What's the Best Move Bernie Sanders Can Make Right Now to Strengthen the Progressive Movement?
What should Bernie do? That seems to be the question of the month. Permit me to weigh in.
Here’s what we know at this point in the campaign. For Sanders to have any chance of winning the support of superdelegates, he must arrive at the convention with more elected delegates than Hillary. To do that, he needs to win about 65 percent of all elected delegates in the remaining electoral contests.
On March 26, Bernie won three states—Washington, Alaska and Hawaii—by huge margins. They were all caucus states. He has never won a primary in a state where only Democrats are allowed to vote. Five of the remaining 10 are in states with closed primaries. So his chances are infinitesimal. Is this an argument for him to drop out? No.
Hillary supporters may recall at this point in the 2008 race she was about the same number of delegates behind Obama as Bernie is behind Hillary now, and Obama had twice the number of superdelegates pledged to him. Some people did ask her to drop out, but she continued to campaign through the primaries.
More importantly, Bernie’s campaign is offering a narrative we haven’t heard for at least two generations from a major political candidate. It is a powerful, vibrant, angry, coherent narrative that forcefully runs at the powerful while defending the weak. Bernie is as mad at concentrated corporate power and billionaires as Republicans are at government and the poor. Bernie should continue to educate America. He needs to stay in not only to gather more delegates, but to magnetize more young people to the possibilities of politics.
But his campaign should cease any further attacks on Hillary. He can effectively sell his philosophy and program without attacking her. He can emphasize their differences about how to tackle financial concentration without attacking her for being "bought” by Wall Street.
I am less worried that further attacks will weaken Hillary’s support among the general population than I am that it will harden the hostility his supporters have built up toward Hillary during this vigorous campaign. Bernie’s support is strongest among young people. These are voters who have yet to internalize an ethic of voting. Traditionally they are a highly cynical population, and cynicism breeds apathy. They could opt out of the election. Indeed, in some polls a quarter of Bernie’s voters say they will not vote for Hillary.
Hillary can’t win without the support of Bernie’s followers. Trump may prove a catastrophe, and his own worst enemy during the campaign, but we can’t count on it. Turnout is the key. This year the turnout in Republican primaries has been the highest in over 50 years, while the turnout on the Democratic side has been about average.
Bernie needs to make a convincing case to his supporters that in the general election they should support Hillary without thinking they have sold out. They need not be passionate, but they do need to be vocal, at least among their friends. When Trump attacks Hillary, they shouldn’t reflexively respond by saying, "Trump is an idiot, but he does have a point."
Bernie can honestly maintain that his differences with Hillary pale in insignificance compared to the differences between the Democrat and Republican parties. He can argue passionately about the dangers of a one-party government. What protections will be left after the furies of a far-right-wing Republican Party are expressed through the control of all three branches of government, including the Supreme Court?
Bernie can be very supportive of Hillary’s election while at the same time contending that her election is a necessary but not sufficient condition for the dramatic structural changes needed. In politics there is always a quid pro quo. In return for his support, what should Bernie ask of Hillary?
Certainly Hillary will offer Bernie a primetime slot for his speech at the convention. I look forward to watching it. That will be an ideal opportunity for Bernie to present his philosophy while at the same time warmly supporting Hillary and reminding Americans about the urgent importance of this election.
The Sanders campaign will also inevitably influence the platform. That may result in an especially vigorous and perhaps contentious debate, but we should remember that political platforms are usually forgotten the day after the convention closes. Moreover, this platform, like the 2012 Democratic platform, will be devoted largely to touting the accomplishments of Barack Obama. It is not going to include potshots at him.
What Should Hillary Do for Bernie?
So what should Bernie ask for that are not gimmes? He should insist that Hillary actively support at least three of his key policies both on the campaign trail and in the White House.
The first is to declare her passionate opposition to new trade agreements, like the proposed Trans-Pacific Partnership. Donald Trump is already focusing on Hillary’s support for NAFTA in order to attract workers to his banner. Hillary could respond that NAFTA was largely passed as a result of Republican, not Democratic votes. Democrats narrowly voted to support NAFTA by 27-26. The Republicans voted overwhelmingly in favor, 74-26.
During the campaign, under pressure from Bernie, Hillary did come out in opposition to the TPP. That is not enough. She is on record as consistently supporting controversial trade agreements for more than 20 years, with the exception of her vote against the Central American Free Trade Agreement in 2005.
