November 7, 1972. Election Day. Richard Nixon beats Democrat George McGovern.
I remember the night far too well. First time I ever voted. Nixon supporter Sammy Davis, Jr. was cavorting with joy on TV while I was getting blotto on Southern Comfort and Dr. Pepper, then puking my guts out the back door into the chilly Michigan darkness.
The full story dribbled in over the next few months (no internet back then). McGovern had been nominated using the new rules put in place after the disaster of the 1968 Democratic Convention in Chicago (“The whole world WAS watching!”). The Democratic Party machine was infuriated that some of its convention delegations like those of Chicago Mayor Richard Daley had been unseated at the Convention in 1972. In retaliation, they had deliberately “sandbagged” the McGovern campaign, which went down in flames.
The message was unmistakable: the Democratic Party would rather lose a presidential election than lose control of the party apparatus.
So it is that the battered old warhorse rides out for one final battle.
History doesn’t repeat. It repents.
In 2016, the Democrats really wanted it. Well before Election Day, Democratic Party operatives were being fitted for new wardrobes appropriate to the new positions they would be occupying. Left and liberal organizations were looking forward to the corridors of power they would be strolling down under the new Hillary administration. Curtains were being measured. Then …
A debate broke out. Some argued that if Bernie had been the nominee, he’d have taken down Trump in a cakewalk. Or it was all Bernie’s fault for having savaged Hillary so viciously. And don’t forget those nasty Russians. The debate simmers on, even as Vladimir Putin has seized the lead in the Who’s-to-Blame Olympics. As these blasts from the past echo on, and Hillary having officially UNdeclared herself, a new race is shaping up: “Bernie” vs. “Not Bernie.”
I described certain dynamics of the coming go-round in my previous post, Wall Street freak out 2020. Keep in mind that “dynamics” do not always accord with “outcomes,” but to refresh our memories:
“Top Wall Street executives would love to be rid of President Donald Trump. But they are getting panicked about the prospect of an ultraliberal Democratic nominee bent on raising taxes and slapping regulations on their firms. The result is a kind of nervous paralysis of executives pining for a centrist nominee like Michael Bloomberg [who has now UNdeclared] while realizing such an outcome is unlikely from a party veering sharply to the left.”
The current situation has similarities to how 2016 shaped up. But to list some differences:
- Bernie is hardly suffering from lack of name recognition.
- He is raking in big money early. A lot of that money is from small donors. But at a certain point, big money becomes just plain “Big Money,” taking on a life of its own in determining how a campaign can be run, and in how a campaign will be run.
- Bernie is now, even by traditional criteria, the Democratic Party frontrunner. This may be a temporary condition as the so-called moderate opposition tries to coalesce around someone like Biden, and the weaker semi-left candidates like Corey Booker, Warren and Sherrod Brown either fall by the wayside, or drastically “moderate” their positions in order to appear electable, with Bernie having sucked up all the oxygen on the left.
- Bernie’s embrace of the Green New Deal puts some serious meat on 2016’s appeal to some fuzzy “political revolution.” Green New Deal has become not merely an environmental battle cry, but a surrogate for socialism, which a majority of millennials support in one fashion or another. Bernie is also working harder to emphasize issues dear to the Black community — but notably, NOT Reparations. His failure to do so in 2016 may have been the key to his downfall back then.
- His well-heeled campaign will have an emphasis on paid staff and TV. The possibility that Bernie could really become our next president will only intensify the pressure on him to further soften his more radical positions. His supporters may take issue with that. The pollsters will be slicing and dicing away to figure out the correct formula for winning. As though — with passions running higher than ever — application of the correct formula were the key to the White House.
- The campaign claims, “Over a million people have signed up as supporters on Sanders’s website.” For many, this is not their first go-round. Many will not have forgotten their anguish at Bernie finally caving in and supporting Hillary. Bernie has already announced that — if it’s not him — he will endorse whatever Democrat gets the nod. Some of the illusions of 2016 (of Bernie running independent) are already scotched.
The big wildcard for Greens is not the final vote, but where Bernie’s supporters will go. In 2016, many talked DemExit, but that maneuver left next to nothing behind but bitter memories. Some might hope that they can carve out some kind of independent niche within the Democratic Party, whatever the outcome. The pressure coming from the grassroots will likely be intense, some of it “fighting radical.” Big corporate players — seeing the writing on the wall in terms of social motion — are panicked at this socialism thing. It’s going to be brutal.
Thus two or three showdowns are looming. The first is for the nomination itself. Battle lines are already drawn. The second may be between Bernie and Donald Trump, should Bernie get the nomination. But the third will surely be between the rank-and-file of the Bernie movement and the Democratic Party Establishment.
