American Liberalism Is Exhausted / by Luke Savage

Joe Biden delivers remarks during the National Peace Officers Memorial Service at the Capitol in Washington, DC, on May 15, 2022. (Stefani Reynolds / AFP via Getty Images)

Originally published in Jacobin on April 26, 2023

After months of foot-dragging, Joe Biden is officially running for reelection — meaning that, barring some unexpected development on either side, Americans are likely in store for a second contest between Biden and Donald Trump.

It’s a disheartening prospect for many reasons, not least because it’s one very few actually seem to want. According to a recent poll, a majority of Americans would rather neither man run, though here the figures somehow look even bleaker for Biden than they do for Trump. A full 70 percent of the electorate purportedly thinks the president should not be seeking reelection, including more than half of Democrats. (The numbers for Trump being 60 and 33 percent, respectively.)

Having already rejigged the primary schedule to be maximally favorable to Biden, the Democratic National Committee (DNC) has also announced it won’t be bothering to hold debates at all. What lies ahead will thus be a primary contest in name only. Biden, a candidate who elicits minimal enthusiasm, will be untested in the lead-up to his probable rematch with Trump, and the ideological schisms in American liberalism that were momentarily brought into the open during the 2016 and 2020 presidential primaries will once again be hidden.

As far as the Democratic Party goes, none of this screams of confidence or dynamism. The political arm of American liberalism is effectively saying that it has no better candidate to offer than Joe Biden, and no vision its current leadership can envision pursuing that looks beyond the present horizon.

It’s depressing, but it’s also probably true. The list of DNC-friendly alternatives to Biden that have been floated over the past year are pretty feeble. Vice President Kamala Harris, who might otherwise be the de facto front-runner, is visibly considered a liability. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg, the preferred candidate among people who say “adulting” and count “homework” among their favorite activities, has seemed to generate more buzz despite being ideologically indistinguishable from Biden or Harris. After that, what you tend to find is a list of governors or 2020 also-rans like Amy Klobuchar.

None of these figures would represent more than a cosmetic break from the status quo. And if the Democratic Party is not going to shift gears or change course, it has little incentive to conscript any of the functionally interchangeable centrists who might take Biden’s place.

American liberalism is exhausted, but it cannot regenerate or reimagine itself, because doing so would require taking risks and breaking with pro-corporate shibboleths. When a political project has based its entire appeal on restoring equilibrium and stewarding normalcy, both are obviously impossible. The result, as the circumstances surrounding Biden’s reelection bid illustrate, is a constellation of institutions too enervated to transform themselves and too fixed in their patterns to be forced into a meaningful realignment.

Such a realignment would not actually be impossible. An incarnation of the Democratic Party willing to substitute a populist strategy for the current big donor and Wall Street–friendly approach could find fertile ground within the electorate on which to put down roots. Americans know the economy is rigged in favor of the rich. When it was first introduced, majorities of voters in both parties supported the idea of a Green New Deal. Ordinary Americans want higher taxes on the wealthy and a majority would prefer a universal, Medicare for All system that puts human need over private profit.

Pursuit of such an agenda, however, would require the kind of confrontation with corporate America that today’s Democratic mainstream gestures at when it’s convenient but dispenses with in practice. It would also require mass mobilization, the ousting of countless operatives from their sinecures, and a party culture open and dynamic enough to accommodate the challenging of incumbents.

Having defeated that vision in 2016 and 2020, Democratic grandees are evidently content to rest on their laurels, make broad appeals for tolerance, and pitch themselves as the only alternative to an increasingly menacing Republican right. Revealingly, Biden’s reelection announcement cast the president as the person best qualified to defeat the Trumpian right and win the “battle for the soul of America.” It’s a decidedly non-programmatic message, and one that, as the New Republic’s Prem Thakker observed, notably did not include the words “abortion,” “climate,” “environment,” “gun,” “immigrant,” “justice,” “labor,” “union,” and “worker.”

In a short-term, purely electoral sense, it may be enough for Biden to defeat Trump a second time. What it does not signify, however, is a political project that aspires for a better future than the present.

Luke Savage is a staff writer at Jacobin. He is the author of The Dead Center: Reflections on Liberalism and Democracy After the End of History.

The Need for Independent Left Leadership / by Sudip Bhattacharya

Photo: Communist Party USA Archives

Originally published in Black Agenda Report on April 5, 2023

Leftists in the U.S. must forge independent formations. Electoral politics are still a dead end.

In March, it was reported that the Biden administration is planning to re-introduce a Trump-era measure on immigration detention policy along the U.S.-Mexico border. This policy would mean the detainment of families crossing the border in overcrowded ICE detention facilities rather than the current policy of allowing them to wait for their asylum trial while staying with family and friends or in some other location, albeit wearing a monitor.

“Children should be released from ICE detention with their parents immediately,” Biden had said when condemning the same hideous policy when it had been introduced by the explicitly racist Trump administration. Somehow, now, it’s okay to traumatize migrants fleeing from countries ruined by far-right regimes our politicians have often propped up, not to mention escaping from ruinous neoliberal policies that have spread to all corners of the globe.

If this were to go through, this would be yet another broken promise by Biden and his acolytes inside the White House. From increasing funding for the police, to ending a possible strike among railway workers desperate for a day off, the Biden administration has been a laundry list of failed stances on policies that would have improved the living and working conditions of many of its alleged constituents.

