A Michael Albert interview with Steve Early and Rand Wilson
First posted at ZNet, February 17, 2016 (https://zcomm.org/znetarticle/labor-activism-sanders/)
Steve Early (SE) was a national staff member of the Communications Workers of America (CWA) in New England for three decades. He has been active in the labor movement since 1972 and is the author of three books about union issues and problems. He is the author of a forthcoming book entitled Refinery Town: Big Oil, Big Money, and the Remaking of an American City (Beacon Press, 2017), which reports on progressive policy initiatives and electoral campaigning in Richmond, CA. He is a Labor for Bernie volunteer and has been a member of Jill Stein’s Green “shadow cabinet.” He belongs to Solidarity, the Democratic Socialists of America, and the Committees of Correspondence for Democracy and Socialism.
Rand Wilson (RW) has worked as a union organizer and labor communicator for more than thirty-five years. He has worked for the national AFL-CIO, CWA, IBEW, the Teamsters, Carpenters, Massachusetts Teachers Association, and other unions. He is currently on the staff of SEIU Local 888 in Boston and, in his spare time, volunteers for Labor for Bernie. He was one of the early members of the Labor Party, campaigned for State Auditor in Massachusetts as a candidate of the Working Families Party, and is active in local politics in Somerville, Mass.
Here are their responses to questions I put to them about their impressions of and involvement with the Sanders campaign.
Michael Albert, co-founder of ZNet and Z Magazine: You both have been working on the Sanders Campaign for some months now? First, I wonder, what made you each decide to join the effort? Surely it must be taking time away from some other priorities you have.
SE: For me, assisting Bernie’s campaign is, first of all, a matter of personal solidarity and political reciprocity. During his 25 years in the House and Senate, Sanders has used his public office to help workers get better organized, in their workplaces and communities, in a fashion quite unlike any Democrat I ever encountered as a union rep in New England. I first met and worked with Bernie forty years ago; as a third party candidate for governor of Vermont in 1976, he was as committed to labor then as he is now. (For more on that record, see: https://www.jacobinmag.com/2015/05/bernie-sanders-president-primary-hillary/)
Bernie has not only urged Vermonters to vote “yes” in union representation elections like CWA’s 1994 campaign among 1,500 telephone company call center workers, he would annually convene meetings of local labor activists to help them develop more successful union-building strategies. To stimulate new rank-and-file thinking, Sanders and his staff invited out-of-state labor speakers who were part of national efforts to revitalize organized labor; he himself became the only member of Congress ever to address a national Labor Notes conference—and donate money to Labor Notes too.
He has been a staunch ally of the Vermont Workers Center, the Jobs With Justice affiliate in his home state. The VWC is a community-labor coalition that fights for single-payer health care, immigrants’ rights, paid sick leave, and other working-class causes. When members of IBEW and CWA opposed Verizon’s sale of its northern New England landline operations in 2006, Sanders was campaigning for the US Senate seat that he now holds. He convened a public forum highlighting the reasons for our “Stop The Sale” campaign and brokered a meeting with the proposed buyer, FairPoint Communications, that enabled us to confront top managers about the company’s record of anti-unionism.
More recently, as labor opponents of the sale predicted, Verizon’s successor has floundered financially and tried to impose contract concessions on its workforce of several thousand. During their four-month strike last winter, several thousand FairPoint union members had no stronger ally, in public and behind the scenes, than Bernie Sanders. So telephone worker locals went all out for Bernie in Iowa and New Hampshire this winter, plus the CWA national union—after a binding poll of the membership—officially endorsed Bernie’s presidential campaign. I’ve been active in CWA since 1980 and haven’t voted for a single one of its endorsed presidential candidates during that time. This year, the union finally had a candidate really worth endorsing and fighting for.
RW: — I saw building a rank-and-file network of labor-based Sanders supporters as a rare opportunity to tap into widespread union activist discontent with corporate Democrats like Hillary Clinton. For all the failings and weaknesses of the labor movement, most unions are still structured democratically enough—at least at the local union level—so that members’ voice can have a real impact, if they get organized. So we’ve encouraged union activists to speak out, wherever they can, before their local or national union endorses a presidential candidate this year.
