What the Sanders’ Campaign Opens

Against the Current, No. 202, September/October 2019

Dianne Feeley

BERNIE SANDERS’ CAMPAIGN of four years ago put socialism on the U.S. political agenda for the first time in generations. He’s on the trail again, explaining what a “democratic socialist” vision means, beginning with building mass movements and supporting unions and union organizing.

Bernie distinguishes his vision from others running in the Democratic primary in several ways. First, Sanders doesn’t accept corporate funding. Bernie has built a funding model based on small donations and continues to build that base. No one thought that could be done until he did it!

Second, he organizes independently of the Democratic party’s political machine and welcomes the support of other independent organizations such as Labor for Bernie and DSA’s committees.

Third, he outlines a platform focused on the needs of working people, who have suffered from a growing inequality over the last quarter century. Unlike other politicians who endlessly identify ”the middle class” as their audience, Bernie talks about the needs and desires of working-class people.

His campaign champions a $15 an hour minimum wage and the right to belong to a union. In fact, he joins picket lines and encourages his supporters to do so.

His platform for racial justice outlines a comprehensive program to end discrimination in housing, education, health care, employment, an end to police violence and voter disenfranchisement. He calls for comprehensive immigration reform, dismantling deportation programs and detention centers, expansion of DACA and a path to citizenship. When asked what is the greatest problem facing the world, he says right up front: climate change.

Fourth, unlike any other candidate running, Bernie has a history as a movement activist since his college days when he was a member of the Young People’s Socialist League. This enables us to have more confidence that he speaks with greater conviction that those who live their lives as politicians.

Fifth, he does not claim he will represent the interests of working people, rather he maintains that without independent political organization, it is impossible to implement such the program he outlines. In a recent talk he pointed to the example of the Puerto Rican people in forcing the resignation of Governor Ricardo Rosselló as the kind of action necessary to defeat Wall Street.

The Capitalist Party Straitjacket

Frankly, I come from the socialist tradition that identifies both the Democratic and Republican parties as controlled by different sections of the corporate elite. We have worked to build independent political parties, particularly the Labor Party founded in the 1990s, but also socialist campaigns and the Green Party.

I don’t think either of the two “major” capitalist parties, even the Democratic party (which is seen as more open to initiating change), can be transformed into a tool controlled by those who vote for it. The party’s funding and structures are controlled by corporate power.

But given the lock the two-party system maintains under a winner-take-all system, an independent third-party formation has been unable to gain a mass audience in the United States.

It’s a century-old problem, underpinned by undemocratic election laws. These have been reinforced by the 2010 Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United vs. FEC, allowing unlimited amounts from disclosed donors to be spent on elections as well as extensive use of gerrymandering made more precise with new technology. Clearly a break from the two-party system isn’t imminent.

Sanders, who has run as an independent for years but stayed aloof from building a party, developed a strategy of running on the Democratic primary party ballot line while refusing corporate funding and remaining fairly independent of party structures. Since Vermont doesn’t record party registration, Sanders is technically an Independent who receives the Democratic nomination. This novel tactic has attracted support from people committed to social change — but although useful in the short term, its potential is questionable.

While some folks were disappointed that in 2016 Bernie kept his pledge to support the Democratic Party candidate who won the primary, in fact he did what he promised to do. I don’t think he would have been allowed to run in the Democratic primary if he hadn’t. That’s the compromise he made.

Bernie’s Campaign This Time

Some thought that for his second run Bernie would move to the “center,” but interestingly enough he is staking out a fuller social democratic program. His highlighting the need for an economic bill of rights has opened up an important discussion.

He’s pointing out that political democracy without economic democracy doesn’t offer much more than the possible right to vote. While that right is important, particularly for those who have been disenfranchised, by itself it doesn’t offer much security in one’s life or for one’s family.

What Bernie’s campaign does, particularly for the socialist left, is to provide us with a larger platform on which to outline our own socialist vision of society. He points to the reality of a battle between working people and the corporations. He supports and defends the unions and programs (starting with Medicare for all) that decommodify what people need for their lives.

That vision gives power to some of his smaller proposals. For example, Bernie and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Congresswoman for NY-14 (the Bronx & Queens), introduced a bill to have the post office issue money orders as it used to do.

There are several million people who rely on check cashing outfits that charge an arm and a leg because people lack a bank account. It’s a simple reform, yet with consequences not only for poor people, but also strengthening public sector workers, the majority of whom are women and African Americans.