“Election seasons are reality-creation festivals, during which the two corporate parties pretend to put forward different visions of the national and global destiny,” the imitable Glen Ford once wrote, “When, in fact, they answer to the same master and must pursue the same general strategy.”

Grace Dean at Bloomberg writes, “The financial-services sector gave $982.8 million in party-coded contributions across 2019 and 2020 through both individual employee donations and PACs, the report said. Of this, 47% went to Republicans and 53% went to Democrats.”

The GOP is the blunter interpretation of capitalist greed and id. It is a party now of white nationalists, and nihilism to a degree, a party of crass businessmen and white resentment that had been allowed to fester since Reagan’s rise to political infamy. That said, the Democrat party leadership itself, along with Biden, who has a long illustrious career of being a conservative pro-segregation type, are beholden to financial and other business interests. Because of such interests and their support for the party’s top-tier, progressive policies on labor, on empire, on issues surrounding migration and reproductive rights will never come about, let alone see the light of day when it comes to some reform in Congress, the so-called house of the people.

Massive changes in government policy won’t happen so long as the U.S. left works within the party system, thus allowing the masses to do the same, voting in candidates all the while private enterprise and industry amasses more and more power for itself. Instead, if the left is serious about improving the lives of the masses, especially black and brown, there is no other avenue towards that end apart from disrupting the daily churn of major corporations and businesses and those government agencies that prioritize their interests.

“The best way to counter the political power of those institutions is to disrupt their profits or their functioning,” write Kevin Young, Tarun Banerjee and Michael Schwartz in Levers of Power: How the 1% Rules and What the 99% Can Do About It ,” adding, “The route to real progressive reform goes through the corporations and the state agencies that exercise power over the politicians.”

When large masses of people stop the money from flowing, that’s when the major institutions, especially private ones, start to panic and fold.

But this won’t naturally occur. Immiseration and economic crises do not inevitably lead people into organizing strikes and occupations and other actions that weakens capitalism’s hold. In fact, as evidenced in recent polling, people can become politically confused on what to believe. In recent surveys, while many African Americans desire dramatic changes to the so-called justice system, a significant number also want the same level or more of funding for the police. Among Asian Americans and Latinx populations in the U.S., there has been a rightward political shift, with others caring less and less about mainstream politics itself.

“The strikes and organizing drives that lit up the industrial landscape beginning in 1934 were not spontaneous eruptions, popular folklore notwithstanding,” historian Steve Fraser writes in Mongrel Firebugs and Men of Property , “In virtually every case, they were prepared for and led by a menagerie of radicals: socialists, communists, Trotskyists, remnants of the Industrial Workers of the World (the ‘Wobblies’), anarcho-syndicalists, and others.”

Oppressed and exploited peoples in the U.S. need a leftwing political party/organization independent of the two-party system. We need leftwing groups that are willing to organize strikes, occupations, as well as other effective modes of resistance that would truly help in shifting power from the capitalist elites over to the masses. We need a politicized constituency who recognize the objective need for socialism rather than for some bastardized form of regulated capitalism.

The Democrat party won’t allow for this type of organizing to occur, especially from within its ranks. Of course, the GOP would be salivating at the chance of murdering and disappearing more activists. Both parties serve to obscure and deflect from the true power sources in this country, the capitalist elites and the monsters that they create to protect them, from white racist mobs to police.

“You put them first and they put you last,” Malcolm X had stated decades ago about the Democrats when they championed themselves as civil rights fighters while wielding the FBI to suppress a burgeoning leftwing opposition.

A failure to develop a constituency of people willing to leverage their power as workers, as tenants, as masses against the GOP, against Democrat leadership, against the corporations that fuel them will always lead us down a path of political impotence and wandering. A failure to develop a constituency of people willing to agitate beyond the bounds of voting booths and public relations will mean policies like Biden’s immigration detention policy, and the continued financial support for the U.S military complex, for the police, for the corporatized state shall persist, regardless of whom the people claim to elect and believe in.

This is going to be difficult work and will require dedication and leadership. But it’s either developing true leftwing and socialist power, or remain trapped in this loop, where elected officials like Biden promise the people some reforms, and in the midst of those promises, more and more people are hurt, left in overcrowded prisons and detainment facilities.

Sudip Bhattacharya is a doctoral candidate in political science at Rutgers University. He also has a background as a reporter, having gotten his Master’s in journalism at Georgetown University. You can find his work at outlets like Reappropriate, The Aerogram, Protean Magazine and Current Affairs, among others. 

Corporate Democrats ‘Passing the Torch’ / by Norman Solomon

U.S. Rep. Hakeem Jeffries in 2020. (Brookings Institution, Flickr, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0)

Originally published in  Common Dreams

Congressman Hakeem Jeffries is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, but Norman Solomon says that affiliation for the man tapped Wednesday to take over as leader of House Democrats should not be taken at face value.

Images of passing the torch can be stirring.

President John Kennedy reached heights of inaugural oratory when he declared that “the torch has been passed to a new generation of Americans.”

Three decades later, when Bill Clinton won the presidency, a Newsweek headline proclaimed “THE TORCH PASSES.” The article underneath glorified “a film clip that made its way into a widely seen campaign ad: a beaming, 16-year-old Bill Clinton on a sun-drenched White House lawn, shaking the hand of his and his generation’s idol, John F. Kennedy.”

Weeks later, when Time magazine named Clinton “Man of the Year,” its cover story carried the headline “THE TORCH IS PASSED.”

