The DNC, ‘Lesser Evilism’ And Defying the Democratic Party Establishment
The Democratic National Convention in Philadelphia was an extravagant spectacle of manufacturing consent to create the perception there is now unity around Hillary Clinton. In particular, protesting Bernie Sanders delegates were suppressed with actions intended to enforce conformity and silence.
There were whips marching up and down the aisles to make certain disruptors were kept in check. White noise machines and Stasi-like microphones were placed in the Wells Fargo Center. Clinton delegates were instructed to engage in counter-chants of “Hillary! Hillary!” when Sanders delegates chanted, “No TPP!” or “Ban Fracking!” Chants of “No More Wars!” were met with jingoistic chants of “USA! USA! USA!” Signs in support of Palestinian human rights were confiscated and ripped to shreds by DNC personnel.
All of this was intended to discourage Sanders delegates from pursuing an alternative to Hillary Clinton’s campaign, whether it be openly demonstrating against her as activists from independent movements or supporting a third-party candidate like Green Party Presidential candidate Jill Stein.
On this week’s “Unauthorized Disclosure” podcast, Seattle City Council member Kshama Sawant from the Socialist Alternative talks to us about the walkouts of Sanders delegates at the DNC, as well as how she successfully defied the Democratic Party establishment to achieve reforms like the $15 minimum wage in Seattle.
Sawant addresses Sanders’ view on third party politics and the need for citizens to build independent political power. She also confronts the issue of “lesser evilism” in electoral politics, which she says is the most important concern in the next three months.
During the discussion portion, hosts Rania Khalek and Kevin Gosztola talk about their coverage of the DNC this past week, particularly how the Democratic Party worked to enforce conformity so they could make it appear delegates had successfully unified around Hillary Clinton.
The episode is available on iTunes. For a link to the episode (and also to download the episode), go here. A page will load with the audio file of the interview that will automatically play.
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Below is a partial transcript of the interview with Kshama Sawant.
RANIA KHALEK: Let’s open with a bit about you, and you’re from a third party. You’re not a Democrat, and you managed to do something really important, a bunch of important things as a city council member in Seattle because you were outside the Democratic Party. Why don’t you start by talking about Socialist Alternative and why you ran as a third-party candidate in Seattle and what that has to do with the election right now?
KSHAMA SAWANT: As far as Socialist Alternative is concerned, it’s a nationwide organization of social and economic justice activists. People can look up SocialistAlternative.org to find out more. We have been active in the marriage equality struggle, the protests against the Iraq War, and we marched in Seattle and other cities against the war on women—all the attacks on women’s reproductive rights. We are on the forefront of those marches and rallies. And we were integral to the Occupy movement in Seattle, Minneapolis, Boston, and New York City, in Zuccotti Park.
In Minneapolis, through the Occupy campaign in Minneapolis, Socialist Alternative has played a leading role in a campaign that started following Occupy, which was Occupy Homes Minnesota which was a direct action campaign against the foreclosures and evictions of ordinary working people who because of the economic crisis that unfolded in 2008 had lost their jobs, faced unemployment, and then because of that were unable to pay their mortgage. The very banks that caused this crisis, who were rewarded by Obama’s corporate bailouts, were the ones coming to evict ordinary working people, and we played a leading role in trying to prevent those evictions.
In Seattle, we’ve been a leading force in the Occupy movement, and following the Occupy movement. When the Occupy movement was in an ending phase in early 2012, and everywhere there was a message that we should all hunker down and vote for Obama because that is the best thing we can do—But you have to remember the state of mind, the consciousness of most young people around that time. That was after the historic vote for Obama in 2008, where young people, women, Latinos, black people, all of these groups had turned out in historically high numbers to vote for Obama because there was this hope for change that was promised. And then, by 2010, it was very clear to most people thinking actively about it that this was yet another promise that had been betrayed.
We had predicted in Socialist Alternative that regardless of Obama’s own personal characteristics they were not that important. What was important is that as long as he’s part of this Democratic Party and the establishment that controls, we’re not going to see any significant change, and as a matter of fact, the living standards of black people have actually plummeted under the Obama administration. That doesn’t mean that Obama has been especially worse compared to other Democratic presidents. All it means is that the Democratic and Republican Parties have continually betrayed the interests of working people—just in slightly different ways. But they’re quite united in their representation of Wall Street interests.
