Kshama Sawant: Attempting to Work Within The Democratic Party Only Stymies Outside Strategy

Seattle council member Kshama Sawant sat down with TRNN’s Paul Jay at the People’s Power Summit to discuss the significance of the Bernie Sanders campaign and where the movement now needs to go.

“Of course I think every election is important for the working-class movement to engage in,” said Sawant. “I don’t think electoral endeavors themselves, by themselves, without building a movement, work. But we also cannot have this artificial separation that we’re going to build our movement, but when it comes to elections we’re going to support Democrats. That doesn’t work, because the Democratic Party has been the single most important reason for why we have not been able to build our movements, because every time we talk about building our movement, we’re asked to sacrifice what we are demanding at the feet of the Democratic Party, which has not fought for us,” said Sawant.

Jay pushed Sawant to address the impact of the Sanders campaign on energizing and politicizing young people while running within the Democratic Party.

“it’s clear the leadership of the Democratic Party is just another section of the billionaires. I mean, that’s obvious. It’s no question that they will never accept this. The question is: is this a tactic that helps divide the Democratic Party, create a mass base for this kind of political objectives? And as a tactic, has it not been a positive thing in terms of movement building? That’s the question,” said Jay.

“At the end of the day, if we want to win any of those things, we have to dissociate from the Democratic Party, because they’re not going to fight for us,” said Sawant. “If we want to keep the movement energetic and going forward, then it is incumbent upon us to provide a different approach. And that approach is to build an independent party.”

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Story Transcript

PAUL JAY, SENIOR EDITOR, TRNN: Welcome to The Real News Network. I’m Paul Jay, in Chicago at the People’s Summit.

Now joining us to assess how the summit is going and what happens with the movement and where it goes next is Kshama Sawant.

Thanks for joining us.

KSHAMA SAWANT, SEATTLE CITY COUNCILWOMAN: Thank you for having me.

JAY: So, Kshama is a socialist city councilwoman for the city of Seattle. She’s been an Occupy activist, a union member, an economics professor, the first open socialist to be elected in Seattle Council in over a century.

So the main theme of this conference is keep the political revolution going. There’s been not a word, in terms of the framing of the conference, about voting for Hillary Clinton, although certainly the discussion is defeat Trump. And I think it kind of goes without saying the suggestion is you’ll have to vote for Hillary. But most of the conversation’s about down-ticket fights, fights for progressives in Congress, state legislatures, and so on, city councils. What do you make of the whole framing of it?

SAWANT: Well, first of all I would say this is an exciting event. I mean, there’s roughly three, three and a half thousand people here in Chicago gathered for the People’s Summit. And the question that is uppermost on people’s minds is exactly now what?

Now, this is an event full of thousands, but they represent the tens of thousands and, indeed, the tens of millions of people who supported Bernie’s call for a political revolution against the billionaire class. And now that Bernie’s campaign is winding down and Hillary Clinton has become the presumptive nominee, I think a concrete question is: now what for our movement?

And I think that it’s not possible to talk about what our movement is going to do in the years ahead unless we talk about the concrete question staring us in the face right now: what do we do in the next five months? And it’s a pity that Jill Stein was not invited to this event, and it’s a pity that we’re not talking about–I mean, I talked about it, but it there’s not a broader conversation at this event about the need for independent politics and the need for an independent politics for the 99 percent.

JAY: You’ve said you think Bernie Sanders should run as a third-party candidate.

SAWANT: Yeah. In fact, we launched, along with Socialist Alternative, my organization, I have launched the Movement for Bernie earlier this year. And we launched a petition through Movement for Bernie, and the petition urges Bernie Sanders to run as an independent. And now we’re of course saying that run on the Green Party ticket with Jill Stein. And this petition has been signed by over 112,000 people. These are 112,000 people who are rejecting the idea that we should vote for Clinton or Trump and want a left-wing alternative. And I believe if Bernie was to wake up tomorrow and say, I’m going to run on the Green Party ticket with Jill Stein, as she has invited him to do, it would be nothing short of a political earthquake, because it would present a concrete and solid left challenge to the same old same old of the two corporate parties.

And I think that’s why if Bernie doesn’t run as independent or as a Green and he ends up endorsing Hillary Clinton, we cannot strangulate our political revolution and our movement on the altar of his bad decision. I mean, that would be a mistake for him to do that. And we have supported Bernie Sanders’s campaign, but we will not support the call to endorse Hillary Clinton. And we need, as our movement, together we need to build the strongest possible left challenge to this idea of only having Democrats or Republicans.

