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What Progressives and Democrats Need is Coalition Not Unity

(Photo: Tony Webster/flickr/cc)

After a heated primary, Hillary Clinton is now the presumptive Democratic nominee for President. During the campaign, she has redefined herself as a “progressive who likes to get things done” to ward off the insurgent populism of her rival self-proclaimed “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders. Indeed, she is already looking ahead to the general election—threatening to move back to the ideological center ground to attract “moderates” in November.

While the media has called the Democratic race all but over, the supporters of Sanders are faced with a difficult decision. The mainstream opinion is for them to simply surrender to the “inevitability” of Clinton’s victory and embrace her as a candidate to unify the Democratic Party. However, for many progressives this option is both ethically and tactically problematic—forcing them into a familiar territory of voting for the “lesser of two evils.” Instead they have sought to send a distinct message to the status quo by proclaiming themselves “Bernie or Bust.”

Sanders, for his part, is far from willing to go away quietly. While he admits that defeating Trump must be priority number one, he has vowed to continue his revolution to transform the Democratic Party and the country. The immediate goal is to amass enough delegates and momentum to progressively influence the Party’s present platform and future direction.

However, is there an alternative option beyond the opposing poles of unity or bust? Is there a way for progressives to find a compromise with the Democratic Party without becoming compromised? The answer may be to fight for a coalition between progressives and the Democratic Party.

The Dangers of Unity

Since almost the beginning of his campaign, Sanders has been questioned over whether he legitimately has a “path to victory.” These calls have only intensified after his recent losses in primaries across the North East. More significant though, for at least those within the media and political establishment, is not whether he will win or loss but how he will work to unify the Democratic Party behind Clinton.

The fears of such impending disunity are manifest for those in the camp of both candidates. For Clinton, it means losing the support of a large number of potential left leaning voters—particularly those who are young or working class. This would break the famed “Obama coalition” and open the way for a Trump or Cruz presidency. Just the thought of such a scenario brings back traumatic memories of Nader supposedly costing Al Gore the 2000 election and with it eight disastrous years of Bush.

Yet the perceived threat is just as real for those backing Sanders. From the start of his run, Sanders has said that his largest worry is that a loss would “prove“ to people that progressives cannot win a national elections. While in the last year he has achieved more than almost anyone could originally predicted, to give up now would signal that even in the best of times a progressives are simply unelectable as Presidents.

Such a move would further legitimize Clinton and other Democratic “Centrists” as genuine progressives. Sanders is right to highlight the profound differences between himself and the former Senator and Secretary. She may be “qualified” but she has a history of extreme hawkishness internationally and an inconsistent record on issues ranging from Wall Street to LGTB rights to the environment domestically. While a Republican victory may have catastrophic effects for Americans and the world, a Clinton Presidency would also be destructive and a profound step backwards.

Finally, there is threat that this progressive energy will be co-opted by the Democratic Party and its largely corporate agenda. A common refrain from Clinton and her supporters is that Sanders’ is not even a “real Democrat”—something he has passionately denied. Yet if that means blindly accepting the Party’s embrace of finacialization at home and militarism abroad, then he and those who back him would probably happily plead guilty. The worry is that Sanders will become another “fairy tale” footnote of the Liberal insurgent who made some primary noise but ultimately did little to stop the reign of the Party’s “moderate” leadership.

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Already, there have been calls for progressives to take solace that they have won the “war of ideas.” They have successfully forced Clinton to the left on a range of important issues—from TPP trade agreement to the Keystone pipeline to private prisons. While Sanders may have lost the battle, the ultimate historical victory will be his as he is inspiring a generation of new voters to fight passionately for liberal and even “socialist” ideals.

As important as ideological victory may be, it means little if it is not translated into concrete political gains. To counter such complacency, Sanders is expanding his focus to include “down ballot” candidates who are running as progressives challenging the Democratic status quo. Specifically, he is sharing funding and campaigning New York's Zephyr Teachout, Nevada’s Lucy Flores, and Washington state’s Pramila Jayapal. These are just the tip of the political iceberg though of the rise of “Bernie’s Army.”

His wife, Jane Sanders has stated explicitly that regardless of the outcome of the primary, the plan is to build a new organization that can push forward a co- ordinated. progressive agenda. She declared:

“The most important thing is not electing Bernie president—the most important thing is starting a political revolution... If he’s the nominee, he wants people outside working with him to effect real change. If he’s not the nominee and he’s not the president, then it becomes even more important, because we need to make sure that the agenda that about 9 million people have said—have been very excited about and a lot more couldn’t vote for yet—that that agenda moves forward.”

In this same spirit, activists who had rallied around Sanders met in Chicago to create a “people’s platform” with the hope that the call for “political revolution” would live on far beyond the campaign.

Coalition Not Unity

The question of whether to “unify” or “not to unify” cannot be ignored, even as it is imperative to continuing looking ahead. Yet any suspicion that he caused a Democratic loss could put the progressive movement he is trying to build back possibly a generation—playing right into the hands of the oligarchic status quo he is trying to defeat. Still, to simply bow down to this same establishment could have similarly deflating consequences.

Perhaps what must also be asked, though, is who the Sanders’ campaign is rejecting by pursuing such mainstream unity. The simple answer is independents and those outside traditional Party politics seeking to radically transform the system. Kshama Sawant, the increasingly influential and recently re-elected socialist city council member from Seattle, has called on Sanders to run as an independent. The Green Party’s nominee Jill Stein has made a similar appeal, pushing for a broader progressive united front.

This possible progressive alliance would not have to be mutually exclusive to working with the Democratic Party to stop the election of a Republican. It would also have the advantage of pulling together all available influence and resources to democratize and make the Democratic Party more progressive before and after the election. It would allow them to keep pushing for a $15 minimum wage, more active climate change action and universal healthcare.

Equally important, it would help build the foundations for a sustainable and united progressive Party that can legitimately challenge the Democratic Party going forward. It would allow for progressives to articulate the real ideological and policy differences with Centrists like Clinton – ranging from the “Green New Deal” proposed by the Green Party to a foreign policy that promotes social justice over corporate interests.

Sanders is right—it is too late for “establishment politics”. Crucial to moving beyond this status quo is to escape the do or die choice offered by mainstream Democrats to progressives. It is way past the time for a destructive unity. What is needed is a coalition that takes progressives and progress seriously.

Peter Bloom

Peter Bloom

Dr. Peter Bloom is a lecturer in the Department of People and Organizations at the Open University. He has published widely on issues of 21st-century democracy, politics, and economics in both scholarly journals and in publications including the Washington Post, The New Statesman, Roar, Open Democracy, The Conversation, and Common Dreams. His books include Authoritarian Capitalism in the Age of Globalization and Beyond Power and Resistance: Politics at the Radical Limits released in November 2016.

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