Shaking Up the Democratic Party

By demanding a “revolution” to shift power away from Wall Street, Sen. Sanders is attracting millions of young Americans who want fundamental change. He’s also upsetting the Democratic establishment which favors only incremental “reforms” acceptable to corporate interests, as Norman Solomon notes.

By Norman Solomon

Forty-eight years ago, a serious insurrection jeopardized the power structure of the national Democratic Party for the first time in memory. Propelled by the movement against the Vietnam War, that grassroots uprising cast a big electoral shadow soon after Sen. Eugene McCarthy dared to challenge the incumbent for the Democratic presidential nomination.

When 1968 got underway, the news media were scoffing at McCarthy’s antiwar campaign as quixotic and doomed. But in the nation’s leadoff New Hampshire primary, McCarthy received 42 percent of the vote while President Lyndon B. Johnson couldn’t quite get to 50 percent — results that were shattering for LBJ. Suddenly emboldened, Sen. Robert Kennedy quickly entered the race. Two weeks later, Johnson announced that he wouldn’t seek re-election.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

Sen. Bernie Sanders, I-Vermont, who is seeking the Democratic presidential nomination.

Although the nomination eventually went to Johnson’s vice president Hubert Humphrey — a supporter of the war who was the choice of Democratic power brokers — the unmasking of the party’s undemocratic process led to internal reforms that aided the Democratic Party’s second modern insurrection. It came four years later, when Sen. George McGovern won the presidential nomination, thanks to grassroots movements involving young people and activists of color. But any sense of triumph disappeared in the wake of President Nixon’s landslide re-election in November 1972.

The third major insurrection came in 1988, when Jesse Jackson led a dynamic, multiracial “rainbow” campaign for president that had major impacts on the national stage. (His previous campaign, in ’84, had been relatively weak.) The 1988 primaries and caucuses were hard-fought, state by state, with rainbow activists working shoulder-to-shoulder, whether focused on issues of class, race or gender. (Back then, Jackson was a gutsy voice for social justice, for human rights and against war — much more willing to confront the Democratic Party establishment than he is now.)

At the contentious Democratic National Convention that summer in Atlanta, where Jackson delegates were highly visible as 30 percent of the total, the old guard closed ranks behind nominee Michael Dukakis.

Now, as the delegate selection process for 2016 gets underway, we’re in the midst of the first major insurrection against the Democratic Party power structure in 28 years. The millions of us who support the Bernie Sanders campaign — whatever our important criticisms — should aim to fully grasp the huge opportunities and obstacles that await us.

Of the three previous insurrections, only one gained the nomination, and none won the presidency. Corporate capitalism — wielding its muscular appendage, mass media — can be depended upon to take off the gloves and pummel the insurrection’s candidate to the extent that the campaign has gained momentum. That happened to McCarthy, McGovern and Jackson. It’s now happening to Sanders.

The last days of January brought one big-daily newspaper editorial after another after another attacking Bernie with vehemence and vitriol. The less unlikely his winning of the nomination gets, the more that mega-media assaults promoting absurdities will intensify.

Meanwhile — at least as long as her nomination is threatened from the left — Hillary Clinton will benefit from corporate biases that wallpaper the mass-media echo chambers. The Sunday New York Times editorial endorsing Clinton could hardly be more fanciful and hagiographic if written by her campaign.

Many of the same media outlets and overall corporate forces that denounced Eugene McCarthy in 1968, George McGovern in 1972 and Jesse Jackson in 1988 are gunning for Bernie Sanders in 2016. We shouldn’t be surprised. But we should be ready, willing and able to do our own messaging — widely and intensely — in communities across the country.

At the same time, we should not confuse electoral campaigns with long-term political organizing. Campaigns for office are quite different matters than the more transformative task of building progressive infrastructure — and vibrant coalitions — that can endure and grow, year after year.

Genuinely progressive candidates can inspire and galvanize — and sometimes they can even win. But election campaigns, especially national ones, are almost always boom/bust. Sometimes they can help to fuel movement momentum, but they aren’t the engine.

