Left Strategy in 2016: Building Real Political Independence

BY:John Bachtell| May 1, 2016
Left Strategy in 2016: Building Real Political Independence

John Bachtell is the National Chair of the Communist Party. In this article, he provides an up-to-date look at where things stand in the 2016 elections and offers important insights on strategic thinking for the broad democratic left.

So far, the 2016 elections have been anything but predictable. On the Democratic side, the primary battle between Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders has remained competitive from the Iowa Caucuses right into the spring, with the Sanders campaign beating all expectations. On the GOP side, our nation faces a serious threat to democracy, most clearly represented by the candidacy of Donald Trump.

Independent of what side one might have taken in the Clinton-Sanders competition, it should be clear to all that a lot is at stake in the outcome of the 2016 elections for the American people. The results will determine the post-election terrain upon which future battles will be fought out. What is needed now is a sober appraisal of objective realities, the current political dynamics, and the balance of class and social forces.

Sanders and Clinton

The most dynamic force in the electoral arena has undoubtedly been the Sanders campaign. It has been more than just a presidential campaign though; it is also a movement that has greatly broadened political imagination, brought thousands of people (especially young people) into politics, and stimulated a national discussion of the idea of “democratic socialism.” He is directly challenging the corporate domination of the Democratic Party.

It is being propelled by popular anger against vast wealth inequality, long-term economic stagnation, and declining wages and living standards. Sanders gives voice to the resentments, economic anxieties, and fears of many Americans. But his campaign is also propelled by shifts in public opinion. New social movements are influencing millions at the grassroots.

The campaign is strengthening the Left, independent, and grassroots composition of the broad anti-extreme-right coalition. Many of those associated with the Sanders campaign are frontline activists in the anti-globalization, labor, Black Lives Matter, Dreamer, LGBTQ, and environmental justice movements. They bring a higher level of consciousness, determination, and organization.

Win or lose, U.S. politics will never be the same again because radical new ideas have been discussed widely and new forces have energized the electoral arena.

Some have concluded that Sanders could still win the nomination (and emerge victorious in November as well) even without the Democratic Party establishment. There are also calls for Sanders to launch a third party or independent bid if he doesn’t win the nomination. In my opinion, such thinking overestimates the strength of the Left, underestimates the strength of the corporate forces, and most importantly, overplays the willingness of various constituencies to break with the Democratic Party at this moment. A split would likely pave the way for a right-wing victory, and for those reasons, Sanders has rejected it.

It’s certainly the case that Hillary Clinton has deep ties to the neoliberal wing of the Democratic Party and foreign policy establishment. While she’s more hawkish on foreign policy, however, Clinton is no neo-con. She supports diplomatic efforts like the Iran nuclear deal and the normalization of relations with Cuba.

Achieving a non-interventionist foreign policy that also advances equitable trade relations is going to require building far bigger peace and justice movements, not to mention global labor solidarity.

While I agree with many of the critical assessments out there that have highlighted some of the problematic of aspects of Clinton’s career, we shouldn’t ignore context and dismiss the fact she has been battling the extreme right for over 25 years, including the Gingrich-led government shutdowns and the drive to impeach Bill Clinton. She has been the object of their hatred, venom, and misogyny for a quarter-century.

Clinton is also motivated by democratic sensibilities and supports collective bargaining rights, reproductive rights, and restoring and expanding voting rights. She has pledged to continue the Obama climate policies. I would suggest we need a more nuanced view of Clinton, who is susceptible to pressure from below.

The Communist Party USA does not endorse candidates. It goes without saying, though, that the Sanders program addresses the needs of the country and is closest to our own. My guess is most of our members support the Sanders campaign.

Presently, the forces necessary for victory over the GOP are fractured in their support between Clinton and Sanders. We consistently advocate unity around the issues and always keep in mind the bigger goal – the defeat of the right.

Grasping the key link to move forward

As I mentioned, what the left needs now is an appraisal of objective realities, the current political dynamics, and the balance of class and social forces. Taken together, these constitute a particular stage of struggle.

In developing strategy and tactics, Marxists should seek to identify the most critical challenges the working class and people face in any given stage of struggle that, if overcome, can advance the entire movement. Lenin called it grasping the key link in the chain. Today’s most critical challenge is the danger posed by the extreme right to democratic rights and institutions, to social programs tens of millions depend on, and to life on this planet of ours. I believe we make a fundamental error in strategy and tactics if we discount, dismiss, or underestimate this threat.

2016 offers an opportunity to deal a decisive setback to the extreme right grouped in the Republican Party and those allied with it, blocking their ascension to the White House, ousting their elected majorities in Congress and statehouses, blocking right-wing appointments to the Supreme Court and judiciary, and defeating their ideas in the court of public opinion.

Because the anti-extreme-right coalition sees the Democratic Party as the only viable electoral vehicle presently, the only realistic way to defeat GOP candidates is through electing their Democratic Party opponents. Short of such a defeat, it is impossible to see winning substantial victories in the economic and political arena, let alone radical democratic reforms or socialism.

