So Bernie Sanders has posed us – the American left – the question: Should he run for president? Well, let’s imagine what we will likely do in 2016 if he doesn’t run for president. Barring the appearance of some other surprise candidate of the left, we will, in our various ways, bemoan the inadequacies of the politics of Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, or whomever else the Democratic Party establishment puts forth, while also being alternately horrified and amused by the Republican contenders. We will lament the fact that our point of view remains absent from the televised debates and, for that matter, from almost all mainstream discussion. In short, we will simply not be a factor in the great quadrennial debate about America’s future. It will, in other words, be business as usual.
And what if Sanders does run? Since he already has substantial national recognition, it will be very difficult to deny him access to the televised debates. So, if and when we tune in, we might actually hear something about the problem of the country’s drift toward an oligarchy of billionaires and corporations buying elections. Or about how we could have rebuilt our highways five times over on what we’ve spent on the Iraq and Afghanistan Wars. Or a call for a national jobs program to rebuild the infrastructure. Or a Medicare-for-all, single-payer program to supplant the Obama’s administration’s Affordable Care Act.
If Sanders runs, we may not agree with him on everything. And we will almost certainly have issues that we wish he would speak to or emphasize more. And yet the difference between him and the Biden/Clinton/Kerry/Obama mainstream Democratic Party point of view will likely be obvious across the board. A left point of view will enter the discussion in all sorts of places it usually doesn’t, well beyond the debates themselves.
If Sanders runs, everything will probably not go the way we might want. We may even learn that some of our favorite ideas don’t actually play as well before a larger audience as we might have hoped. Some of them may even have to go back to the drawing board. At the same time, far larger numbers of voters will become aware that a dramatically different approach to governing the country does exist.
"Not only will we ask people to vote for Sanders, but we’ll ask them to ask others, to get involved themselves. We may find ourselves having conversations we never imagined, with people we never imagined."
If Sanders runs, the rest of us will also have a vehicle to talk about that approach. Some may talk about Sanders’s socialism; others may choose to confine themselves to his bread-and-butter positions. Not only will we ask people to vote for Sanders, but we’ll ask them to ask others, to get involved themselves. We may find ourselves having conversations we never imagined, with people we never imagined. For at least a little while, then, we may be a real political factor; we will constitute an actual electoral movement.
But what kind of an electoral movement? An independent candidacy or a primary campaign? Although Sanders has famously not been a Democrat throughout his career, he will almost certainly run in the primaries if he runs at all. I say that for a number of reasons. For one thing, he has never succumbed to the wishful thinking that the particular set of circumstances in Vermont, which have allowed him to become the longest serving congressional independent in U.S. history, exist all across the nation. And he has always recognized that to be a real political factor in Washington, and not simply a one-man protest party, he needed to caucus with the Democrats in Congress, differences notwithstanding – because you have to work with someone.
More significantly, so far as this question goes, Sanders has simply not been in the habit of backing “third party” presidential campaigns. When many of us (mistakenly) believed it might be possible to utilize the peculiarities of the electoral college system to build up a significant vote and organization for Ralph Nader in the non-swing states in 2000, Sanders was conspicuously absent from the effort.
But the main reason that I suggest that Sanders will not make an independent or third party bid is what he’s already said on the subject. As he told The Nation, “the dilemma is that, if you run outside of the Democratic Party ... you would be taking votes away from the Democratic candidate and making it easier for some right-wing Republican to get elected—the [Ralph] Nader dilemma.” And while he acknowledged that, like many of us, he might emotionally prefer “the bolder, more radical approach ... running outside of the two-party system,” it seemed to this reader, at least, that he expected most would conclude that “getting involved in primaries state-by-state, building organization capability, rallying people, that for the moment at least ... is the better approach.”
Two groups will oppose a Sanders Democratic Party run. On one side, we have party-loyalist primary voters who may think this independent maverick has no business in their party. On the other, we have those on the left who believe that the very act of running in the Democratic primaries would irredeemably corrupt his message. The question for Sanders – and us – is whether there are enough people on the American left who fall into neither of those camps.
If Sanders runs, he probably will not win most of the primaries; if it’s a small field, he may not win any of them. And he almost certainly will not win the nomination. On the other hand, he will certainly win delegates who will represent his/our point of view at the national convention and on the platform committee. And with a large field, it could get really interesting. Although you have to go back to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s first run for the last such instance, it’s always at least theoretically possible that no candidate will arrive at the convention with the number of delegates needed for nomination. In that case, we would witness the quite unusual spectacle of presidential candidates competing to be the most acceptable to the Sanders delegation, which is to say to the American left. But even absent that admittedly unlikely scenario, there are lots of other things Sanders delegates might do, starting with attempting to revivify the ever-more-moribund platform committee.
If Sanders runs, if he wins the nomination, we will, of course, work for his victory in November. In the wake of the more likely nomination of Hillary Clinton or someone like her, some of us who live in states clearly going one way or the other will quietly vote for third party candidates, but most will vote for the Democratic nominee – although with a wide range of attitudes. Should the nominee be Hillary Clinton, some will cast their votes grudgingly, seeing her as the “lesser of two evils;” others will embrace the opportunity to elect the nation’s first female president. Through it all, we will look for ways to remind the nominee of whatever strength we were able to show in the primary campaign, as well as for openings to make her or him responsive to our positions. And we will try to figure out how best to proceed on following up on whatever we managed to build in the Sanders campaign.
If Sanders runs, America’s left will move beyond the mere consolation of its philosophy and, at least for a time, become an actual, self-conscious part of electoral politics. The real question is not whether this would be a good thing – obviously it would – but how we could manage to do it again in four years, and then four years after that.