LeftRoots member, Jonathan Kissam, from Vermont, weighs in on the Bernie Sanders debate.
The Bernie Sanders campaign has provoked widespread interest and debate on the U.S. Left, such as it is. This article is a contribution to that debate from the perspective of a left organizer who has been active in trade union and community organizing in Sanders’ home state of Vermont for the better part of two decades.
This article is not directed at progressives, but at leftists – those who identify as socialists, communists, and/or anarchists, those who want to replace capitalism with a different system, not simply reign in its most atrocious features. In short, those whose vision of liberation goes far beyond what Sanders has articulated in his political program.
The purpose of this article is not to convince individuals to vote for or against Sanders, or to give money or time to his campaign. Rather, the purpose is to help leftists assess how the Sanders campaign impacts our strategies (or attempts to formulate strategies) to build a social force that is strong enough to dismantle and replace capitalism.
1. BERNIE IS, IN FACT, DIFFERENT FROM OTHER POLITICIANS
The summer that I moved to Vermont, before I acquired gainful employment, I went out canvassing for Sanders a couple of times – he was still in Congress, and still had to run for re-election every two years. Of the maybe twenty people I spoke to, two of them had been personally helped by Sanders’ office when he was mayor of Burlington. And one told me that he didn’t agree with Sanders on a single issue, but always voted for him, because Sanders was always honest about what he believed.
This is not to argue that Sanders is uniquely principled in his politics – clearly he will give in to pressure in some situations. In 2000, in the wake of Vermont’s at-the-time groundbreaking Civil Union law for same-sex couples, Sanders was the last statewide politician to make a statement on it (though his positions have evolved). However he is, in my experience, uniquely committed to using his position to serve the interests of the people. Until recently, he lived in a modest split-level in Burlington (and his new house is not much bigger), and he displays no interest in trading on his position to achieve personal gain. While he has been criticized for being tough – perhaps even abusive – to employees, as a former staffer says, “he is a very hard worker himself. I mean, he is at it 24-7 — and that’s really no exaggeration. He works really, really hard, and he expects the people who work for him to work really, really hard.”
Perhaps the clearest example of this is how willing he is to take on the most powerful corporations in the world. It is hard to think of another politician who would be willing to anger General Electric while running for president.
2. BERNIE IS A TRUE BELIEVER IN SOCIAL DEMOCRACY
Many of us on the Left are skeptical of, or at least highly aware of the limitations of, what we often refer to as “bourgeois democracy” – voting for one or another candidate to manage the capitalist state. This skepticism is mirrored in the attitude of many liberal politicians (such as President Obama), who may genuinely want to use the political process such as it is to improve people’s lives, but who accept that they must operate only in the narrow constraints of what powerful institutions deem “politically possible.”
Sanders, for better or for worse, genuinely believes that the institutions of American democracy can be used to bring about deep, structural political changes that will improve the lives of millions of people in real ways. And this belief leads him to attempt things that most of us on the Left think impossible – such as running for President as a socialist.
3. BERNIE GIVES ACTIVE SUPPORT TO TRADE UNIONS AND SOCIAL MOVEMENTS
Unlike most Democratic Party politicians, who will only support trade union and social movement struggles when asked or pressured to, and only after making political calculations, Sanders takes an active interest in the organizational health of the trade union movement and other popular organizations.
For several years I served as the highest-ranking elected official of the United Electrical Workers union (UE) in Vermont. As such – since we are independent of the AFL-CIO – I was regularly invited to meet with Sanders, along with the presidents of the AFL-CIO, Vermont NEA (teachers’ union), and the independent Vermont State Employees Association. Sanders, in effect, convened the trade union movement in a way that its official representatives were too short-sighted or fragmented to do on our own. He has sponsored labor conferences that bring together hundreds of union members to discuss the political issues of the day and promote a working-class political vision. The first of these that I attended was led by labor leftist Bill Fletcher, in 1999, as Fletcher was being eased out of the AFL-CIO for his radicalism.
In addition to convening trade unionists, Sanders has been instrumental in supporting, and on occasion leading, countless workers’ struggles in Vermont. His support was crucial to the nearly 2000 nurses at the state’s largest hospital winning union recognition, and to hundreds of federal contract workers winning millions in back pay after being systematically underpaid in violation of the federal Service Contract Act. In 2000, when IBM initiated drastic changes to its pension plan, Sanders essentially served as shop-steward-at-large for the thousands of workers at IBM’s non-union plant in Vermont (and, indeed, for IBM workers nationally), helping to win significant modifications to the draconian take-backs.
Sanders has done similar organizational work with the environmental and women’s movements, among others. Most strikingly, he has invited the Vermont Workers’ Center to directly recruit at his campaign events. Unlike the vast majority of politicians, even those on the left, Sanders does not see non-electoral organizing as in competition with electoral strategies, but as a crucial complement to them.
4. BERNIE IS A POLITICAL REALIST, AND IS IN THIS TO WIN
In his Atlantic piece, “Why Precisely Is Bernie Sanders Against Reparations?” Ta-Nehisi Coates argues that “Sometimes the moral course lies within the politically possible, and sometimes the moral course lies outside of the politically possible. One of the great functions of radical candidates is to war against equivocators and opportunists who conflate these two things. Radicals expand the political imagination and, hopefully, prevent incrementalism from becoming a virtue.”
While true, I think this represents a fundamental misreading of Sanders. He does not see himself as a radical candidate. He is not a Ralph Nader or a Jill Stein. He is not so much interested in expanding the political imagination as in winning actual changes in the way society is governed.
While Sanders’ statement on reparations having no chance of passage was, like many things he says about race, tone-deaf, it was not wrong. Coates asserts that Sanders’ single-payer proposal is equally unlikely to pass Congress – but there is a significant difference: single-payer has widespread public support, in a way that reparations do not.
