Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century (RS21) spoke to Nivedita Majumdar, a Sanders supporter and secretary of the Professional Staff Congress, the faculty and Staff union of the City University of New York. This interview represents her personal views and was first published by the RS21 website.
The campaign has done astoundingly well given that only six months ago Bernie Sanders had negligible name recognition, was a new entrant to the Democratic Party, had no financial war chest, and in spite of that he has issued a genuine challenge to the most powerful and well-funded contender imaginable. He has won in 19 of the 44 states so far, some with formidable margins and has lost some states narrowly. At this point the delegate math, however, ensures Hillary Clinton an almost certain victory. Bernie is well poised to win a few more states, is in excellent financial position and will certainly run to the finish line. His campaign has indicated that they would take the fight to the convention in July, so it is quite likely that the Democratic Party will have a contested convention for the first time in more than 60 years.
Will Sanders’ supporters simply translate into votes for Clinton in the general election?
I believe a majority of Sanders supporters will vote for Clinton in the general election. That is to be expected after a primary, especially with the ugliness of the Trump candidacy.
The more interesting fact is that a substantial minority of his supporters have declared that they will not vote for Clinton. This is especially so with younger voters, many of whom are also quite active. These people in their young lives have only been on the receiving end of an economic system tailored to cater exclusively to the elites while stripping people of their basic rights of employment, of health care, of education. Many of them are tens of thousands of dollars in debt and most of them can’t get full-time jobs. A large number of these young people came of political age through either direct or indirect involvement in movements like Occupy, Black Lives Matter, Dreamers, and strikes and unrest in places like Wisconsin and Chicago. For others, the Bernie campaign is their first foray into the political process. Either way, Clinton’s neoliberal and militaristic agenda only elicits contempt and anger for Bernie’s young supporters.
Add to that, a progressive minority of mostly older voters that has always voted Democrat with some hesitation. They have now seen a genuinely progressive campaign, which also steered clear of the basic model of campaign financing through corporations. They have also seen the vigour with which Clinton and the corporate media have not just gone after Bernie but tried to denigrate and lampoon the very goals he has advocated for. So now there are a lot of older voters who are also thoroughly disenchanted with the Democrats. Their political horizons have changed somewhat and I believe that some portion of the more reliable party base, especially from the white working class, might abstain along with the younger cohort.
It may not ultimately make a difference how a minority of Bernie supporters votes. For now, however, the prospects of such a phenomenon are dictating the Clinton campaign strategy and their decision to not risk alienating Bernie supporters by asking him to step down. The fact that Clinton is uncertain of the support of a section of the Democratic base even when she is contesting someone like Donald Trump, is quite incredible.
What should socialists do when faced with a Trump versus Clinton match up in the general election?
Socialists should continue to do what they do –- expose both as representing the same class agenda, but with some differences on non-class issues, and to continue to organise against both. We know that people’s power is built through movements and organisations, not on the electoral arena. This raises the more salient question of why socialists like me then support the Bernie campaign. First, our support for the campaign has little to do with the particular figure of Bernie Sanders and has absolutely nothing to do with any support for the Democratic Party. We’re well aware of his shortcomings both on economic and foreign policies, and we’re certainly not deluded about the fact that the Democratic Party functions as another instrument of the ruling class. We’re invested in the campaign not because it’s from within the Democratic Party, but in spite of that fact.
A few dimensions of the campaign sets it apart from any Democratic candidacy in decades. Most important, it is the first campaign to put class issues at the very center of its agenda. Bernie keeps hammering the same point over and over –- that the system is controlled by the billionaire class. Second, in spite of running as a Democrat, Bernie is indicting the entire political class, including his own Party. His platform is that politicians are bought and paid for by the ruling class. Third, Bernie has called on the voters to make demands, real demands, not the usual hope-change clichés, but demands for concrete policies that socialists have been fighting for since the Debsian era — universal health care, free education, an overhauling of the prison system, taking money out of politics, etc. And finally, he says, very clearly, that the only way any of these things will be as achieved is through mass struggle, not by relying on elected officials.
