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Election 2016 Tue Jun 02 2015

The Progressive Path: Bernie Sanders and How to Operate Off the Two-Party Trail

Did Bernie Sanders make the right decision?

My question last year was not so much whether Vermont's junior Senator would run for President, but rather, if he were to do so, how he would: as a Democrat, as a Green, or as an Independent. The fourth option, of course, was not to run at all. But that decision was likely already off the table. Eugene McCarthy once remarked that "It's harder to stop running for president than it is to start." Once Sanders was running, he wasn't going to stop. He just needed to decide how. In the end, of course, he decided to run as a Democrat.

The debate over Sanders' decision remains hot, especially on the part of self-identified socialists who have attacked Sanders' decision (and Sanders personally) over what they perceive to be Sanders selling out. But Sanders is operating in a particular context. Within that context, he made the only logical decision he could have made. The question has to move beyond whether that decision was right or wrong, and instead move toward defining what that context is -- and whether Sanders' decision ultimately even matters very much.

Moving beyond the limited and peculiar world of presidential politics changes the context significantly -- and Chicago is at the epicenter of that broader context. In the wake of the Chicago municipal elections, it seems like progressives have made significant headway. With these gains has developed a discussion about how that momentum should be applied next. Many aldermanic candidates ran campaigns as Independents -- not merely "independent Democrats" -- and as focus has shifted from City Hall to the Capitol, questions are being raised about what kinds of campaigns might emerge for General Assembly and other offices in 2016 and beyond.

If this progressive push is steered back into simply running candidates in the Democratic primary, it will fail. If instead a new way is found -- one which recognizes that the general public is sick and tired of both the Democratic and Republican Parties and longs for a major transformation in American politics - then it can succeed. But this transformation has to be about more than breaking down the two-party system. It needs to offer a vision distinct from the existing linear conceptualization of Right versus Left in American politics. Bernie Sanders, ultimately, cannot directly offer a lot to this movement. The movement must define itself, and must move beyond both Sanders and many of Sanders' critics in the process.


The weekend of May 2-3, Chicago hosted Left Independent Politics In Action, a national conference which brought together about 200 people, including elected officials from California to Vermont. In the call to attend the conference, the organizers "propose[d] a gathering of candidates, individuals, and organizations committed to a left political alliance in opposition to the two-party system of corporate-capitalist rule." In other words, these are the people who would be most opposed to the concept of running for office via the Democratic primaries.

Nevertheless, the specter of Bernie Sanders wafted over the proceedings. Among those present were representatives from the Vermont Progressive Party. Early on they distributed a letter from Sanders to the conference attendees. In the letter, he addressed his decision regarding the presidential race:

After a year of travel, discussion and dialogue, I have recently filed papers to be a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President.

Before making this difficult decision, I received much public and private advice about whether to campaign within Democratic Party primaries or only in the general election as a progressive independent. I concluded that running an effective 50-state campaign, as a third party independent, was neither feasible nor the best way to raise, before the largest possible audience, issues and problems that our mainstream parties routinely ignore.

Sanders' words are precise. What does he want to do? He wants to "raise issues and problems" and do so before "the largest possible audience", which requires "an effective 50-state campaign."

Tellingly, Sanders didn't actually say anything about winning. But set that aside.

The key takeaway is that he didn't talk about building anything. He is not offering himself as a structural alternative to Hillary Clinton. As such, it makes little sense for him to invest much of his campaign in structure.

The "effective 50-state campaign" is a reference to the extreme difficulty that Independents and third parties have simply getting on the ballot at all in numerous states. To run as a total Independent would mean starting with zero ballot lines. To achieve every single ballot line might cost as much as $3,000,000 -- and that is even for a fairly popular incumbent U.S. Senator.

Sanders could have considered a middle ground of running as a Green. The Green Party already holds more than 20 ballot lines, thereby significantly reducing the overall expense of ballot access relative to running Independent. But Sanders never seriously considered this option. He has no history with the Green Party, and he has no proven track record in building any kind of notable political structure. To accept the idea of running Green would have implicitly meant to accept the challenge of building an entity which has been struggling mightily in recent years. That held no appeal for him.