Hillary has a reputation for changing positions depending on the political winds. So when she announces her opposition to TPP, as she is now doing more forcefully, she will have to make an especially compelling case of why she has done so. One way is to publically confess her change of mind. Perhaps, with a nod toward Bernie’s supporters and the general electorate, she could credit Bernie’s campaign with educating her about the crucial difference between traditional trade agreements that focus on tariffs and recent trade agreements that undermine sovereignty and establishing a separate global judicial system run by and for corporations. She needs to explain to the electorate that modern trade agreements, starting with NAFTA, have given global corporations the right to sue national governments and the suit is adjudicated by a court largely run by corporate lawyers and guided by a trade document that views any law that impedes the flow of resources as an unfair trade practice, no matter how popular or necessary.
The second policy Bernie should insist Hillary embrace is his proposal for free tuition for public colleges and universities. This has been a centerpiece of his campaign. In fact, Hillary and Bernie are not that far apart on education policy. Hillary supports free community colleges. Both she and Bernie advocate a dedicated fund to help private historically black colleges and universities. Both have similar plans to meet the non-tuition costs of college.
Hillary proposes a complex system that would allow students to graduate without debt. Free tuition is a much easier concept for students, and their parents, to understand. Moreover, it is an expression of a philosophy that has all but disappeared from American politics. Access to education, like access to health care, is a basic right; and requiring means testing for access is degrading and divisive.
For more than 150 years America has viewed public education as a right, accessible to everyone. Public education is still free until the 12th grade. Some state constitutions mandate free public education. Until a little more than a generation ago all community colleges and many public colleges and universities were free. Only in 1976 did the City University of New York begin charging tuition. A New York Times headline on Dec. 28, 1982, apprised its readers of an important new development, “California weighs end of free college education.”
Along with her embrace of free tuition, Bernie should insist that Hillary also support his financing mechanism: a financial transactions tax imposed at rates of a fraction of a percent on all Wall Street trading. Such a tax could raise $70 billion or more, covering most if not all the cost of free tuition. During the campaign Hillary too has proposed a financial transactions tax, but hers would be imposed only on high frequency trading, would generate trivial amounts of money and would cause Wall Street little heartburn. She needs to embrace a tax that Wall Street strenuously opposes.
The third policy Bernie should ask Hillary to support is to end the carried interest loophole through executive action. If Hillary becomes president she will likely inherit the same obstructionist Congress that has hamstrung Obama. This past year Obama began to bypass legislative gridlock by exercising the authority of the executive branch. In early April, for example, the Treasury Department made it harder for corporations to engage in “inversions” to avoid taxes by merging with another company domiciled in a country with lower taxes. The rule change had an immediate impact: Pfizer and Allergan called off their proposed $152 billion merger.
Regrettably, Obama’s Treasury Department has refused to close the carried interest loophole that has allowed individual hedge fund managers to become billionaires. Hedge fund managers are paid in two ways: a management fee of about 2 percent of the assets, which is taxed as ordinary income at 39 percent; and 20 percent of the gains the fund makes over time, which is taxed at a capital gains rate of 20 percent. Their being able to cut their income taxes in half is a result of a 1993 change in tax rules by the Treasury Department that was not originally intended to apply to hedge funds.
Bernie’s campaign has focused on Wall Street and the inequality of wealth. Hedge funds are the breeding grounds for extreme inequality. In 2015 the top 25 hedge fund managers made $12 billion. The top manager had an annual income of $1.7 billion.
Bernie should demand that Hillary agree to close the carried interest loophole within her first year in office through executive action. As Gretchen Morgenson reports in the New York Times, a number of tax experts, including Alan J. Wilensky, who was Deputy Assistant Treasury Secretary in charge of tax policy in the early 1990s when the carried interest loophole was created, insist it can be closed by administrative action alone. Doing so, according to Victor Fleischer, law professor at the University of San Diego, would generate $150 billion over 10 years. Two-thirds of that would come from the financial industry.
Donald Trump has already come out against the carried interest loophole. So has Hillary. But her close financial relationship with Wall Street has made the electorate leery. By promising to bypass Congress and close the loophole herself, something Donald Trump has not done, she could allay those concerns.