What does this simple have to do with socialism? It puts the needs of people before the megaprofits of the check-cashing business. That means something in today’s corporate-ravaged neoliberal America.

It is true that Bernie doesn’t raise nationalizing industry under workers’ and community control, and his opposition to U.S. wars abroad doesn’t scrutinize U.S. imperialism’s role in the world — issues that the independent socialist left needs to foreground. However the reality of his program — support to workers’ rights, expansion of Medicare for all, an end to a fossil fuel economy and the call for women to control our own bodies — can only be implemented if millions mobilize in the streets.

The Democratic party does not see Sanders as “reliable,” and will once again find a way to block his winning their spot on the ballot. That was true in 2016 and I believe it’s true this time. In fact, this time around there is a surplus of candidates so delegates will be able to “pick” from a range — whether it’s Elizabeth Warren, who echoes a great deal of his program, or someone much closer to the center, whether Kamala Harris or Joe Biden.

Given that Sanders’ road will be blocked once again, what then is the point in supporting his primary run? Won’t that experience just demoralize his grassroots support, especially as he will then endorse a figure the establishment prefers? Won’t it reinforce reliance on the Democratic party?

Of course all that’s a possibility, just as the re-election of Trump is a possibility. But it’s significant that at its August convention, DSA voted not to support any candidate for president if Bernie is not a nominee. That doesn’t seem as if supporting Bernie’s run traps individuals and organizations inside the Democratic party — whatever choices Individuals make in pulling the lever on election day, whether that’s for the “lesser evil,” progressive independent or third-party option.

It’s blindness to ignore how Sanders’ platform and dynamism have changed political discussion throughout the country. It gives socialists the opportunity to engage friends, family and coworkers in a discussion, far beyond support to a particular reform and without sounding like futile utopians. This broader vision of social, political and economic democracy is a battering ram against the austerity program that all wings of the corporate elite demand.

Although it doesn’t confront, let alone solve, the huge problem that we don’t have a party run by working people and in our interests, nonetheless Bernie’s campaign reveals a positive alternative to corporate domination. That insight will flourish, of course, only if millions find their voices in the struggles for justice.

Let’s not kid ourselves: The struggle to win a majority to realize that the destructive nature of capitalism can be replaced through mass intervention is still at a beginning stage. It can be nourished through the daily community struggles for clean water, affordable housing and quality schools. It lives in Black Lives Matter and the fight for a democratically-run union.

If we can pry open more political space during this electoral season, we may invigorate movements out of which these demands first arose. Isn’t that’s the point of the exercise?

It is unlikely, given the tools we currently lack, to immediately do more than widen the discussion for economic, political and environmental justice. But the deeper our roots the greater chance of success. The point Bernie makes, which socialists need to amplify, is that change comes about when millions mobilize for ourselves and each other.

September-October 2019, ATC 202


  1. Bernie Ain’t All That
    Bernie’s Doublespeak on the Military
    By Stan Hills
    Resident Burlington, Vermont

    In 2016, I was smitten with Bernie Sanders, progressive candidate for the Presidency of the United States. I staffed his office, went door to door, and my wife and I donated over $2,000 to his insurgent campaign against Hillary Clinton. Bernie was a breath of Fresh Air. He was for universal health care. He didn’t take money from corporations. He said we needed a political revolution. It was music to my ears.

    In 2018, my wife, Susan, and I retired to Vermont from Miami, Florida. We had lived in Miami for 40 years, but realized Miami was on borrowed time due to sea level rise and we were tired of the oppressive heat and the congestion. We moved into a co-housing community on the East Side of Burlington, Vermont’s largest city and the town Bernie served as Mayor of in the 1980’s. What we didn’t know is that Burlington was slated to get 20 F-35 fighter jets in late 2019. The first two arrived on September 19 and two more will arrive every month until Burlington has its full complement of 20.

    What was just as disturbing was to learn that these jets were arriving with the full blessing of Vermont’s supposedly progressive congressional delegation which includes Senators Patrick Leahy, Bernie Sanders, and Representative Peter Welch; this despite a vote by the citizens of Burlington that they did not want these jets at their civilian airport. Additionally, two surrounding cities, South Burlington and Winooski have gone on record to oppose them.

