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Journalist Rania Khalek spoke to Seattle City Council Member and Socialist Alternative candidate Kshama Sawant on the final day of last week’s DNC about the Democratic Party’s inability to change, and what progressive voters must do about it
RANIA KHALEK: I’m Rania Khalek here with the Real News. We’re outside the Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia. It’s the last day of the convention. Hillary Clinton will be speaking in a few hours. And we are joined by Kshama Sawant, who is the city councilmember in Seattle from Socialist Alternative. She is one of the few people in the country who has been able to run a successful campaign independently. And so we’re speaking to her about what’s happening on the inside of the convention. Kshama, as somebody who’s from an independent party, inside the convention there’s a lot of discussion among very disgruntled and angry Bernie supporters about voting for a third party, and there’s been a lot of pushback about whether that might get Trump elected. So as somebody who’s been advocating for Jill Stein, the Green Party presidential candidate this election cycle, how do you respond to people who are concerned that Donald Trump might win if people vote third party? KSHAMA SAWANT: Well, first of all, thank you for having me. It’s been really just energizing, and I think these are historic times we live in. These last few days in Philly have been such a demonstration of the hunger that people have for an alternative for corporate politics. And a lot of what’s happened here with the backdrop of the DNC is evidence of the fact that these corporate parties, the Republican Party and the Democratic Party, they have been the bastions of American capitalism, and hence for global capitalism. And we were supposed to have believed that they were untouchable. You know, and they’re always going to be strong, and you couldn’t challenge them. So just hunker down and vote for the lesser evil, however much you hate it. And what we’re seeing now is the biggest challenge to the Democratic Party since 1968, in 50 years. So this is an historic moment we’re in. And we’re seeing both parties being at a loss of credibility. The Republican Party has already shown itself to be a house of cards with Trump rising, you know, this really bigoted, misogynist, racist, anti-immigrant person, and a multi-billionaire posing as an outsider to the establishment when in reality he is completely a part of the establishment, being disingenuous. So I know that the uppermost question in people’s minds is what do we do about Trump. I agree with you in principle about third party politics, about building an independent left party. But this year let’s just, you know, hold our nose and vote for Clinton. The problem with that logic of lesser-evilism, first of all, it is ad infinitum, meaning there’s never any end. If you buy into that logic, there’s never a good year, or never a good time to start building left politics. But more seriously, for people who are concerned about Trump–and I’m one of them. I’m horrified by Trump’s agenda. But if you are horrified by Trump, then you have to be worried about not only Trump, but the possibility of the right having an ongoing basis to build itself. So look at what happened with the Tea Party. Let’s learn some lessons from recent history. The Tea Party made historic gains in 2014, and many state legislatures are now dominated by the right wing, and we’ve seen right to work legislation come into place. We’ve seen massive attacks on reproductive rights of women. Why did that happen? That didn’t happen in 2010 because suddenly America woke up and became right wing. That happened because people have put all their faith in Obama, and by then the Obama administration had already angered millions of people with their corporate bailouts, and absolutely being unwilling to address the needs of people who are facing massive unemployment, the foreclosure crisis, and now student debt. And so by that lesson we can see that if we use this logic of lesser-evilism, we are not only aiding and abetting Trump himself, but the larger right. And if you look at the polls that came out, have been coming out during the primary, they show that Sanders is a far more powerful candidate against Trump. And yet, we’ve seen the DNC use every dirty trick in the book to make sure Hillary was the nominee. You’ve seen the WikiLeaks. You’ve seen all the evidence. You don’t have to take it from a socialist. So the question in my mind is, if defeating Trump was the biggest priority for the Democratic Party establishment, then why did they not promote the one candidate who had the best chance to defeat Trump? That’s why the answer in my mind to that question is yes, they want to defeat Trump. There is a difference between the Democrats and Republicans. I’ll admit that. But for them a bigger priority is to defeat the working class agenda. And that is why the establishment of the Democratic Party will always do everything in its power to defeat any kind of political revolution. So this is a failed strategy, going after the Democratic Party again and again. That’s why we need to build an independent party for the 99 percent, and the first step towards that is to support Jill Stein. KHALEK: Now, you’ve been in contact–you supported Bernie