Election campaigns are distinct from movements even if they converge for a while, no matter what pundits and campaign spinners say. Candidates often want to harness social movements for their campaigns. But our best approach is to view electoral campaigns as — at best — subsets of movements, not the other way around.

The Bernie campaign could be a watershed for progressive organizing through the rest of this decade and beyond. That will largely depend on what activists do — in the next weeks, months and years.

Norman Solomon is the author of War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death. He is the executive director of the Institute for Public Accuracy and co-founder of


15 comments for “Shaking Up the Democratic Party

  1. Abe
    February 4, 2016 at 12:57

    Bernie Sanders is this election’s Democratic sheepdog. The sheepdog is a card the Democratic party plays every presidential primary season when there’s no White House Democrat running for re-election. The sheepdog is a presidential candidate running ostensibly to the left of the establishment Democrat to whom the billionaires will award the nomination. Sheepdogs are herders, and the sheepdog candidate is charged with herding activists and voters back into the Democratic fold who might otherwise drift leftward and outside of the Democratic party, either staying home or trying to build something outside the two party box.

    1984 and 88 the sheepdog candidate was Jesse Jackson. In 92 it was California governor Jerry Brown. In 2000 and 2004 the designated sheepdog was Al Sharpton, and in 2008 it was Dennis Kucinich. This year it’s Vermont senator Bernie Sanders. The function of the sheepdog candidate is to give left activists and voters a reason, however illusory, to believe there’s a place of influence for them inside the Democratic party, if and only if the eventual Democratic nominee can win in November.

    Despite casting millions of voters for the likes of Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and other sheepdogs, those leftish Democrat voters are always disregarded when Democrats actually win. Bill Clinton gave us NAFTA, a vicious “welfare reform,” no peace dividend or push for DC statehood, lowered unemployment but mostly in part time and low-wage jobs, and mass incarceration of black and brown people. President Obama doubled down on bailouts of banksters and GM, and immunized them from prosecution but failed to address the most catastrophic fall in black household wealth in history. We got health care for some instead of Medicare for All, the Patriot Act renewed instead of repealed, a race to privatize public education, drone wars and still more mass incarceration of black and brown people. And if President Obama gets his way, we may soon have a global job-destroying wage-lowering NAFTA on steroids, with the TTP and TTIP.

    The sheepdog’s job is to divert the energy and enthusiasm of activists a year, a year and a half out from a November election away from building an alternative to the Democratic party, and into his doomed effort. When the sheepdog inevitably folds in the late spring or early summer before a November election, there’s no time remaining to win ballot access for alternative parties or candidates, no time to raise money or organize any effective challenge to the two capitalist parties.

    At that point, with all the alternatives foreclosed, the narrative shifts to the familiar “lesser of two evils.” Every sheepdog candidate surrenders the shreds of his credibility to the Democratic nominee in time for the November election. This is how the Bernie Sanders show ends, as the left-leaning warm-up act for Hillary Clinton.

    Presidential Candidate Bernie Sanders: Sheepdogging for Hillary and the Democrats in 2016
    By Bruce A. Dixon

  2. Abe
    February 4, 2016 at 12:51

    The love that many self-described leftists have for Bernie Sanders seemingly defies logic and political sense. Or perhaps it should be said that the idol worship fits a long standing pattern that ought to die once and for all. Simply put, many people who call themselves leftists are nothing of the sort. They are merely Democrats who live in hope that their party will be a tiny bit liberalish but not actually make meaningful change. Devoid of any true political leanings they really just long for someone to love. Every four years they follow a candidate down the road to hell while declaring they are on the way to heaven.

    A quick perusal of the Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders policy statements shows little difference between the two. Sanders benefits from once having called himself a socialist and from not being Hillary Clinton. The former first lady, senator and secretary of state is disliked by millions of people. The antipathy becomes evident when she runs for president and is visible in all of her dissembling glory.