    The F-35 program is the most expensive arms program in United States military history. At a projected cost of over $1.5 trillion (yes, trillion) these planes are a model for the excesses of the military-industrial complex. Besides a price tag of almost $100 million per plane, these bombers have a range of barely 1000 miles and burn through 1100 gallons of fuel per hour. They have a horrendous crash record and are 3-4 times louder than the very loud F-16 fighter jets they replaced. Naomi Klein, in her recent book, “On Fire” criticizes the Green New Deal for not going after the military carbon footprint. It is a major issue that is being ignored.

    In 2108, the pentagon decided to retrofit every existing F-35 to carry the B61-12 nuclear missile beginning in early 2020, adding another dimension to the threat the F-35 poses to the civilian population of Burlington; which, with the F-35’s enhanced nuclear capabilities, will make Burlington a nuclear target. With the recent US withdrawal from the Intermediate Nuclear Treaty, the contemplated first strike capability of the F-35 further destabilizes our planet. And lastly, to make matters worse, several military experts believe they are already obsolete. Future wars will be fought with missiles and drones.

    Vermont is a majority white state. It is so white that Saturday Night Live chose to make fun of it in a skit last fall hosted by Adam Driver. The area around Burlington International Airport, where the F-35’s are being deployed is one of the most diverse areas of Vermont, with a large population of immigrants from Africa, Asia, and Latin America. The F-35 according to the Air Force’s own statistics, will make almost 3,000 affordable homes, housing 6,600 people, unfit for habitation due to the excessive noise in excess of 65 decibels. We have every reason to believe these figures are flawed and the noise levels will be even greater, but these are “official numbers”.

    Watching the Climate Town Hall on CNN on September 4th, Senator Sanders said, “Maybe just maybe, instead of spending a trillion and a half dollars every single year on weapons of destruction, designed to kill each other, maybe we pool those resources and we work against our common enemy which is climate change”.

    While running for President, Senator Sanders is singing one tune, but to the people of Vermont, he has actively advocated placing nuclear bombers at a civilian airport, bombers which will burn millions of gallons of fossil fuel every year and make the homes of thousands of Vermonters uninhabitable. As Greta Thunberg so forcefully said to the United Nations Climate Summit on September 23, “How dare you!”

    Senator Sanders states that this is about jobs, so he is willing to sacrifice the people who live in and around Burlington to the military industrial complex against their will and get Vermont addicted to more military spending. He unequivocally states he supports the national guard (military industrial complex anyone?) and he is afraid they will lose their status without F-35’s. Yes, Bernie is an unabashed hypocrite, but it goes so much deeper.

    Bernie refuses to meet with the people opposed to the F-35. Over the past eight years dozens of people here in Vermont have requested he host an open town hall to listen to and address our concerns. This includes over 30 progressive groups in Vermont. I have personally delivered a letter three times to his Senate office with no response. This begs the question: if, as a US Senator, he is unwilling to meet with constituents who are upset about an issue and is unwilling to listen or second guess himself, what kind of President would he make? Does he have the capacity to hear other points of view?

    In May of this year, Candidate Sanders stated, “Today, we say to the military-industrial-complex that we will not continue to spend $700 billion a year on the military — more than the next 10 nations combined. We’re going to invest in affordable housing, we’re going to invest in public education, we’re going to invest in rebuilding our crumbling infrastructure — not more nuclear weapons and never-ending wars.” Again, the question arises, how can he support the destruction of 3,000 affordable homes in his own state for 20 very expensive near obsolete nuclear equipped bombers?

    On yet another occasion, Bernie said, “Let us wage a moral and political war against war itself, so that we can cut military spending and use that money for human needs.” If this doesn’t begin at home, where does it begin? How is Bernie’s protection for the Vermont National Guard different from Mitch McConnell protecting coal jobs in Kentucky? Where is the morality?

    The first amendment of the United States Constitution reads as follows: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

    In the word and spirit of the United States Constitution, over 200 residents and 30 groups of the greater Burlington area have made the following three demands of Senator Sanders:
    • An immediate cancellation of the F-35 basing.
    • That he immediately hold an open town hall meeting.
    •That he call (like representatives in Wisconsin have done) for the Air Force to conduct and release a transparent supplemental environmental impact study with input and participation from affected residents of Burlington, South Burlington, and Winooski.