The Clinton presidency went on to carry the torch for corporate-friendly measures. The NAFTA trade pact destroyed many well-paying union jobs; “welfare reform” harmed poor women and their families; a landmark crime law fueled mass incarceration; Wall Street deregulation led to the financial meltdown of 2007-2008.

Now, the top of the Democratic Party is passing torches on Capitol Hill. When Nancy Pelosi announced two weeks ago that she will no longer lead House Democrats, she said: “The hour has come for a new generation to lead.” But in what direction?

President Joe Biden with House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, center, and Vice President Kamala Harris after the president delivered his State of the Union address to Congress on March 1. (White House, Adam Schultz)

Pelosi quickly endorsed Rep. Hakeem Jeffries to replace her as leader. NBC News offered the common media frame: “Pelosi made history as the first female speaker of the House, while Jeffries, the current Democratic Caucus chairman, would become the first Black leader of a congressional caucus and highest-ranking Black lawmaker on Capitol Hill.” On Wednesday, House Democrats selected him

Problematic Record

You can count on much of the mass media to shower the 52-year-old Jeffries with accolades, largely supplied by fellow Democrats. But, overall, a closer look reveals a problematic record.

Early on, before becoming a New York state legislator, Jeffries worked for years as a corporate lawyer. In Congress — while he has taken a few progressive positions like cosponsoring Medicare for All and voting to cut 10 percent of the military budget — his emphasis has been in sync with the party establishment.

“I’m a Black progressive Democrat concerned with addressing racial and social and economic injustice with the fierce urgency of now,” Jeffries told The Atlantic in August 2021. But during the same interview, Jeffries added: “There will never be a moment where I bend the knee to hard-left democratic socialism.” (Ironically, Jeffries was echoing the “fierce urgency of now” phrase from Martin Luther King Jr., who was a democratic socialist.)

Jeffries likes to jab leftward. In 2016, he called Bernie Sanders a “gun-loving socialist with zero foreign-policy experience.” A 2018 profile in The Economist—titled “High Hopes for Hakeem Jeffries” – concluded that he “is nearly as moderate as a safe-seat Democrat gets.” The article pointed out: “Though he supports the principle of universal healthcare coverage, he speaks of ‘the importance of market forces and getting things done in a responsible fashion.’ Quoting Ronald Reagan approvingly, he suggests this means promoting a flourishing private sector outside the ‘legitimate functions’ of government.”

Bernie Sanders at a campaign rally in Des Moines, Iowa, January 2016. (Gage Skidmore via Flickr)

Congressman Jeffries takes umbrage at negative press portrayals to such an extent that his office tries to quash critical assessments. When I wrote in a HuffPost piece in January 2019 that “Jeffries has been more attentive to serving corporate power than the interests of voters in his Brooklyn district,” the response was swift and angry.

Jeffries’s communications director and senior advisor at the time, Michael Hardaway, fired off emails to HuffPost, claiming that my characterization was “factually inaccurate and easily disproven.” Despite the escalating fulminations, the HuffPost editor explained that he saw “no reason to correct or update the piece.”

Jeffries has not been a sponsor of the Green New Deal (which Pelosi famously denigrated in 2019: “The green dream or whatever they call it, nobody knows what it is, but they’re for it, right?”). He also has not cosponsored the Green New Deal for Cities Act.

During the latest election cycle, Jeffries joined forces with one of the most corporate and vitriolic anti-progressive Democrats in the House, Josh Gottheimer, to form Team Blue PAC. Its priority – to protect the party’s incumbents against Squad-like primary challengers – was summed up last winter in a Rolling Stone headline over an article about Jeffries’s initiative: “Top House Democrat Unveils Plan to Beat Back Progressive Rebellion.”

Last year, The American Prospect reported, Jeffries was conspicuously absent from efforts to support public housing in his home city. “When all [other] New York City House Democrats sent a letter to Pelosi urging her to protect all $80 billion for public housing in the BBB [Build Back Better bill], Jeffries was the only member not to sign that missive, especially surprising given that New York Dems are known to act as a bloc.”

Jeffries is a member of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, the magazine noted, but that affiliation should not be taken at face value: “Jeffries is a mute member of the CPC, the largest caucus in the party, but has recently chosen to ally himself with its more conservative factions. And while the party’s moderate wing has moved left on everything from foreign policy to social welfare, Jeffries has not moved with it.”

In fact, Hakeem Jeffries is thoroughly corporate, As The Intercept reported four years ago, after he won a close race against Rep. Barbara Lee to become chair of the House Democratic Caucus, “Jeffries is heavily backed by big money and corporate PACs. Less than 2 percent of his fundraising comes from small donors, who contribute less than $200, according to Federal Election Commission records.”

Rep. Barbara Lee speaking against U.S. war with Iran, January 2020. (Twitter)

While in his fourth term, “Jeffries was the leading congressional recipient of hedge fund money in 2020,” The American Prospect reported last year:

“He banked $1.1 million from the financial sector, real estate interests, and insurance industry in the 2019–2020 cycle. Everyone from JPMorgan Chase to Goldman Sachs to Blackstone contributed. Zimmer Partners, a hedge fund, is one of Jeffries’s top donors in 2021. From the outset, he has governed with those interests at heart. While Democrats were reconsidering their coziness with Wall Street, he broke ranks to vote with the financial services world, including on a high-profile measure literally written by Citigroup lobbyists in 2013 that killed the Dodd-Frank ‘swaps push-out’ rule, allowing banks to engage in risky trades backed by a potential taxpayer-funded bailout.”

