This article also appeared in CounterPunch.
Both Intervention And Exit
A new book, Bernie or Bust, tells the story of a small group of electoral activists that made a big difference. They were motivated by the fall of democracy and the coming environmental catastrophe. But, the key to their success was that they actually had a political strategy not simply a moral or ideological position. Bernie or Bust was an attempt at power politics. They called the strategy “leverage.” Leverage came from the dual threat of both intervention and exit. Over a hundred thousand people made a demand on power by signing the Bernie or Bust Pledge: Gives us Bernie or we vote for the Green Party’s Jill Stein.
The authors, Victory Tiffany for the Bernie or Bust committee and Patrick Walker, give us a blow-by-blow account of the project as it evolved over time.
Bernie or Bust was an on-line campaign to form a voting bloc unified around an uncompromising demand on power. But the Clinton machine could not be deterred and the new voting bloc was not nearly large enough to enforce its demands. Bernie or Bust was, however, a dress rehearsal for the kind of full-scale electoral rebellion its going to take to restore democracy to electoral politics.
At first, “Bust” was a poorly conceived write-in campaign for Sanders that nonetheless worked as a footing for a sturdier bridge that radicalized Bernie supporters could cross. Bernie or Bust ended up helping tens of thousands of voters transition to the Green Party. That is no small accomplishment. What other group — outside of the Green Party itself — can make that claim? (see footnote)*
I worked hard on the Sanders campaign going door-to-door and organizing phone banking. Then I did the same for Jill Stein. But most effective was the minor role I played in nudging the Bernie or Bust committee to move to “Jill or Bust.” They were already heading in that direction.
Sheep or Revolutionaries? That Is Up To Us.
Bernie or Bust is also a case study in the on-going claims regarding sheepdogging. The story of Bernie or Bust helps restore struggle and human agency to that debate. Things are what we make of them.
[S]heepdog or wolf, Bernie bayed out one tune that was absolute music to our movement-organizing ears: political revolution….That Democrats were willing to let outsider Bernie sing such an edgy, ambiguously worded tune — one so easily prone to subversive interpretations—was an index of their sheer desperation…
So you want to talk revolution? Ok, then let’s talk revolution. For Bernie or Bust the time had come for the people to reassert control over government and that would require a disruptive, forceful intervention.
The sheepdog criticism is itself part and parcel of the fantastical expectations we have about politicians and political leaders— attributing super-powers for good or evil to individuals. What Sanders or Ocasio-Cortez does is not that important — it’s what we do that matters. As a Green Party activist I find Bernie or Bust or the supporters of Ocasio-Cortez a much needed opposition movement inside the Democratic Party. We need all poles of opposition to win.
And our shared position of opposition is likely to get much clearer as the New Mccarthyism shifts toward attacks on reform Democrats as well as the Green Party. Many a good reform Democrat has already opposed Russia-gate hysteria and we need to stand together for self-defense.
In a bigger context we need such alliances to make social change. The 60’s revolution was a “movement of movements.” Do you think everyone agreed with each other? Hell no. But the movement invented the coalition: a political structure in which each organization retained its separate identity but worked on common issues. There was both unity and struggle. So make the best case for your position, then prepare to work with those who have other ideas. Politics is as much about negotiating disagreement as it is about finding agreement.
Can we see the campaigns of reformers as an opportunity to organize an effective opposition? If not the fault lies with us. Bernie or Bust shows us that we can engage the contradictory world of politics and make still demands that speak power to power. When a door opens we walk through it, enlarge it, remodel it — not sit and protest that its not the door we always dreamed of.
In fact, no elected reform Democrat, radical independent, or Green will be able to change a system that has long been captive to corporate power and empire until we are many, many in number and backed by large disruptive social movements — or at least that is what the history of the New Deal strongly suggests. Can we rise above mere criticism and/or worship of individuals to make positive interventions from the bottom up? Bernie or Bust did just that.
Movement, Contradiction, Tension, Transition, Transformation
We will not make reform let alone revolution without a revolutionary method. Bernie or Bust is a study in how a dialectal approach might shape political action. Dialectical thinking was at the heart of Marx’s method but you do not have to be Marxist — and Bernie or Bust was not — to value this way of understanding the world. Martin Luther King used dialectical thinking and so should we. Marx wrote:
“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past.”
