New York Times
May 28, 2020
by Bhaskar Sunkara
(Mr. Sunkara is the editor of Jacobin and the author of “The Socialist Manifesto.”)
Don’t listen to that.
We may not like him,
but we don’t want him to lose.
It’s not easy being an American socialist these days — despite the fact that Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont built a movement of millions behind ideas we have long supported, we’re now being called out as potential spoilers in the November elections.
Longtime progressives, including more than 60 veterans of the 1960s radical organization Students for a Democratic Society, describe socialists — young socialists in particular — as a privileged few who not only reject Joe Biden but are even keen to see him lose, unconcerned and likely to be unaffected by another four years of President Donald Trump.
In the most generous of these narratives, we’re well-meaning naïfs, having failed to temper our radical visions to the pragmatic necessities of achieving change in the United States. This is a timeless narrative of youthful impetuousness. It is also a skewed portrayal of what most democratic socialists are doing today.
The small but resurgent socialist movement in this country is developing a political approach that can speak to millions of alienated Americans. Like center-left liberals and progressives, during the coming presidential election and beyond we aim to defeat right-wing populism. The difference is that we refuse to do so on the centrist terms that we believe helped create it in the first place.
Balancing these imperatives will be tricky. Michael Harrington, the founder of the Democratic Socialists of America, used to say that radicals had to walk a perilous tightrope — they risked teetering off into the abyss of conventional politics on the one side or falling to sectarian irrelevance on the other.
Neither appeared to be a danger a few months ago. A democratic socialist carrying both a radical spirit and legions of supporters seemed to be headed for the White House. The Bernie Sanders campaign scored early successes in the Democratic primary season and signaled the arrival of a new coalition in American politics — young, working class and committed to egalitarian policies like Medicare for All, higher taxes on the wealthy and free child care.
“After the Nevada Blowout, It’s Bernie’s Party Now,” read a headline I wrote for Jacobin, the magazine I edit, after he won that state’s caucus in February. We all know what happened next. Centrist leaders within the Democratic Party, along with millions of ordinary voters, rallied behind Joe Biden.
Many parts of the Sanders agenda had the support of a majority of Americans, but the coalition around the campaign was narrower than we thought. Despite the Vermont senator’s strong showing, it’s still President Barack Obama’s party. For now, at least.
Last month, Mr. Sanders dropped out of the race and endorsed Mr. Biden. For democratic socialists, what for a moment looked like an expressway to power has morphed back into that familiar tightrope.
According to some progressive observers, our next steps should be simple. Donald Trump is a fundamental threat to America, and anyone refusing to vote for Mr. Biden must be indifferent to the suffering of millions. A socialist left cannot isolate itself from a broader progressive movement, the argument goes, and contending for power in a Democratic primary means respecting the results of that primary, much as Mr. Sanders has.
Most Berniecrats agree with this logic: 88 percent of those who voted for Mr. Sanders in 2016 ended up voting for the Democratic nominee, Hillary Clinton, in the general election, and there’s no reason the same won’t happen this fall. But leftists in organizations like the Democratic Socialists of America face a more difficult dilemma. They are not merely figuring out how to vote as individuals — they are weighing how to use finite institutional resources to build the political alternatives of the future.
Most socialists are cleareyed about Mr. Trump as a threat to most Americans, sowing divisions among working people and marrying populist rhetoric to policies that only further enrich his powerful friends. Nor is it uncommon to hear young leftists denounce the Republican Party as the greatest threat to progress in the United States.
I share the belief that having Joe Biden in the White House would be far less damaging to most workers than another four years of Donald Trump. Mr. Biden is at odds with the progressive, labor-oriented wing of his party, but every poor and working person in America, along with every socialist, would be better off butting heads with a White House filled with centrist Democrats than one filled with Trump appointees. [Emphasis added.]
But that doesn’t mean socialists must fall in line behind Mr. Biden. There is an anti-establishment mood growing in this country, and not only among socialists; millions of voters are distrustful of mainstream politicians and sick of choosing between two parties captured by the corporate elite. Bernie Sanders represented a real alternative to many of them, and Joe Biden does not. And they are frustrated by the lack of recognition: In both 2016 and 2020, the runner-up in the Democratic primary has been a democratic socialist, but you wouldn’t guess that by the lack of concessions to his base.
The former vice president promises billionaires that “nothing will fundamentally change” and appears to be under the assumption that forcefully standing for as little as possible is the best way to unite the anti-Trump vote. Following the Democratic Party’s guiding strategy since 2016, Mr. Biden wants to win over moderate professional-class voters in affluent suburbs; he seems much less interested in reaching workers whose living standards have declined for decades.
That might be fine as an electoral calculation against an unpopular president, but it sits awkwardly alongside the chorus of pundits who are now trying to rally a 60,000-strong socialist organization behind a lackluster centrist campaign. Mr. Biden’s emissaries to the left come with few carrots, and we all know what sort of sticks will follow. The center is already constructing a convenient far-left scapegoat in case Mr. Biden fails. We’re simultaneously too marginal to bring to the table and so powerful that we can swing a presidential election.
Such noise distracts attention from the real work that Democratic Socialists of America chapters across the country are doing this election cycle. Contrary to stereotypes, we are not pushing a third candidate or eager to see Mr. Trump’s re-election. Instead we are campaigning for core demands like Medicare for All, saving the U.S. Postal Service from bipartisan destruction, organizing essential workers to fight for better pay and conditions throughout the coronavirus crisis and backing downballot candidates, mostly running on the Democratic ballot line. [Emphasis added.]
This is the type of activity that if successful will bolster voter turnout and remind millions that politics can improve their lives. Far from unhinged sectarianism, this is a pragmatic strategy. The United States has a political system rigged against third parties, so groups like the D.S.A. aren’t trying to build an independent ballot line in vain.
At the same time, we recognize just how unpopular both parties are. Rather than play spoiler on the one hand, or let mass anger at the political establishment be monopolized by the populist right on the other, socialists are patiently building a base for the pro-worker reforms this country badly needs.
That’s what walking a tightrope, and making sure it actually goes somewhere, means today.
Bhaskar Sunkara (@sunraysunray) is the editor of Jacobin and the author of “The Socialist Manifesto.”