Should Bernie Politically Retreat or Advance?

Dustin Guastella recently wrote an article where he put forward a perspective on what he thinks the Bernie Campaign should do to recover from the electoral defeats of February 29th, March 3rd (Super Tuesday), and March 10th. His article can be summed up with the following:

  • Do not promote “fringe” positions.
  • Do not agitate for a Third Party.

The article expresses the anxiety of the moment. However, these positions only provide ways to demobilize the campaign. They are also surprising since less than a month ago, Guastella wrote a piece claiming that the Democrats are “Bernie’s Party Now”.

In this context, let’s explore his positions and see if we can find a path that leads us forward, not backward.

The Fringe

When People of Color (such as myself) hear politicians and organizations state that “we need to shed the fringe”, we know they’re talking about us. We also know that they’re talking about other oppressed communities. It is common knowledge that “fringe issues” constitute anything that battles racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, etc. In other words, fringe issues are anything that might seem to frighten-off white voters.

The Latinx Community

One of the inspiring aspects of the Bernie 2020 vs 2016 is the way in which he learned from 2016. This time around, his campaign courted the oppressed, particularly the Latinx community. The early wave of major endorsements from activist groups, the way in which the Culinary Workers Union outflanked their own leadership, and the way in which border cities went for Bernie were proof that combining the “bread and butter” issues with the “fringe” paid off.

With the Latinx community feeling seen through Bernie’s immigration platform, there was motivation to mobilize for Tìo Bernie.

Guastella himself identifies the immigrant and Latinx communities as the key to winning in his article “After the Nevada Blowout, It’s Bernie’s Party Now”. It is easy to see that the “fringe” issues of abolishing ICE, closing the concentration camps, and an immediate moratorium on deportations contributed to the mobilization of these communities.

Conversely, abandoning these issues would be demobilizing. Worse, they would be seen as a betrayal and confirmation that politicians, and socialists, are only concerned about white voters.

It should be noted that this is far to the right of Bernie Sanders who recently spoke in Chicago (March 7th) about the need to halve the prison population, close the concentration camps, and defend abortion rights.

The Black Community

While there have been major inroads with the Latinx community, there is still much work to do connecting with the Black community. This has been proven with Biden’s wins in Michigan and The South.

As was pointed out in The Root, Sanders held a rally in Flint, Michigan that was largely attended by white voters and skipped by Black voters. This is a real problem and we have to be honest about how we handle it. The wrong response would be to run away from the issue. It should be noted that Guastella doesn’t even address this in his article.

An honest question: how much has the Bernie campaign done to connect with the Black community? As I’m not a core member of that campaign, I don’t have a response. My sense is that if we’re going up against the former Vice President of the first-ever Black President: our platform needs to explicitly address the Black community.

The platform does include planks like Racial Justice, Supporting HBCUs and MSIs, and Justice and Safety for All. But when I scroll through the platform page, I have to ask myself: “which of these planks would specifically address the Black Community”? It is not immediately clear if the Black community is on his mind. Understandably, this creates skepticism.

There probably should have been a plank like “Reparations for the Black Community”. It could have included:

  • A commission consisting of Black community groups and leaders to do a study and concretely discuss Reparations.
  • A Marshall Plan for predominantly Black neighborhoods and cities.
  • Disarm the police, just like in Norway.

Within this platform, various existing points (like ending the war on drugs, ending cash bail, halving the prison population, etc.) could have been nested and explicitly promoted as ways to directly attack the unique, institutional racism that has affected the Black community since the founding of this slave-owning, colonial-settler nation.

This is one approach of countless others that could still save the campaign and win over the Black community. But we need to openly and urgently discuss how we move forward.

Never trimming the Fringe Issues: The Rossana Campaign

Here in Chicago, we had a hard fought campaign to win the Aldermanic seat in the 33rd Ward. There are two important lessons to take away from it.

  1. Centrism doesn’t win.

There were originally three candidates.

Deb Mell ran as the Democratic conservative, Katie Sieracki ran as the centrist, and Rossana ran as the leftist. During the campaign, we were smeared as being pro-crime and anti-police. Rossana could have dodged the topic or worse: pretended to be pro-cop.

Instead, she held the line that the police already receive 40% of the city’s operating budget. What we need was more money to reframe public safety as public health: focused on fully funded public schools, reopened medical clinics, etc.

The centrist was easily defeated in the first round of voting.

2. Bold platforms can push through skepticism.

Deb Mell had both name recognition and was a decent politician (by Democratic Party standards). This meant that while we were getting major support from activists and the community, getting voters to actually vote was a challenge.

As mentioned above, there is skepticism towards Hope. To compensate for that, we needed a bold platform that could pull in large armies of true believers that could make up for the climate of skepticism and mobilize voters.