As Bruce Dixon writes in the February 28 Black Agenda Report:
“Bernie imagines he can, as Glen Ford put it, steal one of the rich man’s parties out from under the lords of capital. That’s not a new project, it’s a pretty old one, a wall actually against which progressive Democrats have been banging their heads ever since the 1930s. In any case, some people are still committed to that, so keeping up that fight inside the Democratic Party is their job. Some of us have a different job. If we can’t hijack the rich man’s party we need to build our own party.
Independent, not by choice.
The Bernie campaign began in St. Petersburg, Florida in great spirits. The national campaign was still getting off the ground, and it hadn’t yet opened an office in Florida. Still, we were holding regular meetings of around 30 people, working out our own strategy, assigning responsibilities, etc.
A major issue to be addressed was how our mostly white campaign group was going to shore up Bernie’s weakness in the Black community. In September 2015, Sanders had planned to meet with the Congressional Black Caucus. Only 6 of its 46 members showed up. CNN reported that in South Carolina, Bernie trailed Hillary 77% – 12%. I proposed we form a committee to develop a Black-oriented flyer and distribute it at Black churches on the Black South Side. Yes, it would have been better if we had had Black organizers to do that job, but we didn’t.
My co-chair, an elderly “beloved” South Side Democrat, then proceeded to actively and ruthlessly sabotage the committee, finally telling me outright that she wasn’t going to allow us to do anything south of Central Ave. Like we couldn’t have this “army” of white people invading the South Side. Army, hell. We couldn’t even field a small squad. She spread the word within the campaign ranks and we couldn’t get two people to spend a Sunday morning there. Meanwhile, she counted on two big events on the South Side that would bring in the ministers and city functionaries. Result: two events where almost all those in attendance were the white volunteers we already had.
Then the “official” campaign sank its hooks into us. The entire process was reduced to a big phone-banking operation. Calls could be made from home, no face-to-face contact required. Or wanted. The regular meetings we had been holding were stopped. There was no longer a venue for discussion or input.
Next, we were told to organize a campaign meeting for volunteers on the north side of Pinellas County. Got about 10 people there. We had a good meeting, talked about how to get organized, who could be reached in the neighborhoods, community groups to reach out to, that kind of stuff. And yes, we asked for volunteers for the phone-banking. People wanted to try to organize their own communities. They didn’t sign up for phone-banking.
Don’t waste time on organizing.
We were then roundly excoriated by campaign staff for having wasted time on anything but the phone-banking — phone-banking which would have just been making calls outside the state of Florida.
That North Pinellas group never met again.
The campaign finally held a big volunteer meeting in Tampa that December. A few hundred Bernie volunteers got to hear an inspirational talk by national staffer Corbin Trent (now Ocasio-Cortez’s spokesperson), followed by Progressive Democrats of America (PDA) honcho Mike Fox hitting the volunteers up for money. I managed to get in a question for staffer Trent. “What was the Sanders campaign planning to do to organize the Black community in Florida, given that Sanders was ‘getting creamed’ with the Black vote in South Carolina?” He answered with a straight face: make lots of phone calls to white voters in Iowa. A big vote in Iowa would inspire Black voters on St. Pete’s South Side.
The Democratic National Convention finally loomed on our horizon. The mood was tense as Hillary had what was becoming an insurmountable lead. Volunteers had to come to grips with the possibility that Bernie would not win the nomination. If he lost, would Bernie endorse Hillary? Would he go independent? If Bernie endorsed Hillary, what would his volunteers do? People begged him not to endorse the neocon warmonger.
A major faction was the hapless “magical thinking” group, who closed their eyes and claimed that Bernie had a secret plan for victory which would be unveiled at the last minute. Others threatened to quit the Democratic Party (DemExit) if he endorsed Hillary, some vowed to back the Green Party’s Jill Stein, and quite a few decided to suck it up for Hillary if that’s what it came down to. Bernie held a “very special” meeting right before the Convention massacre. He wanted his troops to take it with proper decorum. It was clear that he was throwing it in. A cloud of impending doom hung over the whole affair.
There were some ripples during a Convention itself, run under paramilitary discipline. Hillary was booed. Delirious chants of “USA! USA!” rang in the ears of Bernie’s volunteers while Sarah Silverman called the Bernie people “stupid.” There was a partial walkout. But none of these gestures were carried out by a cohesive organized bloc that was able to hold together beyond the moment. People were still holding their fire until they saw what Bernie was actually going to do. Would he endorse or not? Many prayed not. People would argue “we should do this, we should do that,” till their faces turned blue. But the use of the word “we” implies some entity that could actually do this, do that, etc., and the problem was that there was no “we.” Bernie endorsed Hillary like Joanie Marries Chachi.
