Our Revolution claimed to have sent over 100,000 emails and 40,000 text messages, and over 800 Bernie supporters signed up to run for delegate seats, according to The Hill, transforming a usually staid affair into one buzzing with excitement. Activists’ express purpose was to aggressively push one of country’s most progressive states into playing a vanguard role pushing for even more progressive policies that other states could emulate.

Our Revolution-backed candidates also won the chairmanship of the Washington-state Democratic central committee after defeating an incumbent, “seized control” of the party apparatus in Hawaii and Nebraska, and “swept” local Democratic Party officer positions in Florida. The Wall Street Journal quotes a Florida activist, Stacey Patel, who was elected Brevard County’s Democratic Party chairwoman; she can’t quite seem to wrap her head around the group’s accomplishments: “We didn’t know that 60 folks would be enough to take the majority” of the local party, she told the paper.[12]

In addition to the state-level party takeovers Our Revolution has led through its numerous state organizations, it has also enlisted local groups as affiliates. In January, the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA), a left-wing organizing and electoral group in the Bay Area city, joined Our Revolution.  The group is one of the more promising local, independent political formations in the country, scoring major victories on a wide range of issues from police reform to fighting corporate-backed politicians to winning rent control in the rapidly gentrifying Bay Area.

To do so, the RPA has gone toe-to-toe with centrist, business-friendly Democrats in Richmond that reflect many of the problems of the Democratic Party nationally. Our Revolution has supported RPA candidates in the past. In the most recent city council races, an OR email blast netted around $5,000 for each RPA endorsee as well as close to 900 donors’ contact information—a testament to the power of Bernie Sanders’s vaunted email list. If Our Revolution wants to transform the political landscape nationally, its leaders should take the RPA’s lessons on the need for independence from—and thus a level of combat with—the Democrats seriously, especially in one-party cities like Richmond.

The group also has the support of many of the former members of Labor for Bernie, a grassroots organization of union members and staffers around the country who backed Sanders’ campaign. Many did so in defiance of the decisions of their international unions, which either endorsed Hillary Clinton or stayed neutral in the election. National Nurses United (NNU) and the Communications Workers of America (CWA) (whose former president Larry Cohen now works for Our Revolution) have also worked closely with the group; both endorsed Sanders in the primary. The California Nurses Association has even given Our Revolution California a full-time staffer.

Given the complete lack of institutional mechanisms for establishing the party’s fealty to unions (unlike, say the Labour Party in the U.K., in which unions have a far greater say in the party’s direction) and the disdain with which much of the Democratic Party treats organized labor, this could be an important base from which organized labor pushes for its agenda within the party. In addition to the NNU and the CWA, the wide-ranging group of union staff and rank and file— many of whom also make up the most important activist and progressive wing of U.S. labor — that made up Labor for Bernie has now become Labor for Our Revolution, and could continue to play a role in pushing both the party and their own unions leftward.

Transforming the Party

Our Revolution organizers see the group as a vehicle for realigning the Democratic Party so it meets the needs of the working class rather than the one percent— something perhaps more closely resembling a twenty-first century labor party.

“We’re looking to transform the party,” said Our Revolution executive director Shannon Jackson after the California party takeover.

This is not the first time leftists and left-liberals have attempted to affect such a shift. Such attempts have a long history in American politics, ranging from Walter Reuther and the New Left in the 1960s to Jesse Jackson’s campaigns in 1984 and 1988. None have been particularly successful, as the party has drifted further and further in a neoliberal direction.[13]

There are structural barriers to the transformation of the Democrats, both in the party’s history, its current composition, and the diminished power of organized labor. Many labor parties in Europe are rooted in breaks from bourgeois parties from earlier in the twentieth century, and took place at a time of rising strength of the industrial working class. That break never happened in the United States, leading to the Democratic coalition including several strongly conservative elements like various sectors of capital and Southern white racists alongside workers, unions, and (later in the twentieth century) African Americans and other people of color.

This has led to the classic dilemma endlessly debated by American radicals for decades: Should they struggle within a hopelessly compromised Democratic Party in order to make the greatest possible impact on the world, or should they abandon the party in favor of creating an alternative but risk complete political isolation? It’s a question that has never been an easy one to answer, and now is no exception. On the one hand, in the wake of November’s devastating results across the board for the Democrats and Sanders’ successful insurgent and unapologetic left-wing campaign, the party’s centrism has never appeared more bankrupt and the need for a real alternative never greater. On the other hand, faced with the extreme reactionary revanchism of the Trump administration and the immiseration its policies have already brought, the impulse for many is to put such battles to the side in favor of building the unity needed to defeat the Right.