This is not to say that those of us who believe in reparations should not criticize Sanders, only that we have a job to do – convincing more white folks (and more non-Black people of color, and to be honest more Black folks as well) that reparations is not only the right thing to do, but in our long-term interests. And, for better or for worse, we need to be realistic that Sanders is not going to do that job for us.
The bottom line is: Sanders would not be running if he did not honestly believe that he has a chance of winning, and that he would be able to – over time – pass significant parts of his agenda. He has won elections for over three decades, has experience governing, and has more than two and a half decades’ experience moving both small and large agendas through Congress. While we may not agree with every decision he has made, is making, or will make, we need to understand that fundamentally what he is doing is looking for the most achievable radical change, and the most radical achievable change (within his own political framework of social democracy).
5. BERNIE HAS A TRACK RECORD OF TAKING ON ENTRENCHED POWER BY ENCOURAGING POPULAR MOBILIZATION
While this is, understandably, not part of the Sanders campaign’s public history, when Bernie was first elected mayor of Burlington in 1981, he was faced with an extremely hostile city council – having only two allies out of 14 city councillors. Burlington’s city government is run on a commission system, meaning the mayor’s power is significantly checked by commissions, appointed by the city council, who oversee almost all city departments. When Sanders was first elected, Burlington was in many ways a traditional Democratic Party one-party machine fiefdom – and the machine wasn’t about to let some upstart “socialist” actually run the city.
In response, Bernie and his supporters took the one small city department the mayor had direct control over, the office of economic development, renamed it the “Community and Economic Development Office,” and began to use it to facilitate organization and mobilization in the city’s neighborhoods. Most significantly, they established “Neighborhood Planning Assemblies” in each of the city’s seven wards. The assemblies met monthly, and CEDO turned over a certain portion of the federal block grants that they administered to the assemblies to fund neighborhood improvements (not unlike the “Participatory Budgeting” that the Brazilian Workers’ Party would establish in Porto Alegre later in the decade). This institution continues to this day, and has provided a crucial space for popular mobilization on issues both local – such as fighting proposed closings of schools in working-class neighborhoods – and national and international – such as pressing the city council to take progressive stands against the war in Iraq, or for immigrants’ rights.
In addition to the NPAs, Sanders and his allies established a women’s council, an arts council, a sister city program with Puerto Cabezas in Sandanista Nicaragua, and a robust community-access television network. The Clerk’s office and the Board for Registration of Voters made it easier to register to vote and easier to vote. Over time, popular involvement in these progressive, participatory initiatives sponsored and supported by the mayor’s office led to political change. More Sanders allies were elected to the City Council under the banner of the loose “Progressive Coalition” (which eventually formally formed the statewide Vermont Progressive Party in the late 1990s), as were more independents and Republicans, breaking the Democratic party machine stranglehold on city government. Eventually, even Democrats on the council began to see the light and work with Sanders.
This track record is an important counterpoint to those who argue that Sanders, if elected, would be unable to move his agenda through a Congress dominated by Republicans and conservative Democrats. And it is also important to think about how, if he is elected, leftists and popular organizations can make use of such openings that a Sanders presidency would provide.
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As stated above, I am not writing this article to argue that individual leftists should vote for or against Bernie (although I voted for him, as I always have), or give time or money to his campaign (although I have done both). Nor am I going to argue that grassroots organizations should divert limited resources from organizing into involvement in Bernie’s campaign. Those decisions have to be made based on the time, place and conditions that individuals and organizations are working in.
However, I am going to tell a cautionary tale from 1990, the year that Sanders first got elected to Congress.
Bennington County, in the southwest corner of Vermont, is one of the more conservative parts of the state – in fact, it was the only county that Sanders did not carry in 1990. The Sanders campaign in Bennington was run out of the offices of UE Local 295, which represented hundreds of manufacturing workers at Bijur Lubrication. Years later, the UE staff representative who had been working with Local 295 at the time told me about the victory party, how the middle-class peace and environmental activists and working-class trade unionists looked at each other and said, “hey, we did this amazing thing together!” And how she never saw that happen again, because no durable political organization was built.
Unlike the cities of Burlington, Montpelier and Brattleboro – liberal enclaves which do, in fact, resemble the stereotype of Vermont held by many outside the state – Bennington is a rural, working-class, conservative area, and one that has been hit hard by globalization and deindustrialization. Bijur Lubrication moved most of its production to Mexico and China in the 90s, and closed its doors for good in the early 2000s. It is the county that Trump won most decisively in Vermont’s primary in March.
One of the notable – though not often-enough noted by people who think of politics as a linear spectrum – aspects of the Sanders campaign is his ability to attract “independents.” White working-class voters in rural states who do not identify with the Democratic Party are turning out to vote for a self-proclaimed socialist. If the issue of organizing working class white folks is important to the Left (as I would argue that it should be), then we should be looking closely at Sanders’ message, and how it centers working-class experience and economic pain – something that too often becomes secondary in the rhetoric of the Left.
We also need to be thinking about the question of what happens – politically but more importantly organizationally – to the millions of people excited by the Sanders campaign after the Democratic Party convention this summer when, in all likelihood, Clinton will be nominated. The Sanders campaign is unlikely to build a durable political organization – electoral campaigns simply do not do that. Electoral campaigns are a sprint, and durable political organizations have always been built by committed activists whose vision of transforming society makes them long-distance runners. However, the Sanders campaign has reached and mobilized more working-class people, with a basic anti-corporate message and an identity as a “socialist,” than the Left has in decades. Perhaps we have an opportunity to find new comrades in unexpected places.