And the last point I’ll make. You talked about the down-ballot candidates. Of course I think every election is important for the working-class movement to engage in. I don’t think electoral endeavors themselves, by themselves, without building a movement, work. But we also cannot have this artificial separation that we’re going to build our movement, but when it comes to elections we’re going to support Democrats. That doesn’t work, because the Democratic Party has been the single most important reason for why we have not been able to build our movements, because every time we talk about building our movement, we’re asked to sacrifice what we are demanding at the feet of the Democratic Party, which has not fought for us.

JAY: When Sanders made his statement Thursday night, and mostly at this conference, the discussion about running in down-ticket–you know, Congress and so on, I have actually never heard anyone say it should be within the Democratic Party. There hasn’t been said one way or the other. In fact, Sanders himself prior to this has a history of running as an independent. I’ve talked to people from the nurses union who are the big organizers behind this conference. They said themselves, actually, that’s not the big issue for them either. In fact, in many cases they’re expecting people to run against corporate Democrats. So I’m not sure this is being framed that this has to be done from within a framework of the Democratic Party.

SAWANT: Right. No, you’re right. You’re right. You’re right. I mean, and your characterization of what people are thinking is accurate. I don’t know that there has been a strident push to run as Democrats from the leadership of this People’s Summit. I wouldn’t say that.

But I think that it’s a correct way to lead if we are leaving that question as open, because at the end of the day, yes, we need candidates to run against corporate Democrats. But as long as those candidates are running from the Democratic Party, we’re never going to succeed. I mean, I would predict to you if we have a wave of left-leaning people running on the Democratic Party ticket against corporate Democrats, most of those endeavors are not going to succeed by themselves, because at the end of the day the Democratic Party itself does not support a progressive and working-class agenda. I mean, look at how much we had to push in order for Hillary Clinton to even say anything supportive of the $15 movement, which is going nationwide. We had won in so many cities. But the Democratic Party and its leaders did not lead on those issues, whether it’s marriage equality or $15 an hour or women’s rights. The Democratic Party has not led on any of these concrete issues. And so we cannot leave it vague, we cannot say, oh, it doesn’t matter whether you run as an independent or Democrat, it’s important that you run on Bernie’s agenda. No. I support Bernie’s agenda, but his own experience has shown you cannot tie yourselves to the Democratic Party and expect to win.

JAY: But their argument’s the contrary, that you would never have had a phenomenon the size of the Sanders movement if it hadn’t been done within the Democratic Party. I mean, their argument–and I’ve talked to them here, interviewed them–this is a tactic. And the tactic of running within the Democratic Party’s what gave it a character of such scale, such mass movement. And, in fact, if you want to look at the experience of the Green Party, it has yet to reach anywhere near that kind of scale. It’s incomparable.

SAWANT: I think that the conclusion I would draw from what’s happened throughout this presidential election year is not the fact that he got an echo, show that you need to run as a Democrat. The conclusion I would draw is the fact that he ran on his really radical agenda. I mean, he ran as a Democrat, but if you look at the campaign platform he ran on, that is not at all in alliance–or in other words it’s in contradiction to what the Democratic Party stands for.

JAY: And the whole leadership, of course, in complete contradiction.

SAWANT: Yeah, of course, the whole leadership.

But what I would say is that the reason he has got so much of an echo is because we are at a historically fundamentally different period, where people are, young people especially, millennials who have broken from–majority of whom have broken from capitalism and are supporting socialism, they are looking for a way out. And that voice has been channeled into Bernie’s campaign.

So what I would say is, yes, if he had run as an independent–.

JAY: But can I just–.

SAWANT: Yes.

JAY: They could’ve done it through Jill Stein’s campaign. They did not do it through her campaign anywhere near the scale that they did it through Bernie’s campaign.

SAWANT: Yeah, no. But let me take Bernie’s example to make a distinction between running as a Democrat and running as an independent. When he was about to launch his campaign, I was urging him to run as an independent. I supported his agenda nevertheless, because millions of people are rallying around that political revolution. But I had predicted and Socialist Alternative had predicted that the Democratic Party establishment will not let him be the nominee. That is exactly what we have seen, even though he has such support all across America.