Part of what makes Bernie Sanders’ career so unusual is that he is the most successful politician in the past half-century or more at striking a balance between these two poles. He has been a steadfast critic of not just the party’s rightward drift but of its inability to ever serve as a genuine vehicle for working-class interests. He only joined the party in order to have access to a mass audience, and even then, he continued to make many such criticisms.

But he also has long caucused with Democrats in the House and Senate, and works closely with many in the party. After Hillary Clinton’s campaign criticized Sanders’ stance on health care reform during the primary, the Sanders campaign released a photo of the then-representative in a meeting with the paragon of centrist, pragmatic deal-making herself, Hillary Clinton, in 1993, with a handwritten note from the then-First Lady thanking Sanders for his role in pushing health reform.[14]

No one else in recent American political history has walked this line as deftly as Sanders has. That he has managed to do so is perhaps the most remarkable characteristic of his political career. It is also what defines him and is most responsible for his campaign’s success. Any other established, longstanding Democratic politician attempting to capture the current populist mood would likely have failed because of the compromises being a member of that party requires of its members.

At a time when most of the Democratic Party was pushing welfare reform, Sanders was denouncing it; when Bill Clinton led his party into passing the North American Free Trade Agreement, Sanders spoke out in vehement opposition. Even the most progressive members of the party have been compromised in important ways. Keith Ellison, for example, receives large amounts of campaign contributions from large corporations like TCF Financial—companies Sanders has spent his whole career opposing.

Over the span of Sanders’ career, a fair number of Democrats have joined him in breaking with certain aspects of the party’s rightward drift, and many have decried the pernicious influence of corporate money in politics. But no one has held as consistent of a left-wing governing record and as complete a rejection of corporate cash as Sanders has. Part of this surely has to do with Sanders’ personality. But it also has to do with his consistent independence from the Democratic Party.

Our Revolution has played a key role in amplifying some of the leftmost voices within the Democratic Party; it may help launch the careers of some talented young progressive politicians, and it may even help steer the Democrats away from the disastrous neoliberal course it has been on the better part of the last half-century.

But will it help inculcate the level of hostility toward not just the right wing of the party but also the party itself? At a moment when the first instinct of many in response to the nonstop depravity of a Trump administration will be to forego a necessary confrontation with the Democrats, will Our Revolution buck the tide? Will it produce any future Bernie Sanderses—not just broadly defined progressives but bone-deep leftists whose politics include a commitment to do battle with the Democrats from a place of independence, even when it is often forced to work within and around the party? The organization is in its infancy, and its path it still wide open. But it will soon have to make a choice about how close its relationship to the Democratic Party will be. 

 

Notes

[1] Bernie Sanders with Huck Gutman, Outsider in the White House. Verso Books, 2015. Katherine Q. Seelye, “As Mayor, Bernie Sanders Was More Pragmatist Than Socialist.” New York Times, Nov. 25, 2015.

[2] Our Revolution, “Platform.” Ourrevolution.com/issues.

[3] Kate Aronoff and Ethan Corey, “Welcome to the Next Incarnation of the Bernie Sanders Campaign.” In These Times, September 12, 2016.

[4] Ed O’Keefe and David Weigel, “Democrats bracing for town hall protests directed at them ask Bernie Sanders for help.” Washington Post, February 14, 2017.

[5] Daniel Marans, “Bernie Sanders Has a Massive Email List. But He Has Good Reason to Think Twice About Sharing It.” Huffington Post, February 9, 2017.

[6] Randi Weingarten (@rweingarten). “What happened to the new deputy chair?” February 26, 2017, 12:26 am. Tweet. The Democratic Party (@TheDemocrats). “There’s a tough fight ahead of us, and our newly elected DNC officers are here for it. Let’s do this. #DNCFuture.” February 25, 2017, 8:34 pm. Tweet. Later tweets from the party’s account included Ellison.