Thirty years younger than the outgoing speaker, Jeffries is a fitting symbol of media eagerness to herald generational change for Democrats in Congress. But investigative journalist Alexander Sammon has provided an apt sum-up:

“Barely in his fifties, Jeffries is young numerically, but aligned with an older mode of Democratic politics, and has repeatedly distanced himself from the younger crop of Democrats that is almost categorically more progressive (and more popular). He’s made a reputation for himself as the party’s future by becoming a foremost representative of its past.”

When a torch passes, we might be glad to “meet the new boss.” But we should discard illusions. That way, hopefully, we don’t get fooled again.

Norman Solomon is co-founder and national coordinator of His books include “War Made Easy: How Presidents and Pundits Keep Spinning Us to Death“ (2006) and “Made Love, Got War: Close Encounters with America’s Warfare State” (2007).

Consortium News, December 2, 2022

Opinion: To Win a Political Revolution, We Need a New Mass Organization / by Jeremy Gong and Nick French

Since Bernie Sanders’s defeat in 2020 and the start of the COVID-19 pandemic, the US left has been largely disorganized. The time is ripe for Bernie and the Squad to create a new mass organization to confront today’s crises.

It’s hard for leftists in the United States to find much to celebrate these days. After the excitement of Bernie Sanders’s victories in the early 2020 Democratic primaries, our hopes were dashed when the center consolidated around Joe Biden and handed him the nomination. The wave of inspiring uprisings against police brutality later that summer was followed by disappointment too, as demands for serious reforms to attack racial and economic injustice were co-opted or sidelined. The Left, as some have put it, finds itself in purgatory.

Meanwhile, Joe Biden’s administration has turned out to be what his most astute critics predicted: a presidency that, despite some early bright spots, has failed to meaningfully tackle economic inequality, the climate crisis, or much of anything else. Biden’s approval ratings are now at record lows as inflation batters the economy. (It’s unclear whether a last-minute compromise deal with West Virginia senator Joe Manchin on climate, health care, and taxes will salvage the administration’s popularity.) On top of that, the Supreme Court is rolling back abortion rights and threatening our democracy, and Biden and Democratic Party leaders are dragging their feet on any sort of response. The increasingly reactionary GOP now seems set for victory in the midterms.

There are some positive signs: Left-wing ideas are more mainstream than they have been in decades, in part thanks to Sanders’s presidential campaigns. Along with other insurgent politicians like “Squad” members Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Rashida Tlaib, Sanders has put policies like Medicare for All, the Green New Deal, and free public college into the mainstream. Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) has nearly one hundred thousand dues-paying members, four members in Congress, and dozens of elected officials at the state and local levels. The labor movement is stirring again, with this year’s successful Amazon warehouse unionization effort in Staten Island, the ongoing wave of Starbucks organizing, and the election of a strike-ready leadership to the 1.3-million-strong International Brotherhood of Teamsters.

Still, the Left hasn’t been able to coordinate effective political interventions at the federal level, let alone exercise power. With leftists still a tiny minority in Congress, progressive priorities like Medicare for All and a Green New Deal are off the agenda, and even less ambitious reforms are consistently stymied by conservative Democrats like Joe Manchin. And despite growing their legislative presence, socialists and their allies have failed to expand beyond deep-blue districts.

Sanders’s presidential campaigns brought in tens of thousands of volunteers, millions of voters, and a huge number of small-dollar campaign contributions (many from working-class donors). But it wasn’t enough to win, and the underlying theory of the campaigns — that class-struggle rhetoric and a popular platform of wealth redistribution could turn out masses of working-class nonvoters to carry Sanders to the nomination — didn’t pan out. Despite the popularity of Sanders-style politics and mass discontent with the status quo, socialism remains largely the preserve of young, college-educated professionals in solidly Democratic districts — isolated from the broader working-class constituency it purports to represent.

In a phrase, Sanders’s “political revolution” simply never came.

There are many theories as to why Sanders didn’t win. Part of the explanation, though, must involve the lack of working-class organization (including unions) and left institutions. The defeat and disorganization of the Left and labor since the 1970s has deprived the working class of the struggles and organizations that undergird them — what Friedrich Engels called “schools of class war.” Having never felt the power of collective struggle, many voters were understandably skeptical that Sanders’s campaign would deliver. And with most Democratic voters taking their cues from the corporate media and party elites, Sanders simply didn’t have a strong enough media counterweight.

Today, the absence of mass working-class organization continues to haunt the US left. With the Right putting fundamental liberties like reproductive freedom on the chopping block and the Democrats asleep at the wheel, the time is ripe to build a mass organization that can make desperately needed political interventions. And we think that Sanders and the Squad need to take the lead in building such an organization.

Movements Need Organizations

The Left’s recent defeats — compounded by COVID-19, which has made in-person organizing much more difficult — have fostered demoralization and demobilization. But much of the post-2020 malaise can also be attributed to the inability of activists — let alone millions of ordinary people — to keep participating in a movement that has the power to change the world, especially at the national level, where the stakes are highest. While activists have supported impressive campaigns and righteous protests, millions of former Bernie supporters understandably feel helpless amid political and ecological crises.

