Should Progressives Unify With the Democratic Party Establishment? Hell No!
Should Progressives Unify With the Democratic Party Establishment? Hell No!
By Jeff Cohen /

In countless ways over the last 35 years, our society has become less economically equal and more dominated by corporate power. Less just and more jailed. Vast urban and rural areas decline as government subsidizes economic elites. Funds for education and social services are under constant threat while funding for war and surveillance seems limitless. 

These trends have persisted no matter which major party dominated Washington.

Whether it’s a Democrat or a Republican in the White House, Wall Street personnel fill top economic posts; energy policy is dominated by oil/gas/nuclear interests; Monsanto is ever-present in food and agriculture policy; military-industrial types dominate foreign policy.

The luminous Bernie Sanders campaign – in many ways, a youth movement – has blossomed out of this decay and corruption, as millions are saying "No" to a corporatized Democratic Party leadership. Not convinced the Democratic leadership of the last several decades has been thoroughly corrupt? Read any of a dozen books from William Greider’s 1992 classic "Who Will Tell the People?" to the 2013 insider account "This Town."

In a past life, I was a mainstream TV news pundit. Many years ago, I began making the argument to news executives that if they allowed strong progressive viewpoints to be heard, millions of TV viewers would respond and their audiences would grow.

I feel totally vindicated. The Bernie Sanders upsurge has proved me correct. Finally, an unabashed progressive domestic agenda has been heard, and that agenda has resonated with millions of people – nearly derailing one of the most powerful and best funded machines in modern politics, the Clinton Machine.  

You have to go back to the working-class movements of the 1930s and FDR’s New Deal to find a time when so many U.S. citizens supported a transformation of our political/economic system.

Perhaps the greatest achievement of the Bernie campaign is that it has transformed the political spectrum and the way people (even including a few mainstream pundits) view the spectrum. Instead of a binary band with Republicans on the right and Democrats on the alleged "left," the political spectrum now looks like it’s divided into three parts:

The Republican Right, led by the Trumps and Cruzes, rallies its base through racist appeals, anti-immigrant hysteria, misogyny and "America First" rhetoric – a base that is still sizeable and dangerous, even though it is aging and declining as whites lose their super-majority status, and as young whites aren’t as homophobic or bigoted as their elders.

The Democratic Centrist Establishment, personified by Hillary Clinton and dependent on its base of corporate funders, is adept (though not as convincingly as before) at campaigning to the left with rhetoric about "working families" and "breaking down barriers" – while governing mostly on behalf of an unequal status quo, once in office. (Because of Trump’s unpredictability and Clinton’s reliability, the centrist establishment will likely gain support this year from Wall Street Republicans and neoconservative hawks.)

The Progressive Left, embodied by (but broader than) the Bernie campaign, is gaining popularity by articulating issues ignored by major party elites:

  • free public college tuition funded by a Wall Street transaction tax
  • healthcare as a right through Enhanced Medicare for All
  • ending the drug war and mass incarceration
  • cuts in military spending
  • government jobs programs to rebuild infrastructure and transform to renewable energy

Progressives owe a debt of gratitude to Bernie Sanders for what he’s accomplished. But no matter what Bernie does or says or advises at July’s Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, progressives must stay independent of Democratic elites. As the Bernie vs. Clinton primary contest has shown, we and they have different agendas, funders and values.

"No matter what Bernie does or says or advises at July’s Democratic Convention in Philadelphia, progressives must stay independent of Democratic elites."

The Bernie campaign has been a boon to progressive organizations, including one I co-founded: the online activist group We need to maintain and grow our organizations independent of the Democratic establishment and be ready to protest against Democratic Party policies when necessary, including perhaps at the Democratic convention and definitely beginning next year if Clinton is elected president.

Having said all this about independence, I’m not one of those progressives who pretends that Donald Trump is no worse than Hillary Clinton or that he’s somehow a peacenik or "fair trade" advocate. Trump is a climate-change-denier and xenophobe with fascist tendencies who is far more dangerous than Clinton in terms of race-baiting, immigrant-bashing, abortion and court appointments, even foreign relations (and I know how hawkish Clinton has been). I’ve never forgotten Trump’s candid comment against raising the minimum wage in one of the first debates, when he said U.S. wages were "too high, we’re not gonna be able to compete against the world."

Let’s be clear: Trump is the anti-Bernie.

While remaining independent of the Democratic establishment, progressives must take the Trump threat seriously and make sure he’s defeated in November. If it’s a contest between Trump and Clinton, I support a "safe-state voting" tactic, where you can cast a protest vote or a Green Party vote in most of the country, but you vote against Trump by voting for Clinton in the dozen “swing states” where polls show a close race.  

As Noam Chomsky said on Democracy Now! this week: "If Clinton is nominated and it comes to a choice between Clinton and Trump, in a swing state – a state where it’s going to matter which way you vote – I would vote against Trump, and by elementary arithmetic, that means you hold your nose and you vote Democrat. I don’t think there’s any other rational choice."

One can "hold your nose and vote Democrat" – tactically – without becoming a Democratic Party hack or a Clinton apologist. Defeating Trump does not mean we exaggerate any positives about the Democratic establishment. More important than how we vote is how we build independent progressive organizations and movements (and media) in the coming months and years.

Good news about the Bernie campaign is that the whole world – including even mainstream media – now knows that there is a loud and proud left in our country. They know exactly where we stand on domestic issues and that our positions are widely popular.

And they know that young activists are key to our growing movement.

Millions of young people have had a crash course in recent months in Democratic Party corruption, as well as corporate media bias – not to mention their own power to shake up the system.

A "political revolution" rarely happens in a year. The #NotMeUs movement is far more than about Bernie. Whatever happens at the Philadelphia nominating convention, the movement has much to be proud of and will continue. 

The best-case scenario, of course, is that Bernie becomes the next president.

But here’s another decent scenario: The divisive Trump-led Republicans suffer a massive defeat. The centrists take power . . . but with a mobilized and independent left breathing down their necks.  

Such a scenario hasn’t occurred in our country since about 1932.


This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 License

Jeff Cohen is an associate professor of journalism and the director of the Park Center for Independent Media at Ithaca College, founder of the media watch group FAIR, and former board member of Progressive Democrats of America. In 2002, he was a producer and pundit at MSNBC (overseen by NBC News). He is the author of Cable News Confidential: My Misadventures in Corporate Media - and a cofounder of the online action group,

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Should Progressives Unify With the Democratic Party Establishment? Hell No!