US elections: Charlie Post on Sanders, Clinton, and the tasks of American socialists

Charlie Post, a long-time US socialist and active in his faculty union at the City University of New York, talks to rs21 about Sanders, the dangers of ‘lesser-evilism’, and the post-election challenges for American socialists. Also check out responses from Elizabeth Schulte and Alan Maass

sanders clinton

Where now for the Sander’s campaign? Will it manage to sustain itself until the end of the primary season? What about at the convention and beyond?

Even though Clinton won four of yesterday’s (April 26) primaries, the Sanders’ campaign will sustain itself through the convention. In a statement issued last night, Sanders promised to stay in the race until the Democratic Convention in Philadelphia in late July.

However, it appears that his focus has shifted from winning the nomination – now a near impossibility, especially with Clinton’s support among unelected ‘super-delegates’ – to ‘fight[ing] for a progressive party platform that calls for a $15 an hour minimum wage, an end to our disastrous trade policies, a Medicare-for-all health care system, breaking up Wall Street financial institutions, ending fracking in our country, making public colleges and universities tuition free and passing a carbon tax so we can effectively address the planetary crisis of climate change.’ This corresponds to the desires of most of his campaign activists.

While it is likely that the campaign may get some minor concessions on the non-binding Democratic platform, Clinton will campaign and govern to the right – as has been the pattern with every Democrat since Jimmy Carter in 1976.

Will Sanders’ supporters simply translate into votes for Clinton in the general election?

I am afraid the most of Sanders’ support will translate into votes for Clinton, a wretched neoliberal and imperialist, in the general elections. The majority of Sanders’ supporters – young people under 30 years of age – have little or no experience of successful social struggles. For this generation, their experience of mass struggle has been the Wisconsin Uprising and Occupy in 2011 and the Black Lives Matter movement of the past year. Unfortunately, all of these struggles have been short-lived and were defeated.

Lacking the experience of social power from “the streets”, this generation tends to believe that power will only come through electing good people to office – or pressuring existing politicians to move left. Put simply, they are “electoralist” in political consciousness and strategy. This, combined with the likelihood of Trump winning the Republican nomination, will result in the vast majority of Sanders supporters “holding their nose” and voting for Clinton. Many, even more tragically, will be pulled into campaigning for Clinton in the Fall.

What should socialists do when faced with a Trump (or Cruz) vs Clinton match-up in the general election?

What they should not do is what the forces of official reformism (labour bureaucracy, middle class leaders of people of colour, women and LGBT organizations) and most of what passes for a ‘left’ in the US (mostly former Maoists and Stalinists of various stripes) will advocate: campaigning for Hillary Clinton. When the left – especially a left as weak and socially isolated as it is today – gives up its independent organising and tones down (or, usually, completely silences) its criticisms of the Democratic Party, two things inevitably happen.

First, there is absolutely no pressure on the Democrats, especially once they are in office, to move to the left. Put another way, the only way we have forced Democrats (and Republicans like Richard Nixon) to implement pro-working class reforms is when there are mass movements in the streets and workplaces that compel them too. In their absence, the Democrats and Republicans bend to their capitalist sponsors. The bi-partisan neoliberal consensus – deregulation of capital, attacks on labour and the poor, austerity and privatisation – of the past four decades is clear evidence of this trend.

Second, the absence of any sustained left critique – requiring no less than effective social movements acting independently – of the Democrats means that the only voices condemning attacks on people’s standards of living will come from the populist right. Trump’s appeal is to those sections of the middle class and older, white workers who have experienced declining living standards and the devaluation of their assets (homes, small businesses) as a result of neo-liberal policies and the 2008 global recession. Caught between a capitalist class and its “establishment” political spokespeople committed to making them pay for the crisis on the one hand, and a feeble and disorganised left and labour movement on the other, segments of the middle and working classes are drawn to a politics that rails against both capitalists and segments of the working class – racial minorities, Muslims, immigrants, etc. Supporting and campaigning for Clinton – which will inevitably mean toning down our criticisms of the Democrats for the sake of electoral victory – will only provide right-wing demagogues like Trump with a bigger audience.

While I am quite clear on what socialists in the US should not do, laying out what we should do is more difficult. First and foremost, we should be using our limited time, energy and resources to rebuild what the Canadian socialist Alan Sears has called the ‘infrastructures of dissent’. This is the difficult work of reorganising networks of activists in workplaces and communities who can provide the politics, strategy and tactics for social movements when they arise. This is often tedious work, but is essential to successful mass struggles in the future.

In terms of the election, our tasks are mostly educational (or what those of us of a certain generation called ‘propagandistic’). We need to explain the need for independent politics in detail to the small numbers of people who will be open these ideas. This does not rule out supporting an independent candidate – Jill Stein of the Greens is clearly anti-capitalist and committed to political independence from the Democrats. However, her campaign is unlikely to have a large resonance. Unlike the Nader campaign of 2000, which attracted the support of a political generation radicalised by the successes of the Seattle WTO and other global justice mobilisations, the Stein campaign of 2016 will attract a very small group of supporters and voters.

