If Sanders Loses to Clinton, What Happens to the Political Revolution? 3 Scenarios

Part 1 of this piece dealt with whether or not pro-Sanders and Sanders-skeptics could work towards common ends despite our differences.

What happens to the Sanders campaign after the nomination fight is over has yet to be determined; its future is to a large extent what campaigners make of it since the official campaign’s three offices (one in Burlington, Iowa, and New Hampshire) can hardly control 100,000 volunteers in 3,500 groups in all but 12 of the country’s 435 Congressional districts.


If Sanders loses to Clinton, his campaign faces three basic evolutionary possibilities:

  1. The Sanders campaign serves as the breeding ground for future third-party or independent electoral efforts at the local or state level. We’ll call this the Rainbow Coalition scenario.
  2. The Sanders campaign’s remnants remain wedded to the Democratic Party as an arena of struggle and never ventures beyond the confines of the two-party system. We’ll call this the EPIC scenario.
  3. The Green Party ends up not only capturing would-be Sanders vote in November 2016 but also a significant chunk of his grassroots activist base. We’ll call this the Green Party scenario.

Living struggles rarely produce such cut-and-dried outcomes but for the purpose of discerning how to continue the fight to end the political domination of the billionaire class beyond the Democratic convention in 2016, it’s best to simplify the huge range of outcomes into as few scenarios as possible in a way that the clearly and sharply defines the political choices that confront us now.

Jesse Jackson formed the Rainbow Coalition in 1988 out of his 1984 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. Proponents of the sheepdog thesis often cite the Rainbow Coalition in debates surrounding the Sanders campaign as proof positive that working within the Democratic Party can only stifle the creation of new independent or third parties since the coalition never broke from or left the Democratic Party. These comrades portray the Democratic Party as a political black hole – get too close to the event horizon and you’ll inevitably be sucked in, your socialist principles ripped apart at the sub-atomic level and smashed together as you endorse increasingly right-wing Democrats for president (McGovern, Mondale, Dukakis, Clinton, Obama, Clinton again) for ever and ever until the universe ends trillions of years from now.

You don’t need to be Stephen Hawking to see that this view is plainly wrong. For example, unions affiliated with the main union federation in this country, the AFL-CIO – which has been at the center of the black hole of Democratic Party politics for more than half a century – endorsed socialist Kshama Sawant against Democratic candidates in Seattle local elections not once but twice and did so without breaking from the overall orbit of the Democratic Party or forming a new third or labor party. The Rainbow Coalition’s failure to split from the Democratic Party has nothing to do with the so-called ‘innate nature’ of the Democratic Party or ‘immutable, iron laws’ or ‘logic’ governing political efforts within the party’s framework and everything to do with the (shitty) choices left-wing coalition activists made.

Furthermore, the Rainbow Coalition in Vermont did lead to a break with the two-party system and the creation of America’s only effective third party operating at the state level, so far from bolstering the case of the anti-Sanders camp, the Rainbow Coalition example undermines it. But more on that in a minute – first, let’s talk about the errors made by Rainbow Coalition leftists before moving onto what some leftists got right and what we can learn from both sets of experiences and apply today.


Two trends within the revolutionary movement seized the historic opportunity that the Rainbow Coalition presented to connect socialist politics and organization with the mass base of working people and oppressed groups that found Jesse Jackson appealing – Maoists (such as Line of March) and Trotskyists (such as Peter Camejo). But in seizing this opportunity they fell into opportunism either by developing illusions in Jackson as a political leader or deceiving themselves into thinking that the forces in motion around Jackson’s candidacy would somehow spontaneously move in the direction desired by socialists, or both. As Carl Davidson, a former leader of the Communist Party (Marxist-Leninist), explained:

“I worked in both of them [Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 campaigns], and the fatal flaw was getting swept up in ‘building a movement’ rather than building lasting organizations, controlled by those in them, at the base. Jesse’s dissolution of the campaign apparatus, save for his Chicago core, was predictable, and our error was to do little or nothing on our own to create a longer-lasting organization out of the effort. Later people blamed Jesse for this, but I don’t think it was mainly his fault. He often told us, ‘My job is to shake the cherries from the tree, your job is to gather up the harvest.’”