A dialectical vision recognizes actually existing conditions as the basis and context for change. Think on that contradiction awhile. Everything is shaped by its past but is also becoming something else. You can only see that if you focus on motion rather than fixed position.
Growing, dynamic political trends are in tension with one another because they are both opposed and connected. It’s a complicated web formed by both unity and struggle. Martin Luther King described it as “the interrelated structure of reality.” Engage the perennial conflicts and contradictions of political life. Tension is where the action is.
We feel that Bernie, in his utterly sincere opposition to domination of our nation by corporate…money (a sincerity vouch for by his refusal to take it) is sheer political dynamite. And we intend (whatever Bernie himself does) to exploit that dynamite in a revolutionary way: to blast open the very real fault lines between corporatists and populists in the Democratic Party. 
They positioned themselves on the radical edge of the Sander’s surge. Bernie or Bust never sought or received the endorsement of the Sanders campaign. Instead they staked out a position of “critical support” for Sanders seeing the contradictions in Sanders as the makings of an electoral revolt. Sanders open hostility to the big money and naming climate change as our biggest threat bought him into direct conflict with the party bosses he had pledged to support as the price of running as a Democrat. Into that tension rushed Bernie or Bust.
The emphasis on movement not position also meant that Bernie or Bust was able to lead people through a transition process. Radicals often expect converts from our words — because, well, our words are so good. Instead people are much more likely to transition over time as they gain experience.
Bernie or Bust needs to go back to the drawing board on one major point. They tried to repurpose the spoiler smear used by the corporate media but got trapped by it instead. By embracing the spoiler mentality they slip back into conventional either/or thinking. They mistake tactic for strategy and strategy for goal — limiting the potential of their own work. Bernie or Bust is not an end in itself but a movement strategy to restore competition to an electoral system choked by the stranglehold of the corporate power.
This valuable report from Harvard Business School, of all places, proposes structural reforms and concludes that it is the two-party system that has spoiled American elections. And, they are right. The goal of any revolutionary electoral strategy should be to restore real representation by reforming the electoral process — including the creation of a multi-party democracy. We need to unspoil it not spoil it.
The narrow negativity of the spoiler blinds us to the political terrain. Clinton’s need to blame everyone else for her loss inadvertently revealed that the Democrats lost for 50 different reasons –at least. One reason left out of spoiler claims is that 45% of eligible voters stayed home. The fact that 93 million people did not vote is proof positive that there are lots of votes to be had and no spoiler except the bankrupt system itself.
Victory will be the prize for those willing to organize the unorganized millions.
Overall however the story of Bernie or Bust is a good antidote to conventional left thinking. Typically radicals spend a lot of energy drawing distinctions between their positions and those of other radicals. But, the practice of organizing demands engagement with people you do not completely agree with — and that makes all the difference. This contradiction in our movement is not going away but we should recognize it and give play to both argument and organizing.
But perhaps most important, Bernie or Bust signaled the beginning of the end for the fearful lesser of two evils mindset that has undermined representative democracy in America. As long as voters fail in their duty to vote for candidates that actually represent their interests and values the people will never be represented. The major parties have counted on this fear for a long time but in our desperation we are finally finding courage. Climate disaster looms ahead, the war machine cranks on, the people get poorer and poorer. Representation is all but dead. Participation is all we have left. It’s time for bold action and creative organizing.
- According to an internal poll done by Bernie of Bust the pledge takers reported the following: approximately 10% voted for Clinton, 70% Stein, 11% wrote in Sanders, 2% Johnson and 2% Trump.
- Bernie or Bust p.22
- See also former Green Party VP candidate Ajamu Baraka, Cultural and Ideological Struggle in the US: A Final Comment on Ocasio-Cortez.
- Karl Marx, The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte
- Martin Luther King, “A Christmas Sermon on Peace.’ See also “A Testament of Hope.”
- Bernie or Bust p.59
- Bernie or Bust p.55