[7] Alex Seitz-Wald, “Democrat Tulsi Gabbard Defends ‘Frank and Positive’ Trump Meeting.” NBC News, November 21, 2016. Ivy Ashe, “Gabbard Supports GOP Bill on Syrian Refugees.” Hawaii Tribune-Herald, November 21, 2015. Aditya Chakrabortty “Narendra Modi, a man with a massacre on his hands, is not the reasonable choice for India.” The Guardian, April 7, 2014. Krishnadev Calamur, “The GOP’s Favorite Democrat Goes to Syria.” The Atlantic, January 18, 2017.

[8] David Weigel and John Wagner, “Bernie Sanders launches ‘Our Revolution’ with electoral targets — and a few critics left behind.” Washington Post, August 24, 2016.

[9] Clare Foran, “How the Political Revolution Failed Tim Canova.” The Atlantic, August 30, 2016.

[10] Reid J. Epstein and Janet Hook, Wall Street Journal. “Bernie Sanders Loyalists Are Taking Over the Democratic Party One County Office at a Time.” February 22, 2017.

[11] Reid Wilson, The Hill. “Sanders backers take over California Democratic Party.” January 19, 2017.

[12] Epstein and Hook, Wall Street Journal.

[13] Paul Heideman, “It’s Their Party.” Jacobin, Issue 20: “Up From Liberalism.” Winter 2016.

[14] Peter Wade, “Hillary Questioned Bernie’s Record on Health Care and The Internet Made an Epic Correction.” Esquire, March 12, 2016.

We Believe that We Can Win!

“On the Contrary”

 

Did the Sanders Campaign Represent a Missed Opportunity for the U.S. Labor Movement?: A Debate

 

As our readers know, the labor movement was divided during the Democratic Party primary season over whether to support Hillary Clinton or Bernie Sanders for the Democratic presidential nomination.  We invited contributions from both sides to debate those differences.  Larry Cohen, past president of the Communications Workers of America argued on behalf of the Sanders option, and Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, together with Leo Casey, president of the Albert Shanker Institute, argued on behalf of the Clinton nomination.  They delivered their initial arguments in early September and then responded to each other.  Both authors assumed, as many readers also did, a Clinton victory.  When the election results came in, Randi Weingarten and Leo Casey asked to rewrite their essay in order to take fuller account of the outcome of the election.  Larry Cohen agreed to this arrangement.  However, he elected to leave his essay as originally written.  He has added a brief addendum that also takes account of the election results. Since Weingarten and Casey withdrew their original contribution, it no longer made sense to publish the replies each had written in response to each other.  Readers should keep in mind that the main part of Cohen’s contribution was written without knowing how the election would turn out, while the Weingarten and Casey essay was written after that outcome had been decided. 

 

When Bernie Sanders began his quest for the presidency in May 2015 in Burlington, Vermont the democratic political establishment either ignored or opposed him.  Hillary Clinton had been running for years and had hundreds of staff and commitments from hundreds of super delegates. Labor leaders were used to being part of that establishment as well.  Although clearly quite different from the Republican Party establishment, labor leaders regularly mingle with Democratic Party leaders and big-money party funders.

“Bernie can’t win,” they repeated to each other over and over. But actually when they said Bernie can’t win, what they really meant was that working-class people can’t win. Sadly, in 2015 most labor leaders had come to believe the legislative priorities long supported by many unions ̶ like single-payer health care, stopping unfair trade deals, or making public higher education affordable ̶ and couldn’t form the basis for a realistic political program for presidential candidates. Ironically, Bernie Sanders’ campaign moved Hillary Clinton ̶ the establishment candidate who sought to convince primary voters she was more able to win ̶ much closer to those and other positions once considered radical.

Far too many labor leaders have long believed that our political action programs are a defensive tactic, or at best on rare occasions a means to achieve incremental advancement, like the Affordable Care Act. It’s easy to criticize such behavior but it’s not new, and with U.S. collective bargaining coverage down by nearly two-thirds in 40 years to just under 12 percent, it’s not surprising. But for those of us who link that slide to the lack of an aggressive political program challenging the fundamental aspects of our economy, that explanation is not sufficient.

There are disparate strategies within labor. Sectoral differences among building trades, government, industrial, and services lead to important differences in political strategy. For government and education workers, the link to elected officials is obvious. While those elected officials are not supporting political revolution, they are adopting budgets that determine whether and how union members work, and often their pensions and health care as well. For many unions, the distinction between lobbying and collective bargaining is very small. Political fundraising from members by these unions is aimed at influencing these bread-and-butter employment issues not the larger issues confronting working families as a whole.