Instead of promoting and facilitating the development of independent socialist or third-party class-struggle politics by engaging in the kind of difficult and unglamorous base-building work Davidson mentions, comrades neglected these tasks and expected either the harvest to gather itself or for Jackson to do their job as socialists for them. But neither Jackson nor his organization were socialists; neither shared even our medium-term aims much less our long-term aims; they never had an interest in breaking up the Democratic Party coalition into its constituent elements, of liberating its popular base (AFL-CIO, LGBT groups, women’s groups, Black organizations) from the political domination of its funding base (Wall Street, big corporations) for the purpose of cohering and organizing a socialist-led mass party of working people and oppressed groups. So when Jackson called it quits and wound down the Rainbow Coalition instead of gearing up to fight for and create a national third party, comrades who spent their precious time, money, and unpaid labor in day-to-day campaigning were left with nothing to show for their efforts. Nothing, that is, except smaller, older, and increasingly demoralized, right-ward moving socialist organizations with less political influence than they started out with (not that they had much to begin with).

While the Maoists and Trotskyists fell into opportunism and in practice stopped fighting for their medium-term goals by letting their day-to-day tasks consume all of their attention, another group of activists led by Burlington mayor Bernie Sanders known then as the Progressive Coalition joined, endorsed, and supported Jesse Jackson’s Rainbow Coalition – and here is the critical difference! – without surrendering their independent viewpoint and organization, without prettifying the monstrosity that is the Democratic Party or relaxing their hostility to its corporate paymasters, without forgetting for a second that they were engaged in a one-time (actually two-time) tactical maneuver appropriate only because of the unique, unusual conditions created by Jackson’s candidacies. This is not to suggest that they didn’t make mistakes or were somehow error-free, but they got the basics right.

As a result of the Progressive Coalition’s thoroughgoing and prolonged efforts, the Vermont Rainbow Coalition became convinced through its own bitter experience that working within the confines of the Democratic Party for progressive ends was a dead end and, on the basis of this experience, decided break with the Democratic Party whole hog and merge with the Progressive Coalition to eventually found the Vermont Progressive Party (VPP), the country’s only successful third party of the left operating at the state level. Today, the VPP has seven members in the state legislature, three state senators, and enough clout to nearly force Vermont’s Democratic governor to establish a single-payer health care system.

The destruction of the two-party monopoly over state politics in Vermont would not have happened if the Progressive Coalition had dogmatically stuck to its principle of independence from the Democratic Party and stood aside from the Jesse Jackson campaigns of 1984 and 1988, if it had not worked closely with the Vermont Rainbow Coalition in the 1986, 1988, and 1990 elections to elect Rainbow Democratic, independent, and Progressive Coalition candidates. In fact, the alliance with the Rainbow Coalition is what allowed the Burlington-based Progressive Coalition to break out of the straightjacket of local politics, a task that is staring Socialist Alternative, Kshama Sawant, and her progressive allies in Seattle in the face today as they struggle to win the right to enact local rent control ordinances from the two-party controlled Washington state legislature.

Socialist Alternative in Washington now has a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to unite with the Sanders campaign in the same manner and on the same exceptional, one-time-only basis as the Progressive Coalition did with the Rainbow Coalition in Vermont for the purpose of creating a similarly powerful progressive force in state politics in conjunction with the Washington Democratic Party’s progressive caucus which endorsed Sanders and the over 10,000 Sanders supporters in the Seattle area. Will they seize this opportunity to lay the foundation for a robust Washington Progressive Party and take the first step in dismantling the two-party monopoly over the Washington state legislature, or will they let this moment slip by and preserve the two-party racket, thereby facilitating the EPIC scenario?

The EPIC scenario – which all sides in the Sanders debate ought to agree is the worst-case scenario – is a reference to when socialist and author of The Jungle Upton Sinclair did exactly what the anti-Sanders crowd on the left wrongly claims is impossible for Sanders to do today: win the Democratic primary to become the party’s general election candidate by means of a grassroots campaign among working people. But it is what happened to the Sinclair campaign after he lost the general election that is of interest to us here.

The year was 1933: the Great Depression was in full swing, 700,000 able-bodied Californians were unemployed and going hungry even as the state’s crops were being burned en masse to keep produce prices from collapsing further. Sinclair, who regularly won 50,000 protest votes on the Socialist Party (SP) ticket in races for Senate and Governor, saw that the SP was going nowhere fast as a political force or viable third party despite American capitalism’s greatest, worst, most protracted crisis ever. Since a symbolic protest campaign on the SP ticket wouldn’t help a single jobless starving worker, Sinclair switched his voter registration to the Democratic Party to run for governor on their ticket after a local Democratic official urged him to do so after estimating that Sinclair could probably win half the Democratic electorate in the primary.

Instead of running a protest campaign to score propaganda points, for the first time Sinclair was running to win.

Sinclair’s campaign platform was as simple as it was radical – End Poverty in California (EPIC). It was a detailed and compelling socialist plan of action to end the Great Depression in the state by replacing production for profit with production for use through state-sponsored cooperatives that would put legions of unemployed people back to work producing and distributing necessities like food while supplanting the increasingly inoperative capitalist economy. These cooperatives would be financed both by a progressive income and wealth tax on the rich and major corporations.

