I think that from a genuine democratic socialist perspective, a third party run by Bernie Sanders would make perfect sense. Democratic socialism seeks to overturn capitalism via democratic as opposed to violent means. Bernie has already pointed out that it will take years to achieve. It is more likely that his under 35 voters would be pushed to the left by a Trump or Cruz than by a successful moderate Democrat like Hillary. If Bernie were to stay true to his deepest philosophical convictions, he would run as an independent to help crush and thereby transform the Democratic Party and use a Cruz or Trump to bring about a much larger far left electorate in 2020. That would enable his supporters to gain seats at congressional and state house levels as well.
But now he promises to support Hillary if he loses the nomination race, as is likely to happen. Yet in doing so he would actually be setting back democratic socialism while strengthening social democracy, even though social democracy is the ideological and practical enemy of democratic socialism because it does not bring about the end of capitalism. True socialism and social democracy cannot exist side by side as national policy because true socialism can only be achieved with the end of capitalism while social democracy works in conjunction with (a regulated and reformed) capitalism. If you read older interviews with Bernie Sanders (when he was still giving interviews, before the primaries), you can feel this quandary tugging at him. After all, he began as a candidate for the Liberty Union Party, which was (and still is) a democratic socialist party. He had to compromise a lot of his fundamental principles to be member of the House and Senate, and is having to compromise even more of them now. It’s got to be a struggle.
That’s why I still believe, that were the campaign to get really nasty, not only in rhetoric but in the behind-closed-doors struggle for delegates (which his campaign is now focused on and is always a harsh process), he could still say screw it and announce an independent candidacy. It’s an outside possibility, and most of his followers would not follow him, but enough would to give him a shot at the 17% of the popular vote that Wisconsin’s socialist senator Robert La Follette got in 1924 presidential election. (La Follette even won Wisconsin’s electoral votes, and came in second throughout much of the west…Bernie’s successes this year follow the historical pattern). I think Hillary is very aware of this and it is one of the reasons she has been treating him with kid gloves. This has been an extraordinarily polite campaign, compared with virtually every other nomination race since the 18th century. And that is no accident.
I think even Bernie’s supporters are sometimes unfamiliar with the deep seated political philosophy of Bernie Sanders. Remember when asked in an early debate if he considered himself a capitalist and he answered emphatically that he was not, that he is a socialist? Not a social democrat, but a socialist. That was genuine Bernie, unfiltered by politics. Yet his whole electoral life since running for mayor has by necessity been a series of profound compromises. His former Liberty Union Party ideologues detest him for it. Progressives love him for it. Now here he is, the great political battle of his life, the cause he has always dreamed of, and he has to be the nice, accommodating liberal. I’m sorry Hillary, you are qualified. Or sure I’ll use the money I’ve raised to help the Democratic Party elect Democratic candidates. It can’t be easy. After all, Eugene Debs went to jail instead of selling out his beliefs. And Eugene Debs ran for president not once but five times (the last time while in jail). He lost every time, but we got the New Deal.
And that is how democratic socialism works, incremental steps that increase the proletariat’s control of the means of production while weakening the control by those who profit by their capital investment. (In democratic socialism organized labor is the primary agent of this change, in revolutionary socialism it is typically the communist party). Had it not been for World War 2, you have to wonder how much more democratic socialist, and less capitalist, this country could have become. But the Second World War created the US mixed economy, institutionalizing social democracy and quashing democratic socialism, and things worked well enough until Reagan tore it down. Now we’re at the point where those of us on the left half of the political spectrum are deciding whether or not this should be 1932 or 1948. In 1932 capitalism had brought itself to its knees and FDR was able to make profound changes, by 1948 American social democracy, a powerful mix of capital, labor, Keynesian spending and an ever increasing social safety net was entering its golden age. Bernie is all about repeating the former, Hillary reviving the latter.
Do I want this to happen? Do I want Bernie to launch an independent candidacy? As someone who backs Hillary, no. Don’t be ridiculous. But as someone who is fascinated with American political history, oh boy would it be fun. At least until the Ted Cruz inaugural. That would ruin everything. I’m too old to wait for the inevitable Millennial reaction in a dozen or so years, when they finally begin voting and enough of us Boomers (the most conservative generation since the 1920’s, incidentally) are dead. I remember Reagan. I don’t want to go through that again.