Finally, the left needs to point out that there is practically no chance of Trump or Cruz winning the 2016 Presidential elections. Both are reviled by the US capitalist class (see here and here). The vast majority of capitalists, including the right-wing Koch brotherswill support Clinton over either Trump or Cruz. Clinton will have a huge campaign war chest that will allow her to build a get-out-the-vote machine that will crush her opponents.

It seems like there has been a shift in American politics because of Bernie Sanders’ candidacy. Will this be sustained outside of the electoral cycle? How? How is/will it be reflected in workplace organising, unions, campaigns etc?

First, I think we need to be a bit more sober about what the Sanders’ candidacy means for US politics. Polling data indicates that a significant portion of the population – especially among workers – have long favoured increased social spending, cuts to the military, regulation of capital, and the like. Their numbers have clearly increased with the growing polarisation of US politics since the economic crisis began in 2008. For most of the past half century, working-class and poor voters have abstained from electoral politics, seeing no-one speaking to their interests. Sanders’ campaign, like the Jackson campaigns of 1984 and 1988, is tapping into those working- and middle-class people who want more classically social-democratic policies in the US.

Second, given the political conjuncture – in particular the low level of extra-electoral struggle – I am not particularly optimistic that the Sanders’ phenomena will be sustained outside of the 2016 electoral cycle. Sanders, formerly an independent, left social democrat, has made a commitment to the Democratic Party, renouncing any attempt to build an independent political organisation. While many radicals are using the Sanders campaign to challenge the undemocratic way most US unions make electoral endorsements, I do not think the ‘Labor for Bernie’ organisation will sustain itself past the November elections. I am quite fearful, in fact, that many on the labour left in 2016 – like many on the far left in 1984 and 1988 – will be pulled permanently into Democratic party politics as a result of the Sanders’ campaign.

It seems (from afar) that there’s been a lot more exposing of the undemocratic nature of primary system (super-delegates etc). Will anything change for future elections?

If anything changes, the Republican Party will. At the present moment, the Republicans actually have a more democratic internal structure than the Democrats. There are not a significant number of ‘super-delegates’ in the Republican Party. If a candidate wins the majority of delegates through the primaries and caucuses, he will be nominated. This is the dilemma the Republican establishment, and their corporate backers, face with a likely Trump nomination. In all likelihood, the Republicans will adopt some type of super-delegate system in the wake of a disastrous Trump candidacy (which may also cost them their Congressional majorities).

Sanders seems to have done better in more rural areas, when it’s often felt that cities are where most activism seems to take place. How do you explain this, and what hope/challenges does it present for future organising?

I think we need to interrogate these findings. Sanders does best outside of the largest cities – where Clinton’s base among older and African-American and Latino working-class voters guarantees her victory. Sanders’ support is not so much in truly ‘rural’ areas – although he has done well with counter-culturally oriented small businesses and organic farmers in Vermont – but in smaller cities, towns and suburbs. It is in these regions you find concentrations of white working-class voters, a substantial number of whom vote for Sanders.

Relatedly, how would you explain how well Clinton has done among black voters?

Again, we need to interrogate this claim. First, there is a clear generational divide among Black voters in the US. Younger African Americans and Latinos are being drawn to Sanders – as are younger white voters. This has been especially true since Sanders began to address racism and embraced the agenda of the Black Lives Matters activists. Bill Clinton’s recent rants defending his crime bill – which is responsible for both the militarisation of the US police and the rise in the mass incarceration of young men of colour – have helped Sanders as well.

Second, older Black voters’ support for Clinton is rooted in the decline of independent Black self-organisation and self-activity since the 1970s. Lacking any power outside of electoral politics, older African Americans are convinced that electing Democrats is their only means of self-defense against the rising tide of racism in the US. This is especially true of African Americans in the South, who confront local Republican politicians who are only one or two steps removed from open white supremacist organisations. The bottom line for most older non-white voters is which candidate is most ‘electable’ – not who articulates a political programme that effectively addresses racism and poverty. Finally, the emergence and consolidation of a new Black and Latino middle class of professionals and managers since the 1970s and eight years of the Obama administration have shifted the centre of mainstream Black politics to the right.

Put simply, many middle-class people of colour embrace neo-liberalism and Clinton for the same reasons many middle-class white people do.  


  1. “Finally, the left needs to point out that there is practically no chance of Trump or Cruz winning the 2016 Presidential elections.” – If I had to make a bet on the election I would put my money on Hillary, but I hope sections of the left take anti-fascism more seriously and attempt to build resistance to Trump and his base that is not under control of the Hillary forces.

  2. #BlackLivesMatter is ongoing and got some killer cops prosecuted for their crimes (which is unheard of in the U.S.) — how is that “short-lived and defeated”?

    If “this generation tends to believe that power will only come through electing good people to office,” then why did they did take to the streets in Madison against Scott Walker, against Wall Street during Occupy, and why do they continue to do so against police brutality and now against Trump whose rallies they are trying to disrupt?

    Re: Black voters, the generational divide doesn’t account for Sanders losing the Black vote to Clinton by 30%, 40%, and in some counties in the Black Belt, 90%. If you want a better explanation, start here:

    This whole interview should be taken with a ‘yooj’ grain of salt.


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