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Where Does the Sanders Movement Go From Here?

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Of all the Democratic primary postmortems I have read, the smartest is from Communication Workers of America official Bob Master. Exploring the various success and failures of the Sanders movement, he notes its potentially historic message legitimizing socialism in American politics at a time when capitalism is immersed in a long-term crisis. He then thinks on where the movement goes from here. He provides short summaries of each point and then longer thoughts about each. I am going to just quote the short summaries and provide a little commentary of my own.

1. A new national left party or a single unified organization is unlikely to emerge from the Sanders movement, but let’s build something. The Occupy encampments changed the global political discourse, but the movement’s longer-term potential was squandered by its rejection of organization-building, an anti-leadership obsession with “horizontality,” and an aversion to program. Preoccupation with “holding space” and with decentralized direct action made it impossible to create the Occupy equivalent of SNCC or SDS—an organization that could have carried forward the anti-Wall Street mobilization even after state violence dismantled the encampments. We shouldn’t make those mistakes again.

Yes on all fronts. Occupy was doomed to failure as a movement for the reasons Master states. Presumably most of the Occupy activists were deeply committed to Sanders. But of course Sanders vastly expanded upon that base. Whoever wants to be active in leftist politics absolutely needs to be committed to movement building and concrete goals. And yes, that means verticality in leadership, at least to some extent. If nothing comes of the Sanders movement in the next 4 years except grumbling about Clinton, that would be incredibly disappointing. But I do think something will come of it because the problems of inequality and disillusion that led to both Occupy and Sanders are not going away.

2. The question of race must be dealt with upfront. In order to gain credibility among constituencies of color which were reluctant to back Sanders, the new formation must unify the agendas of the Occupy, Black Lives and immigration rights movements. It must prominently engage key community and political leaders of color like Representatives Keith Ellison and Raul Grijalva, Ohio State Senator Nina Turner, and NYC Councilmember Jumaane Williams (who led the legislative fight against “stop and frisk”), former NAACP leader Ben Jealous, and intellectuals like Michelle Alexander, who is probably the most significant intellectual influence on millennial activists, both white and black. And from the start, the post-Sanders formation must take up issues that are immediately relevant to constituencies of color—police accountability, stopping the attack on Voting Rights, or comprehensive immigration reform, to suggest just a few examples.

Yes, yes, yes. This was of course Bernie’s primary weakness. I fully believe that whatever gets built, it will be inclusive of racial inequality because that’s what most of the people in the Sanders movement also want, even if their candidate wasn’t so great at talking about it or even recognizing it as crucial.

3. The new movement should mobilize around a limited agenda that takes on issues of economic and racial exploitation on the one hand, and the reclamation of our democracy on the other. Such an agenda should be clearly understood as an effort to hold the new President and elected Democrats at every level accountable to the yearnings of tens of millions of Americans for racial and economic justice. This issue mobilization must begin—starting at the Democratic National Convention—by uniting forces both inside and outside the Sanders campaign to kill the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement (TPP) once and for all. This is not only the right policy, but critically important for the electoral success of the Democratic Party. So called “free trade” embodies the deep contradiction between the neoliberal bankers and technocrats, on the one side, who have dominated Democratic Party economic policy-making since the Clinton Administration, and its traditional working class base, on the other. It is also now the Party’s most vulnerable Achilles heel with white working class voters, whose sense of betrayal and economic hopelessness drive Trump’s right-wing, nationalistic populism and reduce Clinton’s support among these voters to abysmally low levels. Sanders has already pushed Clinton to rhetorical opposition to the TPP; in the run up to the convention, Sanders and Clinton should work together to extract a promise from Obama that the treaty will not be taken up in the lame duck session.

Again, completely agreed. Concrete goals are a must. Opposing the TPP is an obvious target. And even if that attempt fails to win, as I fear it will, new goals must be quickly articulated and organized around.

4. Launch a massive program of grassroots political and economic education. In the waning decades of the 19th century, the Populist movement deployed a small army of “lecturers” who traveled across the Plains talking to farmers about issues of debt, credit, monetary policy and the power of Wall Street over their lives. This popular education helped build the mass base for a reform agenda that ultimately culminated in the sweeping changes of the New Deal. Our movement requires a similar commitment to mass popular education.

For this point, I highly recommend reading Master’s further explanation of what he means, which includes small group trainings and popular education methods. In other words, it’s more than just the internet. I’m not totally sure how you reach mass numbers of people through these methods, but then it’s not really necessary. Given that it only takes small numbers of people to really draw attention to an issue that sometimes can then lead to something much larger, engaging in vigorous forms of education among activists, union members, and others who are socially conscious can have a pretty big cascading effect.

5. An openly socialist current should be built within the new movement. Senator Sanders’ refusal to retreat from his identification with democratic socialism certainly ranks as one of the most remarkable features of the campaign. To those of us who can remember “Commie” as a schoolyard epithet and “duck and cover” air raid drills, let alone labor’s bitter internecine battles over U.S. imperial misadventures in Vietnam and Central America, Sanders’ open embrace of socialism and the absence of “red-baiting” in the campaign has been almost beyond imagination.

Despite what a few Sanders supporters want to believe about Clinton, there has been very little red-baiting, although that would have changed big time had Bernie won the nomination and the Republicans gone after him. The open embrace of socialism is an absolute positive, even if the definitions are quite vague at this point.

6. The “political revolution” must be driven down to the level of school boards, city councils, county legislatures, state government, and Congress. The goal is not to take over the Democratic Party, but to build an infrastructure—an independent political party—comprised of activists and elected officials, both inside and outside the Democratic Party, which can carry the agenda of the Sanders campaign forward. For the last two decades, the Working Families Party, now operating in 11 states, has worked to build the political capacity to challenge corporate, right-wing Democrats, and to help defeat right-wing Republicans in general elections. Operating as a coalition of unions, community organizations and independent progressives, a model which can leverage substantial resources, the Working Families Party has had its greatest success at the state and local level. The Party’s endorsement of Sanders was its first such national endorsement, and created some tension with several of its labor affiliates, most of which had endorsed Clinton. Nevertheless, the WFP’s political and ideological agenda is tightly aligned with that of Sanders; in a sense, Sanders is the national candidate who embodies the Party’s foundational aspirations.

Master is a big player in the Working Families Party, so I think he plays down the real problems with the WFP, which is that it is so reliant on unions for funding that it had to endorse Andrew Cuomo because that’s what the unions wanted, completely eroding its credibility with much of the left. So I’m pretty skeptical of the WFP-style method. But I do of course absolutely agree with taking the fight to the local and state level and we need to talk more seriously about how to do that, including potentially through organizations like the WFP.

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