    There has been no real debate about the Democratic Party and its role as a willing part of the political duopoly tag team. Any discussion of alternatives raises the specter of “spoilers” who are blamed for Al Gore’s loss to George W. Bush in 2000. The endless fear mongering about right wingers makes any Democrat look good by comparison despite their dubious history. Discussions about lesser evil only leads to Democrats who market themselves better than Republicans do. They still bail out the banksters, keep black people in jail, commit mass murder and worldwide chaos with drones or sanctions or willing puppet regimes.

    Sanders benefits from a protection racket with Vermont’s Democratic Party. He first called himself a socialist, now an independent, when in fact he works with the Democrats to prevent primary challengers and the growth of any third party. If he were truly a leftist the Democrats would have targeted him for defeat long ago. Instead he gets the seal of approval and the campaign cash needed to keep his senate seat.

    Sanders talks good game that belies his record. As a presidential candidate he suddenly sponsored legislation to raise the federal minimum wage incrementally to $15 per hour over a five-year period. Republican control of both houses of Congress means that his timid plan is dead upon arrival. More importantly, when Democrats controlled the legislative branch completely in 2009 and 2010 they made no effort to do what they now say they want so badly. Senator Sanders did not deviate from his party’s plan for inaction.

    Who is really on the left? Not anyone who clings to the Democrats after being cast aside again and again while still suffering from unrequited love. Leftists are opposed to imperialism in all its forms. They don’t change their minds because a Democrat is occupying, sanctioning and assassinating around the world instead of a Republican.

    Freedom Rider: The Problem of Bernie Sanders and the “Left”
    By Margaret Kimberley

    • Dr. Ibrahim Soudy
      February 4, 2016 at 14:27

      Does anyone have a copy of the “Traditional Letter” that every American President passes on to the next occupier of the White House? I think that “Traditional Letter” is actually an Operating Manual of how to run the country and the world actually for the benefit of the CABAL headed by the BANKERS. It is so very obvious that the PERSON changes but the SYSTEM remains the same. All fights about Abortion, Gun Control, Heath Care, blah blah blah is just noise to create an illusion that there are some differences……….the CABAL headed by the BANKERS holds politicians of either party on a tight leash like obedient dogs…..two-legged dogs…………Again, any copy of that “Traditional Letter”? I would be really grateful………

  3. Abbybwood
    February 3, 2016 at 21:06

    It is also interesting to note the breakdown in parties in the United States:

    Right now there are more Independents (40%) than Republicans (27%) or Democrats (31%).

    Also, I read an article yesterday detailing how Clinton is depending on getting the Black vote on Super Tuesday to secure the nomination. It is being called her “Fire Wall”.

    Supposedly she has a lock on the Black voters who supported Obama in 2008 and 2012.

    I wish Bernie Sanders had the resources, people and time to convince this block of voters that he would champion better lives for them waaaay more than Clinton.

    The fact that Clinton is a Neocon hawk and no progressive is another great reason for Blacks to support Sanders and not Clinton.

  4. Joe Tedesky
    February 3, 2016 at 17:26

    On behalf of America’s Left Leaning people, I wish to thank Hillary Clinton for her uniting us behind Bernie Sanders….thanks madame secretary, someone had to do it!

    • Brad Benson
      February 3, 2016 at 18:41

      Amen. Without a Hillary, we wouldn’t be feeling this Bern. The woman is a pig.

    • Bob Van Noy
      February 4, 2016 at 14:22

      Thanks Joe; second that…

  5. Trowbridge Ford
    February 3, 2016 at 16:30

    While I think you have considerably overstated what these shakeups of the Democratic Party achieved, especially since they resulted in the election and re-election of Republicans Richard Nixon, and the appearance of the Bushes on the political scene, you have vastly over assumed what Senator Sanders could accomplish if he somehow gets elected.

    Sanders would start off like how Obama is ending, a lame duck.

