Fringe Campaign Makes California Primary Relevant Again
Photo by Kelvin Brown Sr.
By Paul Rosenberg, Senior Editor
In May 17, Sen. Bernie Sanders spoke to campaign rally at California State University Dominguez Hills in Carson at what he called “the beginning of the final push to win California.” He promised that “we are in till the last ballot is cast.”
California rarely has an opportunity to have its voice heard in selecting a presidential candidate, and now is no different, as the level of last-minute distractions mounts to a fever pitch. Accusations of violence by Sanders supporters at the recent Nevada state convention are a case in point, The accusations, reported as fact, included claims of chairs being thrown— a charge that Snopes.com labeled “false.” And so, it seems fitting that we Californians should do our best to set aside the flurry of distractions and focus as deeply as possible on what’s really at stake.
A year ago, the political world was expecting an election contest between dynasties—Bush versus Clinton. But now, the entire foundation of existing elite governance is being called into question. On the Republican side, George W. Bush’s record remains an unmitigated disaster. On the Democratic side, Barack Obama’s 2008 promise of “hope and change” has only marginally been fulfilled. And, the dark side of Bill Clinton’s presidency—NAFTA, mass incarceration and ‘welfare reform’—looms much larger than ever before. So, unlike eight years ago, Hillary Clinton rarely refers back to that era. Instead, she prefers to blur the considerable differences that separate her from Sanders.
Early in his speech, Sanders pointed back to his campaign’s beginnings, labeled as “a fringe candidacy.”
“We were 60 points behind Secretary [Hillary] Clinton in the polls, we had no political organization, no money, very little name recognition,” He noted. “A lot has changed in the past year. As of today we have won 19 state primaries and caucuses and over 9 million votes…. I think we’re going to win here in California.”
A few minutes later Sanders’ announced he had won the Oregon primary, raising his total to 20 state victories.
Sanders said he was “especially proud” that in every race, “we have received a significant majority of the votes of young people.”
“We are winning people 45 years of age or younger,” he said, “And what that tells me is that our vision, a vision of social justice, economic justice, racial justice and environmental justice. That is the future of this country.”
Win or lose, Sanders has already indelibly altered the political dynamics by giving voice to that vision.
“Sanders can win California,” labor lawyer Diane Middleton said. “Tens of thousands of voters are wildly enthusiastic about his platform: war as a last resort (not first alternative), an end to the rigged economy that only works for the 1%, universal healthcare, free college tuition, ending private prisons for profit, no more Citizens United. The majority of the American people support all of these ideas, as proven by one poll after another.”
The Mistake of Running for Obama’s Third Term
Indeed, Bill Clinton’s first national pollster, Stan Greenberg, has been making a related argument throughout this election cycle: that Democrats need to be bold, think big and speak frankly about the obstacles to overcome.
In an interview with Huffington Post this past October, on the release of his book, America Ascendant, he warned that it was a mistake for Democrats to run for President Barack Obama’s “third term,” as Hillary Clinton has seemingly done.
“That’s not what the country wants,” Greenberg said. “It’s not what the base of the Democratic Party wants…. The Democratic Party is waiting for a president who will articulate the scale of the problems we face and challenge them to address it.”
Obama’s mistake had been to downplay the scale of the obstacles, he said.
“Reform politics is exciting, once you have a leader educating the country on the scale of the problems, and the fact there’s a path and a way to bring reform and change,” he said.
“When you talk about Bernie Sanders, about what he wants to do, people say, ‘Well that can’t be done,’” said Julian Burger, president of the Progressive Democratic Club. “Then you say, ‘What’s wrong with trying? What if someone tried and least got 10 percent? You know that’s a lot better than nothing…. So I think people should be aware the fact that at least one candidate is not throwing up his or her hands and saying there’s nothing we can do. And we’re just going to have to live with it.”
“For me, this has become the values election,” said Sanders supporter Robert Farrell, a former Los Angeles city councilman. “What you believe? Why do you believe it? And, who do you think are the best people, the best man, the best woman, to carry forth what’s in your heart and what you value as an individual?”
This is particularly important in reaching those who don’t often vote. The fact that the Sanders campaign has activated so many voters really excites Farrell.
“Each and every state we go to, we’re bringing about change in the way the Democratic Party function in that particular state,” he said.
The problem is that Sanders is up against a century-old voting deficit. Ever since eligible voter participation peaked in the late 1800s, America’s participation rates have lagged significantly, and with a decided class bias. In the South, this was driven by black disenfranchisement efforts, which disenfranchised poor whites as well. But significant, if less drastic, declines occurred in the North, too. In 2008, Democratic participation shot up momentarily, spurred by a combination of revulsion against eight years of Bush-Cheney and two potentially historic candidates. But two years later, Democratic participation plummeted, allowing Republicans to make unprecedented gains, not just in Congress but in state legislatures, where they aggressively gerrymandered legislative districts. This, effectively blocked majority rule for the rest of decade in many locales. That result, in turn, further depressed participation—augmented by a variety of voter suppression laws—which is why Sanders faces a particularly steep barrier.
