By Bruce Dixon
Four years ago this May I was the first to brand Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders as 2016’s Democratic sheepdog candidate. As I explained then,
“The sheepdog is a card the Democratic party plays every presidential primary season when there’s no White House Democrat running for re-election. The sheepdog is a presidential candidate running ostensibly to the left of the establishment Democrat to whom the billionaires will award the nomination. Sheepdogs are herders, and the sheepdog candidate is charged with herding activists and voters back into the Democratic fold who might otherwise drift leftward and outside of the Democratic party, either staying home or trying to build something outside of the two-party box.”
Four years later, that hasn’t changed. Bernie 2.0 is still the sheepdog, running to the left of the rest of the field of Democratic presidential contenders, beckoning, barking at us to come on back under the tent. What’s different now is that Bernie is the front runner, for whatever that’s worth 21 months out from election day and likely the most popular politician in the country.
Bernie has a proven fundraising model that depends on large numbers of relatively small contributions. His machinery can bring in the tens of millions per month it will take to field a national operation and most of all to purchase the expensive broadcast time and internet presence it will take to compete with the corporate-funded likes of Kamala Harris and the rest of the Democratic field, and ultimately with Donald Trump and the White Man’s Party.
Bernie pledges now just as he did in 2016 that he’ll support whichever nominee the Democratic party puts forth, even if it’s not him.
Some other things, however, have changed. This is Bernie 2.0 – the Vermont senator has stepped up his game. His announcement speech, a half hour CBS interview and his performance a CNN Town Hall before a half black audience show that as a candidate, Bernie has evolved. His remarks are now peppered with references to criminal justice reform, and mass incarceration, the abolition of cash bail and private prisons and references to racism and homophobia, all subjects he spoke relatively little on in 2016. Bernie did well among younger black voters then, and he will do better still this time.
He’ll need to. Sanders is asking for a million volunteers, both as a fundraising base, and to substitute for the party which does not want him. Democrats, not Republicans stole the election from Bernie in 2016, in Maryland, Illinois, New York, California and in the media and on the DNC among other places. Bernie imagines he can, as Glen Ford put it, steal one of the rich man’s parties out from under the lords of capital. That’s not a new project, it’s pretty old one, a wall actually against which progressive Democrats have been banging their heads ever since the 1930s. In any case, some people are still committed to that, so keeping up that fight inside the Democratic party is their job. Some of us have a different job.
If we can’t hijack the rich man’s party we need to build our own party.
While Bernie imagines he can hijack the rich man’s party, some of us are about the business of building a peoples party from the ground up. The Green Party, to which I belong, is faced with a unique set of challenges for 2020.
Despite expected howls of protest that any vote for, any energy expended on behalf of a non-Democrat only benefits Trump and his minions, and the very certain knowledge that the next president will be a Republican or a Democrat, not our guy or gal – the Green Party will have to credibly explain just what we are doing in the 2020 presidential election, and how we intends to get that stuff done. With the right campaign, and the right – or really the left candidate, we CAN do that. Just like Bernie’s people are hard at work 21 months out from election day, so are some of us.
Here’s what we need to do.
Number one, the Green Party has to raise funds for and conduct a national ballot access drive.
Thanks to laws passed by Republicans and Democrats to protect themselves against competition, the Greens are not allowed to place local and national candidates on the ballot in about 20 states. Republicans and Democrats have passed laws from Texas and Illinois to Georgia, Alabama, Ohio and beyond which together require the signatures of more than half a million voters on paper petitions just to enable the Green Party’s local and national candidates to appear on the ballot. A state by state 2019-2020 GP aimed at ending the bipartisan ban on Green ballot access will demand some resourceful organizing, and will be an invaluable training exercise for Green activists across the country, and is absolutely essential to achieve a national presence for the party.
The GP and its 2020 presidential campaign will have to raise and spend a million to a million and a half on such a campaign, far more than the GP’s yearly budget for any of the last several years, but it’s a big step up that’s got to happen.
Number two, the Greens must begin to build effective, sustainable, membership-supported state and local Green parties by the summer of 2020.
There was a moment after the Democratic convention in Philly when Bernie knuckled under to the forces who stole the election from him. Thousands, maybe tens of thousands of activists looked at the Green Party and mostly discovered there was no there-there. The national Green Party, and I am on its national committee, is, unfortunately, a feeble shell of what it ought to be. More than a dozen state Green parties are barely functional bodies with minimal budgets and tiny mailing lists that haven’t put forty or fifty people in a room in years, even in states with multiple cities over a million in population. Not a single Green Party in the country, as far as I’m aware, maintains an actual office.
In their current condition, a number of critical state Green parties lack the capacity to undertake successful ballot access drives, don’t have the ability to launch credible organizing drives of any kind, and have no prospects of raising the bucks needed to pay for the organizers, the training and the tools to make it all happen. That will have to come from the Greens 2020 presidential campaign, as the presidential campaign always raises several times what the party does.
Democrat and Republican parties are financed by Big Ag, Big Energy, Big Pharma, Pentagon contractors, Big Insurance, Big Real Estate, Silicon Valley and assorted billionaires. Greens have tried the purist volunteer ethic. It failed. It’s time for the GP to adopt the universal (universal outside the US anyway) model of workers parties and peoples parties who sustainably fund themselves year after year with the dues of their own members.
Number three, the Greens must field a 2020 candidate and campaign focused on obtaining national ballot access and building strong, viable and sustainable state and local parties.
Howie Hawkins, the longtime UPS worker and union activist who was the NY Green Party’s gubernatorial candidate the last two times around are one of the party’s OG, i.e., Original Green founders. He’s been the most persistent and persuasive advocate of re-imagining the Greens as an independent party with a dues-paying membership in the thousands and tens of thousands in every state. That’s what the Socialist Party had up until the Wilson administration took away their free mail privileges at the beginning of World War 1. There are proven organizing models out here, cheap but not free. Billionaires and foundations won’t pay to initialize or to sustain them. They have to be organized and funded from the ground up.
Howie Hawkins is the only one of the possible Green presidential candidates to acknowledge the scope of what his party must do to do in order to become a viable national force. And along with Green activists across the country, Hawkins is closely considering an exploratory campaign committee, the first legal step in a 2020 presidential run. Get ready for it.
This is Bruce Dixon for Black Agenda Radio Commentaries. Find our podcasts everywhere, iTunes, Stitcher, Libsyn as Black Agenda Radio and Black Agenda Radio Commentaries. You can visit our web site at www.blackagendareport.com, where you can subscribe to our free weekly email newsletter containing links to all of our video, audio and print contact neatly packaged for your listening, viewing and sharing convenience, to forward and share with friends, family, and colleagues. Since Google and other commercial social media platforms do suppress the appearance of our material in search results, email, that is, dark social media is the only way you can be assured you’re receiving fresh news, commentary and analysis from the black left every week.
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Bruce Dixon is the managing editor of Black Agenda Report, where this article first appeared.