By David Duhalde
Senator Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign offers many questions as well as hope in who will continue to mobilize the millions of voters now open to democratic socialist politics. This June’s People’s Summit, which brings together many pro-Sanders groups and their allies, may provide one answer to what will happen after the Sanders campaign. Socialists would be wise to study the past to develop a strategy for post-election efforts to build long-term, well-structured progressive unity.
Two experiences in presidential politics with lessons for socialists are the Democratic Agenda (connected to Ted Kennedy) and the National Rainbow Coalition (connected to Jesse Jackson). Socialists should understand both events in order to inform ourselves how to strategically plan for the post-Bernie-campaign political landscape.
The Democratic Agenda of the late 1970s and early 1980s, a project of the Democratic Socialist Organizing Committee (DSOC), helped launch a national insurgent campaign against the Democratic Party’s pro-business, neoliberal wing. Democratic Agenda represented a concerted effort by labor and its allies, such as DSOC, in a coordinated push against the Jimmy Carter administration and the Democratic Party establishment. The culmination of this was Ted Kennedy’s 1980 presidential primary challenge to the incumbent Carter.
Carter defeated Kennedy for a variety of reasons. Carter’s victory provided a major setback for the hopes of DSOC to “realign” the Democratic Party. In other words, Kennedy’s loss diminished the chances of remaking the Democrats into a social democratic/labor party like those in Europe and Canada. (For an excellent summary of realignment, how it succeeded, and how it failed, check out “It’s Their Party” by Paul Heideman.)
However, an observer at the time stated that a socialist pressure group with a membership of a few thousand had commensurate influence in the Democratic Party as the 300,000-member American Conservative Union had in the Republican Party. An influence no socialists can honestly claim today.
Jesse Jackson’s presidential ambitions in 1984 and 1988 represented a different kind of left-wing Democratic primary candidate. Jackson attracted not only support from progressive elements in labor, but many groups of color (including the Nation of Islam), and radical support outside of DSA. These included Maoist and post-Maoist formations, some of which, after his campaign, regrouped as new revolutionary organizations or entered the politics of the mainstream liberal-left.
Both the Kennedy and Jackson campaigns gave socialists an opportunity to participate openly in credible presidential candidacies that we could only dream of running by ourselves and which exposed millions of new people to left-wing ideas. Neither campaign, however, made socialism or even full-fledged social democracy a clear part of their work. Nor did either of these campaigns lead to a stronger socialist movement or even a highly effective left-liberal political pressure group. The National Rainbow Coalition, affiliated with Jackson’s campaign, came close. But by 1989, as Danny Glover and Bill Fletcher argue, the Coalition shifted from a grassroots group to Jesse Jackson’s “personal political operation.” This ended the promise of creating a democratic multiracial, multiclass national grassroots organization to challenge the Reagan-Bush agenda.
Today’s Sanders campaign shows both similarities and stark differences to each previous insurgency. Unlike Kennedy and the Democratic Agenda, Sanders is running explicitly as a democratic socialist and his campaign is not driven by any single formal alliance, but largely by the Senator’s reputation, celebrity surrogates, a handful of unions, and millions of small donors and grassroots volunteers. Closer to Jackson’s campaigns, Sanders enjoys the support of several socialist organizations to varying degrees, including Socialist Alternative, Solidarity, the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy & Socialism, and DSA (which is a successor to DSOC). While none play as prominent campaign roles as DSOC did for Kennedy, some of these groups are significantly expanding because of the Sanders phenomenon.
Another crucial similarity of these three candidates is the question of what happens after their campaigns. For progressives and socialists, the Kennedy and Jackson campaigns were about more than just winning the White House. Building new, mass organizations and alliances drove our participation in these presidential races. The same desires for a post-election left-wing formation and unity drive our support of Sanders’ race. But does he share our ambition or is he only running to be Commander in Chief?
A significant difference is that the Sanders campaign has mobilized a significant percentage of the millennial generation to a progressive social democratic politics. This education and mobilization affects the near future of electoral politics in the U.S. and our work in DSA.
Both Sanders’ supporters and his critics are fairly asking this question. Tom Hayden’s latest piece in the Nation, which describes his transformation from Sanders supporter to Clinton voter, specifically cited Sanders’ ambiguous stance on what follows his campaign as one reason Hayden switched his vote. We can debate the veracity of Hayden’s motives, but we must acknowledge there is genuine and valid progressive concern about the energy of Sanders’ campaign evaporating when it ends, especially if he loses the Democratic nomination.
This fear is partly derived from the left’s tendency to measure our own successes and failures by the actions of our leaders. Sanders is no exception. Despite people placing their hopes and dreams in Bernie’s campaign, however, it is not his responsibility to provide us with a post-election plan. The Senator’s main focus must be winning as many primaries and as many delegates as possible. His main goal is winning the Democratic nomination. Failing that, his goal is gaining enough delegates to influence the Democratic National Convention (DNC) platform in Philadelphia. It is simply unrealistic for us to expect him to have the “bandwidth” to be planning his next political project absent knowing how well he’ll do by his final primary in my home of Washington, D.C in mid-June, what happens at the DNC in July, and who’ll be sitting in the White House in 2017.
For Sanders, the decision to join any post-election planning depends on when his campaign ends. His path will certainly vary whether his speech in Philadelphia is an acceptance of the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination or not. We socialists don’t have this constraint. But we do have a limited window of opportunity to capitalize on the fact that millions of Americans have both campaigned and voted for a socialist. One way to take advantage of this moment is to participate in the upcoming People’s Summit in held in Chicago’s McCormick Place this June 17th to 19th.
This gathering, which occurs shortly after the last primary and before the DNC, brings together explicitly pro-Sanders groups such as, but not limited to, National Nurses United, Reclaim Chicago, Progressive Democrats of America, People for Bernie, and DSA alongside left-of-center non-partisan groups such as National People’s Action, United Students Against Sweatshops, and Food & Water Watch.
The People’s Summit differentiates itself from other left-wing political gatherings by going beyond the debates currently represented by “Bernie or Bust” (i.e., a third-party/protest vote) versus the “Popular Front against Trump” (i.e., just vote against Republicans). The thousands of participants will network and work to build a People’s Platform, a unifying political statement that can used to hold elected officials accountable.
The purpose of the People’s Summit is not to create a new national party, but many of the participating organizations represent people we’d want and expect to be in a future socialist party. These activists represent a microcosm of the best Sanders campaign supporters. Therefore, socialists should prioritize joining this chance to bond with thousands of activists open to our ideas. Together, we can construct a post-campaign alliance that is more democratically accountable than previous post-presidential election formations.
DSA will be the organized democratic socialist voice at the People’s Summit. The gathering will bring together thousands of activists, many of whom not only support Bernie Sanders but—whether he wins or not—want to see new progressive unity emerge out of his campaign.
We encourage DSA members and our allies to mobilize and to participate. To register for the People's Summit, click here. This political opportunity comes once in a generation. I hope to see many of you in Chicago as we chart a new course towards building a more democratic and equitable United States.
David Duhalde is DSA's Deputy Director and long time electoral activist.
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