Yet, he remains undeterred.
“This campaign understands a very, very important historical lesson,” Sanders said. “That lesson is that no real change has ever occurred in our country from the top on down. It has always been from the bottom on up.”
He went on to cite a series of examples, from the fight to organize labor and create the American middle class, to the fight against slavery and segregation, to the movement for women’s equality, to the much more recent and more rapid victory of gay marriage, and the ongoing struggle for a $15-an-hour minimum wage.
“If five years ago somebody stood up here and said, ‘Bernie, you know this seven-and-a-quarter minimum wage, that’s really awful; that’s terrible, we’ve got to raise it to 15 bucks an hour,’ the person next to him would have said, ‘Fifteen dollars an hour! You are nuts! You’re thinking too radically. You’re an extremist,’” Sanders said “But then what happened—and we’ve got some of them here—workers in the fast food industry went out on strike. Workers in McDonald’s and in Burger King and in Wendy’s and in Subway, and all these places, they told their community and they told the world, they cannot live on seven-and-a-quarter an hour, and then you know what happened, after the strikes and demonstrations, in Seattle, here in Los Angeles, in San Francisco: $15 dollars an hour. And, if I have anything to say about it, and as president I will: $15 an hour in every state in this country.”
The Democratic Challenge
The challenge faced by Sanders and his supporters is translating that enthusiasm and commitment into a broader agenda and a more institutionalized form, particularly when institutions as a whole have long been so seriously compromised.
“My evaluation of Bernie is that I like everything he says, but he doesn’t have any way to get it done,” said Pat Nave, who is supporting Hillary Clinton. “It’s not going to happen…. Back in ‘68, I was at the Democratic National Convention in Chicago. That’s where Diane (his wife) and I met. We hounded Hubert Humphrey all through the campaign, made sure that Richard Nixon got elected, I don’t think that was our intent, but we were just so mad at Johnson and Humphrey for the Vietnam War that we shot ourselves in the foot and made sure we got Richard Nixon as a president.”
The same thing happened with Nixon’s re-election in 1972, he went on to say.
“I’ve had enough of principled candidates who have no pathway to winning,” he said. “I no longer wish to be a martyr.”
There are two problems with this analysis. First, Clinton has no idea how to get her agenda passed, either. The past six years prove that. Second, Sanders might actually be a stronger candidate than Clinton, as months of head-to-head polling against Trump suggests. Sanders thinks mobilizing people power can have impact, but Nave reminds us how Republicans ignored Obama’s popular support from the moment he took office. He’s got a point.
But Obama never really tried to mobilize his supporters to influence Republican lawmakers directly. There was never any Democratic effort remotely like the Tea Party effort to shut down Democrats’ town hall meetings in the summer of 2009. That’s not to say Democrats should have bombarded Republicans with death panel-style lies. But it is to say that the Fight For Fifteen movement could have the capacity to further expand the influence it’s already had—influence far beyond what anyone imagined when the movement first began.
All this suggests is that—for all its intensity— the debate between Sanders’ and Clinton’s supporters has yet to fully flesh itself out.
Nave pointed out that in Wisconsin 18 percent Sanders’ supporters didn’t bother to vote for any of the down ballot candidates. This allowed a conservative Republican to be elected to the state supreme court. The failure to educate his voters on this score indicates a significant gap.
But Burger argued that even if Sanders is not the Democratic nominee, what he’s accomplished is monumental.
“It’s huge,” Burger said. “Look at Hillary Clinton. Everything she was talking about at the beginning of the campaign was the same crap that she was talking about in 2008, there were no changes, and then Bernie Sanders comes into the race.”
The result has been a debate about how— not whether—to move in a more progressive direction.
“This is a great opportunity to make some real tremendous changes this country,” Burger concluded.
To bring that about, Sanders argues, the Democratic Party itself needs to be revolutionized from the bottom up, as well as infused with new blood. It could also benefit by absorbing the lessons of its more successful allies, such as the ILWU.
“I’m working with longshoremen for the first time with the Sanders campaign and I am absolutely fascinated,” Farrell said. “It’s really something to see representative leadership and a constituency that really is comfortable with their leadership, and they’re doing something special.”
No other union has as much democratic accountability built into its basic structure—it’s been an enduring source of strength for more than 80 years. It’s just the sort of example one might hope the Democratic Party is prepared to embrace, if it wants to be a lifelong home to all the younger voters that Sanders has motivated and inspired.