All the Ways Bernie Might Lose: A Socialist Critique of Social Democracy

Andrew Dobbs | Politics & Government | Analysis | March 15th, 2019

The largest political organization on the US left, the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA) just informally polled its members as to whether or not they should immediately endorse Senator Bernie Sanders for president. About a quarter of the group could be bothered to vote, and they supported the Sanders endorsement three to one. DSA's membership grew eleven-fold since the last presidential election, with most observers giving Sanders credit for raising the popularity of "democratic socialism," his self-described philosophy. The outcome makes sense.

Despite many revolutionaries likewise joining DSA, the political center of gravity in the organization seems to be in favor of electoralism and collaboration with the Democratic Party; DSA's endorsement of Sanders now seems to be a foregone conclusion.

This is a profound display of willful historical ignorance. DSA's growth is an encouraging sign in some ways, but they are on the precipice of plunging into failure the way so many leftists have in recent decades.

There are six generally possible outcomes for this exercise, each with clear historical antecedents that demonstrate the ease with which the ruling class would blunt any electoral effort even calling itself socialist. It is crucial that DSA members remember this history and resist the well-trod path to embarrassment they are considering right now. Here are the ways history has shown a campaign like this one can be destroyed.

Losing: the Jackson Outcome

Far and away the most likely outcome for the Sanders campaign is the most likely outcome for all presidential campaigns: they lose. There are about a dozen Democrats running with at least a few more still waiting to jump in, and by definition all of them but one - at most - will lose. Sanders supporters have fooled themselves to a great extent about his chances and popularity, a trend reminiscent of how the left perceived the Jesse Jackson campaigns in 1984 and 1988.

In light of Jackson's later foibles and eclipse their eagerness now seems absurd, and even at the time he was deeply controversial. The left did not acknowledge this. "The more Jackson gains, the more he upsets both the right and the established Democratic Party leadership," an article following early 1988 primaries in the socialist newspaper Unity said. "These are further signs it will be an uphill fight all the way - but Jesse Jackson can win!"

This sentiment sounds familiar to those who have followed Sanders supporters online. Those arguing that the Sanders campaign could be used to build political power subsequent to the election even if he loses should ask themselves what we have to show for the Jackson campaigns.

The Party Thumb on the Scale: the 2016 Outcome

The other, more exigent lesson from 2016 should be to remember the ways the Democratic Party's establishment went out of their way to block Sanders from the nomination. Former DNC Chair Donna Brazile admitted that the party was being run by Clinton's campaign even before the nomination was settled, confessing that "if the fight had been fair, one campaign would not have control of the party before the voters had decided which one they wanted to lead."

Before her later confession Brazile used her position at CNN to obtain planned questions for Clinton prior to a primary debate, and the debates themselves were clearly scheduled by the DNC to minimize viewership and shield the front-runner Clinton from insurgent challenge.

Of course, the most likely outcome if none of this had happened would still have been a Clinton nomination, but they weren't going to take that chance. Afterwards there was effectively no accountability for this scheme. What would keep them from pulling out the stops to direct the nomination away from Bernie and towards one of the other, less concerning candidates again? Nothing, but for whatever reason DSA is considering playing a rigged game.

Sabotage the Election: the McGovern Outcome

Even if Bernie does overcome these profound obstacles the party could sabotage his chances in the general election. We know this because they did it the last time a modestly leftist candidate won the party's nomination, George McGovern in 1972.

McGovern backed an immediate end to the Vietnam War, a massive reduction in defense spending, what would now be termed a universal basic income, amnesty for all draft resistors, decriminalizing pot and even went on to coin the term "Medicare for All." The Democratic Party's leadership went out of their way to crush the campaign. The urban political machines central to the party's operations of the era mostly stayed at home, and the large unions stayed formally neutral or endorsed Nixon.

McGovern was crushed in the largest landslide in modern history to that point. He would likely have lost no matter what, but the party's leadership made sure that it was a total rout so that no Democrats would get the wrong idea about running on the left again.

The same mechanisms are not necessarily available this time, but one is already presenting itself - Howard Schultz. The billionaire has made it clear that his campaign is about blocking Sanders from being president, and there is every reason to believe that key Democrat thought leaders, influencers, and organizers could legitimize him and send enough of the electorate over to him to cost Bernie the race. Sure, it would re-elect Trump, but it's not like they didn't hate Nixon back in the day, too. The ability to maintain their control of the party and the comfort of their class is worth four more years of what amounts to annoyance for them.

You can be sure that the corporate media would frame the whole thing as Sanders' fault as well, questioning whether his "socialist" politics had alienated voters and opened the door for four more years of Trump. DSA will be villains, and whatever gains they have now will be gone.

Making Bernie Sell Out: the SYRIZA Outcome

This outcome may be the one the ruling class would enjoy most. Bernie wins the White House only to be compelled to betray all of his stated principles and enact the very sort of abusive capitalist policies DSA et al. got behind him to stop.

