TRNN DEBATE: Should Bernie Sanders Run as an Independent?
Researcher Ashley Smith and People’s Action Campaign spokesman Jacob Swenson-Lengyel debate whether Senator Bernie Sanders’ decision to run as a Democrat is the best way to advance a progressive platform.
JESSICA DESVARIEUX, PRODUCER, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Jessica Desvarieux in Baltimore.
Well, you’ve probably heard that Independent U.S. senator Bernie Sanders is running for president. The self-described democratic socialist will be running on the Democratic ticket, and it has some progressives wondering if he should. He recently appeared on ABC’s Sunday program This Week with George Stephanopoulos where he discussed his campaign and what he would do if he lost the Democratic nomination. Let’s take a listen.
GEORGE STEPHANOPOULOS: But if you lose in this nomination fight, will you support the Democratic nominee?
BERNIE SANDERS, D-VT: Yes. I have in the past as well.
STEPHANOPOULOS: Not going to run as an Independent?
SANDERS: No. Absolutely not. I’ve been very clear about that.
DESVARIEUX: Sanders says that he will not run as an Independent, but some think he should. Here to make that case is Ashley Smith. He joins us from Burlington, Vermont where he is a researcher at the Center for Economic Research, and he’s currently on the editorial board of the International Socialist Review. And here to debate him is Jacob Swenson-Lengyel. He joins us from Albuquerque, New Mexico. Jacob works as a communications lead for National People’s Action Campaign.
Thank you both for joining us.
JACOB SWENSON-LENGYEL, NATIONAL PEOPLE’S ACTION CAMPAIGN: Thank you. Thanks for having me.
DESVARIEUX: So Ashley, let’s start off with you. Can you just map out exactly why you think Sanders is making the wrong move here by running as a Democrat? Let’s go point by point.
ASHLEY SMITH, CENTER FOR ECONOMIC RESEARCH: Well, I think the first thing to say about Sanders’s campaign is he’s really electrified a layer of newly-radicalizing activists and people on the left, because he’s articulating things that certainly Hillary Clinton and the Democratic party in general doesn’t talk about. Capitalism, class inequality, the horrible corporate hijacking of elections. So he’s really hitting on all the key notes, and I really identify with all the people who’ve been galvanized by his campaign.
But I think he’s making a mistake in running inside the Democratic party, because he is trying to win the nomination of a party that opposes everything he stands for, and has through history shown that it’s incapable of being transformed by the left getting involved in the campaign. Instead, Sanders and the rest of the left need to build an independent political alternative that challenges both the corporate parties as a way to give an electoral expression to the newly-radicalizing movements. Occupy, Black Lives Matter, the climate justice movement. All those things that are going to be the motor force of change.
And getting back involved in the Democratic party is a way for those movements to get co-opted, demobilized, and really defanged. So instead of challenging the corporate parties and their system that they defend, we’ll end up getting co-opted and made ineffectual, and really mounting the challenge that we should be bringing. That’s why it’s a real mistake and a tragedy that Sanders is running as a Democrat.
DESVARIEUX: So Ashley, you’re saying he should be running as an independent. Jacob, you clearly disagree. Why do you think that he should run as a Democrat?
SWENSON-LENGYEL: Well you know–I mean, I think Sanders’s campaign is exciting for just the reasons that Ashley laid out. He’s energizing folks and getting people excited. And I think it’s important that he run as a Democrat because there’s a war right now for the soul of the Democratic party, and this isn’t just any moment in history. We’re seeing folks like Senator Elizabeth Warren and Representative Keith Ellison in the House really igniting this base and fighting for core principles that matter. And by running as a Democrat, Sanders isn’t just herding progressives into the Democratic fold, he’s actually bringing our agenda and putting it on the table.
DESVARIEUX: So I’m trying to get a sense of that. What about Ashley’s point about the history, though? That eventually Democrats, if you go and are on the Democratic ticket, the movement gets co-opted by the corporatists in the party?
SWENSON-LENGYEL: Yeah, I mean, I think that’s an important point. And what’s going to be important is how Sanders carries out what he’s been calling his political revolution. And so in order for Sanders to be successful where other people have failed, it’s really going to be about energizing a strong base, and mobilizing hundreds of other downballot candidates to join him in fighting Wall Street Democrats. So if this is just limited to the Sanders campaign then I think it’s not likely that he’ll succeed. But if he really does follow through with what his stated aim is, that is a political revolution in this country, I think that’s where he can succeed where others have failed.
DESVARIEUX: Okay. What do you make of that, Ashley? Do you think he could energize enough of the base where you would be able to persuade those Wall Street Democrats to finally get on board with the more progressive agenda?
SMITH: No. I think it’s a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of the Democratic party. All the way back to the slavery period this has been a party of the American elite, of the American ruling class. From the slave owners to the corporate billionaires that dominate and control the party today.
The left attempt to take over the Democratic party has failed for over a century. It was first really pioneered in the modern era by the labor movement in the 1930s, and it failed back then. It eventually led to the defanging of the labor movement, first by Roosevelt, then by Truman, and then McCarthy when he–under the Republican party, but with the collaboration of the Democrats, conducted a witch hunt. The same strategy was attempted in the 1960s by the new left, and it failed then, and people drew the conclusion they had to break from the Democratic party.
It was again attempted in the 1980s by the Jackson campaign when the left was much bigger, much stronger, and the impact of the Jackson campaign was the opposite of what Jacob is arguing. Instead of galvanizing and mobilizing a real challenge to transform the party, it delivered all those activists and all the left into the hands of corporate dead-enders like Walter Mondale and Michael Dukakis that Jackson both endorsed and also, people should know, Bernie Sanders has endorsed every single corporate Democratic candidate since the 1980s. And so I don’t think it’s going to play the role of galvanizing and transforming the party. Instead it’s going to play the role of co-opting a new left that is developing that has got to learn from history and has got to understand that we need a mass movement independent of both corporate parties, and a political challenge to them both that articulates our demands as part of not only its electioneering advertising, but as the core project that it’s trying to pursue.