The same circumstances which have allowed for the political rise of Bernie Sanders have in the end limited his true options. Bluntly, his career has been possible only because Vermont is his home state. Not only is Vermont the most progressive-leaning state, it also offers an unusual electoral system which provides for a variant of "fusion" voting not allowed anywhere else. Relevantly, it is also one of the smallest states. All of these factors have allowed Sanders to rise without needing the explicit backing of a significant political structure. In turn, lacking that structure, and having forged a career out of utilizing the methods available to him, the Democratic primaries -- surprisingly easy to enter, and requiring nothing more than a personal campaign entity -- were ultimately the only course that could make any sense for a presidential run.

The subtext here is that what makes Sanders appealing -- his one-foot-in, one-foot-out status -- is also what will render him mostly irrelevant. Hillary Clinton has nothing to fear from Sanders, and the Democratic Party generally should be happy to see Sanders essentially telling voters that the Democratic primaries are worth participating in. Still, Sanders, approaching the end of his political life and desiring to do something bigger and bolder, ultimately only had one real option once he decided he was in.

For most of the attendees at the conference, Sanders' decision was regarded as somewhere between blunder and treason. One panelist, Bruce Dixon, labeled Sanders a "sheepdog", a sentiment which was widely shared.

The conference itself, though, was predicated on a highly tenuous construct: that of the "Independent Left." The insufficient analysis of Sanders' decision is unsurprising, emerging from a sentiment which struggles to understand its own context.


In politics, terms frequently have fuzzy meanings, sometimes even contradictory ones, and often substantially changing over time. The word "liberal", for example, means almost exactly the opposite in classical economic theory as it does in typical modern partisan application.

One word with a durable positive reputation is "progressive." The word is inherently positive, at least in its etymological essence. It can also feel hopelessly vague and overused at times. But it clearly polls well, since there is even an effort underwayto brand Hillary Clinton as a progressive.

In modern political application, though, one intriguing aspect about "progressive" is that its natural antonym is "reactionary." This isn't a dichotomy like left/right or liberal/conservative. Reactionism isn't strictly a political persuasion; it is a word used for an action or response which exists in direct opposition to something else happening. While the word "reactionary" is generally associated with the nominal right wing, the concept can have a more partisan neutral association.

The self-styled "Independent Left" has two major problems with its self-image in this current political context. First, the country has moved so far left on social issues that it is simply not effective to persistently trash the Democrats for moving to the right. Yes, the Obama administration has been a bastion of neoliberalism, and it's hard not to laugh out loud at the idea of Hillary Clinton being a progressive champion. But in less than a decade, same-sex marriage has become legal in most states, even marijuana is legal in four states, and the Democratic Party has mostly gone along for the ride. Toking newlyweds aren't much of an obstacle to charter schools and "free trade" agreements. But since the Democrats' own behavior tends to violate the expected notions of left-right linearity, an attack predicated on linear lines often leads to cognitive dissonance, and even ironically makes it seem like the left wing of the Democratic Party can still be relevant.

The second problem is the persistent overreliance on the word "independent." While "independence" has an almost triumphant connotation in American lore, in modern American political discourse, the word "independent" actually has a primarily negative connotation. It is not that that people think poorly of Independents per se, but rather that the concept is necessarily defined in contradistinction to something else, instead of being defined on its own behalf. The Declaration of Independence created a new identity, but declaring "independence" from the major parties is more akin to losing a political identity. In other words, a person is not an Independent because of what he or she stands for but rather because of what he or she does not identify as.

A common phrase kicked around at the Left Independent conference was "independent political action," which broadly refers to engagement in formal politics (and notably electoral politics) outside of the structure of the Democratic and Republican Parties. Implicit in the concept is that there is some sort of coherent "independent" element which would operate in some kind of collective action. The idea further implies that a person's primary political self-identity is acting in opposition to the dominant political status quo. It is, in a word, reactionary. It does not jibe with progressivism.

The reality is that Bernie Sanders is extremely unlikely to have any notable direct outcome on the election, especially since he's already admitted that if he loses in the primaries he'll formally back the Democratic nominee. His race will be over by April. For as much time and debate as Sanders and his decision have received, the final analysis will likely bear out that his was way down the list of the most important campaigns of 2016.

This means that his supporters must move on and find ways to build capacity that will last beyond the end of his campaign. But since progressivism will perhaps be the dominant political theme surrounding Sanders' campaign, those people will need to find a place which will be broadly welcoming. Whether the "Independent Left" can prepare such a welcome -- both nationally and locally -- becomes an essential question.


