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Vermont, the Rainbow, Bernie Sanders and the present socialist electoral moment

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Photograph of a young Bernie Sanders embracing Jesse Jackson

The flowering of progressive electoral challenges – sparked by Sanders ebullience, by Trump aversion, by intolerable inequalities, by collapse of functional democratic institutions, by exhaustion of consumer distractions – invites a sense of momentum and possibility. The throng of enraged and insurgent teachers flowing into primary races in red states, young DSA newcomers pushing hard against machine Democrats in blue states, activists of color striding confidently onto platforms unimaginable only very recently… these all seem redolent of possibility. We are witnessing aggressive challenges against regressive tax policy, on institutional racism reinforced by housing and employment and educational apartheid, on sheer brutality to human and environmental dignity… and we feel breath re-enter long starved organizing spaces. Activists debate whether the Democratic Party is a site for meaningful social struggle, whether elections offer footholds for broader bottom-up strategies. However, whether consciously or not, at times these debates boil down to the question of whether capitalism can be challenged through mechanisms that were set up to tame mass insurgency.

This initiative led by Organizing Upgrade – to call on reflections of the Rainbow Coalition and Jesse Jackson’s 1984 and 1988 presidential campaigns – is an invitation to see patterns in history, analyze forces at play, choose interpretations, and ideally take guidance in placing energy where it may be most generative.

But my perspective, from nearly 50 years in Vermont, may only be tangentially useful. It is a history that encompasses the construction of arguably the most successful (certainly the longest-lived) Rainbow Coalition in the US, the establishment of the most successful and longest surviving third party in the modern US history (the Vermont Progressive Party), and of course the launching of Bernie Sanders’ career whose 50 year trajectory in independent left politics made him – unexpectedly – the godfather of the new American socialism. You might think that these lineages give us a strong platform to offer “instruction” on the current moment, but I think otherwise. Here’s why:

I won’t rely on the argument of Vermont exceptionalism – that the state is too small, too rural, too white to serve as a model for any other locale – because, really, what locale is not exceptional? We’ve all got idiosyncratic conditions, and yet we all are coercively shaped by the same uniform forces (the dominance of the 1%, the craven collapse of Democrats, the terrifying weakness of unions and other progressive institutional forces) that have kept us demobilized. Rather, I think the Vermont experience is irrelevant to the current moment.

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My argument is that the Vermont experience – shall we call it the success of the Vermont experience – derived from a strategic risk that paid off, but which the current electoral strategies aren’t even contemplating. Our risk was to build an independent electoral line and remain cussedly, intransigently, defiantly insistent on defining Republicans and Democrats alike as our opponents, not potential allies. After a decade (mid-1980s-mid 1990s) spent testing the inside-outside strategy of the Rainbow Coalition (running some candidates as independents, some as “Rainbow” Democrats) – we finally concluded that proximity to the Democratic Party meant sure oblivion. It was either co-optation, absorption, marginalization, demonization, or the toxic fusing of all such tactics… but surely the failure of a promising left electoral project. So in 1990 we established the Vermont Progressive Party as a minor party, and in 1998 as a major party… and have retained that status for twenty demanding, daunting, wickedly tough years.

The grueling nature of this choice can not be underestimated. When we established the Vermont Progressive Party as a party willing to risk three way races, we ran knowing that the “spoiler” accusation would be flung at us by liberals for years on end, that we would provoke existential crises among the state’s union leaders for suggesting that they support actual pro-labor candidates against obviously unreliable but deeply entitled Democrats, and that we’d have to limp by on the absurdly anemic budget that our “no PAC money” position produced.

We crafted and helped to pass in 1998 one of the most significant campaign finance laws any state has managed, were able to run one glorious race for Governor under the public financing conditions the law created, and then watched the law be struck down and opposed in court by the Republicans, NRA, Right to Life, and the ACLU and Democrats. These were not easy blows to survive. But we mustered our principles, scarce resources, and gloriously non-opportunistic candidates (no one runs as a Progressive for reasons of expediency), and kept electing people to municipal and state legislative offices year after year. Vermont’s current Lt. Governor – David Zuckerman – is a Progressive, as are highly respected and leading members of the State Senate and House.

So, while we have remained a decidedly minority party, we are not weak. After demonstrating that we were not afraid to draw the bright line between ourselves and the Democrats, we found an important tactical initiative was possible: Our candidates could compete in both the Progressive and Democratic primaries, knock out potential Democratic opponents, and end up in two way races against Republicans… running as, and caucusing with, the Progressives. This tactical experiment – long debated within the Party – is thoroughly different than the fusion strategy utilized by the Working Families Party.  This approach concedes nothing to the Democrats, does not require their acquiescence, reduces the number of districts where they can compete, and increases the feasibility of electing Progressive candidates. Most critically, it has allowed us to virtually eliminate the three-way race scenarios, removing the “spoiler” charge that so often undermines third party efforts, while increasing the size of our elected delegation.

This has been a productive chapter in the Progressive Party growth, but it would not have been possible had we not – twenty years ago – made a firm decision to walk entirely away from the Democratic Party. This is what the experiment – and ultimately, dissolution – of the Rainbow Coalition taught us in Vermont. It taught us that the Democratic Party is not ours to occupy, to transform, or to exploit; it is wholly owned by the other side in the class struggle. If we want a Party that is worthy of support by the emerging generations of socialists, it will have to be our own.


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