So what I would say is this. I don’t have illusions that if Bernie had run as an independent, he would become president this year. I don’t think that. But the question that we need to ask, the quite correct question is not can he run as an independent and isn’t it correct that he run as a Democrat. No. The question is: how can we build the basis this year for independent politics that we can build on in the coming years? And we can only build that basis for independent politics by breaking from the Democratic Party at some point. I mean, the larger–.

JAY: No. But that–at some point. At some point. But what that point is, that’s the question.

SAWANT: Yes, but that’s what I’m saying, Paul, is that–.

JAY: But not only that. Why does it have to be one or the other? Why can’t there be both?

SAWANT: I don’t understand. Both what?

JAY: A fight in the Democratic Party, also fights both in the streets and at ballot box outside the Democratic Party, depending on where and what.

Like, I’ll give you an example. In Baltimore it’s a perfect example where the Green candidacy makes perfect sense. There’s a Democratic Party machine, there’s virtually no Republican to speak of. Running a Green Party for mayor, which in fact they are, Josh Harris, makes perfect sense. But that doesn’t mean that you couldn’t also, even in a place like Baltimore, try to pick off in the primaries some conservative Democrats at the congressional level or other levels. I mean, these tactics are not necessarily mutually exclusive.

SAWANT: No, they’re absolutely mutually exclusive. I mean, if you look at–let me give you a concrete example. Everybody–I mean, I have been at the summit for a day and a half. I can’t walk five feet without somebody coming up to me and telling me how much they are excited about what we did in Seattle and that they’re inspired by the historic victory on the fight for 15 in Seattle. Do you know why we won that? We only won that because we were clear, our movement was clear that we are not going to be stymied by the Democratic Party establishment. The Democratic Party controls the city of Seattle, and they were absolutely dead against 15 or any other minimum wage increase. And when I won the City Council election and I took office, within days Democratic Party politicians in City Hall came to my office, sat me down, and said, while it’s great that you fought for 15, but just know that the Democratic Party establishment is not going to support you on this and we’re going to defeat you on this. This is the Democratic Party.

JAY: The Democratic Party establishment’s just another section of the billionaires. For sure.

SAWANT: So that is a concrete example that if people are inspired by what we have done in Seattle and people are asking, can Debbie Medina do it, can somebody else do it–. But people are missing that the most important ingredient of why we won tactically. The most important ingredient of why we won was because we built a movement and an election campaign independent of the Democrats. So this idea that we can have an inside and outside strategy doesn’t make sense, because as long as you’re trying to be inside a party that is totally married to Wall Street, you’re always going to stymie the outside strategy. So there is a built-in and deep contradiction between inside and outside.

And it’s not an emotional question whether or not we work inside the Democratic Party. If there was any evidence that we could use the Democratic Party as a vehicle for social change, I would be on the forefront of it.

JAY: And you don’t think the Sanders campaign has done that; it’s not been a vehicle for social change.

SAWANT: No, the Sanders campaign has. But–.

JAY: But that was done in the Democratic Party.

SAWANT: Well, but you’re conflating two things. Sanders’s call for a political revolution and every single aspect of his campaign program is what has helped to bring a shift, because people are energized and a whole generation of young people has become politicized. But that entire agenda that people are excited about has fallen flat because he will not be made the Democratic Party candidate. So for me the question is not has Sanders had an impact. Of course he has had an impact. But will we be able to achieve any of those things through the Democratic Party? No.

JAY: Well, they’re two different questions completely, whether it’s going to be achieved through the Democratic Party.

SAWANT: Yes, but you are conflating the two things.

JAY: No, no I’m not. No, no. I’m not conflating two things. You said that you can’t achieve any social change through the Democratic Party. At the same time, you say Sanders did.

SAWANT: I don’t have any illusions that if he had run as an independent he would have won. But by the same token, we should not have had an illusion–and we’ve been proven right–that by running as a Democrat, his agenda, even though it is extremely popular with millions of people, is not acceptable to the Democratic Party is what I’m saying.

So it’s not so much a question has he had an impact. Of course he has had an impact. But do we want to win any of those things that he’s talking about? If we want to win, if we are not just talking about this in the abstract and just having an intellectual discussion, and if we actually want to win any of those things, it is clear that the Democratic Party will not support it, because if they did, then why didn’t they make it possible for him to win it?

