From Crisis to Revolt: The Sanders Campaign

From the September/October 2016 #852

by Brian Escobar


Pro-Bernie Sanders protestors


The Sanders campaign came out of a chain of events starting with the financial crisis of 2008 and government bank bailouts. Soon after the bailouts and after eight years of the dismal Bush administration, the election of Obama raised expectations among Left-leaning Democrats. Disappointment grew with Obama’s reversals on campaign promises, appointing the same Goldman Sachs crowd to head the powerful Treasury Department and other top posts, championing the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP), suggesting cuts in Social Security and allowing Arctic oil drilling (among other issues).

With hopes raised and soon disappointed—a pattern foreshadowing revolt again and again in history—Occupy Wall Street (OWS) spread to thousands of cities around the world within weeks. Before it was crushed by police on the orders of mayors, the movement managed to increase awareness of wealth inequality, introduce a class analysis of the 99% vs. the 1% and galvanize popular opinion on questions about capitalism and democracy.

In 2015, Obama worked with Republicans to push “fast track” legislation for trade agreements like the TPP through Congress, over the opposition of the labor movement, public opinion, many Democrats and Greens. A few months later the independent Senator from Vermont, Bernie Sanders, launched his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president.

Sanders employed the language and themes of OWS and, for the first time in recent memory, a presidential nominee violated the cardinal rule of Democrats and Republicans alike. Whereas most Democrats and Republicans refuse to speak of any class but the ill-defined middle class, Sanders acknowledged class conflict, speaking of the “billionaire class” and how their interests diverged from everyone else’s.

Sanders spoke in the distinct agitational rhetorical tradition of US socialists exemplified by his hero, the late Socialist Party presidential candidate Eugene Debs. Sanders’ speeches are exercises in agitation, unlike Obama’s focus on conciliation or Hillary Clinton’s didacticism.

Sanders’ success surprised everyone, from Left to Right. With small donation fundraising, averaging $27 per contribution, a self-described democratic socialist was able to take on the pre-ordained nominee and give her a run for her Wall Street- and Silicon Valley-sourced money. Party insiders who prioritized party loyalty over policy and the will of their base were baffled.

Unions that held member votes on who to endorse in the primary, such as National Nurses United and Communications Workers of America, endorsed Sanders. Unions without membership votes backed Clinton.

But Sanders’ message resonated beyond the Democratic Party. In Syracuse, independents and Greens, hitherto unexcited by Democratic candidates, were among the most committed volunteers.

Coordination between the Democratic National Committee, the Clinton campaign, and media, combined with widespread understaffing of polling places, bizarre rules (like the coin tosses to apportion delegates in Iowa), superdelegates, and mysterious voter registration changes such as in Brooklyn, all contributed to Clinton’s victory over Sanders. We will never know who would have won a fair primary.


In the wake of Sanders’ endorsement of Clinton, the coalition of people he brought together is being tested. Most of the organizations that backed Sanders have now endorsed Clinton. The exceptions, like National Nurses United (NNU), Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) and Socialist Alternative (SAlt), either back no one (NNU and DSA) or back Jill Stein (SAlt).

The same divisions exist among individual Sanders supporters. Many plan to vote for Clinton for fear of Trump. Others plan to vote Green, while a few intend to abstain from the presidential race.

These divisions derive from differences in strategy more than differences on policies. They depend on answers to questions like: Can the Democratic Party be reformed, or at least be a vehicle for insurgent campaigns? Can a third party become a major party (Abe Lincoln was the last time)? Is the difference between Clinton and Trump big enough (and Trump’s chances good enough?) to put a hold on working to break the two-party stranglehold that created both bad options?

I believe the answers are uncertain enough not to let them turn us against each other.

Trump must be defeated. Oppressed peoples, from undocumented immigrants to Muslims and all people of color, are endangered by both Trump and Clinton, but most would argue more so by Trump.

In addition to the proto-fascist horrors he emboldens, the Left does better defining itself against liberals in power than against the Right in power. When the Right is in power ideological confusion about the difference between Left and liberal undermines the growth of a distinct Left base, from which a new Left party might form or an existing Left party might grow.

Yet opposition to the horrors of Trump cannot be allowed to legitimize neoliberalism, interventionism and other Clinton policies. We cannot betray the social movements that created the opportunity for the Sanders campaign to go so far by selling them out for Clinton.

Most non-elites know the photo-op displays of loyalty and unity behind a coronated candidate at the Democratic National Convention are a sham and not real democratic process. We must reject the anti-democratic processes in the Democratic and Republican Parties. If Trump is the only one pointing out the sham (with his own sham “straight talk”), then people who know it’s empty will turn to Trump and the Right. This is why we must dissent from the erosion of democracy and call out the bullshit. Otherwise we cede that to Trump and future Trumps and, if anything, increase Trump’s chances of winning.


Sanders is forming multiple organizations to run and support “progressive” candidates within the Democratic Party. His own path, dependent on both Vermont’s unusual election laws that make independents and third parties viable and also his decades-long experience as an independent in Congress, will not be replicated. No one now in the Democratic Party candidate pipeline calls themselves a democratic socialist or has as strong a history decrying the rightward direction of the party. Any future Sanders-like Democratic candidates are likely only just now considering a run for local office.

The legacy of the Sanders campaign will not be a single effort. Leftists working within and outside the Democratic Party have an odd synergy. Since the Sanders campaign started, new registrations are up for both the Green Party and DSA (who pursue an inside-outside strategy with the Democrats of backing Left candidates within any party).

Now let us gird ourselves for the fights after November—learn political skills, educate each other on the policies we need, build (and join) independent organizations and media, and become accustomed to practicing solidarity among all exploited and oppressed people.

No matter who the next president is, whether it’s a neoliberal warhawk or a proto-fascist ham, allow “no honeymoon.” We must oppose what they represent immediately on the day of the inauguration and set the tone for the next four years on our terms. No tolerance for undemocratic neoliberalism, deportations and military interventions; no tolerance for restoring the old racial, ability, sexual, and gender hierarchies and hateful fear of difference. Enough!


Brian was an organizer with Syracuse 4 Sanders and a Sanders pledged delegate to the DNC. In August he joined SPC’s staff collective and, unrelatedly, joined Democratic Socialists of America.