The year 2004 was extremely contentious for the Green Party. Ralph Nader, the party's presidential nominee in 2000 (but never actually a party member himself), chose to run an Independent campaign that year, and selected Peter Camejo, two-time Green candidate for governor of California, and the main internal voice for "independent political action", as his running mate. Nader and Camejo asked the party to forego nominating a presidential candidate and to instead endorse their Independent campaign. But the convention rebuffed them, instead nominating David Cobb. In the aftermath of the nomination, Camejo partisans launched an aggressive internal fight, further weakening a party which was already in a precarious position.

Camejo died in 2007 and Nader ran has final Independent campaign in 2008, making 2012 an opportunity for long-delayed healing within the Green Party. Indeed, the party's 2012 nominee, Jill Stein, was able to bring together people who had been both Camejo and Cobb partisans in 2004. Along the way, Stein, the likely party nominee again in 2016, has adopted the strategy of trying to align the Green Party with the self-identified Left. Many of the attendees at the Independent Left conference were Greens, including Stein, two-time New York gubernatorial candidate Howie Hawkins, and several elected officials.

There may well be potential for such a Green-Left alignment. Arguably the most popular politician among the conference attendees was Kshama Sawant, who was elected to the Seattle City Council in 2013. Sawant's organization, Socialist Alternative, delivered an impressive tactical victory not only in electing Sawant but in using her election as a springboard for taking the fight for a $15 minimum wage nationwide. While some have seen Sawant as an exemplar that the time is ripe for explicitly socialist organizing, Sawant is also very friendly with both Stein and Hawkins. At the Left Forum in New York City the weekend of May 29-31, a rumor even spread that Stein wants Sawant to be her running mate in 2016. In socialist circles, Socialist Alternative is the hottest commodity going, and even if the Stein-Sawant rumor is only that, the Green-Left concept has to be considered seriously.

The inherent tension between the Independent Left construct and progressivism may intercede, though. Many at the Independent Left conference spoke enthusiastically about the idea of forming an entirely new political party, clearly signaling a lack of enthusiasm for embracing the Green Party as a new political home. In fact, some of the people who spoke about forming a new party were themselves self-identifying Greens.

The bigger issue, though, is that the Green-Left alignment might not go over well within the Green Party. Inherent in "independent political action" is the notion that any nominal partisan identity -- like Green -- should be subsumed under the rubric of the broader "independent" formation. This was essentially the meta-argument employed by many Nader and Camejo supporters in 2004. While that may now seem like ancient history, there have also been numerous instances where Green ballot lines have been poached by non-Greens. To its detriment, the party has grown very distrustful of outsiders over time.

An even bigger issue for many Greens is that the party is supposed to represent something that transcends the linear political spectrum. Most famously, Petra Kelly, one of the founders of the German Green Party in the early 1980s, declared the party there to be "neither left nor right, but out in front." In the U.S., Green political thought borrows heavily from both the Progressive and Socialist traditions of the early 20th Century, all while pushing ecological concerns to the forefront. While the tradition owes far more to the traditional Left, and a lot of Greens are themselves self-identifying socialists, the party tends to broadly reject not just the two-party system but also the entire left-right paradigm. To many Greens, true political independence is not about self-defining in the negative, but having a distinct political identity. Since the Green Party is also a truly global party, U.S. Greens tend to have a more European-style pluralistic view of politics, where holding a distinct identity likely requires joining in coalition with others. A positivist, forward-thinking, explicitly progressive Green-Left coalition would be welcome. An oppositionalist, essentially reactionary Green-Left alignment under the nebulous rubric of being "independent" would not be especially welcome.

There are two particularly huge advantages to a more explicitly progressive approach. One is that it would provide a much more welcome landing pad when the Bernie Sanders balloon inevitably pops during the primary season. The other, which brings us more explicitly back to Chicago, is that it can provide a much more coherent framework for local candidates to plug into.


The 2015 municipal elections in Chicago may yet to prove to be a pivotal moment in the evolution of progressive politics -- but the jury is still out. In the immediate aftermath of Rahm Emanuel's reelection, people have become distracted by the excesses of Bruce Rauner and the deeper financial woes of Chicago and Illinois. The path for following through on the upsurge in progressive sentiment has been unclear, and numerous entities appear to have scrambled, many of them seemingly intent on cooptation rather than enhancement.

Perhaps the most critical parts of the city in deciding where things will go next in Chicago are the communities of Irving Park, Albany Park, and Logan Square.

The highlight event of the Left Independent conference was a Saturday night panel. The panel boasted several luminaries, including Jill Stein, but perhaps the most pivotal person on the panel was Tim Meegan.

