Post-Bernie, Could Socialists Transform Congress the Way the Tea Party Did?

During the DNC, Bernie supporters met up in Philly to figure out how to keep the revolution alive.

Democratic Socialist Caucus at William Way LGBT Community Center | Photo by Jared Brey

Democratic Socialist Caucus at William Way LGBT Community Center | Photo by Jared Brey

It was never about Bernie Sanders, the delegates agreed, gathered Wednesday afternoon for a Democratic Socialist Caucus at the William Way LGBT Community Center.

Or rather it wasn’t completely about Bernie Sanders. It’s true that Sanders did more than anyone else in the last few decades to bring “an anti-capitalist critique into the mainstream,” one presenter said. And it’s true that his loss to Hillary Clinton in the Democratic presidential primary is somewhat heartbreaking, said another. But the socialist cause is “not a short-term struggle,” and it can’t be tied to a single candidate, said Maria Svart, director of Democratic Socialists of America, which hosted the event.

DSA is a 35-year-old political organization that’s part of the worldwide coalition of socialist groups called the Socialist International. The caucus on Wednesday was expected to draw 150 Sanders delegates from around the country, according to Joe Schwartz, national vice chair for the DSA. It was a chance for socialists to regroup and plot their next moves. DSA director Maria Svart kicked off a panel discussion by telling the group that the core achievement of the Sanders campaign was that it “punctured this idea that there’s no alternative” to the political and economic systems the U.S. has today.

“Feelings run strong, and we face a really kind of complex moment here in Philadelphia,” said Michael Lighty, political director for the National Nurses Union.

Lighty said it’s clear that there’s a class divide between Sanders and Clinton delegates, pointing out that you can tell them apart just by looking at what they’re wearing. The Clinton campaign wouldn’t have known how to win without working the wealthy political fundraiser circuit, he said, while Sanders was able to stay in the race until the end while funding his campaign with small donations.

But it was also true that there was a racial divide between the two camps, Lighty said to the overwhelmingly white crowd. Sanders hadn’t built strong relationships in communities of color prior to his campaign, which hurt his credibility as a candidate, he said. And having intellectuals as Sanders’ most prominent surrogates—people like the philosopher and fellow democratic socialist Cornel West, who was supposed to attend the caucus but canceled after resigning from the Democratic National Committee platform committee, according to Svart—doesn’t necessarily build credibility in an electoral campaign either, he said.

It was a headier gathering—and older—than the protests that swirled around the Wells Fargo Center on Tuesday, where groups of young people pushed against a security fence and chanted “We are the 99 percent,” and “Shut it down,” and “This is not a riot,” and “Hell no, DNC, we won’t vote for Hillary.” The speakers took a somewhat longer, more academic view of the progressive movement.

Bob Master of the Communications Workers of America told the delegates that now that Sanders had lost, his supporters should make it clear that Republican presidential nominee Donald Trump should never become president, and should work to elect overwhelming progressive majorities in national, state and local elections.

“We don’t want to make the classic error in which we think that the liberals our enemies,” Master said. “They’re not our friends! But in this environment, we’ve got to be crystal-clear that they are not the main danger.”

Socialists should continue to try to polarize the national debate, Master said. If Clinton wins the White House, and socialists can out-argue the right, the 2018 midterms could be a very different kind of referendum than the 2010 midterms, which brought a cohort of Tea Party Republicans to Congress and derailed the Democrats’ political majority. If they can keep up the energy that brought Sanders as far as he went in the primary, Master said, the 2018 midterms can be “a referendum on corporatized liberalism.”

Ashley Rodriguez, a Sanders delegate from El Paso, Texas, said that democratic socialists in her city are treating to take advantage of the weakness of the local Democratic Party. They’re following a “one-foot-in, one-foot-out” strategy to try to take over the party with socialist candidates, while keeping their distance and criticizing the party when it’s not progressive enough. Their ultimate goal is “taking Texas from a Republican red state to a socialist red state,” Rodriguez said.

And Rahel Biru, a DSA organizer in Brooklyn, talked about the importance of doing political work in communities in between electoral campaigns.

“Approaching folks just for a candidate feels empty when they haven’t seen you for years,” Biru said.

So while the Democrats plot their strategy to win in November, the democratic socialists are back to plotting their strategy for how to transform the American political structure. The Socialist Convergence Conference will continue every night this week at the Friends Center on Cherry Street in Center City.

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