Before Bernie Sanders announced his candidacy hundreds of the congressional and other super delegates who create the political frame for public sector and other unions had already announced support for Hillary Clinton. Breaking from the party establishment would not have been easy for those public-sector unions particularly at the national level. Additionally, political risk aversion is part of the calculus. In the summer of 2015 there was an overwhelming likelihood that the Supreme Court would eliminate the agency shop in the Friedrichs case. As it turned out only the death of Justice Scalia led to the tie vote in that case that left the agency shop in place for those states that permitted it. Practical politics, even at the presidential level, trumped movement-building, transformational politics.

A similar logic often applies to building trades unions, heavily dependent on government- funded projects. Candidates more likely to win, sometimes Republicans as well as Democrats, often get the nod based on funding commitments for public infrastructure.

And similarly for private sector workers from regulated industries, union political endorsements often hinge on candidates’ records on regulation not on broader concerns. Airline and rail workers with high degrees of unionization often make political calculations based on very specific industry issues.

Many national unions, including auto, steel, bakery, letter carriers, teamsters, and electricians, did not make a presidential endorsement until mid-2016 when the primaries were over or nearly over. As a result, there was not a formal AFL-CIO endorsement until just weeks before the Democratic National Convention.

Several national unions, including Communications Workers of America, National Nurses United, American Postal Workers Union, and Amalgamated Transit Union did endorse Bernie Sanders by the end of 2015. Eventually they were joined by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (West Coast dockworkers), United Electrical Workers, the National Union of Healthcare Workers and more than 100 locals from other national unions that either did not endorse or had already endorsed Hillary Clinton. Tens of thousands of active union members formed a national network, “Labor for Bernie” and worked within their unions and in their communities to support Bernie in their state’s caucus or primary.

In most cases, local unions that supported Sanders did not face retribution from their national union. This level of tolerance for local political autonomy is critical moving forward. It is one thing for a national union, through its executive board, to make an endorsement; it’s quite another thing to demand local adherence without a membership vote or formal local input.

Given all of the above, the remarkable outcome was the outpouring of support for Sanders from active union members. Local leadership combined with the national unions that did endorse Sanders, rather than the disappointment with the public sector, education, building trades, and other unions that were early Clinton endorsers.

This support for Sanders translated into strong union majorities in Michigan, Wisconsin, Indiana, and several other states.

Union support was also an important part of the Sanders campaign’s narrative. Fighting the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and pointing out the harm continuing from the U.S. trade regime that started with NAFTA was central to the campaign. In Chicago, bakery workers at Nabisco, facing the shutdown of the Oreo cookie line at their south side plant resulting from outsourcing of production to Mexico rallied and held news events weeks before the Illinois primary. In Michigan, workers held a press conference detailing what had happened to their families decade after decade as American Axle & Manufacturing, General Motors and others shut down their plants seeking cheaper labor in Mexico and other nations. As Senator Sanders told it, Flint’s hardships originated with GM shutdowns in what had been their hometown. Lead-contaminated water followed years of skyrocketing unemployment, and declining tax revenues in a city that in the early 1960s had been among America’s richest.

Perhaps the most dramatic example of union support came from United Steel Workers (USW) Local 1999 in Indianapolis. A few months before the Indiana primary, United Technologies (UT) announced that it was moving production of its Carrier furnaces to Monterrey, Mexico after fifty years in Indianapolis. Management held an all-hands-on-deck meeting in the plant breaking the news that it would close in about a year. Local President Chuck Jones decided that it was time to fight back and not wait for negotiations over the consequences of the closing. Chuck and his members decided that the upcoming Indiana primary provided an opportunity to join this issue with the election and ask the presidential candidates for help.

Sanders answered the call and fighting UT became a centerpiece in the Indiana primary. Just days before the primary, Sanders spoke and joined a march through the city protesting the closing, that included USW officials and AFL-CIO President Richard Trumka. Chuck Jones and most Local 1999 members supported Sanders as he attacked our government for awarding billions in U.S. contracts to UT and then doing nothing when the company announced that 2,000 jobs would be going to Mexico solely because of much cheaper labor and virtually no regulation.

