Bernie Sanders, Labor, Ideology, and the Future of U.S. Politics

  • by Bob Master
    Legislative and Political Director for CWA District One of the Communications Workers of America and a co-chair of the New York State Working Families Party.
    The Bernie Sanders presidential campaign, contrary to all expectation, has become the most important left insurgency in the United States in nearly half a century. A year ago, even his most optimistic supporters might have hoped that Sanders would enliven the presidential debates by challenging Hillary Clinton on issues of Wall Street power and big money corruption, and perhaps garner a quarter to a third of the primary vote.

Instead, Sanders won primaries and caucuses in 23 states, and amassed over 12 million votes and nearly 43% of the pledged delegates. And all this while unapologetically and unabashedly proclaiming himself a “democratic socialist,” re-legitimizing a systemic critique of US capitalism for the first time since the one-two punch of Cold War reaction and neoliberal triumphalism froze the left out of mainstream American discourse two generations ago. The power of Big Banks, job-killing trade deals, ending the corrosive influence of big money in elections, eliminating private insurance companies from the health care system, and the merits of a “political revolution” became staples of prime-time presidential debates. Once stunning poll numbers now seem commonplace: 43% of Iowa caucus goers, including roughly a third of Clinton supporters, describing themselves as “socialists”; a New York Times poll late last year which said that 56% of Democratic primary voters had a “positive view of socialism;” and Sanders’ overwhelming support among young voters, by margins as high as 84% in Iowa and New Hampshire, but even reaching the low 60s in states like South Carolina, where he was otherwise crushed. Indeed, Sanders’ remarkable popularity among “millennials” prompted John Della Volpe, the director of a long-running Harvard University poll of young people, to tell the Washington Post that Sanders is “not moving a party to the left. He’s moving…the largest generation in the history of America…to the left.”[1] Something significant is definitely going on….
Today’s labor movement has been largely shaped by its experiences of defeat, on multiple battlefronts over the last 30 years—at the bargaining table, in State Houses, in the courts. In recent years, this prolonged existential crisis has bred some innovation and success, most dramatically in SEIU’s four-year old “Fight for $15 and a Union,” which has sharpened and politicized the discourse about income inequality and stagnant wages that erupted in Occupy Wall Street (not to mention delivering billions of dollars in raises to tens of millions of low-wage workers across the country).
The broad acceptance of $15 an hour as the new standard for the minimum wage – a notion that was ridiculed by many of its current proponents just two years ago—illuminates the critical power of ideas in opening up space for organizing and political and legislative advancement. When fast food workers and their supporters won the ideological battle about what constitutes an adequate minimum subsistence level of compensation, change came with surprising suddenness.
Historian Nelson Lichtenstein has written that “trade unionism requires a compelling set of ideas and institutions, both self-made and governmental, to give labor’s cause power and legitimacy. It is a political project whose success enables the unions to transcend the ethnic and economic divisions always present in the working population.”[3] But labor’s ideological breakthrough in the “Fight for $15” is an exception that proves the rule. By the time the Corporate Right fashioned its relentless and well-planned ideological and practical attack on the labor movement, starting in the mid-70s, decades of complacency and anti-communism had stripped the labor movement of its capacity to respond on an ideological plane. In his famous letter in 1978 resigning from the “Labor—Management Group” after the Business Roundtable-sponsored filibuster buried “Labor Law Reform” in an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress, UAW President Doug Fraser lamented the outbreak of a “one-sided class war” waged by a politically resurgent corporate elite. The unspoken and probably unintended implication was that class war was an alien concept to a labor movement that had come to see itself as the junior, but accepted and well-established, partner in a long term “social compact.”

Missed Opportunities

There were a few exceptions of course, including my union, the Communications Workers, as well as the National Nurses union, the Postal Workers, the Amalgamated Transit Union, later the west coast Longshore union and New York’s Nurses Association and Transport Workers Union. And Sanders succeeded beyond anyone’s wildest expectations in shifting the national discourse in the direction of labor’s concerns, despite the lack of support from most of the labor movement. How much more seismic would his campaign have been if even a handful of other major unions had joined the cause, creating greater credibility, providing additional resources, and perhaps helping to establish, most importantly, more organic connections to workers of color.
What’s Next?
The Sanders campaign unleashed a remarkable upsurge of decentralized, largely self-organized, progressive activism. In so doing, it kindled hopes that a post-Sanders movement could lay the foundation for a reinvigorated new left in U.S. politics, both inside and beyond the voting booth. But translating the energy, excitement and activism of a presidential campaign into a new political formation or movement will not be easy. Recent experiences confirm this—from Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition to Howard Dean’s brief insurgency, to the hopes aroused by the Obama campaign. None of these endeavors actually built an independent, democratically accountable organization that could provide a durable platform for independent issue campaigns or candidacies.
The Sanders phenomenon, however, differs from these predecessors in important ways. For one thing, the radicalism of the candidate’s politics and the historical context of his candidacy—in the aftermath of one of the great global crises of capitalist legitimacy—point towards ongoing mobilization outside normal political channels. Second, the candidate himself has resolutely reinforced the necessity of building such a movement, repeating at rally after rally that the “political revolution”—those words in themselves a remarkable addition to the conventional U.S. electoral lexicon—can only be achieved through the creation of an ongoing movement. Third, the disappointment in Obama, whose campaign felt at times like a movement even if its politics were inchoate, suggests that the mistaken demobilization which followed 2008 may be avoided.
The Sanders campaign has made it possible to imagine building a movement powerful enough to end oligarchical control of our democracy, to avert the planet from climate disaster, to wrest control of the economy from the stranglehold of Wall Street, and to implement the criminal justice reforms and jobs and education programs that will begin to repair the damage inflicted by 400 years of institutionalized racism.