Fringe Conclusion

Guastella’s position that we need to shed fringe positions comes off as a dog-whistle to ditch issues that matter to oppressed communities. Whether or not this is true is beside the point. The reality is that connecting with Communities of Color has been a struggle for both the Bernie campaign and the DSA. In order to successfully break through geographic and political boundaries of racism, comrades need to be conscious of this.

If the position really is about ditching the issues that affect the oppressed, it is a recipe for transforming a recently diversified and beautiful campaign into the Bernie Bro caricature. It stands to demoralize the Communities of Color that have been rallying to Bernie and prove that US socialism is for whites only.

Rather than politically retreating, we need to both:

  • Stay the path of holding a bold and inclusive platform.
  • While also strategizing around how to create ties with the Black Community, and acknowledging that we may be too late for this election, but not for the future development of an Anti-Racist Socialism.

Again, this is an issue that goes beyond Guastella’s article. It is an issue that has plagued the Bernie Campaign and the DSA. Our inability to resolve this over the last four years has come home to roost.

The Specter of The Third Party

While the topic of “fringe issues” is what caught the attention of determined anti-racists: the bulk of his article is spent deterring people from agitating for a third party. I’m not going to recap Guastella’s theoretical arguments. They are dizzying and peppered throughout the article. In his defense, the dizzying aspects stem from the contradictory nature of The Democratic Party itself.

Never the less, he is missing the historic relevance of this moment. Thousands of people (maybe millions), are actively losing faith in The Democratic Party. After the party sabotaged Bernie in 2016, there is an expectation that it is happening again. We need to build on that distrust, deepen it, and use it as a motivator to build our own party. Especially since Guastella admits: “it is not our party”.

Let’s lay out one vision of what it could mean to build a third party, based on conversations in Chicago.

IPOs and Local Races

In Chicago, we benefit from having numerous organizations that are engaged in both movement and electoral work.

We have:

  • Chicago Democratic Socialists of America* (CDSA) and Socialist Alternative (SA).
  • Fighting unions like the Chicago Teacher’s Union (CTU) and SEIU.
  • Neighborhood-based Independent Political Organizations (IPOs) like 33rd Ward Working Families* (33WWF) and United Neighbors of the 35th Ward (UN35).
  • An umbrella organization that unites the unions and IPOs: United Working Families* (UWF).

I wanted to list these groups out because DSA often gets all of the limelight. But the reality is that it is one of numerous players. The role that the other groups have played needs to be promoted, evaluated, and built-on as well.

*Full disclosure: I am a member of these groups.

Contested Spaces

UWF and the IPOs are particularly interesting because they are contested spaces. Meaning, they don’t have a specific political agenda like being socialist, liberal, etc. They are open spaces where people of all political persuasions are able to promote their ideas and debate the path forward for a given struggle. This is crucial because it allows all people to feel welcome in the organization and join it for one-off campaigns or as longterm members.

In practice, as non-socialists joined 33WWF and helped in campaigns (like Lift the Ban or Rossana’s election), they radicalized via the struggle itself and engagement with the socialist members. They often joined CDSA while being 33WWF members. The fact that 33WWF was an open, contested space allowed us to recruit folks of all political stripes, many of whom might not have joined the DSA but still wanted to help the Left.

The DNC and a Third Party Seeding

33WWF was the core organization that laid the infrastructure for Rossana’s victory. But we could not have done it without the network of organizations that I listed above.

With that in mind, what if we went to the DNC in July (either as a Chicago contingent, or just as 33WWF) and came with a message: start your own IPOs and begin building local versions of a Worker’s Party. Obviously, this message would be better received if the Bernie campaign actually gets a majority of the popular vote and/or majority of delegates.

We could hold a march, or a rally. We could distribute flyers promoting the idea and a way to contact us to help discuss and coordinate. We could use the DNC as the space to gauge whether or not a third party is something that activists are interesting in building.

Chicago Itself

Let’s say we skip the DNC? Maybe Bernie is trounced between now and then and so showing up makes us look like sectarians. In that case, why not move ahead with talking to all of the groups outlined above about running for city-wide offices on a third party line? In Chicago, it seems feasible. Especially given the way we were able to pull together and get 6 socialists into City Council. What about a mayor from the Worker’s Party?

You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger, darling.

Really, the question becomes: when are we supposed to start building a third party? According to the opposition, the answer seems to be “never”.

But again, this is a moment of intense anger and suspicion against The Democrats. Biden and the Democratic Party establishment have rallied the unorganized to their approved candidate. But this isn’t a permanent situation. There is real anger against the Democrats and we need to seize it. Especially since we have met broader layers of activists willing to join this campaign because we were able to speak to both their bread-and-butter issues as well as their particular matters of oppression.

