The Sanders Movement at the Crossroads: Hillary Clinton or Jill Stein?

(Randy Bayne/Flickr)

By Jack Rothman 

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. DSA’s perspective on the 2016 elections can be found here. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found here.

Bernie Sanders endorsed Hillary Clinton on July 12, generating upheaval among his supporters. On the first night of the convention he strengthened the endorsement and urged his followers in full throat to vote for her in the election. This has created a dilemma for DSA and other left groups working for a Sanders presidency within the Democratic Party. Many feel copious animosity toward the Democratic Party and toward Hillary Clinton. Both are seen as neoliberal agents of corporate elites and the billionaire class. The assumption had been that if Bernie could seize the wheel by being nominated, he might be able to steer the noxious party significantly to the left. That prospect is gone.

So the left has to decide whether to follow Bernie’s lead and embrace Hillary within the Democratic Party or break away and get behind an independent party like the Greens, under Jill Stein. This kind of choice has been a recurring quandary historically and the spectacular results of Bernie’s revolution intensify the dilemma. That’s because his success makes both sides of the argument stronger and more persuasive. Let me illustrate.

In an extraordinarily short time, Bernie Sanders and his revolutionary band have opened the American political dialogue to democratic socialist perspectives. He has gained 13 million supporters, won 22 state primaries, won about 45% of convention delegates, acquired $228 million in contributions through 2.5 million donors, and attracted to his rallies a million and a half enthusiasts. He has made himself and his movement a force that can materially reshape American political life. That creates grounding for transforming the party or propelling a left third party. It can be argued that the prime achievement of Bernie’s nomination run was to greatly expand and revitalize the left and create prospects for a range of progressive initiatives that didn’t exist before.

Maybe we have to reconsider the old and too-true catchphrase that the Democratic Party is the graveyard for progressive movements. Bernie, a long-term radical and change-agent, will now stand as a major figure within the party, having a large and vital following and wide public acceptance as an honest and authentic political figure. His delegate representatives at the convention helped mold a party platform skewed heavily toward his policy goals. His forces were able to clip the future role of superdelegates significantly. He has shown that he can raise funds and mobilize people to go into the streets and to fill stadiums.

He has committed himself to advance Democratic Party reformation by establishing a set of organizations explicitly designed to achieve that purpose. The Our Revolution group will support progressive candidates for office at every level throughout the nation. He has pledged to raise funds and campaign from the start for at least 100 candidates running for local school boards, state positions, and Congress. Bernie will bring in new grassroots candidates and give them tools and finances needed to win.

Another planned organization (or Institute) will have an educational focus, using media and documentaries to bring forward ideas the corporate media ignore. The educational program will seek understanding and support for issues stressed in the campaign—inequality, the neglected middle class, extreme poverty, problems of children and seniors. A third organization will create effective ads to champion first-time progressive candidates running for office. This mobilization of organizational power shows that Sanders is determined to push the revolution forward forcefully within the Democratic Party context.

Still, we have to ask whether even with his considerable assets, resolve, and support base he can remake the Democratic machine. The party, and Hillary Clinton, are deeply rooted in the status quo, interlocked with economic elites, and sustained financially and politically by them. She is not bound in any way to carrying out platform provisions that Bernie honed. Hillary has a deserved low trust rating and it is remarkable that with the volume of votes Sanders received and the momentum he achieved nationwide, only a handful of Democratic Party establishment figures came to endorse him, up to the very end, and the superdelegates, with very few exceptions, gave him short shrift.

A WikiLeaks release of thousands of emails revealed that the Democratic National Committee was tilting the scales for Hillary and undermining the Sanders campaign consistently. Debby Wasserman Schultz resigned as chair for presiding over this corrupt and deceitful operation (she was not fired), and was then promptly appointed by Hillary as honorary chair of the Clinton campaign. There was no sign of now bending in a progressive direction in Hillary’s pick of centrist Tim Kaine as her vice-presidential running mate. Kaine’s support of TTP and banking deregulation are directly counter to what the Sanders camp has been fighting for. The Democratic Party checks out as a weak reed to sustain the revolutionary aspirations of the Bernie movement.

Shifting to the independent party option, this is a choice among a substantial number of Bernie supporters. Polls are often iffy, but The Hill reported that one survey of millennials found that 48% favored voting for a third party. Just as the Bernie campaign has given impetus to prospects for change within the Democratic Party, it has given impetus to the advancement of independent parties.

The campaign validated socialism and political revolution as part of the dialogue of US politics and established the most solid foundation, possibly ever in American politics, for third party development. Under a revolutionary banner, the campaign generated supporters in the multi-millions, a striking army of volunteers, dedicated staff, an astonishing number of small donors, highly sophisticated campaign technology, and that famous momentum. Substantial numbers of members who fuelled that momentum are already shifting to the Green Party. Coincidentally, Jill Stein is a sharp, articulate and collaborative candidate, who even invited Sanders to head the Green ticket.

Among Stein’s fans is Cornel West, who was a staunch Bernie supporter and is a luminary on the left. He came out for Jill Stein of the Green Party right after Bernie announced the endorsement. He said that he disagrees with Brother Sanders’ view that Clinton would be an “outstanding president”; instead, she would be a “neo-liberal disaster.” West thinks that Hillary, in tandem with President Bill, created destructive social policies that depict her continuing outlook:

Clinton policies of the 1990s generated inequality, mass incarceration, privatization of schools and Wall Street domination. There is also a sense that the Clinton policies helped produce the right-wing populism that we are seeing now in the country. And we think she is going to come to the rescue? That’s not going to happen.

He also doubts that Clinton will exhibit the transparency and honesty needed to face up to profound problems needing remedies.

The American empire is in deep spiritual decline and cultural decay. The levels of wealth inequality and environmental degradation is grotesque. The correct response to this is: tell the truth about what is going on. Bear witness. 

In West’s view, Clinton is wedded to a calamitous status quo, while the Green Party, through Jill Stein, provides a means to break through our “lock-jaw situation.”

Third party movements have not been archetypes of success in American politics. But, under current circumstances they potentially could help revitalize and humanize American politics. Of all the Western democracies, the United States is the only one absent a viable left in its political life—limiting the range of policies the nation can mount and the choices citizens have about how to address their problems. This long-term structural shift needs to be weighed alongside the alternative of beneficial incremental change through established party machinery.

Bernie Sanders and Cornel West represent these different left strategies. Bernie is a warm friend of DSA and Cornel is an honorary chair. Both are men of high intelligence and conviction. One is a commanding political voice of the left and the other is a commanding moral voice of the left. Strivers for a fair and just society will find it daunting to choose between a Democratic Party or third party approach as framed by Sanders and West. Putting the hoary “two evils” analogy aside, under current circumstances it may be a matter of choosing between the better of two equals.

For DSA, the new and fluid political environment calls for giving the third party strategy upgraded consideration. That strategy has taken a back seat ever since founder Mike Harrington admonished DSA to hew to “the left wing of the possible within the Democratic Party.” Under current circumstances, emerging elements of the possible may exist in third party politics. Could that now be the better of the two equals?

(Adapted slightly from my LA Progressive piece, “Deconstructing the Sanders Movement.”)

 Jack Rothman is professor emeritus at the UCLA School of Public Affairs and a member of Los Angeles DSA.

Individually signed posts do not necessarily reflect the views of DSA as an organization or its leadership. Democratic Left blog post submission guidelines can be found hereFor DSA’s National Political Committee’s talking points on electoral activity between now and November, see here.