Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT), who just declared his presidential campaign in late April, is running to win, and says the United States will need a “political revolution” to do it. After the Democrats caved on fast-tracking the Trans-Pacific Partnership, Bernie’s political revolution may actually happen, but only if he abandons the Democratic Party and continues his campaign as an Independent.
This week, Senate Democrats caved in an unprecedented 24-hour period on fast-tracking the maligned Trans-Pacific Partnership – the largest global free trade deal in a generation. Tuesday, Democrats in the Senate appeared to have thwarted President Obama’s pressure to speed through a classified treaty that corporate attorneys have spent the last several years writing behind closed doors.
Opponents of the agreement argued that the deal would be catastrophic for American jobs and workers’ rights around the globe, and blasted the deal’s lack of concern for even the most basic environmental standards. Yet, by Wednesday, Senate Democrats had made a deal with party leadership to agree on fast-tracking the TPP if standalone bills on currency manipulation were voted on first. Even though Democrats got nothing in terms of worker protections or environmental guarantees, they caved anyway.
Bernie Sanders has been one of the most vocal opponents of the TPP in either house of Congress, recently tag-teaming with Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) to stall a vote on the agreement with dozens of amendments and procedural delays. On the campaign trail, Sanders has vowed to end shadowy, closed-off negotiations of trade deals kept secret from the American public. He’s also loudly criticized the TPP’s Investor-State Dispute Settlements, which would allow corporations to set up their own kangaroo courts to override any member nation’s regulations on business if they're deemed to negatively affect corporate profits.
The fact that the party Sanders has caucused with throughout his time in Congress so directly ignored his warnings and supported passing the deal without scrutiny from the American public is a direct slap in the face to him and his nascent campaign. If Sanders responded by abandoning the Democratic Party entirely, it would create a shockwave in American politics.
Just two weeks after announcing his presidential campaign, Bernie Sanders has already doubled his polling position and raised more money in 24 hours than several top Republican candidates did in their first day, including Marco Rubio, Rand Paul and Ted Cruz. As of May 6, Sanders raised $4 million – 99.4% of which came from donors giving $250 or less.
Roughly 200,000 volunteers have signed up to help his campaign. Clearly, his message of taking on the billionaire class that owns Washington, making four-year college free for Americans, and breaking up the big banks behind the financial crisis is resonating with everyday folks. If Sanders broke with the Democrats and ran as an independent, most of those volunteers and donors would stick with him. They’re supporters of Bernie, not the Democratic Party.
On one hand, it’s easy to see why Sanders launched his campaign within the Democratic Party. Even though the Vermont senator is a lifelong independent, he’s also a realist who knows that to run a campaign that has a chance of winning a first-past-the-post, winner-take-all race with 270 Electoral College votes, it has to be done within the two-party structure. Candidates from other parties, like the Green Party’s Jill Stein or the Justice Party’s Rocky Anderson, have revolutionary ideas but are forever relegated to outside status by the punditocracy that has trained Americans about who is acceptable to vote for based on dollars raised and pollsters’ rankings. Without Elizabeth Warren in the race, Sanders is the standalone progressive populist in the Democratic primary.
However, running as a Democrat means Sanders is second to Hillary Clinton, who has pledged to raise $2.5 billion this election cycle. To highlight the absurdity of that number, it would be more money raised for just one candidate than the cumulative amount raised by both Barack Obama and Mitt Romney in 2012, combined. The fact remains that American elections favor those with more money – candidates with the most campaign cash tend to win nine times out of 10. Clinton will be counting on that deluge of cash to flood the airwaves in her favor and drown out anything Sanders would say. She’s also likely to test Sanders’s populist rhetoric in focus groups for her own campaign, and use the more agreeable points to paint herself as the “reasonable” candidate to shore up enough Democrats to guarantee her the win. Sanders has already pledged to throw his support behind Clinton if she indeed wins the nomination, leading some critics to call him a “sheepdog” used to herd leftist energy into the same Democratic Party that’s let the American people down over and over again.
But if Sanders reclaimed his independent mantle, he would be representing not just Democrats, but the 42 percent of Americans who identify as neither Republican nor Democrat. In poll after poll, there are more Americans who say they’re independent of the two major parties than there are Americans who affiliate with the Democrats (31 percent) or the GOP (25 percent). Sanders would very likely break the 15 percent polling threshold that the Democrat and Republican-controlled Commission on Presidential Debates (CPD) uses to silence outside voices from alternative parties and be able to share the stage with the Democratic and Republican nominees.
And while Sanders is criticized by baby boomers for embracing socialism, one-third of millennials now say they support socialism. When Sanders’s unapologetically populist platform wows millions of American voters in three separate CPD-sponsored debates on live network television, his polling position will likely increase. And mathematically, all Sanders needs is 34 percent of the vote to beat the Republican and Democratic candidates.
Bernie Sanders is right in that a political revolution is needed for things to change as radically as they need to. But whether or not Sanders decides to take the revolutionary approach to his campaign by abandoning the Democrats is entirely in his hands.