Sanders very vocally. You endorsed him, in fact. And you’ve been in contact with people on the inside of the convention. There’s been delegates who’ve been walking out. And you, you know, you’ve been in touch with some of them and in some cases helping organize some of that with them. So can you tell us a little bit about what you’ve been hearing from delegates you’re in contact with, and what’s been going on on the inside, and some of the anger that you’ve been hearing about? And do you see, do you see a larger number of people that maybe you had estimated deciding now that they might vote third party because of the behavior of the DNC on the inside of the convention. SAWANT: Yeah. So first of all, myself and my organization, Socialist Alternative, we together launched the Movement For Bernie campaign, and people can check that out, MovementForBernie.org, or you know, our track record on how we’ve supported Sanders. But from the very beginning what we’ve said was that Bernie Sanders is correct to run as a socialist, not to go on the defensive. He really embraced that term, and has really given a huge opening for the word socialism, and I really appreciate him for doing that. We also agree with his call for a political revolution against the billionaire class, agree with his campaign program of taxing the wealthy and Wall Street to fund public universities, to bring in single-payer healthcare. All of that is extremely important. But the question is, how are we going to win any of those things, you know? Forget all of them, but how are you going to win any one? Pick anything on Bernie Sanders’s platform, say single-payer healthcare, or public education. Whatever you want. Pick one of them. And then the question that stares us concretely in the face is, how would we win any of those? And in our opinion, and you can see history, and right now everything that’s happened in Philly this primary campaign, the role of the DNC, everything shows and points towards the fact that the Democratic Party establishment is deeply hostile to any of those aspects of the working class agenda, or working class program. That is why even before Bernie formally launched his campaign, I personally asked him, do not run as a Democrat, because your political revolution is going to die a death in the Democratic Party. Run an independent, because we need to build an independent force, an organization for all of us to campaign through mass movements and bring a challenge to the Democrats and Republicans. He decided to run as a Democrat. We don’t agree with that, but we supported him anyway, because we feel that tens of millions of people were connecting with his call for a political revolution. But everything that’s happened since then has proven us right. You know, two things that we said have come true: one is that all across America, Sanders had an echo for his political revolution. People are angry, so angry, at corporate politics. But the second thing we said also came true, which is that the Democratic Party did everything in its power to promote Hillary and stymie Bernie’s campaign, including carrying out slimy media attacks like in New York State. So what we’re seeing this week is tremendous anger boiling over. I mean, I was here all day Sunday, I was here the last two days. You know, whether it’s raining like right now or it’s 100 degrees, people are unfazed, because this is a historic moment. People are saying enough is enough, you know, I am so angry at corporate politics. We need an alternative. And one of the historic events that happened this week was on Wednesday, 700-1,000 Bernie delegates walked out. I mean, this is huge. We all on the left should be congratulating them for their courage, because they came here–I mean, this is all this pomp and circumstance, and just complete spectacle and circus of the Democratic Party. And they walked out in the middle of all of that. I don’t know if people saw Josh Fox’s video where he shows all these empty seats in the convention. So my conclusion to all of that would be this: I don’t think that we can win a third-party victory this year. I mean, it would be absurd to think that we could do that. I believe that many people will come under the pressure of lesser-evilism and vote for Hillary. But here’s what I would say: if we are afraid of Trump, and if we are angry at the corporate politics of Wall Street domination of the Democratic Party, we don’t have a choice but to build an independent party for the 99 percent. So the scenario I would play out is this: imagine if in, you know, on election night in November, Jill Stein would have won 1.5 million votes. That’s not enough to win the election, but it is the kind of vote, it’s the kind of number that will make young people all across America sit up and take notice, and feel the hope that we can build an independent party. That’s what’s at stake, the feeling among millions of people of a sense of empowerment, you know, that we could do this in the coming years. That’s what’s at stake, and that is why everybody who’s watching this, if you agree with my analysis of what’s wrong in America, then let’s fight for every single vote for Jill Stein. KHALEK: The last question I would want to ask you is: there are some people who are advocating a strategy of building a third party in safe states, or at least this election cycle, advocating