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Are Progressives Ready for 'Political Revolution' with Bernie?

The Vermont senator says he wants to hear from progressives about a possible run for president. Here's a start.

Jon Queally

Vermont's Independent Senator Bernie Sanders has now said he is 'prepared to run for President of the United States' in 2016, but that he wants to hear from progressives across the country about what such a run should look like if and when he makes it official.

In interviews with both The Nation and Time magazines published last week, Sanders spoke in the most specific terms yet about why a serious progress candidate is necessary, what the goals of such a campaign should be, and the inherent challenges involved. And even though the self-described democratic socialist admits he's not 'the only person out there who can fight this fight'—Sanders says the moment demands what he repeatedly calls a "political revolution."

"Sanders is right, now is a good time for a political revolution."

—Sonali Kolhatkar

Speaking with Time's Jay Newton-Small, Sanders said, "We need candidates who are prepared to represent the working families of this country, who are prepared to stand up to the big money interests, who are prepared to support an aggressive agenda to expand the middle class. And I am prepared to be that candidate."

And on two key issues—running against the as-yet-undeclared but clear Democratic frontrunner Hillary Clinton and the question on whether he would run as a Democrat or as an independent candidate outside the two dominant parties—Sanders was descriptive if not conclusive in his answers.

In both interviews he made it clear he "likes" Clinton, has worked with her, and considers her both intelligent and highly experienced. But as he told The Nation's John Nichols, Sanders thinks that "the Clinton type of politics is not the politics" he has in mind when he talks about the need for transformational solutions to the most pressing issues.

"We are living in the moment in American history where the problems facing the country, even if you do not include climate change, are more severe than at any time since the Great Depression," he told Nichols. "And if you throw in climate change, they are more severe."

And to Newton-Small, Sanders was perhaps more clear: "If you talk about the need for a political revolution in America, I think it’s fair to say that Secretary Clinton probably will not be one of the more active people."

In the U.S. Senate, Sanders remains an Independent but has caucused with the Democrats since his arrival there. He currently serves as the chairman of the Veterans Affairs Committee by appointment of Senate Leader Harry Reid (D-NV).

Asked by Nichols if he would run for president inside the Democratic Party, competing in state primaries and appearing in televised debates—or running outside as an Independent or third party candidate, Sanders responded: "I want to hear what progressives have to say about that."

Though he acknowledged running outside would be the "more radical" approach, Sanders certainly seemed unconvinced it was the wisest one. Creating a third-party movement, he said, "has been talked about in this country for decades and decades and decades, from Eugene Debs forward—without much success. And I say that as the longest serving independent in the history of the United States Congress."

Progressives Chime In

So what are progressives around the country now saying about Sanders' announcement?  What do they think about his possible candidacy as a challenge to Hillary Clinton and the more corporate-friendly, centrist establishment?  Should he run inside the Democratic Party or try, like Ralph Nader and others before him, as an independent or leader of a third party?

With lots of agreement, some divergence, and plenty of questions still to consider, what follows is a sampling of thoughts collected by Common Dreams by well known progressive activists, journalists, and thinkers in response to key, if preliminary, questions about a run by Sanders.

"A Sanders campaign would show how broadly popular the progressive agenda is with the U.S. public—not just among progressives or the Democratic base."

—Jeff Cohen

According to Jeff Cohen, a progressive journalist and co-founder of, a presidential campaign by Bernie Sanders could "boost the progressive agenda" nationally, especially around issues of economic justice, job production, climate change, and energy policy.

"A Sanders campaign would show how broadly popular the progressive agenda is with the U.S. public—not just among progressives or the Democratic base," Cohen told Common Dreams, saying his views were his own and not representative of groups with which he is affiliated.

Sonali Kolhatkar, host of the progressive Uprising radio program on KPFK in Los Angeles, said she thinks it's "about time" when asked by Common Dreams about her thoughts regarding Sanders' declarations.

"There are very few progressives in the country who have the name recognition and integrity that Sanders has. My initial reaction was of excitement," Kolhatkar said. "Sanders is right, now is a good time for a political revolution."

Sarah van Gelder, founder and editor-in-chief of YES! Magazine, praised Sanders for his ability to raise the vital questions of our time in practical ways that "inspire and engage" ordinary people.