When 2012 came, we in Socialist Alternative, we recognized that there was a hunger, especially among young people, but also among working people in general—a hunger for an alternative to corporative politics. The Occupy movement was a result of that anger and that hunger, and so we wanted to demonstrate that there was an opening for a real left alternative, and we ran a campaign against the speaker of the Washington State House, who was the most prominent of Washington state, Frank Chopp. We didn’t win that campaign, but we got such a high number of votes that we won double the number of votes that any of his opponents has ever won against him.
Building on that, we launched our first campaign for Seattle City Council, where we ran against a 16-year, a relatively powerful Democrat. But what’s more important is not just him but that this city, like most metropolitan areas in the United States, is completely controlled by the Democratic Party establishment. And they have overseen the massive problems of low-wage jobs for young people, the destruction of public schools. Not so much in Seattle, but you can see elements of that, like attacks on teachers unions. Definitely you can see startlingly in Seattle is skyrocketing rent, and this absolute unaffordability of life in the city at the same time that the wealth is growing.
We ran our campaign contrary to the popular myth that if you ran a bold campaign, if you ran against Democrats there would be no future. Political pundits told us again and again that it was not going to work. But we did everything that seemed counterintuitive, going by what was being told to us for decades. So we ran not only independent of the Democratic Party, but we ran in defiance of the Democratic Party. We didn’t mince words. We were very clear that this is an alternative to the Democratic Party establishment that controls the city, and we won the election.
We ran on a campaign of $15 an hour, taxing the wealthy, and rent control and fighting for tenants rights. Less than 6 months after we took office, in January 2014, we had won $15 an hour. And what’s significant about $15 an hour is not just that it was the first historic victory for $15 in a movement that has gone nationwide now, but what’s most significant now is that the Democratic Party not only did not lead on it but they were actually in the background in the opposition. One of the Democratic candidates in the mayoral election, the same year that I ran the first campaign, actually went so far as to say low-wage workers were presumptuous to expect $15 an hour, and said this when CEO salaries are thousands of times the salaries of average workers.
We built the momentum in the grassroots, and the most important point about this is that the logic that is handed down is you can make social change incrementally if you go in smooth, if you go and talk to the Democratic Party politicians and try to get them on your side, make all kinds of compromises to try and make them happy. [Instead of that], the logic we presented was this: that as long as you accept the limitations of Big Business and those corporate politicians, both Democrats and Republicans that represent them, then we are never really going to break out of this stranglehold of no choices, low wages, student debt, and really no significant social change.
As a matter of fact, when you see victories not only of $15 but also of marriage equality, the Democratic Party did not lead on it. Marriage equality has succeeded nationwide because grassroots activists finally in anger marched out on the streets and fought for it themselves. These are the examples that show us that you can actually make a shift in American politics and in American life but only on the basis of independent movements, which means movements on the ground but also movements that attain real political independence from the two parties. Because as long as we’re tied to them, our movements can’t really win victories.
KEVIN GOSZTOLA: I have a two-part question for you. I’d like to get your reaction to the way that third-party politics is being talked about now, or I suppose we could call it revolutionary or independent politics from the Democratic or Republican Parties. In particular, one of the messages Bernie Sanders put out was interesting in that it wasn’t just going after supporters and trying to make them fearful if they support [Green Party presidential candidate] Jill Stein. He said:
“We are not a parliamentary system, as is the case in Europe. If we were in Europe right now, in Germany or elsewhere, the idea of coalition politics of different parties coming together — you’ve got a left party, you’ve got a center-left party, coming together against the center-right party. That’s not unusual. That happens every day. We don’t have that. We have and have had [two parties] for a very long period of time — and I know a little bit about this, as the longest serving independent member of Congress.”
In addition to that, I would like to know if you have any concerns about what this so-called political revolution might be and how these plans for things like Brand New Congress or Our Revolution may come up short if it’s just going to be running Democrats and not doing anything anything all that new to actually build independent political power?
SAWANT: Those are very important questions. First of all, on the differences in electoral setup between America and Europe, of course, Bernie Sanders is actually right. That’s true. That difference exists. But if you look at Europe and also my home country, India, for example, which does have a parliamentary system where you can have coalition governments, I would say that the fundamental difference between America and Europe or countries like India is not the electoral mechanisms. Yes, the electoral mechanisms are different. They do play a role in how political outcomes are shaped. No doubt. But I think that’s a minor part of the story.
The fundamental aspect that we need to take into account is that even in Europe, and as I have said in my home country, it’s really interesting that despite the multitude of parties, despite the many tryouts of coalition governments—and there’s a long history of coalition governments—For the last five decades, we’ve not had a real coalition that actually represents the interests of working people.