Through our on-line endorsement mechanism, Labor for Bernie website, union member-created Facebook pages, and outreach to the media, we’ve helped give members the tools and resources to make sure their voices are heard—both in the three national unions that have endorsed Bernie and the others that haven’t. At the local level, more than 60 labor organizations are now backing his campaign—regardless of what position top labor officials have taken. About 11,000 individuals have become Labor for Bernie endorsers. Most people on that list are elected local union officers, organizers, shop stewards, and bargaining and political action committee members, in affiliates of every national union and many independent groups as well.
Q-Do you believe Sanders can become president in 2016? Not that he will win, for certain, but that he might? If so, why? If not, why not?
SE: I belong to the Richmond Progressive Alliance. In October, 2014, the RPA invited Bernie to speak at a “town hall meeting” in our East Bay city and headline a fundraiser for RPA-backed city council candidates. At the time of his visit, he was not yet an officially declared presidential candidate. He was still sending up trial balloons about that. He was making out-of-state speaking trips and polling audiences like our crowd of 500 about whether he should run and how.
During his visit, I asked Phil Fiermonte, then Bernie’s Vermont field director and now a national campaign staffer, what factors were being weighed privately. At the top of that list was the challenge of building a small donor base sufficient to run a viable national campaign. Phil and others were still actively assessing whether Bernie’s national support network, actual and potential, had the capacity to raise $40 to $50 million in 2015-16.
As someone involved in organizing the local events that had, with Bernie’s help, just raised about $8,000 in very old-fashioned, low-tech fashion, those sums seemed rather large to me. But look what’s happened in the sixteen months since then, thanks to the formidable, record-breaking on-line fundraising operation launched by “ Bernie 2016” last May. He’s raised nearly $100 million, in the form of nearly 4 million small contributions, still averaging about $30 a piece, from a donor list that’s now approaching 2 million people.
So I’ve learned not to underestimate or be overly skeptical about Bernie’s 2016 chances. If he wins the Democratic nomination, the Republicans nominate someone as bad as Trump, and then Michael Bloomberg jumps into the race as a “centrist” candidate, I think Bernie would run quite strongly against two card-carrying members of the “billionaire class,” despite the huge sums they and their supporters would spend to smear and discredit him. The obstacles to winning the nomination are considerable because the Democratic Party’s primary rules—and its whole undemocratic system of “super-delegates”—are clearly tilted in Clinton’s favor.
RW: I think Bernie has already demonstrated that he is a viable candidate. But the question isn’t whether he can or cannot win, it’s does his candidacy further our agenda? Just from my perspective within the labor movement, I can attest that the campaign is bringing forward tens of thousands of new activists who are committed to — or now open to learning about — a broader political revolution.
Q-How do you respond to the argument that it doesn’t matter whether he wins because, as president, he would be so hamstrung he could achieve little or nothing?
SE: My response is “cross that bridge” when you come to it. We’ve seen lots of disappointing situations in the past where left candidates—from Francois Mitterand in France to Alex Tsipras in Greece—found themselves hamstrung in office and, to varying degrees, did retreat from the more radical platform they ran on. Bernie’s not even running in a parliamentary system, where a national electoral breakthrough by the left involved getting lots of like-minded, fellow party members elected at the same time. He’s a lone party crasher, making a detour onto the hostile organizational terrain of the national Democrats after 45 years of running as a progressive independent.
So yes, on Capitol Hill and within the federal government bureaucracy itself, there would be plenty of “bi-partisan” opposition to even the most modest goals of a Sanders Administration. But if our candidate resisted pressures to conform and remained true to his campaign pledge to be a progressive “mobilizer in chief”—a role he has played better than anyone in Vermont for years—the opportunities for movement building would be far greater than under Clinton, regardless of what happens in Washington.
Q-Suppose he fails to get the nomination, or he gets it and doesn’t win the office. What value will his campaign have had, or what harm will it have done?