Still, there are inspiring examples for the Left to build on. In Richmond, California, the Richmond Progressive Alliance (RPA) has beaten landlords and Chevron to win city council majorities on and off for over a decade. The Vermont Progressive Party continues to be a significant force in state politics, even holding the office of lieutenant governor from 2017 to 2021. In New York City and Chicago, DSA-backed elected officials have formed socialist caucuses.

These efforts are exciting because they elevate the political process above individual candidates and fleeting election campaigns, fuse legislative fights with permanent membership organizations, and create clear and oppositional political identities distinct from the Democratic Party. As labor activist and RPA leader Mike Parker wrote earlier this year, building broader political organization is the “main task when it comes to political action,” not a “side issue.” Organization is how we make Bernie’s “Not me, us” more than a slogan.

Without organization, it’s hard to build, let alone sustain, the type of mobilization needed for Bernie’s political revolution. Massive protests wane without clear demands, let alone a compelling strategy of how to win them. Thousands of progressives either don’t know how to start building campaigns or lack the resources to do so. Movements around important issues get co-opted by corporate Democrats’ reelection campaigns, grant-seeking nonprofits, and prominent social media personalities who aren’t democratically accountable to any base. Ongoing organization is also essential to train onetime protesters into skilled, politically sophisticated, and lifelong movement cadre.

In electoral politics, progressive candidates face enormous pressure to avoid criticizing establishment Democrats. Once elected, lone progressives have few resources to push against the business-friendly common sense at every level of government: corporate candidates can rely on well-funded lobbyists to help write legislation, educate the public, and even mobilize supporters; anti-corporate candidates must do this all on their own. Without a broader organization at their back, it’s no wonder that the progressive politicians we support are not able to be constantly fighting on all fronts at once.

Only mass organization can bring together the resources and the people of the Sanders movement on a permanent basis. The idea of such a party-like organization has been popular on the Left since the end of Sanders’s 2016 campaign, popularized in a 2016 Jacobin article by Seth Ackerman and expanded on recently by many others.

If the Left had a mass party–like organization in 2020, the end of Sanders’s second presidential race wouldn’t have meant losing the feeling that, together, we could change the world. While supporters of Sanders and the Squad can donate to individual election campaigns when asked, there is no way to permanently join and help build the movement these elected officials appear to lead. Many of us called for Sanders to convert his 2020 campaign infrastructure into a permanent organization after the campaign, to no avail.

Such a party-like organization could have helped progressives in Congress and their many supporters win more of the progressive items in negotiations over Build Back Better since 2021. As Ben Beckett argued in Jacobin last fall, Sanders and the Squad could have built a powerful movement to pressure Manchin and Arizona senator Kyrsten Sinema by mobilizing with activists, including DSA members, battle-hardened teacher unionists — who led historic mass strikes in West Virginia and Arizona in 2018 — and other progressives. Such a movement might also have pushed the Biden administration to use its bully pulpit or the power of executive action to enact sweeping change (like canceling student debt). The movement to defend abortion rights desperately needs this kind of mobilization today.

In a similar vein, Neal Meyer writes that “mass mobilizations require mass organization. We have to put the days of lone-wolf politicians acting on their own . . . behind us.” A Sanders-led party-like organization with permanent local chapters across the country could have coordinated this movement with progressive electoral challenges in West Virginia and Arizona and pressure campaigns against Democratic leaders like Nancy Pelosi in California and Chuck Schumer in New York. A mass organization could in turn bolster Sanders and the Squad to fight for a better deal in Congress, as well as support local and state-level candidates nationwide — including in purple or red districts where the Left does not yet have a foothold.

Ultimately, we need something like the organization described here to help convince millions of working people who are disconnected from politics that a better world is possible through collective action, and to sustain mass activity once it’s in motion. That’s how we can build the base that will elect Sanders-style progressives and democratic socialists by the hundreds across the country and grow a movement that can exert bottom-up pressure through mass disruption.

Build Back Bernie

It is premature to write a precise blueprint for what this party-like organization should look like. But there are a few principles that should guide us.

First, socialists and progressives should call on Bernie and the Squad to participate in building and leading this new organization. For better or worse, only these national political figures have the resources and legitimacy to bring together millions of supporters and many disparate threads of progressive activism into a single organization. Their leadership would make the project much more likely to succeed, and sooner.

Second, such an organization should be democratic and membership-based. Local and national leaders should be elected by the members, and members should be able to influence the policy platforms of elected officials like Sanders through conventions and internal debates. As Mike Parker and Martha Gruelle write in a different context, democracy is power: only democratic organizations can give their members a sense of ownership over strategies and campaigns, grow the sophistication and size of their activist base, refine their approach based on real-world experience, and deal with competing ideas without alienating the minority of activists who don’t get their way.

Third, the group should support progressive election campaigns, but also year-round organizing outside the halls of official politics. The history of progressive movements shows that mass disruption, outside of the normal political process, is critical to securing legislative wins. No anti-corporate political project will be successful if the Left isn’t also helping build fighting unions and social movements.

Fourth, a progressive party-like organization should be working-class-funded, primarily through membership dues. That means rejecting all corporate and billionaire donations, large unreported donations from anonymous sources, and donations from PACs, foundations, or other groups that launder capitalist cash. Campaign-finance statutes complicate efforts to coordinate election spending, but David Duhalde and Seth Ackerman have both explained how such a nonparty political organization could navigate the law.