Meegan's recent run for 33rd Ward alderman was one of the more high-profile races in the city. Like some other candidates, Meegan ran an emphatically Independent campaign -- as distinct from running as an "independent Democrat", one of the great oxymorons Chicago has given us over time. Officially, Meegan lost to Deb Mell, falling 17 votes short of forcing a runoff. (Unofficially, there is substantial evidence of misconduct on the part of the Mell campaign which affected the outcome.)

In the aftermath of the campaign, Meegan and many of his supporters formed a new ward organization, Working Families of the 33rd Ward. While on the panel and speaking about his campaign, Meegan pointedly remarked, "We can not get the change we want within the constraints of the Democratic Party."

Deb Mell has been able to run as an incumbent because she had been appointed mid-term by Rahm Emanuel when her predecessor resigned. Her predecessor, of course, was her own father, Dick Mell. When Deb Mell was appointed, she had to vacate her position as 40th State Representative. The person with the ability to fill that vacancy was the Democratic 33rd Ward Committeeman, Dick Mell. He appointed one of his staffers, Jaime Andrade.

In Chicago, Alderman is a nonpartisan office, but State Representative is partisan. All such seats in the state are up in 2016. It is a lock that someone will challenge Jaime Andrade for 40th State Representative, and probable that it will be someone out of the new Working Families of the 33rd Ward. (It won't be Tim Meegan; he's made that very clear.) And while Meegan pushed Deb Mell to the brink of a runoff, Andrade is arguably in an even more tenuous position. The 33rd Ward accounted for about 40% of the voters in the 40th State Representative district in 2014, with the other votes spread across six other wards - including the 32nd, 35th, and 45th Wards, all of which are now served by members of the City Council's Progressive Caucus. A strong challenger would have an excellent chance of winning.

The question, then, is not whether a challenger against Andrade will emerge, but rather this: How will such a challenger run - as a Democrat, as an Independent, as a Green, or under the auspices of an entirely new party formation?

Based on Meegan's comments at the conference, it's hard to imagine the new organization backing a challenge against Andrade in the Democratic primary. The situation also contrasts sharply from the presidential race and the Sanders decision. First, Sanders has neither demonstrable interest nor track record in building any kind of durable structure. Meegan's campaign, though, has already morphed into precisely such a structure, one standing explicitly outside the Democratic Party. Second, for Sanders, the "effective 50-state campaign" was a vital consideration -- it would have been prohibitively difficult and expensive to have run Independent or third party. This is not a significant barrier for 40th State Representative, though. To qualify for the Democratic primary, a candidate would need to collect 500 valid signatures. To directly qualify for the November ballot as an Independent, Green, or under some other party banner, a candidate for that office would need to collect 744 signatures -- not a substantially higher number.

In some respects, then, one of the tensions reflected at the Left Independent conference may also play out in these north side communities. If running as a Democrat is thrown out, what is the best remaining option? Running as an Independent in a partisan contest tends to make the race far more about the individual and can marginalize the supporting organization, and also loses the benefit of potentially gaining multiple Ward Committeemen. Running as a Green means, for better and for worse, identifying with an existing organization which was slightly but not centrally involved with the new entity's formation. Selecting an entirely new party label -- such as Working Families -- presents an even more complicated set of questions, especially if nobody else in the city is also going to use such a label. (Working Families in particular is a difficult label to embrace, since the Working Families Party already exists, most notably in New York, as little more than a fusion-based arm of the Democratic Party.)

It should be reiterated, though, that Andrade is very vulnerable. The decision at hand is not simply an academic one about what ballot line a marginal challenger might appear on. Another campaign as strong as Meegan's has the distinct possibility of defeating Andrade. The decision could alter the partisan makeup of the General Assembly in a way unseen for several decades.

Here, then, is where the decision in the 40th District may have a substantial ripple effect throughout Chicago and beyond. Nowhere in the city was there an aldermanic campaign which was both this strong and which operated so identifiably outside the Democratic Party. It is very feasible that a candidate could come forward and get elected without running as a Democrat. Doing so in such a Democratic stronghold, and perhaps bringing the Chicago Teachers Union at least slightly along for the ride, would be a story with national reverberations.