SE: Win or lose, whether a candidate is running inside or outside the Democratic Party, the real question is what happens after the election? How do leftists capitalize on any new energy and enthusiasm that’s been created to build local political organization capable of outlasting the national electoral campaign? I think the challenge is the same whether you’re “feeling the Bern” or rallying around Jill Stein’s second Green Party candidacy, which will provide many of us with a third party option on November 8 if Bernie loses to Clinton in the primaries.
The track record of the electoral left in the U.S. over the last century, since the heyday of the Socialist Party, when it had a mass membership base and hundreds of local elected officials, is not good. Whether progressives ran outside the Democratic Party—as they did most prominently in 1924, 1948, and 2000—or tried to be Democratic primary insurgents like Jesse Jackson or Dennis Kucinich more recently, there has never been much to show for these national level efforts, post-election. The Kucinich campaign did spawn Progressive Democrats of America but the once promising Rainbow Coalition, which formed around Jackson, in 1984 and 1988 was not a political survivor, due to its intentional dismantling by the former candidate himself.
Just because someone, on the left, makes an entrepreneurial decision every four years to run for president–inside or outside the Democratic Party—broader, stronger grassroots organization is not an automatic result. Just look at the state of the Green Party since Ralph Nader’s 2000 campaign; Nader got more votes the first time he ran as a Green in 1996 than Jill Stein did sixteen years later. That does not reflect a record of successful party building in the interim. A national candidate can raise important issues and do valuable political education on a soapbox that is larger (ie the Sanders’ route) or smaller and more easily ignored (the Ralph Nader/Jill Stein third party path). But presidential election year rhetoric about “political revolution” or a “Green New Deal” will never get translated into more formidable political structures, unless local activists, new and old, create them from the bottom up and maintain them, year in and year out.
RW: Political revolution, in any form, isn’t going to take place from the top down. It will require tens of thousands of union members and working-class people contending for local and state office throughout the country. We don’t need one candidate, we need tens of thousands of candidates running for school board and alderman and selectmen and city councilor and the planning board and elected positions in the judiciary, state senate, etc. —all committed to something as basic and achievable as what Bernie has been articulating so well on the campaign trail.
What’s exciting about Sanders’s campaign is he’s showing that there is a deep basis of support for a program that is not about austerity, but about government and people fulfilling human needs. So we hope that this will give more people confidence to take that platform and run with it at the local and state level.
Q-Can you give us some evidence that the campaign is doing more than simply temporarily involving folks as happens every four years. How is it different than the large outpouring of involvement that Obama provoked, for example?
RW: Labor for Bernie is attempting to not just win support for Bernie, but chart a different direction for union politics and a different direction for how unions engage in electoral politics. The problem with union endorsements in general is that members don’t feel connected to such decisions, and they resent the union “telling them how to vote.” The process feels alien to them. They’re not involved. It pushes members away from the union rather than drawing them closer to it. When political endorsements come from the top down, they can leave the union weaker, not stronger, which is not a good thing on the eve of a Supreme Court decision could make most of the U.S. public sector one big open shop, on top of steady right-to-work law expansion in the private sector.
We believe every local union in America should be given the resources and space for real internal debate and discussion. Polling people is no substitute for a process of engaging members in two-way communication and information sharing, culminating in democratic decision-making. With modern technology, it’s possible for union leaders to include members in a presidential endorsement decision so its owned by the members, rather than resented by them or greeted with a resigned shrug.
So the Labor for Bernie network is, hopefully, laying the groundwork for more than just electing Sanders. In the meantime, I’d almost rather see a union not endorse Bernie than just give him top down backing. Our goal is to foster a process of internal change that leads away from that kind of transactional, leadership-driven politics.
Q-Sanders repeatedly says that he needs a movement if he is to get much done, even if he wins. Okay, in what ways is the campaign seeking to create a movement? What success is it having?
RW: Frankly we shouldn’t let “the campaign” or Bernie define the movement or the political revolution we are building at the grassroots. Partly as a result of his campaign, there is an emerging current within the labor movement that recognizes that “enough is enough” — that traditional transactional politics isn’t working. In my community, we are using support for the Sanders campaign as a kind of litmus test to see where our elected officials stand.