Finally, this organization should be effectively nonpartisan, meaning it will support candidates running as Democrats and as independents, depending on what makes sense in a given local context. Sanders himself has run as an independent for Congress, but caucuses with the Democrats, and made his biggest impact by running in the Democratic presidential primaries. This flexibility will be needed both to build an independent political brand that resonates with voters sick of both corporate parties and to keep together leftists and progressives who might currently disagree about the long-term future of the Democratic Party. In the near term, though, the organization can appeal to voters who are still loyal to the Democrats or who are worried about the “spoiler effect” in districts where that is a concern.

Along with mobilizing to defend abortion and other rights, activists and groups that believe in this organizational vision should plan local and national convenings to discuss how to make it a reality. We’re members of DSA and believe DSA has an important role to play in backing this effort. But we also believe that a Sanders-led party-like organization must have a broader ideological base than DSA, since today’s fights are for near-term reforms, not for overthrowing capitalism. As with our election campaigns, unions, and protests, our mass political organizations should be open to the millions of people who want to defend democracy and support Sanders’s agenda but aren’t ready to join an explicitly anti-capitalist organization.

Other membership organizations and nonprofits like the Sunrise Movement and Justice Democrats, local or state-level political formations like the RPA and the Vermont Progressive Party, grassroots groups fighting for economic and social justice, and progressive unions like National Nurses United, which hosted the People’s Summit after Sanders’s first run in 2016, should also sign on to this project.

A New Political Moment

Sanders has attempted to start a mass membership organization before: Our Revolution, which sprung up in the wake of his 2016 presidential run. For all its accomplishments, though, Our Revolution isn’t suited to play the role of a mass party–like organization right now.

First, though at least some chapters had democratic mechanisms, members were not empowered to democratically determine the national organization’s strategy. Second, Sanders himself was not involved in the organization, which likely hindered the group’s appeal and political effectiveness. Third, as Duhalde noted in 2020, most of Our Revolution’s staff left the organization to work for Sanders’s 2020 campaign, and some of its key early leaders are no longer involved.

That points to another problem with Our Revolution: it was formed at a particular moment (post-2016), with many activists no doubt expecting another Sanders presidential run, and with a particular strategy of attempting to reform the Democratic Party from within. But that political moment is over: Sanders lost the 2020 primary, progressives have largely found themselves marginalized by the Democratic establishment, and we need everyone who was activated by the Bernie campaign and more — including Sanders himself and the Squad — to come together to devise a new strategy. We should reconsider Our Revolution’s strategy of running for internal Democratic Party positions, for instance, and think about establishing a political identity more independent of the Democrats.

The new left has much to be proud of since 2016, but the organizations and tactics that got us this far aren’t enough going forward. If we want to fight for democracy and justice, and build the power to make more ambitious changes in the future, we need to get serious about our strategy. Isolated protests, strikes, and election campaigns have brought many of us into politics. But we need these to add up to more than the sum of their parts so we can wage the struggle that establishment Democrats can’t or won’t.

We know the creation of the kind of group we’re calling for is a long shot. But we’ve seen the ability of Sanders and the Squad to inspire millions, and we believe they have the power to start building the effective, broad left organization that this moment demands.

Jeremy Gong is a member of the Democratic Socialists of America in California’s East Bay.

Nick French is an assistant editor at Jacobin.

Jacobin, August 6, 2022,

Sunset of the AFL-CIO? / by Chris Townsend

AFL-CIO Headquarters, Washington, DC, 3014. Matt Popovich | Flickr

The 29th Constitutional Convention of the American Federation of Labor – Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO) opened in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, on June 12, 2022 delayed by one year owing to pandemic conditions. There was little fanfare, and little advance publicity apparently. Even ordinarily sympathetic observers of AFL-CIO Conventions have been struck by the low profile and energy of the proceedings. Held only every 4 years the Federation Convention is the one minimally public event where union leaders, members, activists, and supporters of the labor movement might be able to look for leadership on the dizzying array of issues facing working people. 

In recent decades as the labor movement has been assaulted from all sides less and less public and media attention is seemingly paid to this otherwise critical council of the leadership of such a primary section of the organized working class. By comparison, the twice-as-large Labor Notes conference convened in Chicago just a week after the AFL-CIO Convention, and it offered a dramatically different and far more energetic approach to solving labor’s crises and problems.

The AFL-CIO is comprised of 57 industrial and craft unions, claiming a combined total of 12.5 million U.S. members. When those only nominally associated with their unions are subtracted – primarily retirees and political campaign enrollees – actual Federation membership is significantly less. And in addition to this membership, more than 7 million workers belong to unions not affiliated with the AFL-CIO.  The stark facts today would be that the unionized section of the U.S. working class remains numerically small, embattled, isolated, and encircled by hostile employers and governments. Activity levels among union members at the workplaces has declined as a result. The total unionized slice of the workforce has also been steadily shrinking as a proportion of the entire workforce for the past 70 years, now well less than 10%. 

While positive anecdotes are always to be found in abundance where unions and workers fight back or try to advance, the overall condition of the labor movement given this imbalance of forces is precarious at best. For my entire working life as a union member – more than 40 years – the situation has been steadily deteriorating as both employers and governments systematically attack the remaining organized union garrisons in the industries. Our growth in new sections of the economy has been virtually stopped, as the employers have adopted an all-out union smashing strategy to prevent the unions from regenerating. The new industries have been nearly impossible to organize, so the unions continue to suffer major losses in established bases that they are unable to replace.