Building a Political Movement From the Bottom Up
It has been clear from the beginning that Bernie’s long-term goal is to create a national movement for radical change. His contribution list contains over 5 million names of people from whom he has raised more than $175 million. Roughly 9 million Sanders supporters have organized through various social media outlets. These twin pillars of numbers and money could lay the foundation for a powerful new political and social voice in America.
Since this is a movement that will in part focus on changing the orientation and possibly composition of the Democratic Party, Bernie should insist that Hillary do all she can to stop the Democratic establishment from impeding this movement.
In the 1980s and 1990s the Democratic Party was taken over from within by a new ideology: neoliberalism. British journalist George Monbiot describes this new ideology’s principal tenets:
Neoliberalism sees competition as the defining characteristic of human relations. It redefines citizens as consumers, whose democratic choices are best exercised by buying and selling, a process that rewards merit and punishes inefficiency. It maintains that "the market" delivers benefits that could never be achieved by planning.
Attempts to limit competition are treated as inimical to liberty. Tax and regulation should be minimised, public services should be privatised. The organisation of labour and collective bargaining by trade unions are portrayed as market distortions that impede the formation of a natural hierarchy of winners and losers. Inequality is recast as virtuous: a reward for utility and a generator of wealth, which trickles down to enrich everyone. Efforts to create a more equal society are both counterproductive and morally corrosive.
Bernie Sanders has declared his intention to displace neoliberalism as the guiding philosophy of the Democratic Party with a new/old ideology: democratic socialism. A year ago no one would have any idea what that might mean. Most would have been terrified by the very word socialism. Today, while certainly not mainstream, Bernie’s democratic socialism offers a coherent alternative, with its own vocabulary, core principles and a plethora of specific policies intended to maximize the common good.
This new mass movement would hold President Hillary Clinton’s feet to the fire while at the same time transforming America from the bottom up. And there is much to be done from the bottom up. Blue cities in red states need to be defended from state legislatures that increasingly are stripping cities and counties of the authority to defend their citizens and businesses. The movement from below must have as a priority changing the composition of state legislatures not only to defend local policymaking but to control the reapportionment of congressional voting districts after the 2020 census.
Many of the issues Bernie has raised during the campaign can be significantly tackled by cities and states. Already millions of people have been affected by the successful movement to persuade states and cities to adopt a $15 minimum wage law as well as policies designed to protect workers’ ability to care for their families and themselves. Climate change, LGBT discrimination, a woman’s right to choose, racial justice, corporate power, and even campaign finance reform can be significantly (albeit not totally) addressed by state and/or local actions.
State action may also prove crucial in moving toward Bernie’s vision of Medicare for All. The Supreme Court decision regarding Obamacare has already made states the battleground for extending health care to low-income households. Twenty states have refused to expand Medicaid to millions of families, even though the federal government would have paid 90-100 percent of the additional costs. Their refusal can and should be a key issue for state and local organizers.
In 2017, states will have the opportunity to dramatically redesign their health system, with significant funding from the federal government. Colorado may be the first to try to do so, depending on the outcome of a single-payer initiative that should be on the ballot this November. But even without ballot initiatives, states will be able to do much more to lay the infrastructure for a medical system that is more people-oriented and less profit-oriented. Remember that the Canadian national health insurance system began with the election of a brand-new political party in one province that adopted a public insurance program covering hospitals and eventually doctors.
Already a movement infrastructure is operational throughout much of the country. There are formal political parties (e.g. Working Families Party) and grass-roots organizers that also are involved in political campaigns (e.g. National People's Action). And there are hundreds of effective and determined state and local organizations and coalitions. The funding of these movements is thin and sporadic. The Democracy Alliance, an organization that requires members to ante up $200,000 to participate, has guided its donors to fund national research and media organizations and national political campaigns. In 2015 the Alliance raised $75 million. Recently it has decided to focus on state politics in part because of the importance of the 2020 reapportionment process.
Former Bernie staffers have created a new PAC, Brand New Congress, which will focus on changing the composition and philosophical orientation of Congress in 2018. Where will Bernie and his movement fit in? One important role will be to develop a specific platform that could become a litmus test for endorsing political candidates as well as a way of connecting individual issue-oriented movements to a larger movement that applies the same principles and values to other issues.
Today hundreds, perhaps thousands of conversations are going on among and between Bernie and Hillary supporters and campaign staff. These conversations may determine the outcome of the election. They certainly will be instrumental in determining the legacy of the astonishing movement Bernie Sanders has inspired, galvanized and mentored.