"…people who feel that the government has let them down, the economy has let them down, nobody cares about them, nobody worries about what happens to their lives and their futures, and they’re just desperate for change." Hillary Clinton
Perhaps not as deep, the divide in the Democratic Party is equally distinct. The populist portion of the party under the titular lead of Bernie Sanders is resigned, if not totally reconciled, to supporting Clinton’s candidacy.
The overwhelming majority of Sanders supporters will cast their votes for Clinton come November. It’s clear, however, these voters are less committed to Clinton than they are opposed to a Trump. Had Sanders secured the Democratic nomination in Philadelphia the possibility of a new left-of-left-leaning political party would today be much less likely.
Sanders progressives comprise a potentially potent new political force. Characterized by youth, enthusiasm and a commitment to social and environmental justice, this connected constituency—galvanized by an avowed old line socialist—is as disruptive to the Democratic Party as the Trump troop is to the Republican.
The depth of support for Sanders was startling. Basically thought less than a speed bump on Clinton’s way to the presidency, he proved a formidable and persistent opponent. Stirring the passions of his supporters, he challenged the Democratic establishment.
Unmoved by admonishments to step aside and allow Clinton to pass, he used the internet to raise tens of millions of dollars from small donors. Before the conclusion of the nominating convention in Philadelphia, the chair of the Democratic Party resigned and a party platform far more progressive than originally proposed was in place.
A significant question of whether the fire and commitment of the primaries can be maintained after election remains. Incorporation of the Our Revolution movement showcases both the potential and the problems faced by progressives trying to “institutionalize” their political power and influence.
Ironically, formation of Our Revolution seems at odds with itself—or at least one of its own beliefs. To attack the establishment, they must become an establishment. A practical lesson that will undoubtedly be learned with some difficulty.
Before the organization even opened its doors, half of the staff walked out because Sanders asked his campaign manager, Jeff Weaver, to establish and lead a 501 (c)(4) organization that would allow it to accept unlimited contributions—without the need to reveal the identity of donors.
According to an article by David Weigel and John Wagner:
While some around Sanders saw Weaver as the perfect leader…. younger staffers blamed Weaver for what had gone wrong in the long Democratic primary.
"As a campaign manager, Jeff was a total disaster who failed Bernie's supporters with his mismanagement," said former organizing director Claire Sandberg. "We're organizers who believed in Bernie's call for a political revolution, so we weren't interested in working for an organization that's going to raise money from billionaires to spend it all on TV."
Sanders’ failure to follow through on his support of Tim Canova’s effort to unseat Debbie Wasserman Shultz concerned many in the Sanders camp. Canova never saw Sanders in Florida—even after the Senator endorsed him around the time the DNC’s hacked emails were released. The missing missives having proved that Wasserman Schultz and friends were indeed trying to rig the system for Clinton’s nomination.
Notwithstanding some missteps and internal conflict of conscience, Our Revolution can become a major source of funding for progressive candidates and agendas. When combined with Sanders policy institute and leadership PAC, the Socialist Senator has forged quite a stable of political forces under the progressive banner.
Sanders is not without heavy weight supporters in the environmental community. The founder of the green group 350.org is not only a leading environmental advocate in his own right, but was Sanders representative on the Democratic platform community and counts among his 350.org partners a veritable who’s who of leading climate advocates.
As they say in politics, “money talks and bull shit actually helps you get elected.” Just ask Trump.
Sanders is not without access to big bucks. In addition to the tens of thousands of small donors and local activists Sanders has on his mailing lists, he has been connected to Tom Steyer. Steyer reportedly spent $74M in support of candidates who made climate change a core component of their campaigns in 2014. That much support is hardly chump change, even by Trump’s inflated standards.
Steyer’s NextGen Climate project is well-healed and willing to put a lot of money where its mouth is. Although Steyer has endorsed Clinton, he came to the party late—declaring his support only after her becoming the nominee.
NexGen’s focus on climate change, youth and electoral politics is the perfect companion to Our Revolution. Steyer’s wide ranging alliances with organized labor, Democratic Party operatives and a host of other liberal/progressive pressure groups makes him a formidable force for political change. Although far from universally loved, he is well-respected and far from a Democratic partisan.
Having such standing in Democratic circles, why wouldn’t he simply focus on moving the Party to the left? Much of the reasoning behind a New Democratic Party is the same as that which would motivate moderate and conservative mainstream Republicans to withdraw and establish a New Republican Party.
Change from within is arduous and time-consuming. Why waste time to convince the current ruling elites that they need to move anywhere. Why not simply cut the Gordian Knot and begin again?
All that is needed to form a new party is out there. Disaffected and disappointed voters “just desperate for change,” both human and political capital, a policy making framework, access to the media, sophisticated operatives and a track record that validates the ability to attract voters to their cause.
Sanders may have lost the primary fight, but he did so in spectacular fashion, having garnered 12 million votes in the primaries. He, like Trump, has passed through the fire and emerged as a hardened, tested and practical politician.
Voter unrest is not likely to change no matter who wins in November. The current political system is still in a state of stasis—seemingly unable to enact solutions to any of the nation’s problems.
The presence of the needed pieces does not automatically guarantee the existence of a new party. For that to happen a catalyst of some sort is needed. What will galvanize the formation of a New Democratic Party? I believe it is the issue of climate change.
Whether Clinton or Trump is elected, climate advocates are not going to be happy. A Trump administration will continue to deny climate science. For a President Trump there can be no compromise—no teleprompter telling him to be reasonable.
President Clinton will continue the policies of Obama. Whether she will advance them to any significant degree is questionable. Sanders, through McKibben, was able to green the Democratic platform—but rather reluctantly. Moreover, McKibben is on record as being more than mildly disappointed in the final outcome of negotiations.
Whatever Madam President might do, while in office, will not be considered enough by the environmental community. Clinton will be constrained by mainstream politicians. She is a moderate by nature and a compromiser by necessity. Although I respect those qualities, they will prove liabilities in today’s political environment.
Maintaining the energy levels of the democratic primary progressives will take a hot button topic. What is more inflammatory to the right, more galvanizing on the left and more serious than the sustainability of life on earth than climate change?
In truth climate change is not a single issue. It touches all aspects of society across the entire globe. Survival and quality of life transcends party labels and economic classes. We are, after all, in this together.
Environmentalists are legitimate and recognized advocates for social justice. As such an environmental agenda speaks to the issues of health care, education, fairness, diminished control by established and often wealthy politicians. Yes, Streyer and his allies are rich and powerful. However, as Trump has shown, even the wealthy can be leaders of the anti-establishment.
Will a New Democratic Party come into being? I don’t honestly know. What I do know is that there has never ever been a greater likelihood for the rise of a new left-of-left-leaning political force in the U.S. than exists today.
In the next part of this series, I will address why the Libertarian and Green Party will not succeed in November but might become the targets of a reverse merger. Stay tuned.
Joel B. Stronberg
Joel Stronberg, MA, JD., of The JBS Group is a veteran clean energy policy analyst with over 30 years’ experience, based in Washington, DC.