Along similar lines, the relative success of upstart aldermanic candidates seems likely to trigger a higher than usual number of challenges against General Assembly incumbents in Chicago. Many other aldermanic candidates ran explicitly Independent campaigns, and have similar circumstances to consider in terms of potentially forming local organizations or allying with other groups. Even more so than the word "Independent", the word "progressive" was widely championed by numerous candidates. One possible consideration is that the Green Party still has legally recognized Ward Committeemen throughout the city, meaning that there is at least a skeletal legal structure available for new formations to build around. Alternately, because many of the aldermanic candidates were networking with one another during the municipal elections, it is also plausible that multiple candidates scattered throughout the city might come forward under a new single combined banner. If so, it is hard to imagine a potential challenger to Andrade not being among their number.


Opinion polls have repeatedly shown that a huge chunk of the general public is sick of both the Republicans and Democrats, and in particular sick of Congress. But what the polls less explicitly ask, yet should still be interpreted to show, is that the general public is also sick of the linear political construct of right versus left. We are an increasingly diverse society and increasingly embracing of that diversity. People do not want to be reduced to being described by linear functions. At a core level, especially among younger voters, there is an inherent rejection of not just the Democratic/Republican dichotomy, but also the left/right and liberal/conservative dichotomies.

In 2006, Rich Whitney won over 10 percent of the vote as the Green candidate for Governor of Illinois. Contrary to the supposed conventional wisdom, where Whitney made the biggest impact, his votes were coming from across the linear political spectrum. He spoke convincingly of being both the "true progressive" in the race and also the "true conservative" in the race, emphasizing both a robust public sector and also strong government accountability. His campaign was extremely positive in presentation, and also fairly populist, in the process sort of presaging the framing of "the 99%" which became prevalent at the height of the Occupy movement. The particular circumstances which allowed Whitney to do well have proven hard to reproduce, but where other Green candidates have done relatively well nationally, similar vote patterns have emerged.

The upsurge in progressive sentiment experienced in the recent municipal elections -- much of which felt familiar from Whitney's 2006 run -- is in dire need of being directed into something more durable. Redirection into the Democratic primaries would just mean cooptation. Tagging it as capital-I Independent would mean not really building anything. Formulating it in linear terms as Left or Left Independent, or framing it as "independent political action", ultimately means self-marginalization and buying into much of the same paradigm anyway. This doesn't leave a lot of options: go Green or create an entirely new party.

Imagine 2016 playing out like this:

Bernie Sanders runs a vigorous campaign but gains little traction. His supporters see that even a sitting U.S. Senator like Sanders can't accomplish anything in the Democratic primary so they look for places they can put their energy into actually building something of lasting importance. They find, on the ground in Chicago and several other places across the country, a nascent progressive movement embodied in numerous campaigns for state legislature and even U.S. Congress. Those campaigns are Green campaigns -- because the platform already lines up with where the candidates are coming from -- and those candidates and their supporters simply step in and take over the reins of a party which has a functional skeleton but which has been lacking new blood for years. The Green presidential candidate -- likely Jill Stein -- employs more of a coalition approach which focuses on party-building, generating support for local candidates, and messaging that emphasizes the idea of being "out in front", not a "left alternative".

A lot of that is admittedly wishful thinking. I'm skeptical that a lot of Sanders' support will turn around and invest at the local level, because people often never move beyond presidential politics. I also have to admit that I would be tremendously surprised to see new progressive formations turn to the Green Party. That said, I think the country is incredibly dynamic today. Consider how quickly the country has embraced same-sex marriage. Such a profound change should tell us that the general public is very capable of moving in a bold new direction in a relatively short period of time. If it means a new progressive populist party, so be it. It would just seem very strange to try and recreate something which already exists and sits underutilized.

Where I am looking most intently, though, is not to the presidential realm, but to the Illinois 40th State Representative District. What happens in Irving Park, Albany Park, and Logan Square could prove momentous -- not just for those neighborhoods, and not just for Chicago. There exists a very real sentiment for transformational change in the city and beyond, and I see that district as the potential vanguard for the country as a whole. The decisions at hand, in microcosm, reflect the broader decisions about the future of American politics for self-styled progressives and the self-identifying Left. If everything goes Democratic, then I believe that it will represent the squandering of the positive energy that emerged across Chicago in 2015. If everything goes in some isolating direction, then I believe that there could still be localized success, but it would wind up being exceptional and within ten years would wither away.

What's needed now is a bold transformation -- neither left nor right, but forward. Bernie Sanders will not be a significant part of any such transformation. But a newly emergent candidate in a single state legislative district on the North Side of Chicago could very well be.

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