for only third party in safe states. What would you say to those people? SAWANT: When we launched the Movement For Bernie campaign, I personally, in Socialist Alternative, we had launched a petition to urge Bernie to run independent if he did not get the Democratic Party nomination. And that petition was hugely successful. Over 120,000 people signed that petition because they wanted Bernie to continue his political revolution outside the Democratic Party if the Democrats didn’t let him continue as their nominee. And in that petition we said that if the idea of running in every state is not, you know, people aren’t convinced of that, then let’s run in the safe states. So I think that the safe states idea can be used as a tactic, but I think fundamentally what people need to grapple with is, you know, the fact that we need to build an independent party. Whether it’s safe states or not, fundamentally the idea that needs to be embraced and fought for is that we need a new party. So even if we use the safe state strategy this year, in the coming years, we have to build an independent party, and we cannot use a safe state strategy in perpetuity. At some point this has to be a real, a real, genuine, fundamental, full-on challenge not only to the Democratic and Republican parties but to the entire ruling class itself and to capitalism itself. KHALEK: So another argument that people have been making is let’s just do independent parties locally, as opposed to nationally, because nationally is too dangerous because we just have a two-party system and it will get a right-winger elected. So how do you respond to that argument? SAWANT: First of all, I will say that in order to really build a serious challenge to not only the two parties but to U.S. capitalism itself, we will need to do what we need to do at every level. It’s not going to be just at the national level, or just at the city level. We have to–and when I say we, I mean our movement, our grassroots movement, our labor movement. BLM activists, immigration rights activists, LGBTQ activists, environmental activists, all of us, our movements have to build stronger bases in the grassroots, and run not only electoral campaigns, but our strategy towards electoral politics has to be something that is rooted in mass movements. So for example, just on that I would say that when I am calling for an independent party for the 99 percent, I don’t mean just an electoral machine that runs candidates in some years and then is dead in other years. No, we’re talking about a party that is rooted in mass movements around concrete issues like how do we fight police brutality, like the need to raise the minimum wage, like the need to bring about single-payer healthcare. So we need an organization through which we can build mass movements, and also through that mass movement run our own candidates separate from Wall Street, broken from Wall Street and broken from the Democrats and Republicans, and we have to do that at every level. And I also agree that, you know, if some people are thinking that national is too daunting, let’s do it local level, I agree. I mean, the scale of the campaign we run does matter. And you know, we’re not just–we shouldn’t be doing this just with the idea of a moral purity. It also has to work. So we are being strategic and having good tactics in doing it. And so it’s true that if the scale of the campaign is more viable at local campaigns we should absolutely do that. But I do want to make a fundamental distinction again, here. It is not–fundamentally, it is not so much about local versus national. What’s most critical is making a distinction between independent politics and Democrats and Republicans. So just to give you an example of what I mean, you know, Bernie Sanders, after he endorsed Hillary Clinton and then there was an uproar from his own supporters who said, no, we don’t agree with that. We followed you precisely because we don’t like Clinton’s politics, so it was absurd for him to suggest this circular logic for his own supporters. But then he said, you know, I’m launching this [our] revolution. I don’t know if you’ve seen those sign-up sheets for Our Revolution, which is basically running many downballot candidates, but from the Democratic Party. Now, that’s problematic. Everybody looks at me and says, you know, you guys did something great in Seattle. We need to do that. But I think the point that is being missed is that what we did worked because we ran truly independent. In Seattle there is no Republican for us to speak of. I mean, there are Republicans, but they really don’t have any power. The city of Seattle, just like Philadelphia, Chicago, New York, you know, all the metropolitan areas, is completely controlled by the Democratic Party establishment. And they have overseen the decimation of public schools, like in Philadelphia, the foreclosure crisis, the skyrocketing rents, and low-wage jobs. So when we campaign as an independent, as a socialist, against the Democratic Party establishment, we got a huge echo. So whether we do it at local or national, what we need is independent politics. KHALEK: Thank you so much, Kshama Sawant, for joining us, city councilmember of Seattle, of the Socialist Alternative Party. I’m Rania Khalek, and you’re watching the Real News.
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