In fact, were Donald Trump to win, it would likely mean the ascendancy of a right-wing authoritarian government whose aim will be to dismantle accustomed democratic norms. In one way or another, Trump, Cruz, and Kasich all express support for a national right-to-work law, unbridled racism, misogyny, hatred of transgender people and immigrants, elimination of any curbs on greenhouse gas emissions, further rollback of reproductive rights, and militarization abroad and at home.

Rise and domination of right wing extremism

The most recent rise of the extreme right began in the 1970s when sections of the U.S. ruling class – grouped around oil, military, and banking interests – launched an all-out effort to undo the gains of the New Deal, the Civil Rights Movement, and Great Society programs and to reassert U.S. economic and military domination globally.

This new era coincided with the end of the postwar economic boom and the beginning of growing extreme wealth inequality. These forces captured the Republican Party and engineered the nomination of Ronald Reagan, employing racism and the elaboration of the “Southern Strategy.”

In the recent period, the GOP, in tandem with the Koch brothers and other plutocrats, has waged total obstruction against President Obama in an effort to block his agenda including raising the minimum wage, gun control, infrastructure repair, student loan relief, hiring more teachers and first responders, curbing greenhouse gas emissions, extending protections of undocumented youth and their families through DACA and DAPA, closing the Guantanamo Prison, and now blocking his ability to appoint a Supreme Court nominee.

The GOP’s 2014 victory heightened the danger, extending right-wing domination of Congress and probably guaranteeing a House majority until at least 2022. They now control 11 more statehouses and 31 governorships, 67 of 98 state legislative chambers, and have total control of both branches of government in 24 states. Republicans have gone all-out to lock in their power through redistricting and the passage of voter suppression laws. It is now estimated that 3 to 5 million people were prevented from voting in 2014.

Want to know what a right-wing authoritarian government looks like? Check out Wisconsin, Michigan, Kansas, Florida, North Carolina, Texas, Indiana, Illinois, and elsewhere, and see the kind of legislation being passed: right-to-work laws, voter suppression, anti-LGBTQ, anti-reproductive rights, anti-immigrant, etc.

In most cases, GOP governors and state legislators have taken directly from the American Legislative Exchange Council (ALEC) playbook and its cookie-cutter legislation backed by the Koch brothers and their ilk.

The fight against extremism

The CPUSA was one of the first organizations to raise the alarm over the rise of the extreme right as far back as 1980. We called for an “all-people’s front” to combat it, a modern day version of the united front policy first articulated by the Bulgarian communist Georgi Dimitrov. This battle has been waged over 35 years through election cycles, in the legislative arena, and in the battle to sway public opinion.

Since 1980 though, several new factors have emerged, raising the level of danger and the urgency of defeating the right. First, there is the re-emergence of oligarchy and extreme concentration of wealth, and their impact on politics resulting from the Citizens United decision. The New York Times reported in October that 158 families provided half the early money to presidential candidates. Of that, 138 supported GOP candidates. The radically magnified influence of a relative handful of billionaires greatly increases the threat to existing democratic institutions, imperfect as they are. Secondly, there is the emergence of the planetary ecological crisis and its existential threat to humanity and nature. The fossil fuel industry is a main bulwark of the extreme right.

We see the role of our Party being to help foster maximum unity of the diverse forces in the democratic coalition, build its breadth by helping bring in new activists and movements, deepen its consciousness by promoting the most advanced positions and candidates, and arguing for the strategic aim to defeat the extreme right. We connect all of this to the longer-term strategy for more fundamental change.

Broad unity and multi-class alliances

As mentioned previously, the coming-to-power of the ultra-right in 1980 radically changed the dynamics of political struggle in our country. What has emerged over the last four decades is a broad understanding of the danger posed by the right, and with it a loose, multi-class alliance which includes the labor movement, communities of color, and democratic reform movements of all kinds. This alliance is multi-generational, and it unites left and center political currents, as well as a section of capital that is in conflict with the extreme right.

For those who recoil at the notion of a multi-class alliance, consider that our nation’s history is replete with such examples. Recall the fight against slavery and the alliance of northern industrial capitalists, slaves, working masses, and abolitionists. Or the struggle against fascism, the splits in the U.S. ruling class, and the multi-class alliance built to defeat it in the 1930s and 40s. Today, splits in the ruling class have appeared over the climate crisis. A section of capital who sees an existential threat to capitalism is objectively aligned with the environmental movement.

So this is nothing new. In fact, for Lenin, building multi-class alliances and exploiting fissures in the ruling class was a given. The Bolsheviks advocated alliances between Russia’s nascent proletariat, its vast peasantry, and the small bourgeois class to overthrow the czar.

Class struggle within

We have to play the cards dealt as we fight to change the rules of the game. Politics in America is conducted in a two-party, winner-take-all system, institutionalized since the Jacksonian era. Third parties have arisen during times of sharp crisis or political realignment, as the Republican Party did in the fight against slavery. In such instances, they may supplant one of the two dominant parties, but third parties failing to make this breakthrough have never lasted long. Until radical reform allowing parliamentary democracy or fusion politics, the prevailing circumstances don’t allow for more than two viable national parties.

