A colloquial definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. This is what we are seeing with progressives and the Democratic party – especially at the top of the ticket. We must learn from history and not repeat the same mistakes that have been made in the past. A brief look at the campaigns of Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson, and Bernie Sanders shows us that there is no way forward within the Democratic party. If the left is to win, we must seek other avenues forward outside of the Democratic party. It would be insane to keep trying the same tactics and expect different results.
Shirley Chisholm was the first black woman elected to congress in 1968. She ran on the slogan “Unbought and Unbossed” and was a fiercely independent progressive. During her presidential candidacy announcement speech, she said, “I am not the candidate of any political policies or fatcats or special interests. I stand here now, without endorsements from many big name politicians or celebrities or any other kind of prop, I do not intend to offer you the tired clichés that have too long been an accepted part of our political life.” Her goal was to transform the Democratic Party into a “party of the masses and the poor.”
Shirley ran on a platform that included protecting the environment, getting money out of politics, fighting poverty, ending war, racial justice, legalization of marijuana, abortion rights, and gay rights. The Black Panthers’ endorsement of Shirley Chisholm, their first endorsement in electoral politics, described her as follows, “Shirley Chisholm has stood up in the face to racism, a lone Black woman, denouncing the sufferings of Black and poor people at every opportunity. (She) is the best social critic of America’s injustices to run for presidential office.” There can be no doubt that a Shirley Chisholm presidency would have been monumental.
Shirley’s run for president was largely dismissed. The Democratic party took segregationist George Wallace’s run much more seriously than they ever did Shirley’s. New York City Mayor John Lindsay and South Dakota Senator George McGovern both urged Shirley to back out of her run as they feared she would take votes from them. Shirley responded to Mayor Lindsay saying, “Why don’t you and McGovern get together—and one of you decide to back out?” Throughout the campaign, she faced criticisms from all sides including from black male leadership in North Carolina who went so far as to say that “a vote for Shirley Chisholm was a vote for George Wallace.” Vote shaming was alive and well in 1972.
On June 6, 1972, New Jersey held a statewide non-binding primary. Shirley Chisholm won the primary with 67% of the vote – but due to complex Democratic Party rules, she would only end up with 4 of New Jersey’s 109 delegates. The Associated press would call this vote “meaningless.” At the Democratic Convention, Shirley ended up with 152 delegate votes for a fourth place finish. Harlem World Magazine described her run: “She also struggled to be regarded as a serious candidate instead of as a symbolic political figure; she was ignored by much of the Democratic political establishment and received little support from her black male colleagues.” Sadly, much of her progressive platform has still never been implemented.
The Reverend Jesse Jackson ran for president in the Democratic primaries in 1984 and 1988. When Jesse Jackson announced his 1984 campaign, he said, “We are members of the party and we don’t want to leave, but our self-respect is nonnegotiable.” Jackson ran on ending war, poverty, and unemployment. In his 1988 campaign, Jesse Jackson added single payer healthcare to his platform. He formed a Rainbow Coalition, consisting “of the young, African Americans, Latinos, women, labor union members, gays and lesbians, Arab Americans, Asian Americans, Native Americans, students, peace activists, environmentalists…” Yet much like Shirley’s campaign, Jesse Jackson’s campaigns were not taken seriously by the Democratic party. For example, Benjamin Hooks, executive director of the NAACP during the 1984 campaign, said, “Since we are so frightened by the Reagan system of government, our primary concern should be ridding the nation of that system. Therefore we should vote for that candidate most likely to achieve that end.” If we replace Reagan with Trump in this statement, it would be indistinguishable from many of the establishment fear mongering arguments made against Bernie Sanders in 2020.
In 1984, Jackson would end up winning 21% of the vote but only received 8% of the delegates due to party rules. Walter Mondale won the nomination. During the convention, “Mr. Mondale quickly defeated minority planks calling for reduction in military spending and for a pledge that the United States would not make first use of nuclear weapons.” Even though his delegates’ bid to influence the platform failed, Jackson called for unity and pledged his support to Mondale.
In 1988, Jackson tried again. Realizing he had a serious shot at winning this time, the establishment Democrats fought hard to make sure he was not the nominee. The recently established Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) oversaw the primaries – Jesse Jackson would criticize them and refer to them as Democrats for the Leisure Class. New York City Mayor Ed Koch unleashed vicious attacks on Jesse Jackson prior to the NY primary, at one point saying Jews “would be crazy” to vote for Jackson. Jackson described these attacks in a speech saying, “In New York there has been more divisive language than in any other state or region in the country. No leader across the South has raised a race or religious litmus test as a basis for relating to our campaign.” Jesse Jackson’s campaign was lost after losing to Dukakis in the NY primary. Once again, at the convention, Jackson would pledge his support to the nominee.