So here’s what I’m saying. If he had run as an independent as I was calling for and as Socialist Alternative was calling for, yes, he might have had a different reach in terms of media access and everything. He would not have been at the debates. I understand all that. We’re not blind to reality, of course. But what I would say is that we are, at this moment, at a fundamentally different point. So even if he had run as an independent, he would have got a huge echo. And what would have been radically different and correct about that strategy would have been that even if he had had less reach to people because of media blackout and all of that, what would have been clear is for the people who would have understood his campaign and got behind him, they would have understood that it is important to continue on an independent path.

Now what’s happened is that people are energized about it, but then you have the mis-leaders of the Democratic Party saying, now let’s all corral back to the Democratic Party and let’s win through this when we’re not going to. I mean, time will tell. Hillary Clinton is not about to dismantle her corporate agenda suddenly and become a fighter for $15 an hour and single-payer health care. You don’t have to agree with me right now; time will prove me right.

JAY: Yet, but no one, I think, even at this conference and Sanders himself, had any illusions that the Democratic Party leadership would ever accept the kind of program he’s proposing. I think he could even be more straight about that. But he says even with Hillary Clinton, he says unless she supports a real opposition to the billionaire class, my supporters aren’t going to support her. It’s clear the leadership of the Democratic Party is just another section of the billionaires. I mean, that’s obvious. So it’s no question that they will never accept this. The question is: is this a tactic that helps divide the Democratic Party, create a mass base for this kind of political objectives? And as a tactic, has it not been a positive thing in terms of movement building? That’s the question.

SAWANT: Well, that’s what I’m saying. Well, the problem with posing the question like that is then you’re talking about is this going to be an effective tactic going forward. And that’s my point. I mean, I’m not necessarily just and I’m not interested in endlessly rehashing whether he should have run as a Democrat or not, because I think it’s clear he should have–.

JAY: No, it’s going forward, should there be a fight at the convention, these sorts of things.

SAWANT: Yeah, but that’s what I’m saying. Well, of course we should fight as much as possible and we should actually have a walkout of thousands of people who don’t agree with the Democratic Party establishment.

But as you yourself correctly said, the Democratic Party is controlled by billionaires, multibillionaires. So how can we hope to make a shift in that party where we don’t have any say? Are there Democratic Party monthly meetings where we can go to and where we can cast a vote on the party’s agenda? No. And we may have some impact on the platform, but let me tell you, the platform is not even worth the piece of paper it’s written on unless we have real control on what the Democratic Party does. So Hillary Clinton may or may not. I mean, she may make some concessions by–

JAY: I don’t expect much.

SAWANT: –by her words,–

JAY: Yeah.

SAWANT: –but at the end of the day, if we want to win any of those things, we have to dissociate from the Democratic Party, because they’re not going to fight for us. They haven’t. And, in fact, the reason we are at this point where we have the most unpopular candidate in the last ten presidential cycles, which is Donald Trump, running against the second most unpopular candidate, which is Hillary Clinton, I mean, that shows you the bankruptcy of how these two parties work.

And, also, the most important question for us is not what you and I think. It’s the question of what millions of people are thinking. Their aspirations have been raised by Bernie’s campaign. And for us to say, okay, if you’re excited about Bernie now, let’s go back to the Democratic Party, that’s like saying to them, your aspirations have been raised here; now let’s come back here. You know, it’s sort of demobilizing the movement.

If we want to keep the movement energetic and going forward, then it is incumbent upon us to provide a different approach. And that approach is to build an independent party. I agree with you. It’s not going to happen this year, of course. But we have to begin somewhere.

And what I was trying to say about lesser-evilism is the problem with lesser-evilism is that, yes, it makes sense when you think about it just in isolated presidential election years. The problem with the lesser-evilism is that it’s ad nauseum, meaning every year I could make an argument that favors lesser-evilism. But the question then is: when are we going to actually win some of these reforms? And if we want to win, we have to break from the Democratic Party. That has been shown.

And the most important point, I think, would be that this is not an ordinary year. I mean, we are at an incredibly historic moment. We would be squandering–I mean the left, we meaning we, those of us who are on the left–we would end up squandering this moment if we didn’t show a real left-wing challenge to the two parties. I mean, Jill Stein is not going to win, but it is important that we put that forward as an alternative to begin discussing the question of independent party for the 99 percent.

JAY: Alright. Thanks very much for joining us.

SAWANT: Thank you.

JAY: And thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.

End

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