Building a Political Revolution: The Sanders Campaign and the Future of the Left

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Credit: Frank Reynoso

By Joseph M. Schwartz

Senator Bernie Sanders’ campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination offers the biggest opportunity for growth that U.S. socialists have had in decades. In a few months he has transformed the Democratic Party primary into a debate about the causes of rampant inequality and possible solutions. But the political revolution he talks about can only happen if activists in the Sanders campaign broaden its social base among voters of color and the non-college educated and build local multi-racial progressive coalitions. Stronger DSA locals must play a central role in such coalitions if they are to offer a coherent alternative to corporate domination.

These state and local formations should link social-movement activism to electoral politics and develop a diverse array of viable Sanders-type candidates in their communities. If they do that, the Left can both challenge pro-corporate Democrats and change the game in the 25 states where Republicans rule all three branches of government.

Sanders hesitated to run for fear of being a marginal candidate. But hundreds of thousands have joined his campaign, disgusted by the bipartisan corporate control of our politics. Who would have thought that the first Democratic presidential debate would focus on whether democratic socialism is a superior system to capitalism? 

Sanders’ program includes both the social democratic reforms of progressive income and corporate taxation and the more radical “non-reformist” reforms that shift control over capital from corporations to social ownership. The former would be used to fund such public goods as free universal child care, free public higher education, and a national health care system. The latter includes a public infrastructure bank to invest one trillion dollars over ten years to create three million jobs and federal funding for worker cooperatives. His proposal to create a Post Office banking system would provide low-cost financial services to people who are now exploited by check-cashing services and payday lenders.

We may not be Denmark, as Hillary Clinton famously said, but Sanders would like the richest country in the world to do better than the small countries of northern Europe. Today, the United States spends 30% of its gross domestic product on public expenditure and over a quarter of that is wasted on mass incarceration and militarism. In contrast, northern European governments channel 45-55% of their GDP through the state and spend only 2% of their GDP on defense.

Why the difference? Most of northern Europe has publicly funded universal child care, truly universal health care, and more generous public pensions that replace 60% of average income. Social Security, our equivalent program, replaces a paltry 40%. How do these countries pay for programs that benefit all their residents? They can do it because affluent taxpayers see the value of these relatively high quality social goods and are willing to pay for them.

Could the United States afford these goods? Certainly, but only if the 1% and corporate America pay their fair share. In 1962, corporate taxes constituted more than 25% of federal revenues. Today, corporate taxes account for 8% of federal revenues. If the country just went back to the pre-Reagan and pre-George W. Bush tax levels on the top 5% of income earners, federal spending could immediately expand by $250 billion or more than 7%.

However, not even one of Sanders’s platform planks could pass a center-right Congress without massive protests. Politicians, even left-leaning ones, are opportunists; they want to be re-elected. The social movements of the 1930s and 1960s not only scared elites into supporting progressive reforms but also increased the number of left-leaning representatives 

Building an effective protest movement will not be easy. Racism and coded appeals to it have long divided people who should be natural allies. Many swing white voters favor an expansion of universal public goods but are skeptical about tax reform. Despite ample evidence to the contrary, many still believe that too much social welfare spending goes to the “undeserving” poor. Widespread economic anxiety fuels the rival populisms of Left and Right, hence the popularity of Donald Trump and Ben Carson.

Outrage against inequality and declining living standards, particularly among young, heavily indebted, and underemployed recent college graduates, fueled Occupy. It also provides Sanders with a strong base among millennials. They have a somewhat more favorable view of socialism than of capitalism, probably because they vaguely associate northern European social democracy with a more egalitarian and socially mobile society than our own.

The outrage is there among other demographic groups, and the Sanders campaign must find a way to reach them. These groups are non-college-educated whites, communities of color, and immigrants. The core of Sanders’s national support remains among Democrats who self-identify as liberal, progressive, or radical. These voters are primarily college-educated and white and work as civil servants, educators, non-profit advocates, and in the care-giving professions. Hillary Clinton has double Sanders’ support among the 40% of likely Democratic Party primary voters of color who say they are well-acquainted with Sanders. Among the 60% of likely Democratic voters of color who do not know enough about Sanders to make a judgment, he is barely on the radar. Voters of color make up more than 35% of the Democratic primary vote. Bernie still runs far behind Hillary among self-identified feminists and self-defined “moderate” working-class Democrats, particularly those who are not members of unions.

To change those numbers, local Sanders groups have to reach out to progressive activists of color willing to vouch for Bernie within their communities. They have to work with Labor for Bernie to secure local union support. The Sanders campaign has to accelerate its hiring of organizers who have deep roots in working-class and black, Latino, and Asian American communities. To its credit, the campaign has begun to do this. Finally, we have to be willing not only to criticize Hillary’s flip-flopping on the Trans-Pacific Partnership and the Keystone pipeline but her strong support of welfare “reform” policies that have been devastating for low-income women and children.

To build local “rainbow coalitions” that last beyond the Sanders campaign, DSAers need to prioritize linking struggles for racial justice to the Sanders effort. Struggles for immigrant rights, for equitable public education, for a $15 minimum wage, and against mass incarceration and police brutality are the civil rights struggles of our time. If a multi-racial Left is to emerge from the campaign, we need new forms of grassroots coalitions that can put street heat on government officials while building the independent electoral capacity of the Left, labor, and communities of color. The last time the Left had such an opportunity was with Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential nomination run. We failed to build a national rainbow coalition after that campaign; we cannot afford to fail again.

As Hillary supporters ramp up the anti-socialist rhetoric (“Bernie’s unelectable because he’s a socialist”) DSA activists have to demonstrate that democratic socialism can be a viable and effective force in U.S. politics. Socialism fits squarely within the U.S. democratic tradition—from Tom Paine to the radical abolitionists and on to Frederick Douglass, Eugene Debs, Helen Keller, A. Philip Randolph, Bayard Rustin, and Martin Luther King, Jr. We can build on prior progressive policies by expanding Social Security and instituting Medicare for All. And we can tackle the climate crisis by going beyond prior public investments that transformed the U.S. energy industry—the Rural Electrical Cooperatives of the 1930s and the Tennessee Valley Authority.

Vibrant socialist organizations have always played a key role in building the social movements that take on the power of capital. And now is the time to build DSA. The Sanders campaign shows that resistance is possible; but radical transformation is the work of a lifetime, not just of a campaign. 

Joseph M. Schwartz is a National Vice-Chair of Democratic Socialists of America and a professor of political science at Temple University. His writings on Sanders and socialism have appeared in In These Times, Jacobin, and Telesur. Search for his interview on MSNBC on Sanders and socialism.

This article originally appeared in the winter 2015 issue of the Democratic Left magazine.

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