Completely independent of the campaign, we have opened our own office, developed lists of likely primary voters, conducted phone banks and precinct walks and a plan to win. Whatever the outcome in Somerville, we will have a new database of thousands of Sanders supporters who we can engage on future issue-oriented campaigns and grassroots electoral politics.
Q- Does the local approach you mention get replicated, albeit refined, elsewhere? What do you think might be done in months ahead to increase the effectivity at movement building for after the election both locally, and also nationally, to have greater success?
RW: On April 1, some of the local union leaders supporting Bernie will be holding their first national meeting, just prior to the 2016 Labor Notes conference, scheduled for April 2-3 in Chicago. At this “Labor for Bernie and Beyond” gathering, we’ll be figuring out how to be most effective in the remaining states with primaries. We’ll also be discussing how to have an effective rank-and-file presence at the Democratic nominating convention in Philadelphia. Finally, we’ll focus on what needs to be done, after November, to strengthen working class challenges to corporate Democrats and Republicans, who are even worse, at every level of the political system.
The Sanders campaign has spawned parallel volunteer efforts—Higher Education for Bernie, Vets for Bernie, Environmentalists for Bernie, and so on down the list. None are controlled by campaign staff; all involve grassroots networking among activists concerned about a particular set of issues Sanders is raising and campaigning on.
“Movement-building” is not part of the job description of the campaign consultants and full-time staffers hired to raise money for Bernie, schedule his campaign stops, line-up his delegate slates, deal with the media, and orchestrate voter turn-out in the primaries and beyond. Generating more longer-term movement-building activity, off the energy and enthusiasm of the campaign, is the job of volunteers and whatever organizations they already belong to or can create.
The national Working Families Party has endorsed Bernie, after polling its membership in multiple states. It clearly hopes to involve Sanders supporters from labor and community organizations already affiliated with it in all kinds of future electoral activity—in New York, New Jersey, Connecticut, Maryland, Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, Oregon, and the District of Columbia.
Q – Can you describe what goes on in campaign gatherings and discussions in living rooms and on phones seeking to win votes? What can a person expect to be doing and experiencing who decides to become active in the coming period? To what extent is a narrow view of winning the nomination the focus, as compared to trying to win the nomination while simultaneously building lasting commitment and capacity? The latter is your approach, but is it common throughout the campaign?
On February 12 in Richmond, we hosted an East Bay Sanders campaign organizing rally with one week’s notice. About 300 people came, two of our progressive city councilors spoke on Bernie’s behalf, just as he had done for them when they were up against Chevron’s millions in our city council election in 2014. The Richmond Progressive Alliance did tabling to sign up new members.
A significant number of people who came had little or no prior political campaign experience. They’re going to get more of that by participating in home-based phone banking parties and doing other campaign volunteering for Bernie. The phone calls lead to conversations with voters, in other states, that are followed up by local volunteers on the ground, knocking on doors—in places like Nevada and South Carolina at the moment.
If new recruits have a positive experience with work like on Bernie’s campaign, some of them are going to decide, later one, that local politics might also be worth spending some time on, particularly in a place like Richmond. Here, we have a battle-tested political coalition they can join, which unites left-leaning Democrats, independents, socialists, Greens, and members of the Peace and Freedom Party.
In many more places, formations like the RPA or the Vermont Progressive Party need to be created so the Democratic Party establishment faces far greater competition at the state and local level of the sort Bernie has generated at the national level.
Q-What about the criticism, on the left, that Sanders hasn’t broken with imperialism so he is just more of the same, so why bother?
SE: As someone who got involved in politics as a result of campus-based participation in the movement against the Vietnam War in the late 60s and early 70s, my assessment of what we can do, practically speaking, to restrain the U.S. war machine is shaped by experiencing first hand what it took to curtail, much too late, U.S. intervention in Southeast Asia. When that anti-war movement was at its peak, we had both millions of people on the march outside the corridors of power; we also had, by today’s standards, a large cohort of influential Senators on Capitol Hill willing to criticize the military-industrial complex and call for big cuts in Pentagon spending.