Bernie’s post-convention “Support Hillary” tour fizzled. Wanting to hit three venues in Ohio, Sanders addressed 150 people in Akron, 300 at Kent State University (40,000 students strong), and in Canton … sorry, that one was canceled for lack of interest. So it began, with Bernie OR Bust becoming Bernie AND Bust.
There were instead thousands of individuals not going in any particular direction, or able to do so as a collective body. In January 2016, I had written that we needed to “Build independent Sanders groups that are strong enough to hold themselves together beyond the current election cycle,” the key word, of course, being “independent.” Didn’t happen. The most organized group was Progressive Democrats of America (PDA), but they were just scheming to “take over” the Democratic Party itself.
“Our Revolution”? Sort of.
Independent moves were pre-empted by Bernie’s own promise to form a permanent organization that would carry on the fight for the Political Revolution beyond 2016. He had even stated, “A campaign has got to be much more than just getting votes and getting elected. It has got to be helping to educate people, organize people. If we can do that, we can change the dynamic of politics for years and years to come.” What was to become “Our Revolution” embodied that hope. But Our Revolution was a fraud.
It was set up as just another 501(c)(4). That meant that its members couldn’t coordinate with actual campaign organizations on the ground, but it could accept corporate donations without even having to disclose who those donors are. Staffers resigned en masse and a pall was cast over the whole affair.
From my account at the time:
“On August 24, my wife Rose and I attended an Our Revolution ‘founding’ meeting in St. Petersburg. They played a long video recounting Bernie’s campaign’s glories and goals, followed by an inspirational pep talk from [Mike Fox] the National Fundraising/Phonebanking Coordinator of Progressive Democrats of America. And then? That’s all, folks! Except that one member braved a withering glare to announce a Green Party meeting in St. Petersburg the following night. I next got up to ask how Our Revolution was going to work. What is OUR process, how would we in Florida be choosing which candidates we support? My question was totally unexpected and totally unwelcome. First I was told that direction would come from Florida’s Democratic Progressive Caucus. But, I persisted, how did WE decide who WE were supporting?
“Finally, it was explained that nobody had the slightest idea how the organization would work. Hadn’t got to that yet. But on September 7, OR finally released a Founding Statement: ‘We are committed to democratic decision-making, transparency, political independence and small-dollar fundraising’ — unanimously adopted by all 11 members of OR’s Board of Directors.”
What was most mind-boggling, though, was not how brazenly authoritarian Mike Fox’s presentation of “Our Revolution” was, but rather that he was so clueless as to think that there would not even have been such questions.
“An online petition drafted by Michael Albert states that the new organization has “a typical corporate structure including a board and a chief executive but having no explicit membership rights, powers, or even responsibilities.”
In any event, Bernie went down to defeat in August, along with a lot of our hopes and prayers. Hillary went down to defeat in November. The debacle of 1972 was relived, but bigger and bloodier than ever. An independent menace was crushed once again.
Shoulda, coulda, mighta. Didn’t.
One might have expected a major influx of DemExiters into the Green Party after the Convention, with another burst of growth come November. Anger at betrayal would have been bad enough. But for the Dems to have betrayed everything and THEN LOSE … that was just rubbing people’s faces in it.
Still, the Green Party did gain from it. Important leaders in the current Green Party of Florida (GPFL), for instance, came out of the Bernie experience. But it was nowhere near on the scale it should have been. Collectively, the Green Party had blundered horribly.
Bernie was never without significant flaws. He all too often voted in synch with the military-industrial complex. He was a staunch supporter of Israel. He was soft — to say the least — on supporting the Black community, and was repaid in kind come Election Day. He opposed Reparations for the Black community. My expectations were low, of course. He was a U.S. Senator, for Chrissake. That’s what elected officials do, good ones and bad ones.
But Greens went into full-scale vicious attack mode as soon as he announced. They attacked Sanders as a sheepdog, herding his flock into the Democratic Party. Clever enough, I guess. But what accompanied that line of attack was the implication that Bernie’s supporters were sheep. They were not sheep. They simply did not consider the Green Party, to the extent they knew of it, to be a viable alternative.
So Bernie’s track record on U.S. imperialism, and especially on Israel, for instance, was atrocious. Indeed it was. But millions of Berners were actually supporting Bernie not BECAUSE OF his caving in to Israel, but IN SPITE OF his having done that. That division still simmers.
Was Bernie a threat to the Green Party? Yes, at least in the short run. So per a June 4 interview in Mother Jones magazine, California Green Party spokesman Mike Feinstein cried:
“The Sanders campaign is absolutely destroying us. They intentionally went after our voters because they are low-lying fruit on the issues … I am apoplectically mad right now.”