All parties reflect coalitions of class and social interests, and the Democrats and Republicans are no different. They are vehicles through which these forces fight for their agendas. In the battle being fought in the political realm, some see no difference between the Democratic and Republican parties, painting them with a broad brush as creatures of Wall Street. For sure, both are dominated by corporate interests.

But we can’t leave it there; real life is far more complex. For starters, both have vastly different social compositions. While the Republican Party is led by the most reactionary sections of capital, it also includes extreme right-wing elements like the Tea Party, white supremacists, climate deniers, and Evangelicals.

Meanwhile, in the Democratic Party there is organized labor, African Americans, Latinos, other communities of color, the women’s, youth, and a range of other social movements. A wide spectrum exists in the Democratic Party including a substantial current of self-described democratic socialists. These constituencies exert influence and hold leadership positions at various levels. They still see the Democratic Party as the most viable means to advance their agendas within the party system at this moment. Any establishment of a people’s party requires these very forces at its core and until they are prepared to bolt, it is not yet a viable prospect.

The Democrats’ multi-class constituency, however, is beset with internal contradictions. The class struggle rages within, between the Wall Street and progressive wings. Establishment and machine elements clash with independent forces. This is reflected in part in the competition between Clinton and Sanders, but similar clashes play out on a local level, such as the 2015 Chicago mayoral race that pitted Chuy Garcia and independent candidates against Rahm Emanuel and the Democratic machine.

There may be cooperation in the fight against the extreme right, but the class struggle is never suspended; these same forces battle daily on economic, political, and ideological fronts. Extreme wealth concentration will continue to deepen these class divisions and tensions within the Democratic Party coalition. A “political revolution” can transform politics if labor, its allies, and the broad left put their stamp on the multi-class alliance, shape its politics, and frame the issues debated for the elections.

Such is the nature of class contradictions.

Majorities make change

Any successful “political revolution” will be fueled by ongoing shifts in public attitudes. Majorities of Americans now favor taxing the rich, raising the minimum wage, immigration reform, abortion rights, marriage equality, criminal justice reform, and action to curb the climate crisis.

A political revolution is based on the idea that majorities make change. It is not enough for majorities to believe in an idea, they must actively fight for it. While important shifts against the ultra-right have taken place on key issues, the electorate is still deeply divided, with a substantial section misled, disillusioned, and disengaged. To be transformative, a movement must have an organized expression in every community. It must fight uncompromisingly against racism, sexism, homophobia, transphobia, anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant attacks, and all efforts to divide.

White working-class communities are considered a key demographic for the GOP and are targets of the worst kind of racist and reactionary ideas. They cannot be abandoned to the embrace of the extreme right and its ideology of hate. A political revolution calls for a 50-state strategy including turning red states and districts blue and defeating the GOP in its stronghold – the “Deep South.”

Political independence

The loose coalition that presently aligns itself with the Democratic Party – including organized labor; organizations and movements in communities of color; the women’s, immigrant, LGTBQ, student, and environmental movements – is in constant motion, changing in response to real life experiences.

Intertwined with the fight against the right is the ongoing process of building political independence. Far from being liquidated into the Democratic Party, I see the labor-led democratic movement becoming increasingly assertive, growing in influence, and establishing politically independent structures both inside and outside the Democratic Party.

The AFL-CIO no longer gives directly to the DNC but funds its own voter education and mobilization efforts. It develops its own strategic outlook, and is increasingly training and running trade union activists for public office. There are rich examples of the growth of independent structures including MoveOn, Democracy for America, Progressive Democrats of America, and the Working Families Party.

Politically independent movements are beginning to take root in Chicago. Developments include the establishment of several independent political organizations working in and outside the Democratic Party and an increasing number of independent challenges to machine candidates. This process is in its early stages and foreshadows the eventual establishment of a real people’s party.

A defeat of the right – and especially winning the Senate and House – could constitute a political turning point, creating new possibilities for advancing the struggle. It would create more favorable circumstances to reform the electoral system itself, build the labor movement, and broaden and deepen coalitions.

Out of decisive turning points come new stages of struggle, including openings for more radical reforms.


If either Sanders or Clinton are elected, their administrations will face unrelenting pressure and obstruction from (in Sanders’ case) Wall Street, the military-industrial complex, the fossil fuel industry, right-wing think tanks, the mass media, and, of course, right-wing elements in the oligarchy. In addition, the Democratic Party’s neoliberal establishment will reassert itself in the post-election period, casting aside elements of the program upon which the election pivoted.

What is important is that voters and movements remain engaged after the elections. When President Obama was elected in 2008, voters thought they had done their duty and went home. The void was filled by GOP obstruction and the Tea Party. Low voter turnout in 2010 and 2014 led to GOP control of Congress and statehouses across the country.

The challenge before labor, communities of color, women, youth, the LGBTQ community, climate justice, and other democratic forces is to continue to build the biggest, broadest, most diverse, and tactically mature movement possible to win in 2016 and set the stage for bigger victories ahead.

This article was published as a two-part series in People’s World. It is adapted from an earlier work by John Bachtell that appeared in Platypus Review #85.


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