Bernie Sanders does not have the benefit of serving in a Senate with the likes of George McGovern, Ernest Gruening, Gaylord Nelson, William Proxmire, Wayne Morse, Frank Church, or even William Fulbright. Today, other than Bernie, there are hardly any such Capitol Hill critics of wasteful military spending, spy agency misconduct, and the U.S. playing global cop, with disastrous effect, in so many places abroad. Since Rand Paul dropped out of the presidential race on the Republican side, there’s no one other than Bernie whose foreign policy stance can be described as “anti-interventionist.”
Recognizing that reality and the horrendous hawkishness of Clinton’s record in comparison, peace activists are getting on board the campaign—even as some quite rightly push for stronger positions on our multiple Middle Eastern catastrophes. (See, for example, http://www.commondreams.org/views/2016/02/11/5-top-reasons-why-bernie-sanders-would-be-best-president-peace) Whatever the shortcomings of Sander’s voting record or current debate stances, anti-imperialists are, hopefully, at least a little bit appreciative of Bernie’s education of the public, in several debates, about the consequences of U.S. regime change efforts in Iran and Guatemala in the 1950s, Chile in the 1970s, and other places more recently.
Nothing could have been more revealing of the differences between Sanders and Clinton than the exchange in the Feb. 11 debate in Wisconsin about Henry Kissinger. I mean this guy, once widely regarded as a war criminal by our generation, has now been rehabilitated as an advisor, mentor, and respected elder—by Hillary Clinton herself! Bernie may not be consulting Noam Chomsky enough—and he’s a past fan of Noam’s work—but anyone who would embrace the Kissinger tradition of U.S. “world leadership,” as Clinton has done, is a disaster waiting to happen.
Q- Still, so far it has seemed that Sanders is largely unwilling to talk in detail about U.S. Foreign policy or, even more so, about cutting the military budget. Is it that he just doesn’t think about those, as some suggest? Or does he have mainstream views about these matters, as others bemoan? Or is it that he feels to address them would cut short the ability of the campaign to reach out on all issues due to having to do nothing but constantly answers cries he is a coward or traitor or whatever? Or is there some other reason? And do you agree with his choice so far, or do you think he should address those issues more fully to develop awareness and opposition in those cases that can last after the election, and also to tap what may turn out to be widespread support?
SE: I think Bernie’s initial focus on domestic economic and social issues has resonated well. If he addressed all the topics some on the left want to see him talking about every time he opens his mouth, his basic stump speech would be two or three hours long! Fidel Castro and Hugo Chavez in their hey-day could get away with orating that long—or even longer. But, in our country, maybe only Noam Chomsky has ever made similar successful claims on large audience attention spans? Someone running for president, facing the overwhelming hostility and skepticism of the mainstream media, has to hone their message down a bit. Presidential debates on TV seem to have the pace of speed-dating. But, despite such constraints, Bernie has been enormously substantive and educational, in my view.
But he’s not running a campus seminar on U.S. foreign and military policy, past and present. He’s trying to rally millions of people more concerned about domestic manifestations of racism, poverty, inequality, corporate domination, and workplace exploitation. If you take a look at feelthebern.org—at http://feelthebern.org/bernie-sanders-on-foreign-policy-and-national-security/–there’s a pretty good compilation of Sanders’ positions on the foreign policy issues that are now getting more airtime in recent debates. Is Sanders campaigning as the applicant for CO-status that he was during the Vietnam era? He is not. Is he highlighting ideas like Dennis Kucinich’s famous proposal to rename the DOD the “Department of Peace?” No, if that was his approach, he would be doing about as well in this race as Dennis did in his two Presidential campaigns, which, sadly, never gained much traction.
Q-Why do you think about Sanders’ use of words like “revolution” and “socialism?” How do you react when people say Sanders is just a social democrat, so why bother?
SE: In less than a year as a declared candidate, Bernie has done more to refurbish the “socialist” brand than anyone in U.S. public life going back half a century, perhaps even as far back as Eugene Victor Debs. Some people on the left are still quibbling about whether he’s the right kind of socialist, their kind of socialist, or a real socialist at all. Meanwhile, his public self-identification as a “democratic socialist” has given that term—however you define it—enormous mainstream currency and publicity. His campaign has single-handedly re-legitimized a political label long maligned, marginalized, and demonized in the U.S.
