Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign was the largest mobilisation of the American Left in history. He won more than twenty states and over ten million votes. His vote total was more than triple that achieved by Ralph Nader in 2000, and five thousand times larger than the votes won by the last Socialist Party candidate for president back in 1956. And he came incredibly close to defeating Hillary Clinton and capturing the Democratic nomination.
No one expected this kind of success, least of all Sanders himself. And yet certain factors such as the post-2008 economic crisis and the growing up of new, post-Cold-War generation for whom the term “socialist” is not toxic, made the Sanders campaign possible. For American socialists, the Sanders campaign has settled the question of whether one needs to work within the framework of the Democratic Party or outside of it, and completely vindicates the strategy first proposed a half century ago by some of the country’s leading socialists.
By early June, and especially in the wake of Sanders’ weak performance in the California primary, it has become obvious that Clinton will be the Party’s nominee for president. In a video address to his supporters, Sanders made clear that while the “political revolution” he has been preaching continues, and he encouraged everyone to get more active, to run for office and so on, his own race for the presidency is essentially over.
In his view, the main task facing his supporters and everyone else in the next few months is to ensure that Donald Trump is not elected president. While he did not endorse Clinton, he seems to have let up on most attacks against her, and will almost certainly endorse her at the July Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia if not sooner.
This will certainly divide Sanders’ own supporters, many of whom have adopted a “Bernie Or Bust” attitude. Some supporters say they’ll abstain on election day, others will write in Sanders’ name, still others will support the Green Party’s candidate, Dr Jill Stein. Media speculation that significant numbers of Sanders’ supporters might back the Libertarian Party or even vote for Donald Trump seem unfounded.
So, what happens now?
In the weeks running up to the Convention, while the Sanders campaign won’t be trying to woo super-delegates, they will be quite busy. Sanders has something like 1,900 delegates, and they will be a powerful voting block in support of progressive changes to the Democratic Party platform. Sanders has made it clear that he intends to fight for a platform that reflects his views rather than Clinton’s, and he has a good chance of winning on some key issues, such as the call for a $15 hourly minimum wage (Clinton supports $12).
In addition to fighting for a better platform – and holding the candidates accountable – the Sanders campaign will focus on changing the rules that made it so hard for him to win this year. This includes allowing independent voters in each state to vote in the Democratic primaries, and for a weakening or abolition of the system of unelected super-delegates.
And Sanders intends to fight to remove party functionaries including Democratic National Committee chair Debbie Wasserman Schulz. Schulz, a member of Congress from Florida, who has been working behind the scenes all year to ensure a Clinton victory. Her brazen partisanship has triggered a challenge as one of Sanders’ supporters, Tim Canova, is now running against her. A few days ago, the Florida AFL-CIO declined to endorse Schulz, showing how angry she has made progressives by her behaviour.
The Democratic National Convention, which begins on 25 July, promises to be one of the most exciting in decades. People have already compared it to 1980, when liberal challenger Ted Kennedy was the favourite in the hall, despite Jimmy Carter winning the nomination. Kennedy’s address was a highlight of the convention as he upstaged a weak and disliked sitting president. It is possible that Sanders, who is expected to address the Convention, may receive a similar welcome.
There will also be a lot of activity outside the hall, with several groups planning activities, including street demonstrations. Some people have already compared the atmosphere to that in 1968, when the Democrats chose to nominate Vice President Hubert Humphrey, a deeply unpopular figure closely associated with the Vietnam War. Both Carter in 1980 and Humphrey in 1968 went down to defeat in the November general elections.
Most observers believe that the vast majority of Sanders supporters will rally behind him when he endorses Clinton. They will support Clinton with little enthusiasm. One is reminded of the 1964 election, when student leftists heard the slogan “All the way with LBJ” (LBJ being President Lyndon B. Johnson) and replaced it with “Part of the way with LBJ”. In 1976, socialist author Michael Harrington wrote an article entitled “Voting for Carter – without illusions”. One expects something similar from most of the organised left in the US this year.
There will also be a certain amount of tactical voting. People in states that expect to go Democratic will feel more able to abstain or vote Green. But in states where Trump has a chance of winning, it is likely that pretty much the entire left and labour movement will support Clinton.
The most important question is not whether or not to support Clinton, but what to do in the long run. What happens on the morning after the November general election? Regardless of whether Clinton or Trump win, America needs a strong and independent Left.
A number of organisations already see themselves as being at the heart of such a Left, including Democracy for America, the Working Families Party, MoveOn, and Democratic Socialists of America. All of them are organising and recruiting new members.
Whatever happens next, this much is clear: Bernie Sanders’ campaign has changed American politics beyond recognition. Opportunities for the Left have been created which never existed before.
I for one cannot remember a more exciting time for the American Left.
This article appears in Solidarity.