We could certainly moan about labor’s lost opportunity, and had the labor movement united behind Sanders he would have been the nominee and very likely the President. However, the real lesson of the last year is our need to build a broader and more powerful movement for change. For years to come, individual labor unions will most likely pursue conflicting political strategies. But those of us who believe that we need a new political movement demanding real change, we have now built the largest movement for that change in decades. It is messy and still uncertain, but the political revolution of Bernie Sanders, now called Our Revolution will forge ahead endorsing candidates and ballot measures, fighting the TPP, and struggling to unite and expand on the 13 million voters who supported Sanders.

No one would claim that Our Revolution, the successor to Bernie 2016, is the only path forward. There are many other attempts to build this movement. We must do a much better job of uniting racial, economic and environmental justice movements. But the question for active union members is more about the future than the past. Do we believe that we can win? Are we ready to build a political movement that works inside and outside the Democratic Party without attacking ourselves? Can we unite around defeating the Trans-Pacific Partnership and other destructive policies and in doing so show that we can win?

We learned from Bernie’s campaign that real change is possible. We learned that many Americans are not afraid to consider themselves workers, and not just middle class. We learned that we can fight for racial justice as well as economic justice and that doing both at the same time makes us stronger. But mostly we learned that it all starts by actually believing and acting like “We Can Win.”

 

Addendum:

 

First, Hillary Clinton won the popular vote by nearly two million and in any other democracy she would be President elect.  The barriers to a 21st century democracy for our nation range far beyond voting rights and big money in politics.

Second, Obama far out polled Clinton in key working class counties in PA, MI, WI and even small towns in Maine.  Those who look for racism as the key variable in Trump’s win need to look much deeper at voting results rather than projecting simple answers.  The destruction of manufacturing jobs through public policy neglect and bad trade deals is a major factor explaining Clinton’s loss in those states and a major problem for Democrats who ignore it.

Recent leaks of emails from the DNC and the Clinton campaign chair, indicate that the party elite were improperly involved assisting the nomination of Hillary Clinton in every way possible, and that the Super PACs supporting the Clinton campaign were willing to use divisive and even hateful tactics.

Bernie Sanders is now among the most popular electeds in our nation.  His narrative of working class unity and his focus on free higher education, better health care, peace and justice, fair trade not trade for investor profit, and infrastructure aimed at communities of color and other impacted communities is the basis for Our Revolution, the successor to his campaign, as well as other progressive organizations.

So as we go forward, are we willing to organize around our values, including in primary elections, rather than accept the view of the Democratic Party establishment about who can raise money and therefore who can win?  We can’t just speak out about Citizens United and then defer to those who use every opening to dominate nominations with their dollars.

The Democratic Party itself badly needs structural reform if Democrats are to win the support of working class voters.  There needs to be a real priority on registering millions of voters of color and others trapped by our outrageous voter registration procedures while at the same time we need to fight for automatic voter registration as Alaska just adopted in this election.  We also need to be ready to support independent candidates when they represent our values.  We need to use ballot measures to promote democracy as even this year most pro democracy ballot measures won across the nation.

President Trump will immediately have the two openings necessary to control the NLRB, and begin to roll back the last eight years of Board decisions.  Likely anti-collective bargaining legislation in the Congress and the States will put us on defense again.  But this time can we not only resist, but also build a political movement that speaks to our dreams and aspirations, so that we are campaigning for our values as we fight for the future?

Link to Weingarten and Casey article in series
http://newlaborforum.cuny.edu/2016/11/22/on-the-contrary-american-labor-and-the-2016-elections/ 

 

In It For the Long Run

The most interesting idea I encountered during the recent American primary season actually appeared in the British magazine, The Economist, where a writer mused over what US politics might look like if we had a parliamentary system. Using polling data of various presidential candidates at that moment, instead of considering them Republicans or Democrats he assigned them separate parties based upon their various points of view – as might be the case if we had a structure allowing for coalition governments, rather than our winner-take- all presidential system. An accompanying graphic depicted the parties arrayed in a legislative chamber. On the left sat a Social Democratic Party, the second largest overall, with numbers based upon Bernie Sanders’s polling numbers. Next over was the largest grouping, a Liberal Party representing Hillary Clinton partisans. On the right hand side was the third largest, Donald Trump’s People’s Party. And filling out the chamber in between were the substantially smaller Christian Coalition, the Ted Cruz vote; and the Conservative Party of John Kasich voters. No party had a majority, but together the Liberals and Social Democrats would constitute one and seemed the likely partners in imagined coalition government, with the Liberals as the senior factor.