Convention Die Cast on Day One

Given the dire situation we now face as a labor movement one might have imagined a Federation Convention dedicated to intense study and debate regarding our situation. Or, we might have imagined a vigorous pre-Convention process where the disastrous situation we confront would have been dissected in a search for solutions by the leadership. Very little of this apparently happened, however. The Philadelphia Convention opened without the presence of the well-known and outsized figure of Richard Trumka, who died suddenly in August of 2021 after more than 25 years as first the Secretary-Treasurer, then the President of the Federation. Trumka had announced his intention to retire at the Philadelphia Convention, and his sudden death opened-up the possibility of an actual election contest for the leadership spot. 

Trumka’s hand-picked successor was AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Liz Shuler, the preferred shoo-in of the conservative elements in the various affiliate unions. Progressive forces scattered in the unions had promoted a possible candidacy by airline Flight Attendants (AFA) union President Sara Nelson, but resistance from the old regime’s supporters and a front-loaded leadership election on day one of the Convention ended any such thought of a challenge. Shuler was elected without debate or discussion. The small progressive forces in the various union leaderships – and the even smaller left elements – were unable to crystallize the needed support for Nelson that might have forced an election challenge and a wide-ranging debate of the many crises faced. The hurried Shuler election on day one ended any hopes for discussion, debate, or any meaningful appraisal of the state of things facing the unions at the Philadelphia meeting.

More Decay and Drift Ahead

With no leadership challenge or debate having materialized, the Convention proceeded to move through its customary standard agenda on a predictable course. The multiple disasters facing the labor federation were at times mentioned, but little urgent action was proposed. Scripted speeches, stage-managed presentations, visiting VIP guests from the Democratic Party – notably President Joe Biden – spoke to the assemblage, and an array of video clips were shown to try to inject enthusiasm into the audience. A trade show theme permeated the Convention as job training, “wellness”, and other HR functions were offered as substitutes for traditional trade union responses. 

Some ongoing struggles and organizing successes were thankfully showcased, although the leaders of the three largest successful NLRB union election campaigns in the past 3 months – Amazon, Starbucks, and MIT – were all barely noted. Ironically, the three unions responsible for those wins – the Amazon Labor Union (ALU), Workers United (SEIU), and the United Electrical Workers Union (UE) – are not affiliates of the AFL-CIO. These unprecedented and successful uprisings of more than 15,000 unorganized workers in previously untouchable anti-union employer fortresses were little noted in the AFL-CIO proceedings.

During the week a variety of other public decisions were made; Fred Redmond from the Steelworkers Union was elected Secretary-Treasurer; the Executive Vice President slot was eliminated by being merged apparently with the Secretary-Treasurer position; a new Executive Council of affiliate union leaders was elected without any challenges or debate; and at the very end of the Convention it was announced that a new organizing initiative would be launched presumably to address the stagnant and sinking membership levels. No details or timelines were announced as to how or when this would be done. So ended the Convention of AFL-CIO, the all-too-rare meeting of the leaders and general staffs of the unions comprising the U.S. labor federation. My now departed and dear friend Harry Kelber – a tireless advocate for an improved democratic and deliberative process at AFL-CIO Conventions – would have been dumbstruck at the proceedings, what they covered, and what they did not cover. 

Crises Will Deepen and Worsen

A “steady as she goes” approach has been the preferred course by the labor leadership for decades. It has proven to be a reliable path to a “rule or ruin” legacy where the singular goal of maintaining complete control crowds out all other considerations. Such is sadly the state in many of the affiliate unions as well. Ignoring problems and crises, delaying real discussion of new and urgently needed solutions, praying child-like for a miracle to save the “the middle class”, hiring outside advertising firms to explore new “messaging” schemes, continued habituation to decline and decay, an unwillingness to question the political strait-jacket of the Federation, substituting non-profits and NGO’s for the development of real trade union capacity, and even overt submissive gestures to enemy political forces and corporations in the vain search for allies have all been standard responses over the decades. Given this historically failed and sterile process no other outcome other than continued decline is to be expected. The Philadelphia Convention has ended, the delegates have drawn their breath and drawn their pay, and that’s that.

Progressives and Militants Demobilized and Scattered

Defenders and apologists of the status-quo alike have always pointed out one fact that is not in question here, which is to correctly observe that “The AFL-CIO is only a sum of its parts.” Meaning, that the Federation itself is merely a reflection of the character of the unions and the union leadership that comprise the leadership of the affiliate unions. Today’s situation within the labor center reflects accurately an overall business union malaise deeply infecting the labor movement. The current untenable and dangerous situation will not correct itself, either. The highly paid leaders of the bulk of the affiliate unions – and their networks of appointees and paid staff completely beholden to them – are customarily insulated and protected from virtually all political challenges in their own unions. 

The progressive and left elements in the unions do exist, but they are precariously scattered and unable or unwilling to bring forward demands for such basic initiatives as the need for internal democratization of the unions, for aggressive bargaining campaigns before the current economic conditions deteriorate, for mass campaigns of new organization, or advocacy towards a new and improved political action program. Some of the more activist and progressive forces within the affiliate unions did emerge as part of the network which pushed for a candidacy by Sara Nelson from the Flight Attendants, but in the end the network was too small, too isolated, opposed by too many, undermined, and unable to pull together a campaign to confront the old guard as personified by Shuler.     

