At this writing in mid-May, it’s a fair bet that the campaign will focus its energy on platform fights at the Democratic convention in favor of a $15 national minimum wage, single-payer health care, fair trade rather than free trade, public campaign finance, and a democratic and grassroots-funded Democratic Party. No matter who wins the nomination, these planks provide a benchmark against which to measure a candidate.
Start Now to Broaden the Sanders Movement
Political campaigns, particularly presidential ones, rarely yield ongoing grassroots political organization. That will be the responsibility of the activists and organizations that built the Sanders campaign at the local level. These local efforts will be greatly enhanced if the Sanders campaign shares its list of activists and donors with local organizers and if several of the key institutional players in the campaign (such as the Communication Workers of America, the National Nurses Union, and the Working Families Party) provide funding. But even if such resources are lacking, local Bernie activists, particularly those associated with the independent volunteer networks of People for Bernie and Labor for Bernie, should work to build local coalitions that can continue the “political revolution.”
That is, the “Bernie current” in U.S. politics needs to be built primarily from the grassroots up and should focus primarily on state and local politics. Republican control of all three branches of government in 25 states has had disastrous consequences for education funding, voting rights, labor rights, and reproductive justice. Fifty separate political systems exist in the United States; only if we build rainbow coalitions at the state and local level, such as the Moral Monday movement in North Carolina, can the left match the political power that the right has built in the past 40 years. The left needs to build the base for a multi-racial group of Bernies and Bernices running not just for Congress, but for school boards, city councils, and state legislatures.
These local coalitions must be more multi-racial in nature than the Sanders campaign itself. As labor and community activist Bill Fletcher argued in the Spring 2016 issue of Democratic Left, the Sanders campaign did not go boldly into black and Latino community spaces, such as the church, and focus concerted attention on issues uniquely salient to those communities: an end to mass incarceration and police brutality and immigrants’ rights. Sanders addressed these issues, but almost always in the context of his standard stump speech railing against the oligarchy’s role in promoting socio-economic inequality. The Democratic Party elite remains pro-corporate and neo-liberal in its policy orientation, but communities of color understand that there are real differences between the two parties on voting rights, reproductive justice, labor rights, and immigrants’ rights. They’ve seen what Republican control of all three branches of state government has meant for working people and people of color in formerly Democratic states such as Wisconsin and Michigan.
Community activists in and around the Sanders campaign should start now to form local, post-election organizations or coalitions to first “Dump Trump” while simultaneously beginning to build political capacity independent of the Democratic Party establishment. Independent activist networks, as well as progressive unions and organizations such as Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) that backed Sanders from the start will also be key to such efforts. But such local efforts must move beyond the primary base of the Sanders movement among older white progressives and younger (somewhat more multi-racial) millennials. That is, the post-election trend must construct a multi-racial, majoritarian left and can only do so by tackling the intersectional nature of race, class, and gender injustice. To that end, Sanders activists should prioritize work as loyal allies in anti-racist struggles led by activists and organizations rooted in working-class and poor communities of color.
Labor and Community Organizations
Organized labor must also be central to such efforts, particularly as labor unions are often the only multi-racial institutions in a community. Unfortunately, not all union locals, even if affiliated with progressive internationals, are committed to democratic rank-and-file political mobilization. Those that are can play an invaluable role in progressive coalition politics.
To accomplish the above, post-election activists will have to accurately map the diverse nature of their potential allies and analyze the local power structure (including those Democratic Party elites opposed to radical change). This analysis must survey both mainstream and radical people-of-color organizations, taking into account the full range of diversity in generation, ideology, and class composition in such communities, as well as both the history of cooperation and tension between ethnic and racial groups in the community. Only by doing so can activists comprehend which groups have a mass base and will be the best partners for social change. The African-American-led progressive coalitions that recently defeated conservative incumbents for district attorney in Cleveland and Chicago are prime examples of such multi-racial efforts.
Although DSA is growing rapidly because of Sanders’s legitimation of democratic socialism and the attraction of millennials to socialism, we still have limited resources and must use them strategically. Our post–November priority is to build the capacity of our locals to engage in anti-racist coalition work, for all of the reasons mentioned above.