You have to be pretty purist, sectarian, and wedded to political irrelevance to not recognize that there’s a tremendous opening here for further political education and organizational recruitment, in the context of an electoral campaign wildly popular among young people in particular. The savvier socialists certainly get that—and whether they’re in Socialist Alternative or DSA or CCDS or the labor-oriented wing of Solidarity, many are out trying to capitalize on the youthful energy and enthusiasm on display at every huge Sanders campaign rally.
I predict that the socialists and Greens who relate to Bernie’s campaign in active, open, and ecumenical fashion will come out of this electoral upsurge with a lot more new recruits and converts than those, in red or green organizations, which just position themselves as sterile critics of anything that goes on inside the Democratic Party. Building personal and political relationships, which can lead to follow-up collaboration, requires pitching in, helping out, and not just being a dogmatic critic.
Q – Suppose Sanders wins the election. What do you anticipate might be his first year’s priorities? What successes do you think he would have? What more, beyond what you expect, would you hope and push for?
SE-I think this is a highly speculative area. Given Obama’s experience trying to overcome Congressional opposition since the Democrats lost control of the House and Senate on his watch, it’s safe to say that any Sanders Administration would also be forced to get things done via executive orders and the use of presidential appointment powers.
Unless current GOP majorities on Capitol Hill are substantially eroded this year and/or in 2018, even White House appointments can be delayed or thwarted, as may happen with the attempt to fill Scalia’s seat on the Supreme Court. I think the main thing that would be different, initially, under Sanders is that Bernie would try to learn from Obama’s experience during his first year in office. As New Yorker writer Jane Mayer has just documented impressively in her new book, Dark Money: The Hidden History of the Billionaires Behind the Rise of the Radical Right, Barack Obama responded too little and too late to the Koch Brothers-funded counter-revolution against his administration in 2009-10.
If that conservative crowd flipped out over Obama’s election in 2008 and responded in the fashion Mayer describes, imagine what their reaction is going to be to Bernie Sanders being sworn in as president next January (after they spent hundreds of millions of dollars trying to defeat him). If Bernie gets that far in his current crusade against the “billionaire class,” I don’t think he’s going to let his guard down like Obama did in a futile, self-defeating search “bi-partisan solutions” on Capitol Hill—a strategy that led to a mid-term election wipe-out of the Democrats in November, 2010.
Q-Suppose instead Sanders loses the nomination. Presumably, and given the Republicans I would say reasonably, he would want Clinton to win even if the nomination process was horribly undemocratic. But what kind of support would he provide? Would he undercut working to create a lasting opposition to whatever presidency and government would emerge? What would you want to see him, and the campaign do, if Clinton has the nomination?
SE: Bernie himself has in the past, with varying degrees of enthusiasm, backed Democratic presidential candidates. If he lost to Clinton, he would, I’m sure keep the pledge he made when he announced. He will be supportive of her as a far “lesser evil” than Trump, Cruz, Rubio, Bush, or Kasich (the GOP field at the moment). He’s a U.S. Senator elected to get things done for the people he represents in Vermont. Whether you’re a mayor, a Congressman, or a Senator of the type Sanders has been, having right-wing Republicans controlling the White House and Capitol Hill makes it lot harder to help working people hold on to what they have, much less win what they need and deserve.
I totally reject the depiction of Bernie, by some in the Green Party, as a “sheep-herder” or leader of lambs to slaughter in the Democratic Party. I think that’s hugely condescending. The hundreds of thousands of people who backed his campaign, if it ends at the Democratic convention, are perfectly capable of making up their own minds about the available choices thereafter. And about whether or not third party building—to the extent possible–would be a more productive use of their time and energy in the future.
When and if the Democratic Party establishment delivers the nomination to Clinton, there will be lots of people pretty unhappy about that denouement. Many—particularly in states where the Democrats have electoral college votes sewed up—will be quite receptive, I’m sure, to casting a safe protest vote for Jill Stein, the likely Green Party standard-bearer again.
Q-If he makes it to the general election, do you believe Sanders can win over significant parts of the working class Republican support? Does he see it as a priority?