And the Democrats have shown by history that they’re not interested in our project of putting people first, of changing the inequalities of our society, and certainly not conducting a political revolution in America. The Democrats are absolutely opposed to that, hook, line, and sinker.
DESVARIEUX: Jacob, what’s your response?
SWENSON-LENGYEL: I’d say this. I think I agree that it’s really important that we build a new left pole in American politics. We need folks that are independent of both political parties. Both political parties at this moment are controlled by corporate capital. But where I disagree is whether independents always need to be running outside the party. And one of the things I’ve tried to argue is that the primary is a really important tool where a small and energized base of folks can have an outsized influence in politics.
And so I think the primary is a particularly strategic place, and the Democratic party can become a field of struggle as the new left works to become more powerful.
DESVARIEUX: What do you make of that argument, Ashley? I mean, Sanders is going to be up on stage with Clinton. Will he be able to sort of push her more to the left?
SMITH: I think Hillary Clinton is overjoyed that Bernie Sanders is running in the Democratic party nomination, because it actually re-legitimizes a party that’s lost all credibility in the eyes of the vast majority of working-class people. And people in general. Look at all the enthusiasm that Obama mobilized back in 2008, only to become the, really the third and fourth term of the Bush administration. Bailing out the banks, conducting drone warfare. Supporting Israel’s genocide in Gaza, and on and on and on.
This is a party that has a credibility problem. That’s why nobody’s voting. The last midterm election had one of the lowest voter turnouts since the 1930s. So I think that Sanders running in the Democrats really is a blessing for the Democratic party, because it’s going to get all those new leftists, all those new activists in Black Lives Matter, climate justice, in Occupy and the new labor movement. Instead of looking to fighting on their own behalf and building a political alternative of their own, they’ll join in a party that’s opposed to their interests in a fundamental fashion.
And so Sanders is going to legitimize a party that has no credibility, that’s a pro-corporate, pro-capitalist party and is bankrolled by the billionaires of Wall Street. He’ll give them a facelift. Hillary Clinton in the debates will say yes, Bernie, you’re right. I agree with you. Maybe you’re taking it a little bit too far, but I agree with you. And then they’ll get a few planks in the platform. Sanders will lose. And then he will deliver all those energized activists to Hillary Clinton, who will then be presented as a lesser evil candidate compared to whatever troglodyte and Neanderthal the Republicans end up nominating for the presidential election, and we’ll be left in a traditional American political situation of a great evil and a lesser evil, both of which are evil and none of which are an option for the working class in the United States, the new activists, people fighting for Black Lives Matter, et cetera.
So I think Sanders has made a real strategic mistake, and the rest of the left should not follow it. They should argue it’s a mistake, and to really build an independent credible alternative not as the key thing for social change, but as an articulation, expression of the movement’s demands that can then enliven the movement. Because that’s where we’re really going to win all the changes. Not through the ballot box, but by strikes, demonstrations and struggle.
DESVARIEUX: But Ashley, let me jump in, because I want to pivot and talk about the other party, the Republican party. Because this interesting point is how the Tea Party has really operated within the Republican party, and you’ve seen for example with Eric Cantor, the House majority leader, he lost his primary to a Tea Party-backed candidate who won. So I’m going to ask you both, but Jacob, is that sort of the model that you are expecting from more progressives, to be able to sort of be the Tea Party in the Democratic party?
SWENSON-LENGYEL: Yeah, I think that’s a fair comparison. I mean, obviously the Tea Party had, and has had, some extreme backing from the corporate elite. But it’s also diverged from them, and I think it’s a genuine populist movement. What we really need is a people-powered movement on the left.
And I think we, I agree with Ashley that we need to take the momentum, the momentum and energy that we’re seeing right now around Occupy, Black Lives Matter, and other populist movements, but channel that to holding Democrats accountable. Creating tension with folks like Hillary Clinton, pushing them left. And so I do think the Tea Party is a great model for us to look to.
DESVARIEUX: Ashley, what about you? Do you agree with that?
SMITH: Yeah, I think the Tea Party is not a model of a populist movement at all. It was a creature created by the core of the Republican party that wanted some street heat against the Obama administration to try and stop the health care reform. But as soon as the Tea Party got a bit out of control, the corporate establishment that runs the Republican party, just like it runs the Democratic party, quickly neutralized them and pushed them to the side. So they now, they’re really a bit player. And all they are is shock troops for the mainstream corporate agenda that the Republican party supports.
And the tragedy of the left pointing to that as a model is really pointing to the futility of trying to take over a party that is run by corporations. It shouldn’t be our model. Instead we should say, we need a party of our own. We need to do what the Greek people have done in creating Syriza. To really challenge the political establishment as it exists. We need to do what the Spanish people are doing in creating a new political party called Podemos. We need to build a party of workers and the oppressed and the social movements, and then we need to put the emphasis on the social movements themselves. So I don’t think it’s a very good analogy of what the left should do with an extreme right-wing phenomenon that was sponsored by the core of the Republican party, not an alternative to it. Instead we should be building a genuine mass movement and a political alternative that can fight for its interests at the ballot box. And that is not the Democratic party.
DESVARIEUX: All right. Ashley Smith and Jacob Swenson-Lengyel, thank you both for joining us.
SWENSON-LENGYEL: Thank you.
SMITH: Thank you.
DESVARIEUX: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.
DISCLAIMER: Please note that transcripts for The Real News Network are typed from a recording of the program. TRNN cannot guarantee their complete accuracy.