Just to look at it concretely, for example, in Europe, what has been happening in the last five, ten years? We’ve had a parliamentary system for ages. There is a parliamentary system. There is a multitude of parties with new parties coming up. There have been coalition governments. But what is the hallmark despite all these electoral features being different in the United States? The hallmark of European politics in the last five to ten years has been an intense policy of austerity against working people. So much so that even a party that calls itself the Socialist Party in France, headed by Francois Hollande, is now the purveyor of austerity.
I personally don’t focus so much on electoral mechanisms and how features differ from one place or another, but more on the fact that unless we build mass movements independent of the establishment parties, as many as there are whether it’s two or five or ten, whatever. I don’t care the number. The political substance of those parties and their platforms matters above all. Nothing else really is of consequence as far as people’s living standards are concerned—whether there’s a real answer to police brutality and racist policing, whether there’s an answer to the ongoing attacks on reproductive rights of women. If you look at concrete issues that affect people’s lives, you can derive the political substance of what these political parties have on offer.
I would say that Bernie Sanders—I’m not a mind-reader. You would have to ask him what is driving his position. I would say that my response to him is that’s not the essential point here. The point is you ran a campaign calling for a political revolution against the billionaire class, and there was a huge echo across the heartland of America. When we won in our election in 2013, there were political pundits and corporate media, who wanted nothing more than to dismiss it as this is Seattle. This is hippie land. People wear socks with their sandals. Anything can happen in Seattle.
Of course, Socialist Alternative’s analysis was never that ridiculous, superficial, and obtuse. We said that, yes, there are differences across cities, but the common thread that binds the politics on the ground in all of the cities and towns across America is that there is a real desire for an alternative to corporate politics to break from the stranglehold of Wall Street. The service Bernie Sanders has done for all of us, for the left through his campaign is he’s proven Socialist Alternative is right. He’s proven there is a hunger all across America for an alternative, and as a matter of fact, a lot of the echo that Donald Trump is getting also has a lot to do with the fact that people are angry at corporate politicians, like Hillary Clinton, and are looking for an alternative.
What’s unfortunate for us about Trump being the figurehead is that he is disingenuous. He’s a liar. He’s a bigot, racist, misogynist. He’s an anti-immigrant hysteric, and he’s capturing all the anger that exists in American society. That is unfortunate. That is the failure of the left. That is the abdication of duty by the left and the labor movement for the last five decades by having tied ourselves to the Democratic Party so uncritically.
Trump is not a phenomenon because of Trump. Trump is a phenomenon because of the abdication of duty by the left and the labor movement for so many decades by having tied ourselves to the Democratic Party. So, really the main lesson that we need to learn from all this is independent politics. If you’re not talking about independent politics, then really you’re not talking about anything in substance.
That’s why when Bernie turned around and decided to endorse the very epitome of the establishment that is so hated because of which he got his support in the first place—He’s telling his supporters now to trust him into following that establishment. That’s circular logic and the very reason that people supported him was because they’re angry at corporate politicians like Clinton. So, it makes no sense for him to say all that was great. Now let’s turn around and do the thing that you hate the most.
Unsurprisingly, there is anger among his followers, among his supporters, and neither he nor anyone else should be surprised by that. That’s why it’s no surprise that 700-1000 delegates of the Democratic Party itself walked out on Tuesday evening and then they walked out again during Hillary’s speech. And then we were able to have the march and rally for “Dem Exit.” I was there at 1 am on Thursday night, and there were Democratic delegates, Bernie delegates who had walked out, and they were tearing up their DNC credentials because they were saying we’re done with this.
And I don’t mean to say that represents the majority. I think the majority are going to succumb to lesser evilism, but I think we would be missing a major historic moment if we didn’t recognize that there is something really huge happening here. And the full manifestation of what’s happening is not going to come this year. Obviously not because that’s not how movements work. Movements don’t fully manifest themselves and grow in one year. It’s happening. We’re seeing that historic shift happening, and that is precisely why I would say it’s regression. It’s taking ten steps back for Bernie to be saying, as you said, Our Revolution.
I don’t know if he is saying it in so many words, but what’s implied in his message of Our Revolution is let’s run lots of well-meaning, left-leaning Democratic candidates in down-ballot races. There’s this myth that is sold to us that somehow let’s accept this very awful warmonger candidate, Hillary Clinton. We all agree she hasn’t served our interests, but we have to accept that somehow that is the only option possible.
For the rest of the interview, go here.