We have been fighting for these things for decades, but in tiny, isolated groups. Bernie has suddenly given us, all of us, a national stage. All over the country, hundreds of thousands are showing up for rallies and demonstrations, scores of activists in thousands of towns and cities are routinely involved in strategy meetings, millions of small donations are rivalling Clinton’s corporate funded coffers. There is a palpable sense that the iron wall of inevitability and powerlessness is a little fractured. If as socialists we imagine that the driving force here is the desire to elect a more palatable Democrat, we’d be gravely mistaken. The possibility of a Bernie presidency serves to provide a focus for the campaign by offering it a concrete goal, but the election prospects does not account for the stunning energy of the campaign. What the Bernie campaign has managed to articulate, for the first time in half a century, is the depth of anger and contempt of a system that nurtures a corrupt ruling class at the expense of ordinary, hard-working people. As socialists, are we to remain impervious to the phenomenon because it’s not radical enough or organized enough? Surely, the onus of radicalising and organising is on us, but that can’t happen if we remain uninvolved.
To return to your question, while I believe socialists should spend no organisational energy on a Clinton-Trump contest, the imperative is a different one for the Bernie campaign. Even though there are some significant differences between Trump and Clinton, the contest remains bound within the confines of ruling class interests, while the Bernie campaign presents socialists tremendous political opportunities.
It seems like there has been a shift in American politics because of Bernie Sanders’ candidacy –- will this be sustained outside of the electoral cycle? How? How is, or will, it be reflected in workplace organising, unions, campaigns etc?
This is precisely the challenge for us. In my own union organising, I’ve seen how the political terrain has shifted because of the campaign, especially with student organising. In national polls, around of 70% of millennials are willing to elect a socialist president. Back in 2008, Obama also had strong backing among the youth, but his campaign was at pains to distance itself from the socialist label. In contrast, socialism has actually boosted Bernie’s appeal and success. I can’t imagine a more favorable environment for organising. In our community organisations, our political committees, our trade unions, we now have a great opportunity to intensify our organising drives and harness the potential of the political moment.
If the moment frizzles away, it won’t be because Bernie Sanders endorsed Clinton and moved on. It’d be because we were unable to channel the opportunity generated by the campaign. This is hard, grueling work, but as we have always known, this is the work that builds power.
It seems (from afar) that there’s been a lot more exposing of the undemocratic nature of primary system (super-delegates etc) – will anything change for future elections?
I don’t think there will be any meaningful transformation because of the experience with one election. The tendency in the Party, if anything, would be to make it even more undemocratic in order to make it immune from populist challenges. Both the Democratic and the Republican parties are largely financed by the same corporate interests, and therefore carry out the mandate of their beneficiaries to different degrees. There has to be sustained movements and a fundamental shift in the nature of the party leadership for any significant change in election rules to occur.
Sanders seems to have done better in more rural areas, when its often felt that cities are where most activism seems to take place –- how do you explain this, what hope/challenges does it present for future organising? Relatedly, how would you explain how well Clinton has done among black voters?
The geographic and racial divide in Bernie’s support base is indeed an instructive aspect of the campaign. First, we must note that the Black vote is not as monolithic as it is sometimes portrayed. Bernie did significantly better amongst African American voters in Midwestern states like Michigan and Wisconsin with strong traditions of labor organising than he did in the conservative South. His popularity among young Black voters everywhere is considerably higher compared to older Black voters.
The difference in voter response, I believe, speaks to the nature of anti-racist (and other kinds of) activism prevalent in urban areas. In the post – civil rights era, anti-racist activism in the US has largely been indifferent or even hostile to class politics. As Toure Reed has contended, liberal anti-racism, instead of connecting, actually divorces racial disparities from class inequalities. In this climate even as Bernie is more likely to draw attention to the linkages between racism and class exploitation than an Obama or a Clinton, he makes little headway. What gets lost is that minorities stand to benefit the most from universal programs like single payer health care and tuition free higher education that Bernie advocates.
Without a meaningful organisational vehicle to pursue the full array of their interests, large numbers of African Americans understandably stick with the safer alternative of the Democratic Party. This is especially the case when the veil hiding the deep-seated racism in the other party has only gotten thinner in the past decade. It must also be taken into account that while Bernie has no name recognition in the South, the Clintons have cultivated their political influence over decades based largely on a patron-client system. As a result, there is a large section of Clinton surrogates in the Black leadership who play a strong role in molding public opinion in communities.
Given all the obstacles, what stands out is not Clinton’s success with the Black vote, but the fact that the Bernie campaign has been able to challenge it so effectively. Ultimately, it is for socialists to build on the disillusionment among young and working class minorities and connect with the already existing organizing around basic issues like housing, schooling and police brutality, and together organize for a socialist alternative. The Bernie campaign has offered an unprecedented platform for this, and hopefully a beginning.