Bernie Sanders: Campaign for Congress

Against the Current No. 17, November/December 1988

David Finkel

BERNIE SANDERS’ independent socialist campaign for Congress in Vermont raised important issues for socialists and for all activists concerned with the possibility of independent radical politics in the electoral arena.

The three-term Burlington mayor, running a strong campaign in a three-way race, finished second with 39% of the vote, trailing conservative Republican Pete Smith by only 3% and far out-distancing liberal Democrat Paul Poirier, who received 19%. In essence it was Poirier who played the “spoiler” role by taking a part of the progressive vote away from Sanders.

Without any doubt, Sanders’ campaign stood out in a generally bleak national electoral landscape. Jim Schumacher of the campaign staff told Against the Current in a telephone interview, two weeks before the campaign’s end, “People tell us that they’re turned off by the presidential race, but they find our campaign is the only exciting thing in the election.”

What were the issues that catapulted this socialist mayor to the edge of a victorious run for U.S. Congress in a state that has been Republican for a century? One factor, of course, is Sanders’ proven record in office as an aggressively competent and civic-minded mayor (see Sheldon Sunness, “The Fluke From Flatbush,” Zeta, October 1988). Equally important is Sanders’ ability to make issues of taxation, environmental degradation, health care and the budget deficits the objectives of a popularly presented social agenda, articulated with a bit less charisma — but a great deal more sharpness and clarity-than Jesse Jackson’s.

For example, where not only Bush and Dukakis but even Jackson declined to attack the military budget, and only Jackson (hesitantly) proposed taxation of the rich, Sanders proposed the following three-part strategy for eliminating the federal deficit:

• “Reinstate fully progressive tax rates for the 1% of households above $250,000 per year,” raising tax rates for the super-rich to 35% to raise $34 billion.

• “Reinstate the level of corporate tax contributions to the same level as existed in the administration of Richard Nixon,” which were 22% of federal revenues in 1%9 compared to 11% projected for 1989, to raise over $112 billion.

• “Reduce the military budget by 10%, a savings of approximately $30 billion.”

Sanders also demanded the creation of a national health-care system, patterned on that of Canada, with universal coverage financed by progressive taxes, long-term and nursing-home coverage, to extra charges by doctors, comprehensive preventive programs; and responsibility for paying the bill resting with government, not insurance companies.

The campaign also hit hard on environmental issues. “There are 435 members of the United States Congress, and I have not the slightest doubt that each and every one of them is concerned about the environment,” Sanders sardonically stated. “Today, acid rain is destroying millions of acres of prime forest land, multinational corporations are cutting down millions of acres of rain forest in Latin America and Asia, contributing to the greenhouse effect, our ozone layer is being destroyed by the production of halogenated hydrocarbons, we have seen garbage and syringes wash up on beaches throughout the country-and everybody in the United States Congress is an environmentalist.”

Sanders pledged if elected to “stand up to the corporate polluters who are destroying our nation and our planet piece by piece,” to fight for funding for hazardous-waste cleanup and groundwater protection, against construction of new nuclear plants and for phase out of existing ones.

A Realistic Option

All of this is no doubt a praiseworthy and progressive platform-but is there any reason for the Sanders campaign to be of more than passing interest for a socialist perspective?

Certainly, the anti-corporate logic of Sanders’ campaign and program cannot be implemented, to any significant degree, by the election of one congressional representative from a single, largely rural and almost all-white state. At the very least, no such program could be achieved except through a national political movement powerfully rooted in the mass organizations of labor and Black America.

In the absence of such a movement, independent electoral initiatives on a local or state level remain separated, each one confronting the mythic power of the Democratic Party’s claim to be the only “realistic” home for progressive-minded people and causes.

Bernie Sanders’ most important contribution has been to show that independent progressive politics, outside the Democratic Party, are a realistic and practical option.

Sanders and the Progressive Coalition that he leads in Burlington have demonstrated the electability of a socialist mayor, even when the Democrats and Republicans came up with a” unity” candidate to attempt to unseat him.

In his 1986 gubernatorial campaign, Sanders made strong inroads in generally conservative rural Vermont by focusing on taxation, utility rates and the farm crisis, but was unable to win sufficient middle-class liberal support to defeat the Democrat Madeline Kunin.

In the 1988 congressional campaign (a statewide race for Vermont’s only seat in the House of Representatives), however, Sanders from the outset ran even or a close second to the Republican, eclipsing the Democratic candidate as an alternative to conservative corporate politics. Sanders’ aggressively independent campaign stood out for its ability to gain the energetic support of state Rainbow activists, who had been kicked in the teeth by the national Democratic Party’s cynical snub of Jesse Jackson and his movement.

In this regard, Bernie Sanders demonstrated — if only on the relatively small scale of one congressional race — the attractive power of an authentic grassroots left-wing politics to win over activists at the base by showing there is an alternative to the Democrats.

My own organization, Solidarity, argued throughout the 1988 electoral process that the populist, progressive multi-racial politics to which Rainbow activists are dedicated can only become a reality through a break from the capitalist, business-dominated Democratic Party. This difficult argument would be easier if there were more examples like the Sanders campaign.

Sanders’ own long struggle in Burlington shows, the credibility needed to mount a political challenge to the two capitalist parties is not gained overnight. That is all the more reason to fight now for independent political action, rather than hopefully awaiting the most unlikely possibility that a Jesse Jackson will by magic make the break for us.

That’s why we in Solidarity supported Bernie Sanders’ campaign to the modest degree we could, and why we’d like to see many more like it.

November-December 1989, ATC 17

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