To promote the EPIC plan and generate interest in his campaign, Sinclair published a short book in October 1933 entitled I, Governor of California and How I Ended Poverty: A True Story of the Future outlining not only his EPIC plan but a then-fictional grassroots campaign that would miraculously propel Sinclair into the governor’s mansion. To his surprise, the book sold like hotcakes and became the state’s bestseller with 10,000 copies sold in two weeks. Soon, Sinclair’s fantasy grassroots campaign became a reality as hundreds of local EPIC clubs were set up all over the state, EPIC rallies of 5,000 and 10,000 to hear Sinclair speeches were organized, and EPIC began publishing its own daily newspaper with a circulation of 500,000 to circumvent the corporate news blackout surrounding Sinclair (95% of the state’s newspapers endorsed his Republican opponent in the general election). Ten months of primary campaigning by EPIC doubled the number of registered Democrats in the state as 350,000 new voters registered to support Sinclair’s candidacy. On primary day, 50 EPIC candidates were elected to run on the Democratic ticket for seats in the state legislature and Sinclair garnered 436,000 votes, steamrolling his three establishment-backed primary opponents with more votes than all of them put together.

How did the SP and the Communist Party (CP) react to the development of this mass pro-socialist movement of working people spearheaded by socialist who won almost as many votes statewide in the gubernatorial election in 1934 as the SP’s Norman Thomas won nationally in the 1932 presidential election? What did the SP and CP do in response to the unprecedented all-out mobilization by big business and Hollywood moguls to defeat Sinclair in the general election, including the creation of the first modern attack ads, the first mass direct mail campaign, and a $10 million corporate slush fund to finance these efforts? They condemned Sinclair and his followers for departing from the great socialist principle of independence from the Democratic Party and ran candidates against him in the general election, garnering 0.13% of the vote for the SP and 0.25% for the CP.

But splitting the working-class, socialist vote and failing to show even elementary class solidarity by defending Sinclair and EPIC from the avalanche of lies and slander churned out by the establishment were the least of their crimes. By spurning rather than embracing EPIC, the SP and CP aided the process of EPIC’s absorption by the California Democratic Party. Instead of joining EPIC to shape and lead it from within to become an organization with an identity and elected leadership structure of its own (separate and apart from the Democratic Party), or partnering with EPIC the way the Progressive Coalition in Vermont allied itself with the Rainbow Coalition, or pushing to turn EPIC itself into a political party, the SP and CP condemned EPIC and were, in turn, condemned by EPIC’s supporters as demonstrably worthless sects.

By sticking to their principles the SP and CP failed to advance their principles. By refusing to dirty themselves and their spotless red banners by struggling within the pigsty known as the Democratic Party alongside Sinclair and EPIC for independent working-class politics and organization, they helped save the two-party monopoly over California’s political system from being destroyed by a socialist-led working-class insurgency. Today, the Green Party, Socialist Alternative, and the International Socialist Organization are following in the ill-fated footsteps of the 1930s-era California SP and CP and making the Democratic Party’s absorption of the Sanders campaign more rather than less likely.

The last and final scenario is the Green Party scenario in which significant numbers of Sanders campaigners join and campaign for the Green Party in 2016 and beyond. This is undoubtedly the outcome most favored by the Green Party and it is also the least likely to occur in part thanks to the vitriolic attacks on Sanders by the Green Party’s Jill Stein, Howie Hawkins, and John Halle since their main practical effect is to drive away rather than attract those who are today campaigning for Sanders against Clinton. So while it is likely that Stein’s 2016 vote will be significantly higher than her 2012 vote because of Sanders’ Democratic primary challenge just as Hawkins’ 2014 vote in New York governor’s race tripled compared to 2010 because of Zephyr Teachout’s primary challenge to Governor Andrew Cuomo, it is just as likely that the Green Party’s active membership will not grow out of the 2016 Sanders campaign in the same way it failed to grow out of the 2014 Teachout campaign. The recent and forthcoming growth of the Green Party vote is electoral spillover caused by splashy Democratic Party primary fights and not the result of significant social and class forces shifting their political allegiance leftwards nor the product of the kind of successful third-party organizing at the local grassroots level that moved upwards to the state level as in Vermont.

But the main reason the Green Party scenario won’t come to pass isn’t because of Jill Stein’s nasty rhetoric but because the Green Party remains firmly committed to a self-defeating failure-perpetuating strategy of running perennial fringe/spoiler campaigns. It’s the same running-to-lose strategy Sanders had to abandon to win his first election in 1981 and that his old Liberty Union Party clings to today even though it has led to their defeat in every race they have participated in for the last 45 years (with two exceptions).