Michele Krauthamer, a Jackson supporter said, ”If Jesse is not on that ticket, I will go to the voting booth – we had to fight for the right to vote and I’m not giving it up – but will not pull that Democratic lever.” Mondale would go on to lose the election in a landslide to George H.W. Bush. Perhaps if the Democratic Party had not killed the populist movement led by Jesse Jackson, the results would have been different. That they did not even put him on the ticket in a VP position was an insult to his supporters.
If the campaigns of Chisholm and Jackson sound familiar, it is because they were very similar to those of Bernie Sanders in 2016 and 2020. Bernie Sanders ran on the same progressive policies Chisholm and Jackson did – racial justice, environmental justice, healthcare, ending war, labor rights, and so on. And he went up against the same resistance from the establishment Democrats with the same inevitable result of defeat.
Bernie Sanders faced similar attacks to those carried out against Jackson in both of his runs. In 2016, the Washington Post ran 16 negative stories on Bernie in a space of 24 hours. In an email apparently referencing Sanders, Democratic National Committee (DNC) CFO Brad Marshall suggested casting doubts on his religious beliefs, saying “Does he believe in a God. He had skated on saying he has a Jewish heritage. I think I read he is an atheist.” A piece in New York magazine in January 2020 by Jonathan Chait was titled “Running Sanders Against Trump Would Be an Act of Insanity.” It contained statements such as, “Sanders has gleefully discarded the party’s conventional wisdom that it has to pick and choose where to push public opinion leftward, adopting a comprehensive left-wing agenda, some of which is popular, and some of which is decidedly not,” and “At this point there is hardly any serious evidence to believe that the best strategy to defeat Trump is to mobilize voters with a radical economic agenda.” The media coverage of Sanders was so bad that he said, “I think what we saw from Nevada on out was a cry from the rooftops, from the political establishment, from the media that they wanted anybody but Bernie. Anybody but Bernie! My God, I don’t know how many articles they were about, we need anybody but Bernie and, you know, they ended up succeeding. And that’s that.”
The rigging in 2016 was so blatant that during his run for DNC chair, Tom Perez, said, “We heard loudly and clearly yesterday from Bernie supporters that the process was rigged and it was. And you’ve got to be honest about it.” As interim chair of the DNC, Donna Brazile discovered that “The DNC also was required to consult with the [Hillary] campaign about all other staffing, budgeting, data, analytics, and mailings.” The DNC argued in court that rigging its own primaries was permissible and that their own charter was not enforceable, saying that if they had so chosen, they could “go into back rooms like they used to and smoke cigars and pick the candidate that way.” Senator Elizabeth Warren agreed that it was rigged, saying to PBS Newshour, “The process was rigged and now it is up to Democrats to build a new process, a process that really works and works for everyone.” This new process did not happen and the 2020 primary was also rigged in favor of the corporate candidates, leading to the unprecedented defeat of a candidate who had won the first three primary contests.
The DNC’s disdain for Sanders was clearly shown at both conventions. In 2016, the only shirt with an image of Bernie was one so distorted that it has been suggested to have been anti-Semitic in nature. Karen Bernal, a Sanders delegate in 2016, described it saying, “This is somebody’s sick sense of humor. It’s a cruel joke. They obviously want to make him look like some kind of ogre.” During the 2020 virtual convention, Bernie Sanders was only given 8 minutes to make a speech. His surrogate, Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez was only allowed 60 seconds for her nominating speech. Republicans like John Kasich were given more speaking time at the convention than were Bernie Sanders and his surrogates.
The campaigns of Chisholm, Jackson, and Sanders are just a few of the many times the corporate establishment has come together to destroy any chance of true progress. Even though George McGovern actually won the 1972 primary, the party refused to unite behind him with disastrous results in the general election against Nixon. To many, Nixon was preferable to McGovern. In 1944, the elites of the Democratic Party came together to block the nomination of desegregationist progressive Henry Wallace to serve another term as Vice President, knowing FDR was likely to die during his fourth term.
History shows us that the Democratic party will oppose progressives within their own party every time they run. This remains true today. In a recent interview with the New York Times, Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said, “The last two years have been pretty hostile. Externally, we’ve been winning. Externally, there’s been a ton of support, but internally, it’s been extremely hostile to anything that even smells progressive.” President-elect Joe “I beat the socialist” Biden is already stocking his cabinet with neoliberal swamp monsters. Nancy “Green Dream or Whatever” Pelosi was unopposed in her bid to remain leader of the Democratic Party in the House. The Democratic party has made it clear they will not push a progressive agenda.
The policies of Chisholm, Jackson, and Sanders are all popular with the people – yet the Democratic party worked very hard to make sure they were never enacted. It is now up to us to carry out their visions and take the next step forward as a progressive movement. As Bernie wrote in Monthly Review in 1989, “Our major task is to change the entire nature of political discussion in the country. In my view that’s just not going to happen within the Democratic Party. It seems to me that if you add up all of the people who are getting a raw deal from the system today you’re talking about a majority of the population. That’s our potential constituency, and I think we’ve got to form a political movement which brings these people in.” Bernie’s campaigns did energize many of these people, including myself. It is now time to make sure everyone inspired by the Bernie campaign and those uninspired by the lackluster candidates put forth by both corporate parties are united together in this fight.