After Bernie announced, the California Greens lost 30% of their registrants, who were registering Democrat just to vote for Sanders in the primaries. After the Dem Convention, some Greens were so apoplectic that they even declared that anyone who had been stupid enough to have ever supported Bernie at all was now too stupid to be allowed to join the Green Party at all. To paraphrase George Bush, “You’re doing a heckuva job, Greenie!”
Being apoplectic is not a strategy. As Danny Haiphong writes in the March 6 Black Agenda Report:
“This moment requires a strategy, especially for those who are further to the ‘left’ of Bernie Sanders. Anti-imperialism, internationalism, and socialism are critical components of a truly left agenda. On these counts, Sanders fails miserably. Thus, Sanders must be condemned every time that he follows the lead of the military-industrial complex in its assault on nations such as Venezuela. …
[but] “The fact that Sanders is too left for the Democratic Party should not be taken lightly. With no clear candidate able to challenge Sanders’ popularity there is a real fear on the part of the Democratic Party elite that Sanders could secure the nomination. … It is entirely possible that the second-crushing of the Sanders campaign will create the conditions for a mass exodus from the Democratic Party.”
Millions exited the Democratic Party, some after the 2016 Convention and more after the 2016 election. Some actually did make their way to the Green Party, like in Florida.
The Sanders movement is riddled with contradictions. As I argued above, the corporate elite will not allow an independent left to long be nurtured within the Democratic Party’s tender bosom. Crushing that fragile nest will take many possible forms (or combinations of forms).
- They can simply steal the 2020 nomination like they did in 2016. But the optics for that option could look pretty ugly.
- So they could grudgingly concede Bernie the nomination. Then they could “McGovern” him. Remember, control of the party apparatus is far more important to the elite than winning any particular election.
- Bernie might still win the White House by moving towards the political center. Then cooptation becomes the name of the game. Carrots and sticks. There is one iron rule in play here. If the movement operates completely WITHIN the System, plays only by the RULES of the System, it will end up REINFORCING the System. BECOMING the system.
It is obvious that there will be some form of DemExit coming out of 2020. But movements can all too easily, as Woody Guthrie put it, “come with the dust, and go with the wind.”
There absolutely must be an independent, organized force operating OUTSIDE the System. That is the work of the Green Party. There are dynamics in motion that we can influence to a greater or lesser extent. We mustn’t underestimate the extent that we can influence and grow off of the contradictions of the Bernie movement. But we cannot control them. Rather, our job is to not only serve as critics wailing outside the gates, but to become the independent anchor that holds and consolidates the developments of the movement.
The “Anybody but Trump” crescendo will be intense. The cry of “Spoiler!” will have to be met head on, not run away from. The rank-and-file of the Green Party itself will need to be won over to the critical importance of the coming campaign. How we perform in 2020 depends on how successful we are at that task right now.
Next, we need to be able to differentiate ourselves from Bernie. After all, he’s a socialist. Or at least sort of a socialist. He supports the Green New Deal, or at least the stolen version of it put forward by Ocasio-Cortez. He’s for Medicare for All, okay. But in a March 1 interview on the View, he gave us a great gift. When queried on his position on Reparations, he stated:
“I think that right now, our job is to address the crises facing the American people and our communities, and I think there are better ways to do that than just writing out a check … I think what we have got to do is pay attention to distressed communities: Black communities, Latino communities and white communities.”
First, his reducing Reparations to “writing out a check” is an ignorant insult. Reparations is no longer the province of scholars and lawyers in the Groves of Academe who decades ago were calculating who got what checks and how big. It has made it into the mainstream. Pollsters report that large majorities of Black people DO support reparations when asked. Reparations is the admission of that a crime has been committed, one which shocks the conscience of the world.
Reparations includes rebuilding devastated Black communities. Reparations means ending mass incarceration. Reparations means undoing the damage of all kinds done to all Black people in this country and beyond, whether or not they can prove they have a Black slave somewhere in their ancestry.
It requires so much more than “paying attention to distressed communities: Black communities, Latino communities and white communities.” Bernie’s comments are tantamount to responding to the police murder of an unarmed Black teenager by reminding us that “All lives matter.”
Though Greens make far too little of this, Reparations is in fact part of the Green Party’s platform itself. It’s an area where we actually stand out, and it is far too big and far too radical for either the Democratic Party or Bernie Sanders to steal it from us. But frankly, letting it sit quietly in our platform does no good by itself. Black and white, we all have to be speaking out on Reparations loud and proud.
— Jeff Roby
March 8, 2019