Sanders supporters are not interested in running to lose over and over again, year after year, decade after decade because they’re not principle-mongering leftists but progressive-minded pragmatists. Sanders raised more than 15 times the amount of money Stein’s 2012 campaign raised in a year in just three months and conjured up a grassroots army of supporters whose size and scope easily dwarfed that of the 2000 Ralph Nader campaign because he is running to win while they were running to lose.

With the Green Party scenario all but ruled out, the post-Democratic convention Sanders campaign will most likely develop into some combination of the Rainbow Coalition scenario and the EPIC scenario, a reflection of the campaign’s geographic and demographic unevenness and the undecided attitude among Sanders supporters toward with the Democratic Party as an institution beyond the 2016 election cycle. Of course what Sanders does after the Democratic convention will be critical to the campaign’s post-primary evolution in the event of his defeat, but there is zero evidence that he prefers to repeat the EPIC scenario over the Rainbow Coalition scenario, i.e. that he wants his campaign to be swallowed up and digested by the party he is using to gain ballot access. Consider the political meaning of the following facts, both past and present:

  • A major reason why the VPP exists in the first place is because of Sanders’ role in authoring the Rainbow Coalition scenario. While he helped Jackson carry Vermont – the whitest state in the nation – in the 1988 Democratic presidential primary, he brought the Burlington-based Progressive Coalition and the statewide Rainbow Coalition together, simultaneously facilitating independent/third-party politics while working temporarily within the framework of the Democratic Party.
  • On the eve of his announcement that he would run for the 2016 Democratic presidential nomination, he sent comradely greetings to a far left electoral conference attended by maybe 200 people that reiterated his support for political efforts outside the two-party system.
  • He continues to describe himself as an independent and not a Democrat even though he is running for the party’s presidential nomination.
  • He continues to criticize the Democratic Party for failing to fight for the working class even though he is running for the party’s presidential nomination.
  • He continues to say that the Democratic Party is not the party of the working class even though he is running for the party’s presidential nomination.

These are not the actions of a political leader who plans on making the Democratic Party his future home, who thinks the party is capable of reform, or who is encouraging his followers to mistakenly think that taking over the Democratic Party is a worthwhile and realistic strategic orientation for progressive forces in this country. The above facts are what make Sanders as a political leader and the insurgent campaign he is leading very different in its political essence from the primary campaigns waged by Jesse Jackson and Dennis Kucinich – both of them lifelong Democratic Party loyalists – despite similarities in outward form between the three efforts. Solidarity’s Dan La Botz is absolutely correct when he claims the 2016 Sanders campaign “challenges all preconceptions” precisely because it is an exceedingly rare example of a genuine inside-outside strategy, worlds apart from the usual phony inside-outside nonsense peddled by groups like Progressive Democrats of America where insiders pretend to be outsiders and recycle empty threats to become outsiders in desperate bids for leverage in inner-Democratic Party struggles.

With 43% of state legislature races in this country going uncontested (not to mention one-party monopolization of large city elections [by Democrats] and rural elections [by Republicans]), there are huge openings for progressive grassroots independent and third-party efforts that local and state Sanders campaign groups can try to organize for and win once the Democratic Party presidential primary fight is over. Sanders’ strongest grassroots support is in the American Northeast, Northwest, and Midwest as well as California and local left political formations like Progressive Dane in Wisconsin and Richmond Progressive Alliance in California have the opportunity to follow the Vermont Progressive Coalition’s Rainbow Coalition playbook and form first networks of local progressive parties and party supporters and then, if all goes well, statewide progressive parties in their respective states.

Regardless of what Sanders himself decides to do in the future, socialists and socialist organizations can and should become leaders and drivers of this process but only if we become leaders and drivers of our local Sanders campaign groups now, before the fight with Clinton over the Democratic presidential nomination ends. The half-way house position of Socialist Alternative and Solidarity of being supportive of Sanders while not supporting and endorsing him in the primary fight guarantees that neither group will be leaders or drivers of continuing the struggle against the domination of the billionaire class beyond the end of the primary in summer of 2016 by transforming the Sanders campaign’s potential as the breeding ground for third parties and independent electoral efforts into a reality (or the beginnings of a reality). Instead, they will be largely on the outside of these developments and lagging behind them, perhaps recruiting 1s and 2s to their organizations and influencing dozens of Sanders campaigners in the process. It’d be be a shame if that is all these groups accomplish given the golden opportunity Sanders has dropped into all of our laps to gain a mass following, form viable progressive parties at the local and state level, and make the organized left in this country a politically powerful force once more.

5 responses to “If Sanders Loses to Clinton, What Happens to the Political Revolution? 3 Scenarios

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