This fantasy parliament came to mind several months later during a conference call as Bernie Sanders explained to his convention delegates that while he obviously still had his differences with Hillary Clinton, his support for her in the general election represented a coalition, adding that this sort of thing was quite common in European politics. Seemingly simple enough, yet I wondered how it was being interpreted. American coalition politics, after all, tend toward combining people with generally similar overall views but differing primary interests – such as environmentalists and labor unions, or civil rights activists and feminists. The sort of European inter-party alliances Sanders referred to are not really that, though. They represent agreements between parties with differences that are obvious and well delineated in national campaign debate. A coalition government depends not upon any illusion that the two or more parties don’t have significant differences but on the understanding that they are lesser than those with the other parties in the field.

The final outcome of our primaries and caucuses turned out to be reasonably like what The Economist article described, the key difference, of course, being that the actual vote was confined to the really existing Democratic and Republican Parties rather than the imagined five. I leave it to others better versed to comment on events in the Republican Party, but the funneling of two ideologically distinct groups into the Democratic Party is precisely what Sanders was addressing on the call. We now have a coalition of two tendencies – whose differences might warrant their being separate parties under other political structures – that due to the particulars of the American system, find themselves within a single party, whose control each will vie for over the long run.

As the longest serving independent in U.S. congress history, Sanders obviously did not choose the option of entering the Democratic presidential primaries lightly. But once actively considering the race, he understood that taking his case to a national audience required entering the Democratic Party, knowing full well that it was dominated by people who didn’t welcome him or his point of view. Certainly little changed on that front: One tally on the eve of the convention showed him trailing Hillary Clinton by 570 to 44 among the party’s unelected superdelegates. And the WikiLeaks email scandal merely resulted in Debbie Wasserman Schultz shifting from a supposed position of neutrality as the head of Democratic National Committee to openly running the presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton.

And yet, as we know, this move into hostile territory payed off handsomely, to a degree exceeding all expectations, with Sanders taking roughly forty-five percent of all elected delegates. The Economist’s musing was well taken. The Sanders campaign has brought forth on this nation a new-to- us democratic socialist point of view to challenge the corporate liberals who have historically dominated the Democratic Party. This is uncharted territory. Instead of taking the race all the way to election day and perhaps forming part of a coalition government at the end, as is the way in other countries, Sanders described an intra-party coalition based, in part, upon the party platform adopting causes such as the $15 dollar-an- hour minimum wage and tuition-free higher education, but mostly upon the belief that our still substantial differences with Clinton do not warrant running the risk of electing a candidate we love even less – the maniacal Donald Trump.

Some Sanders supporters understandably bridle at this approach. Indeed, it’s hard to imagine a Clinton presidency improving our current destructive and ultimately self-destructive foreign policy. Yet ultimately a majority will likely agree with Sanders’s judgement that Trump – who we can’t assume wouldn’t ultimately conduct a foreign policy even worse than Clinton’s – is obviously the worse option domestically. But why would we stay in a party whose leaders don’t want us? Precisely because they want us to leave. They now have what we want – or should want – control of a political party with the potential for real power to change the way things really work in this country. Certainly we could all join another party – the Greens or some other – whose principles were much closer to ours than those of the dominant Democratic faction and we’d probably feel “happier” about it. But most likely the best we could aspire to would be an interesting historical footnote, since the last third party presidential candidate of the left to draw so much as three percent of the vote was Robert La Follette – in 1924! We don’t want to control our perfect little party. We want to control the messy Democratic Party.

There has been no significant candidacy in recent memory to state so clearly that it wasn’t just about the person at the top of the ticket – it was about empowering the working men and women increasingly marginalized by the people at the top of the economy. A post-campaign organization, Our Revolution, has already been announced, with a first national electronic hook-up later this month. We’ve never done this before and our path may well be full of wrong turns. But after out-fundraising the establishment with a base of $27 dollar contributions we know we can do it – and we’re not going to give it up because we didn’t win it all the first time out.

Bernie Sanders addressing CWA members

Bernie Sanders, Labor, Ideology and the Future of American Politics

The Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, contrary to all expectation, has become the most important left insurgency in the United States in nearly half a century. A year ago, even his most optimistic supporters might have hoped that Sanders would enliven the presidential debates by challenging Hillary Clinton on issues of Wall Street power and big money corruption, and perhaps garner a quarter to a third of the primary vote. Instead, Sanders won

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