The [Virus] in the Room

If we put aside the topics of fringe issues and the third party, there is also a major oversight: Guastella never mentions the Coronavirus. We have to include it in any planning regarding what we discuss at the doors, how we organize for the campaign, and how we organize outside the campaign (i.e. struggles for paid sick leave, mutual aid, and for expanded access to medical resources).

Fortunately, Bernie Sanders has already begun to publicly address the crisis.

Campaigns need inspiration to mobilize the troops.

  • Bold platforms that explicitly embrace the entire working class, while lending a voice to the uniquely oppressed.
  • Lofty goals like building a Worker’s Party so that our candidate doesn’t have to deal with internal sabotage and can more easily call out our class and political enemies.

They also need to know how to respond to the crisis that capitalism naturally creates (whether political, economic, imperial, or medical). In this case, we need to listen to Bernie’s lead, as well as the lead of groups like the organizations that I listed above which have come up with their own Chicago-specific demands for City Government to address this medical crisis.

Rather than narrowing our focus, we need to widen our gaze and be responsive to the changing circumstance of our fellow workers, the overall political climate, and the evolving situation.

Socialist Electoralism, Not Liberal Electoralism

We are socialists. We shouldn’t play politics the way the liberals and conservatives do: like House of Cards. Our goal should not be to stealthily manipulate voters into supporting our candidate so that later we can show them how socialist we really are. Our job is to use elections to both win electoral power while also winning workers to our positions.

Shedding the issues that specifically affect the oppressed from our talking points is a disservice to the working class. It reinforces the notion that socialism is only for college-educated whites, and that everyone else is secondary.

It demonstrates a distrust:

  • In the ability of working class people to move to radical positions.
  • Of their intelligence and sense of solidarity.
  • Of their class instincts: which we should help elevate and refine.

We live in a country where 8 years of Barack Obama taught the majority of people that Hope is a Lie. The US populace feels burned and they need socialists to prove that our ideas can be implemented and succeed. Since we cannot demonstrate this without being in office, it means that the onus is on us to make up for this skepticism by mobilizing the largest possible army of volunteers to cut through the skepticism.

The only way to mobilize the largest number of volunteers is to win them over by demonstrating that we are with them. The bread and butter issues are a part of that. But so are the issues that are more specific to the various sections of the oppressed. Not me, us: right? Especially if we plan to win the support of the Black Community, which we must do.

We also need to keep discussing how we go about building our Worker’s Party. Our country has been deliberately, politically stunted for too long. Let’s work with all of the people that have joined Bernie in 2020 to talk through how we keep working together after this campaign (win or lose). One great way to do so would be by building our own party, even if it starts city by city.

Lastly, we are in the middle of an epidemic. We have to be honest about that too. The resources and networks built up by our campaign need to follow the lead of Bernie and our unions to help build the struggle and mutual-aid that will get us through this.

The Republicans and The Democrats have no plan for this. They just sank over $1 Trillion in a bailout for Wall Street while ignoring the rest of us (again). Did I mention we need our own party?

If our campaign demonstrates leadership in navigating this epidemic, and working that into the campaign: we stand to set ourselves apart from Biden, Trump, and every other bourgeois politician.

Thats how we move forward instead of running away.

Post Script: on Comradely Debate

Comrades, we are a tiny section of US society. Every comrade is precious and we need to remember that when discussing politics with one another. I need all hands on deck for this campaign, the struggle against the epidemic, and the unknown struggles to come.

It has to be said that Dustin Guastella’s recent article came off as extremely aggressive. At a minimum, I’m surprised that Jacobin didn’t have him edit the tone of the article. This may have been unintentional. But just as I mentioned that comrades need to be aware of unintentional dog-whistles around issues of the oppressed: we also need to make sure we are always creating inviting and inclusive space for political debate.

If we publish articles, or discuss things in person, and state that folks who want a third party are: “sectarians” that promote “wacky proposals” and create “chaos”, then we aren’t making everyone feel respected. Instead, we are silencing comrades and injecting venom into what should be open debate.

I confess, this is actually my second draft for this article. In my first draft, I was responding in-kind with the same snark. But that only adds fuel to the fire. I want the focus to be on the ideas themselves.

I am for open debate. We need it to:

  • Make more folks feel welcome.
  • Make comrades feel respected.
  • Give everyone a chance to hear out all possible ideas so we can democratically decide on the best way to mobilize.

I look forward to continuing this discussion.

Born and raised in Chicago to immigrant parents. A member of the ISO from 2006–2010. DSA member since 2018. Revolutionary socialist for life.