Northampton, Massachusetts—When Bernie Sanders said in a Nation interview in March that he was prepared—not at all certain, but prepared—to run for the presidency, that got a lot of political activists thinking.
They were thinking about the prospect of a presidential run by a progressive populist who speaks bluntly about the need for a “political revolution” to tip the balance away from oligarchy and toward democracy. But they were also thinking about the ballot line on which the senator from Vermont might seek to build a movement-driven campaign not just for the presidency but for a new American politics.
Sanders caucuses with the Senate Democrats, but he has never been a Democrat. He started in politics as a candidate seeking statewide posts in the 1970s on the ballot line of Vermont’s left-wing Liberty Union Party. He was elected mayor of Burlington in 1981 as an independent who went on to beat the Democrats and the Republicans in election after election. His tenure in Burlington spurred local third-party activism, laying the groundwork for the Vermont Progressive Party, which is today one of the most successful state-based progressive parties in modern American history. Sanders was elected to the US House and the US Senate as an independent. And his criticisms of the compromises made by both major parties—harsher toward the Republicans, but plenty pointed toward the Democrats—are central to the message he delivers on the stump, in media appearances and in Washington.
So, if Sanders were to run for the presidency, would he do so as a Democrat, taking on the prospective candidacy of former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and perhaps others in the 2016 caucuses and primaries?
Would he consider running as a Green, embracing a party that has secured and maintained ballot lines in states across the country and that has had significant success electing local officials in a number of regions?
Or would he mount an independent campaign, perhaps with an eye toward building a new party politics that combines economic populism, environmental advocacy and a commitment to social justice?
There are now “Run Bernie Run” websites, “Draft Bernie” Twitter accounts and “Ready for Bernie” Facebook pages. Groups are petitioning, organizing meetings and making appeals to the senator and to the grassroots activists who the senator says would have to be the essential players in any insurgent campaign.
Last weekend, Progressive Democrats of America, a group that has worked for a decade to get the party to turn left—with an explicitly economic populist and anti-war agenda summed up by its slogan “Healthcare Not Warfare”—presented Sanders with petitions signed by close to 12,000 activists who are asking the senator to run as a Democrat.
The petition drive, initiated by Tim Carpenter, a veteran political organizer and PDA National Director who died last month, is not finished. But an appearance by Sanders Saturday at PDA’s national conference in Northampton prompted the decision to deliver the first stack of signatures. “We want him to know that there’s enthusiasm for a run, and to run as a Democrat,” said actress Mimi Kennedy, the PDA board chair who delivered the petition that announces, “We, the Undersigned, make this call for a primary challenge in full recognition of the need to prevent the current crazed, mean, and dangerous incarnation of the Republican Party from seizing total power; and…We, the Undersigned, do declare that we will knock on doors, donate, make phone calls, use social media, and do everything we can to elect Bernie Sanders the next president of the United States.”
At the same time, individual Green Party activists are arguing that Sanders, who has long been outspoken on a range of economic and social justice, peace and sustainability issues that animate the party, should seek a Green endorsement and a place on the party’s November ballot lines. A change.org petition declares: “Senator Bernie Sanders must run for president as a Green Party candidate if he wishes to remedy any of the grave problems that he speaks about.”
A recent article in Socialist Alternative, the national newspaper of the group with which Seattle Councilmember Kshama Sawant is allied, made the argument that Sanders, a democratic socialist, should try to do nationally what Sawant did last fall with her development of a movement-based candidacy that upset the traditional political calculus in Seattle. “Our view, again, is that there has not been a more propitious time in modern American history to begin to build a pro-working class political force. Kshama Sawant’s resounding success is a very small indication of what is possible if progressive forces, and especially a section of the labor movement, decided to make a decisive break with the Democrats,” declares the piece. “We are not, of course, pretending that a mass party of the 99 percent could be built overnight, but if Sanders decided to run as an independent left candidate for president on the basis of using his campaign to help galvanize the forces to launch such a party, it would be an enormous step forward. Concretely, his presidential run could be linked to a national effort to stand a slate of credible left candidates in local and national races in 2016 on an independent basis.”
Sanders admits that he wrestles with the issue. As recently as Friday night, when we participated in a town meeting in Northampton where “Run, Bernie, Run” chants broke out several times, the senator reflected on the question at some length, asking rhetorically, “What’s the advantage of running as an independent? The advantage of running independent is, right now, most people in this country do not have a lot of faith in either political party. So when you say you’re an independent, people say ‘Well, you’re not a Democrat or a Republican, that’s pretty good.’ What’s the disadvantage? The big disadvantage is…you would have to build an entire political infrastructure. That, in itself, would cost a huge amount of money and require people to do nothing else but try to get you on the ballot. We want to talk about issues, right? Now, getting on the ballot is important and we have to explain democracy to folks as well. But, more importantly, our energy should be on talking about national healthcare, distribution of wealth and all of the issues we feel strongly about…”
Sanders has considered the various possibilities, and he says he can see the appeal in each approach. Yet, he says that he would not run as a November spoiler. That means that to mount a third-party or independent campaign, he and his supporters would need to build a big enough movement to be a serious contender in a race with the Democrats and the Republicans—or be prepared to fold the outsider run before the November vote.
The history of prominent progressives who have tried the third-party and independent route—from Eugene Victor Debs to Theodore Roosevelt to Bob La Follette to Norman Thomas to Henry Wallace to Benjamin Spock to Ralph Nader—is a frustrating one. While there are many historical examples of third-party and independent presidential campaigns forcing the major parties to address issues, and even to change direction, there are fewer examples of sustainable movements that have been developed. And there is just one example of a radical party that cracked the upper tier of American politics: the Republicans of the 1850s.
With that history in mind, the senator mentioned in Northampton that running as a Democrat offered the advantage that “it’s kind of easy to get on the ballot, you’re in the debates—that’s a big deal—and the media can’t quite ignore you.”
Sanders will be testing that theory in coming weeks. Having already visited the first Democratic primary state of New Hampshire, for an April speech at St. Anselm College in Manchester, Sanders will travel next weekend to Iowa, where he will appear as the featured speaker at the Clinton County Democratic Party’s annual dinner.
Jeff Cox, a former Johnson County (Iowa City) Democratic Party chair who has been organizing an effort to get the senator to mount a campaign in the 2016 caucuses, says Sanders could renew “the kind of New Deal Democratic approach to economics that has been lost to the Democratic Party.”
That is an argument that Sanders has considered, and plenty of analysts will take from the New Hampshire and Iowa visits a signal of his intentions. Yet, when I asked on Friday if he had settled the issue in his own mind, the senator’s reply was “Nope.”
That may frustrate activists of various partisan and ideological stripes. But to my mind, there is something healthy about a broad exploration of approaches to a broken politics. At his most frustrated, Gore Vidal, himself a former Democratic candidate for the US House from New York and the US Senate from California, observed, “Apparently, a democracy is a place where numerous elections are held at great cost without issues and with interchangeable candidates.” In such a circumstance, a freewheeling consideration of the various routes to getting a serious discussion of issues, a broader range of candidates and more genuine choices is an encouraging development. A good part of that discussion is focused at this point on Sanders. But it need not begin or end with him. The real point is to engage in a deep discussion, at once idealistic and practical, about how to get a better politics—and to make real the promise of American democracy.