In 2015 prior to the Sanders candidacy Tom Gallagher authored a political pamphlet entitled, The Primary Route: How the 99% Take on the Military Industrial Complex. This short and engaging examination of third party efforts and primary challenges was prescient in predicting the power of Bernie Sanders candidacy in the 2016 Democratic primary. Now over two years after the election of Donald Trump and heading into 2020 Gallagher once again examines the political feasibility of the primary route in building a socialist current in America.
Would active participation in the presidential primary race advance the development of a serious American electoral left? Before 2016, the jury was out on this question. The argument for involvement in the presidential process was that, while success might be more likely in House or Senate races (and certainly in state or local races), a presidential candidacy offered a breadth of opportunity that the lower level races simply did not. Only the presidential election process provides a political forum involving the entire nation – a debate and discussion about where the country is at and where it wants to go, whose importance far surpasses that of any other event in the normal American political cycle. And the argument for participation specifically in the primaries (and caucuses) – as opposed to a “third party” run – rests on the fact that the primaries offer a “safe” option, a situation where candidates of the left are less likely to see their message overshadowed by the perceived danger of their efforts ultimately making matters worse by inadvertently helping to elect a Republican – a debate that has continued for nearly twenty years since Ralph Nader’s 2000 run. After the Bernie Sanders campaign, the question of the value of taking the primary route would appear to be settled.
In the process of taking some unusually “big issues” – universal health insurance, a minimum wage that is actually a living wage, the history of U.S. overthrows of democratically elected governments, etc. – right into America’s living rooms in the debates, the Sanders campaign arguably revolutionized the entire process, and certainly offered much of the country its first taste of “democratic socialism,” that is “democratic socialism” as defined by a friend rather than a foe. The national political debate now included a perspective known throughout virtually all of the free world – but previously not here.
The question of the moment is whether this breakthrough will ultimately prove to be just a one-off historical anomaly or the beginning of a lasting sea change in American politics. Will the future include an American left consistently able to navigate the often murky challenges of real world politics? Or does it fall back to its traditional, largely non-participant critique, generally delivered from the margins?
To the extent that one needs to understand the past in order to plan the future, an accurate assessment of the Sanders campaign seems a prerequisite for any thoughtful advance planning And yet, maybe it’s because the election of Donald Trump followed so close on the heels of Sanders’s run and plunged us into a daily routine of shaking our heads and/or fists at the administration’s latest outrages and follies, but it’s not always totally clear whether the magnitude of the Sanders campaign achievement has really ever fully sunken in. (And the fact that he is again a candidate will only make dispassionate assessment of his last run all the more difficult.)
Simply put, in winning better than 13 million votes in the Democratic presidential primaries and caucuses, Bernie Sanders surpassed the combined vote total of every socialist presidential candidate in the prior history of the country. And yet we still find, on the one hand, self-identified socialists who consider the campaign to have been a failure or a diversion and, on the other, activists and advocates for many of the same causes the campaign championed who appear oblivious or indifferent to its remarkable success in promoting those issues.
It’s difficult to say how many people fall into either of these groups – one suspects that the relatively unimpressed outnumber the actively opposed – but regardless of their sizes, the difficulty and urgency of actually enacting the sort of changes the Sanders campaign moved to the front burner suggest that there’s some value in trying to get all of us who are trying to get to the same place onto the same train.
One strand of thought among the Sanders campaign’s rejectionist opposition simply has it that the ultimate failure to win the nomination demonstrates the futility of the entire venture – we could and should have been doing something better with our time. Another argument faults Sanders for operating within the realm of the Democratic Party and, in doing so, validating the Wall Street types who dominate it, along with their interests and positions, positions that often run antithetical to his – and ours. Yet another viewpoint argues that the people who run the Democratic Party don’t even want us there, so why should we stay where we’re not wanted? Tying them all together is usually a belief that the situation calls for a “third party,” a party of our own, a party that unambiguously shares his/our politics, a party that we control.
Unfortunately, history suggests that if we wanted a roadmap for a return to the marginality in which the American Left has so long labored, this would be pretty close to being it. Perhaps the most profoundly un- or even anti-political of these arguments is the idea that we ought to leave the Democratic Party because its powers-that-be don’t like us. If we can’t handle the fact that when you try to topple people from their positions of power they don’t like it, we might want to consider devoting our energies to something other than politics. You want to contest for real power? Then expect pushback. These guys know what they’re doing. And the fact that they want us gone is precisely the reason we need to stay: The Democratic Party represents a proven route to power. Specifically, the Democratic nominee has not finished out of the top two in a presidential race since the party’s inception in 1828.
What does a third party option offer? Clarity? Yes, it is true that the creation of yet another new party on the left would enable a certain clarity of message beyond anything we’re likely to achieve in the Democratic Party in the foreseeable future. But the question is who would listen to that clear message in the midst of the realities of the system in which we actually live? A lot of people who study such things will argue the virtues of a parliamentary system, one which allows for fielding candidates running on a distinct party program, after which, absent any party achieving an outright majority – a routine outcome in many parliamentary systems – the various parties have the option of combining with the party or parties closest to them in order to form a government, in opposition to the parties with which they have the least in common. If the U.S. had such a system in 2016, we might imagine Sanders and Clinton backers combining forces against Trump supporters and other hard right elements, forming a government and choosing a prime minister from the larger group to preside over it.