    For 23 straight weeks beginning on May 31, 2019, protesters have gathered outside of Senator Sanders office in Downtown Burlington with these demands. They have fallen on deaf ears. It is time to recognize that despite his speeches to the contrary, Senator Sanders supports the military-industrial complex. He supports burning millions of gallons of jet fuel annually. His words ring hollow to those of us who are under the flight path of these death machines.

    It is high time Senator Sanders be held accountable for his duplicity, and for his refusal to meet with the affected people in Vermont. This is the Bernie we have come to know since we moved into the area near Burlington International Airport. It’s time to take off the halo the progressive community has put on him.

    The media, including the progressive media, has an obligation to report the full story and not cherry pick. As of this writing, many outlets we have reached out to have not reported on this issue. The cult like following blinds his supporters to the reality we in the Burlington area are now experiencing. The truth needs to be told.

    Dozens of progressive people I know in and around Burlington no longer support Bernie because of this hypocrisy regarding the military industrial complex in Vermont. It is a story with national ramifications. These planes are being foisted on other communities like Madison, Wisconsin, Boise Idaho, and Tucson, Arizona. It is bigger than just Burlington

    Yes, I was a fervent Bernie supporter until I learned that Bernie would pimp the city he was Mayor of to the Military Industrial Complex and not even have the decency to meet with and listen to the people who are affected. He’s like a spouse who tells you what you want to hear until you find out he’s cheating with the Pentagon. Bernie, you broke my (and lots of people’s) heart.

    In the meantime, the F-35’s now fly over our home on a regular basis. They wake us up at 6:30 am. We have to stop conversations because they are so loud and wait for them to pass. They are a constant reminder that rhetoric and action are two different things. Their presence in Burlington show how deep the military industrial complex’s tentacles reach into our society and how difficult it will be fix what is wrong with our nation.

  2. Even though Dianne Feeley’s essay on Senator Sander’s campaign for the Democrat nomination for President was written well before he became the front runner after the New Hampshire primary it is still relevant as was the essay written by Linda Thompson and Steve Bloom in ATC 204. I have listened to Senator Sanders discuss his vision for socialism in the American context and it relies very heavily on FDR’s vision of a New Deal America, which was never near fully consummated. So I doubt Senator Sanders version of the New Deal will come into existence even if he was to be elected.

    I was for a number of years a governmental lobbyist for a national disability rights organization at the State level in Illinois and periodically in Washington DC until my retirement in 2018. To be honest Senator Sanders was among the best elected officials at the federal level in relationship to supporting disability rights and benefits. But there were a few Republicans that while not equally good as Senator Sanders, were in fact supportive of some of the same bills Sen Sanders was at the federal level. Even former VP candidate and Senate Republican leader Bob Dole lobbied in support of some legislation on disability issues supported by Sanders Generally these Republicans had a personal connection to disability through their family. Most of these Republicans are today no longer in office, but generally are what are called never Trumpers. Dole was an exception in that he joined up with Trump in 2016

    I still have contact with some of these never Trumpers and some similar Republicans who were members of the Illinois General Assembly. In general they have abandoned the Republican Party which they now call the party of Trump. I have talked to a few who have said they will vote now for any Democrat against Trump, because they see him as a danger to what they see as American democracy. I have asked them, would you support Senator Sanders if he were the nominee? The answer was consistently yes. But in every case they preferred a far more conservative democrat, with most hoping for Bloomberg. When I pressed them about Senator Sander’s socialist agenda for the USA they all said that agenda will never pass Congress, but he would be far better than Trump.

    When you are a governmental lobbyist working on legislation, administrative rules, and interpretation of provisions for benefits you are forced into a very pragmatic situation. Part of that perspective is vote counting and knowing the lobbying power of your opponents and allies on any piece of legislation. For all of Senator Sanders discussion of building a movement to propel a progressive social democratic agenda forward he knows legislatively it can come down to the interest groups and their lobbying power relating to actual legislation. I believe even Senator Sanders himself does not believe if he were elected he could even pass his Medicare for all plan in an unadulterated form, let alone dramatically cutting the budget for the US military industrial complex, or some of the more aggressive taxation on the most wealthy Americans he has discussed during the campaign. If those dismayed former Republicans who are willing to support even Bernie against Trump really thought Sen Sanders could move his legislative agenda forward they would never support him for President. This is something for socialists to contemplate when discussing the possible election of Senator Sanders as President of the United States.

    Rod Estvan
    Chicago Illinois
    retired registered lobbyist

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