What follows are thoughts about questions that should be considered as we enter the next phase of the Sanders movement.
1,  A new national left party or a single unified organization is unlikely to emerge from the Sanders movement, but let’s build something.

2. The question of race must be dealt with upfront.

3. The new movement should mobilize around a limited agenda that takes on issues of economic and racial exploitation on the one hand, and the reclamation of our democracy on the other. Such an agenda should be clearly understood as an effort to hold the new President and elected Democrats at every level accountable to the yearnings of tens of millions of Americans for racial and economic justice.

This issue mobilization must begin—starting at the Democratic National Convention—by uniting forces both inside and outside the Sanders campaign to kill the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP) once and for all. This is not only the right policy, but critically important for the electoral success of the Democratic Party. So called “free trade” embodies the deep contradiction between the neoliberal bankers and technocrats, on the one side, who have dominated Democratic Party economic policy-making since the Clinton Administration, and its traditional working class base, on the other. It is also now the Party’s most vulnerable Achilles heel with white working class voters, whose sense of betrayal and economic hopelessness drive Trump’s right-wing, nationalistic populism and reduce Clinton’s support among these voters to abysmally low levels. Sanders has already pushed Clinton to rhetorical opposition to the TPP; in the run up to the convention, Sanders and Clinton should work together to extract a promise from Obama that the treaty will not be taken up in the lame duck session.
4 Launch a massive program of grassroots political and economic education.

In the waning decades of the 19th century, the Populist movement deployed a small army of “lecturers” who traveled across the Plains talking to farmers about issues of debt, credit, monetary policy and the power of Wall Street over their lives. This popular education helped build the mass base for a reform agenda that ultimately culminated in the sweeping changes of the New Deal. Our movement requires a similar commitment to mass popular education.

5 An openly socialist current should be built within the new movement.

Senator Sanders’ refusal to retreat from his identification with democratic socialism certainly ranks as one of the most remarkable features of the campaign. To those of us who can remember “Commie” as a schoolyard epithet and “duck and cover” air raid drills, let alone labor’s bitter internecine battles over U.S. imperial misadventures in Vietnam and Central America, Sanders’ open embrace of socialism and the absence of “red-baiting” in the campaign has been almost beyond imagination.
The grassroots organization which appears to have experienced the greatest membership growth as a direct result of the Sanders campaign has been the Democratic Socialists of America, which traces its roots to the breakup of the old Socialist Party in the 1950s and is the largest remaining socialist organization in the country.

In his account of the decline of American resistance to organized wealth and power in the “second Gilded Age,” The Age of Acquiescence, Steve Fraser argues that “the capacity to envision something generically new, however improbable, has always supplied the intellectual, emotional and political energy that made an advance in civilized life, no matter how truncated, possible.” In this telling, the reforms of the New Deal were driven by the utopian dreams of millions of Americans who believed capitalism must be transcended, and would have been impossible absent the presence of a “multi-faceted and long-lived culture of resistance that was not afraid to venture onto new terrain, to question the given.”[5] In this new moment, while progressive unions and their allies fight for a “21st Century Glass-Steagall Act,” socialists would demand nationalization of banks. While more mainstream progressives call for a Wall Street Sales Tax, socialists might demand a maximum wage or a wealth tax. More mainstream activists will demand debt-free college education, while socialists would demand free tuition and free mass transit. Whether socialism exists today as a practical alternative form of social organization, or simply as a compelling moral critique of a racialized, financialized capitalism that is leading us to climate disaster, the revival of the idea of socialism facilitates the imagination of radical alternatives to the status quo. For the resuscitation of that hope, we owe an enormous debt of gratitude to Bernie Sanders.
6 The “political revolution” must be driven down to the level of school boards, city councils, county legislatures, state government, and Congress. The goal is not to take over the Democratic Party, but to build an infrastructure—an independent political party—comprised of activists and elected officials, both inside and outside the Democratic Party, which can carry the agenda of the Sanders campaign forward.

Forecasting historical opportunities is a risky business. But taking the long view, it is arguable that the Sanders campaign signifies a critical political crossroads. The 40-year neoliberal ascendancy imploded in the financial meltdown of 2008. An unprecedented level of mass rejection of the political establishment expressed itself in the populist revolts which roiled both major parties in the 2016 primary season. Elites and their policy prescriptions confront a sweeping crisis of legitimacy.
Movements, Frances Fox Piven, has argued, do not move in straight lines. They ebb and flow, sputter and erupt, unpredictably. Five years on, we continue to live in the Occupy moment, and the breadth of Sanders’ appeal reveals that anger at the economic and political status quo seethes like a lava flow across the landscape. Until now, with the notable exceptions of the Fight for $15 and the intense mobilization against the Trans Pacific Partnership trade deal, labor has contributed relatively little to stoking the flames of insurgency. But it is out of precisely such moments that workers’ revolts acquire the force and legitimacy that enable new movements to be built. It is impossible to predict what lies ahead, but a withering labor movement must seize whatever opportunities now present themselves, thanks to Senator Bernie Sanders.

Read the entire piece in the New Labor Forum:


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