But, for better or worse, we don’t live in such an “additive” system that allows the strengths of different parties to be combined after the voting is done – and we can’t just wish it so. In the American reality, a new third party of the left might very well conduct a unified convention, create a coherent platform and select an articulate presidential candidate to run on that platform. And afterwards? History unfortunately suggests that said candidate would be doing very well to get even as much as three percent of the vote. The last “third party” presidential candidate of the left to reach even that level was Eugene Debs in 1920. (Robert LaFollette also did it in 1924, but he was actually a Republican – yes, there was such a thing as a left-wing Republican in those days.) And if the past be any guide, one thing our imagined candidate would likely win a lot of is – blame. For in the “subtractive” system used in American presidential elections, any third party offering an alternative to the candidate whom its backers might consider the “lesser of two evils” runs the risk of assisting in the election of the greater of the two evils. We just have to imagine the reaction to Trump being reelected in 2020 by electoral votes from states where his edge over the Democratic nominee was smaller than the number of votes cast for a prominent third party candidate of the left, in order to realize the potential for disaster in such a candidacy. Third parties can claim their share of accomplishments, to be sure. And there are electoral arenas in which they can and do thrive – but the presidential level is not one of them.
The failure to acknowledge the significance of the 2016 Sanders campaign is not limited to die-hard third party proponents, though. At the other edge, there appear to be a significant number of people who seemed to fit the profile of Sanders backers, but actually were not – including some leftists of longstanding, many even self-identified socialists. Some of them were wrong-footed by Sanders’s entry into the race, having taken the Clinton nomination for a fait accompli, and/or assuming that Sanders had little electoral potential. For others, the prospect of electing the first female president outweighed the fact that they were otherwise closer to Sanders on the issues. Some may have had specific problems with Sanders as a candidate, a potential stumbling block with any candidate, who, unlike a bill or a ballot question, comes with a specific history and characteristics. Some may have thought, “He should be a Democrat,” or “I didn’t like that thing he did back when he was mayor of Burlington,” etc. And some may simply have gotten so used to the prospect of choosing from a list of the best available Wall Street-oriented Democrats, that they were no longer able to recognize a candidate of a genuinely different stripe when the real thing finally came along.
There’s no telling how large this group actually is, but it would appear to include a fair number of “movement types” who had dug in over the years in left-related activities in areas like fundraising, foundations, social services, advertising, public relations, legal work, journalism, and a few other professions. Whether or not they still consider going with Clinton the right thing to have done under the circumstances is, at this point, a matter of only personal significance. What does matter, however, is whether that past decision is even now blocking their recognition of the degree to which the Sanders campaign changed things – toward ends for which they had long labored. There is no real way to know either the answer to this question or the number of people involved, but the field of journalism, the most public of these professions, suggests there may be a substantial number who have yet to reassess the situation. Consider how many writers wax eloquent over the virtues of Alexandria Ocasio Cortez, but did no such thing in the case of Sanders in 16, and have given no indication of having reassessed their stance, seemingly ignoring, or remaining oblivious to how very unlikely it would have been for her to become the youngest woman ever elected to the U.S. Congress, absent the Sanders campaign.
Where does this all leave us, then? Early 2019 presents a vista of American politics unimaginable at the start of 2016. The starkest reality is a White House occupied by a man routinely referred to as a liar, presiding over the further enrichment of the already rich, the devastation of environmental regulation, and the poisoning of public discourse regarding those not of his race and gender; a man whose unprecedentedly outrageous behavior has shocked millions of us – every single day of his administration. On the other hand, we see an America potentially on the verge of a paradigm shift also without precedent, an America with a growing recognition that the earth’s clock is ticking, a recognition that the people of this nation and this planet can no longer leave their destiny in the hands of profit-seeking corporations and the power-seeking military industrial complex, a recognition of the need to find the way to take that power into our own, democratic hands.
Next year’s primaries and caucuses will again undoubtedly be a time of dispute and disagreement – that’s what they’re for. But for the first time in the lives of many, if not most, of the participating voters, there seems a realistic possibility of finishing this primary season with a candidate who not only surpasses the exceedingly low hurdle of being better than the current occupant of the White House, but one who is actually up to the challenge of establishing democratic control over the forces currently leading us down the road to ruin.
Tom Gallagher – native of Hunts Point section of the Bronx – but a lifelong Dodger fan, which he can explain if he chooses to! Anti-war activist and community organizer in Boston. He represented Allston Brighton neighborhood of Boston in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. First socialist state representative since the Sacco and Vanzetti era in Massachusetts. In 1986 he ran in the Democratic primary in a very crowded field to succeed Tip O’Neil. Subsequently chaired the Boston chapter of the Democratic Socialists of America. Later relocated to SF where he lives on Bernal Heights, is a substitute teacher in SFUSD and has written about his experiences in a book called Sub. Elected as a Bernie Sanders delegate to the 2016 Democratic Presidential Nominating Convention. (Also served in same capacity for George McGovern in 1984.) He is a member of the Bernal Heights Democratic Club, the Progressive Democrats of America, and the Democratic Socialists of America.