This summer and fall DSAers will be focusing on two local campaigns that pre-figure the type of political efforts that can build a post-election left political current. DSA will work to elect DSAer Debbie Medina to the 18th district of the New York State Senate (the Bushwick and Williamsburg sections of Brooklyn) in the September New York Democratic primary (see interview. Medina, a veteran Puerto Rican activist and an explicit democratic socialist, is focusing her campaign on affordable housing, equitable public education, and the fight for racial justice. In North Carolina, our fledgling Piedmont local is aiding political independent Eric Fink’s run for the State Senate. Fink, a long-time DSA member and labor law professor at Elon University, is the sole opponent in District 26 to infamous Republican State Senate President Pro Tem Phil Berger, a key proponent of the trans-phobic HB2 “bathroom bill.” Fink’s campaign aims to strengthen the multi-racial Moral Monday movement. (Also of note is left-leaning Tim Canova’s campaign against Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz in Florida.)
This is the beginning of DSA’s work to build a socialist trend in the streets and in electoral politics. Despite what mainstream pundits say, we can afford all that “free stuff” (also known as social rights), if we redistribute the income and wealth that the 1% have extracted from the 99%. In addition, socialists can best articulate that public investment can often be more productive than private capital. Only major public investments in nonprofit housing, alternative energy, mass transit, and infrastructure can create a sustainable, just society. Targeting these investments to address the racial wealth divide will necessitate building a socialist movement that is as diverse as the working class, a movement that values different cultures, is forthrightly anti-racist, and grounds its politics in mutual support and inter-racial solidarity.
Joseph M. Schwartz is a professor of political science at Temple University and a National Vice-Chair of DSA. He is currently working on a book on the roots and revival of U.S. socialism.
This article originally appeared in the summer 2016 (early June) issue of the Democratic Left magazine.
The above was written in mid-May for mid-June publication in the print edition of Democratic Left.
The following is a postscript by the author, written after the final June primaries.
The left should build off the success of the Sanders campaign by building a multi-racial coalition that puts front-and-center the “intersectional” nature of class, gender, and racial oppression. While capitalism and class relations play a key role in structuring forms of racial and gender oppression, racism and patriarchy also have an independent logic. Women, LGBTQ people, and people of color face forms of violence and domination that cross-cut class (e.g., affluent people of color face discrimination in the housing and labor market and are often subject to police harassment).
Bernie did not pull off a miracle victory, but we should be empowered by how close he came to doing so. An avowed democratic socialist just introduced the country to the basics of a social democratic platform and received 43% of the Democratic primary vote, or 12 million votes! This is something to build off of rather than to lament. (Over 20% of those votes came from voters of color, particularly voters under 35. If Sanders had won 15% more of the black and Latino vote he would have won the majority of pledged delegates). In contrast, Ralph Nader only received 2.7 million votes in his 2000 general election, third party campaign. At best, 5% of Nader’s vote came from people of color.
Yes, the Democratic establishment, embodied by DNC chair Debbie Wasserman-Schultz, tilted the playing field against Bernie—what did one expect? But by building political capacity independent of monied interests and the Democratic Party establishment, Bernie used the primary process to further an independent left politics. As the states run the primaries, neither party establishment can ban anyone from running (do we think the ruling class really wanted Trump to be the Republican nominee?). Thus, anti-corporate, pro-labor progressives do sit in Congress (see Raul Grijalva, Keith Ellison, Jim McDermott, Marcy Kaptur, Barbara Lee, the list goes on), though such figures usually represent majority black or Latino districts or areas with a strong progressive trade union presence.
The Trump phenomenon has made Republican “dog-whistle” racist politics explicit. Such a racist, anti-immigrant, misogynist and anti-Muslim politics must be defeated and defeated soundly. While the majority of Trump’s base are college-educated small-town businesspeople and low-level managers (often from deindustrialized smaller cities), his protectionist policies and immigrant bashing does appeal to a significant segment of older downwardly-mobile white working class individuals (particularly men). But as Bernie’s campaign proves, a left candidate who aggressively defends the interests of working people by fighting to raise the minimum wage to $15 an hour, to establish free public college and universities and to institute “fair trade” rather than free trade policies, can win over a large segment of the white working class, while advocating an expedited path to citizenship for the undocumented.
While we can’t trust the former Senator from Wall Street to enact such policies, forcing Clinton to run on a more populist, pro-working class platform will help us build street heat against her administration if and when it fails to break with the interests of the 1%. Electing a Democratic Senate would also weaken the neoliberal Democratic excuse “that the Republicans prevent us from doing anything progressive.” A Trump victory would let neoliberal Democrats off the hook, as they will claim that their social liberalism stands up to Trump’s extremism. We must defeat Trump, given what his administration would likely do to immigrant rights, reproductive rights, voting rights, environmental policy, and labor rights. And we should have no illusions about the candidate who will have to defeat him.
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