In an email to Common Dreams, van Gelder wrote, "[Sanders] manages to avoid getting swallowed up in the D.C.-insider game playing and the pro-corporate ideology of many in both parties," she wrote. "That, and his success at winning elections, make him an extremely important figure for a really grim moment in U.S. political history."

What's most notable about him, explained van Gelder, is that "Sanders understands that our economy must contribute to the well being of all people, not just the 1 percent. That is among the most critical issues of our time and is the most urgent issue for many voters. He also appears to understand the climate emergency, which many politicians ignore."

"Sanders understands that our economy must contribute to the well being of all people, not just the 1 percent." —Sarah van Gelder

For his part, Nichols told Common Dreams that what's exciting to him about Sanders is his potential to break open the public discourse in what is an otherwise disheartening and deteriorating political landscape in terms of both rhetoric and policy. "There are real differences between the Democratic and Republican parties," says Nichols. "But, at the top of the parties, there are real similarities, as well—especially when it comes to critical issues such as trade policy, mass surveillance and even support for public education. The great mass of Americans want a wider debate and, to the extent that Sanders offers it, I think that would be very healthy for American politics—not to mention America's future."

Norman Solomon, Cohen's colleague at but also an independent journalist speaking on his own behalf, agrees with those who think Sanders could broader and deepen debate that would otherwise be constrained by the dominant powers that govern the Republican and Democratic parties.

"If Hillary Clinton is able to walk to the Democratic nomination without a major progressive challenge, that would be very bad for the politics of the country, moving the frame of discourse farther rightward," Solomon told Common Dreams. "At this point there’s no one on the horizon to provide such a challenge—except Bernie Sanders."

Run Inside, Run Outside?

Nichols says whether Sanders should run inside or outside of the Democratic establishment is both "the most engaging" question and the most provocative for many progressives.

"There are folks who say Sanders can only run as a Democrat and that he can only run as an independent," explained Nichols. "But there are also folks who suggest that each route involves intermediate steps—consulting, organizing, fund-raising—that will determine which apprach is most attractive."

For Peter Dreier, a historian of progressivism and politics at Occidental College, there is only one approach that he thinks viable.

"There are many progressives and leftists who will automatically suggest, out of disgust with the Democrats, that Sanders should make a “pure” run as an independent. Yet this raises an even more fundamental question: Why should Sanders run at all?" —Bill Fletcher, Jr.

"I'd support a Sanders campaign," Dreier told Common Dreams, but only—capitilizing IF—"he ran in the Democratic Party primaries and not as an independent candidate."

A Sanders campaign inside the party, he continued, "could (1) draw a great deal of media attention, shift the agenda, and help raise public awareness about corporate power and widening inequality, (2) push Hillary to the left on key issues, and (3) help build a progressive infrastructure within the Democratic Party similar to how the DLC moved the party toward the corporate center. I would love to see Bernie in action during the primary season's televised debates. I would NOT support Bernie running as an independent candidate, where he'd run the risk of being a spoiler in battleground states and handing the White House over to the Republicans."

On the other side, Kolhatkar voiced support for Sanders challenging from outside as a way to create "long term change" and avoid "just a different kind of campaign with a different kind of Democrat" candidate.

"We need to break the two party monopoly," says Kolhatkar. "That way, if Sanders wins, he's set a precedent for future third party wins. Even if he manages to break the locks on convention and debate coverage and participation, it can set a precedent that future candidates can benefit from."

Both Solomon and Cohen, however, are convinced that running inside the Democratic Party is the best way for Sanders to impact the debate and the outcome.

"Bernie could stun the corporate Democrats by running inside the party primaries and caucuses," says Cohen. "When Sen. Gene McCarthy went into the 1968 New Hampshire primary to challenge President LBJ and the Democratic establishment over Vietnam, he won 42% of the vote, drove LBJ out of the race, and showed that antiwar sentiment was widespread."

Citing a recent opinion survey of their group's membership, Solomon said that "among those with an opinion on whether he should run in the Democratic primaries, a clear majority is saying 'Yes.'"

"If Hillary Clinton is able to walk to the Democratic nomination without a major progressive challenge, that would be very bad."