It is a daunting task to take on the corporate duopoly and their powerful corporate backers. Yet it is one that must be done and it has not always ended in defeat. In Denver, Colorado, Candi Cdebaca ran unaffiliated with the backing of the Democratic Socialists of America and won a seat on the city council, changing the conversation for the better. During an interview, she described her views saying, “I don’t believe that our current economic system actually works. Capitalism, by design, is extractive, and in order to generate profit in a capitalist system, something has to be exploited. I believe in community ownership of land, labor, resources, and distribution of those resources. And so, whatever that morphs into, I think is what will serve community the best, and I’m excited to usher it in by any means necessary.” This hearkens back to Malcolm X, who also used the phrase “by any means necessary” as a motto as he fought for freedom, justice, and equality. And as Malcolm understood, electoral politics is just one of the means at our disposal. As a movement, it is time to move beyond the corporate Democratic party – by any means necessary.
“Nobody that I know now in the progressive movement, thinks that electoral politics is the only answer. One has to be an idiot to believe that.”Bernie Sanders
In 2013, Socialist Alternative candidate Kashama Sawant won a seat on the Seattle City Council. In an interview in 2016, she said “I don’t think electoral endeavors themselves, by themselves, without building a movement, work. But we also cannot have this artificial separation that we’re going to build our movement, but when it comes to elections we’re going to support Democrats. That doesn’t work, because the Democratic Party has been the single most important reason for why we have not been able to build our movements, because every time we talk about building our movement, we’re asked to sacrifice what we are demanding at the feet of the Democratic Party, which has not fought for us.” If we are to succeed as a movement, we must fight both corporate parties.
There are many avenues available to us as organizers of a real progressive people’s movement. One approach is helping to create a true working class party as the Movement for a People’s Party is doing. There has never been a better time to leave the Democratic party behind and never look back. While the People’s Party is just beginning now and may be small in numbers, remember that the greatest movements have to start somewhere. There were only 56 white men who signed the Declaration of Independence. Only 82 people set sail on November 25, 1956 on the Granma yacht and sparked a revolution. Even the largest trees must start from a small seed. Bernie Sanders was right when he wrote in 1989, “There are enormous obstacles that will have to be overcome if we are going to build a successful third party. But I do believe this: Winning elections tomorrow is important, but it’s not necessarily the most important thing. In a country which has such a low level of political consciousness; in a country where the level of political “debate” is so pathetically low, it is absolutely imperative that the progressive movement raise the issues and the analyses which will educate the people of our nation to begin to understand what the hell is going on. And I honestly don’t believe that that can take place within the Democratic Party.” In a recent New Yorker article, Keeanga Yamahtta-Taylor has agreed with this analysis, saying, “The real levers to hold liberal leadership accountable can’t exist within the Party but must exist outside of it—or the left needs its own party reflecting its actual politics and priorities.” By joining the MPP now, we can become involved in crafting their platform and making sure that a Federal Jobs Guarantee and Modern Monetary Theory become a key plank in it. With our help, the MPP could truly become the strong anti-capitalist movement that the United States needs to move forward. A true working class party with an MMT lens would be unstoppable.
Alternatively, there is still plenty of work that can be done to advance the progressive agenda that exists outside of electoral politics. Education will play a key role in the progressive revolution. It is a near certainty that we will be hearing a lot about the deficit from the Biden administration. Biden has already stated that he would veto Medicare for all due in part to the costs involved. Anyone with a basic understanding of MMT knows that the costs are not the problem – the government can afford Medicare for all just like it could afford all of Obama’s drone strikes and wars. The deficit is an excuse that is used to block progressive legislation but it is never an issue when it comes to carrying out an imperialist agenda. Everyone should learn why the deficit is a myth and that we can afford Medicare for All, a Green New Deal, and all the progressive policies that the people need to survive.
Direct action must also be a huge part of our movement – if we want real change, we need to expand upon the BLM protests and be out in the streets in the millions demanding Medicare for all, a Green New Deal (including a Federal Jobs Guarantee), student loan debt forgiveness, housing for all, direct pandemic relief, and a just society. Without direct action, there will be nothing but tepid incrementalism. All the greatest changes have been brought about through mass actions of the people and these should always take precedence over electoralism. The greatest lesson we learned from Bernie Sanders’ campaigns should be what he always told us, “Whether it is the struggle against racism, or sexism, or homophobia, or corporate greed, or environmental devastation, or war and militarism or religious bigotry — real change never takes place from the top on down. It always takes place from the bottom on up when people, at the grass-roots level, stand up and fight back.” If we take these words to heart and continue the struggle at the grass-roots level, outside of the corrupt duopoly, as Bernie told us, “we will change this nation, and with like-minded friends around the globe, change the entire world.” It was never Bernie, it was always us – all of us united together for peace and justice. Let’s go forward together and change the world.