SE: This is definitely a campaign priority. In racking up the largest single vote total in the history of the New Hampshire primary this month, Bernie did quite well with independents there. In his recent statewide races in Vermont—either for Senate or before that his old House seat (Vermont only has one)– Sanders has always drawn tens of thousands of votes from working class Republicans and independents who do not vote for whatever Democrat is appearing on the ballot as a candidate for governor. Vermont’s now widely unpopular lame-duck Democratic governor, Peter Shumlin, ran way behind Bernie in 2012 because he and other corporate Democrats in the state do not have this kind of cross-over appeal.
This appeal is also demonstrated by the fact that Sanders has the highest approval rating among the voters of his state of anyone in the Senate—83%. His home state voter disapproval rating is 13%, the lowest in the Senate. His closest competition in both departments, is Pat Leahy, the corporate Democrat and Clinton supporter who also represents Vermont. Senator Leahy scored a 71 percent approval rating and 22 percent of Vermont voters disapprove of him.
But Sanders’ exceptional numbers are the product of nearly four decades of effective campaigning around economic justice issues and diligent constituent service work—with farmers, union members, veterans, environmentalists, and the poor. The problem with a national presidential election campaign—even if you make it to the final stage–is that you have only a few months to introduce yourself to and win over millions of people that you’ve never built this kind of relationship with during 35 years in public office.
Q-If Sanders does get the nomination, some Democrats fear he will lose to Cruz or Trump because every center of power will seek to crush him in every way imaginable, and it will work, and then we will get some maniac in the White House, way worse even than Clinton, and that will be, whatever the exalted motives of the campaign, a catastrophe, so why bother?
SE: In 1934, every “center of power” in California did try to crush a Bernie Sanders-like socialist named Upton Sinclair “in every way imaginable.” The campaign against Sinclair suggests what may lie ahead, in 21st century form, if Sanders wins the nomination. Sinclair, the famous muckraking author, captured the Democratic Party nomination for governor in 1934 after three decades of involvement in the Socialist movement. Republicans, conservative Democrats and their corporate backers were horrified by his success in rallying poor and working class voters whose jobs, homes, or savings were threatened by the Great Depression.
Sinclair proposed “production for use,” rather than profit, through worker co-ops and large-scale public job creation, which the Roosevelt Administration had yet to embrace as a federal government response. The state Democratic Party and FDR both distanced themselves from Sinclair, even though his primary success was a major breakthrough for the Democrats among California voters. Sinclair and his End Poverty in California (EPIC) campaign were red-baited and demonized in a torrent of negative advertising funded by big business interests. Hollywood studios concocted scary anti-Sinclair newsreels—presented as actual reporting on his campaign—and screened them in movie theatres before feature films. To ruin Sinclair’s image among newspaper readers, campaign consultants working against him combed his novels for controversial quotes from fictional characters, fed these snippets to reporters and columnists, who then attributed them to the author himself.
After losing to incumbent GOP Governor Frank Merriam (by only 250,000 votes out of 2 million cast) Sinclair wrote a book about how this California “life factory” had torpedoed his campaign (even while it failed to defeat about 30 EPIC candidates for the state legislature). He reflected on the manipulation of mass media to thwart his proposals for reducing poverty and inequality and improving the quality of life in California. The techniques used against him are now standard operating procedure for our multi-billion dollar political consulting industry. Thanks to Citizens United, billionaires like the Koch brothers can spend unlimited sums to discredit candidates, legislation, or referenda that might produce better government, fairer taxation, or stronger environmental protection.
So, yes, expect the “lie factory” to be in full production, by early fall or before, if Brother Bernie emerges victorious from this very unusual primary season. The low-budget communication tools available today–to counter corporate propaganda–are far greater than in Sinclair’s era. But I would not count on the Clintonites or the Obama Administration to be any more helpful to Sanders than Roosevelt was to Sinclair, after initially signaling that he would support him. As indicated earlier, in a three-way race against two billionaires—a real possibility if “The Donald” captures the Republican nomination—the grassroots upsurge that has already propelled Bernie much further than many thought he could ever go might get even bigger, making what once seemed implausible not so crazy or scary after all.