Again, this has happened when actual leftists have won office. One notorious example was in 2015 when the Greek leftist party SYRIZA rode a wave of mass outrage over EU-led economic bullying to win that country's general elections on a militant, anti-capitalist platform. A few months later the SYRIZA government held a nationwide referendum on whether or not to capitulate to EU austerity and bailout demands. 61% of voters said no - there was a clear mandate to struggle against the neoliberal impositions of European finance.

Only 8 days after the referendum, however, Prime Minister and SYRIZA leader Alex Tsirpas gave in to an agreement even more harsh than the one voters rejected. The agreement's terms included tax increases - especially on farmers - major service cuts, raised retirement ages, increased contribution requirements for insurance, slashed wages, canceled labor contracts, and major privatization of state assets.

The next US elections could very well happen in the context of a major recession, according to a variety of indicators. If Bernie were to come to office with unemployment soaring, stocks plummeting, growth at next to nothing, etc. would he really pull the trigger on gutting some of the largest industries in the country, the insurance and medical industries, for example? Would he raise taxes on the wealthy - and even the middle class, as would be necessary for most of his programs? Or would he delay the big stuff "for now" and focus on the very same kind of austerity any other candidate would take up?

The fact is that his whole program is dependent upon capitalist industry creating profits and managerial/technical wages to tax to fund his programs. But the rate of profit for US firms is less than half what it was during the New Deal era, and average economic growth has declined by more than two-thirds. This downgrade is what prompted neoliberal gutting of the welfare state in the first place.

If DSA members really are socialists they should know that capitalism isn't just mean or ugly, it's doomed. Any political program that rests on the idea of allowing it to persist by just rearranging its output through taxation and government expenditure is also dead on arrival.

Make the Economy Scream: the Venezuela Outcome

Even if Bernie accomplishes the near impossible task of winning and then actually pursuing a socialistic program, he can expect pointed economic warfare to crush his movement once and for all. "If you try this, you'll end up like Venezuela" is not a prediction or a possibility, it's a warning.

Because both the Bernie agenda and the Bolivarian program to date have assumed the continued existence of private production and finance, a capital strike can immediately produce crucial shortages and financial disruption. In Venezuela they stopped importing toilet paper, beer, and flour used for staple baked goods, or they hoarded them and drove up the price to make money off the black market. Banks refused to provide dollars to Venezuelan sovereign accounts so they could not pay debts and their currency collapsed.

Similar economic warfare plagued Chile when a "democratic socialist" took power there in 1970. The CIA worked with the AFL-CIO to organize middle-class owner/operators like truckers, taxi drivers, and shopkeepers to go on strike. This plunged the country into chaos as shelves went empty, pumps ran dry, and transportation became impossible. By the time September 1973 rolled around there was substantial support for a coup just to try and bring consumer life back to normal.

Now imagine if hospital companies announced that "Medicare for All" just won't cover their bills so they are shutting down half the facilities in the country. Pharmaceutical companies could announce they are ceasing production of chemotherapy drugs - they just can't afford to make them under "socialism." Store closures, layoffs, 401(k)s going broke, the list is endless really.

Actual socialist governments face many of these threats and many other hardships, but they prevent the worst by expropriating entire industries and putting them under public control. Sanders is not planning for any such thing, and the right-wing unrest liable to follow would be presented on every channel and newspaper as "peaceful protest" in glowing tones. Bernie does not want to eliminate the ruling class, and so they will rule over him too, one way or the other.

Social Chauvinism: the "Democratic Socialist" Outcome

Finally, the most pernicious outcome of all would be what many DSAers might consider victory. Bernie could win the election and enact a social democratic reform effort with huge new benefits for people living in the US without doing anything whatsoever for the billions of people around the world exploited by our system as a whole.

This again is a well-established historical possibility. The social democratic movements of Europe that created the welfare states of those countries all depended upon imperialist extraction. The Iranian coup against Mossadegh was fully backed by the same Labour government that founded the National Health Service. France's first "socialist" president, Vincent Auriol, waged war in Indochina, overthrew the government of Morocco, jailed Tunisian independence leaders, and pursued a brutal war of repression in Madagascar. Even in the US, the "Great Society" came at the same time as the Vietnam War.

Bernie would fit right in this tradition if he got everything he wants. He's promising more drone strikes, continued military spending, ongoing hostility to anti-imperialist governments and a transfer of exploited surplus not back to the workers we stole it from, but mostly to middle-class folks in this country.

This isn't socialism; it's imperialism with a human face. Its days are just as numbered as any other capitalist program, and at best we'd get what Europe got - a generation or so of social democracy followed by ever-deepening austerity and reaction. If this is what DSA is looking for, by all means they should endorse Bernie.


As DSA, for whatever reason, lines up behind this folly, actual revolutionaries need to leave the organization and do something else. The great news is that there is a burgeoning, if still loose and immature, network of revolutionary collectives popping up in communities all over the US. Even if there isn't one where you live, the folks who have done it elsewhere can give you insight on how to get going. Find them, reach out, and start building something new so that we don't waste time doing what we know has never worked.

Let's remind each other of this truth staring us in the face from repeated historical experience. For the moment it means treating Bernie as the obstacle and danger he is so that we can instead fight until victory, always.