    • John
      February 3, 2016 at 18:55

      And Clinton would start out where Nixon ended, a known liar under indictment. But without the EPA, OSHA, and the Clean Air Act under her belt.

      Unlike Obomber, however, Bernie is far from being a blank slate that wishful thinkets can project their Hopium on to. True, he may not be able to do much in his first 2 years, other than use the bully pulpit to make the case for his policy positions to the public, thus paving the way for a Congress that will be able to get things done in 2018.

      • February 3, 2016 at 20:13

        obama picked up where bush left off … who ever follows obama, will pick up where he leaves off.
        the focus is on the candidate, but what needs to be put in the spotlight is the democratic, and republican parties.
        there may occur as many revolutions within the democratic party as one may count, but from inauguration day onwards, the president remains cat’s paw to the captains of finance and industry.
        recall the looks on the faces of people at either camp on Tuesday 4th of November 2008 when the winner was announced. obama’s supporters held faces full of hope … in mccain’s camp was all gloom and doom.
        what changed? nothing!
        as for mccai n’s camp, why did they cry … obama did nothing mccain would not have done … even the health care plan is complete joke. insurance companies are laughing all the way to the bank.
        gitmo remains, wars of aggression and support for horrible dictators like the saud family remain. the welfare of u.s. citizens goes on ignored. it is time to look elsewhere for leadership.
        or keep voting for the same old, same old.

      • Abbybwood
        February 3, 2016 at 20:57

        The House is up for election every two years.

        I would like to see a “Sanders Slate” for Congress in every single one of the 435 districts this November. There is also a third of the Senate up for election.

        It costs about $100k to launch a bid for the House and probably $300k for the Senate.

        There has to be a way for a Sanders Slate to develop and get on the ballots by November.

        Otherwise, electing him president without punching a box for members of Congress who will enact his agenda is like sending a great coach to the playoffs with no team.

        • Peter Loeb
          February 6, 2016 at 07:31

          BUT…THIS IS POLITICS!!!!

          Many thanks to “Abbywood” for stating the reality or
          rather the lack of it in our floundering.

          As I pointed out elsewheres (see my comment to Joe Luria’s
          article on Syria and WW III) liberals and progressives love
          to entertain themselves with illusions about “revolution”.
          big rallies. This is the stuff large enthusiastic rallies are
          made of (and the thirsts these cater to). This is about as
          real as the myth on the right that everything would be
          better and solved without any government etc.

          These point are analyzed in Gabriel Kolko’s brief
          (1969 if memory serves).See Epiloque, “Reason and

          By no means am I making any argument for “practicality”
          or the like. Like Kolko I believe that there is no “revolution”
          in the offing in the USA. There wasn’t in 2008 either.
          What we need is the comprehension of where the
          levers of power are.

          One must certainly complement the far right for understanding
          these principles. They went after every political office
          available …city council, school board, state legislatures,
          Governors and so forth. Establishments found themselves
          isolated and toothless.

          In the case of AIPAC, for example, I have argued again and
          again for advocates to employ political experts and
          knock off one and more office holders at a time. This is a
          long-term proposal and will mean invariable losses. No
          advocacy organization has responded positively. Instead
          endless petitions and marches are the preferred way to
          transform power. I disagree with this “strategy” if it is a “strategy”
          at all.

          Your bringing up the Congress and the many opportunities
          it affords to begin weakening opposition support is, I feel,
          the way to go. Yes it costs money. But one does not have
          to do it all at once.Just do it well.

          Otherwise, one does indeed have a coach without a team.

          —Peter Loeb, Boston, MA, USA

    • Roberto
      February 3, 2016 at 20:13

      Yeah, but with the microphone in his hand, he could sure make them pay.

  6. Mike Lamb
    February 3, 2016 at 16:06

    Hillary Clinton in telling us that we need to do what is possible rather than to “reach for the sky” has essentially translated Robert F. Kenney’s “Circle of Hope,” to the “Circle of Nope.”

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