—Norman Solomon

And, according to Solomon, progressives nationally "need to be able to build coalitions and show electoral strength. I don’t think there’s any doubt that as a presidential candidate Bernie could roll up much bigger percentages in Democratic primaries than he could as an independent or small-party candidate on general-election ballots."

Meanwhile, Bill Fletcher, Jr., writing at The Progressive on Friday, welcomed the idea of a run by Sanders. Though he, too, in the end thinks that running as a Democrat would be Sanders best option given current conditions, he was more equivocal in his thoughts on strategy as he stressed the importance of movement building that incorporated broad-based grassroots organizing but also electoral realism. He explained:

There are many progressives and leftists who will automatically suggest, out of disgust with the Democrats, that Sanders should make a “pure” run as an independent. Yet this raises an even more fundamental question: Why should Sanders run at all?

It only makes sense to run for the Presidency of the United States—as a progressive or leftist—if the person is both running to win and running as part of a broader electoral project. A run just to “show the colors” or make a statement is a waste of time. Running for President is both too expensive and time-consuming to just make a statement.

On the other hand, if the candidate has a real mass base, is thinking in terms of building a broad progressive front around a clear, transformational program, and sees the candidacy as one step in a multitiered process, then it might just be worth going for it.

But in suggesting this, I do so with qualifiers. I have heard too many candidates who have suggested that they are interested in building a grassroots movement that will transcend their candidacy only to see such candidates close up shop after the campaign. A Sanders run as part of a longer-term effort at movement-building and energizing a progressive front needs to considered in the context of a demonstrable commitment by the candidate to do the right thing after the election.

For her part, Van Gelder agrees that "there's a real opportunity to build a third party with support for the Democratic and Republican parties at such a low point." But she also acknowledged that such a thing has "to be built from the bottom up over time, through organizing in communities and states all over the country."

She offered the Working Families Party as one good example of an alternative movement that grew into a political party over time, but also said she worries about the "spoiler effect" if things go wrong. "This sort of long-term base building would have to be founded on a broader platform than one candidate and one race, although having an eloquent spokesperson can help. It needs to be built up over the long term, though... Otherwise, there's risk."

"The other model is to run hard in the Democratic primary; maybe there's a way to take over the party?" said van Gelder. Then added: "I believe there would be huge support among the Democratic grassroots for the Sanders approach."

Next Steps

Speaking closer to home, Emma Mulvaney-Stanek, chairwoman of the Vermont Progressive Party, told local public radio WAMC that excitement grows around her state's socialist senator because he articulates what other politicians go to great lengths to avoid. According to Mulvaney-Stanek:

"That's an appealing prospect: a national dialogue about how to frame a campaign, what issues to run on, whether to run as a Democrat or an independent. It is also the right way to approach what would need to be a grassroots campaign." —John Nichols

Bernie has, on a national level, really proved an invaluable asset for working people. He literally starts conversations and says things in Congress that virtually no other Senator and certainly no other congressman, when he was a congressman, was saying. He’s taken on corporations. He’s taken on conversations around excessive money in elections. You name it. He has been a real strong voice for the average American and Bernie offers a real alternative. Whether or not he can gain traction as an independent is the real question, but I think it's exciting to see growing support for him.

From his perspective and having spoken repeatedly with Sanders, Nichols says the reality of the campaign is still very much an idea in progress, but that this is a good thing.

"I like that the senator says he wants to consult with progressives across their country—get the pulse," he said. "That's an appealing prospect: a national dialogue about how to frame a campaign, what issues to run on, whether to run as a Democrat or an independent. It is also the right way to approach what would need to be a grassroots campaign."

As far as Nichols is concerned, anyone running as a "progressive" must be attuned to the opinions and the aspirations of grassroots organizers and those facing the political and economic struggles at the ground level. "And the way to make that happen," says Nichols, "is by spending a lot of time with people outside Washington."

Fletcher, Jr. also welcomed the idea that these considerations are now out for discussion as he both welcomed and cautioned the prospect of Sanders run. "The last thing we need is another symbolic candidacy that, while touching our hearts and minds, brings us no closer to clobbering the political right and winning power for the dispossessed and the disengaged."


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