Need for Real Work in the Unions

Over the past 30 years there have been 3 distinct union leadership groupings that have collected around demands that the labor Federation deal more realistically with its problems, deal more decisively with them, organize the unorganized on a wider scale, and exert some degree of independence from the Democratic Party. The union coalition that barely unseated the reactionary Lane Kirkland regime in 1995; the dozen unions that coalesced around the Labor Party movement in the 1990’s, and the unions that came together and ultimately split from the AFL-CIO to form the now moribund rival Change to Win federation in the 2,000’s. Progressives and militants played leading roles in all three efforts, although all three were unable to permanently establish themselves as sustained left alternatives to the ossified status quo.  

In the wake of the failure of these three initiatives – so far as their goal of reinvigorating the overall labor federation – the left forces have dissipated and declined. The Bernie Sanders campaign rejuvenated some of these forces during his bid for the White House but have since scattered again in the wake of the Biden victory. With no pressure being brought to bear from the left, the entrenched conservatives in control of the Federation are unlikely to act on very much coming in the wake of the Convention, as history will attest. And on top of everything else, the apparent impending November election debacle facing the Democratic Party – and the likely return to power of an increasingly reactionary and anti-labor Republican Party – should be cause for alarm. With a Republican Party set to continue and expand its program of liquidating the trade unions one might have imagined the Federation willing to confront at least this singular issue as an emergency, but no such program seems in evidence. 

The situation in many of the affiliates is even more dire, as internal union polls regularly indicate that large swaths of union membership support Trumpism and its variants at the ballot box and in general. With the Federation unwilling to take on and lead the needed – and necessarily controversial political work of exposing the Right’s agenda – the affiliate unions are unlikely to go it alone and risk angering large sections of their memberships. Union after union refuses to engage their memberships in any meaningful trade union political education, instead abandoning this most urgent of tasks. 

Labor Notes Conference Eclipses AFL Confab

One very bright sign on the horizon besides the youth-led organizing upsets at Amazon, Starbucks, and MIT is the biennial Labor Notes conference which convened in Chicago just days after the AFL-CIO Convention. Run on a shoestring, more than 4,000 unionists gathered at the Labor Notes conference, twice as many as the all-expenses-paid attendance at the AFL confab. The evolving Labor Notes movement took root more than 40 years ago on the left fringes of the labor movement and today has grown to eclipse even the Federation itself in terms of the loyalty shown it by the activist elements across all unions and sectors. 

The emerging younger, progressive, and more militant forces in some of the new organizing movements – as best illustrated by the Amazon, Starbucks, and MIT election wins – run counter to the AFL-CIO drift and decay. In some ways it offers parallels to the divide between new and old generations in the early years of the Committee for Industrial Organization, the predecessor of the eventual Congress of Industrial Organizations.

The recent Labor Notes conference featured addresses by Flight Attendants Union president Sara Nelson, Senator Bernie Sanders, and new Teamster President Sean O’Brien. In addition, union leaders and activists conducted workshops too numerous to count as virtually every aspect of labor’s crisis was debated and examined in the search for some way forward. The meeting stands out for its authentic energy and character, its decentralized structure, and its decidedly left political and militant union bent. Labor Notes has clearly carved-out and earned for itself the left pole of the labor movement and commands wide loyalty among the ranks. All signs point to a continued growth of this left flank. 

William Z. Foster

As far back as 1925 William Z. Foster warned that, “To bring the millions into the unions is necessary not only for the protection of the unorganized workers, and to further class ends in general, but also to safeguard the life of the existing organizations.” Foster implored the progressives, the militants, and left forces within the unions to push, and push harder towards a goal of forcing the established bureaucracies in the labor movement to respond to the crisis as he saw them 100 years ago.  That same counsel describes our collective dilemma today, with both the Federation and scores of union affiliates stumbling towards disaster and forfeiting the momentary improved conditions for aggressive trade union bargaining, strike action, and certainly for the initiation of mass campaigns to organize the many millions of unorganized workers. 

Foster in his era was faced with many of the same business union pathologies as we face today regarding the need to revitalize the labor movement, and all serious participants in the current labor movement are well advised to acquaint themselves with his legacy. Foster correctly observed that, within the labor movement leadership, “The left wing militantly leads, the progressives mildly support, and the right wing opposes…The left wing alone has a realization of the tremendous social significance of the organization of the unorganized…” It should be noted that just 10 years after Foster’s admonition in the trade union low ebb of the Roaring Twenties to organize the unorganized the CIO was born; and just 16 years after the loss of the Great Steel Strike the mass strike waves that established the CIO were spreading like wildfire. 

Things that look impossible today will be possible again, but not unless the left labor forces come together, build their numbers and reach, unify around a basic program of trade union revitalization, and work to compel the union leaderships to carry out the missions of the trade unions – and put an end to the disastrous AFL-CIO and affiliate union wandering in the wilderness. This work in the individual unions is urgent and critical if any progress is to be made at that level, and certainly no future progress will be possible at the Federation level absent these forces. 

For those seeking Foster’s interpretation of the AFL shortcomings in his time frame see, “American Trade Unionism”, a collection of Foster’s writing spanning his career as a labor organizer.  The book is published by International


Chris Townsend was the Amalgamated Transit Union (ATU) International Union Organizing and Field Mobilization Director. Previously he was an International Representative and Political Action Director for the United Electrical Workers Union (UE) He has been active in the labor movement for more than 40 years as a member, local organizer, local elected officer, and national and international staff member.

ML Today, June 24, 2022,