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Bernie Sanders: The Democrats Dilemma

This is a not an election to allow self-righteous ideological purity to obfuscate the need for a huge political uprising to block Trump from securing a potentially disastrous second term.

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The American presidential primaries began in earnest on February 3, 2020, with the now infamous Iowa caucuses.[1] Iowa is a small mid-western state with a population of 3,155,070. Almost 85% of its residents are white – hardly representative of the U.S. as a whole, yet this is where the voting begins every four years to nominate candidates to the Democratic and Republican parties. It is a process of thousands of local meetings held across the state where voters come together to “caucus” for their chosen candidates. While most American states have simple ballot voting for candidates, the Iowa system choses its delegates based on a complicated formula “initial alignment votes” and “final alignment votes” that are used to determine the statewide number of “state delegate equivalents” for Iowa’s 41 delegates to the Democrats nominating convention

One thing is clear: democratic socialist Bernie Sanders won the popular vote with 42,672 first choice votes, about 6,000 votes more than former South Bend Indiana Mayor Pete Buttigieg. However, the byzantine caucus system apportioned 13 delegates to Buttigieg and only 12 to Sanders.

Sanders’ strong showing in Iowa was followed by a narrow victory on February 11 in the New Hampshire primary — another small and racially unrepresentative state — but an important bellwether of voter sentiment on the road to the nomination. Sanders won with 25.7% of the vote, Pete Buttigieg came in second at 24.4%, followed by a surprising strong third place finish for Minnesota Senator Amy Klobuchar at 19.8%.[2] The dismal fourth place finish for Senator Elizabeth Warren of neighboring Massachusetts at 9.2% is of concern to the left because she and Sanders represent the anti-corporate wing of the electoral field.

Support for Sanders’ is surging with a strong base of young people and working-class voters. Amazingly, more than 1.5 million people have donated to his campaign with an average contribution of only $18. Unlike other candidates, who rely on major donors from Wall Street and corporate America, Sanders’ grass roots effort has shattered all previous records by raising over $121 million dollars — $25 million in January 2020 alone.[3]

Despite Bernie’s initial successes, many Democrats have raised concerns about whether Bernie is the best candidate to beat Republican President Donald Trump on November 3, 2020. Beating Trump will require a “united front” of voters who may not be ready to support Bernie’s more radical “social democratic” proposals. For example, Sanders has championed Medicare for All and free college tuition for all, policies that are long established in Europe but viewed as very radical in the United States.

The U.S. “winner-take-all” Electoral College system does not lend itself to building electoral support with your preferred candidate in the election and then making parliamentary alliances after the election to form a government. In the case of the U.S., it will require broad unity behind one candidate for the Democrats to defeat Trump.

While the corporate-controlled news media is constantly degrading Bernie’s chances, there is a strong argument that he is the best candidate to form the broad coalition needed to beat Trump. In a head-to-head match-up with Trump, Bernie Sanders is the best candidate to:

  • Peel off white, working-class voters who helped elect Trump in 2016 out of disgust with neo-liberal Hillary Clinton;
  • Inspire a grassroots movement for social and economic justice along with the passion and energy of millennials that is essential for the on-the-ground, door-to-door mobilization needed to beat Trump;
  • Perform especially well in Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Michigan – the three states that went to Trump by a margin of only a little more than 80,000 votes in 2016.

The Sanders’ candidacy — and his prospect of becoming president — seriously threaten the neo-liberal Wall Street regime and the military industrial complex that have so richly profited from America’s unbridled “frontier capitalism.” For that reason, the Democratic Party establishment will stop at nothing to prevent his nomination.

After the 2016 Democratic Convention debacle, where unelected “super delegates” carried the vote for Clinton in the first round of delegate votes, the Democratic Party was forced to prevent them from voting in the first round in 2020.  However, party officials will still allow these unelected delegates to vote in the second and any additional rounds in a “brokered” convention, where these delegates would likely tip the nomination away from a progressive candidate.

The nominating process is still in its very early stages and a lot can happen before the July 13-16 convention in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. The biggest day of the primary process is “Super Tuesday,” March 3 when 14 states vote including California with 400 delegates.[4]

Bernie Sanders will likely maintain 20-30 percent support because of his long history of principled stands on the issues that matter most to working class families. With many candidates in the field, he may have the most delegates, but not enough for a first ballot majority at the convention. A first ballot victory requires 1990 pledged delegates – elected in primaries and caucuses – for victory.  If the delegate vote goes to a second round, Sanders is likely to lose to a more moderate candidate because of the votes from 771 unelected super delegates. That would rekindle charges of the party once again rigging the nomination — and it could destroy the unity needed post-convention to defeat Trump. What a depressing scenario!

That is the Democrats dilemma: Unless there is a first ballot consensus, the party could suffer a deep and ugly split. With the pro-corporate Democratic establishment so determined to stop Sanders and the transformation of the party by any means, this might result in defeat in November and the nightmare of four more years of Trump.

That’s an unacceptable outcome. In the remaining months, we must build a determined mass movement of progressive Democrats, independents (unenrolled voters) and the emerging socialist tendency to help Bernie win on the first ballot or find a consensus candidate who unites Americans of good will who want to save democracy and defeat Donald Trump. This is a not an election to allow self-righteous ideological purity to obfuscate the need for a huge political uprising to block Trump from securing a potentially disastrous second term.


[1] 2020 Iowa Democratic caucuses, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/2020_Iowa_Democratic_caucuses

[2] Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, “Bernie Sanders Scores Narrow Victory in New Hampshire Primary,” New York Times, February 11, 2020, at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/11/us/politics/bernie-sanders-new-hampshire-primary.html?action=click&module=Top%20Stories&pgtype=Homepage

[3] Eliza Collins and Chad Day, “Bernie Sanders Raised $25 Million in January,” Wall Street Journal, February 6, 2020, at https://www.wsj.com/articles/bernie-sanders-raised-25-million-in-january-11580986800; K.K. Rebecca Lai, Josh Katz, Rachel Shorey, Thomas Kaplan and Derek Watkins, “The Donors Powering the Campaign of Bernie Sanders,” New York Times, February 1, 2020, at https://www.nytimes.com/interactive/2020/02/01/us/politics/democratic-presidential-campaign-donors.html.

[4] “Super Tuesday,” from Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Super_Tuesday#2020

Peter Olney is retired Organizing Director of the ILWU. He has been a labor organizer for 40 years in Massachusetts and California. He has worked for multiple unions before landing at the ILWU in 1997. For three years he was the Associate Director of the Institute for Labor and Employment at the University of California.

Rand Wilson has worked as a union organizer and labor communicator for more than twenty five years and is  currently an organizer with SEIU Local 888 in Boston. Wilson was the founding director of Massachusetts Jobs with Justice.  Active in electoral politics, he ran for state Auditor in a campaign to win cross-endorsement (or fusion) voting reform and establish a Massachusetts Working Families Party.  He is President of the Center for Labor Education and Research, and is on the board of directors of the ICA Group, the Local Enterprise Assistance Fund and the Center for the Study of Public Policy.