For all the early hand-wringing about the left wing of the Democratic party in Philadelphia, the Clinton campaign has largely moved on now that her nomination is secure. Wednesday night’s speakers, from President Obama to former CIA Director Leon Panetta, made a pitch to the squishy middle of middle America. Cartoon tycoon Mike Bloomberg put it best: “Let’s elect a sane, competent person.” It’s a bloodless and un-ideological message, by design.
So where does that leave those members of the ideological left who most forcefully supported the campaign of Bernie Sanders?
While the leading lights of the Democratic Party serenaded delegates at the Wells Fargo Center in south Philadelphia, left activists gathered on the fringes of the convention to start a conversation on how to make their movement count in the years to come. Broadly speaking, there are two schools: One involving greater organization and attention to practical politics, which involves more intercourse with parts of the Democratic Party structure. That includes efforts like Revolution Texas, an attempt to promote Sanders-friendly candidates within Democratic primaries and create an army of “perpetual organizers,” chaired by Sanders’ former top Texas man, Jacob Limon. Others have taken the message that the 2016 primary proves that working with Democrats is a waste of time — and even morally impure. They tend to exalt Green Party candidate Jill Stein.
Those who favor organizing within the party system got together Wednesday for a mid-afternoon meeting at an LGBT center in central Philadelphia, hosted by the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA). Speakers argued that the left should continue to take part in electoral politics alongside the Democrats — and that it was a moral obligation for the left to help the party beat Trump.
Ashley Rodriguez, a Sanders delegate from El Paso and a student at the University of Texas campus there, told the audience she formed an El Paso chapter of the DSA as the Sanders campaign started to wind down. The DSA, Rodriguez said, was her vehicle for post-Sanders activism, which in Texas had to happen outside the party structure. Despite challenges in Texas — language barriers and chronic voter apathy driven by an unbalanced party system — Rodriguez said she’d set her sights on taking “Texas from a Republican red state to a socialist red state.”
One focus of attention in Philadelphia has been the Working Families Party of New York state, which often allies with Democrats. New York’s election system is unique, but WFP representatives suggested the party could be a model for left-of-the-left upstarts elsewhere.
“We’ve got to beat Donald Trump and we’ve got to kick his ass,” said WFP’s Bob Masters at the same meeting. “Don’t fall prey to the classic error in which we think the liberals are our enemy,” he said. “They’re not our friends. But in this climate, it ought to be crystal clear that they are not the main danger.”
After the election, the left would “need to run major issue campaigns” to activate voters, said Masters, and ensure those campaigns “have a racial justice component.”
When Masters labeled Jill Stein’s efforts to campaign in swing states “dangerous,” most in the audience seemed to agree, apart from one woman who leapt to her feet, shouting “I will not vote for corruption” at the top of her lungs. The number of Americans who feel as she does is very small, but it is proportionally significant in relation to the activist left itself, which is also tiny. That creates problems: While the Clinton campaign can afford to cast off lots of voters as long as it hits certain targets, the ideological left has a very low margin of error. Every disaffected person counts.
And there were 800 or so of them at another meeting Wednesday night at a sweltering Quaker meeting hall northwest of City Hall. As Sigourney Weaver and Martin O’Malley addressed the DNC to the south, the daughter of Berta Cáceres, the Honduran activist killed after a 2009 military coup tacitly supported by the United States, spoke through a translator, asking for the continued support of the audience.
Most were there to hear from the rebel leader herself, Jill Stein, who turned up late. In the meantime, editor Bhaskar Sunkara of the semi-official handbook of young American socialists, Jacobin, argued that the Sanders’ campaign had showed the potential benefits of organizing within the political system. He was booed and shouted down by a crowd that didn’t appreciate his assertion that “We can reject lesser evilism without saying that two evils are exactly the same.” Left-wing writer Chris Hedges, who came with 10 minutes of prepared remarks and otherwise refused to speak, did not agree. “The parade of idiots” that sits at the heart of the rot of American politics, he said, “is now led by Senator Bernie Sanders,” a class traitor who must now ask for forgiveness. “The problem is not Donald Trump. The problem is capitalism,” Hedges said. His speech was met with ceiling-shaking applause.
Stein echoed Hedges. She had toiled for years as a third-party candidate, and now, clearly, felt it was finally her hour.
“We are in a an incredibly transformative moment right now. This is a time of fulfillment,” she said. “Bernie has brought us is to the threshold of revolutionary change.”
“The day of reckoning is closing in,” Stein said. Whether through climate change or economic collapse, the end of the system was at hand. Sanders had done nice things, but only Stein could save us now. “Bernie ran up against some limits of what you can do within a counter-revolutionary party,” she told the crowd. She had the baton now, and the Greens would smash the system once and for all.
For that crowd, at least, Stein’s message carried the day. She was the subject of three lengthy standing ovations. Her message is also, pretty plainly, a dead end. The American left had a thin chance of keeping whatever this is going to start with, and there are plenty of people, the Jill Steins or Bob Avakians of the world, happy to divert the ambient energy to their own messianic purposes.
The Sanders campaign was driven by young people like the El Paso DSA chapter founder Rodriguez, who have a shot at altering the trajectory of the Democratic Party and reorienting it more firmly toward income inequality and social welfare. But that’ll take one hell of a lot of work.
History tells us these moments are wasted more often than not, even in good circumstances. But if a significant number of lefties follow Stein and Hedges into the childproofed indoor playscape of the cranks and dead-enders, it certainly will be.
Read more coverage from the Democratic National Convention here.